Seek and you will … annoy everyone around you?!

I’ve been doing a little work on a very high level history of the Natural Sciences in the west:

I continue to shamble along the cow path of inquiry. This morning I was surprised to connect the dots in the person of a writer named Kim Todd. Amazon suggested her while I was considering whether to buy Amazing Rare Things. (I did find a used copy of Plant Discoveries that was cheap & couldn’t resist. It’s coming.) Someone was practically giving away a used (new) hardcover of Todd’s biography of Maria Sibylla Merian. I couldn’t resist, since she was the only woman in any of the books I’ve seen so far, and was, by all accounts utterly fascinating.

I looked up the author, and she sounds absolutely amazing and delightful. She has degrees in writing & environmentalism, did her undergrad at Yale (English) and lives in Montana. Her first book looks really great too: Tinkering with Eden, a Natural History of Exotics in America. She had articles in Orion & the Sierra magazine. (Wonder if Stephanie has met her?) She’s been reviewed in the NYTimes & Kirkus, and made the 2007 booklists for the Library Journal & NYPublic Library & Booklist.

She won the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award. ((I had not heard of him before, so I looked him up. He won the Burroughs Award in 1974 for Wilderness Days.)) i.e. I’ve not heard of the book before either, but I can squint and guess that it is beautiful, smart, sensitive, compassionate writing about the natural world.

Looking at him led me to a site where someone had posted a short overview of conservation writers by Susan Bray. I stumbled into a treasure trove presented by the Library of Congress: “The Evolution of the Conservation Movement: 1850-1920” .

This morning I glanced down through the postings below, and discovered that she wrote the short review of Amazing Rare Things for Orion!! (Hi Kim!!)

*her site –
**Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis

She has a link to the Author’s Guild on her site. I looked at that and thought it was worth frequenting (business news from the publishing world):


The Great Naturalists

The Great Naturalists by Robert Huxley (Ed). London.  Thames & Hudson.  2007.

Huxley is “head of the botanical collections of London’s Natural History Museum. ”
39 noteworthy naturalists:
from the Greek philosopher Aristotle to
John James Audubon &
Charles Darwin

Linnaeus, the 18th-century Swedish doctor and naturalist
Joseph Banks, best remembered for his 3-year voyage to the South Seas with Captain James Cook.
Ulisse AIdrovandi, a Renaissance innovator who stressed the need for direct observations and the value of accurate illustrations in natural history books. quotes Publishers Weekly:

The little-known history of natural history-that is, how the first naturalists observed and catalogued their world, how they grappled with unanswered questions, and how the sciences of geology, biology, ecology and paleontology developed over three centuries-is wonderfully illuminated in this volume from the Natural History Museum of London’s Huxley. Examining 39 naturalists, Huxley assigns each subject-from ancient Greece’s Aristotle to America’s first botanist, Asa Gray-his or her own biographer (many also from London’s Natural History Museum), who provide a brief but detailed life story and a summation of scientific contributions. While some subjects are well-known-John James Audubon, Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin among them-many will be unfamiliar: John Ray, labeled the “English Aristotle,” first defined the concept of “species”; Antony van Leeuwenhoek discovered micro-organisms (using Robert Hooke’s microscope); and Mary Anning, born to destitution in Regency England, sparked a revolution in scientific thought with her fossil excavations.

Amazing Rare Things

Amazing Rare ThingsSunday Times review
(London) March 23, 2008 by

A commoner like me finds it difficult to imagine why the Royal Collection should possess these treasures. I understand the showy Fabergé eggs for the royal piano top, and the chunks of the Kohinoor in the royal jewellery box, but in what circumstances did our appalling monarchs ever display enough scientific acumen, or the necessary artistic interest, to gather up these gorgeous records of the first microscopic staring?It appears they entered the royal goodie box in various ways. The Leonardo drawings – 600 of them! – were probably acquired by the long-haired wastrel Charles II, trying to make up for the dispersal by Cromwell of Charles I’s magnificent cellar of Italian art. Say what you like about George III – and some say he went as nutty as Bertholletia excelsa, or the brazil nut – but by buying 2,500 drawings from the collection of Cassiano dal Pozzo, more than 250 watercolours of early America by Mark Catesby and 95 paintings of South America by the mysterious Maria Sibylla Merian, he, more than anyone, introduced a spirit of scientific inquiry into the expensive business of amassing a royal collection. Then there was George IV, the podgy, drink-loving king of the cuckolds. By Excalibur’s might, the man’s been misunderstood! Not only did he build the wacky Brighton Pavilion, but, while still Prince of Wales, he took possession of 150 watercolours of plants, bugs and animals by Alexander Marshal, an unsung genius of horticultural investigation and this display’s finest discovery.

Leonardo da Vinci
Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588-1657), patron of Poussin and Bernini … “Paper Museum”
Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 – )
Alexander Marshal (1620-1682)
Mark Catesby (1682-1749) The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands

Review of the Queen’s Gallery Exhibit
by Brian Sewell, Evening Standard 14.03.08
About Merian, he says:

Just as dal Pozzo was, in 1657, coming to the end of his life as an encyclopaedist, so, far away in the north, a precocious girl of 10, Maria Sibylla Merian, was about to begin hers. This stepdaughter of the Dutch flower painter Jacob Marell became the most scientific of all Dutch painters of plants, animals and insects, and an original researcher. In 1699, aged 52, she went for two years to Surinam (Dutch Guiana) to collect and preserve (in brandy) specimens and draw the flora, fauna and insects of that hot, humid and deadly territory. One of the results was her monumental book on the lifecycles of local insects, the first scientific treatise on the subject and the region.

The coloured plates are spectacular. If the term Baroque can be applied to mere illustration then we must use it of Merian’s, her pages often crowded with a multitude of studies united in compositions that seem almost to be records of particular events – a war between the spiders and the ants, a hummingbird a collateral victim, a doting parent frog watching her froglet slaughtered by a giant waterbug, a spectacled caiman with a coiling coral snake. Merian too may have been something of a monster in her private and religious lives, her husband discarded according to the custom of the extreme protestant sect to which she belonged, marriage to unregenerates immediately dissolved, but as an artist-scientist, true to both disciplines, she was intrepid and courageous; as a woman, she had no precursor, no equal in her day and certainly none since.
Wow…. Orion Magazine. Book reviewed by Kim Todd.

Amazing Rare Things shows artists, naturalists, and collectors recording nature at the brink of the scientific revolution. They are leaving behind a world that believed in dragons, only to be confronted by improbable toucans and three-toed sloths arriving on trade ships from the New World.

Disney World

March 2007 “The Theme-Parking, Megachurching, Franchising, Exurbing, McMansioning of America: How Walt Disney Changed Everything” by T. D. Allman

Who is T. D. Allman? The essay was beautifully written…

70 million visitors a year. Wow.

Orlando: Exurban Sprawl
After Disney World opened in 1971, “Orlando” became the brand name for the sprawl that is central Florida. America’s population is decentralizing faster than at any time in history, and Orlando reflects the trend: In three decades the metropolitan area has grown fivefold in size. Growth is fastest at the city’s margin, where exurbs lure residents with larger houses, new big-box stores, and jobs in the suburbs rather than the city.


When was the term “instar” put forth to describe the staggering morphological changes in the life cycle of many insects?  By whom? And what were the circcumstances?

History of Science – the little bits I have been able to find seem VERY heavily weighted towards Europe and America. ?!  What did the Incas and Aztecs and Chinese and Arabia and other non-Europeans think?   The early Greeks:  air, earth, fire, water.  The humors: blood, phlegm, bile and black bile.

What’s in my back yard?

What’s in that bag of dirt?

What do Disney/ Dubai and the history of the Natural Sciences (in Europe and America) have to do with my back yard?

List of titles

Within a two week period, I just went nuts in the book department. At the end of April (try bending your head around this)–I was reading Sand County Almanac and a biography of Aldo Leopold, while accompanying my partner to a 9,500-person educational software conference being held at Disneyland. Struggling with Leopold himself, and the biography, which irked me in bunch of little ways, I put it aside. They are currently gathering dust on my bedside table.

Kerry loaned me In Search of Nature by Edward O. Wilson with illustrator Laura Southworth (1996) many months ago. (A collection of essays.) I re-read the Ant chapter aloud to Gloria the other day. I tried to search the internet to see if I could listen in to debates or responses, but was utterly frustrated. (Couldn’t come up with anything.)

And I’ve slogged my way through a good portion of the Botany chapter of Flanagan’s Version (1988). I checked it out from the peculiar underground Science and Engineering library at UNM. I was completely enthralled by his introductory chapter on Science and Scientists. Need to take notes on it before I have to return it next week.


From the library on San Mateo the other day, I checked out a juicy pile:

The Private Life of Plants by David Attenborough (1995)
Plant Discoveries: A Botanist’s Voyage Through Plant Exploration
by Sandra Knapp and Peter Raven (2003)
Amazing Rare Things by David Attenborough et. al. (2007)
What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage by Amy Sutherland. NY: Random House Inc, 2008.


I went on a binge at Page One, an independent bookstore at the far end of town. Bought 1491, Guns Germs and Steel & Collapse by Jared Diamond, The Great Naturalists, Robbing the Bees by Holley Bishop and a used hardcover edition of Every Creeping Thing by Richard Conniff.


Mid-March I ordered these used thru Amazon:

Moo by Jane Smiley.
Quite a Year for Plums
by Bailey White
Prodigal Summer
by Barbara Kingsolver
Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds
by Bernd Heinrich.
Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters
by Annie Dillard

What was already on the shelf:
Darwin’s Century by Loren Eiseley.
Winter World
by Bernd Heinrich.
The Reluctant Mr. Darwin by Quammen.
A gardener’s introduction to Botany.
Botany Coloring Book (Don’t kid yourself. It is the real deal!)

Kerry Renshaw adores Jared Diamond
And Carolyn Dodson agrees:

  • Guns, Germs and Steel.
  • Collapse.

Carolyn also really liked 1491 – Charles C Mann.

I myself am looking for:

  • Loren Eiseley. Immense Journey (1957)
  • Loren Eiseley. All the Strange Hours
  • Joan Maloof. Teaching the Trees Lessons from the Forest. (Amazon proffered it)
  • The World Without Us. (Heard him on NPR & really liked it)
  • Michael Pollan’s new book – In Defense of Food

Questions, questions, questions!

I seem to have a knack for posing what I thought were easy questions. (The god Google has fallen.) I am trying to find an accessible history of Entomology. I have not kept a careful record of where I’ve searched or under which of many potential search terms, but I have yet to come across anything engaging. And I want to know what people think about E.O. Wilson’s sociobiology essays/ speeches (where are they hiding?!).

What is an arboretum? (ditto).

History of Botany
. (yup). All right–I have to be fair. There is a decent site for this:

What is in the bags of commercial potting soil piled on pallets at Home Depot or at one of the local nurseries? (seems like that would be easy, right?!)

Miracle Gro — What’s in your bag there?
And now I’m just trying not to lose bits of things that are puzzling me:
Disneyland, The Wonderful World of Disney, Disney World…
What does Disney have to do with my back yard?
I can’t shake the sense that there are important connections to be made with my back yard. Who I am. And what I see and believe when I gaze out of my own head, leaning against the warm wall at the potted plants and bits of brick patio. Something about my upbringing… my father and grandfather’s business: Webb’s Wholesale Nursery Inc. The groves that were torn down, the huge bonfires. Who my Ag School father was… Why he was so keen on chemicals. (The big Monsanto World of the Future? Or was their exhibit the theater in the round?!) Why technology seemed so shiny and enticing. Better living through science! Big cars. Cheap gas. A boundless future. ?!