In a room darkened by blankets placed over the drapes, the tick tock of a clock sounds a steady beat. Pungent vapors waft through the room, radiating from a cloth covered in Vicks vapor rub wrapped around the child’s neck. Unconcerned, she turns the pages of the book quickly as she reads.
That child was me. I was a pretty sickly kid and if I’d been born any earlier probably wouldn’t be here writing this now. But that’s not the point of this column. The point is that book. Books were refuges for me when I spent weeks sick in bed or on the living room couch. And one of those books helped cement my interest in the plight of wildlife.
The book followed the life of the last great auk, an ocean-dwelling bird that nested on rocky islands in the Atlantic Ocean. It became extinct in the mid-1800s, a victim of over hunting. I don’t remember the author or the exact name of the book, but I sure remember the message it imparted.
Over the past year and a half, I’ve read several exceptional books with nature and wild animal themes, and topics ranging from Siberian tigers to African grey parrots. I hope you receive as much entertainment and wonder as I did while reading them.
“Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl”, by Stacey O’Brien is a true story of her 20-year experience living with a North American Barn Owl. O’Brien is a great storyteller, expertly weaving information about barn owls, with Wesley’s own story and some of her other animals. O’Brien includes a story about successfully resuscitating a hamster that had me laughing out loud.
Another woman’s relationship with a bird is the topic of “Alex and Me” by Irene Pepperberg. Alex, an African grey parrot, and Pepperberg, made scientific history, disproving the idea that birds possess no language potential. The book also illustrates the difficulty a woman bucking conventional scientific knowledge goes through to gain respect, even in the 21st century.
Taking an entirely different track, author John Vaillant, traces the remarkable true story of a tiger seemingly bent on revenge in Russia’s far east coastal temporal rain forest, in “The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival”. Using vivid description of the unique taiga ecosystem, its people and wildlife, Vaillant follows Russia’s tiger team, charged with protecting the last Siberian tigers. He conveys the team’s conflict of following their tiger protection mission with responsibility to protect the people from a man-killing tiger.
In a far gentler setting, Barbara Kingsolver, provides a look into the lives of three women, all tied to the land. Well researched, Kingsolver adds information about the flora and fauna of the Smoky Mountains seamlessly, while relating her stories.
Sue Halpern travels the route of migrating monarch butterflies in “Four Wings and a Prayer”. Halpern intersperses interviews with those scientists obsessed with this intriguing insect and the monumental discovery of the over-wintering sites in 1975 with the butterfly’s journey.
If you have children or grandchildren to read to, my daughter and I recommend, “Stellaluna” by Janell Cannon, a funny story about a bat who lives like a bird out of necessity. Cannon does a fantastic job of “showing” the difference between birds and bats in story form.
Other children’s book picks include; “McElligot’s Pool” by Dr. Seuss, “I’m a Pill Bug” by Yukihisa Tokuda, “Animal Poems”, edited by John Hollander and “What’s for Dinner?” by Katherine B. Hauth.