Our No PreReqs June title is Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Fun Home is a graphic novel memoir of the author’s childhood, particularly focused on her relationship with her closeted gay father. Our discussion will be moderated by Malcolm Himschoot, pastor at the Church of Universal Fellowship in Orono. Reverend Himschoot has been an activist for gender equity in the clergy, prison reform, racial justice and immigration..
2021-2022 titles to be announced!
June's books will be The Secret History by Donna Tartt and Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (annotated version recommended).
Though normally meeting via Zoom due to the pandemic, or behind the library as weather permits, our next few meetings will be at local ice cream stands. Typically meet on Monday during the second or third week of the month.
June 10, 2021
Lightman, Alan. Searching for stars on an island in Maine . 2018. 240 pages.
A lyrical meditation on religion and science that explores the tension between our yearning for permanence and certainty and the modern scientific discoveries that demonstrate the impermanent and uncertain nature of the world. As a physicist, Lightman has always held a scientific view of the world, he was impressed by the logic and materiality of a universe governed by a small number of disembodied forces and laws that decree all things in the world are material and impermanent. But one summer evening, while looking at the stars from a small boat at sea, Lightman was overcome by the overwhelming sensation that he was merging with something larger than himself. This book is his exploration of these seemingly contradictory impulses. He draws on sources ranging from Saint Augustine’s conception of absolute truth to Einstein’s theory of relativity, from the unity of the once-indivisible atom to the multiplicity of subatomic particles and the recent notion of multiple universes. What he gives us is a profound inquiry into the human desire for truth and meaning, and a journey along the different paths of religion and science that become part of that quest.
May 13, 2021
Goulson, Dave. A buzz in the meadow: a natural history of a French farm. 2015. 288 pages.
Goulson returns to tell the tale of how he bought a derelict farm in the heart of rural France. Over the course of a decade, on thirty-three acres of meadow, he created a place for his beloved bumblebees to thrive. But other creatures live there too, myriad insects of every kind, many of which Goulson had studied before in his career as a biologist. You’ll learn how a deathwatch beetle finds its mate, why butterflies have spots on their wings, and see how a real scientist actually conducts his experiments. But this book is also a wake-up call, urging us to cherish and protect life in all its forms. Goulson has that rare ability to persuade you to go out into your garden or local park and observe the natural world. The undiscovered glory that is life in all its forms is there to be discovered. And if we learn to value what we have, perhaps we will find a way to keep it.
April 8, 2021
March 11, 2021
Juniper, Tony. Spix’s Macaw: The Race to Save the World’s Rarest Bird. 2003. 273 pages.
Blue is a rare color for land animals, and people have placed great value on blue animals since the earliest times. There are four blue species of the macaw, largest of parrots: one is probably extinct, one is extinct in the wild, and two are endangered. Juniper writes about the second species, the Spix’s macaw. This species was reduced to as few as 24 individuals living in captivity. The quest to save the powder-blue parrot is revealed in the author’s passionate tale of smuggling, politics, science. Probably always rare in their natural habitat, and fetching up to $40,000 on the black market, these birds have invariably been desirable by virtue of their scarcity. Exploring what little is known of the natural history of Spix’s macaw, the history of its discovery and attempts to keep it in captivity, and the machinations of the international effort to breed the few remaining birds, Juniper keeps the reader riveted.
February 11, 2021
McIntyre, Rick. The Rise of Wolf 8: Witnessing the Triumph of Yellowstone’s Underdog. 2019. 304 pages.
Yellowstone National Park was once home to an abundance of wild wolves—but park rangers killed the last in the 1920s. Decades later, the rangers brought them back, with the first wolves arriving from Canada in 1995. This is the story of one of those wolves. Wolf 8 struggles at first, he is smaller than the other pups, and often bullied, but soon he bonds with an alpha female whose mate was shot. An unusually young alpha male, barely a teenager in human years, Wolf 8 rises to the occasion, hunting skillfully, and even defending his family from the wolf who killed his father. But soon he faces a new opponent: his adopted son, who mates with a violent alpha female. Can Wolf 8 protect his valley without harming his protégé?
September 10, 2020
Williams, Terry Tempest. Erosion: Essays of Undoing. 2019. 336 pages.
Williams’s fierce, spirited, and magnificent essays are a howl in the desert. She sizes up the continuing assaults on America’s public lands and the erosion of our commitment to the open space of democracy. She asks: "How do we find the strength to not look away from all that is breaking our hearts?" Williams explores the many forms of erosion we face: of democracy, science, compassion, and trust. She examines the dire cultural and environmental implications of the gutting of Bear Ears National Monument―sacred lands to Native Peoples of the American Southwest; of the undermining of the Endangered Species Act; of the relentless press by the fossil fuel industry that has led to a panorama in which "oil rigs light up the horizon." And she testifies that the climate crisis is not an abstraction, offering as evidence the drought outside her door and, at times, within herself.
October 8, 2020
Heinrich, Berndt. White feathers, the nesting lives of tree swallows. 2020. 218 pages
Heinrich is sparked one early spring day by a question: Why does a pair of swallows in a nest-box close to his Maine cabin show an unvarying preference for white feathers—not easily available nearby—as nest lining? He notices, too, the extreme aggressiveness of “his” swallows toward some other swallows of their own kind. And he wonders, given swallows’ reputation for feistiness, at the extraordinary tameness and close contact he experiences with his nesting birds.
November 12, 2020
Gaudet, John. Papyrus: The Plant that Changed the World: From Ancient Egypt to Today’s Water Wars. 2014. 271 pages.
From ancient Pharaohs to 21st Century water wars, papyrus is a unique plant that is now the fastest growing plant species on earth. It produces its own “soil”—a peaty, matrix that floats on water—and inspired the fluted columns of the ancient Greeks. In ancient Egypt, the papyrus bounty from the Nile delta provided not just paper for record keeping—instrumental to the development of civilization—but food, fuel and boats. Disastrous weather in the 6th Century caused famines and plagues that almost wiped out civilization in the west, but it was papyrus to the rescue. Today, it is not just a curious relic of our ancient past, but a rescuing force for modern ecological and societal blight. In an ironic twist, Egypt is faced with enormous pollution loads that forces them to import food supplies, and yet papyrus is one of the most effective and efficient natural pollution filters known to man. Papyrus was the key in stemming the devastation to the Sea of Galilee and Jordan River from raging peat fires, and the papyrus laden shores of Lake Victoria—which provides water to more than 30 million people—will be crucial as the global drying of the climate continues.
September 12, 2019
Thoreau, Henry David
Walden or Life in the Woods
188 pp (many editions, varying page length)
A reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings. The work is part personal declaration of independence, social experiment, voyage of spiritual discovery, satire, and manual for self-reliance. First published in 1854, Walden details Thoreau’s experiences over the course of two years, two months, and two days in a cabin he built near Walden Pond, amidst woodland owned by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, near Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau used this time to write his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. The experience later inspired Walden, in which Thoreau compresses the time into a single calendar year and uses passages of four seasons to symbolize human development. By immersing himself in nature, Thoreau hoped to gain a more objective understanding of society through personal introspection. Simple living and self-sufficiency were Thoreau’s other goals, and the whole project was inspired by transcendentalist philosophy, a central theme of the American Romantic Period.
October 10, 2019
Influenza: The Hundred Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History
2018. 272 pp
While influenza is now often thought of as a common and mild disease, it still kills over 30,000 people in the US each year. Dr. Brown, currently Director of Emergency Care Research at the National Institutes of Health, expounds on the flu’s deadly past to solve the mysteries that could protect us from the next outbreak. He talks with leading epidemiologists, policy makers, and the researcher who first sequenced the genetic building blocks of the original 1918 virus to offer both a comprehensive history and a roadmap for understanding what’s to come. Dr. Brown digs into the discovery and resurrection of the flu virus in the frozen victims of the 1918 epidemic, as well as the bizarre remedies that once treated the disease, such as whiskey and blood-letting. He also breaks down the current dialogue surrounding the disease, explaining the controversy over vaccinations, antiviral drugs like Tamiflu, and the federal government’s role in preparing for pandemic outbreaks. Though 100 years of advancement in medical research and technology have passed since the 1918 disaster, Dr. Brown warns that many of the most vital questions about the flu virus continue to confound even the leading experts.
November 14, 2019
Birds by the Shore: Observing the Natural Life of the Atlantic Coast
2019. 224 pp. (revised edition)
For three years, Ackerman lived in the small coastal town of Lewes, Delaware, in the sort of blue-water, white-sand landscape that draws summer crowds up and down the eastern seaboard. Birds by the Shore is a book about discovering the natural life at the ocean’s edge: the habits of shorebirds and seabirds, the movement of sand and water, the wealth of creatures that survive amid storm and surf. Against this landscape’s rhythms, Ackerman revisits her own history--her mother’s death, her father’s illness and her hopes to have children of her own.
February 13, 2020
Prothero, Donald R.
The Story of the Earth in 25 Rocks: Tales of Important Geological Puzzles and the People Who Solved Them
2018. 368 pp.
Prothero tells the fascinating stories behind the discoveries that shook the foundations of geology. In twenty-five chapters, each about a particular rock, outcrop, or geologic phenomenon, Prothero recounts the scientific detective work that shaped our understanding of geology, from the unearthing of exemplary specimens to tectonic shifts in how we view the inner workings of our planet. He follows in the footsteps of the scientists who asked, and answered, geology’s biggest questions: How do we know how old the earth is? What happened to the supercontinent Pangea? How did ocean rocks end up at the top of Mount Everest? What can we learn about our planet from meteorites and moon rocks? He answers these questions through expertly chosen case studies, such as Pliny the Younger’s firsthand account of the eruption of Vesuvius; the granite outcrops that led a Scottish scientist to theorize that the landscapes he witnessed were far older than Noah’s Flood; the salt and gypsum deposits under the Mediterranean Sea that indicate that it was once a desert; and how trying to date the age of meteorites revealed the dangers of lead poisoning. Each of these breakthroughs filled in a piece of the greater puzzle that is the earth, with scientific discoveries dovetailing with each other to offer an increasingly coherent image of the geologic past.
March 12, 2020
1964 (many editions and page lengths)
First published in 1962, Silent Spring alerted a large audience to the environmental and human dangers of indiscriminate use of pesticides, spurring revolutionary changes in the laws affecting our air, land, and water. "Silent Spring became a runaway bestseller, with international reverberations . . [It is] well crafted, fearless and succinct . . Even if she had not inspired a generation of activists, Carson would prevail as one of the greatest nature writers in American letters" (Peter Matthiessen)
April 9, 2020
The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms
1881. (many editions with varying page length)
Darwin had been intrigued by the earthworm for forty years, but it wasn’t until 1881 that he produced the volume that would illuminate this “unsung creature which, in its untold millions, transformed the land as the coral polyps did the tropical sea." The volume, which focused on the fascinating behavior and ecology of the earthworm, sold thousands of copies in its first weeks.
May 14, 2020
What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World
2012. 241 pp
A lifelong birder, tracker, and naturalist, Young is guided in his work and teaching by three basic premises: the robin, junco, and other songbirds know everything important about their environment, be it backyard or forest; by tuning in to their vocalizations and behavior, we can acquire much of this wisdom for our own pleasure and benefit; and the birds’ companion calls and warning alarms are just as important as their songs. Birds are the sentries and our key to understanding the world beyond our front door. Unwitting humans create a zone of disturbance that scatters the wildlife. Respectful humans who heed the birds acquire an awareness that radically changes the dynamic. We are welcome in their habitat. The birds don’t fly away. The larger animals don’t race off. No longer hapless intruders, we now find, see, and engage the deer, the fox, the red-shouldered hawk even the elusive, whispering wren. Deep bird language is an ancient discipline, perfected by Native peoples the world over.
June 11, 2020
Kimmerer, Robin Wall
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants
2013. 408 pp.
With deep compassion and graceful prose, botanist and professor of plant ecology Kimmerer encourages readers to consider the ways that our lives and language weave through the natural world. A mesmerizing storyteller, she shares legends from her Potawatomi ancestors to illustrate the culture of gratitude in which we all should live. In such a culture, everyone knows that gifts will follow the circle of reciprocity and flow back to you again. Kimmerer recalls the ways that pecans became a symbol of abundance for her ancestors: Feeding guests around the big table recalls the trees’ welcome to our ancestors when they were lonesome and tired and so far from home. She reminds readers that we are showered every day with gifts, but they are not meant for us to keep... Our work and our joy is to pass along the gift and to trust that what we put into the universe will always come back.
September 13, 2018
Pepperberg, Irene. Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence--and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process. 2009. 232pp
Alex is the African gray parrot whose ability to master a vocabulary of more than 100 words and answer questions about the color, shape and number of objects garnered wide notice during his life as well as obituaries in worldwide media after his death in September 2007. Pepperberg has previously documented the results of her 30-year relationship with Alex in The Alex Studies. While this book inevitably covers some of the same ground, it is a moving tribute that beautifully evokes the struggles, the initial triumphs, the setbacks, the unexpected and often stunning achievements during a groundbreaking scientific endeavor spent uncovering cognitive abilities in Alex that no one believed were possible, and challenging science’s deepest assumptions about the origin of human cognitive abilities. Pepperberg deftly interweaves her own personal narrative with more intimate scenes of life with Alex than she was able to present in her earlier work.
October 11, 2018
Aldersey-Williams, Hugh. The Tide: The Science and Stories Behind the Greatest Force on Earth. 2017. 368pp
Half of the world’s population today lives in coastal regions lapped by tidal waters. But the tide rises and falls according to rules that are a mystery to almost all of us. Aldersey-Williams weaves together centuries of scientific thinking with the literature and folklore the tide has inspired to explain the power and workings of this most remarkable force. Here is the epic story of the long search to understand the tide from Aristotle, to Galileo and Newton, to classic literary portrayals of the tide from Shakespeare to Dickens, Melville to Jules Verne. Aldersey-Williams visits the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, where the tides are the strongest in the world; arctic Norway, home of the raging tidal whirlpool known as the maelstrom; and Venice, to investigate efforts to defend the city against flooding caused by the famed acqua alta.
November 8, 2018
Keim, Brandon. The Eye of the Sandpiper. 2017. 266 pp.
Keim pairs cutting-edge science with a deep love of nature, conveying his insights in prose that is both accessible and beautiful. In an elegant, thoughtful tour of nature in the twenty-first century, Keim continues in the tradition of Lewis Thomas, Stephen Jay Gould, and David Quammen, reporting from the frontiers of science while celebrating the natural world’s wonders and posing new questions about our relationship to the rest of life on Earth. The stories are arranged in four thematic sections. Each addresses nature through a different lens. The first is evolutionary and ecological dynamics, from how patterns form on butterfly wings to the ecological importance of oft-reviled lampreys. The second section explores the inner lives of animals, which science has only recently embraced: empathy in rats, emotions in honeybees, spirituality in chimpanzees. The third section contains stories of people acting on insights both ecological and ethological: nourishing blighted rivers, but also caring for injured pigeons at a hospital for wild birds and demanding legal rights for primates. The fourth section unites ecology and ethology in discussions of ethics: how we should think about and behave toward nature, and the place of wildness in a world in which space for wilderness is shrinking.
February 14, 2019
Egan, Dan. The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. 2018. 384pp
The Great Lakes―Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, and Superior―hold 20 percent of the world’s supply of surface fresh water and provide sustenance, work, and recreation for tens of millions of Americans. But they are under threat as never before, and their problems are spreading across the continent. The Death and Life of the Great Lakes is prize-winning reporter Dan Egan’s compulsively readable portrait of an ecological catastrophe happening right before our eyes, blending the epic story of the lakes with an examination of the perils they face and the ways we can restore and preserve them for generations to come.
March 14, 2019
Beehler, Bruce M. North on the Wing: Travels with the Songbird Migration of Spring. 2018. 256pp
In late March 2015, ornithologist Beehler set off on a solo four-month trek to track songbird migration and the northward progress of spring through America. Traveling via car, canoe, and bike and on foot, Beehler followed woodland warblers and other Neotropical songbird species from the southern border of Texas, where the birds first arrive after their winter sojourns in South America and the Caribbean, northward through the Mississippi drainage to its headwaters in Minnesota and onward to their nesting grounds in the north woods of Ontario. Beehler describes both the epic migration of songbirds across the country and the gradual dawning of springtime through the U.S. heartland and also tells the stories of the people and institutions dedicated to studying and conserving the critical habitats and processes of spring songbird migration. Inspired in part by Edwin Way Teale’s landmark 1951 book North with the Spring, this book is a fascinating first-hand account of a once-in-a-lifetime journey. It engages readers in the wonders of spring migration and serves as a call for the need to conserve, restore, and expand bird habitats to preserve them for future generations of both birds and humans.
April 11, 2019
Goldfarb, Ben. Eager: The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter. July 2018. 304pp.
In Eager, environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb reveals that our modern idea of what a healthy landscape looks like and how it functions is wrong, distorted by the fur trade that once trapped out millions of beavers from North America’s lakes and rivers. The consequences of losing beavers were profound: streams eroded, wetlands dried up, and species from salmon to swans lost vital habitat. Today, a growing coalition of “Beaver Believers” recognizes that ecosystems with beavers are far healthier, for humans and non-humans alike, than those without them. From the Nevada deserts to the Scottish highlands, Believers are now hard at work restoring these industrious rodents to their former haunts. Eager is a powerful story about one of the world’s most influential species, how North America was colonized, how our landscapes have changed over the centuries, and how beavers can help us fight drought, flooding, wildfire, extinction, and the ravages of climate change.
May 9, 2019
Wilcox, Christie. Venomous: How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry. 2016. 256pp
Molecular biologist Wilcox investigates venoms and the animals that use them, revealing how they work, what they do to the human body, and how they can revolutionize biochemistry and medicine today. He takes us from the coast of Indonesia to the rain forests of Peru in search of the secrets of these mysterious animals. We encounter jellyfish that release microscopic venom-packed darts known to kill humans in just two minutes, a two-inch caterpillar with toxic bristles that trigger hemorrhaging throughout the body, and a stunning blue-ringed octopus with saliva capable of inducing total paralysis. How could an animal as simple as a jellyfish evolve such an intricate, deadly poison? And how can a snake possess enzymes that tear through tissue yet leave its own body unscathed? Wilcox meets the scientists who often risk their lives studying these lethal beasts to find out, and puts her life on the line to examine these species up close. She also shows how venom is helping us untangle the complex mechanisms of some of our most devastating diseases.
June 13, 2019
Jasanoff, Alan. The Biological Mind: How Brain, Body, and Environment Collaborate to Make Us Who We Are. 2018. 304 pp.
To many, the brain is the seat of personal identity and autonomy. But the way we talk about the brain is often rooted more in mystical conceptions of the soul than in scientific fact. This blinds us to the physical realities of mental function. We ignore bodily influences on our psychology, from chemicals in the blood to bacteria in the gut, and overlook the ways that the environment affects our behavior, via factors varying from subconscious sights and sounds to the weather. As a result, we alternately overestimate our capacity for free will or equate brains to inorganic machines like computers. But a brain is neither a soul nor an electrical network: it is a bodily organ, and it cannot be separated from its surroundings. Our selves aren’t just inside our heads--they’re spread throughout our bodies and beyond. Only once we come to terms with this can we grasp the true nature of our humanity.