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Life on the pale blue dot
Amid the rush of daily life, it’s easy to forget the marvels that exist in nature. Some are far away, like the swirling blue meltwater that laps the edges of a glacier, while others lurk just under our feet, like an ant waving a leaf like a victory banner. These new nature books are filled with hundreds of such phenomena, discussing everything from backyard birds to the edges of the cosmos.
Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers is truly a book like no other. In 2007 author/photographer James Balog founded the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), which currently uses 27 cameras at 18 glaciers around the world, from Alaska to Nepal, to record chilling changes every half hour. These efforts are the subject of an Academy Award-winning documentary, Chasing Ice, and now this gorgeous book.
As Balog explains, “Ice matters. It’s the place where we can see and hear and feel climate change in action.” If you’re wondering about the nature of ice photos, he explains, “Glaciers are alive, evolving, bestial. Glaciers respond hourly, daily, monthly, yearly to air and water around them.”
These stunning shots capture the gleaming ice of the Khumbu Glacier near Mt. Everest, as well as otherworldly images such as deep blue ice formations on Greenland’s ice sheet, the artful sea-green swirls of Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier and diamond-like fragments from Iceland. In this amazing volume, readers experience both the big picture of giant glaciers as well as up-close views of this precious commodity.
A sense of wonder is key in the best nature books. As animal photographer Tim Flach explains, “When I began photographing animals, my inspiration came, in part, from a sense of wonderment in nature—something I have felt since childhood and that still informs my imagery today.” After publishing Equus and Dogs, his latest endeavor is More Than Human, a book of animal photographs guaranteed to dazzle viewers with their color, detail, clarity and, most of all, their uncanny “humanity.”
Flach’s portrait of a turkey seems full of wisdom, certitude and grace, like that of a wizened old warrior. A series of close-ups of fruit bats brim with personality, as though these strange, sly creatures were runway models in a Ralph Lauren ad. A comb jellyfish swirls like a piece of modern art, its neon colors shining like an underwater rainbow.
There are cute animals within these pages, but this is by no means a book of cutesy animal photos. More Than Human is an art book, pure and simple, full of elegance, drama and beauty.
ON THE WING
On a much more practical level is the Bird Watcher’s Bible. Rather than a field guide, this book is a wide-ranging compendium of birding lore, with chapters on such topics as bird anatomy; how birds live, fly and migrate; and the science of their evolution. Historical discussions tackle the mania for feathered hats in the early 20th century and the 19th-century trend to shoot and stuff bird specimens.
A variety of fun facts are sprinkled liberally throughout the book, under the heading “Bird Brain.” There are entertaining lists as well, such as the Top 10 Most Common State Birds and the Top 10 Words for Bird Congregations. A number of sidebars make for engaging reading, such as a discussion on the hobby and importance of egg collecting, and a profile of a talking African gray parrot named Alex whose speech skills were studied for 30 years.
As with any National Geographic book, the photographs and artwork are fully featured, including antique illustrations, historical photographs and the colorful photos for which NatGeo is so well known.
THE STARS ABOVE
Similarly informative and entertaining is Martin Rees’ Universe: The Definitive Visual Guide, a new edition of an earlier visual guide to outer space, including constellations and planetary charts with positions until 2019.
Encyclopedic in breadth, this updated volume discusses both the beginning and possible fate of the universe (Big Crunch? Big Chill?), star motion, astronomy, the Milky Way and everything from the sun and our planets to comets, meteors and space exploration.
Amid the science and data are a variety of short profiles, such as a sidebar on Carolyn Shoemaker, who took up astronomy at age 51 and has since discovered more than 800 asteroids and 32 comets. A multitude of charts, diagrams and illustrations help clarify the many topics discussed in this vast volume, such as the age-old question: Is anybody or anything else alive out there?