Saturday, March 24, 2018

Garden Birds in Southern Africa by Duncan Butchart

There are dozens and dozens of awesome bird books out there, but Garden Birds in Southern Africa by Duncan Butchart is going to have a special spot on my shelves since it's such a handy little volume. Southern Africa is blessed with rich birdlife, with many species' range in fact having increased over the years since our urban environments provide new opportunities (um, hello, hadeda ibises, Egyptian geese, and guinea fowl, among many). Even more so with savvy gardeners who create environments that provide not only feeding, but nesting for birds.

Garden Birds is a wonderful introduction to this very concept of not only identifying the species that might be common to your particular area, but also how to go about turning your garden into the kind of place birds will, ahem, dare I say it...flock to?

Butchart discusses how folks can make their garden more bird-friendly, not only by investing in the kinds of plants and trees that provide food, shelter and nesting spots, but also how to set up different habitats (such as ponds, thickets or feeding tables) that will satisfy different ecological niches. He also looks at bird behaviour in general before launching into a list of 101 of the most common garden birds in southern Africa. This obviously not an exhaustive list, but he's taken care to select a range that will cover most bases – giving a photograph with a basic description, range and behaviour.

Lastly, he also gives a small list of trees that avid gardeners can plant that will provide either nesting, food opportunities or attract the kinds of prey birds might take. He finishes with a list of national botanical gardens that are worth a visit.

This is the kind of book that will also make an ideal gift for friends or family you know who might be interested in getting into birding or who are already into gardening (or getting into it, and what to be more environmentally conscious). With so much pressure put on our natural spaces thanks to pollution and encroachment, our own gardens provide such important environments for other species – so this book is filled with plenty of useful information to get nature-lovers bringing a little more wilderness closer to home.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker

Some folks learn all the wonderful things about grammar within the hallowed halls of a tertiary institution: I learnt about grammar in the trenches, dug in deep and dirty in newspaper publishing as well as editing piles of books for small presses. Every battle-hardened and weary wordsmith out there will tell you there is more than one way to learn your craft and sharpen your pen, and it's a seemingly never-ending battle against bad grammar and just plain old awful writing.

It's quite possible to ask, do we even need another style manual when there are so many out there, filled with rules and regulations about how you should or should not write? Steven Pinker doesn't think so, and The Sense of Style has been on my radar for a while now.

The problem I have with most style guides is that my eyes glaze over after a few pages and then the book ends up forgotten on a shelf somewhere, making a breeding place for silverfish and dust mites. Not so with The Sense of Style. While Pinker certainly tackles the eye-glazing topic of grammar, he does so in a way that with careful reading (and using his examples) he illustrates how the structure of a sentence works, and also why it's important to understand this. He then goes into how to improve coherence in your writing, and once again, the examples are gold.

He touches also on the tone of our writing – how we must decide whether to use a more relaxed style or remain quite formal, depending on the message and its recipients, whether we're writing a status update on social media or a more formal application for a position at a company. How we use language matters, and often says a lot about us.

In addition, Pinker discusses how language is fluid, how even the greats from the past have broken apparent "rules" (and even where these rules originate). While he is not dogmatic, as some wordsmiths I've encountered are, he will justify any stances he makes. What I take away from this is to be aware of not only the rules but the conventions, and yes, the conventions do shift (like my unfavourite, "literally" as not quite having its literal meaning). He explains why in some cases you should be less of a grammar Nazi, or in the case of "literally", while it still is a good idea to rather not use the word figuratively (due to unintended, somewhat hilarious results).

I found the list of common errors at the end, with their explanations, useful, as well as the glossary. (Can you use affect/effect or lay/lie correctly?) Particularly, his closing line struck me as being profound: "And we can remind ourselves of the reasons to strive for good style: to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world."

I'm totally down with that. :-) This book has a place in my permanent collection.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Impossible Five by Justin Fox

If I had a Gerald Durrell award on hand to give to Justin Fox for his book The Impossible Five, I'd hand him one for every species he investigates during the course of his research. Justin is one of those rare beasts who can handle fairly serious subject matter (conservation) in a way that is not only highly engaging and sensitively handled, but also filled with touches of humour (I don't think I'll forget his Bugs Bunny asides related to the riverine rabbit in a hurry).

The premise of The Impossible Five is simple: Everyone who goes looking for wildlife sightings in southern Africa seems awfully hung up about the Big Five (lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant) that Justin felt driven to explore what he'd term his "Impossible Five" of species that are next to impossible to see in the wild. After some thought, he decided that these, for him, are the Cape mountain leopard, the pangolin, the aardvark, white lion and the riverine rabbit.

Not only are these critters elusive, but their continued existence remains in the balance thanks to our own species' continued activity on this planet. 

Justin spent weeks in the field, getting to know folks whose passion it is to track and research these animals – from Quinton the leopard man, who walks the length and breadth of the Cederberg, to Linda, for whom the white lions of Timbavati represent something altogether spiritual and magical.

At the heart of this book lies one word: empathy – something that we as a species have collectively lost when it comes to how we interact with our environment. We forget that our ongoing survival is intimately tied into the ultimate fate of the wild things and remaining wilderness. 

This is the kind of book that makes me want to pack my bag and go visit some of the locations that had such an impact on me as a child – and I'm sorely overdue a visit to the Cederberg, where my own brush with a leopard was limited to finding a massive paw print superimposed on my own tracks once I'd turned around along a track I'd been hiking.

Justin motivates us to become patrons and keepers of our wild places, to forge a deeper connection to the world around us and gain an intrinsic understanding of the interconnectedness of all things. This really is a wonderful book, and its author is a keen observer of people and animals, as well as being a gifted storyteller. If you enjoyed Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine's Last Chance to See then most certainly add this one to your collection. Or, if you're like me, and you grew up on a steady diet of 50/50, Gerald Durrell and James Herriot ... then don't miss this one.