Book Review · Nonfiction

Intelligence in Nature

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After reading The Genius of Birds and loving it, I was on the hunt for another nonfiction book on animal intelligence, preferably something with a wider of array of animals to discuss. Jeremy Narby’s Intelligence in Nature sounded like it was exactly what I was looking for. Spoiler: it was not, but that doesn’t mean it was bad.

Intelligence in Nature is a bit of a travelogue with some research findings mixed in. There is a definite anthropological spin to the book, as Narby meets with and interviews several natives of the regions he travels to. He interviews healers, guides, and several shamans. He asks them about their views on intelligence in nature, and he collects a variety of beliefs and responses. Narby also includes recent research regarding intelligence in animals, plants, and microbes as well as meetings with experts in scientific fields. Narby presents a variety of views of intelligence in nature, but as a whole the book feels a little disjointed and slightly off topic.

While it was interesting to hear what the shamans and healers had to say about their world, I was hoping to read about more scientific, concrete discoveries. I liked when Narby introduced the shamans to some ideas of modern science, but ultimately, the content of the book did not quite match the title or synopsis, in my view. I was looking for some in depth explanation and analysis of intelligence in other organisms, but Narby glossed over some of the details in favor of an anthropological approach to the subject.

Intelligence in Nature was a slight disappointment because its content didn’t quite meet my expectations, but it was still an interesting and informative read. It would have benefited from a little more organization of the ideas presented in the text, but the journeys Narby took and the people he met along the way bring a unique perspective to the topic of intelligence in the natural world. I rated the book 2-2.5 out of 5 stars.

 

Book Review · Nonfiction

The Hidden Life of Trees

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A new post?! Yes! I am not dead, but I am still not really reading. As much as I love physical books, I cannot seem to find the time or energy to use my eyes to read anything except the infinitely depressing news in the U.S. right now. On the bright side, spring has sprung where I am, so I have been trying to go for walks/runs more often. In the spirit of spring and because I cannot seem to read a physical book, I have been listening to an audio book about trees on my walks. And it’s great! Now, hold on there, you might say. Trees? What is so interesting about trees? What hidden life could they possibly have? Well, my friend, let me tell you about a few tree-rific facts I have learned. Maybe I can get you as excited about trees as I am.

Author Peter Wohlleben is a forester with extensive experience with both commercial forestry and conservation. In this book Wohlleben details the life cycle of trees, their role in keeping forests (and the planet) healthy, how trees “care” for their young, and how trees communicate with each other. Yes, I said communicate. No, they do not speak as we do, of course, but they are actually able to communicate in a few different ways. Wohlleben describes how trees have a sense of smell, feeling, and taste. Again, it isn’t the same sort of senses that we have, but they are able to detect and react to scents, injuries, and, for example, pests’ saliva. It was also interesting to learn that the quiet forest you are walking around in is teeming with action below the surface. Trees are able to communicate via the “Wood Wide Web,” a network of connections between plant roots and fungi that can transfer warnings as well as nutrients to other connected members.

As I mentioned, I read this via an audio book. The narrator, Mike Grady, has a British accent that reminded me of the narration on something like a wildlife documentary: soothing, authoritative, and clear. The language of the book is not difficult. Most terms are defined, and easy to understand examples are given to explain more complex topics. So, do not be discouraged if you know nothing about trees!

I am completely biased, but I think the best way to enjoy this book is by being outside, taking a walk, or at least sitting by a sunny, tree-filled window. I loved being able to listen to the book while looking around at the trees outside. I consider myself an environmentally friendly person already, but I gained even more respect for trees, fungi, forests as a whole, and how they are all integral for a healthy and happy planet. I rated The Hidden Life of Trees four out of five stars.

Book Review · Nonfiction

The Genius of Birds

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I find the study of psychology extremely interesting, especially animal psychology. In fact, it was my first major in college, and sometimes I imagine what it would have been like if I never made my switch to English. Since psychology and nature are two of my favorite non-fiction subjects, The Genius of Birds was a great fit. I would not say that I have ever been specifically interested in birds themselves, but the book bragged that some birds’ intelligence is on par or even surpasses other animals’– even primates– critical thinking skills. Thoroughly intrigued, I dove in head first.

Jennifer Ackerman definitely did her research. The book is packed with facts and interesting research results. Not everything is conclusive, but the information is presented in a way that makes you think without making too many bold claims. Since a lot of the research is recent, the book feels very up-to-date, but the author also compares what we thought we knew about birds to what we think we know now. Ackerman discusses various aspects of birds’ minds, including their critical thinking skills, their socialization practices, the importance of birdsong, how birds navigate their world, and how climate and human populations impact birds’ cognitive abilities. The information is fascinating and easy to read. As I said, I went in knowing only some bird basics. I knew that crows and parrots were considered intelligent, and I could name the commons birds native to my area. Beyond that, I was a blank slate in bird knowledge. The writing is almost conversational, with a welcoming and relaxed tone. Unlike some books of this nature, the author does not insert herself into the writing very often. She states the facts between some orienting information about her own experiences, but the actual facts fill the pages.

As a teaser, a few of the most interesting things I learned were that some birds make and use tools. Some keep their homemade tools and even modify them as time goes on. The book also makes a comparison between bird song and human language because birds learn their songs in a similar way to how humans learn languages. Some birds even pass down and modify their songs over generations. I found the book difficult to put down. Nonfiction usually takes me longer to read, but I flew (pun slightly intended) through this. Five out of five stars in my opinion, and I believe that this is the first time a nonfiction title has gotten this high of a rating from me!