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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Appreciating Winter: Non-fiction Selections

Posted by Alana T.
Ravens in Winter by Bernd Heinrich.  This wonderful book was one of the first to describe the adaptability, inventiveness, and intelligence of ravens.  By careful and long-term observation of wild birds in winter, Heinrich was able to describe previously unknown behaviors.  Not only is the author's love of his subject and the natural world obvious, his patience, cold-hardiness and work ethic are cause for amazement.  The story is set up as a mystery to be solved and the reader quickly becomes swept up in the numerous clues, dead ends and plot twists all taking place in the frigid, snow covered woods of Maine.

Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival by Bernd Heinrich.  Heinrich has written many popular science books, and this one is one of the best (after Ravens, see above).  This book is particularly interesting because the reader sees inside the head of a gifted scientist and is carried along while he formulates his questions and designs his experiments.  Questions that anyone might ask in passing, "What do little birds eat all winter?,  How do some insects stay alive after being frozen?, Why do some animals hibernate while others stay active?", all become serious lines of study, exploration and wonder.

Thin Ice: Unlocking the Secrets of the Climate in the World's Highest Mountains by Mark Bowen.  Technically, this is not a winter book, but it does discuss ice... close enough!  The author describes the work of climatologist Lonnie Thompson who takes ice cores from tropical glaciers.  What he has learned from these ice cores has greatly expanded our knowledge of global climate and the possible changes to come.  A good read.

Snowstruck: In the Grip of Avalanches by Jill Fredston. Adventure writing is quite popular these days, especially when coupled with actual or imagined danger.  The author is an expert winter-rescue professional living and working in Alaska.  Her descriptions of the perils of winter accidents and survival are riveting.  We may not see many avalanches here in Edwardsville, but this is still a highly recommended read.

The Snowflake: Winter's Secret Beauty by Kenneth Libbrecht and Snow Crystals by W.A Bentley.  I usually suggest these books as a pair.  Bentley's book has a brief description of his process, but the majority of the book is devoted to the wonderful photographs of individual snowflakes.  It is all the more stunning when you realize that these photos were not taken with state of the art equipment, but with a basic camera set-up before 1930.  The Snowflake also has lovely photographs (in color), but also a lot of up to date information about the chemistry and physics of ice crystals.  Snowflake Bently, a colorfully illustrated children's book tells Bentley's story and provides a warm portrait of the farmer/scientist's life.

The Donnor Party (DVD, 1994) aired on PBS as the pilot episode of The American Experience.  As I recall, my husband an I sat down to watch, not knowing what to expect.  After watching, we couldn't get to sleep that night; documentaries usually are not gripping, terrifying, fascinating, and shocking all at the same time, and to the extent that this one is.  The story is told through pictures, narrations of journal excerpts, and historical documents.  Watching and listening to the DVD, you will feel the cold Sierra Nevada winter and experience the desperation of these tough pioneers pushed to their limits.  Definitely worth watching, although it may not be suitable for younger children.

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