Page 3.14

The Best Science Books, Ever

I’m between books right now. As an inveterate reader, this makes me feel antsy and unmoored. I want to get my hands on something good–and specifically, I’m thinking of going on a science-book spree.

The science-books-for-laypeople genre is one that I haven’t explored as much as I would like. (Bloggers–any recommendations? Can we put together an ultimate science book list, a science-reader’s garden of prose?)

Partly, this interest is sparked by recent days spent in the Seed offices. And partly it’s sparked by one recent discovery of mine, a book that dazzled me with a vision of what science writing can be in the hands of an author who also has a gift for prose. The book was A Country Year, by Sue Hubbell, and I’d like to nominate it as the first entry on our science-writing honor roll.

I stumbled across Hubbell’s book the last time I visited my parents in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia. Book-less and jonesing for a fix, I retreated to their shelf of field guides, carpentry manuals and gardening books, and pulled down the likeliest-looking thing. The hazy watercolor landscape on the cover didn’t exactly fill me with positive expectations. But pickings were slim, so I plopped down in front of the stove and started to read.

i-c356eadae85bc81c477d195ae833851f-country_year.jpg

A Country Year came out in 1983. Hubbell gives the back-story to her unusual life in the book’s first pages. She married young and worked at the Brown University library. When her academic husband tired of university life, the two of them chased the dream of ’60s and ’70s back-to-the-landers, and bought a small farm in the Ozarks of Missouri, a place Hubbell describes as being “so beautiful that it nearly brought tears to my eyes the first time I saw it.” They renovated a cabin on their land and started a small business keeping bees and selling honey. The marriage ended soon after, and Hubbell decided to keep the farm and the apiary, alone. At the time of writing, she was fifty years old, making her living by driving her bees’ honey to New York City in a truck and selling it to specialty stores like Macy’s and Zabar’s. On the side she did nature writing for a little rag called The New Yorker.

A Country Year collects some of her essays on life in the Ozarks. In them, the deadly-smart Hubbell blends glimpses into her strenuous life with observations of the natural world around her. She does it seamlessly, in spare, precise sentences and crisp details. Her essays are short, and they give the illusion of being haphazard–starting out on one subject and ending on quite another. They’re not.

I like Hubbell, I think, because she shows how scientific knowledge can enrich one’s everyday life. In one essay she describes how she turned to botany after her husband left the farm. “I botanized obsessively during that difficult time,” she says, traversing her land and teaching herself the Latin names of the plants that grow there. Learning the taxonomic names of plants allowed a more intimate connection to place. “One spring afternoon,” she writes, during her botanizing phase, “I was walking back down my lane after getting the mail… The sun was slanting through new leaves, and the air was fragrant with wild cherry (Prunus serotina: Prunus–plum, serotina–late blooming) blosssoms, which my bees were working eagerly.” For Hubbell, knowing more about science means knowing more about the world at hand. Knowing more about the world means living a richer life. Science is a way of seeing, and seen through the lens of science, the world means more, is more amazing.

In Hubbell’s writing, scientific understanding begets awe, instead of undermining it. Take for example one of my favorite essays, in which Hubbell writes about her early morning ritual of drinking coffee under the oak trees behind her cabin. In the gray dawn, mosquitoes and moths swarm around her. The insects attract bats, which rely on them as food. Hubbell thinks about the relationship between herself, the mosquitoes, and the bats, and then she thinks of a further rumple in bat-moth relations. Some night-flying moths, she relates, have evolved the ability to hear the noises that bats use while hunting, and to make noises back that instruct the bats not to eat them. The moths rely for survival on their sense of hearing. But there is a species of mite that lives in moths’ ears, causing deafness. And moth ear mites, naturally, depend for their survival on the survival of moths. So the mites have evolved a way, not fully understood, by which the first mite to land on a moth leaves a signal that alerts subsequent mites to settle only in one ear of any given moth. The mites have a place to live, while the moths retain hearing in one ear. “So there we are out under the oak trees in the dim light,” writes Hubbell, “–the mites, the moths, the bats, the mosquitoes, and me. We are a text of suitability for one another, and that text is as good as any I know by which to drink my coffee and watch the dawn.”

A Country Year made me want to know my daily world the way that Hubbell knows hers.

What work of science writing got you going?