George Santayana’s oft-paraphrased aphorism "the one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again" is reason enough to brush up on our knowledge of the past, and these five books offer an array of interesting opportunities to do just that. From Brian Fagan’s vast and engaging history of the age-old, global relationship between water and humankind to Larrie D. Ferreiro’s gripping account of the 1735 Geodesic Mission to the Equator, these books offer windows on unique chapters of the past ranging from ancient Greece to the Cold War and with a focus on science and nature. The rest, as they say, is history.
Edited by Thomas Lowe Fleischner
Publisher: Trinity University Press
“Natural history,” writes Thomas Lowe Fleischner, editor of this eclectic anthology, “is the oldest continuous human tradition.” Despite a culturally, spiritually and scientifically productive history of human attentiveness to nature, Fleischner laments “there has never been a moment in the story of human existence when natural history was practiced less.” In answer to our shrinking natural awareness, “The Way of Natural History” brings together more than 20 scientists, nature writers, poets and Zen practitioners who offer beautiful examples of how paying attention to nature can be a healing antidote to the hectic and harrying pace of our lives. Cristina Eisenberg writes about what she learned tracking and collecting data on wolves in Montana, revelations that “fill her with hope.” Wren Farris, who lives on and explores a mesa within the Taos Plateau, wonders, “what makes us think, just because we find a treasure, that it is ours to collect?” Each piece included in this collection is beautifully crafted and deeply inspiring.
Translated and edited by Gregory McNamee
Publisher: Trinity University Press
Natural history in the time of the ancient Greeks was an altogether different beast, and Aelian’s strange and entertaining “On The Nature of Animals” is a “wonderful window onto the beliefs of ordinary people and a testimonial to the transmission of knowledge in the ancient world.” The collection, in 17 books, offers observations and anecdotes about animals such as the octopus, “a lustful fish [that] couples until all its strength has vanished” and the bear, which “cannot produce a cub that it, or you, would recognize as a living being immediately after birth. It gives birth to a sort of misshapen lump, with no form or distinctive features. The mother, even so, behaves lovingly and keeps it warm, smoothing it little by little with her tongue and shaping the creature, so that after a while you can recognize the thing, finally, as a bear’s cub.” Born sometime between A.D. 165 and 170, Claudius Aelianus, known to us as Aelian, was an encyclopedist, writer, collector and moralist who had a penchant for making almanac-like collections. Of all his works, his “On the Nature of Animals,” which has survived more or less whole, is today the best known, at least to classicists. A mostly randomly ordered collection of stories that he found interesting enough to relate about animals — whether or not he believed them — Aelian’s book constitutes an early encyclopedia of animal behavior, affording unparalleled insight into what ancient Romans knew about and thought about animals — and, of particular interest to modern scholars, about animal minds.
As water conservation moves to center stage and it becomes clear that we all must learn to make do with less, Brian Fagan offers a unique and exhaustive history of humankind’s relationship with water. At times triumphant, more recently troubling and always complex, Fagan traces this essential relationship across five millennia, from ancient Mesopotamia to the parched present of the Sunbelt. Possibly the first book to explore the history of human relationships with water on a global scale, Fagan describes three ages of water: The first, during which water was so scarce and precious that it was regarded as sacred in almost every culture; the second, when water began to be seen and used as a commodity; and the third age of water, the chapter in history where we find ourselves now and which is defined by a ballooning global population and a declining water supply. We may be “long past the frontiers of water sustainability, especially in areas like the American West, Australia, and the Near East,” but Fagan believes that we can — and must — look back and reflect on our global histories with water to once again learn to treat this essence of life with humility and reverence, and in doing so solve the water crises of the future.
by Larrie D. Ferreiro
Publisher: Basic Books
Larrie D. Ferreiro’s “Measure of the Earth” is a thorough, authoritative, and gripping account of one of the great scientific adventure stories of the 18th and early 19th centuries: The 1735 Geodesic Mission to the Equator. Ordered by Louis XV and organized by the French Academy of Sciences with help from Spain, it was the first international science expedition. The mission sought to obtain the accurate measurement of the width of one degree of latitude at the equator, a number that promised to unlock the puzzle of the shape of our planet (it would be compared with the same measurement taken in France) and which was essential to an accurate navigation of the seas. It may sound simple enough, but establishing this fact required taking thousands of terrestrial and astronomical measurements from a series of sites located directly at the equator, a task that led the team across a line of volcanoes in the Andes, each of which they had to climb. The party faced challenges including swarms of mosquitoes, altitude sickness, subzero temperatures, dysentery, malaria, hostile colonial administrators, lack of funding and internal strife, and the project took nearly a decade to complete. Ferreiro details the individual stories of the participants — three French scientists and two Spanish naval officers — some of whom weren’t able to get home for decades, while others never made it back at all. Though the science at its core seems unremarkable today, the Geodesic Mission remains one of the greatest scientific adventures in history, and Ferreiro’s accounts of both the complex astronomical tools and methodology employed, and the personalities and trials of the ambitious expedition make for a fascinating and entertaining read.
by Annie Jacobson
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Fast forwarding from ancient Greece, through the Enlightenment and all the way to the Cold War, we find ourselves with this intriguing history of what is arguably the holy grail for conspiracy theorists: Area 51, the “most famous military institution in the world that doesn't officially exist.” Los Angeles Times Magazine contributing editor Annie Jacobson addresses these conspiracy theories and speculates about what led to them in her book “Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base.” Derived from interviews with 74 individuals with rare firsthand knowledge of the site — 32 of whom lived and worked at Area 51 — the book explores why the top secret military base is classified, and details controversial and secretive research on atmospheric nuclear tests, aircraft and pilot-related projects conducted at the site, and run-ins with the Soviets. Jacobson begins her dramatic tale with a bold statement: “This book is a work of nonfiction. The stories I tell in this narrative are real. None of the people are invented.” Whether or not that’s true, this book is sure to incite heated debate.