A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia

Cover of A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia

A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia

Robert Whyte and Greg Anderson

CSIRO publishing, 2017
Paperback $49.95; e-books also available.

As regular readers will be aware, I like spiders as well as butterflies and birds. I was very pleased when I heard the first hints that a new guide to them might be on the way, the more so since the author-to-be was my regular mentor in all things arachnological through his site Arachne.org and the Spiders of Australia flickr group. When he asked whether he could use a couple of my photos Continue reading “A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia”

The Fruit that Changed the World

Banana the fruit that changed the world - cover imageFive years ago I wrote a post celebrating our backyard bananas and lamenting the vulnerability of the commercial crop. Several more posts since then have touched on the dangerous lack of genetic diversity of the endlessly-cloned Cavendish (especially Wild bananas) and a book I picked up in our Balinese guesthouse recently refocused my attention on the issue.

Banana: the Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World by Dan Koeppel (2007) does for our favourite fruit what Longitude and Krakatoa do for navigation and our favourite volcano Continue reading “The Fruit that Changed the World”

Naturalists’ Bookshelf 1: Plants

Several new, or merely new-to-us, natural history books arrived in this house a couple of months ago – mostly around December 25, actually – and I’ve been meaning to write about them ever since. Here are those which focus on plants.

Visions of a Rainforest – a year in Australia’s tropical rainforest

Text by Stanley Breeden, illustrations by William T. Cooper.

Simon and Schuster, 1992

As The Australian Rainforest Foundation website notes, Queensland’s Wet Tropics region contains the oldest continually surviving tropical rainforest on earth Continue reading “Naturalists’ Bookshelf 1: Plants”

Ursula Le Guin: Always Coming Home

always-coming-home-2016Ursula Le Guin

Always Coming Home

1985, republished by SF Masterworks in 2016

Always Coming Home is a wonderful book but it challenges easy categorisation. Like most of Le Guin’s work, it belongs somewhere in the ‘science fiction and fantasy’ area, but there’s very little science in it and even less fantasy. It is not even a novel, nor a collection of short stories, but an anthology including short stories, poems, play-scripts, an excerpt from a novel, myths and (the longest item) an autobiography.

Between them, they give us a richly textured introduction to an exotic culture – much as an anthology of Kazakh folk tales and literature might do. But which culture?

Continue reading “Ursula Le Guin: Always Coming Home”

Oliver James: The Selfish Capitalist

selfish-cap-300Oliver James: The Selfish Capitalist – origins of Affluenza

Vermilion, March 2008

In this sequel to his Affluenza (2007), Oliver James argues that capitalism as practised recently in the richer English-speaking countries – that includes Australia – is making us miserable. His ‘affluenza’, a portmanteau word fusing ‘affluence’ and influenza’, is the pattern of chronic over-work, debt, anxiety and waste induced by our obsession with goods and income, and James traces its cause to economic policies.

He defines Selfish Capitalism as the neoliberal Thatcherism adopted in the 1990s and finds that, despite the ‘trickle-down’ rhetoric, those policies made the rich very much richer while leaving the rest of us no better off financially and significantly worse off in other ways. Labour market deregulation undermined job security and held down real wages, the media joined business in successfully promoting perceptions of relative poverty even as real levels of consumption reached new highs, and debt increased enormously. (In Australia, mortgages rose from 2.8 to 4.2 times average annual income between 1994 and 2004 while other personal debt tripled).

If Selfish Capitalism is so bad, what is Unselfish Capitalism? Continue reading “Oliver James: The Selfish Capitalist”

The New Nature Writing

new nature writingThe New Nature Writing
Granta No 102, Summer 2008

Granta Books, $29.95

Granta, for those who don’t know it, is an English quarterly which publishes such luminaries as Lessing, Theroux, McEwan and Winterson. The editor of this issue, Jason Cowley, takes as his theme the notion that ‘economic migration, overpopulation and climate change are transforming the natural world into something unfamiliar,’ changing the way we interpret nature.

Cowley’s definition of ‘nature writing’ is broad enough to include squatters in the Bronx, children growing up in a 1960s Liverpool housing estate, and the demolition of the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. The last of these is a photo essay, and complements a group of superb photographs of farmers in the fen country of Norfolk. One of the best of the oddities is Kathleen Jamie’s exploration, via pathology lab and microscope, of the natural world inside our bodies – bacteria grazing on the stomach lining, ‘like musk oxen on tundra,’ and more troubling sights.

More conventionally, Jonathan Raban and Benjamin Kunkel explore the interplay between man and nature in middle America, and Edward Platt elucidates the interplay between military aircraft and migratory birds in Israel. Seamus Heaney (and it’s a sign of the collection’s quality that a Nobel laureate comes so far down the list) and Richard Mabey contribute smaller, quirkier pieces of British natural history. The common factor is sharp observation rendered in crisp, stylish prose.

At 260 pages, The New Nature Writing is a very solid anthology both physically and figuratively. It does not set out to be life-changing but will bring readers a lot of quiet pleasure.

• Reviewed at publication time for the Townsville Bulletin and republished here because it still comes up in my conversations about books and the environment.