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Natural History

The photograph arrives while I am reading Dave Witty’s What the Trees See. A tree’s branch close-up, outer brown-red bark peeled back to smooth and brilliant green. A friend, spotting it on Quandamooka Country in Minjerribah, North Stradbroke Island, has been understandably stopped in her tracks. Framed intimately like this, its shape and textures suggest warm musculature: lean in, you will be held. This beautiful creature.

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Fifty years ago (when I was a very young scholar), I was asked to write an essay review of some recently published books about the Huxleys. None of them in my view, including Julian Huxley’s own volume of Memories (1970), did justice to their subjects’ scientific achievements and social concerns. Half a century later we now have Alison Bashford’s An Intimate History of Evolution: The story of the Huxley family. It has most definitely been worth the wait. Indeed this work is the crowning achievement of her distinguished career. 

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The image of a solitary goldfish aimlessly circling in a glass bowl recurs in cartoons and children’s books, a metaphor for a crowded and over-scrutinised life. John Simons’s account of the mid-nineteenth-century aquarium craze reveals the rather horrifying historical reality of this mostly symbolic image. At the height of the craze for aquariums, not only were resilient goldfish kept in bowls, but a wide range of wild-caught marine and estuarine life were dredged from the British coastline and plunged into buckets, bowls, tubs, pots, as well as glass aquariums of various sizes, with precious little consideration given to the complex needs of maintaining aquatic ecosystems in captivity. The death toll, not to mention the smell, must have been horrifying. As Simons points out, the British seaside has never truly recovered from this mass decimation.

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Family histories are always complicated. Delia (‘Mickie’) Akeley and her monkey, JT Jr, are the titular family in this intriguing book, but its story includes the grand global family of colonial museums, and the personal families of Theodore Roosevelt and the author, Iain McCalman.

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The Atlas of Australian Birds by M. Blakers, S.J.J.F. Davies, and P.N. Reilly

May 1985, no. 70

When I first heard of an impending Atlas of Australian Birds, my expectations were, it now seems to me, naive, showing certainly no acquaintance with the ‘birds atlas projects [which] have been developed in many other countries’ (actually, the bibliography numbers attached to this direct us to just three such projects: a use of ‘many’ learned, perhaps, from such usages as ‘this wine will improve with cellaring for many years’).

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What does it mean to be human – nearly human, not-quite-human, or even inhuman? Such questions have preoccupied writers and researchers for centuries, from Charles Darwin and Mary Shelley to the uncanny valley of robotics, AI, and a trans-human future. In Wild Man from Borneo, Robert Cribb, Helen Gilbert, and Helen Tiffen explore this question through the ...

Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane

June-July 2015, no. 372

The Western Isles arch across the north-west coast of Scotland, sheltering the mainland from the North Sea’s fury. In summer there are few places more magical than these islands, which Seton Gordon once described as standing ‘on the rim of the material earth’ looking west to the immortal realm of Tir nan Og.

On the northern islands, granite and gneiss ...

As I sit by the fire, a gale rackets at the door and horizontal sleet sheets across my windows. With monster snowfalls in the Alps, the weather is breaking records again. Each winter, the winds are stronger, rains heavier, and temperatures lower than ever before. I put more wood on the fire and consider my investment in double-glazing well-spent.

In our prot ...

Samuel Johnson had some advice for aspiring writers. ‘Read over your compositions,’ he said, ‘and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’ One imagines the impact of this recommendation on an eighteenth-century student of literature, clutching a page of overblown rhetorical flourishes and faux erudition. Our crimes of vanity in writing are very different now – more likely to take the form of descriptive tours de force of the kind fostered in creative writing classes.

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Australia’s birds stand out from the global avian pack in many ways – ecologically, behaviourally, because some ancient lineages survive here, and because many species are endemic. The ancestors of more than half of the planet’s ten thousand bird species (the songbirds) evolved right here (eastern Gondwana) before spreading across the world. Indeed, Tim Low claims in this important and illuminating book that Australia’s bird fauna is at least as exceptional as our mammal fauna, which has such remarkable elements as the egg-laying monotremes (platypus, echidna) and our marvellous radiation of marsupials (kangaroos, quolls, bandicoots, possums, etc.). Can this be so? As a mammologist, my initial response was that Low’s claim is a bit rich, but, after reading this book, I take his point.

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