These three tasks, so says nature writer Robert Macfarlane, signify our relationship with the world beneath our feet, both across time and across cultures. Underland is his lyrical exploration of underground spaces where people have sought shelter from warfare or hidden valuable treasures, are extracting minerals in mines or knowledge in research facilities, or are looking to dispose of waste. It is one of two big books published only five months apart on the subterranean realm, the other being Will Hunt’s Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet which I will be reviewing next. But first, Underland.
“Why, of all the species that have ever existed, have only us humans reached this unparalleled level of social organisation?” Sounds familiar? I indeed opened my review of E.O. Wilson’s recent book Genesis: On the Deep Origin of Societies with almost these exact words. Where that book (quite literally) fell a bit short of the intended mark, biologist Mark W. Moffett here delivers a sprawling big history book that considers almost the same question. Perhaps this should not come as a surprise, for Wilson has been Moffett’s mentor.
From Skeletor to the Danse Macabre, from Army of Darkness to ossuaries and holy relics – despite being largely hidden in life, skeletons are some of the most recognizable structures that nature has produced. Science writer Brian Switek has written a sizzling little book with Skeleton Keys* that delves into both the biological and cultural significance of human bones, showing them to be more than just a powerful reminder of death and mortality.
Primaeval, pristine, playground of Indiana Jones, home to ancient ruins and primitive tribes – nothings says wilderness more than tropical rainforests. They have had a firm grip on our collective imagination for centuries as the antithesis of civilization. But after reading archaeologist Patrick Roberts’s Tropical Forests in Prehistory, History, and Modernity, it seems my introduction is a load of lyrical rubbish. Synthesizing an enormous body of scientific literature, this book dispels the Victorian-era explorer-mystique to reveal a picture that is far more fascinating.
In the minds of most people, the words “Ice Age” will invoke images of mammoths and sabertooth tigers. But historians use the phrase “Little Ice Age” to refer to a particular period in recent history when average temperatures dropped for a few centuries. The impact this had on societies was tremendous. In Nature’s Mutiny, originally published in German and here translated by the author, historian Philipp Blom charts the transformations that resulted and shaped today’s world. It is also one of the most evocative book titles I have seen this year.
Animal anatomy has fascinated artists and scientists for millennia, resulting in a treasure trove of striking images. Veterinary anatomist David Bainbridge here takes on the brave task of curating a bird’s-eye-view of anatomical artwork that simultaneously delights, educates, and (for some perhaps) horrifies.
The story of human progress is intimately entwined with that of energy. Pulitzer-prize winning author Richard Rhodes here takes the reader on a 400-year tour of energy generation, shining a light on the many forgotten figures whose ingenuity and inventions were instrumental in the many energy transitions.
When I reviewed the book Defending Biodiversity: Environmental Science and Ethics, one of the reasons that was discussed as to why we should protect nature was the possibility of undiscovered pharmaceutical drugs. Seasoned ethnobotanist Robert A. Voeks shows that this so-called jungle medicine narrative has a long history. Though partially true, it equally contains parts myth, sentimentality, and nostalgia. However, if you are expecting a sceptical critique of superstitious indigenous practices – I was initially wondering whether the book would – no, this book delivers something far more interesting. Without belittling traditional knowledge, Voeks instead exposes the flaws in our interpretation and delivers a nuanced and fascinating ethnobotanical history lesson to boot.
They say you should not judge a book by its cover, but in this case, it was the very attractive cover that drew me to read Erebus: The Story of a Ship. Michael Palin, known equally for his early work as part of the Monty Python troupe as for his travel documentaries, here tells a riveting story from the golden age of polar exploration. A tale of high-spirited British imperialism, marine camaraderie, a warship that wasn’t, and the enduring mystery of a vanished Arctic expedition.