Book: My Family and Other Animals

Thanks to Laura H., who left a comment on my blog about a year ago recommending Gerald Durrell’s books, I have a new favorite book…or books. (I am planning to read all of Durrell’s books as soon as I can get my hands on them.)

My Family and Other Animals combines my two favorite things: nature and good storytelling. In this book (and its sequels), Durrell writes about an idyllic time he spent with his family on the island of Corfu, off the coast of Greece, during the late 1930s when he was about ten years old. He was a budding naturalist, and on this island, he had the freedom to roam on his own and spend hours watching and studying the insects, birds and other animals he found. He collected dozens of specimens, much to the bewilderment and sometimes horror of his family, but somehow they put up with his little zoo. Actually, I think it was his mother who was the champion and allowed him the freedom and space to keep his animals.

Reading his long passages about the wildlife on Corfu was enough to make me fall in love with this book, but that is just icing on the cake. He also writes about each of his family members, who were quirky and moody, and it all adds up to one hilarious book. Whether or not you enjoy reading nature books, you’ll probably enjoy this memoir of a boy’s candid memories of his family, who make every other family appear normal. Durrell’s memories are those of a clear-headed, thoughtful, and innocent ten-year-old child, yet he writes in a beautiful prose that only an adult could master.

I have read the second book in his trilogy, Birds, Beasts and Relatives, and it’s more of the same — delightful and funny. I haven’t yet been able to get my hands on the third book, Garden of the Gods, or as it’s been renamed, Fauna and FamilyIf you haven’t read any of the books yet, however, you may just want to buy the Corfu Trilogy, which combines all three books.

In the first two books, and probably others, you may be a little shocked to read how Durrell trapped and kept his animals, and though he didn’t mean to hurt them, sometimes they would die. This was actually a common practice among naturalists and researchers in the past, but it’s not common practice anymore. However, it’s because of Durrell’s love of nature and his great efforts to study animals up close as a child that he became a beloved naturalist, conservationist, zookeeper, and spokesperon as an adult. He created the Durrell Wildlife Park and Durrell Wildlife Conversation Trust, which tirelessly works to help animals who are at risk for going extinct.

The other book that Laura recommended to me is Durrell’s The Amateur NaturalistIt’s more of a field guide for naturalists, or in some ways, it’s a naturalist’s memoir of different habitats. (Minus the funny parts about his family.) It’s a beautiful book, and I keep it by my bed when I need a little nature in my nighttime reading. I’ll write about it someday too.

All of these books I plan to give to my son to read when he’s a little older. Right now, I think some of the British humor would go over his head, and he probably would not have the patience to read The Amateur Naturalist. But these books will always be on my bookshelf, and they will always be on my “highly recommended” book list.

Have you read any of Durrell’s books? What is your favorite?

Book: Anna Karenina

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was always on my bucket list, so my husband bought me the new translation by husband/wife team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They are translators of many Russian novels, and their work is critically acclaimed. This translation of Anna Karenina was published in 2000 and was the winner of the Pen/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize. According to the Paris Review, “Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translations have been lauded for restoring the idiosyncrasies of the originals—the page-long sentences and repetitions of Tolstoy, the cacophonous competing voices of Dostoevsky.”

I had never read the previous translation, and this was my first Russian novel. (Well, I tried to read Gogol’s Dead Souls, but I just couldn’t finish it. Maybe I didn’t have the right translation.)

(SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t read the book yet, and you think you’d like to, stop reading now.)

I loved Anna Karenina. Before I read the book, I knew it was about a woman who cheated on her husband, but I didn’t know it was also about the character of Konstantin Levin. His story is juxtaposed against Anna’s story. He is struggling to find himself as he tries to prioritize work while also nursing a broken heart. He is young and anguished, and at times, annoying, but slowly, his circumstances change, and he becomes a better man because of all his experiences.

Anna is in a loveless marriage, though she seems content enough at the beginning of the book, and she adores her son. It’s not until she meets Vronsky, the man who becomes her lover, that everything goes wrong. Unfortunately, she lives in a society that is not kind to anyone who decides that they want to leave their marriage. It was very interesting to learn about 19th century high class Russian society, which reminded me a great deal of Victorian England. I spent most of the book wondering who to blame — Anna, Vronsky, Anna’s husband, or the society they lived in — and my sympathies changed constantly. I thought Tolstoy’s brilliance was being able to show how complicated people and life are. There are no clear cut lines.

Despite being enthralled with the story, I can’t come away from Anna Karenina saying it’s one of my favorite books. At times the book was boring — Tolstoy adds a lot of social commentary on Russian society that was lost on me — and Levin’s long, drawn-out religious conversion at the end was a let down when I wanted to spend more time with Vronsky and those mourning Anna’s death. I understood that this, too, was a sign of the times and commentary from Tolstoy, but that didn’t make me like it better.

Having not the advantage of reading this in a Russian literature class, or discussing it with others, I still enjoyed it, and I’m so glad I read it. Have you read it? What did you think of it?

What My Kids Have Taught Me

Being is the great explainer. ~ Henry David Thoreau

When I tell people that I’m a homeschool mom, I’m sure most people think that I teach my boys everyday. But the truth is, they have been teaching me. They are the teachers, and I’m the pupil. They have taught me that you can be happy, if you find wonder in simple things. If you find wonder in nature, and you spend time in nature, you’ll be happier. If you can enjoy sitting down to sketch even when you aren’t the best artist, you’ll find joy and relaxation in that. If you have the courage to learn an instrument, you’ll feel good about yourself. Maybe they don’t realize they have taught me these things, but they have.

They have also taught me that you can accomplish an amazing amount of work, if you work just a little bit at a time. I learned this when they were babies. Nothing teaches a woman about time management better than having a baby. If you don’t use those few minutes a day when you’re not feeding or consoling or napping or doing something for your baby, you won’t accomplish anything. And I learned then that by working even a few minutes a day, I could complete things. Don’t get me wrong:  I haven’t accomplished everything I want to accomplish, and I can still get very frustrated about not having enough time to myself. But I do know that eventually I can finish my project, if I keep chiseling away at it.

Homeschooling has taught me how joyful it is to be curious and spend our time learning. It’s also taught me that to learn anything, I have to take it one step at a time. To teach my boys anything, I have to start at step one, break it down into bit-size chunks, and I have to digest it fully before I can explain it. (Something I rarely got to do in a traditional school setting when I had to move on in the curriculum before I was ready.) I used to be an “all or nothing” kind of person. Now I realize that I can be happy by investigating the small parts, spending time with them, and absorbing them. And I don’t have to attain perfection. It’s important to remember that it is the process, the quest, the journey, the learning, that counts.

The boys may be learning many things from me, but I’m learning much more.

I am also learning how important it is to be a role model. Because kids are more likely to do what you do and not what you say.

If I want my children to find joy in learning, then I better find joy in learning. Luckily, my boys are growing up in a home that values learning, nature, music, art, and all the best things in life. But as they get older, I realize how important it is that I continue to learn, wonder, and explore. It’s easy to get bogged down with daily chores and lesson planning. I can’t forget why I am doing this in the first place.

It’s about living a good life, but it’s about being a role model too.

Book: Ravens in Winter

One of my goals is to read more nature and science books, and I particularly love birds, so when I found Ravens in Winter by Bernd Heinrich at a library book sale, I couldn’t pass it up. I knew that more research had already been done on ravens because I had seen an interesting documentary about them. (This book was published in 1989.) But since I still don’t know that much about ravens, I knew I could enjoy the book anyway. (The latest news is that scientists have figured out that ravens can plan ahead for the future.)

This is the first science book I’ve ever read. That is, it’s about one scientist’s ongoing study of a subject and what he learned through his observations and experiments. (He had help from graduate students too.) What I loved about the book is that it perfectly illustrates the scientific method. Heinrich had observed ravens on some land his family owned in Maine. They seemed to be sharing their food and calling other ravens to join them. From this observation, he formed a question, or hypothesis, in his head. Did ravens recruit other ravens when they found food? Most animals do not share their food with others, so what advantage did this give them? Heinrich took a sabbatical from his job as a biologist at the University of Vermont to try to find out the answer.

The study ended up taking four years, and he did most of his work whenever he had some time off during the extremely cold, Maine winters. While I read about his adventures in the subzero temperatures, sleeping in a non-insulated and non-heated cabin, carrying heavy carcasses to places in order to attract the birds, climbing to dangerous heights in the trees to get a better view, I quickly decided that I would never have been a good wildlife biologist.

But I’m glad there are other people crazy enough to go to extremes to observe ravens because he found out some amazing facts about them, and his descriptions of their behavior were fascinating. While reading the book, I felt like a detective, sitting with him out in the woods, spying on these creatures, trying to figure out what all their odd behavior meant. Take this, for example:

NOVEMBER 27. I’m awakened to a rosy red dawn under a crystal clear sky with temperatures at 10 degrees F.

At 6:38 A.M. a raven flies over, then a second one. The pair has come–the Hills Ponders. They quork a few times during their apparent morning inspection for intruders and return down the valley to the pond. For the next three hours I see only the ever-present blue jays. They have not made a sound all morning on their frequent trips to the pile of new bait.

At 9:45 I suddenly see several ravens. I cannot count them because in the next half hour they circle over only briefly, disappear behind the trees, return, circle some more, and disappear again in to the forest. One flies to a tree where another has landed, and the first leaves; the second flies on to another perched bird, and that one leaves also. Two circle the bait together. I hear one set of deep quorks and one set of knocking sounds. There are no juvenile yells and no trills.

The chapters in the book alternate between a diary of his observations and experiments and also the research he did on previous scientist’s observations about ravens around the world. He also writes about observations from people who are not scientists, and though their observations can be helpful, he explains that it’s important for a scientist to remain subjective and not assume that certain behavior equals human behavior.

I was joking, a little, when I called him crazy. I can clearly see how appealing it would be to spend so much time out in the wild — sometimes alone and sometimes collaborating with others. You can get the sense of how he feels about about his work in the following passage:

FEBRUARY 5. The days are getting longer, but it is still deep winter. Last night, the northern lights were flickering across the sky. Tonight the sky is lightly veiled in clouds, and the quarter moon has a halo around it. It does not shed much light as I snowshoe up with my gear. I have to make three more trips, each time carrying about seventy-five pounds of frozen meat in a burlap bag slung over my shoulder. All of this is unpaid volunteer work, of course. It is fun. What I do will never have any major significance in the scheme of things. So it had better be fun.

Finally, near midnight, I’m done with my exertions and gratefully crawl into a cool but comfortable bed. Alone–unfortunately. A coyote barks from Gammon Ridge. It sounds like the dog next door. But out here it seems wild and exotic, elemental and beautiful. I am paid many times over for my efforts. But the same things I experience would not be rewards at all if it were not for the efforts I’ve invested.

Heinrich had to conduct many experiments, but he did find out that juvenile ravens will recruit other ravens to a food source, if it is located in the territory of an adult pair. This way, the adults cannot chase them off as easily. But that’s a very simplified explanation, and there is much more to glean from his data. These birds are very clever and deserve our respect. I encourage you to read the book, if you have any interest in science or birds.

Note: A high school student interested in science may enjoy this book, but younger kids would probably think it was boring.

Heinrich has written many books, and I see he has other books about ravens too. Have you read any of his books? Which do you recommend the most?

My Year of Citizen Science

{A Year of Easy Citizen Science Projects for Homeschoolers}

From the University of Oklahoma’s Soil Collection Program

Last year I gave myself a big project by declaring it “My Year of Citizen Science.” Every month, I tried doing one citizen science project, and I wrote about each one on the home/school/life magazine blog. It was a lot of fun, I learned a lot about citizen science, and I felt I was doing something good for the world right from my home. I’m continuing to participate in some of them too.

I picked easy projects that I could do from home because as a homeschool mom, our schedule is full, and I don’t get out much by myself. Sometimes my boys would help me with these projects and other times not. I didn’t require them to. This was something I wanted to do for myself because over the last few years I have come to love science, which I always hated when I was in school. I don’t think it was introduced to me properly when I was a child, but that’s another story.

Anyway, any homeschooler or conscientious citizen could easily do any of these projects. I’m going to list them here with links to my blog posts on home/school/life where you can learn more about what they were like to complete. From there, you can find the link to the project’s website. I can’t promise whether the researchers will continue to make these projects available, but most of them should be ongoing projects.

#1: Lab in the Wild: A project you can do right at your computer.
#2: The Great Backyard Bird Count (Takes place every February): Just what it sounds like. Lots of fun, if you love birds.
#3: Budburst: Find a plant or tree to observe year-round. Lots of good activities on their website for teaching kids about plants.
#4 & #5: Project Noah and iNaturalist: A way to record your nature observations and get help identifying them. Your observations may help researchers too.
#6: Citizen Science Soil Collection Program: Perfect for kids who like playing in the dirt.
#7: Got Milkweed? (The Not Quite Citizen Science Project): An organization who wants to help you plant milkweed, which will help the monarch butterflies.
#8: Bugs In Our Backyard: Learn about true bugs and try to find them.
#9: Project Squirrel: Easiest project in the world, especially if you have squirrels in your yard.
#10: mPING crowdsourcing weather reports: An app that uses crowdsourcing to improve weather radars.
#11: Project Implicit: Another project you can do at your computer. Researchers will test you for hidden biases that you didn’t even know you had.
#12: Flu Near You: Every week you will receive an e-mail asking if anyone in your household has flu-like symptoms. Helps the CDC and other organizations track illnesses.

There are many other citizen science projects that you can find by searching on the Internet and checking out the Project Finder on SciStarter.com. If you have participated in one that isn’t listed here, please tell me about it in the comments. Also, if you try any of these, please let me know!  I’d love to hear about your experience.