Friday, June 7, 2013

A boffo review of Natural Alaska

Lifted from my home paper, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, a review of the book to your right by David James:

FAIRBANKS - For nearly two decades, Fairbanks resident Ned Rozell has penned the Alaska Science Forum column for the Geophysical Institute at UAF (currently on hiatus, the job is presently in the highly capable hands of Molly Rettig).

Rozell has distinguished himself as one of Alaska’s finest science writers by approaching each topic as a story to be told rather than a collection of facts and figures. His essays generally open with a scene from the natural world that grabs the reader’s attention and introduces the theme to be addressed, followed by a jargon-free explanation of the column’s subject matter, and often an introduction to one or more researchers doing the work that has discovered the “why” of whatever phenomena he is writing about.

Rozell frequently finds a key angle that humanizes his subject so that readers will connect to it on a personal level. He keeps it all short and to the point, each paragraph offering a learning experience. Yet it is all presented so clearly that there is never a need to go back and reread a section. It is simply impossible to get lost in one of his articles, despite their being some of the most informative essays produced by any author currently working in Alaska.

How Rozell does this is a question only he can answer, but his admirable skills are on excellent display in his latest collection, “Natural Alaska: Life on the Edge.” The sixteen essays found in this far too brief little book concern themselves with various forms of fauna in Alaska, ranging from some of the smallest (ice worms and insects) to some of the largest (black bears and caribou), and varying sizes in between. Arranged in escalating order of the assorted creatures’ body masses, most of the articles are focused on how these different insects, birds, and animals survive the harsh winters of the far north.

The book opens with a discussion of ice worms, so rarely seen by humans that many believe them to be mythical. They burrow their way through one of the most inhospitable environments imaginable — glaciers — and are amazingly abundant. It is estimated that one Washington State glacier contains more of them than there are people on the entire planet. But as the Earth’s glaciers continue to retreat, they may become another casualty of climate change.

Many of these pages detail the myriad ways that creatures inhabiting Alaska cope with the long months of cold. The red flat bark beetle produces a natural antifreeze capable of carrying its body through temperatures far lower than it will ever encounter. In one experiment a specimen revived after being frozen to minus 238 degrees; and if you think this is a pointless exercise, consider that isolating this antifreeze and one day using it to preserve human organs is an aim of this research.
Frogs are summer fixtures of Alaska, having been spotted as far north as the Arctic Circle. Lacking a single cell of body fat, they freeze their entire bodies — even their hearts and brains — and hunker down beneath the snow each winter.

Chickadees spend their winter days boosting their weight by 10 percent, and their nights losing it while keeping themselves warm. Alaskans can pride themselves on knowing that our chickadees are both larger and smarter than their southern cousins, traits that aid their survival (sadly, Alaskan Homo sapiens have only mastered the first half of that equation).

Some birds simply quit the territory, including the bar tailed godwit which travels to New Zealand in one nonstop haul when the weather turns. Where that flying rodent the bat goes, however, remains unknown. It may hibernate or perhaps migrate; opinions differ. Also subject to debate is why this animal, which favors warmth and darkness, lives in a place where summer nights are often chilly and daylight lasts for weeks.

At the larger end of the spectrum, Rozell takes readers inside a black bear’s den for the winter, where females sleep so deeply they can birth their cubs without waking. With caribou, on the other hand, he journeys into summer, listing the insects that furiously attack them, parasitically employing their bodies for egg laying and tormenting the poor animals so relentlessly that Rozell suspects there’s nothing they enjoy seeing more than winter’s first snowflake.

All of these stories are told in Rozell’s calm, conversational tone with consistently clever word play and nods to the human perspective. Concerning the extinction of the Steller sea cow, lost to the appetites of Russian explorers, he writes, “Fearless, large of body, and succulent were a bad combination for an animal in an era when men ate everything that walked, flew, or swam.”

One essay that departs from the tone of the others concerns Alaska’s most emblematic bird. In “Letter to Edgar,” Rozell takes the voice of a raven, bragging to Edgar Allan Poe, “No other creature has the guts to go where we go. Climbers on Denali try to hide their food from us at 17,000-foot high camp, but it doesn’t work. We wait until they throw a bit of snow over their food and stagger away. Then we dig it up and poke away. Easy money.” It’s an experimental piece that works nicely, capturing the humor and pathos that are so much a part of our relationship with ravens.

Each of these essays is illustrated with a drawing of the feature creature by Alaska-born artist Natalie Ott Schuldt that closely matches Rozell’s writing style: a few lines that appear simple at first glance, but that contain multitudes of details when closely examined. This is science writing at its best. We Alaskans are quite fortunate to have Ned Rozell bringing us our world.


Freelance writer David A. James lives in Fairbanks.

2 comments:

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