Since discovering in college that “traveling…assuaged something in me,” Lopez has gone all over the world; in his extraordinary memoir he revisits places that have meant the most to him in North and South America, Africa, Australia, and both poles. This is not merely travel writing. As he’s done in previous work, notably his classic Arctic Dreams, Lopez not only writes brilliantly about the natural world, he also reflects on what life really means in particular locales. He considers everything from an anthropological perspective, asking how the earliest native peoples might have experienced their land, sky, and sea, then struggles to do likewise. He combines his insatiable curiosity—which ranges to retracing the paths of Captain Cook and other explorers to joining the Leakeys’ excavations in Africa to helping collect meteorites in Antarctica—with a profoundly moral sensibility, looking to ancient cultures for answers to today’s greatest challenges, especially climate change, violence, and human rights. He deeply believes that the answers are there, and that if we can listen carefully enough to our own and the planet’s past, we can rediscover what the elders of traditional cultures knew: “the wisdom of what works.” If this sounds naïve or superficial, read this book. All Lopez’s ideas are grounded in specific places, and his descriptions of these deserts, seas, jungles, and coasts—and especially his near-mystical experiences while watching flamingos on the Galápagos and penguins on the Ross Ice Shelf--are heartstoppingly lucid and beautiful, and there’s no better definition of truth than that.
Like a massive trove of fossils, each skeleton with dozens of stories to tell, this phenomenal book is at once natural history and a history of paleontology; it’s a biography of fossil hunters from 1841—when Sir Richard Owen coined the word “dinosaur,” meaning “terrible lizard”—to today, when successful amateur hunters risk becoming felons; it’s an overview of women paleontologists, with fascinating profiles of Mary Anning, who began collecting and selling Jurassic fossils in Lyme Regis when she was a teenager, and Bolor Minjin, a Mongolian scientist who founded the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs and initiated science education programs for children in Mongolia; it’s a true crime story about the international smuggling of Mongolian fossils and the Mongolian government’s efforts to repatriate them; and, finally, it’s an authoritative presentation of the complex questions of natural history relics and who has the right to them. Williams, a vivid and energetic writer, organizes all this material around the story of Eric Prokopi, a Florida fossil hunter and dealer. Prokopi’s career coincided with discoveries like that of Tyrannosaurus Sue, a South Dakota skeleton that sold for $8.36 million in 1992. As “fossils became money,” scientists grew concerned that specimens crucial to research would disappear into private collections. Though efforts to restrict private ownership of fossils has been slow in the U.S., Mongolia passed strict laws prohibiting export of bones found within its borders. These laws caught up with Prokopi just as he’d prepared a rare Tyrannosaurus bataar—related to the T. rex—for auction in 2012. It would have sold for a million dollars, but the lot had originated in the Gobi Desert. The sale was cancelled, Prokopi was tried and convicted of smuggling, and the bones went back to their home. Williams presents the competing claims so compellingly that you root for both sides.
I myself am squarely in the camp of people who probably don't need to buy another book about trees as long as I live, but whether you're in that camp with me, or could stand to learn the first thing about distinguishing an oak from a maple, Around the World in 80 Trees is exceptional in every sense of the word. Divided by continent, you’ll find a fascinating introduction to each species accompanied by in situ watercolor illustrations as captivating as any children’s picture book, as scientifically attentive as any field guide.