Chesapeake Requiem - Earl Swift

Staff Pick

The Chesapeake’s Tangier Island has been sinking due to storms and the natural action of the sea since records have been kept, but climate change has rapidly accelerated the process. It will be uninhabitable in twenty-five to fifty years; with a population of roughly 700, and with decreasing stock of the crabs and oysters that support the community, is it worth the billion-plus dollars it would take to save it? And just what would we lose if the place disappears? Swift’s detailed profile of a year among the people who may become “America’s first climate change refugees” makes the question infinitely complicated. Whether eulogy or celebration, however, the book is a fascinating and often beautiful look at a unique way of life. Swift chronicles the human and natural history, highlighting landmark moments—many involving storms—from the eight or more generations of families that have lived there, describes the life cycle of the region’s distinctive blue crabs, and follows the watermen as they set and check their pots. He revels in the unusual, almost cockney English that flourishes on this isolated dot of land and undertakes the more difficult process of uncritically conveying the rigid evangelicalism that causes the islanders to trust in divine providence, reject science, and look to Trump to appreciate their “patriotism, reverence, …[and] strong work ethic” and reinforce their shoreline. Though Trump is sympathetic, it’s likely the ocean will rise faster than the bureaucratic wheels can turn, and even a state-of-the-art seawall won't keep out the rising ocean forever.

Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island By Earl Swift Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062661395
Availability: Not On Our Shelves—Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Mariner Books - August 7th, 2018

The World in a Grain - Vince Beiser

Staff Pick

In this book full of surprises, the main two are that sand is fascinating—and frightening. The fascinating part starts with how it’s formed. Sand is simply “loose grains of any hard material” within a given diameter; that is, about the width of a human hair. The material—seashells, coral, lava, stone, but mostly quartz—is broken down over millions of years by wind and/or water. Some sand is round, some angular. Some is almost pure and transparent, some is mixed with other elements and tinted. Beach sand isn’t the same as desert sand or riverbed sand, and each has its different uses. Mined, graded, and cleaned, sand is turned into everything from bridges and roads to skyscrapers, bottles, and iPhones—both the screen and the internal hardware. People have been using sand in construction since at least 7000 BC and in glass from the days of ancient Rome. In the Digital Age, sand—the purest silica sand—is in demand for both computer chips and fracking. Beiser’s capsule summaries of the histories of these industries are full of “wow” moments, not least of which is the almost incredible statistics: over the last century we’ve poured some 1.5 billion tons of sand and gravel into U.S. highways and today the country produces a billion tons of sand/gravel annually. Meanwhile, the rest of the world, too, is paving and building with concrete and relying on silicon chips. This is where the story of sand gets scary. World use of sand has intensified sand mining, legal and not; sparked sand disputes; caused environmental degradation that ranges from killing coral reefs to exacerbating floods (such as Houston’s after Hurricane Harvey) to drying up or polluting aquifers. Extracting sand to build more land in Singapore has “completely obliterated at least two dozen Indonesian islands since 2005,” and the cement industry is one of the world’s leading producers of greenhouse gases.  Aside from desert sand, which doesn’t lend itself well to modern uses, sand, like oil, is running out, though our need for it is only increasing—concrete may seem solid and permanent, but most concrete structures have a lifespan of about fifty years.

The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization By Vince Beiser Cover Image
ISBN: 9780399576423
Availability: Special Order—Subject to Availability
Published: Riverhead Books - August 7th, 2018

Spying on Whales - Nick Pyenson

Staff Pick

Pyenson is a paleontologist and “reading whale bones is what I do,” he modestly says. “Their bones all tell stories…about where whales came from.” Translated into human language, these tales are full of superlatives: whales outweigh dinosaurs and are the largest creatures ever to have lived on Earth; their fabled songs, which can travel some 900 miles underwater, are “the most acoustically powerful sound made by any organism.” These stories are fascinating for what we know—whales descended from four-legged land-dwelling animals the size of a dog —and what we don’t: when and how did they develop their tremendous sizes? What’s to stop them from getting still larger? Having survived the devastating toll of 19th and 20th-century whaling, can they adapt to climate change? Pyenson takes us through the Smithsonian’s collection of fossil mammals, the largest in the world, with attendant lessons on whale anatomy, feeding habits, migratory range, and the many mysteries particular to the different species of whales, as well as on field trips to Panama, Alaska, the Hvalfjörður whaling station west of Iceland, and the amazing Cerro Ballena site in the Atacama region of Chile. There he helped excavate four different layers of whale skeletons that research showed had been laid down in different episodes thousands of years apart during the Miocene. It was an unprecedented find, and Pyenson mines it for information about the past, present, and future of whales. But there’s only so much we can learn from bones. So far, “no one has ever recorded the beating heart of a wild whale,” Pyenson notes. May he be the first.

Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures By Nick Pyenson Cover Image
ISBN: 9780735224568
Availability: Special Order—Subject to Availability
Published: Viking - June 26th, 2018