April 9th, 2012 | Meera

Hello there. It’s been a little while since I’ve talked with you, but part of that is because of the news I’d like to share today.

Some of you may remember that last year I started a Kickstarter project to help me publish a little book about my time as a volunteer in Sweden at Lake Ånnsjön Bird Observatory. That book is finally finished. It ended up being called Mountainfit, and it bears an unbelievably lovely Diana Sudyka-designed cover.

I created a very limited print run for Kickstarter backers and the observatory; otherwise the book only exists in digital form.

I’ve made the ebook available for purchase directly through this website. $5 will let you download a copy in three formats: ePUB, MOBI, and PDF. And it will present you with a collection of short essays—some as brief as a page and some as long as sixteen—about birds, science, myth, and the mountains of Sweden.

Female Great Snipe

This is Raymond Klaassen with a Great Snipe, a bird about which I say quite a lot in the book.

I am a poor saleswoman, but if you’re a Science Essayist reader or you follow my Tumblr project 366 Days of Words in Science,* you probably already have a pretty good sense of whether you’ll like this book or not.

I did decide that while I was telling you about it here, I’d also include the table of contents from Mountainfit, because I know that when I pick up a strange book in the library or a bookstore, chapter titles are often a good way of getting a little peek into its style and content.

Here is the Mountainfit TOC:

the trapeze artist, the cuckoo, and me
claim your area
field notes from a lost lek
the idea of joy
the language of the birds
where the kría swarm
the werewolf possibility
to see a hooded crow with its cowl thrown over its head
the world’s sweetest double-cross
things often heard
different ways of agreeing and disagreeing
seasonal plumage
a good lemming year
being king solomon
the gyr is a gyr
the vagrant in sweden
appendix: an incomplete list of birds that have appeared in this book, along with ways of naming them
about, etc.
selected references

I think that’s it! You can buy a copy of Mountainfit here. And as is always, always true, I thank you so much for reading.

*Since January 1, 2012, I’ve been keeping a daily word-diary at 366 Days of Words in Science. Each post contains the definition of a scientific word, a photograph I took that day, and a tiny piece of something else: something personal, usually. So far it’s been incredibly fun for me to work on, although it’s true that every night after dinner I groan theatrically and say to Ross, “AGH, I haven’t found a word yet.” So far, there are 99 words in the series. I’ll stop when I get to 366—which will probably be in the middle of March, 2013, because I’m taking a break from electricity this summer to volunteer with the Fish and Wildlife Service in western Alaska.

Rosemary Is a Strange Thing

February 5th, 2012 | Meera

Rosemary is a strange thing. Who else would store perfume inside a needle? A strange thing, Rosemary. You cannot take her measure just by looking. Inside just one green spine resides a piney forest, all entire.

Rosemary booms in the dry and the rocky, grows moldy and limp if life gets too easy. Rosemary doesn’t want tending by you or by anyone.

Find her in the desert, where more tender things die. Let her drink only what blows in off the salty sea winds.


The Tonic of a Northern Goshawk

January 17th, 2012 | Meera

I’m leaving Chicago tomorrow to attend Science Online 2012, a small but by all accounts raucous conference that brings together scientists, science writers, and science lovers for a three-day conversation about ways to communicate science in this age we call (rather quaintly) digital.

I feel about this sort of the way you might feel about going bungee jumping: I think it’s going to be fun, but first I need someone to throw my butt off the mountain. As it happens, the person who threw my butt off the mountain was Meera-of-two-months-ago, who registered late one night while she was alone in the house, in a sort of haze of reckless abandon.

At any rate, since I’m going to miss my regular Thursday at the bird lab, I went in today to make up for it—and Dave, who has of late been almost as excited about giving me new species as I am about preparing them—had put out something wonderful for me to work on. It was thawing under a lamp when I walked in, all streaky and soft and pantalooned and raptor-y. It had a long tail, broad, pointed wings, and a beautiful curled bill. It was a Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis), a bird I had never seen before either in life or death, and it was breathtaking.

According to the data associated with the bird, it had been picked up on October 12th of last year in Duluth, Minnesota; no other information about its condition or circumstances was available. But I couldn’t see any signs of injury as I prepared it, and it was very thin. Dave thought it might have starved to death; an ill-fitting end for a fierce and clever hunter. Almost every description you read of the Goshawk will tell you that it is such a potent symbol of ferocity that Attila the Hun had its image emblazoned on his helmet: a story that goes back at least to the days of the 16th-century Italian naturalist Aldrovandus.)

I knew the Gos was a bird to admire as soon as I discovered that although it mostly eats grouse, songbirds, and small mammals like rabbits and squirrels, it is also one of only a few birds of prey that will go after corvids like rooks and crows. Corvids are notoriously ingenious, aggressive, and apt to harass falcons, hawks, and owls in great black mobs. In my book, any bird that regularly chooses and vanquishes such a target must have a fine heart, a quick eye, and sharp talons.

As I was skinning, some friends from the Division of Fishes stopped by to make their rounds through the beetle room. One of them, Kevin, is a birder, and he always likes to talk about whatever I happen to be working on when he arrives. Today he told me about once being swarmed by a pair of angry Goshawk protecting their nest, and the eerie sound they made. I’ve since listened to a Goshawk’s alarm call, and it’s a gorgeously harsh, high-pitched wail that’s almost gull-like. I can imagine being startled by it in the middle of a midwestern forest.

T.H. White, whom I otherwise know only from a rapt childhood reading of The Once and Future King and The Sword in the Stone, once owned a young male of the species. He wrote a 200-page book—or, from the few excerpts I’ve read so far, something more like a 200-page love letter to a difficult, complicated and extraordinary friend—about his relationship with the bird. I leave you with his assessment of what it is to find oneself in such a kinship:

The thing about being associated with a hawk is that one cannot be slipshod about it. No hawk can be a pet. There is no sentimentality. In a way, it is the psychiatrist’s art. One is matching one’s mind against another mind with deadly reason and interest. One desires no transference of affection, demands no ignoble homage or gratitude. It is a tonic for the less forthright savagery of the human heart.

The thing about honorably preparing the fallen body of a hawk for scientific study is also that one cannot be slipshod about it. And I don’t think I was.

Northern Goshawk