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Tracks and Shadows: Field Biology as Art [Hardcover]

Harry Greene

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Book Description

4 Oct 2013
Intellectually rich, intensely personal, and beautifully written, Tracks and Shadows is both an absorbing autobiography of a celebrated field biologist and a celebration of beauty in nature. Harry W. Greene, award-winning author of Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature delves into the poetry of field biology, showing how nature eases our existential quandaries. More than a memoir, the book is about the wonder of snakes, the beauty of studying and understanding natural history, and the importance of sharing the love of nature with humanity. Greene begins with his youthful curiosity about the natural world and moves to his stints as a mortician's assistant, ambulance driver, and army medic. In detailing his academic career, he describes how his work led him to believe that nature's most profound lessons lurk in hard-won details. He discusses the nuts and bolts of field research and teaching, contrasts the emotional impact of hot dry habitats with hot wet ones, imparts the basics of snake biology, and introduces the great explorers Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. He reflects on friendship and happiness, tackles notions like anthropomorphism and wilderness, and argues that organisms remain the core of biology, science plays key roles in conservation, and natural history offers an enlightened form of contentment.


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Review

"Achingly beautiful... Greene succeeds in illuminating the world as a place of beauty, harmony, and danger, deeply interconnected and worthy of cherishing and preserving." Starred Review. Publishers Weekly 20130819 "This scientist has a poet's heart... Tracks and Shadows is a sweet surprise; rarely has science been so tender." Booklist 20131101 "As beautiful and nuanced as the landscapes it evokes." The Scientist 20131115 "What a pleasure it is to read these meditations on a 'personal quest for wildness.' ... What makes this book so rich is [the author's] gift with language along with his thoughtful appreciation of what it means to study nature and to travel, if ever so briefly, on a living planet." -- Laurence A. Marschall Natural History 20140301 "As packed with people and drama as a novel." -- Stuart Pimm Nature 20131024 "Greene engages readers from beginning to end... The book leaves us with questions to ponder but also with inspiration to indulge our curiosity for nature." -- Frances Bonier Science 20131213 "Fiercely honest and fascinating." -- Jules Pretty Times Higher Education 20131024 "Greene has created a rare bridge between [artists and scientists] and told us what it feels like to be a deeply sensitive research scientist, working in a world where the ecosystems are falling to bits around us." -- Rick Shine Current Biology 20131108 "[Reminds] us that appreciation of the natural world is important to us as individuals and collectively." -- Hollis Walker Santa Fe New Mexican 20140214 "No one reading this paean for a respect of the outdoors and its inhabitants could fail to be enthused." International Journal of Environmental Studies 20140321 "Harry Greene's exuberance for life infuses this scien- tific autobiography, which overflows with his passion for herpetology, the wild places that his beloved reptiles inhabit, and very human friendships." Conservation Biology 20140401

About the Author

Harry W. Greene is the Stephen Weiss Presidential Fellow and Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University and a recipient of the E.O. Wilson Award from the American Society of Naturalists. His book Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature (UC Press), won a PEN Literary Award and was a New York Times Notable Book.

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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  21 reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great spokesman for organismal science 4 Nov 2013
By W. Parker - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
There are and have been many professional biologists who have specialized in studying the lives of amphibians and reptiles. Yet few of them have chosen to write memoirs of their lives and professional activities and priorities. Such memoirs in recent years have included those by Altig, Crump, Gibbons, Means, and Pianka, among others. Here, Harry Greene joins this group with an articulate and thoughtful memoir written as he nears 70 years of age after a lifetime of extremely diverse experiences, major accomplishments in his field, mentoring his own students, and associating with his own mentors. None of the latter have written their own memoirs but Greene makes up for this in recounting in detail the lives of expertise and devotion to their work by Henry Fitch, William Pyburn, and Gordon Burghardt. Fitch particularly was a mentor and icon to many of us in this field either directly in person or indirectly through his many publications on field studies of reptiles and other vertebrates, and it was extremely gratifying for me to read here about the breadth of his long career.
Greene modestly describes his early life including his initial scientific publications while still in high school, his disastrous attempts to pass courses when he started college, and his rapid maturation with life as an emergency medic dealing with peoples' serious and fatal injuries. He was drafted in the late 1960s and his ambulance experience enabled him to become an Army medic, luckily stationed in Europe for two years where he was able to search out reptiles, do research at museums, and broaden his overall horizons.
As we follow his career as a faculty member at UC Berkeley and Cornell University, Greene describes his field trips with students to diverse environments ranging from deserts of California to rain forests of Costa Rica. Subsequent chapters describe his pursuit of giant snakes in South America and Africa and a long-term study of rattlesnakes in Arizona. Snakes, spouses, mentors, and good friends and colleagues are recurrent themes throughout. Most personal anecdotes are interesting and serve mainly as ways to personalize the narrative.
I found a chapter on hunting deer and wild hogs to be less interesting, although that may be more because I have never been a hunter. This chapter seemed only tenuously connected to the major themes of conservation, evolution, and snake behavior and ecology.
Greene's work eloquently describes the joy and wonder and devotion that many of us in this field have had the good fortune to enjoy during our lives - the contact with iconic mentors, colleagues, and students, the field work on amazing animals, and the satisfaction of publication and recognition often shared with significant others.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Natural Selection 16 Dec 2013
By Susan Flett Swiderski - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
"We will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught." [Sengalese environmentalist BABA DIOUM]

That quote, as cited in this book's final chapter, admirably sums up one of the primary driving forces behind Greene's career as a herpetologist and professor. He readily admits that society as a whole doesn't naturally experience warm fuzzy feelings when it comes to snakes. Matter of fact, gut reactions usually lean more towards... gutting them. But that doesn't mean conservation efforts should only be extended to cute cuddly critters, does it? Shouldn't society be guided by a desire to preserve nature's diversity... in all its forms? Through decades dedicated to field and lab studies, learning about nature, and subsequently teaching others, Greene has attempted to remove the shroud of fear and mystery surrounding snakes, and to replace it with understanding. With education comes appreciation.

This book's largest target audience is probably found among academic and scientific professionals. Those who are already familiar with the scientists and educators discussed within its pages can nod their heads together in agreement, and can chuckle at the inside jokes and anecdotes. But that doesn't mean others can't enjoy it, too. Anyone who's in love with nature... and isn't that most of us?... should enjoy the vivid descriptions of places most of us will never visit, and animals most of us will never encounter in the wild. My favorites? The rainforest, followed closely by the desert. It isn't likely that I'll ever see either of those places in person, but I almost feel as though I've been there now. I almost feel as though that giant green anaconda slipped through MY hands.

How would I characterize this book? Part text book, part autobiography, part poetic prose. Did I like it? Yes. Do i now love snakes? Um, no... but I DO have a better understanding and appreciation for them. And I'd say that's exactly what the author was trying to accomplish. For me, this book was a ... natural selection.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Humanity and Nature 13 Oct 2013
By J. R. Mendelson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Harry Greene, a life-long advocate for nature and leading research herpetologist, has written an amazing book here. Some, but certainly not all, of us who study nature understand that humans are part of nature and that there is a, well, peculiar "human" element to being human. This book interweaves, often with bold personal confessions, how Harry Greene moved forward with his state-of-the-art biological studies, always keenly aware of his own human-ness and the omnipresent perspective that simply being a living human brought to his research. All biologists study life from the inevitable perspective of being alive themselves, but I've never seen any of my colleagues address that unique intersection of subjective and objective perspectives as has been done here. This book is perhaps more about being a human being as it is about nature or herpetology. Highly recommended.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliantly Written 15 Sep 2013
By Book Reader - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Captivating and insightful, Greene intertwines four narratives: What it's like to conduct field research, an autobiography of a renowned but little-known herpetologist, the science of biodiversity, and his own autobiography. While doing so, we visit sites far and wide--the Mojave Desert to Uganda--meet all manner of creatures, human and otherwise, and follow the trials and tribulations of a life extraordinarily well-lived. The juxtapositions can be surprising--you never know what's coming next--and it works beautifully, helped by writing that is nearly poetic. This is a must-read for anyone who conducts field research, who knows someone who does, or who thinks deeply about biodiversity, where it comes from and what we'll need to do to maintain it.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars What's the purpose...? 18 Aug 2014
By J. Hays - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Everyone raved to me about this book, so I purchased it. Unlike many here, although the information is well-written and easily appreciated by field biologists, I find this book to be more of a eulogy for traditional field biology (especially in the area of floristic botany, for example) in North America rather than praising it.

I've been a "professional" field biologist for 22 years now, that is, I've been paid to conduct such work. Someone once said that there are two types of field biologists, one who goes in the field to conduct biology and those who study biology to be in the field; I certainly fall into the latter category, as does the author - that much is very clear. I can certainly relate to his stories, notions of nature, and beliefs in regard to the importance of field biology.

However, this book is inline with many of E.O. Wilson's writings, as well of those of John Janavoy's "On Becoming A Biologist," etc. I can relate to his stories very well,, but too well and too easily for the book to offer me a great deal of insight as to how humans can best face a growing environmental crisis on Earth. I don't need to be "transported" as one reviewer commented, nor do I need a philosophical primer to understand what I study - years of formal study and practice along with long-held beliefs that echo a reverence for life, as Albert Schwetizer would say, have molded my approach to nature. To that end, one wonders what the purpose of this book is?

I understand his purpose, but wonder how one more book - that is really best-understood by an esoteric audience - will somehow enhance our understanding of our role on this planet.

This is just a practical, honest review from me, and I readily acknowledge his writing ability and story telling...it's just another unsettling reminder of what I recognize every day, everywhere I go.
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