A New Way to Look at the Natural World

A defamiliarizing eclipse, a sunbathing cormorant, trees that sing, and more: Your weekly guide to the best in books

A path through trees illuminated by the sun
Athul Prasad / Gallery Stock

For the natural-history writer David George Haskell, a mere sound is enough to identify a tree. Each has a different song—a tune that evolves with the seasons. Now we’re in the moment when, as he put it to my colleague Ed Yong in 2016, you can listen as the “soft leaves of early spring change into the dying ones of autumn.” During this time of year, the natural world seems to call for our attention—a call that Haskell heeds in his books The Songs of Trees and The Forest Unseen.

Such works encourage us to pay attention to all that’s around us—and transport us to wonders in other corners of the Earth. Take Annie Dillard’s meticulous account of watching a total eclipse in Washington, which renders the event as something both strange and powerful. Or the ornithologist Alvaro Jaramillo’s field guide, Birds of Chile, which chronicles the country’s flying creatures: lumbering pelicans, soaring albatrosses, even small storm petrels, which fly so close to the water that they seem to be walking on it. The poet Tiana Clark devotes an even deeper focus on a cormorant, “with its waterlogged wings spread open, / drying off on a rock in the middle / of a man-made lake.” Clark’s work also captures the ephemerality of such observations, as the bird suddenly disappears.

Viewing such loveliness, one can wonder how flora and fauna come to be so beautiful. There are many theories, and in the book The Evolution of Beauty, the author and ornithologist Richard Prum delves into one: the “Beauty Happens hypothesis.” He goes against the line of scientific thinking that all traits evolve to give a species a clear adaptive benefit and instead embraces the idea that animals have their own aesthetic preferences. In Prum’s argument, animals evolve so that they might find themselves beautiful too.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading


Abrget47j / Wikimedia Commons

Trees have their own songs

“This acoustic world is open to everyone, but most of us never enter it.”

A total solar eclipse in Svalbard, Longyearbyen, Norway, on March 20, 2015

A total solar eclipse in Svalbard, Longyearbyen, Norway, on March 20, 2015 (Jon Olav Nesvold / Stringer / Getty)

Annie Dillard’s classic essay: ‘Total Eclipse’

“From all the hills came screams. A piece of sky beside the crescent sun was detaching. It was a loosened circle of evening sky, suddenly lighted from the back. It was an abrupt black body out of nowhere; it was a flat disk; it was almost over the sun.”

illustration of a bird

Sarah Gilman

South America’s otherworldly seabird

“[The ringed storm petrel] rarely appears less than 30 miles from shore, and ranges 300 miles farther out, where gossamer flying fish launch from wave faces like butterflies and the seafloor plunges thousands of feet.”

illustration of a bird

Yoshinori Mizutani

A poem for Sunday

“It makes me think about wonder / and it makes me want to pry and stretch / my shy arms open to the subtle summer / wind slicing through the park”

The araripe manakin

Wikimedia Commons

How beauty evolves

“Songs and ornaments and dances evolve not because they signal good genes but because animals just like them. They’re not objectively informative; they’re subjectively pleasing. Beauty, in other words, just happens.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she just finished is The Sweet Spot by Paul Bloom.

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