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Bringing Back the Dodo: Lessons in Natural and Unnatural History

by Wayne Grady

The dodo bird is symbolic of humanity’s often indiscriminate domination over nature. Then along come disasters like the tsunami of 2004 and Hurricane Katrina to remind us that domination can go both ways. It is the continuous tension between humans and nature that is at the heart of this eclectic, thoughtful collection of 15 columns – at 2,500 words apiece, they are really essays – that originally appeared in explore magazine. The essays have now been updated and expanded for the edification of amateur naturalists everywhere. With more of us living in cities all the time, the book is a timely discussion of how we relate – or don’t relate – to the wilderness around us.

Grady’s prose is engaging and provides not only a natural history primer for readers but a devoutly humanist and literary approach that incorporates quotes and thoughts from, among others, Henry David Thoreau, V.S. Pritchett, Chaucer, Bill Bryson, Seamus Heaney, Margaret Atwood, Galileo, and Aristotle. Resembling an English course as much as a natural history one, the book is much needed in both disciplines.

Grady is concerned here with our adaptation to nature, as well as our efforts to control it, and the often harmful and occasionally disastrous effects on humans, animals, and Earth. Neither treehugger nor free-market zealot, Grady touches on everything from the pleasures of walking to the evolution of humans from nocturnal to diurnal creatures. Grady smartly connects the disparate dots we read about in the news (global warming and disease, to name two big ones), giving readers an elegant jumping-off point for more research. He answers plenty of questions here, but raises and asks many more.

And it behooves our species to seek out answers, since problems like SARS, the West Nile virus, and Asian longhorned beetles can be seen as “the flip side of globalization: in a warming world in which everyone wears the same T-shirt and drinks the same cola, it is inevitable that we will also share the same diseases.” – Stephen Knight, a Toronto-based writer and editor.