Notes on Nature

Three natural history titles look at California's relationship with water, beekeeping, and nature close to home.

redstarArax, Mark. The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California. Knopf. May 2019. 576p. ISBN 9781101875209. $30; ebk. ISBN 9781101875216. NAT HIST
Water and dust, city and farmland, drilling and drought and flood. California’s relationship to water is defined by such contradictions and complexities, as evidenced by this brilliant work from Arax ( The King of California). Beginning with Arax’s own family roots in the rich soil of the Central Valley, the book takes readers on a grandiose and troubling journey through the long history of growth, farming, politics, and capitalism that has imperiled the state’s natural water supply, and threatens to devastate the land on which so many lives depend. The resulting tale is noticeably dense at times, but Arax’s combination of research with memoir gives it the necessary lift and motion to make it compelling, brutal, and consistently hard to put down. "We have run out of tricks, or at least the easy ones," writes Arax at one point of the problem. It is a painful honesty for us to confront, which makes the issue all the more important for readers everywhere to consider.
VERDICT A stunning and uncompromising look at California’s man-made water crisis in the context of its complex history of agricultural growth. Highly recommended for those interested in environmental issues and journalistic nonfiction.—Robin Chin Roemer, Univ. of Washington Lib., Seattle

May, Meredith. The Honey Bus: A Memoir of Loss, Courage and a Girl Saved by Bees. Park Row: Harlequin. May 2019. 336p. ISBN 9780778307785. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781488095450. NAT HIST
In her first book, journalist and fifth-generation beekeeper May, winner of the PEN America Literary Award for Journalism and short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize, writes of her childhood, learning about life and bees from her beekeeper grandfather. After her parents’ divorce, five-year-old May, her younger brother, and her mother move from the east coast to her grandparents’ house in California. Once there, her mother abdicates her parental responsibilities, refusing to get out of bed, believing life is treating her unfairly. May’s grandmother enables her daughter and is critical of her grandchildren, seeing them only as an obligation. The one bright spot in this dysfunctional household is May’s grandfather, a beekeeper who shares his love of his charges with the lonely May, who longs for a family. As she learns about bees and their lives, May comes to admire their cooperation, loyalty, hard work, and bravery, taking those lessons with her as she moves forward, attending college and becoming a writer.
VERDICT An engrossing memoir of a sad yet resilient child who was saved by an empathetic grandfather and hives of bees. It will be relished by fans of memoirs and those who enjoy learning the details of bees and beekeeping.—Sue O’Brien, Downers Grove, IL

Renkl, Margaret. Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss. Milkweed. Jul. 2019. 248p. illus. bibliog. ISBN 9781571313782. $24. NAT HIST|
Renkl, a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times , has written a lyrical memoir entwined with the natural history surrounding her childhood home in rural Alabama and her current suburban Nashville residence. In short chapters, the author shares stories along with memories recounted by her family, notably the fire that claimed her grandparents’ home. Included in these anecdotes are tales of births and deaths, coming-of-age and following your dreams, caretaking and the importance of home. As a child, Renkl and her siblings would explore the world around them, and this fascination with nature continues into her adulthood. A keen observer of the natural world she so clearly loves and seeks to understand, Renkl tells of housing bluebird families, raising monarch caterpillars, the sadness of death in nature, and the chipmunks and squirrels with whom she currently shares her home.
VERDICT A captivating, beautifully written story of growing up, love, loss, living, and a close extended family by a talented nature writer and memoirist that will appeal to those who enjoy introspective memoirs and the natural world close to home.—Sue O’Brien, Downers Grove, IL

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