WALDEN WARMING BY RICHARD B. PRIMACK
My friend, K. L Allendoerfer writes brilliant book reviews as I’m sure you will agree after you read her analysis of Walden Warming.
Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods by Richard B. Primack My rating: 4 of 5 stars The best part of this book is its founding idea.
The author Richard Primack, a professor of Biology at Boston University, compared the information in Henry David Thoreau’s journals with his own modern-day research to understand and measure how the climate and the plant and animal species of the area around Walden Pond in Concord MA have changed over the past 150 years.
As an intermittent journal keeper, walker, biologist, and sometime admirer of Thoreau, I find that this research represents a kind of interdisciplinary, far-ranging, life of the mind that I have always admired. Primack’s work is an eloquent testimony to the best of Massachusetts where I lived for 17 years: its beauty, its history, its eccentricity, and its crazy weather.
The book itself, however, is a little scholarly, dry and understated. Its cover is a simple print–an artist’s conception of Thoreau’s cottage–and a few scientifically accurate black and white photographs adorn its pages. The writing is more lively and engaging than most scientific papers I’ve read, but it is also so detailed and thorough that it is unlikely the casual reader will persevere through the entire book. Trees, wildflowers, pond ice, weeds, migratory birds, bees, butterflies, fish, mosquitoes, amphibians, salamanders, and marathon runners all get their pages, sometimes entire chapters. I stopped reading myself a couple of times and might not have finished if I hadn’t been planning on writing this review.
By sifting through so much data, Primack and his team are able to conclude that the area around Boston, including Concord, is warming, and that this warming has consequences for the species that live there. The main conclusion is, in fact, that it is good for species to be flexible. The more flexible a species can be, the more likely it is to thrive. Primack is also conscientious enough to point out that the majority (about 2/3) of the warming since the 1850s that he currently observes in the Boston area is due to an “urban heat island effect”—the absorption of sunlight by dark paved surfaces such as roads, parking lots, and buildings—and only 1/3 is due to general global warming. His work, therefore uses Concord area warming as a model for what could happen all over the earth when temperatures rise.
The book derives a great deal of its interest from Primack’s own story. His personal anecdotes about his wife’s fishing knowledge acquired while growing up in Malaysian Borneo, or with his children helping spotted salamanders across a golf course parking lot to their mating grounds, or running the Boston marathon as a true amateur in 1970, give the book a narrative structure and the lay reader a break from all the technical terminology. Perhaps unwittingly, the narrative also provides a birds-eye view of how a scientific career might be structured in the modern era. Primack devotes significant effort to explaining how and why he chose the research directions he did and the obstacles he had to overcome to acquire data on various species in the first place. The reader is also party to the messiness inherent in drawing firm conclusions from data acquired in the field over many years. read more…
About the Author Richard Primack
About K. L. Allendoerfer
K. L. Allendoerfer is a neuroscientist, educator, geocacher, Unitarian-Universalist, an amateur violinist, and parent. She has always been fascinated by how people’s brains learn, and especially why this process is easier and more fun for some brains than others. This led her to get a Ph.D. in Neuroscience, work in biotech, and then become a science educator and writer.