Threads from the Web of Life
Stories in Natural History
Publication Year: 2006
Published by: Vanderbilt University Press
Table of Contents
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Students of the history of the earth and the life upon it are natural storytellers. One of them may pick up a pebble from the trailside and describe its origin starting from the fires inside a dying star—where oxygen and silicon are produced by the fusion of helium atoms, then thrown into space, eventually coalescing into the rocks that form new planets. Another...
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When I was given the opportunity to illustrate Stephen’s wonderful stories, I was excited on many levels. I was, of course, intrigued with the possibility of working with my brother on a project that would enhance our similarities as well as our differences (and there are plenty of both). And I also loved the subject, because, as Steve is a scientist...
1. Strands from the Ocean
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Stories in the Sand
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The coral heads pack the reef like a field of boulders between which no level ground shows. Every niche is filled—shelves of coral extend from the reef’s outer walls, branching fan corals rise from the gaps between crowns of cauliflower corals and skull corals, one growing on another. In the continual competition for space, the faster-growing corals bury the slower beneath them, eventually compressing their forbears into limestone,...
The Neon Flying Squid Vanish
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The first stars come out early over the Tasman Sea, with the last vestiges of sunset still pooled on the rim of the western horizon. No landforms rise in low silhouette behind that sharp skyline, no land-borne dusts and hazes dim these skies. So as the low swells flatten to a glassy mirror, the constellations are soon reflected in undiminished...
The Calm Beyond the Surf
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The morning sun pulls away from the bluff above Shelter Cove, whitening the shore-break, chasing the shade from the beach, sharpening the distant edge of the Pacific horizon. The breeze comes to life, but the water just behind the surf remains unusually flat and calm, and slow to brighten. A patch of nighttime’s darkness refuses to disperse there—a firm shadow...
2. Tendrils in the Forest
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The Living Wood
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What is it in the twilight that brings the air alive? Why is a walk down the earlier afternoon’s path so different when the day is fading? As the hush of evening falls over the hollows on either side, our senses heighten, straining to fill in what is lost to sight. The color drains from the flowers, now folding up against the darkness; the stream begins to shimmer with rippled beads of reflected moonlight. The butterflies...
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Autumn’s chill brought the fat yearling mice their first taste of famine. The early rains softened the remaining grain, and hunger grew. Yet, as twilight gave way to moonlight, a trio of these yearlings emerged from the shadows to a welcome surprise. Hundreds of eager noses had already scouted every niche in the moldering forest floor, devouring the fall’s...
The Secret of the Cenot
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Despite the rain forest setting, the days can be hot and dry here in the Yucatan. The tropical rains do not linger in ponds and streams but percolate straight down through fractures in the limestone basement rock and disappear. No rivers cut misty canyons in the forested plain—the rivers are hidden, flowing underground beyond the reach of roots descending from above. The soil will not...
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The owl was wasting her energy, following a circular course through the forest. She was neither flying off to the hunting grounds nor returning to feed her young—all she was doing was avoiding them. She was far enough away that she could not see the standing snag, the tree that held her nest, silhouetted against the night. Her three owlets stared at the vacant entrance hole above them, never considering that they might...
Wolves in Sheep's Clothing
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The northeasterly sea breeze descends from the Coral Sea, cooling the coastal plains of Queensland. A medley of creaks and groans tunes up in the canopy of the eucalyptus forest, punctuated by the falling clatter of curled sheets of bark. The breeze lessens as it penetrates the understory; closer to the ground the air remains calm and hot, heavy...
3. Lines of Migration
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Trailrunner: The Opening of Sister Falls Lake
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Trailrunner, a theropod dinosaur, stood erect—a meter tall—and stalked the forest trails walking on his hind legs like a bird. He was one with his domain—the broken rhythm of his gait matched the sway of the ferns in the breeze, the sighs of the foliage he brushed aside blended with the constant pulsations of the great river in the background. He was an insectivore but ate what he could catch, including other...
Sea Green: The Broadening of Sister Falls Lake
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There was a time when the turtle could swim over to the nesting grounds beneath the eastern cliffs of Sister Falls Lake in just a few hours. Those were the days when her tribe had first swum in through the narrow opening on the sea to the north and colonized the lake. They had settled in feeding grounds nourished by the waterfall above the western shore. Sister Falls Lake was a vast finger lake then, unknowably...
Set in Motion
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The tern awoke with a start. She had nearly been asleep, gliding reflexively, buoyed along for the last two days on a rising maritime air mass nearly a thousand miles long. She had been drawn to the coolness at the top of the layer and had stayed with it as it rose. But now the chalk-blue sky had added high humidity to its chill, turning her comfortable morning...
Living on the Edge of Springtime
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The Aztec Hummingbirds spend their lives confined behind an impassable boundary. It is not an obvious feature of the terrain—a bottomless canyon or the margin of a wide desert or the treeline drawn across the top of a mountain range. Nor is it a virtual grid of longitude and latitude lines or isolines of elevation like those that circumscribe topo maps. The hummers cross all of those with ease. The boundary that restrains the hummingbirds is not fixed but moves freely before them...
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The vaulted arches of the cathedral rain forest now begin to sway. An east wind has been increasing throughout the afternoon, raising a steady chorus of creeks and groans in the hardwood scaffolds. Soon the gusts have strengthened into a continuous surf through the leaves, and the clatter of branches raking against each other grows. Night comes early, the daylight extinguished by darkening layers of stratus...
4. Perspective of the Eyewitness
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Sighting in the Desert
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Area 51 is an alien landscape of black volcanic craters and mountain ranges riding above dust devil flats and sand dunes. The area, north of Las Vegas, is a military reserve. It is sparsely patrolled by the U.S. Air Force, but if you wander far enough to get lost, they will never find you in time. Even as you keep to the mid-morning shade north of the rocks, you can feel your vitality beginning to evaporate through your skin...
Silversword: Flowers of the Sun
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John Muir came to the Sierra Nevada in the 1870s to document the natural heritage of the region and to preach conservation. He was alone with his thoughts and his visions for preservation of the wilderness for weeks at a time while he broke trails through the mountains, cataloging the flora and fauna. Muir was brought up in Victorian Scotland in the strict Calvinist tradition. He worked to understand the...
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The vibrancy of the equatorial rain forest depends upon webs of interconnection between the animals and the plants, the soils and the air. But these connections cannot be seen. They ebb and flow with rhythms much different from your own daily cycle. The nutrient cycles, the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle; climate cycles of drought or cold; cycles of beetle outbreaks or plagues of ants or fungal wilt cannot be understood...
Follow the Threads Deeper
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Suggested Readings in Natural History
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Page Count: 176
Publication Year: 2006