Three delightful new nature books
Three new books offer compelling visions of deserts, mirages, and bees.
The Greek word apophasis comes from phasis, meaning "image" and apo, meaning "beyond." As William Atkins writes in his vigorously involving new book The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places, the term is used to describe “the unknowability of God, and the ineffable character of the divine.”
It's the kind of thinking that comes naturally to people encountering desert places, where human senses are simultaneously sharpened and deadened, and where the sense of self is shorn of surplus and hammered into its hard essentials by the surrounding infinite.
It's thrilling but also ominous, and that dual note of warning and wonder is also scientific reality: Thanks to a combination of radical climate change and wasteful agriculture, the world's deserts are growing, consuming thousands of square miles of arable land every year in a process that feeds on itself. By the end of the 21st century, as much as two-thirds of Earth's land could be desert.
"The Immeasurable World" can be read in this way, as a series of passionate, eloquent dispatches from the hungry sands. Atkins, author of 2014's terrific "The Moor," visits some iconic desert locations for his new book – Oman's Empty Quarter, Australia's Great Victoria Desert, China's Gobi Desert, the great Sonoran Desert in the United States, and so on – and tries to experience them all as directly as possible, raw to the ground, meeting the people and sharing the hardships.
In all cases, he's acutely aware of the long histories of the places he's visiting; “I was beginning to feel,” he writes at one point, “there was no way to travel but in the footsteps of others.” But the principle joy of his book is the immediacy of its portraits; he talks engagingly with all walks of people living in deserts and often fighting for deserts.
Whether or not readers have ever personally experienced any desert regions, they'll feel that immediacy in the pages of "The Immeasurable World."
Most of those readers and all of the people Atkins talks with have likely experienced a curious visual phenomenon that's most often associated with deserts: mirages. These are the subject of Christopher Pinney's fascinating new book The Waterless Sea: A Curious History of Mirages, which traces the illusions of mirages through many eras and cultures and environments.
He starts first with a mercifully lucid explanation of the two kinds of mirages: “inferior” mirages, in which temperature differences and resulting air densities show spectators the images of real objects, only refracted below their level of vision, and “superior” mirages, in which thermal inversion layers refract light upwards, above the level of the actual object.
“The beholder views the world through air whose density, especially in temperate regions, is continually changing,” Pinney writes, and naturally these conditions can be found in almost any climate zone – drivers on long, straight highways have seen as many mirages as trekkers in the deep desert, and all such witnesses can attest to the uncanny persuasive power of these refracted images; even when you know better, you instinctively feel certain you're looking at something.
Pinney's book is full of such witnesses throughout history, from China to Persia to India, and he's a shrewd reader of the patterns underlying all such visions as those patterns manifest in literature and art. “Mirages,” he observes at one point, “both literal and metaphorical, frequently conveyed a negative image about what was obscure, illusory and deceptive.”
Most people who encounter the busiest residents of their suburban gardens or parks wouldn't think to encounter them in the world's desert places, and yet thousands of the world's bee species have adapted to desert living. This versatility is one of the many remarkable features of the enormous bee family, a crowded family tree that gets a loving, infectiously enthusiastic natural history in Thor Hanson's new book, Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees
“Bees helped shape the natural world where our own species evolved, and their story often comingles with our own,” Hanson writes, and he explores the long history of these insects, the “elegant logic of their architecture,” and of course the looming threat of collapsing bee populations all over the world – including in deserts, where, ironically, they may hold out the longest.