The fossil record acts as both a memorial to life’s spectacular possibilities and as a warning to humanity about how fast dominance can become forgotten history, according to our guest, Scottish paleobiologist Dr. Thomas Halliday. Halliday’s research investigates long-term patterns in the fossil record, particularly in mammals. In his magnificent and daring new book “Otherlands: A Journey through Earth’s Extinct Worlds,” Halliday translates cutting-edge science into vivid portraits of sixteen fossil sites and their inhabitants extending back 550 million years. We speak with Halliday about his travel guide to the history of multicellular life on Earth, how an animal fossil can be read as a character description, how entire extinct worlds are reconstructed from remnants in the Earth’s crust, and the importance of realizing that our lives and the worlds we know were preceded by hundreds of millions of years of other life and other worlds, “simultaneously fabulous yet familiar.”
In the long months we’ve all been confined to our homes, many people have become reacquainted with the vibrant life just outside their doors, finding unexpected joy, companionship, and hope through partaking in the cycles of love and loss that happen in the skies and yards around us. It is this wonder to be found in the natural world, from observing the habits of the nesting chipmunk family under her house, to watching a monarch butterfly break out of its chrysalis, that our guest, Margaret Renkl, captures so evocatively through her writing. In her book, Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, and in her weekly opinion columns for The New York Times, Renkl introduces readers to the profound joys and sorrows unfolding in the world around us. In stories about growing up in the South, the heartbreak of losing her parents, finding the perfect squirrel-proof finch feeder, and hearing the chattering of birds in her yard as they warn of a lurking snake, she grounds the extraordinary and uplifts the everyday. In this episode, we talk with Renkl about how loving nature and mourning it go hand in hand, how backyard nature can provide comfort during times of grief, the impetuousness of squirrels, and how she turned her Nashville backyard into a wildlife sanctuary.
As Dr. Joseph Drew Lanham writes in his beautiful and deeply moving memoir, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature, from his earliest days growing up in the piedmont forests and fields of Edgefield, South Carolina, he dreamed of flight. This fascination with the aerial journeys of the blue jays that stole his grandmother’s pecans and the crows that invaded his father’s cornfield sparked Dr. Lanham’s lifelong dedication to studying birds and to exploring what it means to be a “rare bird” himself: a Black man in a field that is overwhelmingly white and an ecologist finding freedom through wildness on land where his ancestors were enslaved. In addition to advancing scientific understanding of wild animals, Dr. Lanham has written extensively about the deep and often overlooked connections between how we treat nature and how we treat our fellow humans. In this episode, we speak with Dr. Lanham about how bird lives and Black lives intertwine in the story of the Carolina Parakeet, the language-defying joy of watching swallow-tailed kites, and why Emily Dickinson was right in declaring that “hope is the thing with feathers.”
Author and sailor David Barrie voyaged around the globe and through scientific literature to learn about the awe-inducing and still mysterious navigational powers of animals. Barrie writes of mysteries such as how birds employ “map and compass” type navigation, how Box jellyfish use some of their twenty-four eyes to keep track of trees and other above-water landmarks, how sweat bees can detect and find their ways home using single photons of light, and how Sahara desert ants measure their turns and count their steps in a process humans call “dead reckoning” — in addition to relying on visual landmarks, patterns of light invisible to the human eye, wind micro-vibrations, scent, optic flow, and the earth’s magnetic field. Animals’ navigational feats reveal an extraordinary awareness of the environment around them — a form of perception that is often far different from our own. In his new book, Supernavigators, Barrie describes the navigational intelligences of other species, which often exceed our wildest imaginations, and issues a call for humans, too often “blinded by vision,” to better respect and celebrate these animals’ abilities in an era when human behavior is increasingly impeding them.