God has two books – scripture and nature. ‘The heavens’, say the scriptures, ‘display your handiwork’. Psalm 104.24 – ‘O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches’. Exploration of the natural world is a wonderful thing, all the way from listening to the birds sing to the scientific study of ecology; this doesn’t need to be conducted by professing Christians, indeed a really good atheistic botanist will no doubt uncover more of God’s handiwork than a Christian dilettante.
Nevertheless, the first book I will mention, in so far that the writer is a professor at Wheaton College, is presumably by a believer. It is entitled A Neotropical Companion, the author is John Kricher, and it is a charming book about the American tropics, the rainforest, birds, animals thereof and other ecosystems. Very readable and informative and with a terrific bibliography.
Christians are sometimes taught to believe that Darwin was ‘of the devil’; I firmly believe that of Marx and probably Freud, but Darwin was just a very keen observer of nature who put together his theories with a view, I understand, to showing how God created; unfortunately his theories went beyond the evidence. Be that as it may The Voyage of the Beagle is really a lovely book; it chronicles his travels round South America. Of particular resonance with me is his description of a journey on foot through the Chilean Andes.
In similar vein are some of the works of Alfred Wallace. Later in life he became a spiritualist of some sort and had some strange ideas, but the observations in his earlier books are great and of course written in fine Victorian prose. He observes both nature and people very closely and tells a fine tale. I have read The Malay Archipelago and intend to read his book on the Amazon.
On the subject of the Amazon, there could be no better work than that by Wallace’s contemporary and companion, HW Bates The Naturalist on the River Amazons. This is required reading.
Another great work is by Thomas Belt The Naturalist in Nicaragua. These men were such wonderful observers and investigators as well as reporters of what they saw.
More recent writings include the lovely books by Gerald Durell, who is probably well-known to English readers. He owned a zoo where he cared for exotic and endangered creatures; his numerous books describe his adventures all over the place collecting animals and he is often very, very funny.
Another book I have enjoyed sufficiently to read through more than once is Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. He has a slightly sort of dreamy shamanistic approach he may have imbibed from the eskimos; but writes beautifully and passionately about the land, the people, the animals, the sea. I also enjoyed his book Of Wolves and Men. There are so many good books to read.
There are three wonderful books by Jean-Pierre Hallet, Animal Kitabu, Congo Kitabu and Pygmy Kitabu. A big man, full of love for animals and people. Hallet was a Belgian who lived in the Congo both before and after its independence, he has wonderful stories to tell. Animal Kitabu describes many of the animals he encountered; in Pygmy Kitabu he describes his time living among the pygmy people, his teaching them agricultural practices to help them survive the onslaught of modernity, his love for them, and his disgust at the way he was betrayed by church people; it is Congo Kitabu which is the best read, describing a small sort of zoo he opened including a breath taking description of his feats as a lion tamer and trainer (love is the key); the tale of his blowing his arm off in a fishing accident also springs to mind from among the many stories.
Another book to read is Kinship with all life by J Allen Boone. I once saw a television programme with a lady who had tremendous understanding of animals; she would go and commune with a sick horse that was not responding to the vet’s treatment, and would know what was wrong. In childhood she had been lonely, and her only comfort was a pet dog; she had developed this sympathy with animals to a high degree. Have you heard the story about the saint of old who had a lion and a donkey as friends? The three lived together. Francis of Assisi spoke to the wolves; Seraphim of Sarov to a bear . . . so many stories . . . not forgetting the abbot in A grave for a dolphin by Alberto di Pirajno; each year the abbot called together all the wart hogs in the neighbourhood, addressed them earnestly and respectfully, asking them not to damage the crops in the fields attached to the monastery, used as they were to feed the poor. The wart hogs gathered in the dead of night to listen, and acceded each year to his request. Kinship with all life is a hands on account of how to develop rapport with animals! The author starts with being entrusted with an amazing dog that worked in cinema (Los Angeles); he discovers mysterious abilities in the dog to communicate, and this leads him on to communication with, among others, skunks, ants and . . . a fly. The great secret is respect and openness (he calls it to the Universe, but he quotes the Bible nicely). Friendship with the house-fly is the best bit of the book to me, partly because these are creatures I have to deal with and therefore adopted Boone’s ideas and found that I too could be friends with a fly and very decidedly communicate; flies it should be said are very interested in people, and quite able to understand our desire that they NOT walk on our flesh, but limit themselves to finger-nails and clothing!
On the communion with animal theme, there is Modoc by Ralph Helfer, telling the story of a German boy and ‘his’ elephant, from Germany to India and Burma, and on to the US, where the two were separated. A person who could read the account of their reunion without tears is made of sterner stuff than me . . .
Everyone should read Kon-tiki, Thor Heyerdahl’s account of crossing the Pacific on a balsa raft; I have spent many a happy month drifting steadily westward from Peru to the Marquesas . . .
A complete change of subject is found in The Quantum Brain by Jeffrey Satinover, whose book on homosexuality is recommended elsewhere on this site. Satinover seems to be a rather brilliant man; his background is psychiatry. He set out to answer the question of whether the human mind can be viewed as mechanistic; to do so he looks at the functioning of machines and basic computers, and then passes on to quantum theory, which is the area that provides an escape from a mechanistic view. His description of the famous double slit experiment is marvellously clear and very thought provoking. For the uninformed but scientifically literate person, this book again is a must read!