Paleo-Readings for Proto-Paleoecologists.

I love science, and I loved reading about it as a kid.   Some of my favourite science books have been childrens’ books, Life Story by Virginia Lee Burton is no exception.  I picked up the book at Paxton Gate’s Curiosities for Kids in San Francisco when I was there for the last fall AGU Meeting.  Life Story passes through the earth’s history, across multiple time scales from billions of years to hours of the day, tracking our planet from the formation of the Milky Way to the rising sun of the morning.  The book is beautifully illustrated, with each scene presented as if it were an act in a play; the left-hand page acts as the time-keeper (Figure 1) and the right hand page shows us a stage with a very ornate and stylized set, representing life at that time.

Detail from Life Story, Mesozoic Era
Figure 1. A two page spread in Life Story for the Mesozoic Era, showing both stylized images of life in the Mesozoic, but also some of the life forms and a time frame for the era.

The book is great, the images are stylized enough that one needn’t get caught up in the details of morphology, but the story is well crafted enough that it speaks to the amount of effort Virginia Lee Brown put into writing the book (there’s a great post about it on the Free Library of Philadelphia’s blog).  Of course, I like the Holocene pages, although they date the appearance of humans a little bit late(!), but the Early American History page really speaks to the sorts of land use changes that the northeastern United States went through at the turn of the 19th century (see Rhemtulla et al., 2009 for example), and this is followed by the fact that in the 1930s and 40s there was tremendous reversion of farm fields back to brush forest (for example, Bürgi and Turner, 2002)

The book was updated recently with help from Andrew Knoll.  I don’t have an older version, so I would be interested to know what specific changes were made, but if you’re looking for a book to pass on to aspiring paleoecologists, or to help cultivate a sense of wonder, this is a great book.

Do you have any suggestions?  What were some of the books that you’ve read to your kids, or that you had yourself as a kid?


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Assistant scientist in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Studying paleoecology and the challenges of large data synthesis.

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