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The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker
Thought to be extinct, the giant scarlet-crested ivory-billed woodpecker was long something of an ornithological Sasquatch. After the last credible sighting, in 1944, birders who reported seeing the fabled fowl in Southern swamps got dismissed as readily as UFO abductees. As related by Tim Gallagher, editor of Living Bird magazine, the ivory-bill has at last returned from the dead, with confirmed visual and audio proof (accepted by skeptical experts just a few weeks ago). Gallagher's recounts in breathless fashion how he and Bobby Ray Harrison, a fanatical amateur birder, spotted an ivory-bill in early 2004 and then orchestrated a full-court birders' press on an Arkansas bayou to be sure they weren't crazy or heat-struck. The story includes deftly drawn character sketches of eccentric ivory-bill seekers, such as Fielding Lewis, a cigar-sucking septuagenarian who "seemed like a character from Tennessee Williams—like Big Daddy." More soberly, Gallagher links the spectacular bird's decline to the destruction of the South's bottomland forests and their majestic old-growth hardwood trees. With luck, the miraculous resurrection of the ivory-bill might inspire renewed efforts to preserve what's left of its habitat. (By Tim Gallagher; Houghton Mifflin; 272 pages; $25 cloth)

Descent: The Heroic Discovery of the Abyss
The recent rescue of a Russian submarine demonstrated the amazing capabilities of submersibles. Seventy-five years ago, two intrepid pioneers made the first deep-sea descent in a tiny steel ball known as the Bathysphere. The submersible, attached to a metal umbilical cable on a derelict tug, carried naturalist William Beebe and engineer Otis Barton a quarter-mile below the ocean's surface near Bermuda. Beebe and Barton shivered side by side in the damp, dangerous quarters but never got along on solid ground, as author Brad Matsen relates in fascinating detail. Barton, half Beebe's age, grew up worshipping the famous scientific popularizer but became increasingly bitter as his senior partner garnered all the glory for their dives. Beebe, a household name for books like Jungle Days and Half Mile Down, craved acceptance by a scientific community that disdained his celebrityhood. Neither man got exactly what he wanted, but their plunge ignited generations of underwater exploration. (By Brad Matsen; Pantheon; 286 pages; $25 cloth)

Here Is Where We Meet
Despite Europe's hesitancy about its union, art critic and novelist John Berger (Pig Earth, About Looking) ranges freely over the continent in Here Where We Meet. Labeled a "fiction," the slim volume is really a memoir disguised as an old man's reverie (Berger was born in 1926) in which the author searches for the people who shaped his life. The first "meet" is an encounter with his dead mother in Lisbon. Mom, a practical sort, advises her intellectual son to "stop dropping names." When not delivering minilectures about Rembrandt's The Polish Rider and cave paintings in France, Berger recalls his boyhood in Islington, England, overshadowed by his father's trauma from the trench fighting of World War I; awakens erotic thoughts of a London wartime lover; and conjures up a traditional wedding in the Polish countryside. In spare, poetic images, Berger illuminates a life of both the mind and the senses. The chapter on Lisbon, with its descriptions of trams negotiating "steep one-way streets like straits" and the dizzying array of seafood at the open-air market evokes the city better than any travel book. Indeed, in Lisbon, Berger discovers the metaphor for his whole project: an old cemetery named Prazeres (Pleasures) where "the mausoleums have front doors with window panes through which you can look at the abodes of the departed." (John Berger; Pantheon; 237 pages; $24 cloth)

—Michael S. Gant

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From the August 10-16, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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