By Edward Posnett
Natural objects have fascinated, nourished, clothed and even healed people since the dawn of humanity. But as nature writer Edward Posnett points out in his debut, Strange Harvests (Viking, $27, 9780399562792, audio/eBook available), some of these extraordinary items are more enthralling than others.
In this unique curio cabinet of a book, Posnett discusses seven little-known natural wonders: eiderdown, edible bird's nests, civet coffee, sea silk, vicuna fiber, tagua and guano. Many of these objects have been used and loved by humans for centuries, although some are "newer" than others--such as civet coffee, made from coffee beans digested and expelled by a catlike creature in Southeast Asia.
Posnett's fascination is evident as he unearths the backstories of these natural objects, comparing and contrasting their similarities and differences. Crisscrossing the globe, he visits the geographical residence of each object, meeting with people who have expert knowledge about cultivating, harvesting and utilizing it.
One theme that runs throughout this book is exploitation--the exploitation that takes place whether you're making luxury items such as fluffy eiderdown quilts or jackets from fine sea silk or vicuna fiber, or you're harvesting the nests of certain birds to satisfy the huge market for this delicacy. Humans want these things and will jump through hoops to gather, curate and manufacture them into the desired end products for their consumption. But since they all come from nature, this comes at a price. Supplies are limited, and harvesting them can be detrimental to the animals or plants that provide them and to their environments.
However, some items, such as tagua (a nut from a South American palm used to make buttons) and guano (bird droppings used as fertilizer), were eclipsed by postwar technology but are making a comeback because of their sustainability potential. This is the takeaway from Strange Harvests: How can we best use the natural resources we covet without exploiting them and damaging the earth?