Author Archives: robinnoonan

The nature of our neighborhood: house sparrows

Guest post by Leslie Day

The house sparrow’s Latin name, Passer domesticus, means small, active bird (Passer) belonging to a house (domesticus). House sparrows are tough little New York City birds that fill our parks, streets, sidewalks, and back yards with their daily comings and goings.

Illustration by Trudy Smoke, used by permission.

Illustration by Trudy Smoke, used by permission.

One hundred house sparrows were introduced from Europe into Brooklyn and Manhattan in the early 1850s. From there, the species expanded throughout North America. It is the most commonly seen bird throughout the five boroughs.

The male has a gray crown with chestnut patches bordering the crown and extending down to the pale gray cheek and neck. The black stripe in front of the eye extends to the beak and meets the black bib. The thick bill is grayish-black, and the legs are pale brown. The rump and tail is gray, the shoulders are chestnut brown, and the wings are brownish with a white wing bar. The female has gray checks, neck, and breast without the black bib. She has a buffy stripe between a brown eye stripe and brown crown.

House sparrows have the unusual behavior of taking baths in patches of dusty soil, usually in large groups. Each little bird creates a depression and throws dust all over its feathers to destroy parasites. Originally from Africa, they have evolved this adaptation of bathing without water.

These are small birds about six inches long, with a wingspan up to nine inches. However, they have big personalities. Unafraid of humans or dogs, they stay together in large family flocks and feed out in the open.

House sparrows mate for life. They live and nest inside every street corner lamppost pipe, over air conditioners, and inside any cavity they can find on building exteriors, dock pilings, and window grates. Within these cavities, they construct their nests with dried grasses, feathers, and string. I have seen them emerge from places that are surprising, like the nostrils of Teddy Roosevelt’s bronze horse on Central Park West in front of the American Museum of Natural History. They are devoted mates and devoted parents. When we lived on our houseboat, our cat Woody caught a baby house sparrow and carried it back to the boat alive. I gently removed it from his jaws and kept it warm. The bird’s mother and father stayed outside the houseboat window on a piling looking inside and chirping nonstop. Once the little fella could stand and seemed out of shock, I opened the window and out he flew, accompanied by his parents who chirped wildly to him as they flew back to the park.

Their voices are a series of seemingly identical chirps, although a bird researcher I know told me that they have different sounding chirps.

House sparrows play an important ecological role. They are omnivores, feeding on fruit in summer and dried berries and grass seeds in winter. In summer, they also consume invertebrates: beetles, cicadas, grasshoppers, crickets, aphids, spiders, flies, and moths.

When I walk out of our building in Washington Heights, I love seeing them inside the yew trees and holly bushes. Nearby there is a tree that is a roosting site for hundreds of house sparrows each evening. Opposite this is a tree that is a roosting site for hundreds of European starlings. The noise these two species make is almost deafening as they settle down each evening after a long day of hunting for food, keeping warm, and preening their feathers. And the chatter each morning is just as loud as they prepare themselves and us for the day ahead.

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day15Leslie Day is a New York City naturalist and the author of  Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City, Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City, and Field Guide to the Street Trees of New York City, published by Johns Hopkins. Dr. Day taught environmental science and biology for more than twenty years. Today, she leads nature tours in New York City Parks for the New York Historical Society, the High Line Park, Fort Tryon Park Trust, Riverside Park Conservancy, and New York City Audubon. Trudy Smoke is a professor of linguistics and rhetoric at Hunter College, City University of New York and a nature illustrator. She is the illustrator of Field Guide to the Street Trees of New York City. Beth Bergman is a photographer for the Metropolitan Opera who moonlights as a nature photographer. Her photographs have appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Newsweek, New York Magazine, Opera News, and Paris Match.




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Filed under Birds, Conservation, For Everyone, Nature, ornithology, Uncategorized

Happy birthday, Frederick Law Olmsted


Frederick Law Olmsted, c.1890, courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site.

Sunday, April 26th, marks the birth date of Frederick Law Olmsted. No short list of the most important and influential Americans of the nineteenth century would omit the name of Frederick Law Olmsted: mid-century agricultural reformer; sharp-eyed observer of slavery and slave society before the Civil War; mainstay of the United States Sanitary Commission; and the nation’s leading landscape architect and park designer—the creator of Central Park in New York City and leading conservator of Yosemite in California. Olmsted’s hundreds of projects preserved the natural world and placed the built environment comfortably aside natural beauty.

Within days of Olmsted’s birthday, Johns Hopkins University Press will publish Frederick Law Olmsted: Plans and Views of Public Parks, edited by Charles E. Beveridge, Lauren Meier, and Irene Mills. This project, in the works for 40 years, highlights Olmsted’s drawings and plans in large format and glorious color. Lavishly illustrated with over 470 images—129 of them in color—this book reveals Olmsted’s design concepts for more than 70 North American public park projects through sketches, studies, lithographs, paintings, photographs, and comprehensive descriptions.

A recent Boston Globe review of Frederick Law Olmsted: Plans and Views of Public Parks called the volume a “visual compendium of Olmsted’s work, taking readers on a visual tour through some of America’s most significant public landscapes.”

“Enlightening and lavishly illustrated . . . Whether your interest is in Olmsted and his work, landscape architecture in general, the development of nature-based recreation, or American history, Frederick Law Olmsted: Plans and Views of Public Parks can provide a substantial expansion and deepening of your thoughts in your area of interest, as well as help connect it to other related (and perhaps even previously unconsidered) areas of study.”—The Well-read Naturalist (Full review may be read here.)

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Also new from Johns Hopkins University Press is The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted: The Last Great Projects, 1890–1895, edited by David Schuyler, Gregory Kaliss, and Jeffrey Schlossberg. This concluding volume of the monumental Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted captures some of Olmsted’s signature achievements, including Biltmore, George W. Vanderbilt’s massive estate near Asheville, North Carolina, and the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Chicago Tribune Architecture Critic Blair Kamin called this final volume “A fascinating new door stop of a book . . . [whose] revealing glimpses into the mind of America’s greatest landscape architect take on fresh relevance.”

We who care about American history benefit greatly from the work of the historians—Charles McLaughlin, Charles E. Beveridge, and many others—who, since the 1960s, have devoted themselves to the selection of Olmsted’s most significant papers, annotating them, and seeing them to publication in The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted.  Here we have, in wonderful combination, first-rate scholarship, distinguished book publishing, and the memorable work of an extraordinary American.

On Tuesday, August 4th at noon, Lauren Meier will speak about Frederick Law Olmsted at 92nd Street Y. For details, please click here.


Filed under American Studies, Conservation

As April 15 approaches, thoughts on Lincoln, Whitman, and sacrificial death

Guest post by Michael C. C. Adams

As I write, the temperatures in the lower midwest that I call home are below Antarctica’s. This is Lincoln country, where he lived and worked until leaving for Washington. And here he returned in death. Much has been written about the assassination, from maudlin verses to conspiracy theories. But just one piece, by Walt Whitman, truly sustains. It is not “O Captain! My Captain!” with its predictable allusion to Moses dying in sight of the promised land. No, it is “When Lilacs Last in the Door Yard Bloom’d,still engaging because it reflects the uncertainty of expectation, asking if good can come from John Wilkes Booth’s act or the greater butchery of war.

The poet wishes rebirth to spring from patriots’ deaths, a nation reborn, just as the lilac will return after the dead of winter: “a varied and ample land, the South and the North in the light.” But “the black murk” of Lincoln’s death returns, dark and light vying in the poet’s mind. So today, in the cold, I yearn for the lilac’s return and an end to partisan divides, but winter and political bickering will continue perennial.

The concept of shedding blood to earn redemption, as in Lincoln’s death, underlies Christianity. The idea of God sacrificing his son to save humanity hypnotized Victorians. Bloodshed seemed the antidote to greed and avarice generated by capitalism’s unprecedented wealth. In England, Alfred Lord Tennyson saw the Crimean War (1853–1856) as cleansing corruption: in “Maud” (1854) he cheered fighting ending “a peace that was full of wrongs and shames.” That same year, he celebrated as a supreme act of self-sacrifice a blunder destroying the Light Cavalry Brigade. The soldiers’ courage had a sublimity not found in the bleak counting houses of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, also published in 1854.

In America, Whitman sought rejuvenation through civil war. He heard drums and bugles sounding through houses across the land, calling all to arms. Alas, when war entered America’s homes, it did so devastatingly. By 1864, Whitman’s America was a vast hospital, and by 1865 an enormous graveyard. The war proved too awful, vicious, confused, to be America’s epic. In Lilacs, Whitman could not forget “battle corpses, myriads of them,” nor “the living that remain’d and suffered.” The nature of Lincoln’s death also defied transcendent symbolism: shot in the back of the head by an assassin, a cruel and degrading execution technique used by policemen in authoritarian regimes.

Whitman’s hope for rejuvenation waned further in the rapacious, vulgar Gilded Age. In Democratic Vistas, he denounced increasing materialism, writing that “society in these States is canker’d, crude,” and charging that “the depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed but infinitely greater.” Inevitably, when in 1876 George Armstrong Custer and most of the 7th Cavalry died unexpectedly on the Little Bighorn, Whitman and other pundits welcomed a new sacrificial atonement. The New York Herald embraced the soldiers’ “duty and valor,” predicting Custer “will be remembered as long as the charge of the Light Brigade. . . .”

Artists scrambled to create heroic battle art. John Mulvany cast Custer in knightly pose, with flowing hair and unsheathed sword (factually, hair was cropped for campaigning and sabers were shelved), surrounded by stern troopers dying hard. Actually, we don’t know the point at which Custer died, and huddled clustering betrays panic, not stern heroism—disastrous bunching as terrified men fled collapsing skirmish lines. Yet the picture captivated Whitman, inspiring him to sing of epic renewed. Custer, “with erect head, pressing ever in front, bearing a bright sword in thy hand,” makes the ultimate blood sacrifice—“Thou yieldest up thyself.”

A scant decade after Whitman found the Civil War too bloody, cruel, and sordid to be the material of transcendence, he used a needless slaughter precipitated by a reckless field commander to grasp at a questionable saga of sacrifice. This deep ran the conviction that blood spilled in war atones for sin.


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adamshell-contrastMichael C. C. Adams is Regents Professor of History Emeritus, Northern Kentucky University. Adams discusses Whitman fully in Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War and explores Tennyson in The Great Adventure: Male Desire and the Coming of World War I. Adams is also the author of The Best War Ever: America and World War II, reissued this spring by Johns Hopkins.



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Filed under American History, Civil War, Death and Grief, Poetry

Authors as Passengers . . . or Partners

Guest post by James Martin and James E. Samels

One of the many sins an author can commit is to be a “passenger” on the publishing journey of her or his own book. We have heard colleagues admit, “I just write the books; it is their job to sell them.” Or, “I just spent three years with that manuscript. I don’t have the time to market it, and I wouldn’t know where to begin.”  For a book to be successful, however, the author and the publishing team have to work together–and that was a lesson it took us some time to learn.

We began our publishing life, we’ll have to admit, as passengers: conveniently thinking that our books would be marketed and sold as if by magic. We had produced a gold-medal work, after all, one that would travel a singular path to distinction, reading lists, prizes, maybe Oprah (back in the day).  As we realized (sometimes painfully) these assumptions were false, we also discovered a new and rewarding role to play in relation to our hard-working friends at the Hopkins Press: “partner.”

An author who partners with the Press’s editorial, publicity, and marketing teams earns better results in sales and, as importantly, is likely to have a better publishing experience. In our observation, authors who are partners have learned at least six important things:

  1. Take time with the Author Questionnaire. The Press’s Author Questionnaire is a critical, foundational document both for initial sales and long-term success. Taking the time, no matter how much else is on one’s desktop, to fill it in completely and creatively earns greater respect and support.
  2. Professional associations are simply starting point. Many authors look favorably on speaking about their books at friendly association meetings in their discipline. However, the author partners learn, and leverage, the difference between a professional gathering and a gathering of professionals. They realize that almost any meeting of colleagues, whether in one’s discipline or not, is fair game to announce, discuss, and market a new book.
  3. Order forms lead to orders; business cards lead to relationships. At a launch reception for our current book that we had scheduled at our own cost, i.e., invitations, hotel room, food and beverages, our editor traveled from Baltimore to Boston and presented us with order forms, posters, Press catalogs, and business cards with the book’s cover and ordering information. No books were sold on that pre-publication evening, but several hundred future purchasers left with an order form for their offices and a business card for their wallets. The extra cards have all been put into service as stocking stuffers, ice-breakers, and appointment reminders.
  4. Keys, wallet . . . book! With our first book two decades ago, we urged the Publicity Department to send boxes of books to conferences where we were speaking. We had no concept of the cost, effort, and liabilities involved. Today, we accompany speaking engagements with a request to conference coordinators for an “Author’s Corner” time and table (tablecloths seem to increase interest). We bring two copies of our book—one for display, one for browsing—and order forms, business cards, and “table-top” posters to draw attention to both book and Press, all of which we carry to the event in one briefcase.
  5.  You are the expert on your book, but your publicist is the expert on how you can help promote it. Ask questions. Listen to the advice and follow that advice. i.e., Don’t use jargon when speaking to reporters, a smile can be heard even on the radio.
  6. Tweet, tweet . . . If your editor is tweeting about your book and you are not, you still have work to do. The faster an author learns via tweets and blogs the value in writing about his or her work (after writing his or her work), the sooner he or she make the move from passenger to partner.

 James Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College. James E. Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance, a higher education consulting firm. Their most recent book is The Provost’s Handbook: The Role of the Chief Academic Officer, which was just published. Their earlier books, all with Johns Hopkins, are Turnaround: Leading Stressed Colleges and Universities to Excellence; Presidential Transition in Higher Education: Managing Leadership Change; Merging Colleges for Mutual Growth: A New Strategy for Academic Managers; and The Sustainable University: Green Goals and New Challenges for Higher Education Leaders.




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Filed under Acquisitions, Behind the Scenes, Education, Higher Education, Marketing, Uncategorized

Robin W. Coleman joins Johns Hopkins University Press

Johns Hopkins University Press has appointed Robin W. Coleman as acquisitions editor for public health, global health, and health policy. He will join the Books Division’s editorial department of nine full-time editors and Robin Coleman2assistants.

Coleman will continue to grow a dynamic list that includes top sellers such as Introduction to U.S. Health Policy, Health Disparities in the United States, and Governing Health. The Press’s acquisitions build on the substantial reputation of Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, the leading school of its kind in the world.

“Robin brings to the position an energy and enthusiasm that matches Johns Hopkins’ commitment to global health,” said editorial director Greg Britton. “We are very pleased he has joined our team and look forward to building this list of books essential for this field.”

Prior to arriving at Johns Hopkins, Coleman acquired textbooks and professional resources for the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists. He previously worked as a sales coordinator at Cornell University Press and currently serves as treasurer for Washington Publishers, a professional group based in the D.C. area. He has a bachelor’s degree in writing, literature, and publishing, with a minor in science, from Emerson College.

Established in 1878, Johns Hopkins University Press is America’s oldest university press and one of the world’s largest. It publishes 90 scholarly journals and nearly 175 new books each year. The Press is also home to Project MUSE, a leading provider of digital humanities and social science content for the scholarly community.

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Filed under Acquisitions, Behind the Scenes, Editing, Health and Medicine, Public Health, Publishing News

In honor of Johnny Appleseed

Guest post by William Kerrigan

March 11th is National Johnny Appleseed Day, the 170th anniversary of the death of John Chapman, the real life Johnny Appleseed.  By the time of Chapman’s death in March 1845,  he had already earned a reputation as an eccentric in the central Ohio and Northeastern Indiana communities where he spent most of his adult life. But even those who knew him best knew little about his origins, and some of the basic facts of his life—and even the precise day and location of his death and burial—remained in dispute for a full century.  It was only in the years after his death that locally preserved oral traditions began to coalesce into the Johnny Appleseed legend.  His debut before a national audience came only in November, 1871, when an essay in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine spread his story to the nation. In subsequent years more stories emerged, some from people who knew him, others invented from whole cloth.  The piece below is an excerpt from Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, recounting the first newspaper report of his death:

Oldest depiction of John Chapman, drawn from a description probably provided by Rosella Rice.

In March 1845, John Chapman passed away. The Fort Wayne Sentinel noted that “his death was quite sudden. He was seen on our streets a day or two previous.” But other accounts tell of him falling ill and finding shelter at the home of William Worth, who cared for him in his last days. According to a witness, he was wearing at the time of his death “a coarse coffee-sack, with a hole cut through the centre through which he passed his head. He had on the waists of four pairs of pants. These were cut off at the forks, ripped up at the sides and fronts thrown away, saving the waistband attached to the hinder part. These hinder parts were buttoned around him, lapping like shingles so as to cover the whole lower part of his body, and over all these were drawn a pair of what was once pantaloons.” This erratic collection of scraps was not enough to protect him from the cold winds that whip across the plains of northeast Indiana. His death was attributed to “the winter plague.”

Chapman’s death warranted more ink in the local Fort Wayne newspaper than that of an immigrant laborer who died the same day. “Dies— In this city on Tuesday last, Mr. Thomas McJanet, a stone-cutter, age 34 years, a native of Ayrshire, Scotland” was the full obituary for Mr. McJanet. Chapman’s notoriety made him worthy of several paragraphs. The Fort Wayne Sentinel reported that John Chapman “was well known through this region by his eccentricity and the strange garb he usually wore. He followed the occupation of a nurseryman and has been a regular visitor here upwards of twenty years.” The obituary also indicated that he was a follower of Swedenborg and “he is supposed to have considerable property, yet denied himself the most common necessities of life.” The paper credited his religious beliefs for this contradiction.

As to other details of his life, the Sentinel could only repeat local speculation and rumor.  To read more, click here.

kerriganWilliam Kerrigan is the author of Johnny Appleseed and The American Orchard: A Cultural History. Kerrigan is Arthur G. and Eloise Barnes Cole Distinguished Professor of American History at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio.

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Filed under American History, Botany, Conservation, For Everyone, Nature

What if we expected science literacy in our presidents? Reflections on the anniversary of DeWitt Clinton’s birth (March 2, 1769)

Guest post by David Spanagel

On 12 December, 1822, Thomas Jefferson opened a letter to the sitting governor of New York State as follows: “I thank you dearly for the little volume sent me on the Natural History and Resources of N York. It is an instructive, interesting and agreeably written account of the Riches of a Country to which your great Canal gives value and issue, and of the wealth which it created from what without it would have had no Value.” The letter’s recipient, DeWitt Clinton, still remembered as the mastermind who managed to launch and sustain the public construction of an artificial waterway that would commercially connect the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, was far more than just a fellow Jeffersonian politician: he had a kindred feeling for science.

Clinton himself had authored the gift that Jefferson’s note acknowledges, a widely respected publication chock full of scientific information. The book analyzed New York’s natural wealth and potential for development and prosperity, featured detailed geological descriptions, and included reports of previously undocumented plant, bird, and fish species in New York. Clinton had gathered notes and observations a dozen years earlier, while serving on a commission charged to investigate the feasibility of building an “Erie Canal.” The intervening years provided tantalizing support for Clinton’s conviction that scientific knowledge of the land and its resources could work hand in hand with infrastructure improvements to transform American life and drive economic growth.

Events might have provided Clinton with a national, rather than just a regional, opportunity to carry out his bold experiment. Exactly a decade before Jefferson’s letter (in 1812), Clinton had come within one state of wresting the Presidency of the United States away from an incumbent seeking his second term during wartime (a circumstance that has recurred only once in the subsequent 200 years, with John Kerry in 2004). Had Clinton triumphed over Jefferson’s Virginian successor James Madison, one can imagine how both the course of the War of 1812 and the intellectual character of the office of the Presidency might have been dramatically altered. Clinton would have had a bipartisan mandate, as a Jeffersonian Republican with strong New England Federalist support, to negotiate a ceasefire with Great Britain. Military and diplomatic historians could debate whether the consequences would have differed much from the ultimately ambiguous outcome of two more years of fighting.

But just imagine the legacy that might have been established by elevating another accomplished naturalist to the presidency during its formation as a new political institution. Had Clinton, vigorous canal proponent and accomplished practitioner of botany, zoology, and mineralogy, served as America’s fifth head of state, Jefferson’s extraordinary brand of leadership would not have been unique in the early republic. Americans would instead have been able to renew and reinforce their experience of national leaders who were well-equipped as statesmen-scientists.

Jefferson continued his 1822 letter by exploring and assessing Clinton’s achievement: “N York has anticipated, by a full century, the ordinary progress of improvement. This great work suggests a question both curious and difficult, as to the comparative capability of nations to execute great enterprises. It is not from greater surplus of produce, after supplying their own wants, for in this N York is not beyond some other states; is it from other sources of industry additional to her produce? This may be; or is it a moral superiority? a sounder calculating mind, as to the most profitable employment of surplus, by improvement of capital instead of useless consumption? I should lean to this latter hypothesis, were I disposed to puzzle myself with such investigations; but at the age of 80, it would be an idle labor, which I leave to the generation which is to see and feel its effects, and add therefore only, the assurance of my great esteem and respect.”

From our vantage point two centuries later, it seems quite extraordinary to see how these early national leaders possessed such comprehensive social visions, personal intellectual acuity, and capability to mobilize scientific knowledge and practice on behalf of public policy, albeit within a framework of moral consideration. If contingencies had played out differently, these could have become “ordinary” attributes to be expected of our nation’s leaders.

spanagelDavid Spanagel is the author of DeWitt Clinton and Amos Eaton: Geology and Power in Early New York. He teaches history at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.



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Filed under American History, General Science, History, Politics