Book List: The Amazon and Rainforests

Kayapo Mekragnoti headdressThe Museum currently has an exhibition titled Spirits and Headhunters: Vanishing Worlds of the Amazon, so this month’s books feature the rainforest and the Amazon. For over 40,000 years, people have lived in the rainforests, hunting, gathering food and raising vegetables in addition to using the tropical plants for medicine, without harming their environment.

Today, rainforests cover approximately 7% of the earth’s surface.  However, according to author Richard Platt, the rainforests are disappearing at the rate of an area the size of 16 tennis courts every second.  Platt continues to say that by preserving the rainforests we are safeguarding our health and the health of our planet.

Rainforest living up to its name
Creative Commons License photo credit: pfly

Gail Gibbons has written innumerable nonfiction books for young children.  Her books provide easy to understand information with colorful, appealing illustrations. Although it is fifteen years old, Nature’s Green Umbrella is a wonderful explanation of the importance of rainforests to the people of the world and to the environment.

The book contains a simple map of the world so it is easy to see the location of the rainforests.  In addition, vocabulary words are provided so children can learn the appropriate terms that relate to “nature’s green umbrellas.”  You will learn about transpiration, an ecosystem, chlorophyll, emergents, a canopy, an understory, the forest floor, epiphytes, parasites, nutrients, leaf litter, leaching, selective cutting, extractive reserves, “greenhouse effect” and “slash and burn.”

The illustrations are simple drawings of the plants and animals in the rainforest.  Their interdependence is easy to comprehend as the cycle of life is explained in terms a child can understand.  Gibbons also provides a brief explanation of medicines, fruits and vegetables the rain forests of the world have provided.

When attempting to explain a nonfiction topic to a child, Gail Gibbons’ books are always a great place to start.

A very unique, more mature approach to investigating the rainforest is One Small Square: Tropical Rainforest by Donald Silver.  First, picture a transparent four-foot cube–four feet long, tall and wide.  “Place” this imaginary cube on the rainforest floor and picture the plants and creatures that could be found inside. In this layer of the rainforest you might find sloths, moths, hummingbirds, bats, boas, bloodsuckers, army ants, scorpions, Hercules beetles, roaches, spiders, lizards, worms, centipedes, lizards, wasps and more.

What lays beyond the fog?
Creative Commons License photo credit: Armando Maynez

Next, using the same four-foot transparent cube investigate one small square of the understory, one small square of the canopy and one small square of the emergent layer.  Doing this, you will become familiar with the layers of the rainforest and the plants, animals, insects, birds, etc. that might be found in each.

After the information is presented you will find a Match Game where children will match the plants, animals, insects, birds, etc. that are found in each layer of the rainforest to the appropriate layer.  You will also find colorful drawings of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes, invertebrates, plants, funguses, monera and protists associated with the rainforest.

Gail Gibbons presents a basic introduction to the rain forest, and Donald Silver provides additional information for older children in a colorful, attractive book.  Choose the one that meets your needs.

Lynne Cherry wrote and illustrated The Shaman’s Apprentice based on a true story first written by Mark Plotkin.  When you open the book you see colorful illustrations of some of the useful plants from the rainforest, their uses and their English names if available.  Who knew you can use Tonka Beans or Custard Apples for fevers or Snakeweed for snake bites?

run forest, run!
Creative Commons License photo credit: mugley

The Shaman’s Apprentice is the story of Kamanya, a young boy who is sick, from the Tirio village of Kwamala.  The shaman goes into the forest to gather leaves, roots and bark and uses these to heal Kamanya who never forgets how the shaman saved his life.

Kamanya liked to follow the shaman into the rainforest and learn about the plants used for healing.  One day a man from another village came to tell the people of Kwamala about men who had come to his village carrying a disease that the shaman could not cure.  Some of the Kwamala tribesmen became sick or died.

Several months later, missionaries visit the village of Kwamala and give the tribesmen quinine to cure the “mystery” disease, malaria.  The missionaries changed life, and the shaman was no longer the most important person in the village because his medicine had failed and the missionaries’ medicine had succeeded.  Life continued for four years until the missionaries left.

Soon another stranger, named Gabriela, arrived in the village.  Gabriela came to study the healing properties of rainforest plants.  She told the tribesmen that the quinine had come from the bark of a tree–the shaman had been right after all!

Gabriela followed the shaman through the forest as she learned about the healing plants.  After several months she left, but returned each year to learn more from the shaman.

On one trip, Gabriela brought the tribe a book containing information about all the medicinal plants.  The chief thought the book was very important and decided that the shaman should teach Kamanya all he knew.  Gabriela knew that in her absence the shaman’s work would continue. So, Kamanya became the shaman’s apprentice, and when the shaman passed into the spirit world, Kamanya became the shaman who healed his people.

The Vanishing Rainforest by Richard Platt is the story of Remaema, a child of the Yanomami tribe and how the tribe adjusts to the coming of the nabe (white people) who, with the exception of Jane, want to destroy the forest.  As trees are destroyed the animals leave, and without animals there can be no forest and all will starve.

Rikomi is a member of the Yanomami tribe who works for the government, but has not forgotten the battles against the nabe.  Rikomi devises a plan to save the tribe and satisfy the nabe, too.  With the nabe’s money, the Yanomami could pay for education and better health care, and with the Yanomami’s help, the nabe could learn about the rainforest.  Readers know that the plan will succeed when the animals return to the forest.

Whether you choose a nonfiction book or a fiction book that tells a story, you will gain insight into this important, unique part of our planet.

Happy Birthday Year!

Almost everyone knows what a birthday party is, how delicious birthday cake is (especially if it’s of the ice cream variety), and may even know the joy of giving and receiving a birthday present. But did you know that this year is HMNS’ 100th birthday? The Houston Museum of Natural Science provides a center stage and a spotlight for a global variety of invaluable natural treasures. In light of this fact, let’s learn all about how birthdays are celebrated around the world, and how some of these birthday traditions came to be.

Feliz cumpleaños, Rocío
Creative Commons License photo credit: tupolev y su cámara

*In India, receiving a gift wrapped in white and black is considered bad luck.

*Ever had “Fairy Bread”? Well, if you had a birthday in Australia, you sure would have. Children there eat a snack of buttered bread covered in tiny, colorful sprinkles called “hundreds and thousands.”

*In numerous African cultures, the actual date of a child’s birth is not celebrated. Instead, when children in Africa reach a certain designated age, they are initiated into their community.

*Don’t like birthday cake? Move to Russia! There, many receive a birthday pie with a greeting carved into the crust instead of the traditional cake and candles we know here in the States.

* In the Atlantic Provinces of Canada, a birthday boy or girl is playfully attacked by friends and family who grease their nose with butter! The belief is that this will make the child too slippery for bad luck to grab hold of.

*Singing the song “Happy Birthday to You” is a well known tradition around the world. It was written by two American sisters in 1893, and has since been translated into many languages

*If you can’t carry a tune, become a Kiwi! In New Zealand, the birthday song is often sung loudly and out of tune just before the birthday person gets clapped on the back for each year he or she has been alive, then one for good luck.

Candles
Creative Commons License photo credit: brunkfordbraun

So those are all about the how part of birthdays parties, but why the celebration? Thousands of years ago, a person’s birthday was thought to be a time when evil spirits could cause them harm, as this was a day of change in a person’s life.  People back then believed that surrounding the privileged individual, giving gifts and offering good wishes was the only way to keep the evil spirits at bay, thus the birthday party was born!

The Houston Museum of Natural Science’s birthday year is already half over! All it really wants as a gift is visitors! So make a trip down today and see what sights you can take home as party favors. Interested in more? Visit hmns.org and click on HMNS at One Hundred to find out all of the ways we are celebrating a century of science this year.

Constructing the Genghis Khan Exhibit

Int he weeks leading up to the exhibit opening, most of the Collections staff at the Museum, not to mention all of the exhibits guys, were totally immersed in the installation of the new Genghis Khan exhibit

With the exception of Antarctica, the Collections and Exhibits staffs have worked with people from every continent on the globe.  Scandinavians, Israelis, Peruvians, Chinese, Ethiopians; the list goes on and on.  From each of these museum colleagues I’ve gotten a little window into their cultures.  So I was delighted to have the chance to learn a bit from our Mongolian guests as we worked on the installation of the Genghis Khan exhibit.

First off, let me ‘fess up that my knowledge about Mongolian culture or language is pretty slight.  As a matter of fact, the language didn’t sound anything like what I had expected.  To my ears it was quite soft sounding and impossible to pick up any particular word, although I sort of got my tongue around hello.  It’s something like sah-no, or maybe it’s not – I’m no linguist.  And, I couldn’t possibly spell the entire names of the women from the Mongolian museums but they graciously allowed us to shorten their names to Tuule and Tuuvya while here.  Their male, English-speaking colleague with the exhibit who actually resides now in Washington, DC, was Ganna.  Nonetheless I bumbled on, the Mongolians were very patient and, thank goodness, a Mongolian couple living here in Houston aided in translation.  Here is some of what they shared with me about a few of the artifacts in the exhibit.

Near the beginning of the exhibit there’s a replica of a Mongolian ger, or yurt.  In it are a variety of household items and common possessions.  I saw a woven basket and a hand-made rake, which didn’t really register with me.  However I soon learned that these are handy items used to gather and carry dried animal dung which is used for fuel.  (And for what it’s worth, because there’s not an example of this in the exhibit, wet manure is used for building shelters for the animals.) 

Also in the ger is a wooden object that resembles an old-fashioned butter churn.  Its actual function is more of a mortar and pestle to “smash” tea leaves.  One of the young Mongolian women fondly remembered that her grandmother had one.  In the center along the ger’s ‘wall’ (for lack of a better word) are two painted boxes.  These would have been used to store valuables, a nomadic version of a safe. 

On the floor of the ger is a board game made from animal bones which look like vertebrae although I didn’t get the opportunity to look closely.  This game is played by both adults and children but mostly children and it can also be used to predict fortunes.

One of my favorite objects in the exhibit is glass encased box with a miniature nature scene.  The Mongolians had a hard time coming up with translatable words for it and finally decided on “family treasure.”  We would probably call it a family heirloom. 

This box contains a tall figurine of a rotund elderly man with a long white beard and he is called The Old White Man.  He symbolizes wealth and longevity.  Also in a corner of the box is a depiction of the old Buddhist fable of the elephant, monkey, bird, and rabbit who worked together as friends to get fruit from a tree.  In the scene’s foreground are a deer, bird, rock, tree, and bubbling spring who along with the Old White Man all symbolize good fortune.  Glass box scenes such as this are kept in the family, handed down from generation to generation, to bring longevity, prosperity, and good luck to the owners.  It’s a lovely thing to pass on, don’t you think?

Here in the West the story of Genghis Khan has been one of romanticized brutality.  This exhibit offers more of a balance through facts and historical objects.  And these explanations of their culture shared by our Mongolian colleagues enlighten us also.