Mark Catesby: the Curious and Ingenious Naturalist

91fyceeC6xLDiana: Editors E. Charles Nelson and David J. Elliott have compiled a book about a man I’d never heard of: Mark Catesby. One of the earliest naturalists, as well as an author and illustrator, Catesby studied the fauna and flora of North America over a seven-year period. He influenced Audubon, Darwin, and the explorers Lewis and Clark. The book, The Curious Mister Catesby, is a treasure and I’m lucky today to have E. Charles Nelson do a guest post telling us more about this intriguing man.

E. Charles Nelson: The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama islands is undeniably a rare book, and a very remarkable one, too. Its author and illustrator, Mark Catesby produced the book himself beginning soon after he returned to England from South Carolina and the Bahamas sometime in 1726: “The whole was done within my house, and by my own hands …”. He learned how to etch on copper, and then etched the 220 copperplates, signing most of them with his distinctive “MC” monogram. After the plates had been printed by Godfrey Smith, Catesby hand-coloured them, or supervised the colouring. It is easy to see that to create the 170-odd copies of The natural history … that comprised the original printing required an immense personal investment of time and energy.



Mark Catesby had the first copies of the first part, containing the first 20 plates and accompanying letterpress, ready in mid-May 1729. Several contemporary British newspapers reported that Catesby, introduced to Court by Lord Carteret (one of the Lords Proprietors of the Carolina Colony), personally presented a copy to Her Majesty Queen Caroline. That Catesby and his book about the natural history of North America merited this personal introduction to the Queen Regent was exceptional, as was the praise the book received: “… a Work superior to any Thing of the Kind” being one comment. Dr Cromwell Mortimer, the Secretary of the august Royal Society of London, went so far as to claim that Catesby’s Natural history … was “the most magnificent Work I know of, since the Art of Printing has been discover’d.” The superb copy which Mortimer owned, bound in full russia with his armorial design stamped in gold on the covers, is today in the Smithsonian Institution’s library.


Digital realization of original etchings by Lucie Hey and Nigel Frith, DRPG England; courtesy of the Royal Society©.

Carolina Parakeet and Bald Cypress. Digital realization of original etchings by Lucie Hey and Nigel Frith, DRPG England; courtesy of the Royal Society©.

Mark Catesby continued to draw and design, etch and colour, and write for 18 more years until his book was completed in two volumes, each with 100 plates, and with an appendix of another 20 plates. It was no pocket-book: the pages of bound copies measure around 52cm × 35cm (more than 20ins tall, by 12ins across).

Born in 1683, Mark Catesby grew up in the east of England. His father was at one time mayor of Sudbury, a market town situated about 50 miles (as the crow flies) north-east of London. Mark inherited houses and land in Sudbury, as well as

Digital realization or original etchings by Lucie Hey and Nigel Frith, DRPG England; courtesy of the Royal Society ©.

Cashew. Digital realization of original etchings by Lucie Hey and Nigel Frith, DRPG England; courtesy of the Royal Society ©.

houses in London, after his far died in November 1703. Thus he was truly a “gentleman of small fortune” and this legacy surely enabled him totravel to Virginia in 1712 in the company of his older sister, Mrs Elizabeth Cocke. That first visit sparked Catesby’s enthusiasm for exploring the natural history of North America, and by the time he returned to

Digital realization or original etchings by Lucie Hey and Nigel Frith, DRPG England; courtesy of the Royal Society ©.

Magnolia Digital realization of original etchings by Lucie Hey and Nigel Frith, DRPG England; courtesy of the Royal Society ©.

England in 1719, he was already lauded as “a very ingenious gentleman” and had been labelled “that curious Botanist … of Virginia”. Plants raised from the seeds Catesby had sent to nurserymen were blooming in London gardens by 1715.

Although somewhat elusive, Mark Catesby’s links after 1728 with several parishes situated on the eastern side of London indicate that that was where he set up home with his partner Elizabeth Rowland. Between April 1731 and December 1737 the couple had four children, but, unconventionally, they did not get married until October 1747. Mark died “at his House behind St Luke’s Church” on Old Street, London, on 23 December 1749.

Digital realization of original etchings by Lucie Hey and Nigel Frith, DRPG England; courtesy of the Royal Society ©.

Bobolink and rice. Digital realization of original etchings by Lucie Hey and Nigel Frith, DRPG England; courtesy of the Royal Society ©.


Mark Catesby’s sumptuous Natural history … was  never intended as a “popular” book. The handiwork of one curious and ingenious man, it was grand in execution and ground-breaking in conception.

© E. Charles Nelson

Ten Fingers Touching & Victorian Fairy Tales

I wanted to let you all know about a real treasure of a book I recently came across. It’s called Ten Fingers Touching. What makes it unique is that it’s a fable for everyoneEllen Roth spins a tale that has excitement for adults and kids alike. The illustrations by John Blumen are breathtakingly beautiful.



I love that Roth is reviving a tradition of story-telling that we’ve only recently lost. From the most ancient times when tribal people gathered around their fires, to the Brothers Grimm, and throughout the 1800’s, we grownups were expected to enjoy these kinds of stories as much as the little ones did.

Here’s the trailer.

This became even more apparent with my next pick, Victorian Fairy Tales. I started reading this merely because I do love a good fairy tale. But these were extraordinary.

If you liked the Princess Bride, the kind of story with a plot that twists and turns unexpectedly — and always with a droll sense of humor — you will LOVE this book. After I got through a few stories, I had to research the writers.


Imagine my surprise when they were written by the likes of Oscar Wilde, W.M. Thackeray, and Rudyard Kipling. These aren’t just tales, they are literature. Michael Newton, the editor, does a fabulous job of explaining the role of fairy tales in society, their evolution, and puts together a wonderful volume filled with original illustrations. Who knew Thackeray was originally an artist? His story, The Rose and the Ring, was one of my favorites.


Isn’t this a gorgeous cover? I hope to interview Ross, Blumen, and Newton  in the upcoming months. Stay tuned.

There’s no reason for us to always be so serious and to discount little gems like these. Besides, don’t even we adults need a little fairy magic in our lives? Both books are now on sale. So, enjoy, dear ones, and above all, keep reading!

Mourning John Rehm

Too many people don’t know who John Rehm was and that’s a great pity. Not that he ever sought the limelight — he was a humble, gracious man who preferred to stay in the shadows and support those who knew how to shine best. He was many things: a D.C. insider, an attorney, an author, a husband and father. He was genius bright with a razor wit and self-deprecating humor. Most of all he was a really good man.

I fell into a teeny sliver of his life, but that sliver will stay with me forever.

One day my husband called me from work. “The employees have been invited to go to the Freer Gallery at lunchtime, would you like to come?” I adore art, so my answer was an immediate yes. I wasn’t an employee, so I figured I’d hang back at the edge of the group and try to blend in. That office was huge, surely there’d be a crowd.

The crowd turned out to be just three people: John, my husband, and myself. I remember him turning toward me with a sparkle in his gentle eyes, not caring whether or not I came from the office, just glad I was there.

This was the first of many lunchtime art sojourns we took with John. On that first trip, he brought us into an enormous room filled with books and scrolls. At first glance, it looked as much modern art does — odd, pretentious — is it really art?

Xu Bing’s Book From the Sky courtesy of Wenchee

John never lectured to us. Instead, he started asking questions. Through his Socratic method of teaching, we learned Xu Bing, the artist, was a victim of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. How, at that time, while still in exile, he’d created over one thousand imitation Chinese characters to get the viewer to understand his point — that all the little red books in the world, even when stacked end to end, would never have real meaning. The message of his installation, Book From the Sky, extended past his own political struggles: No matter how dedicated the writer, humans still struggle with communication and understanding.

It was one of those “ah ha” moments. I stayed long after the lunch hour ended, mesmerized by what I’d seen and learned.


On other museum forays I learned about the Peacock Room and how Whistler painted insults into his design, depicting his patron as miserly. We delved into the art of the scroll and screens. In the ceramics room, he learned that I threw pots and asked me to explain what I saw to him.


You see, John never lectured. He guided and tended my knowledge of art like a gardner does his best roses. He opened my eyes to new beauty and images and let my imagination soar as he buoyed me upwards.


The tours stopped after a while. First because of his book tours with his wife Diane, then because he wasn’t well. John never told me how he suffered, but I could hear it in his voice when I called. I didn’t know what was wrong, but I hoped with the most stubborn denial that he’d be back at the museum once again. I would tell him that Diane might have 2.5 million listeners, but that I was President of the John Rehm fan club.

I meant every word.

John never made it back. His passing was hard on his wife, his kids, and most of all, him. He deserved more. He deserved better. But that is a story for another day.


I go to the Freer often. I like to take my cousin’s kids with me and talk to them about art the way John talked with me. In the foyer is a piece designed specifically for the museum by Xu Bing, called Monkeys Grasping for the Moon. I remember my delight as John once explained that each of the monkeys are formed from the word for “monkey” in the script from different languages. Based on a Chinese folk tale, the monkeys link arms and tails trying to capture the moon as it reflects in a lake below them, only to discover it cannot be grasped.

Full Moon (c) 2014 Diana Belchase

Every time I see it, I think of it as a permanent memorial to John.

I hope John has grasped his moon and that he’s happy and at peace. I know my life wouldn’t be the same if he hadn’t been in it. I hope he knows how thankful I am.

I miss him so.

Joyful Noise: Lessons Learned from the Yam Girl

Diana Belchase:

My dear friend Sharon wrote a tribute to our late, mutual friend , Karen below. It’s one year since Karen passed from a horrible disease, but her incredible spirit lingers on thanks to Sharon. Karen, we’ll never forget you!

Originally posted on Kiss and Thrill:

On Tuesday, I reposted the eulogy I wrote for my best friend who died last year on March 4. Today I am following up with the story I wrote about how fate intervened and gave me the words I needed to honor Karen. IMG_2069

“Yams? I don’t want yams!” The woman ahead of me yelled at the cashier of my local grocery store. “I want sweet potatoes.” She slammed down a plastic bag and got in the cashier’s pale face. “And I want them now.”

I checked my watch and bit the inside of my mouth until I tasted blood. I was late and my arms hurt from holding two bakery boxes of muffins and a half-gallon of orange juice.

All of the self-checkout lanes were getting their yearly computer upgrades and I was in the “10 items and under” lane which had a short conveyor belt I couldn’t reach yet…

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Midnight Sun Launch!

Diana Belchase:

My dear friend, Rachel Grant, just literally launched her new book, Midnight Sun, into the stratosphere! Keep reading and watch the video to see!

Originally posted on Rachel Grant:

To celebrate the release of Midnight Sun as a stand alone title, my husband and kids decided to literally launch my book–as in, make the book a rocket and launch it–because everything is more fun when explosives are involved.

Here is my husband loading the book into the rocket sleeve and putting a cone on top:

Video of the launch:

I would like to say no books were harmed in the making of this video, but that would be a lie. However the book in question was the print proof, so no final copies were harmed.


If you didn’t pick up a copy of the Twelve Shades of Midnight anthology before it disappeared, you can now read Midnight Sun as a stand alone! As an added bonus, the first chapter of Incriminating Evidence (Evidence Series #4) is the excerpt at the back of the ebook. Incriminating Evidence will release on March 24th.




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Finding Love in Your DNA

Wouldn’t it be great if we could do away with  dating and failed relationships merely by  doing a DNA cheek swab? It sounds simple and pain free, doesn’t it? In our cells lurk genetic markers that just might indicate who is an ideal spouse and who is an utter cad.

My guest today, Peter Schattner, is an award-winning scientist, educator and writer with 30 years experience in molecular biology, genetics, biomedical instrumentation and physics. He is the author of numerous research articles, scientific reviews and a textbook. Sex, Love and DNA is his first book for nonscientists.  In his post below, Peter will explain a bit about research being done in this field and whether single people everywhere need to run out to take a DNA test.


Peter Schattner: How much would you pay to discover find out your partner’s genetic predisposition to kindness or to marital fidelity?

Sex Love and DNA FrontCoverV2In 2008, Genesis Biolabs, a small company in Arizona thought an appropriate price was $99 and claimed its genetic test would assess those qualities.

Unfortunately, deciphering the biological origins of human traits such as love or marital fidelity is not easy; our behavior is influenced by our individual experiences, something that can’t be measured by a genetic test. So in order to learn more about human love, scientists instead often study animals, hoping to get clues about how biology affects the experience of love in humans as well.

No animals have taught us more about loving behavior than small rodents called voles. Voles look a lot like mice, and in some places are referred to as field mice or meadow mice. Over 150 species of vole are described in the scientific literature. The DNA sequences of the species are similar, and so are their appearance and behavior.

But vole species also have striking differences, especially regarding what we might describe as feelings of love. In most vole species, the males are not exactly model lovers. Most male voles – such as male montane voles – are promiscuous, and after mating, they lose interest in their partners and move on in search of their next romantic conquest. These solitary creatures rarely make long-term associations even with other male voles. And certainly, they aren’t interested in wasting their time taking care of little vole pups (These are typical male behaviors in many species by the way, which may not surprise human females!).

Not all voles behave this way, however. Prairie voles, for instance, are very loving. Male and female prairie voles form long-term pair-bonds, and once pair-bonded, show little interest in new romantic partners. What could be the reason for this difference?

Love on the beach. Can voles tell us something about human sexuality?

Love on the beach. Can voles tell us something about human sexuality?

As montane voles and prairie voles already differ in social behavior at birth, their differences regarding pair-bonding and pup rearing likely reflect innate biological differences. Scientists focused on the voles’ sex hormones, including one called vasopressin, in their efforts to understand the differences between these two species.

To test vasopressin’s influence on voles, scientists injected male prairie voles with vasopressin. Now as I’ve mentioned, after mating, male prairie voles are devoted partners. Despite this fact (or perhaps because of it), male prairie voles take a while before selecting a female partner. Nevertheless, if a male prairie vole is injected with vasopressin, it’s as if he’s been shot by Cupid’s arrow. The next time he comes in contact with a female, the vole will act as if he has already bonded with her, even if they have never mated. Apparently, for male prairie voles, a shot of vasopressin has as big an impact on the psyche as sex.

The observation that hormones such as vasopressin affect pair-bonding and nurturing behavior in rodents raised the question whether they also influence human behavior. To explore this idea, a team of Swedish scientists tested whether people with an unusual genetic variant in a vasopressin-detecting protein might display different pair-bonding behavior. In their widely cited study, published in 2008, approximately 1000 human volunteers filled out questionnaires assessing their “pair-bonding status.” The Swedish study reported “statistically significant” correlations between self-reported pair-bonding history and gene variants in men, though the difference in the pair-bonding behavior between the two groups of men was actually quite small.

Prairie Voles Courtesy Missouri Department of Conservation

Prairie Voles Courtesy Missouri Department of Conservation

Nevertheless, the Swedish team’s results were intriguing enough to influence the world of 21st-century matchmaking. So many people want information on their perfect mate, that several companies have proposed genetic testing to find a better “match”. Although Genesis Biolabs went out of business in 2012, other companies – such as,, and have had more commercial success.

That said, the existence of these companies shouldn’t be construed as evidence that DNA-based matchmaking is actually useful. In the words of Larry Young of Emory University: “I do not believe that any service that claims to use genetic information, or any estimation of neurochemistry (based on personality or genotype) [to find a perfect romantic match] has any basis in reality.” And Professor Young is as likely to know as anyone; after all, it was his laboratory that carried out the key experiments on hormones and pair-bonding in voles in the first place.


schattnerAuthorImageThis essay is adapted from the chapter “What is Love?” from Peter Schattner’s recent book Sex, Love and DNA. Other book chapters explore how our biology affects our intelligence, athletic ability, sexuality, emotions and a wide range of other fundamental human traits. To read an excerpt please go to: Excerpt.



Nobody’s Valentine

Originally posted on Kiss and Thrill:

The year is only two months old and already I found myself in Books-A-Million making an impulse purchase. London journalist Paula Hawkins’s 2015 debut blockbuster and New York Times #1 bestseller THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN grabbed me from the moment I stepped up to the display of current bestsellers vying for attention.

Maybe it was the arresting cover (designed by Gretchen Achilles) that had me pulling the book off the shelf to get a closer look even though I have nine books on my must-read-before-I-buy-anything-else list. Or the cover quote by Tess Gerritsen: “So thrilling and tense and wildly unpredictable.” Wow!


Or maybe it was the title. The Girl on the Train. For a whole year back in my mid-twenties, I was a girl on a train, commuting from my home in Connecticut to my job in New York City. Paula Hawkins stated in an NPR interview that the…

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