Wednesday, March 19, 2014

What Have You Been Reading?

The long story of why I haven’t been posting may unfold by and by, but suffice it here to say the reasons have been more about family than about books and pine trees. At least I’ve read some fine works in the interim. Here are a few reviews of favorite titles, written for a fine online publication, The Washington Independent Review of Books, which endeavors to make sure there are still book reviews even as more and more traditional journals stop publishing them.

Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century, by Paddy Woodruff (University of Chicago Press, 2013). In engaging and spirited prose, [author Paddy Woodruff] deploys his finest investigative skills to address the book’s central question: “how successfully can we restore degraded ecosystems, and our own damaged relationship to the environment?”
Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein—Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe, by Mario Livio (Simon & Schuster, 2013). By examining these towering scientists through the high-powered lens of their worst lapses, Livio illuminates not just the individuals but also the vital process of discovery.
Butterfly People: An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World, by William Leach (Pantheon Books, 2013). . . . . a literary cabinet of wonders packed with scientific discoveries, historic artifacts, and artistic revelations to delight scholarly and casual readers alike. What have you been reading?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Swampbikers Journal

You’d think chocolate croissants would be incentive enough, but recently my children balked at our Sunday ritual of walking to the farmers’ market. Luckily, it turned out they were irked not by the destination but the pace. Family harmony was restored the next week by disentangling bikes from the jumbled garage and setting out as usual.

Laden with melons, apples, and sweet corn, we parents lagged behind on the return trip, only able to watch from afar as my daughter swerved off the path and crashed to the ground. Sarah laughingly explained, “I swerved to avoid a rock—with a tail!” Her swift self-sacrifice preserved the young life of a quarter-sized snapping turtle. A second hatchling was soon spotted crawling down the hill toward a stream, and we sat on the grass to watch their progress—and make sure no other bikers ground them into the tarmac.

I was thinking: the only thing that could make the discovery more fun would be more kids to share it with. Then down the path came a mom and two small girls. “Did you find a baby turtle?” the mom called. One child cradled a cardboard box, temporary quarters for another fiesty reptile. The mom turned out to be a talented nature photographer, Sharon Shomette, who had found the snapper snippet while out walking her dog and returned home for her camera (and pj-clad daughters). This shot catches the youngster's attitude perfectly.

Sharon’s confidence & enthusiasm instantly convinced us that she should lead our expedition. As she scrambled down a muddy bank to photograph the captive's release, I turned to my forte—-thinking of books that could enrich our experience. Quick as a shutter release, I thought of David M. Carroll, author of three wetlands natural history books known affectionately as the “wet sneaker trilogy.” If you never considered snappers as beautiful creatures, you’ll rethink your position after reading Carroll’s passionate ode to all things chelonian, Swampwalker's Journal. Carroll’s paintings and sketches of turtles and their boggy abodes also grace the books, further reflecting the intimacy of his connection to the New Hampshire marsh where he has studied snapping, spotted, and painted turtles for decades.

As I watched my kids delighting in sunshine, mud, and baby snappers with smiling neighbors, I wished they could experience a friendship like Carroll describes in his memoir, Self-Portrait with Turtles. Two pre-teens roaming free in a red-maple swamp, David & friend learned enough about cattails and carapace patterns in summer to sustain them through the dark classroom days of fall. Even when exploring on his own, young David remained connected to the girl who shared his outdoor adventures. Finding a yellow spotted turtle, he questions his impulse to capture it for his friend. I did not collect turtles or give them away, remembers Carroll, “But as I held this exquisite little one, I saw it as a living jewel she could keep for a time.” I trust that our morning with the snappers will be remembered as that same kind of gift, made less fleeting by Sharon’s fine photos, and more nourishing to the soul than the flakiest croissant.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Encounters in a Salt Marsh

You never know who you’ll meet in a salt marsh. Tim Traver’s encounters range from the great grandson of Ralph Waldo Emerson, to McMansion developers, to himself as a 12-year-old boy in a penetrating memoir, Sippewissett, or, Life on a Salt Marsh. To Travers, a tidal wetland has many meanings, and he carries readers along on a meandering kayak ride through the history of Wood Hole Biological Laboratory, failed efforts to preserve an original Cape Cod farm, the intimate lives of quahog clams, and much more. Here’s one paragraph that reflects the breadth of Traver’s approach:

“The marsh is a microcosm of the world. With its peat meadows, meandering tidal creeks, microbes and mud, at the living breathing edge of continent and ocean, it seems that life must have started here. Every microcomponent contributes to the whole. Discovering how this system works was a biogeocheical pursuit that took years and is ongoing. Hundreds of studies resulted in as many journal papers. Out of the research came a picture of energy and nutrient inputs, chemical transformations and outputs from the marsh. The human factor reduce to chemistry is in these equations—what is flushed down the toilet, pumped into the atmosphere, spread on lawns, and put into drinking water all goes into marsh, and all is measured. Where, though, is the factor of a famiy? A sacred community? The human spirit capable of sustaining the world? Where figures consciousness?”

The only time I willingly put Sippewissett down yesterday was to watch a new PBS documentary, Where Do the Children Play? The film examines how suburban sprawl, stranger anxiety, and technology have led to the decline in unstructured outdoor play among, especially and perhaps surprisingly, affluent children. Richard Louv, author of the best-selling Last Child in the Woods, appears often to elucidate what a lack of experience with nature does to the human psyche, and children themselves talk about why nature does (or in some troubling cases, doesn’t) matter to them. The goal of the film and its companion book, edited by play researcher Elizabeth Goodenough, is to stimulate the growing conversation about children’s access to natural space—and the time to enjoy it.

I think that books such as Sippewissett should be part of that conversation, reminding and exciting people about the innumerable values of ordinary places. By exploring a sometimes luminous, sometimes sulfurous local wetland with children, friends, mentors, and even adversaries, Travers demonstrates how each of us can become guerilla fighters on behalf of reconnecting each other with the natural world. As Travers asserts, a cadre of scientists, activists, artists, and philosophers have devoted their passionate lives to saving his marsh because they shared his love for it. But ordinary people can’t stand idly by others’ passionate flames if our favorite places are to be protected. “Emerson burned,” says Travers, “and made all of nature transcendent again. Science, infused with poetic insight, was his transformative agent. The scientists working to unlock the secrets of a salt marsh burned in their own way, too, and deep down hoped to save it all. But the few can’t save us. We all need to catch on fire.”

P.S. For a fine review of Sippewissett, see bookslut. She calls the book "truly lovely," and I concur.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Rock Flippin' 101

The first thing my family discovered, as neophyte participants in the second annual International Rock Flipping Day, is that we have a lot to learn about flipping rocks.

After all, there are so many choices.

Despite my son's tenacious efforts, some rocks resist flipping,

and many are too small to hide big secrets.

These and other frustrations today led my 13-year-old to bemoan that she'd have more fun if we could flip a rock star.

But our spirits were buoyed when we came upon a rock-related mystery on our trail--

Why did someone capture several pounds of small white stones and corrall them in the woods?

And at last we found a rock that was just right for the flipping tastes and talents of a nine-year-old boy.

What did we find under our long-sought, perfect flipping rock?

Our afternoon's search yielded one spider's web, innumerable pill bugs, decaying grass, general muckiness, and one sincere "Wow" from a "been there, done that" fourth grader. No epiphanies, but not bad for a bunch of beginners.

We'll be polishing our flippin' skills to improve our performance for the third annual celebration in 2009. Already, we've learned one important lesson: You never know what you'll find under a rock.