Thursday, December 27, 2007

Reading, Writing, and other Resolutions

“My Journal should be the record of my love,” wrote Henry David Thoreau on November 16, 1850. “I would write in it only of the things I love, my affection for any aspect of the world, what I love to think of.” Thoreau’s record of his affections (and disaffections) grew to over 2 million words, published in both abbreviated and complete editions since 1906.

The latest version is I to Myself: An Annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry David Thoreau, by the curator of collections at the Thoreau Institute, Jeffrey Cramer. Cramer not only presents a readable selection of Thoreau’s multifarious loves—from friends to fish and from Goethe to the evening sky—but offers commentary to elucidate the historical, cultural, intellectual, and personal context of Thoreau’s text. Cramer’s scholarship deepens the meaning of Thoreau’s entries without weighing them down with too much detail or critical opinion. The result is a balanced and beautifully designed work of value to researchers seeking particular insights into Thoreau’s life and thought or for readers seeking the heady pleasure of immersion in some of the finest prose by any American writer.

Thoreau also wrote, on November 11, 1851, “’Say’s I to myself’ should be the motto of my journal.” If your New Year’s resolutions include undertaking a journal of your own, Cramer’s book offers an inspiring (and perhaps a bit daunting) record of a quarter century’s production. To me, it also offers a starting point for a resolution of a different kind. Given my conviction that books could play a greater role in environmental protection, I’m disappointed when my advocacy efforts sometimes feel like I’m talking to myself. To reach more people, I’m going try writing a few recommendations for favorite works on I hope it will give me a satisfying outlet for encouraging readers to choose books that have the power to change not only individuals’ lives but society. Whenever I’m not eating better, exercising, or keeping my house cleaner and my family happier, I’ll be working harder in 2008 to advocate for nature writing and the natural environment. Happy New Year!

P.S. Thoreau also wrote, on December 17, 1851, “I do not know but a pine wood is as substantial and as memorable a fact as a friend.” And three days later, “Nothing stands up more free from blame in this world than a pine tree.” How could I not love a book with an index listing 33 entries for pines!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Kings of the Forest

Could any tree steal my heart from pines? For this girl from the Great Plains, a logical candidate would be that tree of all trees, the giant redwood. In true armchair naturalist fashion, I’ve read about them often and with delicious longing, notably while studying Frederick Law Olmsted to write a children’s book. In 1863, Olmsted fled the political miseries of developing Central Park for a job managing California’s largest gold mine, but once there, he escaped labor disputes and financial strains by taking his family to caper among Big Trees near Yosemite. And of course the bard of the High Sierra has written rhapsodies on redwoods: “These kings of the forest,” said John Muir, “the noblest of a noble race rightly belong to the world. . . we cannot escape responsibility as their guardians.”

Given such a deep, though admittedly vicarious, relationship with redwoods, I confronted mixed emotions upon learning about Richard Preston’s new book, The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring. Sure, I’d love to spend more reading time with trees Preston rightly labels “the largest and tallest individual living organism that has ever appeared in nature since the beginning of life on earth.” But could Richard Preston, author of the best-selling bio-thriller on the Ebola virus, The Hot Zone, do justice to these sublime conifers?

Wild Trees’ early chapters focus on human players in the forest drama, starting from an unplanned, unassisted ascent by college students motivated not by botanical science but “tree lust.” This forestry school grad yearned for more and sooner about the biology and ecology of Sequoia sempervirens-- how do they grow so tall? Why are they so geographically restricted? What other plants and wildlife contribute to a redwood ecosystem? Writing more about the obsessed than the objects of their obsession, I assume, is Preston’s deliberate strategy to attract readers not immediately inclined toward tree books. Eventually, I saw merit in the approach, especially in the humor department (see especially the New York Times Review, “Where the Redwoods Grow, the Oddballs Also Flourish.”).

And at last, Preston won me over when he donned climbing gear to ascend the trees himself. The author explores alongside scientists and skilled amateur climbers an uncharted world 38 stories above the ground, a place he likens to “coral reefs in the air.” Suspended on spider ropes, he marvels first hand over fire caves high in massive trunks, glens of huckleberries growing 200 feet up, and hanging ferns in magical sky gardens. The authenticity of Preston’s own evolving passion is confirmed when his children join him in the treetops—though the family tackles Scotland’s ancient Caledonian pines and other lesser specimens. Photos on Preston’s Wild Trees webpage bring readers closer to that part of his story, and the book is effectively illustrated with distribution maps, sketches of champion trees, and selections from scientists’ field notes. To hear Preston speak about Wild Trees and his personal adventures, listen to one of his April 2007 radio interview with Diane Rehm. Or, to see how Preston parries Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, check here.

Again perhaps to lure a wide audience, Preston writes little about the ongoing harvesting of old growth redwoods and even less about the decades-long fight to protect the eons-old trees. To learn about the campaign and how you can help, contact Calilfornia’s Save the Redwoods League. Let’s hope that Muir is right; we must not escape responsibility as their guardians.

P.S. Muir loved pines too. He wrote, ”I drank the spicy, resiny wind, and beneath the arms of this noble tree I felt that I was safely home.”

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Dancing with Books

Anyone who knows my love of books and vicarious love of dance, through my dancing daughters, can imagine my excitement at hearing of a program called, “Dancing with Books.” Program organizers at Inner City-Inner Child in Washington, D.C. explain the initiative this way:

ICIC takes this highly interactive, book based arts and literacy rich residency to different inner city centers each year. This 3-month series of workshops is based on well-loved children’s books, and teaches vocabulary and word recognition by singing, dancing and drumming portions of the books. Children and teachers create a word wall together, new dances and their own CD.

According to the ICIC website, studies have shown that 61 per cent of low income families have no books at home for their children, and 80 per cent of low income childcare centers lack books of any kind. Last year, ICIC distributed 5,000 books to low income centers, created reading corners, and taught teachers and parents how to enhance their appreciation and use of children’s books.

The fine folks at the Audubon Naturalist Society have figured out a way to combine this worthy literacy project with their conservation efforts. They’re calling for donations of children’s nature books to Inner City-Inner Child. To sweeten the deal, you can support ANS programs too by ordering your book through their Sanctuary bookstore where the volunteers there will make sure your donation gets to ICIC. Orders will be accepted at ANS until January 2nd.

Happy shopping!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Vote for Books!

Feeling envious of all those Iowans and New Hampshirites who will soon cast votes of great import for our political future? You too can help direct our path by asserting your preference for the next book club selection over at Crunchy Chicken. Crunchy has already hosted lively discussions of Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable Miracle and Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Stop by her exemplary blog and help CC decide between Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100-Mile Diet, and other thought-provoking titles. And while you’re visiting, sign on to Crunchy’s “Freeze Yer Buns” challenge and pledge to lower your thermostat all winter. She keeps hers at 62 degrees by day, 55 at night. At those temps, we’ll need to check out her blog often and generate a most heated debate!

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Close Encounters of a Literary Kind

“Intimacy is a necessity of life, and we would go insane without it,” says Garrison Keillor in today’s Washington Post essay on how books saved his life. Keillor means intimacy with people, even strangers over a cup of coffee or on a protracted bus trip. For me, intimacy also means closeness with place. Many of my reading choices serve to connect me more deeply either with where I came from or where I’ve ended up. Keillor’s words this morning reminded me of a favorite book that enhances my understanding and affection for my home in Maryland and vicinity: From Blue Ridge to Barrier Islands, edited by Kent Minichiello and Anthony White. Selections range from Captain John Smith’s observations on a salubrious Virginia climate (with “abundance of fowle” and “plentie of sturgeon”) to Tom Horton’s anaysis on the role of technology in restoring the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. Wherever you live, I hope you will seek out a similar collection that reveals how your home land through the centuries has been explored, farmed, hunted, fished, studied, developed, restored and loved.

A few of my reading choices also aim at forging connections with places where I’m going—or hope to go. That’s why I read an essay on the Flint Hills of Kansas and Oklahoma in the current issue of the Nature Conservancy Magazine. Though my first decade was spent in Kansas, my mom never thought to pack a car with kids for a field trip to the “the last great swath of tallgrass prairie,” as essayist Sally Shivnan deems the region. Shivnan writes about a sky of crushing vastness and a guide whose intimate knowledge of the grassland relieves its scale, opening her to beauties as slight as a blade of switchgrass. Like most fine travel writing, the piece left me more determined than ever to reach my destination. Reading the essay for me resembled listening to a stranger’s private stories while sipping coffee at a lunch counter. “All storytelling is an opening of the heart,” says Keillor, “a search for intimacy with strangers.” I guess writers are the strangers I turn to for intimate looks at the places I long to go. Thanks to Shivnan, I can imagine myself binoculars in hand, sweeping the hills for prairie chickens, feet planted gently in switchgrass.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Post-Thanksgiving Plenty

The bird book business has been declared healthy by none other than the November 25 Washington Post. In a review section centerfold flaunting full-color photos of a cock-of-the-rock and other seductive avians, Gregory McNamee introduces a mixed flock of the latest temptations for lovers of birds & books. Titles considered range from an introductory guidebook, National Geographic Birding Essentials, to a biography of birding’s patriarch, Roger Tory Peterson, by Douglas Carlson.
Though McNamee's remarks about each volume are brief, he knows the subject well, remarking in passing, for example, that Scott Weidensaul’s 1999 book Living on the Wind belongs in every birder’s collection. If you’re starting to ponder what new books to bestow on your near and dear ones this holiday, this Post review is a good place to start.

Also consider, in the same Post issue, a review of Colin Tudge’s The Tree: A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why They Matter. The reviewer shares my appreciation for Tudge’s preternatural ability to elucidate complex topics, partly through analogies and anecdotes from outside of science. He frequently quotes Shakespeare and Tennyson, notes the Post, “so that reading The Tree is like being in the company of a kindly biology professor who has strayed into a literature seminar.” I’m hoping to wake up Christmas morning to a copy tucked under my tree.

Any other ideas for nature book gifts this season? Do are some books—such as Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us-- too grim/alarming/depressing to be appropriate presents? What traits make a nature book appealing for gift-giving?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Captain Courageous

Much of the action in Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous takes place on the Grand Banks, described by the author as “a triangle of two hundred and fifty miles on each side—a waste of wallowing sea, cloaked with dank fog, vexed with gales, harried with drifting ice, scored by the tracks of reckless liners, and dotted with the sails of the fishing fleet.” One set of sails in the 1897 novel belongs to the schooner We’re Here in the months after it scooped up Harvey Cheyne, Jr, the spoiled son of a railroad magnate, after he fell off an ocean liner. The elemental existence aboard a working vessel transforms Harvey’s character from a whining braggart to a stalwart member of the hearty crew. Reading it this week, I’ve ached with nostalgia for the abundance depicted, for cod schools so vast “the deep fizzled like freshly opened soda-water”. Since the fisheries’ collapse in the 1990s, never again may the Grand Banks “long blue skies” be dotted with sails and clamoring with shouts as brim-full nets are hauled above the waves.

Just as lost is the rich understanding of traditions and place mastered by real-life progenitors of Disko Troop, Captain of the We’re Here. While the crew teaches Harvey everything from reefing topsails to salt-curing fish, only the Captain can read the waters themselves. His cabin-boy son relates, “Dad says everything’ on the Banks is signs, an’ can be read wrong er right.” Troop’s unassailable judgment guides his ship around treacherous shoals, through tumultuous storms, and ahead of rivals to ensnare runs of the fattest fish. Kipling, often criticized for didatic prose, portrays Troop unblushingly as “a master artist who knows the Banks blindfold.”

Yet courageous captains still exist. It was heartening also this week to learn about a new portrait of Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Captain of the Farley Mowat. Award-winning adventure writer Peter Heller accompanied Watson and his all-volunteer crew on an eco-adventure aimed at blocking—by any means necessary—Japanese whaling in the Antarctic. Heller tells Watson’s thrilling but often heart-wrenching and even gory tale in The Whale Warriors: The Battle at the Bottom of the World to Save the Planet’s Largest Mammals. The Mowat’s Captain honed his expertise, as did the fictional Troop, through decades of piloting ships fearlessly across every kind of sea. Called an eco-terrorist by some, the Watson Heller depicts is a dedicated but ethical warrior, proud that none of the ships he’s sunk has lost a human life. Equally dedicated followers express willingness to risk their own necks for a higher good. As one crew member put it, "I don't want to die, of course... But if I die looking to save a whale, that would be OK.”

How does Watson inspire a whole crew of Davids to confront the Japanese whaling Goliath? Peter Heller offers insights in a November 13 radio interview. Especially enlightening are Heller’s responses to phone-in critics, eager to tar Watson as a criminal. To Heller, Watson’s quest to stop illegal whaling may be justified by both the cruelty of slaughter to individuals and the escalating destruction of the ocean ecosystem. Months on the Mowat have convinced Heller that boycotting swordfish and shark, as urged by many mainstream ocean conservationists, is an insufficient response to a deepening crisis. Instead, he advocates eschewing all commercially caught ocean fish and backs other seemingly radical ocean protection policies. As Heller asserts, “If the oceans are dying in our time, and we kill them... we should have committed a crime so heinous we shall not ever be redeemed.” People like Watson prove that much can be done to redeem ourselves, that we have the knowledge and technology and lack only the public will to do the right thing. Perhaps, like Harvey Chaney, we will be rescued by sheer luck from our own arrogance, and even learn to mend our ways. But if we soon need an epitaph for the ocean, we could do worse than Kipling's bitter lamentation: “We have forty million reasons for failure, but not a single excuse.”

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Definitive Giveaway

Three cheers to the purveyors of all things bird at one of my favorite blogs, 10,000 Birds. Not satisfied with offering insightful, useful book reviews along with tales of swashbuckling birding adventures, top-o-the-line nature photos, and avian conservation alerts, now they’re giving away copies of Bird: The Definitive Visual Guide, via a contest they’re calling The Definitive Visual Guide Giveaway.

To whet your appetite for entering, read Mike’s ecstatic review which begins, “I’ve just fallen in love with birding all over again. I owe this renewed ardor for avian observation to a magnificent new volume simply called BIRD.” He recommends this lush visual feast not just to birders but for “essentially anyone with eyes.” School Library Journal concurs, lauding Bird as a “striking combination of copious graphics, elegant typography, and concise text.”

The 10,000 Birds contest offers two ways to enter. The hard way requires an essay in praise of a favorite bird species, while the easy way, which you are currently witnessing, involves spreading the word on your own blog. Even if a vow of nonconsumption requires you to renounce owning a personal copy, consider winning (or buying) one to donate elsewhere. As Mike puts it so well, “BIRD: The Definitive Visual Guide is an unsurpassed ambassador piece for birdlife around the world. . . . .Leave this tremendous tome out where the non-initiated might spy it and you’re bound to win over a few birding converts.” Good luck, everyone!

Sunday, November 4, 2007

One Sky, One Choice

“I’m too busy.”
“It’s too cold.”
“I’d have to put my tooth in.”

Those were just a few of the excuses that met my invitations to Saturday’s Step It Up anti-global warming rally. Locally, ours was touted as a gathering of the One Sky movement, an initiative that has identified specific, achievable, science-based priorities for climate change activism—e.g., five million green jobs by 2015, cut carbon 30% by 2020, and no new coal fired power plants. Saturday’s rallies around the nation asked leaders, including the myriad presidential candidates, to step up and commit to these tangible goals essential for saving the planet. Hillary, Mitt, and their ilk were conspicuously absent from the modest event near me, and I haven’t heard yet if they showed up elsewhere. While I’ve not been glued to tv or radio, it seems that most reporters were away covering the crisis du jour—or maybe just wanted to relax at home with their teeth out.

But at least some hometown politicians were there. One talked about how refreshing it feels to be for things, such as alternative energy, mass transit, and simple living, rather than endlessly against oil drilling, highway construction, mindless consumption and the like. ( The positive framing of the issue was the reason I felt comfortable bringing my eight year old with me when other family members backed out. ) But the most inspiring words for me came from a state legislator, one of the greenest pols in Maryland. Liz Bobo captured my attention by praising writer/organizer Bill McKibben, calling the author of The End of Nature a prophet of the climate change crisis (though she didn’t mention his new book, Fight Global Warming Now, a resource-packed guide for individuals and communities).

Then, Bobo talked about a recent poetry reading by Jane Hirshfeld, author of After and other prize-winning collections. Hirshfield’s poems speak of nature’s resilience as well as beauty, offering hope in the face of Al Gore’s most alarming statistics. And her imagery, of the wild animal world watching, perhaps in judgment, as humans despoil our shared planet, resonates with Ms. Bobo as she argues with colleagues in the State House and addresses often-meager crowds of supporters. How grand that a poet’s work strengthens a legislator’s; how fine that together we can achieve the vision of One Sky--if only we decide that we must.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Muses--Shaggy, Clawed, and Hooved

Rachel Carson once wished that the good fairy would endow each child with an indestructible sense of wonder. Barring such ethereal intervention, she argued that a child “needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.” But what if a young person isn’t blessed with a passionate, enlightened, and, especially, available adult companion?

For me, there were horses. It never seems to have occurred to my city-bred mother to take her children hiking, star-gazing, or even gardening. But when we moved to an outer suburb of Kansas City, an empty pasture across the street called to my sister and me to animate it with horses. Lucky Charm and his successors became my ambassadors to the outdoors, drawing me away from my books and literally carrying me into the woods and fields. On Lucky’s back, I chased foxes, watched a snake swallow a frog, and developed my first hostile relationship with an invasive species--—bull thistle—due to its impact on bare legs. While Lucky didn’t tutor me in the names of birds, insects, or plants we encountered, his easy familiarity with the acres we explored gave me confidence to venture farther and more often than I ever would have alone.

Women writers seeking literary adventures often need similar sources of support. Carson herself relied on the calm presence of cats to buoy her spirits during late nights of solitary research for Silent Spring. But an insightful new book--Shaggy Muses--focuses on the canine companions of five literary lionesses: Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton, and Emily Bronte. Author Maureen Adams, a clinical psychologist, investigates the diverse powers of human-animal bonds through intimate portraits of each author’s relationships with friends, playmates, protectors, and guides who happened to be dogs.

In some cases, the four-legged personalities Adams depicts clarify aspects of an author’s public work. Emily Dickinson’s black Newfoundland, Carlo, was her “Shaggy Ally” in a private refuge behind the hedges of Amherst, and imagining her gentle compatriot adds depths to her poem describing a hummingbird sipping her garden’s flowers: Til every spice is tasted-/ and then his Fairy Gig/ reels in remoter atmospheres-/ And I rejoin my Dog . . . .
More often, the women’s dogs appear in diaries, letters, and other private writings that reveal vital supporting roles played by each pet. Emily Dickinsons’ faithful Cocker Spaniel nestled by her side through years when illness and an oppressive parent cloistered her in a dark bedroom. Edith Wharton’s Pekinese thrived under her intense pampering, providing an outlet for her thwarted dreams of motherhood. More than one of the woman used pets as go-betweens or symbolic surrogates in romantic entanglements.

The story of Emily Bronte and her mastiff, Keeper, spoke most personally to me. Emily’s reclusive nature segregated her from both friendship and employment. When her sisters left home to attend church, study abroad, or work as governesses, Emily usually stayed behind, running her father’s parsonage. But Keeper pulled her away from the kitchen fires onto the moors, into vast, wind-blown spaces that freed her imagination. Could she have written her bleak, disturbing masterpiece, Wuthering Heights, without those hours striding across the heather beside Keeper? Adams thinks not, asserting that caring for the dog also grounded her when passionate imaginings might have swept her sanity away. Says Adams, “. . . she needed structure for her life while she was writing Wuthering Heights. And Keeper provided that structure. Emily had to take care of him—feed him, give him water, and exercise him—no matter what was happening in the nightmare world she was creating.” For Emily Bronte and the other writers insightfully portrayed by Adams, dogs functioned like Carson’s proverbial fairy, endowing not just wonder but also boldness, independence, and love. These shaggy muses allowed each woman to find freedom through connection with dogs, words, and the world.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

100 Year Letter Project

Years ago, I spent a summer at Woods Hole's Marine Biology Laboratory. Of course, I loved going to the science library there, chock full as it was with the biological tomes that drew my enthusiasm in those youthful days. But I couldn't help noticing a prominent sign over one tall, packed shelf--"Don't read too much--Think!" These days, I'm reading more widely but possibly still too much to satisfy my activist soul, and I try to keep in mind my own version of the MBL library's caution--"Don't read too much--Write!"

Thanks to Emmett over at The Natural Patriot, I just learned about a grassroots writing project for all of us. DeSmog Blog is organizing a 100 Year Letter Project, in which DeSmog is "asking readers to write write a letter to their great, great grandchildren about their vision and hopes for their world in 100 years, in the context of global warming." Emmett at NP encapsulates the potential importance of the project: ". . . I think this personal, emotional approach is just the sort of thing that might work in breaking through the thick, dessicated crust of apathy and cynicism and (deliberately fabricated) confusion and fear that keeps people from getting it, from understanding that climate change is a real problem that will have real and serious consequences for the people that we love most in this world--our children and their children."

Possibilities for your letter include explanations, apologies, encouragement, or just a warm howdy from a cooler time. Check back at DeSmog now and then to see examples of missives others are sending to the future. But don't forget to write yours. Emmett suggests sending a copy to your newspaper as well as to DeSmog. I'm going to work on a list of books for the great grandkids, some, I hope, that will help them see that we were trying to wake up to our actions, some that reveal the beauties of the planet that still persist, and some just for fun. No matter what changes the climate undergoes, I hope that reading will still provide inspiration, information, solace and joy in 2107 as it does today.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Eat, Pray, Love, Protect

Never in my craziest dreams about Pines Above Snow have I imagined raving about the same book as Oprah. But Friday, Oprah hosted Liz Gilbert, author of the “life-changing phenomenon” book, Eat, Pray, Love. I love it for many of the same reasons all the women I know love it (#1: My path to true fulfillment may pass through Italy) but especially because it has reminded me about the importance of ritual in our lives.

Here’s a short selection from Gilbert’s witty, eloquent memoir:

This is what rituals are for. We do spiritual ceremonies as human beings in order to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don’t have to haul those feelings around with us forever, weighing us down. We all need such places of ritual safekeeping.

That got me thinking—what rituals do environmentalists observe that regularly lift our spirits, solidify our bonds, carve a place for us to delight in nature without worrying about it for a moment? Hmmmm. Since the days of tree-hugging flower children, environmentalists have shied away from symbolic rituals for fear of ridicule. We want our arguments for nature preservation to be unassailably based in quantifiable science (e.g., species diversity should be protected because ecological systems need diversity to function optimally) rather than intangible, mystical beliefs (e.g., a mountain should be protected because it has spiritual power). Maybe this has won us a few points in rational arguments about land use (though I’m not convinced that most land use arguments are essentially rational), but Eat, Pray, Love made me question what we have also lost.

Gilbert again gives cause for optimism when she says this about ritual:

And I do believe that if your culture or tradition doesn’t have the specific ritual you’re craving, then you are absolutely permitted to make up a ceremony of your own devising, fixing your own broken-down emotional systems with all the do-it-yourself resourcefulness of a generous plumber/poet. If you bring the right earnestness to your homemade ceremony, God will provide the grace. And that is why we need God.

If left up to me of course, “green” rituals would at least sometimes involve books. Why not begin each month with an appropriate selection from Thoreau’s journals or A Sand County Almanac? Or organize a public reading of classic environmental essays to celebrate each Earth Day? Or just make a personal vow to read a nature poem or passage every morning? Imbibing a few well-chosen words about trees, canyons, or salmon runs is a more important ceremony to me than a wake-up latte.

But as Elizabeth Gilbert’s story emphasizes, not everyone’s rituals can—or should—be the same. So like her, perhaps we could all start looking for life-changing, world-changing rituals to bring more strength and joy to the environmental movement. I notice ideas here and there as I explore the blogosphere, but one frequent source is No Impact Man. Especially poignant is his recent post on sukkot, the Jewish holiday of atonement. According to Colin, “Sukkot, as explained to me by my wonderful friend Rabbi Steve Greenberg, is a time for reconciliation or--and this is my word--atonement or at-one-ment. Sukkot means, having taken stock of our wrongs, now making them right.” It’s a joyous occasion that brings families together inside of nature as explained in a video posted below (via NIM).

Maybe, if we find and practice some of these power-generating, hope-stimulating rituals, we'll figure out how to save the earth. I bet Oprah would invite us over to talk about that.

Rabbi Steve Greenberg: Sukkot, A Holiday for Reconciliation

Monday, October 1, 2007

Learning in the Great Outdoors Carnival

Welcome to the October edition of Learning in the Great Outdoors, the Carnival of Environmental Education. The founder and usual Carnival host, Terrell at Alone on a Limb, has thrown caution to the wind to let me host his creation as Pines Above Snow’s first ever blog carnival. I hope that I’ll be able to do justice to the contributors and celebrate learning outdoors in autumn without making too many html errors. Here goes. . . .

County fairs mark the end of summer for many of us, and GrannyJ brings an exhibit to us over at Walking Prescott. She and her husband won a blue ribbon at the Yavapai County Fair for these amazing photos of an Arizona horned toad and her dozen offspring. Congrats, GrannyJ!

Super-sized pumpkins attract crowds at state fairs and farm stands every fall. We know how to decorate with them, puree them into pie filling, and carve them into jack o’ lanterns. But Tricia at Miss Rumphius Effect has found a picture book that turns pumpkins into math lessons. Of How Many Seeds in a Pumpkin, she says, “All-in-all, I love the story, love the art with it's autumn hues, and am thrilled with the possibilities for instruction.”

Nets, rather than books, are the tool of choice this month for Dana at Principled Discovery. By equipping her homeschooled kids outdoors with professional quality butterfly and aquatic nets, she heightens their engagement outdoors. In her post, Tools not Toys, she says “And when the children use them, there is a seriousness and purposefulness about their explorations of the backyard that really was not there before.”

Over at The Wild WoodsWoman, the favored EE tool & tactic appears to be chutzpah. WWW has convinced a nephew of her omniscient nature knowledge primarily through multi-sensory curiosity and unbridled enthusiasm. She urges others to follow her example in Convince a Kid You are an Outdoor Expert, urging us to “Use anything—see it, smell it, touch it, or use it to remind you of a good story.” The ultimate goal, besides winning the “coolest aunt ever” award, is getting kids excited about being outside.

Where will kids go to college when they’ve been immersed in nature though pumpkin math, insect collecting, and family hikes throughout childhood? Jimmy Atkinson at OEDb: Online Education Database identifies 13 campus-wide environmental education programs in the continental U.S. Opportunties from Maine to California appear in a very useful survey, How to Get a Green Education | OEDb. Check out the whole site for online college & grad level courses in biology, ecology, astronomy, and other relevant subjects.

Of course, education isn’t over when you’re out of college, so Todd at We The Change recommends volunteering as a way to learn more about the natural world. He pitched in to help remove invasive plants from a 500-acre preserve in Manhattan, along the way gaining perspective on the role of emotion in nature appreciation. Says Todd, “I think a big part of the beauty that people feel from nature is the ultimate peace and acceptance that emanates from it.”

For me, much of fall’s beauty emanates from the splendor of migration. One champion migrant, the cliff swallow, is honored in poetry this month by Terrell as part of his ever-inspiring Monday Poetry Stretch. Look closer at Alone on a Limb for photos of cliff & barn swallows on the nest. Dana at Backyard Birding offers advice on Enjoying the raptor migration. Click on her post for an interactive map if you want to participate in an official raptor count near you, or just watch for migrants dropping by for a snack at your backyard feeder. Either approach hones your id skills, enhances your appreciation of the season, and gets you & the kids away from the tv.

These migration posts bring me to my selection for this carnival’s award for Virtual Outdoors Children’s Website of the Month. I’m happy to bestow this honor on my homeschooled son’s favorite migration website, Journey North for Kids. We’ve turned there often as we raise and release monarchs this fall, hoping they’ll join the masses headed south to Mexico. The kids' page of Journey North will give your children and students video and photo clues to the many intriguing projects pursued at Journey North. Kids can enter data on their own observations, check maps reflecting citings by students around the country, or order red tulips to plant now and take part in 2008’s studies of the returning spring.

Thanks very much for visiting Pines Above Snow for this month’s Learning in the Great Outdoors Carnival. November’s edition will be back home at Alone on a Limb. Send submissions to Terrell at thelimb[at]mac[dot]com.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Rime of the Out-Moded Long Line

It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
`By thy long beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me ?

With these lines, Samuel Taylor Coleridge begins his haunting tale, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Fair weather blesses the mariner’s voyage at first, and when a storm threatens the ship, an albatross appears along with a warm wind that blows the vessel out of danger. The shipmates rejoice and praise the bird for their salvation, yet the mariner shoots it dead with a crossbow. Punishment for his senseless act falls upon the whole crew, who suffer agonizing thirst and die, blaming the albatross-killer for their fate. Only the mariner survives. He repents at last but is doomed to wander the earth, confessing his sinful disregard for living creatures.

I couldn’t help but think of Coleridge’s verse while reading a recent post about albatross deaths by Charlie at 10,000 Birds. The statistics he reports are grim—100,000 albatrosses are killed each year by long-line industrial fishing. As an outraged (he says “bloody infuriated”) Charlie puts it, “100,000 albatrosses dying every year so that - basically - our supermarket shelves can be stocked with tins of tuna and the world’s restaurants can serve up exotic fish from the southern oceans.”

In Coleridge’s world of poetic justice, the perpetrator of such senseless killing was cursed to wear an albatross as a physical sign of his spiritual burden. Or, in the poet’s words, Ah! Well a-day! What evil looks / Had I from old and young! / Instead of the cross, the albatross / About my neck was hung . Unfortunately, 5-star restaurants won’t be looping albatross necklaces around patrons who order swordfish. Charlie questions the effectiveness of a fish boycott though he (and I) won’t be eating any Starkist with plunder like this going on.

Instead, he urges everyone who cares about these magnificent flyers to support an urgent international effort to modify long-line fishing technology. The campaign, Save the Albatross has developed an excellent website with all the tools activists need to get involved, plus inspiring facts about albatross biology, behavior, and roles in history and literature. You can even get images and buttons like the snazzy one above to alert readers of your website or blog about this conservation crisis. With 19 of 21 albatross species already threatened with extinction, there isn’t a moment to lose.

And if you’d like to learn still more about these birds and their oceanic odysseys, you can’t go wrong reading Carl Safina’s Eye of the Albatross: Visions of Hope and Survival. Safina devoted months to chronicling the expansive movements of one particular Laysan albatross, a female he calls Amelia. In the grand tradition of Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind, Safina relies on the latest biological research to ground rich imaginings of Amelia’s daily activities and experiences, as she skillfully makes a living from the vast and trackless Pacific. Getting to know Amelia is the best way I can think of to understand what the birds are up against.

Concern for their plight has led Safina to launch his own campaign to reform long-line fishing through the Blue Ocean Institute. Blue Ocean’s “Off the Hook” efforts focus on building relationships with fishermen and studying alternative fishing methods. With efforts like “Off the Hook” and “Save the Albatross,” perhaps a future mariner can spread a tale of redemption and hope as albatrosses strafe the waves, snatching fish from a brimming ocean.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Nature's Engraver

Roger Tory Peterson is routinely credited with launching birdwatching as a popular hobby in the 20th century. The 1934 publication of his Guide to the Birds got things going, with its clear, color illustrations and field mark system making bird id simple even for urbanites who’d rarely noticed birds before. A prolific writer and photographer as well as painter, Peterson traveled the world, using his talents and charisma to spread the gospel of birding and environmentalism to anyone who would listen. Before Peterson’s death in 1996, Paul Ehrlich said, “In this century, no one has done more to promote an interest in living creatures than Roger Tory Peterson, the inventor of the modern field guide.”

An 18th century counterpart to Peterson is charmingly revealed in Jenny Uglow’s new biography, Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick. The humble Bewick (1753-1828), who rarely traveled beyond his native Northumbria, inspired a generation of nature enthusiasts through his art much like his globe-trotting, media-savvy successor. Uglow details how Bewick elevated the craft of wood engraving to a fine art, developing a realistic, often whimsical, style that became popular for illustrating publications ranging from bookplates and business cards to broadsides and multi-volume tomes. One irresistible feature of Uglow’s biography is the plethora of original-sized samples of Bewick’s work, especially his “talepieces,” or miniature vignettes of rural life--often nostalgic, sometimes sardonic, but always worth careful scrutiny.

Art-lovers collect and revere Bewick’s prints and have formed the Bewick Society to promulgate his legacy. Naturalists esteem him primarily for two works: A General History of Quadrupeds and A History of British Birds. Bewick foreshadowed his much-younger contemporary, Audubon, by depicting his birds in their habitats, relying only on ink on carved boxwood to convey much of what Audubon could with watercolor and brushstrokes. Legendary art critic John Ruskin wrote, “. . . the execution of the plumage in Bewick’s birds is the most masterly thing ever done in woodcutting. . . “

Says Uglow, Bewick’s accessibly-priced volumes catalyzed the early Victorian craze in nature study that fostered the obsessive studies of Darwin and other pivotal 19th century naturalists. Uglow writes, “For a century, Bewick’s work was often a child’s first introduction to studies of animals and birds.” Charlotte Bronte even allows Jane Eyre a few moments of solace with his books. As Jane narrates, “With Bewick on my knee, I was then happy!” Uglow’s intimate look at Bewick’s life and craft offers, more than most artist's biographies, insight into how Bewick attained his lasting achievements. As she explains, Thomas Bewick loved his home moors and dells, and the animals that shared them with him, so deeply that he believed others must share that emotion. “His unpretentious tailpieces of travelers and farmers, streams and windy moors, make the past live, and his woodcuts of animals and birds let us share his own wonder at the human and the natural world, from the ‘Mufflon Zebu’ to the swallow sweeping through the northern skies.” With swift sure strokes, Uglow presents a life of texture, shade, and depth that will lead readers to a clearer understanding of how art, long before Peterson or even Audubon, has helped define--and change--our place in the natural environment.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Ansel Adams in Black-and-White

1968 was the most tumultuous year of my childhood, when budding awareness of world events met with assassinations and race riots and my mother’s remarriage brought a hot-tempered step-father and two troubled stepsisters into my life. But 1968 was also the year Ansel Adams photographed “El Capitan, Winter Sunrise, Yosemite National Park,” an image of heartbreaking clarity that I might never have appreciated without my step-father’s obsessive camera hobby and adulation of Adams. Perhaps because I lost so many childhood hours waiting in the station wagon for the right light to illuminate my step-father’s next shot, I’ve never pursued photography myself. But I’ve known ever since that photographs are a way of appreciating nature both when you are immersed in it and when you are far removed. Whatever traits others admire in Adams’ technique and artistry, I feel deep gratitude for the connections his work gave me to Yosemite, the Sierra, and wild Alaska, places where I could escape even if I couldn’t get there.

You can imagine my delight when I learned that Washington, D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery is hosting a traveling exhibit of 130 Adams prints (September 15 through January 27). The photos celebrate six decades of Adams’ development, from his early painterly efforts to iconic masterpieces such as “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.” Bought directly from Adams’ by William and Saundra Lane, the prints offer a rare chance to see Adams’ work at its finest, in images he developed himself. “The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score,” says Adams, “and the print the performance." No matter how often you’ve seen Adams’ posters, calendars and notecards, it is vital see his prints firsthand.

Though I haven’t seen the show yet, an article in The Washington Post notes that it includes an example of Adams’ commercial work, a prosaic shot of a potash company. To writer Blake Gopnik, Adams’ industrial photos reveal the artist was not, as popularly understood, a pure nature photographer. The power of Adams’ most lauded photos, says Gopnik, is not from Adams’ love of the natural environment but from “the particular confrontations between technology and landscape that made those photos possible.” Gopnik relates that when he sees an Adams view of “Moonrise,” for instance, he thinks not of the New Mexico desert but of the Pontiac Adams was driving when he spotted the potential shot in his rear-view mirror. Ignoring the fact that young Adams hiked, aided only by a mule loaded with glass camera plates, to capture images of Yosemite’s backcountry, Gopnik claims Adams was as much about pride in ownership of nature and in technological domination of distance and access as about wild nature itself. In contrast to my own experience, Gopnik also states that Adams’ photos sent him and others exploring not outdoors but in camera shops and darkroom supply stores, “and into the depths of all the complex how-to books that Adams wrote.”

I think--or hope-- that Gopnik is wrong. To me at least, Adams was depicting the feeling of a mountain, forest, or snowfield, not his machine-assisted confrontation with it. Adams’ eminent colleague Edward Weston once explained their shared view that “the camera should be used for recording of life, for rending the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh.” Adams’ birch trees, aspen leaves, even rock faces never fail to palpitate for me, and one mark of their personal effect was my children’s book about Adams’ environmental lifework Eye on the Wild: A Story about Ansel Adams. But perhaps his impact today is fading, as the forested ranges he once scoured for artistic angles are overrun by bus tours, converted into ski slopes, or dried & fried from climate change. Who wouldn’t prefer the thrilling discoveries of a darkroom lab to a mournful visitation of a birch woods, marked for clear-cutting? Will even our so-called permanent records of wilderness lose their potency if the reality dwindles and vanishes from the earth?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Children's Books that Think Big

Who could resist the charms of a “joyous, ample gal” who could churn butter from a river of milk or stir up a cyclone by shaking her floor rugs? Paul Bunyan sure couldn’t, according to Marybeth Lorbiecki’s charming folktale picturebook about a larger-than-life romance in Minnesota’s north woods, Paul Bunyan’s Sweetheart. Raised by bears, Lucette Diana Kensack grew and grew as environmentally aware as she was tall, leading toward a delightful twist on traditional renditions of Bunyan’s lumberjacking ways. The illustrations remind me of Garth William’s glowing covers of some versions of Little House on the Prairie and evoke a time of wide open spaces and even bigger dreams.

I like this book so much that I’m going to recommend it for Orion Magazine’s Bibliography of Nature Stories for Children. Orion, a leader in promoting environmental literacy around the nation, argues that stories more than fact-based texts or field guides engage children’s imaginations and inspire them to care about nature. While I disagree somewhat with that position—I think different kids respond to different types of books, and all kinds of good books can equally play valuable roles—I heartily agree that stories like Paul Bunyan’s Sweetheart can fulfill Orion's goal to “bring the world alive and establish nature as our home.” After all, if you can believe a giant blue ox’s footprints made the Great Lakes, the idea that people could learn to restore and protect a piney wilderness doesn’t seem farfetched anymore.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

What's More Fun than a Free Book?

Few things are more fun for me than giving away books. So I recognized a kindred spirit in this morning’s KidsPost, the children’s section of The Washington Post. A seventeen-year-old Virginia high school student, touched by the 2004 tsunami, collected 2,000 gently used children’s books for schools in Sri Lanka. When the student, Sarasi Jayarantne, arrived in one small town to deliver her first donation, the community welcomed her with a marching band. After such success, it’s no wonder that she’s continuing her efforts through a new group, the Keep Reading Foundation, that will welcome your contributions (though she can’t promise a marching band for everyone). Great work, Sarasi!

A non-profit called Bring Me a Book has a somewhat different approach to improving children’s literacy. Rather than donating books en masse, their programs establish lending libraries in preschools, homeless shelters, medical centers, and other places where kids and families congregate. Two unique programs that especially intrigue me are their book bag lending libraries, which enable employers to set up shelves of lendable books for employees to share at home, and workshops that teach techniques for reading aloud to parents and daycare providers. Bring Me a Book programs are enhancing literacy in 9 states and 7 countries so far.

The biggest book fairy organization I know is First Book. That thriving group has already donated 50 million books to children in need around the country, largely through a National Book Bank of new titles donated by publishers. First Book has its own blog, where you can catch announcements such as a pledge this week by Random House to donate a whopping $1 million to the cause. If you know of an organization or Title 1 school that needs free books (of course you do!), visit the website to learn how they can register as a recipient of a First Book distribution.

Part of me dreams of being CEO of a group like First Book, joyfully doling out stack after stack of colorful titles to crowds of smiling children. But the rest of me knows that I’d constantly be clashing with my board of directors, who wouldn’t understand why we’d give away dozens of kids' field guides, nature story books, and Aldo Leopold biographies for every Harry Potter or Captain Underpants. It’s not that I don’t think such popular books have their places; it’s just that my passion is elsewhere. So I know that my true dream is to start a group with enhancing nature literacy as the focus, and book donations as a means to that laudable—and essential—end. Until I figure out how to do that, though, I’ll be giving books like Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon and Amy Ehrlich's Carson biography, Rachel, to people like Sarasi, who have already found a way to spread their love of all kinds of books around the world.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Bloggers for Positive Global Change Award!

Thanks very much to Wild Flora for tagging Pines Above Snow with a Bloggers for Positive Global Change Award. Flora won the award for her inspiring and lovely blog that uses wildlife-friendly gardening as an instrument for enhancing the beauty and sustainability of our daily lives. Congratulations to Flora for her good work.

The award was created over at Climate of Our Future, a blog with the humble mission of “changing the world we live in for the better.” While their writing focuses primarily on global climate change and myriad methods of reducing carbon emissions, their goal for the award is to recognize bloggers—regardless of focus, ideology, religion, or moral philosophy—who blog with the purpose of inspiring, catalyzing, or otherwise nudging the world toward a more sustainable, humane, enlightened future. Thanks, COF, for your worthy efforts and for a new meme that spreads your idealism, I hope, far and wide.

Now it’s my turn to pass the golden torch along to others. I’m nominating three blogs that I reply upon for information and inspiration, starting with the site of my blogging mentor, Nathan, of Talk-Lab. I love Nathan’s creative mind, which allows him to pursue his aims of creating an online lab for serious discussions of politics, philosophy, urban design, and paths toward a more civil society while having lots of fun along the way. In his blog carnival, the Carnival of Conflict, Nathan welcomes contributions seeking fresh approaches to micro and macro clashes, resulting in posts that explore everything from global justice to personal choices such as homeschooling to revive civility around the home fires.

Another of my favorite reads is Alone on a Limb. Thanks to Terrell, you can start your week with a poem, a ritual he’s used to bring positive change to elementary classrooms for 27 years and is now sharing with web readers. AOL also sponsors a wide ranging environmental education carnival each month, Learning in the Great Outdoors, featuring lively and essential information for anyone trying to reach minds, young or old, about environmental topics, local or global. I often turn to it to learn more about new children’s book titles or how to use them with students, but there’s always a diversity of topics reflecting the many, many ways dedicated educators are improving our world.

Last but not least, I’m tagging a blog that I recently discovered, Natural Patriot. Author Emmett Duffy is a professor at Virginia Institute of Marine Science and an expert in marine biodiversity yet takes the time to blog with the purpose of expanding our definition of patriotism to include stewardship of natural communities. One tactic is his spotlighting of exceptional thinkers and activists such as Richard Louv, Aldo Leopold, and Lady Bird Johnson as role model “natural patriots.” It’s no wonder that Professor Duffy was awarded an Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellowship in 2006.

Congratulations to all of you for your important efforts. I’m looking forward to seeing what blogs you find inspiring and energizing in our shared goal of creating a better future.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Coming to a Campus Near You

Hannah can’t be old enough attend to college next fall, and, of course, I’m not old enough to have a daughter that far grown. But somehow, despite my shock and protests, it is happening. So today I took her and a friend college shopping to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, home since 1783 to Dickinson College. We’ve been traipsing around various campuses since last spring, and I’d seen this one’s idyllic greensward and limestone walls on an earlier drive by, so I didn’t anticipate many surprises. Happily, I was wrong.

First, our information session included an overview of sustainable-living initiatives on campus. Ubiquitous recycling bins, energy-efficient dorm clothes driers, and a solar-paneled, LEED-certified green science building under construction were presented to students and parents as strong selling points for the school. We got to see the school community walking the administrator’s talk in the dining hall, when the line for a turn to compost leftovers snaked longer than the one at the register.

Greener still was the bookstore. I’m sorry to report plenty of unsustainable campus staples such as disposable pens and plastic water bottles. But the shelves also displayed plenty of works that speak to the folly of such consumer choices. Prominent on the best-seller stacks were Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, while required intro course reading featured Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and Michael Grosvenor’s Sustainable Living for Dummies along with the usual suspects of ecology, oceanography, and geology texts. While I didn’t spot any copies of A Sand County Almanac, they wouldn’t have felt out of place.

Just this morning, too, I learned that the National Wildlife Federation keeps track of sustainability innovations at colleges and universities around the country. While I can’t help feeling bereft about the imminent departure of my dear daughter, it’s uplifting to know that she and so many of her peers will be living as we all should, in communities that recognize the value in making changes now toward a greener, more hopeful future.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Rainy Summer Reading

Much needed summer rain is falling, and I’m trapped inside waiting for a repair guy, so here are some gatherings from around the blogosphere that I’ve enjoyed lately. . . .

Anyone interested in environmental education will want to visit the fifth edition of Learning in the Great Outdoors, a carnival hosted this month by Miss Rumphius Effect. Miss R, aka Tricia, blogs often and well about children’s literature, and her carnival edition includes links to posts recommending books to enrich a homeschool garden lesson, instructions on making a nature journal, and thoughts on using a classic, early 20th century environmental education volume, Handbook of Nature Study, by Anna Botsford Comstock, also for homeschooling. Has anyone else observed that homeschoolers seem to be at the forefront of outdoor ed & getting kids outside these days?

Our friends at 10,000 Birds have posted another item after PAS’s heart, “Keep Every Cog and Wheel.” Mike’s essay is a plea for saving parts of the natural world not currently recognized as commercially valuable, e.g., spotted owls. He likens our natural commons to a precarious Jenga game tower, with spotted owls as vital, if unappreciated, building blocks. Then he turns to Aldo Leopold for his game playing philosophy, quoting from A Sand County Almanac, “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” I suspect that if we all played by Aldo Leopold’s rules, we’d all win.

There’s an ecstatic review of Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods over at Natural Patriot, calling it “a seminal work in environmentalism”. Also check out Natural Patriot’s Essential Reading list. A Sand County Almanac’s on it, so NP is going on my blogroll today.

Another intriguing list of green books can be found at Ideal Bite. I have mixed feelings about this site, which sends out daily emails if you subscribe, with tips on “light green” living. Many are useful and fun, but many more seem to be pushing products--$150 designer handbags that happen to be made of hemp, $40 bamboo tshirts, etc. But I like this book list, especially if you can get the titles at the library. I hadn’t heard of Ignition, described as “a collection of personal essays by writers, scholars, and activists who have worked to stop global warming.” And I haven’t yet read Plenty, “a memoir about what happens when two people decide to eat only food produced within a 100-mile radius for a year.” But I can second the nomination of Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a book that has literally changed my family’s eating life.

Wishing you some refreshing rain so you can enjoy a day of late summer reading.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Bolt from the Blue

Months ago, a thoughtful reader recommended that I take Bill Bryson’s new memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, along on an plane trip. Though I didn’t get it in time for takeoff, it was on hand yesterday when I was looking for a break from environmental tomes. Having read or listened to most of Bryson’s other books, notably A Walk in the Woods, I knew his interests include park protection, human-animal relationships, public recreation, scientific progress, & other environmental topics. But I didn’t expect a book about his 1950s Des Moines, Iowa childhood to have such relevance to so many of our current energy, resource, and political crises. I wanted to laugh while reading it, which I did, but instead of getting a break from worrying about the future, I found new insights into when many of our current problems arose in our past.

I’ll leave the formal reviewing to others, such as The Christian Science Monitor and The Boston Globe. My point is more quickly made by quoting from Chapter 4, The Age of Excitement, which begins, “I don’t know how they managed it, but the people responsible for the 1950s made a world in which pretty much everything was good for you. . . . Every week brought exciting news of things becoming better, swifter, more convenient. Nothing was too preposterous to try.” If a corporation with advertising dollars could imagine it, our cultural ethos was “Go for it!” Bryson writes with hilarity and some hyperbole about the wacky new convenience foods we began putting in our mouths. Rolettes—frozen sticks of pureed mixed vegetables concocted in the General Foods laboratories—didn’t last, but thousands of food products packed with preservatives, stabilizers, surfactants, and emulsifiers for our convenience launched to lasting success. June Cleaver, what were you thinking?

Essentially, Bryson’s book is about attitude change. Some changes he notes since the ‘50s are laudable, indeed essential, such as improving civil rights. But so many other ominous values—mass consumerism, anti-intellectualism, unquestioning patriotism, blind faith in technology—emerged or at least hit critical mass post-World War II. What confluence of events led to their emergence and dominance? Even more important, how can we change—whether it’s a question of changing back or moving toward new beliefs and attitudes? Unfortunately, Bryson’s book doesn’t pretend to offer the answers. Instead, it left me wondering what some acerbic writer, growing up in the 2000s, will be writing about our self-destructive attitudes and actions. I hope a thoughtful reader out there can point me toward a book that will leave me not just laughing but smiling toward the future.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Fears in the Dark

Barbara Hurd opens her essay, “The Squeeze,” with a panic attack. While teaching creative writing at summer camp, she blithely agreed to accompany her students on a field trip into a cave. Hurd lowered herself into a ten-foot-deep pit with no hesitation and watched a guide and all eleven students disappear into a rocky tunnel. But a nameless terror met her as she tried squirming in after them, and Hurd swiftly clambered back up the ropes and into the light.

I thought of that essay and Hurd’s fine book, Entering the Stone: On Caves and Feeling Through the Dark, last weekend when my family stood in a sinkhole, gazing into the dim opening of Penn’s Cave. A tourist attraction to hundreds most summer days, Penn’s doesn’t require belly squirming to enter. Instead of adventure, we were seeking the cool relief of 52 degree air wafting from the capacious entrance. Yet fear still threatened to keep me outside, for my phobia is water, and visitors to Penn’s Cave must load onto rickety, rectangular motorboats to admire even one stalactite. In this case fear of my offsprings’ disdain was even stronger, and I inched aboard, focusing on the illuminated flowstone overhead rather than the cloudy water below.

Fortunately for nature essay readers, Hurd’s supportive friends and own resolve have enabled her to venture underground again and again. Each descent has brought her fresh insights, not just of the geological and biological nature of caves, but of psychology, mythology, personal history and intimate relationships. One thread through her book is a friend’s terminal illness, and Hurd searches for moments of beauty within the woman’s agonizing decline as thoroughly as in any cavern she visits. Hurd takes a flowing, unhurried path through her subject, visiting damp grottoes near her home in western Maryland, desert caves in Arizona, and sacred rifts in the mountains of India. Her essay titles alone may inspire you to join her journeys: “The Solace of Beauty,” “Moonmilk,” and “In the Hollow that Remains.”

Ultimately, Entering the Stone is about facing, not conquering, fears—of tight spaces, shadows, heartbreak, and mortality. Hurd makes clear that the border between danger and safety is a fertile place. Waiting at the threshold of one cave, Hurd writes, “. . . I know that to the right lies the cave’s stale air and darkness and to the left lies the passageway out, the light, the green, the song of indigo buntings.” Yet she chooses to enter, to search for meanings in the paradoxes and uncertainties she encounters in the dark.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Festival of Trees #14

This looks like an extra-hot weekend coming up, and my family is heading to Pennsylvania to visit Penn's Cave. But if you can't escape to a cool, dark cavern, try sitting under a tree with your laptop, perusing the 14th edition of the Festival of Trees, over at Via Negative. Though that wide-ranging blog is usually hosted by talented writer/photographer Dave Bonta, he graciously invited a rather erudite katydid to narrate the festival in celebration of the height of summer.

Dave's katydid sings the praises of blog posts ranging from straight facts on tree species and practicalities of tree planting to poetry and poetic photo images. One of my favorite festival participants is a blog new to me--Trees, If You Please--with an entry featuring evocative tree paintings by Emily Leonard. Any blog author whose "about me" states "I love trees. That's really what it's all about" is bound to win Pines Above Snow's heart. Thanks, Katy (& Dave).

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Sunday Not-So-Funnies

I almost wish I’d just stuck to reading the comics in last Sunday’s Washington Post (7/29/07). The Book World section cover story reviewed The Unnatural History of the Sea, in which Callum Roberts traces the history of our “boundless delusion” that the sea is a limitless resource immune from human overexploitation. In case reading about the possibly-irreversible degradation of ocean life weren’t depressing enough, another review looked at Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle over Global Warming by science journalist Chris Mooney. Storm World looks into the increasingly grim facts about global warming and its spinoffs, such as Katrina and other “hypercanes,” and finds something even more distressing: our government is muzzling the scientists who would alert us to danger perhaps in time to prevent the worst results. I took a breather after these two dismaying critiques and scanned the column for young readers. Sunday’s presented an array of retellings, often with ethnic twists, of classic fairy tales. But I couldn’t help wondering which Brothers Grimm parable of human folly describes our environmental blindness best.

Back to the adult book reviews, the one that most caught my eye addresses the perhaps-surprising best seller, The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman. A science journalist, Weisman postulates that all human life could suddenly disappear, perhaps from a human-specific, airborne virus. Then he asks—how would the Earth react? Within days, New York’s subway tunnels would flood, within years pet dogs would start their decline toward extinction, and within decades, most of our homes would be collapsed, the remains overgrown with vegetation and overrun with new four- and six-legged occupants. The end of humans would also mean the cessation of nuclear power plant maintenance, and the resulting Chernobyls would spread radioactive contamination around 100s of sites. But the most ubiquitous, persistent signs of former human glory would be our plastic trash. Plastic bags would block sea turtle intestines and miles-long plastic nets would continue to fish the troubled oceans long after we vanish into the past.

To my surprise, the reviewer (Michael Grunwald, author of The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise) doesn’t seem to grasp the value of this thought experiment. He says The World “is trivia masquerading as wisdom” and criticizes the author for recommending population control as a partial solution to current and projected environmental crises. It’s just the kind of formal book review I dislike—devoting more space to the reviewer’s reactions than to the substance of the book. We learn that the reviewer attends lots of “depressingly apocalyptic environmental conferences” and that he adamantly opposes strict population limits and thinks human survival is the best and only reason to protect the planet. But he fails adequately to present Weisman’s viewpoint or to quote from the book to give potential readers a taste of Weisman’s prose style. Although I’m a strong supporter of newspaper book reviews as an essential resource for readers confronted with so many books, this one doesn’t do its job. I can’t tell from this reviewer’s strident objects whether or not he’s giving Weisman’s arguments a fair shake.

Luckily, The World has attracted enough attention that Weisman’s out there on the talk show circuit speaking for his book himself. Check out his July 30th interview on public radio. Or you can read a transcript of a live discussion, sponsored by The Washington Post, with Weisman and Callum Roberts (author of the above-mentioned The Unnatural History of the Sea about both of their books. Weisman takes the time to respond to the Post review and to talk about how he remains optimistic about the future in the face of all that he learned during his research. I may have to read it again to capture some of that optimism for myself. Or maybe I’ll just read Zits.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

I Believe in Books

Last Christmas, a few of my favorite people got the same present from me—a copy of the just-released essay collection, This I Believe, edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman. The book sprang from a public radio series that asks each contributor to distill his or her personal credo into a short essay that could begin with the words, “I believe. . . . “

Some people take on grand subjects such as justice, art, nature, or God. More surprising are the often-eloquent rifs on why an author believes in going to funerals, getting angry, or talking with monkeys. The idea originated in the 1950s, when Edward R. Morrow introduced radio essays by Eleanore Roosevelt, Helen Keller, Carl Sandburg, and other luminaries. The book includes a few of the original pieces along with new ones by Penn Jillette, Joy Harjo, John McCain, and others, well known or not. I think what I like most about all of them, apart from getting a peak inside the value systems of creative writers, is that none of the essays are pressing, haranguing, or begging readers to believe the same way. Part of the task is to present your belief as something that works for you—an approach to finding meaning in life, but not a prescription that others must follow. That’s not an easy assignment, as anyone who has tried to write a self-contained, non-didactic esssay about deep convictions will understand.

You--or anyone--is welcome to contribute to this ongoing project. Not only are This I Believe essays a weekly feature on NPR’s Morning Edition, but a nonprofit is collecting thousands of essays and organizing them in a searchable database for writers, educators, and others fascinated with the possibilities of what the website calls “A Public Dialogue about Belief.” One of the most visionary project goals, to elevate the level of public discourse about values, is facilitated on the site by a free downloadable guide for community activists who want to organize local conversations about beliefs. A good place to start is to listen to a few past contributions via podcast.

Or tune in tomorrow to Morning Edition, when nature writer David Gessner will talk about his belief in wildness. I haven’t heard Gessner's essay yet, but I believe you’ll enjoy it.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Worm Watch

What does No Impact Man do for fun? Apparently, he watches red wiggler worms eat his garbage. A bin full of annelids turns his kitchen waste into compost right there in his Manhattan apartment, much to the delight of NID (No Impact Daughter—age 2). His helpful posts give directions on how to set up your own kitchen compost bin so you can watch, too.

But what if you want to know more about your slimy new pets? Garden writer Amy Stewart gives you the underground scoop on life in the dirt in The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms. Stewart visits Australia’s Giant Worm Museum, sewage treatment plants, and her own backyard to keep the narrative lively enough to read aloud by the bin. Or listen to her public radio interview with Diane Rehm if you’re pressed for reading time.

My favorite section of The Earth Moved talks about one of the more eccentric-sounding phases of Charles Darwin’s long & fruitful scientific life—his earthworm years. Darwin kept worms on an old billiard table and played bassoon to them, testing their auditory responses. His final book was the surprise best seller: The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits, which you can find at Darwin Online. The site also has transcriptions of the pocket diaries of Darwin’s wife in case you want to know what Emma Darwin thought about Charles’ worms.

There are books to read, too, if you, like NIM, have young eyes worm watching with you. A simple but accurate book small enough for preschool-sized hands is Tunneling Earthworms, by Suzanne Dell’Oro. Earthworms, by Lola Schaefer, is for early elementary readers, ready for more terminology and detail. For kids eager for more active investigations of worm behavior and ecology, check out Wormology, by Michael Elsohn Ross. There, kids can read for themselves about Darwin’s wacky worm experiments and find directions for some of their own.

And if you just want a whimsical storybook with a spineless, wriggly hero, get Diary of a Worm, by Doreen Cronin. My kids laugh out loud at Cronin’s typing cows in Click, Clack, Moo, and her hokey-pokey dancing worm isn’t far behind. True, real earthworms don’t wear baseball caps, but sometimes anthropomorphizing in the name of fun is ok by me. Kids (or teachers) intrigued by the story to dig deeper will appreciate enrichment activities available from Diary's publisher, HarperCollins,