Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Power Reading

I suppose it's inevitable that a blogger, especially a beginning blogger, would want to retract a post now and then. In fact, the very act of blogging about a book can make you more aware of your opinions & judgments, which usually leads me to question them. So ever since I complained that Jared Diamond's Collapse seemed too long, even redundant, I've been rethinking my position.

Now another book I'm reading is shaking my faith in my reaction and even approach to Collapse. My current book is Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose. The subtitle reveals the author's essential purpose: A Guide for People who Love Books and for Those who Want to
Write Them. Using a wealth of selections from master writers in various genres, Prose demonstrates techniques in reading necessary to appreciate (and possibly emulate) fine literary style.

I felt her hot breath of disapproval when I recalled how I sped through parts of Collapse. Prose says, "Skimming just won't suffice if we hope to extract one fraction . . . of what a a writer's words can teach us about how to use the language. And reading quickly--for plot, for ideas, even for psychological truths that a story reveals--can be a hindrance when the crucial revelations are in the spaces between words, in what has been left out."

I picked up Collapse because I wanted to learn how he supported his arguments that societies through history have, however unknowingly,chosen to deteriorate. By skimming and even skipping through Diamond's work, I may have been missing the very nuances of his work that would have left me more satisfied after reading it. Was I failing in my job as a reader to parse the author's sentences, paragraphs, and chapters more thoroughly? One of my mantras as a writer is that writing is a performance art. The reader brings meaning to the work, I believe, and, Prose would add, also an appreciation of process. To get the most out of a dense argument, the reader must be willing and able to seek out the best in a given volume.

Francine Prose helps me understand one way I may have gone wrong when she says, "Reading this way requires a certain amount of stamina, concentration, and patience." Of these key three, I seem particularly to lack reading stamina these days. It may be just having too many projects going at once, but I rarely read the same work for an hour at a time. I've seen plenty of advice on improving reading speed, but I'm not sure exactly how one builds stamina as a reader--longer books? more convoluted prose? reading marathons? But it's something I'll keep in mind now as a issue that can muddy my interpretation of a book & its value. Plus, it'll make a great excuse to lie in my favorite reading spot, pumping print to build my reading muscles instead of cleaning my house.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Starting on the Stack

Like most readers, I keep a stack of books (or more than one) waiting to be read. Now, I also have a stack for books to be blogged about. In fact I started the stack a long while before I started the blog, in the hopes that it might inspire (guilt?) me into starting. After all, I can't really clean up my space until the "to blog" stack disappears.

At the very bottom (really the beginning) of the blog stack is Jared Diamond's book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. The author presents a breathtakingly-thorough comparative analysis of several societies that, for varied but related reasons, undermine the ecological basis for their survival. For 592 pages, Diamond examines the errors of ancient Easter Islanders, Mayans, the Greenland Norse, contemporary Montanans, and others to reveal tragic flaws in human culture--notably, societal hubris--that separate us from nature and may lead to our destruction. Each case studied was fascinating, nuanced and convincing, and the contrasts between failed civilizations and more sustainable ones offered some rays of hope. Critics showered it with praise and it's won scads of awards and speaking invitations for the author. The book and author are all over the web, including this excellent video lecture.

And while I hesitate to argue with any of the applauding critics or happy purchasers, I still think that like too many books these days, it was just too long. More case studies or more details do not necessarily mean a stronger argument. It's not just a matter of limited reading time, or short attention spans, or even limiting unnecessarily turning trees into pages. It's more about the old Mark Twain saying, "If I had more time I would write a shorter letter." I'm having a similar problem with a children's book about oceans I'm currently working on--how do you write a meaningful chapter on salt water invertebrates, for example, in 500 words? Somehow, I'll have to distill what I want to say down to a few paragraphs, and leave out lots and lots of details.

I'm not trying to talk anyone out of reading Collapse. Rather, I'm giving myself permission to stop reading it and other books that fail or cease to satisfy, for whatever reason. If you need to for some reason (academic, cultural, or personal), you can always go back and try again. In the meantime, there are plenty of other books in the stack.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Our Pines Now Paper

My love for Aldo Leopold's pine trees may seem absurd to some. After all, I've never seen them, and they are, some would say, just trees. The fact that Leopold and his family planted them as part of their personal campaign to rehabilitate a patch of farmed-out Wisconsin may not impress my detractors, either. But I like to think that any reader, tree-philic or not, would value those particular trees after reading Leopold's reflections in his essay, "Pines Above the Snow." Since reading those passages in A Sand County Almanac, I have known just what Leopold means when he says, "I love all trees, but I am in love with pines."

So it was with trepidation that I read the cover article in the latest newsletter of The Aldo Leopold Foundation, "Printed on Pine: A Special Edition of A Sand County Almanac." Managers of Leopold's land decided that the pine stand needed thinning "to promote the health and longevity of the strongest trees," and the felled trees have been crafted into beams for the new Aldo Leopold Legacy Center, opening April 22 in Baraboo. Wood pulp from the harvest has also been processed into paper to print a unique edition of Leopold's Almanac.

The paper was processed with an experimental technique without chlorine or sulfer treatments, then mixed with pulp from other types of trees to create archival quality paper. And money from the limited edition hardcover, priced tentatively at $750, will benefit the Foundation's educational and land stewardship efforts. I think that Leopold, who advocated sustained use, not naive preservation, would approve of this thoughtful step toward sustaining his land and legacy. And with his fine, philosphical mind, honed by many strokes of his ax, he could even have watched the careful harvest. But while I'd love to own one of those special books, I'm glad I was too far away to see those pine trees fall.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Climate Crisis Action Day

See my spiffy new button for GlobalWarming.org? I spent yesterday in Washington, D.C. for a rally against global warming, officially called, Climate Crisis Action Day. We heard John Kerry speak on the history of growing concern and legislative failures and a third grader talk about her concern for drowning polar bears. We also picked up some info on installing solar water heaters, plus a button from the Wilderness Society announcing, "I Like it Wild." Then we headed for our Congressional Rep's office to deliver my seven-year-old's drawing of a polar bear asking, "Save me!"

The rally was a little sparse, especially for such a beautiful day. The minimal gathering inspired my activist son to write a blog entry today, pondering the effectiveness of rallies in campaigns for social change. I'll leave that for his more social-theory oriented mind. My books-oriented mind started wondering how books can shape the campaign.

I've read only one, though: James Gustave Speth's Red Sky at Morning. It's a good place to start, written by a scholar (Speth's Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies) and supplemented by a website, complete with additional resources, updates, and a streaming video of the author discussing his work. I've also skimmed the companion book to Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth, and read laudatory reviews of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change by Elizabeth Kolbert (Paperback,2006).

But there are so many other choices, some overtly hostile to climate change theories, others aimed at spoofing concerns rather than inspiring action. The field looks too big for one humble blogging over-reader to pick the best or most effective at helping the debate progress. So what books have you found useful? Did it inspire you to think better, talk better, act better? Or is there a book on climate change that still needs to be written? Well, then, stop rallying and start writing. . . .

Monday, March 19, 2007

Lord God Bird Books (and movies)

We were having a busy, over-worked weekend, and no one in my family had time to go to a movie. But it was the premier of a work-in-progress about the re-discovery of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, part of the DC Environmental Film Festival. All six of us threw caution to the wind (one had to be bribed with Afgan takeout food), and headed for the theater.

Much to our surprise, the place was brimming with other Lord God Bird fans. We stood next to a bearded man in a tweed sports jacket and chatted, as people smushed together waiting and waiting sometimes do. My gastronomically-motivated son joked that he'd only come because he thought there'd be cajun food (thinking the bird was found in Louisiana, I guess). Our unknown neighbor replied that one always eats Dinty Moore out in the swamp. "You've been out there?" asked I. "Many many times. I just got back from Florida." "You've looked for the woodpecker?" With a wry smile, "I was one of the three discoverers."

For comparison, I think my husband would have been as thrilled as I was if he'd found himself in line with Bob Dylan. My kids were pretty thrilled too, even more so when our line companion appeared as a prominent character in the movie--Bobby Harrison. He's written a children's book, "To Find an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker," which I'm planning to get and read to my youngest. But mainly, he's a bird photographer and founder of The Ivory Billed Woodpecker Foundation . As well as, of course, an adventurer with a passion for the holy grail of many conservationists, the ivory billed.

I've read one award-winning book about the bird--The Race to Save the Lord God Bird, by Phillip Hoose--and have heard good things about another--The Grail Bird, by Tim Gallagher (another of the re-discoverers in the movie). I plan to read the latter and other things that come my way about this beautiful bird and the inspiring efforts of Harrison and others who seek to find and protect it. But the moral of my family's movie-line experience is that we need to put down the books sometimes. Even if we can't get out in the bayou, we can get out in the world (even when we're too busy) and meet others, like minded or not, who will inspire us toward action. And, yes, toward more reading.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Give Your Reading a Lift

Most North Americans think of ginseng as a Chinese herbal remedy, a mood lifter and energizer, encountered most often in the health food aisle. But David Taylor's new book, Ginseng, the Divine Root, tells a much more complex story. Journalist Taylor followed the herb for a year, from its native forests in Appalachia (it's nearly extinct in Asia) to the streets in Hong Kong, where a pound of wild roots can bring $400. Along the way, Taylor looks back, too, to learn that Jesuits in colonial Canada first recognized that the Asian and North American plants were viritually identical, launching over 300 years of lucrative international trade. He also investigates the health claims (confirmed and purported) by traditional herbalists and modern phamaceutical peddlars. No wonder Taylor's subtitle is: The Curious History of the Plant that Captivated the World. To learn more about the book, see David Taylor's website .

Reading this delightful book was part of the too-long research for an article that I wrote this week. Although ginseng is quite fascinating, I needed to hurry up but couldn't seem to get just the info that I needed. So I kept reading and reading, plus interviewing a few experts and re-reading their remarks. The process was dragging, which often happens to me at least, if not to most nonfiction writers.

This time, though, I found a way to perk up my research by getting away from the printed word. Though there are no movies about ginseng (an empty niche, Ken Burns?), I found a cool video showing an herbalist digging the roots on YouTube Digging Part I . There were some other lively entries in the category, too, including one the debate about health effects and several music-related. While at the site, I checked for Rachel Carson and Henry Thoreau-related videos and came up with a few of those, too.

I think I'll make YouTube a regular stop on my reading list. I think it can give visual variety, authenticity, and even humor to your reading life. That's a lift from ginseng I didn't expect.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Thoreau-ly Useful

Thoreau-aholics everywhere will be pleased to learn that The Walden Woods Project has just finished scanning all 20 volumes of The Writings of Henry David Thoreau. Walden, The Maine Woods, all the journals, and many other works as published by Houghton Mifflin in 1906 are now available online.

I've already used it. As a nature writer, I often want to know what Thoreau said about a plant, animal, or issue for possible inclusion in an essay or article. Yesterday, I was working on a piece about American ginseng, a woodland herb found in Eastern hardwood forests valued for medical properties by Native Americans and ever since. It sounded like the kind of plant that would attract Thoreau's keen eye, and I was able to quickly search to find what he had to say about it on June 3, 1851. To investigate your own Thoreau-ly fascinating questions, go to your favorite search engine, type in the term or phrase of interest, plus "Thoreau writings1906" (no space between writings and 1906). So cool.

To learn more about The Walden Woods Project's efforts to promote Thoreau's literary and philosophical legacy, visit their website: Walden Woods Project. Other worthy recent projects include opening a self-guided interpretive trail, "Thoreau's Path on Brister's Hill," and offering for sale a unique Steinway concert grand piano featuring maquetry depicting scenes from the Massachusetts woods. Some of the proceeds from the piano's sale will help support conservation of Walden Woods.

The Thoreau volumes join many other classic writings about nature that are free for the asking and occasionally free for the searching on the web. While teaching online mini-classes about Evolution, I found Origin and many other books by and about Darwin among the 20,000 volumes in Project Gutenberg's e-library. If you'd like free access to some classics online, visit Project Gutenberg. Or, you could go to the library . . . .

Monday, March 12, 2007

Pass the book, please

No, I don't spend all of my time reading. Just now, I must confess, I was watching tv! The NBC Evening News (another confession: we don't have cable) has a regular segment called, "What Works." Tonight, it featured a book giveaway program started by a doctor who wanted to make sure that all of his patients owned books. The program, Reach Out and Read, has become a national effort, with studies showing that it improves literacy among particpant kids. Bravo!

Could something like that work for environmental literacy? On an online book club focusing on Rachel Carson's works, we've been bemoaning the fact that few people have heard of Carson, Aldo Leopold, or other environmental leaders. Maybe handing out free books might help. Of course we'd need to hand out a few million. Could it be done? Should it? Would it make sense to join established programs, such as Reach Out and Read, then lobby for a certain portion of the gift books be eco-focused (eco-friendly, green published would be nice, too). Or are there better ways to get kids excited about environmental leaders and their messages?

To learn more about the doctors' reading program, visit Reach Out and Read . Then let me know about any similar book programs that might work for kids' or adults' environmental literacy. Thanks!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Being Caribou, and Whales, and Coyotes

My daughter and I just got home from a two night conservation film festival at our local nature center. The films gave us so much to think and talk about that they'll probably pop up as blog topics several times. Titles included Flight of the Merganser, Chasing Coyotes, Life List, Arctic Dreams, Life Among Whales, and Store Wars. All of them are well worth viewing and discussing, though the whale movie could have been rated R for graphic violence and my 12 year old was pretty overwhelmed by the sadness after seeing so many dismembered animals. I'm glad I didn't take my younger son; depressing and frightening kids isn't the best way to recruit young environmentalists. But that's another entry. . . .

For now, though, I want to emphasize my favorite film, Being Caribou. It tells the amazing story of two Canadians who follow the porcupine caribou herd from their winter territory to their calving grounds in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It's successful as an adventure, documenting the hardships of following caribou trails on foot through snow, over mountains, and across rivers while carrying 80 pound packs. They used so much energy in their daily treks that they felt hungry day and night. It works as satire, too, since the couple brought along a plastic George Bush doll to witness their trek. George remains stoic throughout their trek, even weathering a four-day blizzard with the same frozen grin. But does the film work as a form of activism? Did the audience feel inspired to fight for the Arctic Refuge and wilderness afterward? I would love to know. I certainly felt more determined than ever to go to the upcoming Climate Crisis Day in D.C. Next, I'm going to check out the film's website Being Caribou and learn more about how the companion book and related efforts to protect the refuge.

Are films as effective--or more effective--than books at inspiring environmental action? Do we have evidence, anecdotes, or just opinions to guide us in answering that question? I'd love to hear what others think. . . .

Friday, March 9, 2007

Barefeet Turn Green

I like to make sure that the books I'm reading are worth the trees they're printed on. Part of that process is picking good books. But the other part is to choose books from environmentally responsible publishers. "Green publishing" can mean lots of things, including use of recycled paper, soy-based inks, efficient printing processes, and high mileage delivery trucks. If you buy often from one publisher, it's worthwhile checking to see how green they are. And if they're not green enough for you, let them know about it.

Writers should do this too, I suspect, insisting that their books be printed as responsibly as possible. I must confess that I haven't ever spoken up on this issue to my publishers. I guess I've been leaving it to J.K. Rowling and others with mega sales to speak up, while I'm just grateful to get a book out occasionally. Maybe some writers can suggest ways for me & other mid-list authors to approach a publisher about going green--or at least greener.

To see how a publisher might spell out their environmental efforts, visit Barefoot Books. Barefoot, primarily a children's book publisher, goes so far as to curtail business airplane travel for employees, to use local organic food for office refreshments, and to minimize paper communication within the office. I'd love to know how other publishers approach this important issue. Any nominations for deep green publishers? Any tips on how to convince more to turn green?

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Pines Above Snow's Hero

Aldo Leopold's Odyssey: Rediscovering the Author of A Sand County Almanac
by Julianne Lutz Newton, 2006, Island Press

Somehow it seems wrong to post about a book I haven't read yet, especially for just my second entry. But I'm so excited tonight to learn about a new book about Aldo Leopold, author of the essay, "Pines above the Snow," that lends its name to this very blog. Reviewers are calling it an "intellectual history" of Leopold, as opposed to a biography. That means it doesn't step on the literary toes of historian Curt Meine's authoritative bio of Leopold or conflict with writer Marybeth Lorbiecki's accessible, popular volume (A Fierce Green Fire). Thank goodness. Those are great books.

Instead, Newton approaches Leopold as a fellow ecologist, examining his ecological thinking in relation to his contemporaries and to our current understanding of humanity's place in nature. Most important, Newton asks, according to Amy Wildermuth's review in Orion magazine (March/April 2007,pp. 68-69) , "Have we begun to see the land as a whole instead of its parts? Have we examined broader measures to determine land health? Have we adequately confronted our profit-driven culture?"

I can't wait to read Newton's assessment of these fundamental questions that Leopold posed. Reading A Sand County Almanac in grad school was the beginning of my personal odyssey as an environmentalist, and Aldo Leopold's thinking had guided me all along the way.

Reviews of Aldo Leopold's Odyssey can be found at Orion and Audubon

Monday, March 5, 2007

"New" Thoreau book

Letters to a Spiritual Seeker, Norton, 2005, Bradley P. Dean, editor

A "new" book by Henry David Thoreau? Thoreauvians were thrilled when scholar Bradley P. Dean edited Wild Fruits: Thoreau's Redisovered Last Manuscript (Norton, 1999) and Faith in a Seed: The Dispersion of Seeds and Other Late Natural History Writings (Island Press, 1996). Most recently, Bradley has gathered together a 13-year correspondence between Thoreau and an ex-Unitarian minister, Harrison Blake, into a sustained conversation on nature, intellectual friendship, and spirituality.

I encountered the book at the Daedalus Warehouse, a remaindered book seller near my house (and on the web Daedalus Books). You might think that's a bad sign for the quality of the volume, but I haunt the place. I've bought plenty of best-sellers at Daedalus, including signed copies of John McPhee's Founding Fish, plus lesser-known gems from perhaps my favorite nature book publisher, Milkweed. So even though I hadn't heard of Spiritual Seeker, I knew not to dismiss it just because its print run hadn't sold out.

For me, it's turned into a good carry-along book. You see, I'm not just an armchair reader but also a car seat reader, whenever I'm waiting for my kids to come out of school or dance or a friend's or whereever. Placed in context by Bradley's annotations, each letter offers hearty advice on how to think your best thoughts, live your best life. There's plenty here for people who think of Thoreau as a head-in-the-clouds dreamer. He insists, "Our thoughts are the epochs in our lives, all else is but as a journal of the winds that blew while we were here." Yet the author of "Civil Disobedience" also urges action, of the right, purposeful sort. I read as I waited for my teenager's latest meeting to end, "Life is so short that it is not wise to take roundabout ways, nor can we spend much time in waiting. Is it absolutely necessary, then that we should do as we are doing?" That entry helped spark me to start this long-planned blog; each reader will find inspiration and sustanence throughout this unexpected 50-letter collection.

To learn more about Letters to a Spiritual Seeker and Bradley P. Dean's other volumes, visit the late scholar's website, www.bradleypdean.com . Dean also edited the Thoreau Society Bulletin. To learn more about that organization's continuing scholarship, education. and conservation programs, check out Thoreau Society .