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,

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Death Comes for the Book Critic?

Is book reviewing a dying art? Some critics think so, according to a piece today on NPR’s Morning Edition: “Book Reviewers Decry Fewer Newspaper Pages”. The number of print pages devoted to book reviews is declining, and yet another major newspaper recently axed its separate review section in favor of carrying scattered reviews in the Arts section.

Some blame declining newspaper readership, but others point the finger at bloggers, especially popular ones such as Bookslut. Critics of blogging book critics assert that independents (like me!) lack institutional credibility. How can a reader know if they're just spinning titles to promote sales or for some other nefarious purpose? Of course, indies (like me again) could counter that we're often less likely to be sales motivated than someone who's writing for an ads-dependent newspaper. Perhaps review readers deserve a little credit for being able to tell when a reviewer is biased and for being wise enough and motivated enough to move on to someone else as need be.

Putting the question of blame aside, as someone who relies on reviews in various media to find good books as well as occasionally writing formal ones for print publication, this is a troubling situation. I've been touched by it recently, when a nature group's newspaper that has often published my reviews decided to shrink the size and number of its pages. I applaud their goal to save paper and funds for other critical environmental projects, but I lament the loss of a good resource for nature book news. My latest review for them appears only on their website.

What’s being done about the decline? The National Book Critics Circle has launched a campaign to save the book review. Part of their effort is a new award, available to print, web, or other media, for outstanding book reviews. Learn more about the whole campaign at NBCC’s blog, Critical Mass.
Many environmentalists might see this is a backburner issue, much less pressing than stopping zebra mussels or protecting parkland from snowmobiles, but I believe that books wield extraordinary power to inform and mobilize environmentalists—and even occasionally make new ones. What other ways can be found to save the book review? I’ll be thinking about ways I can help and looking for suggestions from all of you.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

A Book Lover's Birthday

Dear Friends and Family,

Thank you for knowing me so well! Every one of my birthday books is just what I wanted. You’ve given me not just many hours of reading pleasure but inspiring words to live with and by throughout the next year. Here’s the complete, delicious list.

The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science, by Philip Ball (2006).

Why Pandas Do Handstands and Other Curious Truths about Animals, by Augustus Brown (2006).

Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West, by Beatrice Hohenegger (2006).

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver (2007).

Double Lives: American Writers’ Friendships, by Richard Lingeman (2006).

The Flight of the Iguana: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature, by David Quammen (1998).

The Way We Garden Now, by Katherine Whiteside (2007).

And as if that weren’t enough, I bought myself a birthday book, too. It’s Sy Montgomery’s The Good Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood (2007). I picked it because I enjoy all of Sy Montgomery's books, but it's the perfect addition to the above list. Friends and family expressed their love to Chris the hog with frequent deliveries of delectables--day-old bagels, melon rinds, cold oatmeal, and other left-overs, learning over time which were his absolute favorites. His choices may not appeal to everyone, but like my birthday books, each gift was met with gratitude and exuberance. I can't want to devour every one. Yum!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Live Earth, Starring . . . .

We were outside enjoying belated July 4th fireworks during most of the "Live Earth" concert coverage, but thanks to YouTube, I didn't have to miss everything. Here's Madonna's official contribution, "Hey, You."

I like the contrast between the harsh visuals and her calm, sweet vocal delivery, and of course I agree with the message that each indivudal needs to recognize the threats to the earth & human welfare and act asap. Though I missed the multi-channel coverage, it was exciting to think of such diverse stars as Madonna, Garth Brooks, The Police, Corinne Bailey Rae, and so many others lending their talents to raise global warming awareness. Criticisms of the carbon costs of Live Earth were inevitable; critics can't legitimately argue that protesters are wrong to fear and oppose business as usual, so they accuse participants of being hypocrits.

But it does seem to me that the concert organizers missed an opportunity to celebrate the finest singers on the planet. Here's another YouTube video featuring just a few of these performers, all of whom are above the criticism that their work consumes too much fossil fuel:

If you think I'm kidding about the musical intentions of songbirds, I recommend reading David Rothenberg's delightful Why Birds Sing: A Journey into the Mystery of Bird Song. Rothenberg, a clarinetist as well as a philosopher, explores human understanding of birdsong from the perspectives of scientists, historians, poets, and fellow practitioners. Best of all, he expands on insights in the text with excerpts of birdsong and other natural music on his website. If the world made any sense, anyone who heard a lyrebird sing would be converted into a climate change activist. But as the world is now, I'm glad that Madonna's voice is part of the growing global choir.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Welcome Home

Whew! Back from our trip, but still catching up with various backlogs. Here’s just a heads up on a couple of blog carnivals that may interest you that popped up while I was away.

Bean Sprouts has posted the 84th Carnival of the Green, which features an even-more-than-usually-broad array of topics. Drop by to read about such subjects as sustainable communities, nature-themed vacation Bible camp, honeybee colony collapse disorder, and even a rare bit of environmental good news—a correction of overly pessimistic reports on deforestation in Madagascar.

Over at Alone on a Limb, you’ll find the Independence Day edition of Learning in the Great Outdoors. This month’s carnival presents several blog posts on books, including two related to Last Child in the Woods, field guides visual and audio, and assorted children’s nature books. As the mom of a Reading Rainbow addict, I was especially excited to learn about Bookwink, an award-winning site dedicated to getting kids to read. Their strategy is to offer podcasts and webvideos of 3-minute book talks of favorite titles, plus archives of related books. With two readers in their 3rd – 8th grade target audience, I’ll definitely be checking back for more kid lit reviews.

Now, back to unpacking and that overflowing inbox. . . .

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Vacation Reading

No, I'm not going to recommend a stack of steamy romance novels. Instead, while I'm away from Pinesabovesnow, you can peruse other blog writing via the following carnivals.

Carnival of Colors V, hosted by Mike of 10,000 Birds, offers all things colorful, from a visual acuity & coordination test to exercises in appreciating nature's many hues. My personal favorite: A glimpse of the colors you might have seen flying through your own woods this spring, at DC Birding Blog.

The 13th edition of the Festival of Trees is up at Wrenaissance Reflections. Entitled "Putting Down Roots," the carnival presents links from around the world that celebration the connections between trees and places in our minds and hearts.

In honor of the Maryland Blogger Alliance, I include the 10th edition of the Carnival of Maryland, just out tonight. I haven't had a chance to read it, but hey! I'm on vacation. I'll read it when I get back. . . .

Happy Fourth of July!

The Tree No One Knew

A cherry orchard of one enlivens the left side of our small backyard. Technically, the tree (Prunus cerasus) belongs to our neighbor, but his benign disinterest in its sour fruit yields us much more than my husband’s juicy June pies.

“I awoke every morning happy, looking out at the orchard—“ says Lyubov Andreyevna, the cherry orchard’s owner in Chekhov’s eponymous play. “ This wonderful orchard! Those masses of white flowers, the blue sky . . . “ I feel that same elation each April when our tree blooms, signaling spring of course with open windows and songs of arriving birds. A bluebird pair ignores the blossoms, but they always pick the nest box under the cherry’s shade instead of one near the holly across the yard.

Busy with soccer, recitals, and the end-of-school rush, I can’t watch the fruit slowly grow and ripen. But the birds will tell us when it’s ready. This spring, a catbird’s grating tcheck-tcheck brought the news. Blue jays, crows, robins, and a lone male cardinal soon joined him, and I sent the children outside to pick our share. The feel, the smell, the taste of free fruit brings out the wild in my kids, and they stretch, grasp, jump, and climb to reach the best. There’s some happy bickering over who will hold the bowl, who will assault the tree.

But the happiest gleaners of all may be the squirrels. They ripple across the grass from all directions and scramble through the limbs all day. Dangling by their toes on bowing branchlets, they risk life itself to snatch one more red morsel into their cheeks. I can imagine an aging mother squirrel, after a lifetime of springs sharing cherries with her kits, also sharing Lyubov Andreyevna’s emotion, “My dear, sweet beautiful orchard! My life, my youth, my happiness.”

Last Saturday, we traded our view of the cherry for a day of my daughters’ dance performances. By evening, the cherry looked a bit bare but still bustling. In our absence, though, the neighbor on our right had mangled his American holly. Long past dusk, he hacked and swore in the heat, and by morning, all that remained of the 20-foot beauty was a tall, knotty stump. I’d never paid much attention to the holly, never noted the birds that ate its red berries or hid among its sharp leaves. My dislike of that neighbor’s hard-edged, exotic plant-dominated landscaping has led me to look the other way.

But the stump reminds me of the perils of turning your head, a sin David Brower explicates in his book on the destruction of Glen Canyon, The Place No One Knew. Illustrated by Elliott Porter’s luminous photographs, the book records pink rocks, purple sands, massive walls, and shimmering vistas, all inundated by a hydroelectric power project in the 1960s. As Brower laments, “Neither you nor I, nor anyone else knew it well enough to insist that at all costs it should endure.” Brower blamed himself for not lobbying Congress personally, for not rallying the Sierra Club to launch a nationwide campaign so save the Canyon.

What could I do to convince a neighbor not to chop down a healthy tree? How could I communicate with someone who holds such different values? I ask myself, should I even speak out when we live so closely packed and must get along? These are questions environmentalists face every day, in large and small scale dilemmas. I look at the holly stump with grief and regret, at the cherry with joy and fear.

Lyubov Andreyevna at least owned her orchard, though financial reversals forced her to sell and flee before the axes fell. She mourned, “Oh, my orchard. My dear sweet beautiful orchard! . . . Farewell. Farewell!” And in my backyard this morning, a chainsaw is whirring, stage right. Curtain.