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.