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.