Sunday, April 29, 2007

Native Plants as Necessities


I read a book not worth blogging about this weekend, so that freed me to talk about some outdoor, book-free activities—which of course led to more books and thinking about books. Two of my kids and I spent Saturday morning volunteering at a native plant sale held by the Audubon Society of Central Maryland. The annual event supports two local wildlife sanctuaries and environmental education projects (including a schoolyard wildlife habitat grant program that I coordinate), but it’s worthwhile for its own sake as a way to encourage native plant and wildlife habitat gardening. Every year, the offerings grow more diverse, including ferns, grasses, groundcovers, perennials and woody plants, each with indisputable native provenance. We arrived before the crowds, and I altruistically resisted buying the ferns and chokeberries that I coveted, letting the customers get first crack at the goodies. By the time we finished hauling purchases to a few dozen cars, it was too late. But that’s ok; the plants are out there adding biodiversity to central Maryland, even if they’re not in my yard.


It occurred to me that my bioblitz site would have benefited if I’d bought at least some bunchberry to add surreptitiously to the near-monoculture of mown grass at my library. While I picked a lawn-like spot deliberately to see what grows & thrives in that common setting, it’s still been depressing to find so little. It makes me think that a new form of monkey-wrenching could be planting wild columbines to replace New Guinea impatiens and similar acts of sedition (seed-ition?). To learn about the damage we’ve wrought by the simple act of yard-construction, read Sara Stein’s Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards. Stein argues that our tidy lawns (and library grounds) are wiping out vast swathes of wildlife habitat, and that each of us has a responsibility to restore at least the patch around our home. Her efforts to transform six acres of Pound Ridge, New York are chronicled conceptually in Noah’s Garden and more practically in Planting Noah’s Garden: Further Adventures in Backyard Ecology. Stein also presents a corollary to her argument that native gardens are good for wildlife--that gardens and outdoor experiences are vital for children--in one of my favorite books Noah’s Children: Restoring the Ecology of Childhood. If that’s not enough gardening books for you, look for recommendations of books appropriate for each region of the U.S. at Plant Native. And if you'd like to witness how a natural landscaper-turned blogger transforms a misbegotten yard into a woodland oasis, visit Wild Flora's Wild Garden.

Sunday, my family managed a hike along the Little Patuxent River and also a visit to an Open House of Chesapeake Climate Action Network. At least once a year, Climate Action invites the public into its founder’s Takoma Park, Maryland home to see how much one family can do to reduce its carbon footprint. We admired a corn-powered stove, rain barrels, and high efficiency appliances, then chatted with a solar water heater installer and a biodiesel car owner. The kids gobbled solar oven-baked cookies, but it was the minescule electric bills that got my husband drooling. Equally attractive, there’s almost no lawn to mow, and blooms of field chickweed attracted a butterfly that would find no reason to stop by my blitz site. The buzz of human visitors, excited by all the possibilities around them, made me think that Sara Stein could extend her argument still further. People of all ages need gardens, outdoor experiences, and new possibilities for improving their environment to thrive. The crowds at the Audubon sale and the Open House were shopping for ideas, for hope.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Bioblitz & Books


I’d much rather be looking off my deck into the dogwood-blooming woods, but here are a few quick BioBlitz-related items. First, I’m happy to announce the first appearance of PinesAboveSnow in the Carnival of the Green, hosted this week at The Evangelical Ecologist. This week’s Carnival features a variety of what the host calls “eco-bloggy goodness” (e.g., wildlife smuggling, National Gardening Week, and ethical retailing ). The most blitz-friendly is a list of “ten not-so-inconsequential things” we can do to save the earth from The Wild Green Yonder, which urges green-wanna-bes to get to know their local ecosystem and native species. What better way than bioblitzing?

In the “ask and ye shall be given” department, no sooner had I finished whining about my lack of an ant guide for non-myrmecologists than a fine review of an excellent new insect guide appeared at
10,000 Birds
. Mike puts the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America to the test, checking if it could decipher the identity of a mystery moth. Despite 11,000 possibilities, the Kaufman guide succeeded in leading Mike to the correct id down to the species level. Though I haven’t seen the guide yet, I’m sold from 10,000 Birder’s assessment of it as “ ideal for casual or modestly skilled insect oglers like myself.” I hope it works for those of us even less than casually skilled.


The Insect Guide is one in a series of field guides by the astonishing naturalist Kenn Kaufman. Always innovative, Kaufman solves the paintings-versus-photos dilemma by illustrating each with digitally enhanced photographs. Yet my favorite Kaufman book has no photos at all--Kingbird Highway: The Story of a Natural Obsession that Got a Little Out of Hand. Kaufman’s memoir traces his drive to know birds back to early childhood, fueled by books, supported by parents, and enlivened by countless hours outdoors. At 16, Kaufman dropped out of high school to hitchhike across North America pursuing a dream to count more birds in a year than anyone else. The stories of his adventures not only reveal the origins of his expertise and commitment to birds and conservation but also the 1970s evolution of birding as a national sport and bird protection as a foundation of modern environmentalism.

For a nature book advocate like me, Kingbird Highway has special meaning. Kaufman recognizes the impacts of books from his earliest years, when he checked out library copies of Roger Tory Peterson’s guides over and over. In his teens, Peterson and Fisher’s tale of their North American birding adventure, Wild America became his bible. As Kaufman puts it, “That book became my daily passport to the wilderness.” While I agree that hand-on field experience, including activities such as BioBlitzing, lead many to commitments and even careers in nature protection, books are often equally vital forces. What better testimony to the value of books to shaping environmentalists than Kaufman’s own prolific publishing record? Who knows when a budding myrmecologist will pick up Kaufman’s insect guide and head off on a quest of his own?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Ant-Agonism


I’ve gotten a late start on the Blogger Bioblitz due to a death in my family, and I’ve downsized my site to a small patch just outside my favorite library. Mike over at 10,000 Birds suggests “going for what you know,” but I’m not enough of a naturalist to have a good specialty. Instead, my family and I are trying to id a little of everything on our little spot.

Almost immediately, I ran into a potential roadblock: ants. They’re clearly the most numerous animal in the dry, compacted soil I’m examining. Based on probabilities, the ones I found so far are a native species, little black ants. But with over 11,000 possibilities, how’s a non-myrmecologist BioBlitzer to know?

Burning Silo has kindly provided links to many online ID aids, but she hasn’t posted any for ants (or insects) yet. Here, the brilliance of my plan to blitz by the library becomes clear. I ducked inside and, while no ant field guides popped into view, I found what I needed. First, I spotted The Ants, by Bert Holldobler and E.O. Wilson. I remember the hoopla in 1991 when the exhaustive treatment (it weighs 3.4 kgs!) won the Pulitzer, despite tables, figures, and a bit of jargon. Wilson, to paraphrase Aldo Leopold, loves all biodiversity, but he is in love with ants. Combine his passion for ants and his erudite prose, and you have a readable work of astonishing scholarship.


At 732 pages, though, it may be a little intimidating--and quite heavy to haul afield. I also found a more svelte ant book I hadn’t heard of before, Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration by the same authors. Journey more succinctly explores why ants are such successful creatures and how dramatically they have evolved. Thank heavens I’m not ant-blitzing in the Amazon! Most valuable to any fellow blitzers may be a brief section of advice on conducting ant surveys, which recommends techniques (such as carrying watchmaker’s forceps and searching at night for nocturnal foragers) that hadn’t occurred to me. It’s also worth noting that the E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation is an international supporter of citizen science in general and bioblitzing in particular. While I still won't be able to id every ant, at least I'll have a good book to read while watching for fauna that's easier to id.

I’m happy to report that today I also discovered another blog BioBlitzing in my Maryland county over at Field Marking. Their blitz appears to be part of a serious effort to study the use of web technologies to support ecological research and education. They’re way ahead of me in terms of time spent and expertise applied to their blitzing site. But their first post, at least, still doesn’t talk about ants. . . .

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Happy Earth Day

There's been some hand wringing over whether or not to celebrate Earth Day over at Worldchanging and elsewhere. But my family couldn't resist celebrating our favorite planet yesterday at a local nature center, the Howard County Conservancy.

It was especially festive at the Conservancy because we were also celebrating Rachel Carson's upcoming Centennial birthday. Volunteers, including my daughter, Sarah, read from Carson's work (The Sense of Wonder and The Lost Woods). We also saw a film produced by high school student Kristen Cronon, Taking a Stand in History: Rachel Carson's Silent Spring which was part of the 2006 American Conservation Film Festival.

Then we went outdoors for our own Sense of Wonder walk. One of our number looked up and noticed, among a gathering of soaring vultures, a bald eagle. Its brilliant white head and tail were unmistakeable against the blue sky, making it an easy first eagle for several in our group, and a cosmic coincidence to spot while celebrating Carson's role in protecting birds of prey from DDT. Just as poeticallly, the kids celebrated along the way by shucking off shoes and splashing in the Conservancy's cool streams.

Back home again, I couldn't resist one final Earth Day celebration, heading into the woods to read just a bit of my favorite Almanac. Happy Earth Day, everyone!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Blogger (Book and) Bio Blitz



A biology student and writer, Jeremy, at The Voltage Gate has initiated The First Annual Blogger Bioblitz. What's a Bioblitz? In general, it asks observers to identify and count all of the different species (plant, animal fungal) in a certain area within a certain time. Conducted between April 21 and April 29, bloggers around the world will make multitudes of counts, to be compiled and posted on Voltage Gate, with mapping and other cool techno-enhancements, depending on contributions.

I'm planning to "blitz" a small area around my local library and encourage others, non-bloggers included, to give blitzing a try. It's a great way to put your stacks of dusty field guides to work and to figure out which guides work best & which new ones you might need to really get to know your local flora and fauna. To learn the rules of the blitz, please visit Jeremy at Voltage Gate. It's a good blog to visit for its own sake, too, for stories about biology, ecology, and the wacky world of environmental science.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Act Locally, Read Frequently




“Think globally. Act locally. Read frequently.” I like the motto so much that I wish I’d thought of it. But instead I found it on the website of Arlington READS Green, a project of Arlington County, Virginia and the Arlington Library system. Participants are invited to read “green” books and join in book discussions, author talks, a used book sale, and other enviro-friendly book-related happenings. It’s the literary branch of a many-limbed effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Arlington County, a program aptly named Fresh AIRE (Arlington Initiative to Reduce Emissions).

So what are Arlington READS Green readers reading? The five selected books include 3 nonfiction titles directly focused on global warming ( An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore, Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert, and The Revenge of Gaia by James Lovelock). To leaven the mix, two novels are also suggested: Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver, and Hoot by Carl Hiassen. Oddly, for this nonfiction fan, I’ve read the novels and not the others but recognize all as fine choices to stimulate discussion and heighten awareness. Anyone who lives in the Arlington area may want to check the schedule to learn if you can take part in the discussions. Tonight, for example, is a gathering for kids & teens to chat about Hoot, both book and movie.

But those of us who can’t get to that library can think about public libraries in our own neighborhoods. Could a program like Arlington READS Green work there? Could you help start one, or at least suggest it to the library staff? Another possibility is to suggest one of the GREEN titles (or another appropriate book) to your current book club. The parents' book club at my daughter’s school read Prodigal Summer with much pleasure and lively conversation. I took along a handy reading guide as a source of discussion questions and background info. The best result of the meeting was new fans for Kingsolver, one of the finest nature writers working today. And I know that while reading one book about the environment doesn’t always change your life, reading lots has to have an impact. So three cheers for Arlington READS Green! Let get out there and read frequently together.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Hope in The Post

My Sundays usually begin with a perusal of The Washington Post. My husband grabs the front page (& comics), so I head straight for the book review section. Yesterday, there weren’t any nature or science books that caught my eye (though I'm going to check out one on mistakes women make trying to balance career and motherhood--The Feminine Mistake). But when my husband relinquished Page 1, my reading ups and downs began.

First came a down. As a minor participant but fervent supporter in the StepItUp global warming protests Saturday, I anticipated a front page story on the 1,400 rallies nationwide. Nope. Paging deeper into the Post, I finally came upon a below the fold, left hand corner item on A6, Nationwide, a Clamor Over Global Warming. Compare those few inches of coverage to literally pages on the primary fundraising duel between Obama and Clinton, and you can see my distress. If an international outcry against the greatest environmental threat ever faced can’t get the headlines, what can?

Distraught over the StepItUp reporting, I was in the perfect mood to see an “Outlook” section editorial by a fine writer I know, Janna Bialek. She charges in
Why I Won’t Be Celebrating Earth Day This Year
that environmentalists have become just another special interest group. By arranging carpools and recycling drives, she argues, environmentalists let others off the hook to drive SUVs and overheat their McMansions. Bialek’s sitting out Earth Day, she says, and now rejects being called an environmentalist because “Time has proved that the message of Earth Day—that awareness will lead to action—is na├»ve.” Some readers might view such words as an admission of defeat, but Bialek, I think, means them to jolt us into action. On Earth Day, she’ll skip the organized tree plantings to search alone for wildflowers or eagles, but mostly for spiritual renewal. She needs, as we all do, hope that we can find a way to save the earth. That, I think, is how I’ll make Earth Day every day this year, searching for hope in newspapers, films, books, and of course outdoors.

I’d be remiss not to mention another source of hope in Sunday’s Post. Chad Pregracke is in Washington, D.C., running cleanups of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. The projects are part of his riverkeeping campaign that began a decade ago on the Mississippi. The Post calls him “the Al Gore of the nation’s river system,” and Robert Kennedy, Jr. hails him as “a genuine American hero.” What’s not to be hopeful about that? DC area readers might like to read the Post article, Trawling for Trash to Keep our Rivers Clean, especially if you have time to pitch in. But if you’d like to learn about hands-on, stepped-up environmental action, visit the website for Pregracke’s 2007 book, From the Bottom Up: One Man’s Crusade to Clean America’s Rivers . I haven’t read it yet, so I’d love to hear what people think of it.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Reading While Rallying

I hope that you’ve already heard about tomorrow’s First National Day of Climate Action, a national day of rallies and protests aimed at convincing Congress to cap carbon emissions. Many efforts seek to dramatize the unwelcome changes we’re already facing: scuba divers will be visiting bleaching coral reefs off Florida, and skiers will be schooshing down shrinking glaciers in the Rockies. Around here (Maryland), more prosaic activities are planned, with gatherings, sign-wavings, and hikes of like-minded folks hoping to draw at least a little media attention. The closest group event to me is 20 miles away, though, and it doesn’t seem quite right to drive my minivan (yes, as classic soccer mom, I drive a minivan) to a rally against energy waste. Since other commitments (soccer included) kept me from organizing my own local rally, I needed a Plan B.

So of course I thought of a personal read-a-thon. At first, it seemed ideal to immerse myself in global warming treatises for the day, with the plan to blog about the best next week. After all, activism through books is a major goal of mine. But upon reflection, sitting along doesn’t seem the right way to support the “Step It Up” campaign. The Administration’s been cowering behind the “We need more research” bush long enough. The jury is in. We can quibble over the details of how fast, where, and who, but global warming is happening. What’s a reading activist to do to help stop it?

I know what we’ll do tomorrow. My kids and I will walk to our local park, wearing our “Save the Arctic” t-shirts, and mingle with other families at a planned pet festival. Our message will be quiet and more visual than verbal (wolves and polar bears on the shirts), but maybe it will remind a few people we pass that global warming is part of our regular life, even on Saturdays at the park. More likely, it will remind me to make time in my busy (reading) life to step up and take action. As I walk, I’ll be thinking of more powerful steps my family and I can take, ways to reach out and reach in. My plan for our Climate Action is too small to be satisfying, but maybe that's a good thing. On Sunday, I hope to have the beginnings of a new plan to do more than just read or write. I hope you’ll join me Saturday and beyond.

And if you need more information about the campaign and its founder, Bill McKibben, check out an interview with him at World Changing Magazine. McKibben published the first popular book about global warming The End of Nature in 1989, and initiated the Step It Up campaign just months ago in Vermont. If you insist on reading rather than rallying on Saturday, or are coordinated enough to read while rallying, The End of Nature might be the book to get you started.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Bring Kids to Carson's Birthday Party



Spring, even the coldest spring in 137 years, makes me think of Rachel Carson. That’s more true than ever this year, 45 years after Silent Spring appeared, because 2007 is Rachel’s 100th birthday. There are enough books by and about Carson and her legacy to pack this blog and others, but today I just want to mention a few good books to introduce kids to Rachel as we approach Earth Day in her Centennial year.

A fine new book is Up Close: Rachel Carson, by Ellen Levine (Viking, 2007). The author’s direct, research-backed prose is deftly supplemented with quotes in Carson’s own voice, and there’s enough substance for older kids to get more than a hint of Carson’s struggles, beliefs, and achievements. Briefer but also eloquent and accurate chapter book biographies include Kathleen Kudlinsky’s Rachel Carson: Pioneer of Ecology and Candice Ransom’s Listening to Crickets: A Story about Rachel Carson. Upper elementary students find enough there for book reports, or, in my daughter’s case, to depict Rachel in a living “wax museum” of historic heroes. Press a button, and Sarah can tell you about Rachel’s birthplace, favorite book (Under the Sea-Wind), and cats’ names (Buzzie & Kito).

The number of picture book bios is also growing. Amy Ehrlich’s Rachel: The Story of Rachel Carson probably works best for kids between standards picture books and chapter books. Ehrlich presents Carson’s life episodically, touching on her childhood exploring the woods with her mom, on her early laboratory research, and her years as a writer and nature advocate. Wendell Minor’s illustrations help fill in needed details and soften the sometimes harsh reality of Carson’s fight. A more holistic, direct approach, perhaps better for younger kids, is Thomas Locker and Joseph Bruchac’s Rachel Carson: Preserving a Sense of Wonder. Locker, a landscape painter, silently depicts the serene beauty of the sea that Carson loved and longed to protect, adding weight to the simple story of her life. Luckily, neither book dwells on the grim realities of profit-driven environmental abuse but rather focuses on Carson's inspiring work to enhance environmental appreciation.

Another approach to teaching about Carson, especially for young kids, could be to focus on the wildlife and wild places she loved. Get a book on butterflies, such as Kathryn Lasky’s Monarchs and log onto Journey North, an online field journal that traces seasonal movements of monarchs, whooping cranes and others. Or maybe best of all, get Rachel Carson’s own The Sense of Wonder to read about her walks with children to moonlit beaches and enchanted woods. Goal-directed parents and educators sometimes forget Carson’s conviction that “it is not half so important to know as to feel.” Reading her words, especially in spring, reminds us that we all need to keep alive that inborn sense of wonder. Reading a book, and especially taking a walk, with a child outdoors are the best ways to celebrate Carson’s birthday and help keep her legacy alive. Happy Birthday, Rachel Carson!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Just Say "No" to Book Bullies





I'm enjoying several books right now, but it's too soon to chat about them. Instead, I want to rant a bit about an issue my 6th grader brought up. She's just been assigned a book that she's already read and disliked. Now, she doesn't have much choice but to re-read it at her teacher's behest. But often in one's reading life, books come up that someone or something presses upon you unbidden. "You should read this." "You MUST read this." "What? You haven't read THIS?" How "should" you respond?

My best self knows to listen and maybe take down the title and author for future exploring. But too often such pushing raises my hackles and perhaps predisposes me to dislike the book. Or the raves set you up with such high expectations that the actual imperfect piece of literature has to be a let down.

Sarah's assigned book was a case of the latter for me. For years I heard variations of "You're kidding! You're a nature nut and you write kids books (and your name is Julie) but you haven't read Julie and the Wolves? You must!" When it finally worked its way to the top of my stack, I'm sad to say I found it a bit tedious. I like other Jean Craighead George books, such as Nutik and the Thirteen Moons series and love My Side of the Mountain , so it could well be that I had simply heard to much about "Julie" for it to seem fresh. I'll probably give it another try sometime--if I feel like it!

And I'm glad it reminded me of an important issue for anyone using books as activism tools. It's one thing to let people know about a book and to express your admiration and passion for it. It's another thing to insist that a certain book or lists of books is The Standard Curriculum for naturalists/environmentalists/writers/whatever. I'll try to keep this in mind when my sometimes-too-strident opinions pop onto my blog post and when I make lists of recommended--but not required--reading. The photo with this post will help me remember, since that's Sarah, reminding me that it's better to play in the snow than read about it sometimes. I believe strongly that books and readers need to find each other (and sometimes must also part), and I don't want to bully anyone into reading anything.

Well, except A Sand County Almanac.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Birthday on the Bayou





It was my son's birthday today, and he requested a trip to the Virginia version of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. Eli has an 8-year-old boy's insatiable appetite for peering into biplanes, jets, space shuttles, etc., and his dad contentedly tagged along. But the rest of us needed a break after awhile and ducked into the IMAX presentation du jour: Hurricane on the Bayou. It's the wide-screen story of how the loss of wetlands, through mistaken efforts to control flooding and to facilitate oil production has eroded Louisiana wetlands and tragically contributed to Hurricane Katrina's toll. To me, it was a cut above many Imax presentations, which tend to be long on visuals but short on facts or ideas. Besides exceptional imagery of alligators & other wildlife dependent on a healthy bayou, "Hurricane" featured New Orleans-brand music, notably from Cajun blues master and wetlands activist, Tab Benoit. A local 14-year-old fiddle player, Amanda Shaw, also added her musical stylings and passion for 'gators to the emotional mix (& appeal to kids like mine). The movie's web page amplifies the message of wetlands conservation, with a guide for educators, a podcast on wetlands, and NOAA hurricane information. But it's the music that sticks with me, alternately jaunty and driving or yearning and grieving, as an unforgettable call to restore coastal wetlands to protect unique wildlife and human culture.

I'm not familiar with any good books about Louisiana's wildlife or ecosystems, but I know there are some out there. Any suggestions?

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Peeps above Snow





Happy Easter!

Friday, April 6, 2007

Big (& Better) Oyster


My blog earlier today was already long, so I refrained from chatting about another thought I had about reading on the plane—until now. Reading (but not loving) “Pigeons” at least 20,000 feet above my bookshelf made me nostalgic for similar books that I liked more. The first one that popped in mind was Mark Kurlansky’s The Big Oyster (2006, Ballantine). It’s a delicious mix of social, cultural, and natural history, focusing on how one small bivalve helped shape New York City. You’ll find archaeology (Lenape oyster midden research), ecology (explication of the oyster’s distribution & role in water filtration), gastronomy (including historic recipes from Delmonico’s) and much more from this talented author of “Cod” (a highly-acclaimed book from 1998 that I haven’t read yet).

And by cosmic coincidence, the pile of mail that greeted me on return from my trip included a Daedalus Books catalog, complete with a “What We’re Reading” listing for The Big Oyster . Daedalus sells lots of books & music at excellent discounts, so check out all of their nature & science listings while you’re at the site. When I find an especially good bargain, I buy an extra to donate to my nature center or somewhere to spread the word.

Returning to Roost

Well, Andrew Blechman's Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird did turn out to be a good traveling book. Its casual writing style and uncomplicated reporting made it easy to follow even when air turbulence kept me from holding the book steady. But I can’t say that I’d recommend the book under all circumstances. It has quirky characters and insights into worlds where few travel (pigeon racing, pigeon showing, pigeon shooting, etc.), but for my taste, Blechman talks too much about people (will he or won’t he get an interview with famous fancier Mike Tyson?) and not enough about pigeon biology, ecology, or behavior. Anyone interested in learning more about pigeons as living creatures, rather than as objects of human obsessions, would probably learn more from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website Project PigeonWatch .

Or maybe I’m just miffed that Blechman doesn’t mention Aldo Leopold when he had the perfect chance. In my favorite section, a synopsis of passenger pigeon history, he quotes John Muir (who describes world’s then-most abundant birds as “a mighty river in the sky”) and Audubon (who spent three days in 1813 observing a flock’s progress, saying, “the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse”). But there’s nothing from Leopold’s splendid essay, “On a Monument to a Pigeon.” Leopold eloquently mourns the extinction of birds he calls “feathered lightning,” lamenting that “no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin.”

The essay, in A Sand County Almanac, is a poignant reminder to me that, while I believe words can be mighty weapons in the fight for environmental protection, even the finest nature books are poor substitutes for nature herself. As Leopold writes, “There will always be pigeons in books and in museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights. . . . They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather. They live forever by not living at all.” If we don’t want nature books to be mere monuments to past glories, we need to use them in diverse, creative ways to protect—and restore—the future.

Such musings have put me in the perfect mood for my next book, recommended by a thoughtful reader: Return to Wild America, by Scott Weidensaul. In 2003, Weidensaul retraced a famous 1953 cross-country trek across North America by Roger Tory Peterson and British naturalist James Fisher. What will be left, 50 years after their big adventure? Stay tuned (& keep reading). . . .

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Books that Fly

I like it already. Andrew Blechman's 2006 book, Pigeons, starts with an anonymous quote, "Some days you're the pigeon. Some days you're the statue." I feel like the statue as I pack swiftly for a difficult family trip, so I was happy to find this book at my library. My first rule for picking a book to travel with is to make sure that you've read at least a little so you don't get stuck hauling a turkey (or pigeon) around for 100s of miles.

As I swooped through the library, a few other volumes also looked promising. One is Return of the Condor: The Race to Save Our Largest Bird from Extinction, by John Moir, another 2006 book. I know enough about the condor story to expect that the book tells a fascinating tale, rich in politics and passion, and I love a good fight between scientists over what's the right thing to do in a sticky situation. But I haven't read any reviews of the book, while I've seen a few of extolling Pigeons. I grabbed Return of the Condor, too, but I think I'll add it to the stack to read when I get home.

One other book came close to getting on the plane with me: The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement, by Mark Hamilton Lytle. This succinct volume not only explores the history of Carson's ideas about humanity's place in nature, but it's publication coincides with her 100th birthday this May. But I know enough about Carson's story of personal and political struggles to think she might not be the perfect companion in my statue-like current condition. Again, I think I'll let her stay home for future reading.

So it looks like Pigeons will be on the plane with me. If you'd lilke to hear Blechman talk about his book on my favorite radio program, check the archives of The Diane Rehm Show. And email me quick if you have other suggestions of books to add to my travelling stack, since my second rule of picking a travel book is to make sure you have a back up. Thanks!