Sunday, May 27, 2007

Bats in Books Part I

Memorial Day weekend is the start of summer picnic season, and at my house at least, bat watching. What could be more relaxing after a late dinner on the deck than gazing at bats overhead, snatching bugs so that we can lounge outside a little longer?

Tonight’s rain is grounding (or tree-ing) our little brown bats, but I’m still thinking about them. It’s Rachel Carson’s 100th birthday, and I’m celebrating by writing about an insect deterrent more powerful than DDT. Researchers have calculated that bats from one cave in central Texas gobble 200 tons of insects on a summer night. Merlin Tuttle, the patron saint of bat conservation, emphasizes the pest-control value of bats to combat prejudices that lead to poisoning, shooting, and even dynamiting bats in their roosting caves. Yet fear of bats still often trumps recognition of their economic value, and killings and habitat destruction persist. Understanding that attitude change is key to bats’ survival, Tuttle founded Bat Conservation International in 1982. That makes this year BCI’s silver anniversary as well as Carson's Centennial.

I wish I knew of an action adventure tale, perhaps something like Sy Montgomery’s Journey of the Pink Dolphins: An Amazon Quest, for readers interested in bats. Despite an intense period of bat study last spring, I haven’t found any bat-centered novels, either. There are so many children’s books about bats that I’m planning a separate post about them. Here, I’ll just recommend three nonfiction works for adults that I've found quite useful:

Walker’s Bats of the World, by Ronald Nowak (1994). It’s the most comprehensive guide to the world’s 1000+ bat species, addressing taxonomy, distribution, behavior, and ecology. It features an extensive bibliography and black-and-white photos.

America’s Neighborhood Bats, by Merlin Tuttle (revised 2005). Tuttle’s spectacular photos quickly convey the diversity and grace of his subjects. Part ID key, part how-to (for tasks ranging from evicting bats from your attic and to building bat boxes for your yard), this brief book dispels myths and urges a fact-based change in public attitudes as essential for long-term conservation.

Beginner’s Guide to Bats, by Kim Williams and Rob Mies (2002). Williams and Mies are co-founders of another major bat protection group, the Organization for Bat Conservation. They focus on 45 North American species, providing range maps, habitat preferences, and typical behaviors to help you find and identify neighborhood species. I especially appreciate the state lists that narrow down the possibilities to a manageable few.

If the rain blows over, we’ll be outside tomorrow night, munching chips and checking the sky for bats. Someday, we hope a small colony will shelter inside the box my son built as a homeschool project. Eight-year-old Eli could symbolize the success of Bat Conservation International, which Tuttle says in Neighborhood Bats “was founded in the hope that when the shrouds of myth and superstition are stripped away, bats will be appreciated as fascinating and likeable animals.” Rachel Carson certainly liked them as long ago as 1944, when she published one of the first popular treatments of bat echolocation in Collier’s magazine, “The Bat Knew It First.” But Carson would also agree with Tuttle’s sober assertion, “Even more important, we need bats whether we like them or not; their loss poses serious, potentially irreversible consequences to the environment that we all must share.”

Friday, May 25, 2007

A Sense of Wonder--Live!

Environmental plays seem to be few. Shakespeare, though he wrote “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin”, employs natural forces primarily as omens (e.g., Julius Caesar), metaphors (The Tempest), or plot devices (Twelfth Night). When I saw The Cherry Orchard, my college professor expected us to attend to themes of class struggle and social injustice, though I was more struck by the tragedy of the razed trees than by the dissipation of an aristocratic family. More recently I read in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya: “Man has been endowed with reason, with the power to create, so that he can add to what he’s been given. But up to now he hasn’t been a creator, only a destroyer. Forests keep disappearing, rivers dry up, wild life’s become extinct, the climate’s ruined and the land grows poorer and uglier every day.” Chekhov’s impassioned lines on forests’ roles in ameliorating climate and ennobling human beings are worth a trip to the library or a download from Project Gutenberg. But I doubt that you’ll find many scripts at either place with environmental conservation as a primal force in the drama.

So you can imagine my delight in surviving a waiting list to garner tickets to a May 24 performance of a one-woman play about Rachel Carson. Written and presented by Kaiulani Lee, “A Sense of Wonder” has toured the U.S. and Canada for 15 years, with yesterday’s performance held at the National Wildlife Visitor Center in Laurel, Maryland. Before stepping into character, Lee guided the audience to visualize the sparsely-furnished stage as Carson’s Maine cottage, overlooking the tidepools of Sheepscot Bay where her great-nephew, Roger, explored unseen. Lee magically became Carson in the first moments, reading from a letter well-known to Carson admirers, about her joy in observing monarch butterflies despite her approaching death. Throughout the play, Lee seamlessly integrates her narrative with Carson’s public and private writings. I noticed passages from Silent Spring, The Sense of Wonder, a National Book Award acceptance speech, and letters to Dorothy Freeman (published in Always, Rachel), plus familiar lines that I couldn’t place. To someone who has read and re-read Carson’s words for years, it was like hearing the lyrics of a beloved hymn set to music at last.

But I must add that not everyone responded so warmly. My extra ticket went to Nathan at Talk-lab. While he’s concerned about the environment and doesn’t ask “Rachel who?” when Carson comes up in a conversation, he’s a recent college grad who never read Silent Spring, much less Carson’s jacket notes for a Debussy recording as have I, and I suspect, other enraptured audience members. To him, the play felt dispiriting. By setting it during Carson’s final illness, says Nathan, and reflecting so often on human destructiveness and natural losses, Lee left him discouraged about our environment and, just as important, about the play’s ability to recruit new environmentalists. “If you didn’t love Carson already,” said Nathan, “you wouldn’t love her afterward.”

Nathan’s comments made me reflect on Kaiulani Lee’s remark during the post-play Q & A that Carson was a rare example of an artist who acted on her beliefs, that is, a “dreamer who does.” So much environmental news these days is grim, even frightening. And we certainly don’t want to ignore or suppress evidence of even the most frightening trends (unlike some administrations you might know). But books, poetry, plays, and other art forms have a different function. Lee’s “A Sense of Wonder” inspires many of us already in the Carson choir to keep singing. But we also need works of art that inspire young dreamers like Nathan to join us and not to despair. I fear Nathan’s generation, which came of age post-9/11, are particularly vulnerable. I’m going to be on the lookout for plays, poems, & novels that can help fuel the energies of young idealists. Please let us know what works you’ve come across—or are creating—and if you have ideas about how to reach out with nature books and other art forms to young adults especially. After all, the sense of wonder shouldn’t expire when you hit 21.

One other Carson-related note. John at DC Birding Blog notes that Senator Ben Cardin’s (D-MD) plan to introduce a bill commemorating Carson’s 100th birthday may be blocked. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) bases his opposition on false claims that a Silent Spring-induced banning of DDT has caused millions of deaths from malaria. John deftly counters Coburn’s assertions with facts about the international legal status of DDT and about its effectiveness and long-term health consequences. Though I doubt that Senator Coburn, a physician who should know better, will let facts get in the way of his rhetoric, it’s good to know where to find a succinct rebuttal to this common attack on Carson’s legacy.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Rachel Carson's Silver Spring

Eco-pilgrims from near and far made their way on Saturday to a rare Open House at Rachel Carson’s home in Silver Spring, Maryland. Carson lived in several houses in the DC area while working as an editor for the Fish and Wildlife Service, but this house is special. In that suburban rancher, she wrote Silent Spring. When she felt well enough she typed drafts in a paneled study, illuminated with natural light from broad windows. But when cancer confined her to bed, her assistant read the manuscript aloud so that Carson could edit though too ill to write.

The Open House was part of many centenary celebrations for Carson, born in Springdale, Pennsylvania in 1907. Visitors must have come for many reasons, perhaps to hear speakers such as Mark Hamilton Lytle, author of a new volume on Carson’s life and impact, The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement, or Mitch Baker, a horticulturist who gave advice on gardening without artificial chemicals. Judging by the throngs around the snack trays, some people came for the free bruchetta. But others mostly wandered around the yard, stood on her front porch, and looked out her windows. My daughter and I stepped into her study, now crammed with papers, computers, and other detris of the Rachel Carson Council, a non-profit which promotes alternatives to chemical pesticides. I don’t know how she got anything done besides watching birds in her tangled backyard, but we tried to imagine where she sat, which books she stacked around her, how often she escaped to the kitchen or played with the cats instead of writing. While such musings cannot unlock the mystery of her achievement, it helped me feel closer to it and to the struggle that made it possible.
Except in letters, Carson recorded little about her personal life. To get a feeling for her experiences at house, I turned to Linda Lear’s definitive biography, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. Lear says that Carson house-hunted for months in 1957 before choosing a wooded corner lot to build a contemporary brick ranch “with large picture windows and lots of light.” Though focusing on Carson’s research and writing, Lear offers glimpses into her daily life: relations with friends and colleagues, searches for domestic help, forays into community activism, Christmas shopping for her grandnephew, and too many illnesses. Despite poor health and heavy workload, Carson welcomed houseguests, telling one, “We can promise you the song of mockingbirds and cardinals, and by mid-March we might even manage the beginning of our frog chorus.” I felt especially close to Carson, having just looked up through the branches of her trees, when I re-read a passage from a letter Lear quotes about the night Rachel’s mother died, “. . . occasionally I slipped away into the dark living room, to look out of the picture window at the trees and sky. Orion stood in all his glory just above the horizon of our woods, and several other stars blazed more highly than I can remember ever seeing them.” Even in the darkest moments of her life, Carson found comfort in nature.

My daughter and I also joined Saturday’s Carson celebrations at the National Wildlife Visitor Center. There, festivities included an electric tram ride through the refuge past painted turtles, tree swallows, a great blue heron, beaver lodges, wood ducks and acres of spring blooming woods. Indoors, kids dissected owl pellets and listened to storytellers, but Sarah was riveted by a captive bald eagle, symbolic of Carson’s role in the ban on DDT use that allowed populations of raptors to recover from mid-20th century lows. We missed most of the speeches, by such notables as Senator Sarbanes and Governor O’Malley. But we heard the last minutes of a talk by Jim Fowler, long-time television naturalist of Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom fame. Fowler charmed the audience with low key recountings of decades of outdoor adventures and, especially, with an admission that while lions and anacondas cause him no distress, he fears a little spider that scuttles around caves in the Philippines.
Fowler spoke in the Visitor Center’s Aldo Leopold Auditorium, and his firm message but folksy delivery reminded me more of Leopold than the poetic Carson. In “The Ecological Conscience,” Leopold laments the slow pace of conservation progress in the face of a century of effort. He says, “The usual answer to this dilemma is ‘more conservation education.’ No one will debate this, but is it certain that only the volumeof education needs stepping up? Is something lacking in content as well?” As Fowler puts it, “We need to distinguish between education and information. It’s one of the reasons we’re in the fix we’re in. ” When you sit on a hot stove, he says, you get information up your backside that tells you to get off. But when you get an education, you don’t get on the stove in the first place. To give children that education, we need to get children outside, experiencing and appreciating wildlife and wild places that will vanish without all of our active concern.

Carson, of course, would have agreed with Fowler and Leopold, perhaps adding, “If facts are the seeds that produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.” I think that celebrations like Carson’s centenary are part of how we help children make that emotional connection. I’m so glad that Sarah came with me on Saturday, and I’m planning to take her and her siblings outdoors again on May 27, Carson’s actual birthday. We’ll celebrate Carson’s birthday again, not at her house, but in the natural world where she felt most at home.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Books by the Bay

For Mom’s Day, my family treated me to a visit to the Chesapeake Bay. We drove about two hours to Solomons Island, a former oystering town on Maryland’s western shore. Besides our picnic of Spanish cheese and Portugese bread, highlights included a climb up into the Drum Point lighthouse and poking around the exhibits of working boats at the Calvert Marine Museum. Maybe it’s my land-locked Midwestern youth, but just the names of Bay watercraft (crabbing skiff, drake-tail fishing launch, oyster buyboat) make me long to get out on the water. It seems to affect my daughter the same way.

I can’t get close even to dry-docked crab harvesting paraphernalia without thinking of the classic book, Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs, and the Chesapeake Bay, by William Warner. As fine a naturalist as a writer, Warner weaves together natural history of blue crabs and cultural history of the harvesters who depend on them. When the book appeared in 1976, a Time Magazine reviewer called it “a piece of popular oceanography worthy of shelf space alongside Rachel Carson’s classic Edge of the Sea and Henry Beston’s Outermost House.” Warner won the 1977 Pulitzer for Beautiful Swimmers, and, also impressive, taught me how to tell a jimmie (male) from a sook (female) blue crab before I’d ever seen the Chesapeake Bay.

Beautiful Swimmers always makes me think of the person who recommended it to me: Dr. Joe Miller, long-time librarian at Yale’s Forestry School library. One of my favorite ways to relax in grad school was chatting with Dr. Miller about his latest acquisitions for the school's already-astonishing collection . When Dr. Miller heard I was moving to Maryland, he immediately thought of a book that would help me feel connected to nature and people in my new place. Following his example, I often try to give place-based literature when friends head to parts unknown. I can usually at least present a guide to nearby hiking trails or a novel set in the region's landscape, but I rarely find as intimate a portrait as Warner’s of the Bay. Years later, my relationship with the Bay is still enriched by Dr. Miller’s exceptional choice, just as my love of the book strengthens my admiration for my kind, late professor.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Books & Blog Carnivals

Should PinesAboveSnow host a nature book blog carnival? My blogging mentor says yes, having just hosted his first, a far-ranging gathering of posts on political conflicts large and small over at Talk-Lab. Now Mike over at 10,000 Birds has posted Top Five Ways Blog Carnivals Make Blogging Better. Carnivals, says Mike, increase traffic and links to your site but also nurture more personal connections and even lead to the development of community. As he puts it, “Many successful blog carnivals provide the nucleus for genuine online communities that often translate to gratifying offline networks.” Since creating an on- & off-line community of nature book aficionados & activists is one of my goals of PinesAboveSnow, maybe a carnival would be a good idea.

I’d be delighted to hear what others think about the possibilities of a nature book carnival. At the moment, I’ll just keep my eyes open as I click around the blogsophere (especially at existing carnivals) for good book-related writing out there. Today, I found via Tangled Bank a review of Serve God, Save the Planet: A Christian Call to Action by J. Matthew Sleeth. Posted by Jeremy at Voltage Gate, the review turns a skeptical eye on the recent flurry of evangelical conservatives converting to the environmental cause. While Jeremy applauds the book’s anti-materialist ethical stance, he cringes at its anti-science undercurrents. He writes, “Without good science, however, we have no basis for making any decisions regarding the environment, moral or not.” Given the growing numbers of fundamentalist churches espousing green-er views, and the deepening need to work with everyone toward environmental solutions, this is an especially welcome analysis. Also welcome will be the series of reviews of popular conservation and ecology books being promised by Voltage Gate. I’ll keep checking in for ‘em.

And I would be remiss not to mention a carnival with a post from PAS, Learning in the Great Outdoors. You’ll also find there posts on how to do some nature writing of your own, via journaling, and environmental book recommendations from an experienced educator, plus a link to yet another blog carnival, Festival of Trees. With so much cool stuff out there, it’s no wonder I need your help to find good book reviews and other writing about writing out there. Thanks!

Monday, May 7, 2007

No (Book) Impact Man

Who wouldn't want to read almost daily about "A guilty liberal [who] finally snaps, swears off plastic, goes organic, becomes a bicycle nut, turns off his power, composts his poop and, while living in New York City, generally turns into a tree-hugging lunatic"? That irresistible character is No Impact Man, author of one of my very favorite blogs. Since his posts started arriving in my inbox a month ago, NIM has chronicled adventures such as saving electricity by stomping his laundry like grapes in the tub and waxed philosophic about the pollution-induced death of a minke whale in New York harbor. Though I sometimes can't even imagine following his example (we have wayward ants, but no composting worms, in our kitchen), he always gives me something to ponder and often a laugh or two.

You can imagine my suspense upon reading today's headline--"Worse Than Giving up Toilet Paper." What could be worse? NIM is starting a new phase of his energy-efficient living experiment, which he calls the "sustainable consumption stage." A writer and book glutton of long standing, NIM began seeing his bulging shelves as antithetical to his sustainability goals. Yet the prospect of parting with objects of such varied and rich values left him feeling panicked. Will NIM get rid of some or all of his treasured books? Should others seeking to save the planet follow suit? And what should be done with books demeaned unworthy of one's own shelves? I won't spoil his story by telling you. But I'd love to hear what you think about his decision and about the comments on that thread of NIM's discussion. Like NIM, I think that what to do about buying, keeping, and purging accumulated books are vital questions in determining how books can and could be used to slow climate change and generally save the earth.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Urban Campus--People & Nature in Place

Writing is keeping me mostly indoors this weekend. I’m hurrying to catch up on a couple of projects, and this morning I attended a children’s book writers’ brunch. Luckily, the latter event was held at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. Founded in 1867, it’s a small, liberal arts college perched on a hill overlooking rural (but rapidly suburbanizing) countryside. My college-hunting elder daughter might say the architecture is “too red brick-y,” but the pastoral landscaping was a welcome respite from the classroom today. My relief outdoors reminded me of Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted’s belief in the restorative power of natural scenery. As he put it, “The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration of the whole system.”

Which brings me to a recent post by my blogging mentor over at Talk-Lab. The Speeker argues that cars, among their many detriments, divide our communities, and it’s time to redesign cities to look and function more like car-free college campuses. McDaniel’s grounds exemplify that ideal. We left our cars behind and climbed uphill to a separate space, with lawns for Frisbee or picnics, shaded benches for chatting, and nooks for admiring sculpture or views of the Catoctin Mountains. Just one road would have disrupted the paradoxically tranquilizing and enlivening atmosphere that students, faculty, and visitors find so valuable to learning and enjoying a day.

Which brings me to a recent book by my grad school advisor, Stephen R. Kellert: Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection(Island Press, 2005). A sociologist, Kellert goes beyond the laudable efforts of other authors who advocate “green” building technologies and materials to focus on the need to design buildings, neighborhoods, and cities that bring humans into contact with nature. Kellert accepts E.O. Wilson’s contention that humans have an evolutionary need for natural experiences, and here he presents research and theory elucidating how our lives are diminished by a built environment that ignores these needs. His aim is to ensure that good ideas, such as The Speeker’s, to improve our cities, go further through what he calls “restorative environmental design.” In Kellert's view, redesign is not an aesthetic or technological issue but a fundamental need for individual health and social function. And reading Kellert’s visionary work, I’m reminded that Aldo Leopold attended high school on a campus designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Coincidence?

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Outdoor Online Book Clubs

Frustrating! Just when it’s almost impossible to stay inside hooked to the internet, I’m signing on for another online book club. This one’s at Crunchy Chicken and will be discussing Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A History of Four Meals. Published in spring, 2006 to much excitement, Omnivore’s Dilemma takes an uncommonly close look at that most prosaic question, “What shall we have for dinner?” Though I haven’t read Pollan’s latest book, The Washington Post says of him, “His cause is just, his thinking is clear, and his writing is compelling.” Crunchy Chicken has already posted questions to stimulate lively discussion, and I hope to join you over there to exchanges views on what we should eat and where it should come from.

Since March, I’ve also been immersed in an online book discussion focusing on Rachel Carson’s works. That group got started in March, so you’ll have to check the book club archives to read our chats about Silent Spring. But now we’re reading a brand new book of essays, Courage for the Earth: Writers, Scientists, and Activists Celebrate the Life and Writing of Rachel Carson about Carson’s impact, 45 years after her landmark book appeared. That book I have read, but I don’t want to prejudice your approach to it with a rave review here. Instead, I’ll rave about the group, especially as a place to interact with expert moderators, notably Linda Lear, Carson’s esteemed biographer, and Freeman House, author of one of the most disturbing but eloquent essays in Courage for the Earth. Looking closely at Carson’s work with the help of these guides and companions for two months has led me to a deeper appreciation of her as a scientist, activist, writer, and emblem of hope. If any fellow RC Book Clubbers are reading this, thanks!

Two other online nature book opportunities are worth mentioning. Sierra Magazine has an online book and film club, Let’s Talk. All I know so far is that the May/June selection is a film about environmental justice issues related to the coffee trade, called Black Gold. And novelist & essayist Barbara Kingsolver was on a radio talk show today to publicize her new book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about her family’s experiment in eating locally. I only heard snatches of the conversation, but one cool twist that I haven’t heard from other “locavores” is that the Kingsolver clan is raising heirloom poultry as part of their culinary adventures. If you’d like to tune into the show, however belatedly, visit the WAMU radio archives. Maybe you can download it to your iPod and listen outdoors.