Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Soaring with David Gessner

What better way to celebrate the 2007 centennial of Rachel Carson’s birth than a new book about ospreys, a raptor saved by the anti-pesticide outcry sparked by Silent Spring? In his acclaimed Return of the Osprey (Algonquin Books, 2001), David Gessner feted the birds’ post-DDT resurgence through reflections on a summer observing their courtship, nesting, fishing, and fledging. Intimate watching at the nest connected Gessner not only with the birds but also with their marshy Cape Cod home. Yet ironically, that book’s success helped pull the author away, to a new job as a writing professor in North Carolina. The move turned Gessner’s osprey obsession toward understanding the birds’ migratory trajectory, or, as he puts it, “My old question had been how to nest. My new question was how to be at home in movement.”

In Soaring with Fidel: An Osprey Odyssey from Cape Cod to Cuba and Beyond, Gessner follows the birds south by foot, car, boat, and computer, virtually-watching ospreys satellite-tagged for a BBC documentary. Most of his avian encounters are fleeting, though long enough for indelible descriptions of hovering, diving, and other dramatic moments. Recountings of human interactions are no less memorable, whether they depict a random couple met beside a spotting scope or hot shot birders buttoned-holed for advice. Gessner’s humor shines in these scenes, as when he imbibes beer along with lessons in soaring physics from a raptor expert near Hawk Mountain.
He switches to rum once he and the birds reach Cuba, but literary heroes accompany him all along the way. A devotee of Thoreau, Gessner here favors Whitman. A worn copy of Leaves of Grass, swiped from one of many guesthouses that shelter him, reveals a fellow wanderer who valued freedom as much as connection. Who would want just one cabin in the woods, Gessner asks, when you could experience many? “So many possible Waldens, “ says the author, “Cabin after cabin. Waldens on the fly.”

As often as he crosses geographical borders, Gessner shifts writing styles.
A lyrical passage on a mountain thunderstorm is soon succeeded by a farcical report on how broken Spanish affects testy immigration officials. This is not just a literary device or quirk but a sign of commitment to crossing boundaries of writing genres and natural place. As Rachel Carson depicted in her natural history classic, The Edge of the Sea, Gessner views borders as fertile spaces for wildlife and the imagination. In Soaring with Fidel, he richly imagines life on the wing for a magnificent raptor and reimagines a meandering but sure route toward his own happiness.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Big Coal Q & A

Are you infuriated by mountaintop coal mining? Do you need some literary ammunition against proponents of coal-to-liquid as a gasoline alternative? Do you just wonder where your electricity comes from? Jeff Goodell offers authoritative answers to these burning questions in Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future. In a surprisingly engaging book about a global resource extraction industry, Goodell analyzes how our reliance on coal has led to nationwide inertia against alternative energy research. In the 21st century, he argues, few of us realize our dependence on a 19th century energy source. He says, “We may not like to admit it, but our shiny white iPod economy is propped up by dirty black rocks.”

This is an especially important book at this moment of energy legislation debate on Capital Hill. If you don’t have time to read the book, please use that shiny iPod to hear a podcast of Goodell’s June 21 interview, ironically on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. And if you’ve taken your high blood pressure medication, get a podcast from Diane Rehm’s WAMU radio archives of her June 20th discussion of the energy legislation debate. Guests include a well-spoken representative from the Natural Resources Defense Council, but you’ll also hear an employee of the Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers extolling the virtues of coal-to-liquid as the key to defeating the terrorist menace.

If the discussion gets you steamed up as it did me, stay tuned to hear Diane’s radio book club discussion of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette. Thinking about Bronte’s insights into human nature and perhaps her line, “Better to be without logic than without feeling,” seems especially appropriate after just listening to a coal advocate using data and reason to convince us to accept more global warming to improve his profit margins.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Last Child in the News

How wonderful to wake up and find that one of my favorite nature books made the front page of the Washington Post. “Getting Lost in the Great Outdoors” brings front-and-center the issue that kids are being raised indoors with little connection to nature, a growing crisis analyzed in Richard Louv’s bestselling book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. This timely volume is on the shelf of every nature center and environmental educator I know, and now more parents will pick it up and learn why spending time outside is essential for children to develop healthy bodies, minds, and spirits. What a good way to start off the summer!

As a devote of the book, I’ve joined Louv’s nonprofit, Children & Nature Network and interviewed him for the Audubon Naturalist News. But the Post had big news for a Louv-groupie like me: the Conservation Fund has organized mayors, governors, and leaders from business, non-profits, and education to raise $20 million to fund programs getting more kids hiking, canoeing, birdwatching, and staring at the clouds. To learn about the many groups participating or to see how you can help yourself, visit the Fund’s page on the National Forum on Children and Nature.

Much deeper into the Post, I also came across an obituary of a consummate hiker: Colin Fletcher. His book, “The Complete Walker,” introduced many in the 1960s to the joys and practicalities of backpacking. When we prepped our packs for a Colorado climb in the late 70s, my teen friends and I dutifully cut the handles off our toothbrushes on Colin Fletcher recommendation. The obituary (originally from the LA Times) calls Fletcher “the man whom some call the J.D. Salinger of the high country” and says his favorite among his books was The Man from the Cave. I haven’t read it, but the Washington Post called it “a work of art, a triumph, a monument to the unique spark of humanity Fletcher intuitively recognized in a wild desert cave.” How poignant to learn of the death of this icon of outdoor adventure after reading in the earlier article that only 8 percent of today’s 9 to 12 year olds spend significant, unstructured time outdoors. Let’s hope that Louv and his followers are as effective as Fletcher and his were in getting people—especially young people—outside.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Shame on No Impact Man

No, I’m not joining in the fray over whether or not No Impact Man should be soliciting donations for himself on his blog. I only know about it because I’ve been reading the comments under his recent post, Kant’s Views on No Impact Living. How cool that Colin’s readers are postulating what Kant, Wittgenstein, Bentham, and other philosophers might think of the No Impact experiment. I couldn’t resist mentioning Aldo Leopold’s land ethic and the Foundation dedicated to spreading his ideas. I even quoted Leopold’s “ecological imperative,” a succinct summary of his philosophy: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Much to my chagrin, NIM replied that he’s never read any of Leopold’s writings. At least he’s heard of Leopold, via a book I haven’t read--Ethics for a Finite World by Herchel Elliot. I’d been thinking that Leopold was hot news this week, with his son Carl’s interview featured in the always green-hot environmental news & commentary e-zine, Grist. Editors and readers posed questions to Dr. Leopold about contemporary culture & nature as well as on his memories of The Shack and his father. Want to know what environmental offense most infuriates Leopold’s son, about Aldo Leopold’s religious beliefs, or how Carl Leopold thinks we can attract more people into the environmental fold? Curious about what the son of the Almanac’s author is reading lately? Please check out these just-posted comments by a living participant in Leopold’s half-century-old low-impact experiment. I hope Colin of the NIM does, too.

On second thought, maybe I should weigh in on No Impact Man’s request for donations. Instead of money, I think that we should each send him a copy of A Sand County Almanac.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Reynard in the Suburbs

Neighborhood walks have changed considerably since Henry Thoreau sauntered around Concord. He wrote, “I can easily walk, ten, fifteen, twenty, any number of miles, commencing at my own door without going by any house, without crossing a road except where the fox and mink do.” My family lives in a planned suburb, with asphalt walking paths winding through narrow woods between and behind close-packed houses. That’s at least more saunter-friendly than most sidewalk-deprived subdivisions, and we occasionally glimpse a fox crossing the road at night or hear one in the dark distance, a sound Thoreau described as “barking raggedly and demonically like forest dogs.” But we don’t expect to cross any mink or many fox trails on an evening’s stroll.

So imagine our surprise on Saturday’s walk when we spotted not one, but four red foxes cavorting in a nearby field. My husband rushed home for the camera, and for long minutes, we watched the animals play, spar, hunt, and watch us right back. They seemed to be a family of one tolerant, watchful parent and three curious, boisterous, well-grown pups. One pup stalked, pounced, and munched a snack-sized prey, and all three pounced on each other, dashed in and out of sight under thickets on the field’s edge, or just rolled in the grass, enjoying the day’s last sunshine. When my daughter moved slightly closer to take pictures, one pup stopped playing to stare directly at her. He didn’t seem frightened, just intrigued, and he stepped a bit closer for a better view of her, too.

As delightful as the experience was for my family, I couldn’t help but compare our fox encounter with one Thoreau describes in his journal. On January 30, 1841 Thoreau spied a fox in the snow and gave chase, “. . . I tossed my head aloft and bounded away, snuffing the air like a fox hound, and spurring the world and the Humane Society at each bound.” Thoreau felt wild enough himself to sample the fox’s wild existence in a pursuit he admits frightened it. Along the way, his experience of the fox was enriched not just by familiarity with their shared woods but by classical literature enlivening his imagination. He wrote, “It seemed the woods rang with the hunter’s horn, and Diana and all the satyrs joined in the chase.”

In contrast, my family stood still on the asphalt path, loathe to disturb the animals’ small oasis—a field undeveloped only because power lines stretch overhead. Quietly, we agreed the view “was just like watching Nature on t.v.” Once home again, I looked up Thoreau’s description of the fox he chased through the Concord snow and recognized the same animal we spied in Columbia—“He ran as though there was no bone in his back,” and “he took no step which as not beautiful.” In 160 years, the fox hasn’t changed. But we have.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Leopold's Colors: Evanescent and Durable

When Aldo Leopold had his druthers, June found him fly fishing. On the Alder Fork of the Wisconsin River, he might don chest waders and wait for hours in a trout-cold stream, or climb the bank, bushwack “neck deep in jewelweed and nettles,” then re-immerse in a deeper, quieter pool, all for a chance to set hard on a great fish.

Yet as anyone who has read A Sand County Almanac knows, Leopold wasn’t just fishing for trout. An avid hunter, birdwatcher, hiker, and angler since childhood, he believed in outdoor experience as a universal human need, a vital means not just of knowing the natural world but of appreciating it. No essay expresses this better than “The Green Pasture.”

Leopold begins:

Some paintings become famous because, being durable, they are viewed by successive generations, in each of which are likely to be found a few appreciative eyes.
I know a painting so evanescent that it is seldom viewed at all, except by some wandering deer. It is a river who wields the brush, and it is the same river who, before I can bring my friends to view his work, erases it forever from human view.

Because Leopold knew the Wisconsin so well, he noticed when the river dipped its brush in silt and painted it on a sandbar. He watched colors begin to appear—goldfinches bathing in blue pools, “great white fleets” of clouds overhead, and, especially, the verdant rush, Eleocharis. Just three weeks later, Leopold writes,

The artist has now laid his colors, and sprayed them with dew. The Eleocharis sod, greener than ever, is now spangled with the blue mimulus, pink dragon-head, and the milk-white blooms of Sagitarria. Here and there a cardinal flower thrusts a red spear skyward. . . .And if you have come quietly and humbly, as you should to any spot that can be beautiful only once, you may surprise a fox-red deer, standing knee-high in the garden of his delight.

Vacillations in the river’s course and level soon erase the painting except from Leopold’s memory. And while he hopes to witness it again, the scene’s ephemeral nature is part of its value to him. Any tourist, he observed, could spot the timeless grandeur of a scenic overlook—yet few step out of the car longer than it takes to snap a few photos. Joni Kinsey in a critical essay on Leopold’s “Land Esthetics,” says, “He even suggests that humble sites are more rewarding than the conventionally beautiful, if only because they require more effort to see fully.”

In June, and in every month, Leopold urged us to venture outside again and again, to seek out the colors, shapes, and textures in nearby nature that bind us to our own land and help develop our aesthetic perception of nature. He didn’t expect everyone to shiver in a trout stream or thrash through nettles, but rather to find a nearby green pasture, where beauty builds with time and repeated visits, beyond the pretty “to values as yet uncaptured by language.” Often, a half-wild patch in your own back forty, unreachable by car, can do more to enhance perception than a motor trek to a distant wilderness. Leopold closes his Almanac with the words, “Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.”

Many thanks to Ophis for the lovely shot of Canada geese breakfasting on their own green pasture of Eleocharis.

Joni Kinsey's essay, "Land Esthetics" can be found in The Essential Aldo Leopold: Quotations and Commentaries, Curt Meine and Richard Knight, eds. University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

June Carnival Round Up

The County Fair won’t open ‘til August, but it still feels like carnival weather today. What could be more fun than eating popcorn, fudge, and candy apples before hopping on a stomach churning roller coaster? Reading lots of great blog posts on books, nature, and nature books, that’s what. So step right up and try your luck with some of the carnivals posted below.

The Summer Vacation edition of Learning in the Great Outdoors is up at Alone on a Limb. This Carnival’s midway offers links to a flashy array of environmental education posts, including several on homeschooling outdoors. By Sun and Candlelight, for example, urges parents to get kids excited about nature study by focusing on wildlife mysteries. Pack a detective kit, complete with field guides, and start looking for clues. Some of the guides you need are reviewed at 10,000 Birds, notably a summer necessity, the Audubon Field Guide to Butterflies. Alone on a Limb also links to photo journal entries of a trip to China by Miss Rumphius Effect, a teacher who writes about children’s literature. Her sidebar won me over to this blog, where you find a button for Library Thing, an online book cataloging service that lists 749 titles for Miss R. I'll be checking that list for good titles in the future.

More exhibits of green writing are on display at the Carnival of the Green, via Groxie. A weekly carnival meta-organized by Treehugger, this edition Carnival of the Green leans toward the practical. Any writers out there will find useful advice for hard core paper recycling over at Confessions of a Closet Environmentalist.
Lighter Footstep tells how to shrink your carbon footprint and expand your wallet with “10 Cheap Ways to Cool-Off Your Refrigerator Bills.” And Veggie Revolution expresses reservations about the marketability of biofuel cars in
Alternative Fuel Vehicles will be Tough Sell.

With all of the above excitement, I haven’t had a chance yet to make my way through three other favorite carnivals. As a faithful Maryland Blog Alliance member, I call your attention to the latest MD Carnivaled at Talk-Lab. 10,000 Birds is hosting the always-surprising Carnival of the Spineless. And I just learned about the Festival of Trees. Pinesabovesnow likes the idea of a tree carnival so much, I’ve added a lovely button on the sidebar so you can go straight to it any time. As my kids would argue, there’s always time for one more carnival ride before going home to bed.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Bats in Books Part II

How can we help kids avoid chiroptophobia—fear of bats—and grow to appreciate the diverse and talented members of the order, Chiroptera? Cyd from Field Marking comments in Bats and Books Part I that her family plays tennis (of a sort) with bats on balmy evenings. We haven’t tried that yet; my son has taken a more artsy craftsy approach. Eli has built a bat box, sculpted bats out of clay, and been a bat on Halloween. And not just any bat, but a scorpion-devouring pallid bat from the desert southwest. Clearly, creepiness isn’t always a negative in kid-bat relations.

Maybe the plethora of bat children’s books is beginning to assuage old prejudices and fears. Bats at the Beach, a fanciful, rhyming picture book hit the New York Times best seller list last summer. Furry, mouse-faced bats rendezvous on a moonlit shore to fly kites, sing by the campfire, and toast bug-mallows. Much of the humor relies on un-batlike behavior (e.g., bats applying moon-tan lotion), but art which School Library Journal calls “dark yet luminous” introduces young readers to a world after dark that’s festive, not frightening. Author Brian Lies’ website goes further, with bat facts, activities, and a teacher’s guide to music, science, writing, and other enrichments to the text. The site also invites kids to concoct pseudo-bat treats from marshmallows, gummy worms, pretzels, licorice, chow mein noodles, etc., and post photos of their creations in the Bugmallow Hall of Fame.

Here are a few more favorite bat picture books:
Barbara Bash’s Shadows of the Night follows the life cycle of little brown bats from spring births in an attic maternity colony to six months huddling in a hibernation cave.
Betsy Maestro’s Bats: Night Flyers is a fast-paced overview of bat
distribution, anatomy, behavior, and ecology, described in jargon-free but scientifically accurate prose.
Bats: Outside and Inside is part of Sandra Markle’s successful series that looks closely at animal behaviors and the anatomy that makes them possible. Photo illustrations range from a vampire bat lapping up chicken blood to a mom-baby fruit bat pair that is awwww-inspiring.
Bats! Strange and Wonderful is by prolific kids’ nature writer Laurence Pringle. While presenting a crash course in bat biology and behavior, Pringle dispels myths and emphasizes the ecological values of bats to underscore his urgent message of bat conservation.

Titles for older kids are even more varied. For artsy kids like Eli, there’s The Bat-Poet, by Randall Jarrell. It’s a wise fable about a little brown bat who sees the world differently than his friends and writes poems to share his vision. My middle schooler loves another fantasy novel, Silverwing (Kenneth Oppel), in which the questing hero in a talking animal universe is a runty bat. Reality-book fans might prefer Batman: Exploring the World of Bats. That's Laurence Pringle’s young adult biography of Merlin Tuttle: mammologist, photographer, and revered bat advocate who founded Bat Conservation International. Kids and adults can sign up at the BCI website for a free monthly newsletter, get plans for a bat house, access outstanding photos by Merlin Tuttle himself, register to visit a Mexican free-tail maternity colony near BCI's Texas headquarters, and buy books, dvds, bat t-shirts, and more.

Soon, I hope, BCI’s online store will be carrying my own contribution to bat literature. It's the aptly titled upper-elementary-level Bats, just published by NorthWord Books in May. If you squint at the cover image, you’ll see that author credit goes to “Julia Vogel,” a pseudonym I use so far mostly for titles in NorthWord's Our Wild World series. Research for Bats last year led me to read all of the books mentioned above and many more, as well as interview bat researchers and rehabilitators, track down local bat-watching venues, and, especially, long for a trip to Bracken Cave, home to the world's largest bat colony. I'm still watching, yearning, and reading, all part of my personal journey toward chiroptophilia.