Thursday, October 2, 2008

Swampbikers Journal

You’d think chocolate croissants would be incentive enough, but recently my children balked at our Sunday ritual of walking to the farmers’ market. Luckily, it turned out they were irked not by the destination but the pace. Family harmony was restored the next week by disentangling bikes from the jumbled garage and setting out as usual.

Laden with melons, apples, and sweet corn, we parents lagged behind on the return trip, only able to watch from afar as my daughter swerved off the path and crashed to the ground. Sarah laughingly explained, “I swerved to avoid a rock—with a tail!” Her swift self-sacrifice preserved the young life of a quarter-sized snapping turtle. A second hatchling was soon spotted crawling down the hill toward a stream, and we sat on the grass to watch their progress—and make sure no other bikers ground them into the tarmac.

I was thinking: the only thing that could make the discovery more fun would be more kids to share it with. Then down the path came a mom and two small girls. “Did you find a baby turtle?” the mom called. One child cradled a cardboard box, temporary quarters for another fiesty reptile. The mom turned out to be a talented nature photographer, Sharon Shomette, who had found the snapper snippet while out walking her dog and returned home for her camera (and pj-clad daughters). This shot catches the youngster's attitude perfectly.

Sharon’s confidence & enthusiasm instantly convinced us that she should lead our expedition. As she scrambled down a muddy bank to photograph the captive's release, I turned to my forte—-thinking of books that could enrich our experience. Quick as a shutter release, I thought of David M. Carroll, author of three wetlands natural history books known affectionately as the “wet sneaker trilogy.” If you never considered snappers as beautiful creatures, you’ll rethink your position after reading Carroll’s passionate ode to all things chelonian, Swampwalker's Journal. Carroll’s paintings and sketches of turtles and their boggy abodes also grace the books, further reflecting the intimacy of his connection to the New Hampshire marsh where he has studied snapping, spotted, and painted turtles for decades.

As I watched my kids delighting in sunshine, mud, and baby snappers with smiling neighbors, I wished they could experience a friendship like Carroll describes in his memoir, Self-Portrait with Turtles. Two pre-teens roaming free in a red-maple swamp, David & friend learned enough about cattails and carapace patterns in summer to sustain them through the dark classroom days of fall. Even when exploring on his own, young David remained connected to the girl who shared his outdoor adventures. Finding a yellow spotted turtle, he questions his impulse to capture it for his friend. I did not collect turtles or give them away, remembers Carroll, “But as I held this exquisite little one, I saw it as a living jewel she could keep for a time.” I trust that our morning with the snappers will be remembered as that same kind of gift, made less fleeting by Sharon’s fine photos, and more nourishing to the soul than the flakiest croissant.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Encounters in a Salt Marsh

You never know who you’ll meet in a salt marsh. Tim Traver’s encounters range from the great grandson of Ralph Waldo Emerson, to McMansion developers, to himself as a 12-year-old boy in a penetrating memoir, Sippewissett, or, Life on a Salt Marsh. To Travers, a tidal wetland has many meanings, and he carries readers along on a meandering kayak ride through the history of Wood Hole Biological Laboratory, failed efforts to preserve an original Cape Cod farm, the intimate lives of quahog clams, and much more. Here’s one paragraph that reflects the breadth of Traver’s approach:

“The marsh is a microcosm of the world. With its peat meadows, meandering tidal creeks, microbes and mud, at the living breathing edge of continent and ocean, it seems that life must have started here. Every microcomponent contributes to the whole. Discovering how this system works was a biogeocheical pursuit that took years and is ongoing. Hundreds of studies resulted in as many journal papers. Out of the research came a picture of energy and nutrient inputs, chemical transformations and outputs from the marsh. The human factor reduce to chemistry is in these equations—what is flushed down the toilet, pumped into the atmosphere, spread on lawns, and put into drinking water all goes into marsh, and all is measured. Where, though, is the factor of a famiy? A sacred community? The human spirit capable of sustaining the world? Where figures consciousness?”

The only time I willingly put Sippewissett down yesterday was to watch a new PBS documentary, Where Do the Children Play? The film examines how suburban sprawl, stranger anxiety, and technology have led to the decline in unstructured outdoor play among, especially and perhaps surprisingly, affluent children. Richard Louv, author of the best-selling Last Child in the Woods, appears often to elucidate what a lack of experience with nature does to the human psyche, and children themselves talk about why nature does (or in some troubling cases, doesn’t) matter to them. The goal of the film and its companion book, edited by play researcher Elizabeth Goodenough, is to stimulate the growing conversation about children’s access to natural space—and the time to enjoy it.

I think that books such as Sippewissett should be part of that conversation, reminding and exciting people about the innumerable values of ordinary places. By exploring a sometimes luminous, sometimes sulfurous local wetland with children, friends, mentors, and even adversaries, Travers demonstrates how each of us can become guerilla fighters on behalf of reconnecting each other with the natural world. As Travers asserts, a cadre of scientists, activists, artists, and philosophers have devoted their passionate lives to saving his marsh because they shared his love for it. But ordinary people can’t stand idly by others’ passionate flames if our favorite places are to be protected. “Emerson burned,” says Travers, “and made all of nature transcendent again. Science, infused with poetic insight, was his transformative agent. The scientists working to unlock the secrets of a salt marsh burned in their own way, too, and deep down hoped to save it all. But the few can’t save us. We all need to catch on fire.”

P.S. For a fine review of Sippewissett, see bookslut. She calls the book "truly lovely," and I concur.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Rock Flippin' 101

The first thing my family discovered, as neophyte participants in the second annual International Rock Flipping Day, is that we have a lot to learn about flipping rocks.

After all, there are so many choices.

Despite my son's tenacious efforts, some rocks resist flipping,

and many are too small to hide big secrets.

These and other frustrations today led my 13-year-old to bemoan that she'd have more fun if we could flip a rock star.

But our spirits were buoyed when we came upon a rock-related mystery on our trail--

Why did someone capture several pounds of small white stones and corrall them in the woods?

And at last we found a rock that was just right for the flipping tastes and talents of a nine-year-old boy.

What did we find under our long-sought, perfect flipping rock?

Our afternoon's search yielded one spider's web, innumerable pill bugs, decaying grass, general muckiness, and one sincere "Wow" from a "been there, done that" fourth grader. No epiphanies, but not bad for a bunch of beginners.

We'll be polishing our flippin' skills to improve our performance for the third annual celebration in 2009. Already, we've learned one important lesson: You never know what you'll find under a rock.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Rock Flippin' and other Fall Romps

It’s probably a symptom of spending most of my life somehow associated with school. But fall always seems like the start of things to me, and I’m feeling energized by the possibilities before us. Here are a few of my looming favorites. . . .

September 7th, Via Negative is co-sponsoring the second annual International Rock Flipping Day. Here’s how Dave describes the event:

On 9/2/2007, people flipped rocks on four continents on sites ranging from mountaintops to urban centers to the floors of shallow seas. Rock-flippers found frogs, snakes, and invertebrates of every description, as well as fossils and other cool stuff. As before, we advise wearing gloves for protection, and getting the whole family involved — or if you don’t have a family, rope in some neighborhood kids. Be sure to replace all rocks as soon as possible after documenting whatever lies beneath them.

If you participate, please take photos and send ‘em to Dave to share your discoveries. Then drop me a line to let me know which books most inspire you to undertake rock flippin’ adventures, wherever they are.

September 27, the Emily Dickinson Museum is sponsoring a poetry marathon at the Dickinson homestead and all around Amherst, Massachusetts. It’ll take about 16 hours to read all 1,789 poems; you can listen or volunteer to read. The Dickinson family, scholars all, were indefatigable readers, and the museum is determined to replenish the family library (most volumes were gifted to Harvard and other collections), Just skimming the family’s book list (which includes Pines Above Snow favorites such as A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Wuthering Heights) is a treat, and you can pitch in to help re-fill the family’s shelves with a donation of an appropriate first edition or, always welcome, a cash contribution.

They’re giving books away over at 10,000 Birds, specifically copies of Nick Drayson’s A Guide to the Birds of East Africa: A Novel.. Five copies of the Guide were donated by the publisher to spark awareness of Charlie’s 10,000 Bird campaign to raise funds for the “Small African Fellowship for Conservation,” principally aimed at protecting an endangered Kenyan bird, Sharpe’s Long Claw. The deadline to win a book may already have passed, but there’s plenty of time to contribute to protecting the birds. Donations will be accepted until October 1, 2008.

What nature book-related events are you excited about this season?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Kindling Interest?

One of my favorite periodic guides to more sustainable lifestyles is Sheryl Eisenberg’s This Green Life online column for the NRDC. But Sheryl sparked a controversy when she recently touted’s electronic reader, the Kindle. Eisenberg, like so many of us, not only loves to read but loves to accumulate favorite books, collecting them on shelves to surround her like cherished friends. Yet she increasingly questions the materialism behind such literary acquisitions and sees the Kindle, with its growing library of 120,000 fiction & nonfiction titles, plus top newspapers, magazines, and, yes, blogs, as a rational alternative.

Eisenberg argues that though reading via Kindle consumes electricity & contributes to pollution and global warming, harvesting trees to manufacture what too-often are disposable frivolities (think Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, not Bronte’s Villette) is worse for the planet. She finds plenty to praise about how Kindle works for her (inexpensive, print-like text, easily searchable), especially loving the convenience of nearly-instant downloads to random locations (imagine the delight if a new copy of The Monkey Wrench Gang could suddenly distract you during a long wait at the DMV). Amazon’s certainly doing its best to educate luddite-leaning readers to give the $359 device a chance. Anyone seriously considering purchase would do well to read the customer reviews for practical pros and cons of Kindle.

Eisenberg got so much flack for advocating a step away from traditional paper books that her next column encourages mail order book swapping instead (though it’s internet based too). Yet she doesn’t address questions such as how electronic book reading might impact nascent readers—a group that last Sunday’s Washington Post warns is less enamored of pleasure reading than ever. And it’s worth considering too whether one of the greatest virtue she perceives, rapid downloading, may be one of the device’s worst capabilities. After all, isn’t the need for instant gratification the core of materialism? Would Thoreau’s clarion call for a simpler life ring true if read off an e-reader(Kindle-Walden’s available for just $2.39!)? But maybe the powers in charge of the Kindle repertoire will resolve that kind of problem for us. So far, at least, they haven’t added A Sand County Almanac to their list.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

See the Forest from the Trees

Who hasn’t dreamed of living in a tree?

Yet who would expect to live that fantasy in the grand setting of Pierre du Pont’s former estate in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, Longwood Gardens?

But tucked into Longwood’s 1,050 acres this fall are three fanciful treehouses, crafted by gifted designers, for your late summer pleasure.

Though a bit more ornate than we’d envisioned throwing together from old planks and ropes in our backyard, my family appreciated the gracious scale of the distinctive dwellings on the crowded day we visited.

And in case you’d like to foresee a treehouse in your community garden’s future, learn about the work of Forever Young, a nonprofit dedicated to the creation of disabled-accessible treehouses throughout the U.S. See you in the trees!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Happy Birthday, Roger Tory Peterson!

Thanks to that outstanding carnival,
I and the Bird #81, for all sorts of cool birding news and photos but especially for spreading the word that Eddie over at birdfreak has declared August to be Roger Tory Peterson Month. Great idea, Eddie! Stay tuned all month to his bird photo-rich site for reviews of books by and about RTP in honor of the great painter, educator, photographer, and conservationist's 100th birthday on August 28.

A glowing review of a new Peterson biography is already up at 10,000 Birds. Mike calls Peterson a “true giant of conservation” and admires biographer Elizabeth Rosenthal especially for elucidating Peterson’s legacy in international environmental protection. The Birder’s Library also recommends Rosenthal’s Birdwatcher and more recently features a thorough, generally positive review of the brand-new Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America. Despite, or perhaps because of, some digital manipulations of Peterson’s illustrations, says Grant, “As a tribute to Peterson, this volume is one of the best ways to appreciate his field guide art.”

You can read my contribution to Peterson’s centennial in this month’s Audubon Naturalist News. Many thanks to contributors Julie Zickefoose, Scott Weidensaul, Jeffrey Cramer, and Chandler Robbins for sharing their insights into Peterson’s life and work.

If you live near Peterson’s hometown of Jamestown, New York, or can manage a visit there this year, check out the art exhibits, book talks, nature walks, and other birthday festivities at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute. Wherever you are, though, the best way to celebrate RTP and his legendary accomplishments is to stuff a Peterson’s in your pocket and head outside.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

A Muse of Evanescence

Imagine the astonishment of Lavinia Dickinson when she opened a cherry cabinet in 1886 to discover hundreds of poems by her late sister, Emily. A family friend described the unexpected treasures, “written on backs of brown-paper bags or of discarded bills, programs, and invitations; on tiny scraps of stationery pinned together; on leaves torn from old notebooks. . . on mildewed subscription blanks, or on. . . drug-store bargain flyers. There are pink scraps, blue and yellow scraps, one of them a wrapper of Chocolat Meunier.” Of course, it is the poems’ themes—often flowers, insects, light, weather, or birds—that make Emily Dickinson the favorite poet of so many nature lovers.

Nearly 70 years later, assemblage artist Joseph Cornell re-discovered Dickinson for himself, arranging a Chocolate Meunier wrapper in each of eight boxes depicting the poet as an absent songbird. Literary critic Christopher Benfey particularly admires Cornell’s haunting 1953 Toward the Blue Peninsula (for Emily Dickinson), saying “In its visionary minimalism, the white box with its central blue window sums up a whole cluster of themes that Cornell associated with Dickinson: birds and prisons, the transitory rooms of hotels and decrepit mansions, the starlit sky and the escape and the refuge provided by the voyaging imagination. Toward a Blue Peninsula is at once a deeply personal response to ‘the Dickinson experience’ as well as the single most trenchant interpretive response, in all of American art, to the meaning of her life and work.”

I happened upon Benfey’s delectable, original book, A Summer of Hummingbirds, at the library last week. Far behind in life and work, my reading card was already full, but I couldn’t pass by Benfrey’s subtitle: “Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade.” Says Benfey, “The book had its origins in a confluence of hummingbirds,” when Emily Dickinson gave a poem about hummingbirds to the young protégé of hummingbird painter, Martin Johnson Heade. The poem’s image of a hummingbird’s flight, its “route of evanescence”, flits through the volume, helping to connect the many biographical, cultural, literary, and artistic threads that make this the perfect book to read in the sunshine beside the cardinal flowers.

Though I’d never heard of it before, the book has been widely praised. A Chicago Tribune critic says, “Many will find the narrative in "A Summer of Hummingbirds" to be as dartingly peripatetic as the avian of its title. In part this is because Benfey is chasing an abstract concept, the emergence of a new mind-set after the Civil War, and he finds evidence of it in widely disparate places.” Benfey explains his focus on “this informal cult of hummingbirds” that captivated Dickinson, Head, Stowe, and so many others this way: “. . . . Americans during and after the Civil War gradually left behind a static view of existence, a trust in fixed arrangements and hierarchies. In science and in art, in religion and in love, they came to see a new dynamism and movement in their lives, a brave new world of instability and evanescence. This dynamism, in all aspects of life, found perfect expression in the hummingbird.”

The book was also featured on NPR in its series, Summer Books to Feed Your Literary Addiction. You can even hear the author read Dickinson’s “route of evanescence” poem and a chapter from the book. But be forewarned—finishing this volume will exponentially increase the to-be-read stack by your bedside. Benfey’s deft depictions of cross-pollinations between artists, from Lord Byron to Cornell, left me aching to read more of all their works. There is less about the birds that inspired such devotion than I would have wished, and nowhere does Benfey address the hummingbird in the room—as wild populations and habitats decline, where will future artist find such wild inspiration? Critics and others who dwell apart from the natural world would do well to keep in mind another poem of Dickinson’s which reflects on the indifference of nature to the dead—even those who once found their evanescent muses on the wing. . . .

Safe in their alabaster chambers,
Untouched by morning
And untouched by noon,
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection,
Rafter of satin, and roof of stone.

Light laughs the breeze
In her castle of sunshine,
Bubbles the bee in a stolid ear,
Pipe the sweet birds in ignorant cadences:
Ah, what sagacity perished here!

Grand go the years in the crescent above them;
Worlds scoop their arcs, and firmaments row,
Diadems drop and Doges surrender,
Soundless as dots on a disk of snow.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Long Time No Read

Many apologies for my long neglect of PinesAboveSnow. Family obligations post-vacation have kept me away, and I haven't even been reading that much. But I couldn’t resist spreading the word about an NPR commentary I heard on Thursday. This summer, National Public Radio is offering an occasional series where writers recommend three books on a particular theme. July 24, The Washington Post’s environmental reporter, Juliet Eilperin, contributed an audio commentary right up PAS’s alley: “Eco-Friendly Books Explore the Literary Green”.

Eilperin narrows the field of outstanding environmental books to three worthy choices. First, Bill McKibben’s new anthology, American Earth, includes two centuries of fine nature writing--not just essays but also song lyrics, poetry, and political speeches—and should have something for every summer reader. You can hear McKibben speak about the book here. I’m not familiar with her second choice--Where the Wild Things Were, by William Stolzenburg—a sobering look at the “environmental havoc” wrought by accelerating declines in large mammal populations. But the Green Skeptic calls it “Part history, part mystery, part philosophical treatise,” and “ a good read.”

Yet the book I’ll seek out first is Eilperin’s final pick, The Carbon Age by Eric Roston. I’ve heard buzz about this book elsewhere too and look forward to earning a deeper understanding of how carbon atoms, via human misjudgments and misbehavior, have become a threat to life on earth. Roston likens the potential human-induced planetary destruction to a meteor impact, leading Eilperin to conclude, “Reading words printed on dead trees doesn't automatically translate into saving the planet. But by encouraging us to reevaluate the world around us, these three books offer a vision of a different path forward, one that might steer us safely out of the meteor's path.”

I hope that I'll have time to recommend more books that fulfill Eilperin's criteria of excellence soon. Feel free to make your suggestions too. . . .

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Tours of Pleasure

I’m commencing my pilgrimage to Yosemite tomorrow (4:30 am), but I’m taking along a book about another literary shrine, Walden: A History. Thoreau scholar Barksdale Maynard, I trust, will give me needed perspective, through a place I’ve visited over the years, into how a revered landscape can be threatened by its devotees. Plus, reading about the comings-and-goings of 19th century Concord for me is like reading People magazine gossip for normal people.

Someday, I hope to make a pilgrimage to Jane Austen-land, and I’m thinking of her books today too, specifically for a Pride and Prejudice moment of pre-trip euphoria. I hope that each of you has a vacation this summer that you can anticipate as joyfully as Elizabeth Bennet does a proposed “tour of pleasure” with her aunt and uncle.

We have not determined how far it shall carry us,” said Mrs. Gardiner, “but, perhaps, to the Lakes.”
No scheme could have been more agreeable to Elizabeth, and her acceptance of the invitation was most ready and grateful. “Oh, my dear, dear aunt,” she rapturously cried, “what delight! What felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to the disappointment and spleen. What are young men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travelers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone—we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarreling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of generality of travelers.”

I wonder what books Lizzie took along on her outing? Whatever you choose, happy reading!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Beautiful Writer

“Got a pot full right off, did you, Grant?”
“Right smart of crabs, right smart of crabs.”
“Crabs are moving. That time of year. They’re out here on the bar, all right.”

This interchange between Chesapeake Bay watermen seems heartbreakingly antique in a year when the governors of Virginia and Maryland are seeking federal disaster assistance for fishermen hit by harvest limits as blue crab numbers continue to plummet. It gains added poignancy when you learn, as I did today, that the passage’s author, William Warner, died this spring. Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs, and the Chesapeake Bay won the 1977 Pulitzer for nonfiction and introduced me to the region where I seem to be spending most of my adult life.

I’m not sure whether I love it most for eloquent descriptions of Callinectes sapidus, the colorful crustaceans scuttling across every page, or for folksy humor as reflected in such chapter titles as “Lester Lee and the Chicken Neckers.” It’s a naturalist’s book certainly, brimming with biological and ecological insights into a place Warner awards a “summa cum laude in estuarine production.” It’s also a reader’s book as Larry McMurtry asserts (quoted in a Washington Post obituary), saying Swimmers “has grace, wit and clarity, on top of a real strength of feeling; were one not inclined to read the book to find out about crabs and watermen, one would still read it merely for its sentences."

A New York Times obituary offers further details into Warner’s mulitifarious background as a dinosaur hunter, ski lodge proprietor, Smithsonian magazine founder, and early Peace Corps volunteer. But my favorite tribute to this favorite author came from a another writer devoted to the “benign and beautiful waters” of the Bay, Kent Mountford. Kent finds comfort in the timing of Warner’s demise, concluding, “The hidden blessing may be that he could not witness the failure of succeeding politicians and citizens to act decisively for the Bay nor the present decline of his beloved commercial crabbing way of life.”

Monday, June 2, 2008

Festival of the Trees #24

Happy 2nd anniversary to the Festival of Trees, the blogging world’s monthly celebration of pines and pine-wannabes (i.e., other trees). This month’s issue, hosted by the multi-faceted Wren of Wrenaissance Reflections, focuses on trees and human-tree relations. Enjoy!

I’m not reading this week, much less blogging, so I’m also grateful to Wren for her concept of Blogging Without Obligation--looking at your blog as an opportunity, not as a treadmill . Thanks for everything, Wren!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Faith in a Chestnut Seed

Though ecstatically anticipating my first visit to Muir woods in two weeks, I’m enthralled right now by “redwoods of the East,” thanks to The American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree. Science writer Susan Freinkel tells the riveting & often heartbreaking story of a tree that once dominated the eastern woodlands, from Maine to Michigan and south to Georgia. Moose, bears, turkeys, throngs of passenger pigeons, and communities of hardscrabble farmers depended on the trees’ abundant fruits, and the straight-grained, tannin-rich wood found uses ranging from paper pulp to fine furniture. But the King of the Forest had no defense against a fungus that hitchhiked into the US on Asian chestnuts in the late 1800s. Within a few decades, 3.5 billion American chestnuts had fallen.

Freinkel says she began her book with a question: “what happens when a species disappears?” Part of the answer is biological and ecological, and the author intricately recounts the mechanism of the fungus’ lethality as well as the impacts of the blight on the forest left behind. Much of Freinkel’s story, though, focuses on culture—the economic, aesthetic, and emotional relationships between people and trees. By collecting oral histories, especially in the southeast, Freinkel discovers that American Chestnuts remain a vivid living memory to a few, a bittersweet yearning to many more. “Why do people still care about the chestnut so much?” Frienkel asks one of her informers. She replies:

”Some people say they’re conflating the chestnut with the preindustrial way of life—that it’s an easy symbol,” . . . “I think elements of that are true. People miss their youth, their way of life, their parents and brothers and sisters. They miss their communities.” . . . “I think for people who had the direct experience of eating the nuts, picking them up, seeing the trees bloom, toasting the nuts—they literally miss that. . . . They literally wish they could taste a chestnut.”

Whatever its origins, passion for chestnut trees has fueled a century of labor to revive the species. From traditional techniques such as grafting and cross-breeding to post-modern attempts at genetic engineering and deployment of hypovirulent blight, scientists and horticulturists devote decades of their lives to shrubby, struggling remnants of the Chestnut’s former glory. Sometimes, the researchers’ and aficionados’ obsessions, rivalries, and sacrifices (e.g., indoor plumbing) cross the line between colorful and nutty. But, says Freinkel, “I am continually moved by the patience and underlying optimism of the chestnut scientists I’ve met; in their own way, they are as resolute as the tree itself.”

With dogwoods, butternuts, sugar maples, hemlocks, and other beloved eastern forest trees threatened by development, invasive species, and climate change, Freinkel’s story is a cautionary tale. Thousands of American-Asian hybrid chestnuts are being experimentally planted this spring in the Appalachians, but their success is far from certain. And some oppose the project, asserting that hybrids do not belong in native forests and could have unforseen effects on post-Chestnut plant and animal communities. Research continues on other fronts as well; one controversial project seeks to introduce a European blight virus to weaken the Asian fungus infesting American trees.

But even those who object to some of the restoration techniques can help simply by keeping their eyes open in the woods. Here and there, through luck or resilience, an old chestnut has escaped the blight, and you can report survivors you encounter—potentially invaluable genetic resources—to the American Chestnut Foundation. Freinkel postulates that restoring the tree would do more than just return a missing element to the forest. She writes, “If the day comes when our descendents can venture with wonder into chestnut forests, we will have gained back more than a perfect tree. We will have gained a new reason for hope.”

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

To Senator Kennedy

I've been wishing all day that there could be something comforting to send the Kennedy family, who have known so much tragedy yet given our country so much. Here's what I came up with, a remembrance from John Muir's journal, probably written in 1870, when he was living in Yosemite Valley. . . .

Once I was very hungry and lonely in Tennessee. I had been walking most of the day in the Cumberland Mountains without coming to a single house, but in crossing a dark-shaded stream whose border trees crossed over it like a leafy sky I found the frail Dicksonia that I had looked for so long, and the first Magnolia, too, that I had ever seen. I sat down and reveled in the glory of my discoveries. A mysterious breathing of wind moved in the trees, and the stream sang cheerily at every ripple. There is no place so impressively solitary as a dense forest with a stream passing over a rocky bed at a moderate inclination.

Feelings of isolation soon caught me again among these hushed sounds, but one of the Lord's smallest birds came out to me from some bushes at the side of a moss-clad rock. It had a wonderfully expressive eye, and in one moment that cheerful, confiding bird preached me the most effectual sermon on heavenly trust that I had ever heard through all the measured hours of Sabbath, and I went on not half so heart-sick, nor half so weary.

Wishing you well, Senator Kennedy.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Trust Busting for Book Lovers

Another step out of my reading box recently took me to the biography shelf, where I grabbed Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. My reasoning: stacks of books about natural destruction and heroes & heroines who fight against it haven’t solved enough environmental problems, so maybe a villain’s biography would reveal some answers. At least it would be a refreshing change from Muir’s exuberant, expansive asceticsm in My First Summer in the Sierra to learn about a man who “Commodore” author Edward Renehan describes as a grim, stingy, near-illiterate who founded the greatest personal fortune in history.

Renehan wisely lets contemporary voices delineate Vanderbilt’s character whenever possible. Attorney George Templeton Strong begrudged him respect as an instinctive genius of the most cold-hearted, avaricious kind: “He is like some rudimentary but deadly and swift beast who knows not what he knows, but knows enough—through nature—to endure and thrive on the meat of lesser animals, of which the woods are full. . . . . He is a breed apart: evolved for the sole purpose of money-getting. Either that or his is the dumbest of dumb luck lubricated—I should admit—by a great deal of elbow grease. The beast is never lazy.” That titanic energy was focused single-mindedly toward acquiring money, principally through steamships and railroads, but incidentally through any means, fair or foul.

Vanderbilt’s ruthless greed didn’t surprise me, and it failed to fascinate me enough to read every word of this detailed (and undeniably lively) account of every merger, swindle, collapse, and reorganization that characterized his colossal success. But I was riveted by passages discussing a cynical ethos pervading the business world and much of society the early 1800s. “Sadly,” writes Renehan, “in his fundamental lack of charity, young Vanderbilt was not unlike the bulk of the successful, middle-class businessmen of his day. In point of fact, the first few decades of the nineteenth century were a largely cynical and callous time in American history—a period of institutionalized harshness.” Even formerly generous benefactors succumbed to a view that only about 10% of the poor were “deserving,” and helping the other “degenerates” merely encouraged more to sink into dependency and profligacy—and undermined the prosperity of the rest of society. Writes Renehan, “Like many other young entrepreneurs then and now, he worked conspicuously and diligently for his own personal profit, but never, so far as existing records and contemporary accounts show, for any greater good. Vanderbilt gave no alms to the poor, subscribed not a penny for the support of hospitals or foundling homes, and gave not a nickel to such organizations as the New York Humane Society (which at that time existed to serve the needs of destitute humans rather than stray dogs and cats).”

Self-centered cynic that he was, Vanderbilt can still serve as an object lesson today. His case supports Aldo Leopold’s contention that values are the key to respectful relationships with the natural world. The Commodore knew plenty about the waters and lands traversed by his transportation empire, but somehow he failed to care about them. Yet that even a Vanderbilt can learn to care is apparent at Biltmore, the French chateau-styled home of Cornelius’ grandson George. The younger magnate hired Central Park’s landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, to design Biltmore’s grounds, and perhaps more significantly, the nation's first scientifically-trained forester, Gifford Pinchot, to devise a scientific management plan for the forests. Pinchot’s wise-use approach when he headed the US Forest Service was the germinal idea that grew, through Leopold’s experience as a young forester, wildlife ecologist, and landowner, into the truly wise land ethic. A page devoted to philanthropy on the Biltmore site promises ongoing support for “the legacy of self-sufficiency, environmental stewardship of our natural resources, protection of the integrity of our mountains, and commitment to ensuring our community remains a model for living well and living purposefully.” I like to think scornful old Cornelius is rolling over in his Romanesque granite masoleum.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Deep Blue Battleground

Heads up to anyone who cares about water resources, especially during May, EPA's designated American Wetlands Month. NPR's Science Friday today featured an hour-long discussion of water issues confronting the 8 states and 2 Canadian provinces bordering the Great Lakes. Guests included Peter Annin, author of The Great Lakes Water Wars. Annin read movingly from his book, describing the many conflicting values and interests he can vividly imagine while gazing over the vast freshwater seas he cherishes. The program site includes a clip from a new documentary about the Great Lakes and curriculum connections for teachers (and others). Wisconsin, of course, is one the states directly involved in the building conflicts, so as I listened I kept in mind that protecting the Great Lakes means protecting Leopold country.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Moss Graffiti and Other Assaults

Last trip to the library, I stepped out of my nature-book box and picked up something from the art shelf. Linear-thinker that I am often ashamed to be, I read the cover note, “Everything You Need to Put Your Message Out into the World,” and thought that it was a book about graphic design and possibly advertising. I hoped it might help me learn how to promote various community events my family always seems entangled in (mostly donut, plant, baked goods, & jumble sales for group fundraisers). I should have noticed the folksy cover art, duct-tape-reminiscent spine, and unofficial subtitle to better understand this quirky, wonderful book: The Guerilla Art Kit: For Fun, Non-Profit, and World Domination.”

Non-linear thinking author Keri Smith (see her cool blog, The Wish Jar) is a street artist, meaning someone who performs anonymous acts of art in public spaces, “with the distinct purpose of affecting the world in a creative or thought-provoking way.” She immediately provoked my thoughts by quoting Thoreau:

It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look. To affect the quality of the day—that is the highest of arts.”

This book, I realized, would have ideas not just for selling donuts but for spreading the word about nature books and other ways I would love to affect the quality of days on earth.

To prove that I learned something from this gently subversive volume, here are some randomly-selected topics Smith addresses (sadly limited here in their visual appeal by my limited tech skills:

Recipe for making seed bombs (native wildflowers only, please)

Visual definition of “obos” (Japanese term for pile of rocks that communicates a message)

Guerilla action checklist (e.g., offer free lessons such as “how to converse with a stranger”)

Find solutions challenge (e.g., transform garbage, sell nothing, create a piece of art that depends on the rain).

You’ll find a template for building a portable idea dispenser (maybe put one in a public library?), quotes to print and leave behind in pockets on the sales rack (“Do not be too timid about your actions, all life is an experiment.” –Emerson), and practical tips on non-permanent glues, chalks, and other materials to ensure the ephemeral nature of your work. Etiquette tips further remind perpetrators of street masterpieces how to avoid damaging property, though some may think Smith’s rules too lax. As my eldest son says, any art book with advice on how to avoid police detection at least qualifies as “edgy.”

I think the book could have value to all kinds of bloggers, who will resonate with Smith's belief in the creative stimulus of temporary efforts. "Creating work that is impermanent," says Smith, "helps us release our own attachment to the final product and lets us focus more on the process." While I can’t promise you’ll achieve world domination, trying activities in this book will at least set you free to try new things, whatever message you want to send the world. Now, go paint the atmosphere!

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Weekend Highlights

You’d think that the highlight of this naturalist-wanna-be’s weekend would have been watching this toad couple laying strings of eggs in a backyard pond. Only a few of us were even distracted by the amphibious antics from the main event—shooting photos of our daughters and their dates before their senior prom.

Or maybe the highlight, as an environmentalist, should have been the following interchange, around 2 am, at the After Prom party, between two students, worn-down by eating, dancing, swimming, and more eating, searching for a receptacle for their gnawed pizza crusts—

Girl: Here’s one {i.e., a trash can}.
Boy: It’s recycling.
Girl: Oh.

The couple moved slowly on, still looking. When more desiderata of green living become so routine that exhausted teenagers comply without questioning, we’ll have a healthier planet.

But mostly this weekend I was a mom, admiring and enjoying my grown-up daughter on one of her happiest days. I hope that she felt at least some of the ebullience John Muir expressed after his first few weeks in the Sierra:

. . . . This June seems the greatest of all the months of my life, the most truly, divinely free, boundless like eternity, immortal. Everything in it seems equally divine—one smooth, pure, wild glow of Heaven’s love, never to be blotted or blurred by anything past or to come.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Field Guide to Non-Reading

I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so.-- Oscar Wilde

I drifted on to other things before finishing one of the funniest books I’ve encountered recently, but its author, Pierre Bayard, would probably understand. He wrote How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read because, as a literature professor, he so often confronts embarrassing social situations requiring him to express opinions on poetry or prose he hasn't read, or at least hasn't read thorougly. A generalist and a professional, Bayard’s expected to master vast bodies of work, but even an amateur niche reader like me can feel overwhelmed by the astonishing pace of the publishing industry. As Bayard puts it, "We must not forget that even a prodigious reader never has access to more than an infinitessimal fraction of the books that exist. As a result, unless he abstains definitively from all conversation and all writing, he will find himself forever obliged to express his thoughts on books he hasn't read." So I was delighted to find a book detailing strategies for chatting up, debating, or pillorying works you’ve never cracked open.

My favorite part, as far as I can remember, was the section elucidating various categories, or really degrees, of reading books—from works you’ve never heard of to volumes you loved, perhaps rereading often, but so long ago you cannot recall any details. “Our relation to books is a shadowy space,” says Bayard, “haunted by the ghosts of memory, and the real value of books lies in their ability to conjure these specters.” Shame over spotty memories or omitted classics leads people to lie about their reading choices or their experiences of certain titles or authors, distorting our relations with each other as well as our relations with books. Yet in a world where non-reading is the norm, the community of readers should celebrate, rather than dissemble about, our imperfect attempts at literary competence. As my small contribution to that effort, I’m offering a self-quiz, to help you assess your ambiguous relations with a few great nature books.

• The End of Nature
• Log from the Sea of Cortez
• The Thunder Tree
• Under the Sea-Wind
• A Sand County Almanac
• Death Comes for the Archbishop
• Walden
• Mind on Fire
• The Voyage of the Beagle
• High Tide in Tucson
• My First Summer in the Sierra
• Sick of Nature

(a) Never heard of it
(b) Read so long ago that you can’t recall subject or author
(c) Argued strongly for/against, then realized you were thinking of another book
(d) Are sick of hearing its praises and have no intention of reading
(e) Skimmed for class but not well enough, based on test results
(f) Read and recall vividly
(g) Loved so much you recommended it in a blog comment

Nature and books belong to the eyes that see them.-- Ralph Waldo Emerson