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

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Reading Outdoors

What are you reading on Earth Day?

It’s a question many must be asking, as evidenced by today’s laudatory review of a new anthology, American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau in the Washington Post (regretably, you must register to see the full review).

Happy as I was to see praises of writings by Thoreau, Lopez, Carson, Kingsolver, and other icons, selected quotes emphasized environmental destruction (from Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s poem, “Fallen Forests” to Marvin Gaye’s lyric, “Oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas/Fish full of mercury.”). The books I’ve seen on Earth Day displays at a local library and church also lean toward global warming, overharvesting fish, and other distressing topics. Can’t Earth Day, like other holidays, be a little, um, fun?

For my kids, I’d hoped to celebrate by reading aloud a Jane Goodall essay, “The Dragonfly’s Gift,” kindly recommended by Cyberthrush. But the anthology, Kinship with Animals by Michael Tobias, is not at my library or bookstore. Surely one of my friends in the humane community has a copy, but in the meantime, I think I’ll take Charlie’s advice over at 10,000 Birds and find the new The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, by Bill Thomson. The author worked with bona fide children, in his 11-year-old daughter’s class, to develop a truly kid-approved guide that Eli will probably like even more than our Peterson’s.

But as useful and lively as The Young Birder’s Guide sounds, it won’t be a read-aloud candidate. Instead, I think I’ll share my personal Earth Day reading ritual with the kids. April 21st is John Muir’s birthday, so I like to read some of his words between tree plantings and woodland walks. Since we’re headed for Yosemite this June, our first time ever, my pick for today’s family book is My First Summer in the Sierra. In 1869, Muir herded sheep into the high mountain pastures that would captivate him for the rest of his life. His journal of the wildlife, plants, and rocks he grew to know and love is devoted to clouds on June 12, the day my family will arrive in Yosemite Valley:

A slight sprinkle of rain—large drops far apart, falling with hearty pat and plash on leaves and stones and into the mouths of flowers. Cumuli rising to the eastward. How beautiful their pearly bosses! How well they harmonize with the upswelling rocks beneath them. Mountains of the sky, solid-looking, finely sculptured, their richly varied topography wonderfully defined. Never before have I seen clouds so substantial looking in form and texture. Nearly every day toward noon they rise with visible swelling motion as if new worlds were being created. And how fondly they brood and hover over the gardens and forests with their cooling shadows and showers, keeping every petal and leaf in glad health and heart.

Instead of learning more about climate change, biodiversity declines, or mountaintop removal, my kids and I will climb virtually into the Sierra, resting under Muir’s cooling clouds and dreaming of summer. That’s my idea of an Earth Day celebration.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

All Jane, All the Time

A wildlife biologist I interviewed last week told me that brown pelicans, with their comical looks and dramatic fishing behavior, inspired her pursuit of an outdoor career. A person, more than any animal, probably drew me toward environmental work. That person was Jane Goodall, most memorably through the National Geographic tv specials on her early research. I recall a desperate girlish longing for a blonde pony tail and a classy accent just like Jane’s, and seeing snippets of those early black & white films in a recent IMAX movie, Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees brought those emotions flooding back.

My old copy of her 1971 book about those first years in Africa, In the Shadow of Man, is long gone, but my admiration of it is undimmed. “Since dawn I had climbed up and down the steep mountain slopes and pushed my way through the dense valley forests.” Re-reading that opening sentence, I understand why the book cast a spell on my mid-western girlhood.

Though I didn’t end up in a Tanzanian rainforest, I followed Goodall’s behavioral work through books and articles. When I couldn’t find enough Jane-focused writing, I read works like Dian Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist or Sy Montgomery’s joint bio of Fossey, Goodall, and orangutan researcher Birute Galdikas--Walking with the Great Apes. One day, during a brief stint at the Humane Society of the U.S., I glimpsed if not Jane, her entourage, as they whisked their charge into my building for a board meeting. That near-encounter awakened me to the great conservationist's surprising passion for animal welfare and, in particular, for humane treatment for chimps in biomedical research.
I started reading works such as The Ten Trusts: What We Must Do to Care for the Animals We Love (by Goodall and Marc Bekoff). “We believe that only when we understand can we care, and that only when we care sufficiently will we help.” Not as thrilling as a hike into a rainforest, but thought-provoking.

I’ve lost track of Jane a bit during my mom years. None of my kids seem captivated by her work or her bio-celebrity. Maybe my daughters are too post-feminist to need the role mode of a venturesome woman scientist like I did. My hopes are dwindling that any of my offspring will read even my favorite children’s book about of my heroine, her own My Life with the Chimpanzees. The first sentence? “It was very scruffy and hot where I crouched, and the straw tickled my legs.”

But maybe my third-grader may still succumb to her charms. He and one sister got to see Goodall in person April 4th, at an environmental education fair near Annapolis, Maryland. She spoke of her childhood, especially her mother’s role in encouraging curiosity and kindness toward animals, even after she disappeared for hours in the chicken coop to see an egg laid. Eli says the most memorable part was her ringing rendition of a chimpanzee greeting call. For me, it was her quiet description of the habitat losses that imperil her forest home of over 40 years. I hope that the many teachers listening follow Jane’s advice, and start chapters of her international youth club, Roots & Shoots. True to Goodall’s encompassing philosophy, the organization aims to empower local children to invent creative ways for improving animal welfare, the natural environment, and the human community. I don’t think the speech, moving as it was, has inspired Eli to long for a long gray pony tail (he already wanted a British accent). But of course it’s made me want to read more about Jane’s unique work, which joins humane and environmental concern better than any other natural scientist I know. Next on my list: Visions of Caliban: On Chimpanzees and People. It begins with a quote from The Tempest, Act III, Scene ii:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,/ Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.


Friday, April 4, 2008

Festival of Spring

This beautiful photo, from a visit last weekend to DC's beautiful blossoming cherry trees, is in honor of the first bilingual Festival of the Trees. In addition to the reliably stunning photos, informative articles, and insightful essays, look for several links to captivating and touching poetry.

Anyone who visits this site even occasionally will suspect that the well-composed, clearly-focused photo is not mine. Correct! Many thanks to my dear friend Rebecca Lehmann-Sprouse for enjoying the cherry trees with me and sharing her photo.

Happy spring, everyone!