Monday, January 28, 2008

Journey South

Having spent two of the past three days driving the length of the New Jersey Turnpike, you might think I’d have no recent nature literature experience to blog about. But my bedraggled family paused on our southbound Sunday journey at milepost 30.2 for as much refreshment as tea and Cinnabons could offer. I must have felt revived on the way out, because I noticed a framed poem that had escaped me as we entered. It read in part--

Beat! beat! drums!—Blow! bugles! blow!
Over the traffic of cities—over the rumble of wheels in the streets:
Are beds prepared for sleepers at night in the houses? No sleepers must sleep in those beds;
No bargainers’ bargains by day—no brokers or speculators—Would they continue?
Would the talkers be talking? would the singer attempt to sing?
Would the lawyer rise in the court to state his case before the judge?
Then rattle quicker, heavier drums—you bugles wilder blow.

Imagine my surprise at finding a poem from Leaves of Grass on the wall of a highway rest stop. Fortuitously, we’d stopped at the Walt Whitman Service Area. Why the highway authority felt so inspired as to dedicate a rest stop to Whitman I cannot suppose. Why choose Beat! Beat! Drums? And how would Walt have felt about it?

According to the Turnpike website, 650,000 cars travel that road daily. Though only a small fraction stops at the Whitman area, I trust that at least a few of the travelers glimpse the poem. Meant as a rallying cry for northerners at the Civil War’s outset, maybe some will hear the drum beat as a call to action needed for our times. And I hope this small literary gesture will inspire other highway rest stop designers to add a poetic moment to their prosaic establishments. It certainly lifted my spirits as our wheels rumbled the last miles home.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Writing Classes

“The Obama-Clinton Squabble Continues” bemoans the Post this morning. It’s only January, and most of us, I suspect, are weary of the escalating verbal violence. I’m leery as well, fearing the consequences of each assault when reincarnated in Republican attack ads this summer and fall. Negative remarks, hostile attitudes, even scornful looks can permanently undermine a candidate or cause.

I’ve noticed the same kind of sniping and denigration in the publishing world. In my main field, children’s books, there seems to be a fairly clear hierarchy defining success. Picture book writers and literary novelists are at the top, nonfiction writers at the bottom. One writing teacher I know, with one published picture book, dismisses the diverse output of another local writer, author of adult romance novels, children’s nonfiction, how-tos for writers and others, and spiritual entreaties, because “she hasn’t done any quality books." This same teacher patronizes nonfiction as “easy to sell” and “a great way to break into the field.” Huh, I thought. I guess Rachel Carson was just treading water with Silent Spring until she could come up with a picture book idea.

The hierarchy is somewhat complicated by snootiness about where you’re publishing (New York-published nonfiction may sometimes trump regionally-published fiction). But the ranking itself, rather than the specific details, bothers me. Such hierarchic attitudes undermine training in my little niche (children’s writers conferences treat publishing picture books and novels as the Holy Grail, ignoring or sidelining a wealth of other creative possibilities). Still worse, this class system constricts teaching and reading of all kinds of literature. With poetry out of fashion in most high school English classrooms, teachers focus on novels, with maybe one Shakespeare play and perhaps a dollop of short fiction. Not Walden, not Sojourner Truth’s Narrative, not Schweitzer’s Out of My Life and Thought, not A Sand County Almanac are deemed worthy of analysis and discussion.

Conversely, the power of fiction is ignored in educating environmentalists. Those students learn about Thoreau, Leopold, Jared Diamond, Bill McKibben, and Elizabeth Kolbert, and maybe read The Monkey Wrench Gang for comic relief. But which teachers explore the power of fiction to tap emotions, develop sense of place, or challenge ethical and social conventions that underlie our environmental crisis? By ranking and partitioning writing—and therefore reading—we are hampering the causes of literacy and conservation. We are limiting the common vocabulary of our arguments and shrinking the audience we can effectively address.

This diatribe all stems from a cozy evening at home, watching Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey Sunday night. In Austen’s time, intellectuals viewed novels as the print equivalent of persona non grata. Coleridge said, “where the reading of novels prevails as a habit, it occasions in time the entire destruction of the powers of the mind.” Austen regularly defended novels and novel reading, (admitting to a correspondent that she and her family were “great Novel-readers, & not ashamed of being so”). Given the ascendance not just of novels but of Jane’s in particular (on film at least), Coleridge has lost the day. But I think we all lose when we fail to respect the many values of diverse forms of writing that have evolved and are still evolving (yes, including blogging). Literature, to my activist soul, is any writing that can challenge, inspire, or, yes, simply inform toward better thinking and behavior.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Cold Comfort

Few things make a child rue global warming more than a snow-day-free winter. Half way through January with not a flake in sight, my kids are beginning to despair. In contrast, I can recall winters when nor’easters brought days-long ice storms and the consequent school reprieve as late as March. Memory, in this case at least, gives me hope.

But hope doesn’t make me wish less ardently for a blizzard. Instead of staring fruitlessly at, I turned for solace to a new volume, The Ends of the Earth: An Anthology of the Finest Writing on the Arctic and the Antarctic. Inspired by the 2007-2008 International Polar Year, which aims at heightening awareness and encouraging research, the work presents writings from the earliest days of polar exploration to the present. The wages of snow obsession, as should forewarn my kids, are abundantly clear in many of the selections. Here’s this from Nobu Shirashe, who returned from a Japanese Antarctic Expedition in 1912:

The whole enterprise was indescribably difficult and fraught with danger, and it was without doubt the worst of the trials and tribulations we have experienced since we left our mothers’ wombs.

The withering monotony of the endless polar night is captured by Fridtjof Nansen, on board a ship helplessly adrift in the Arctic ice:

One day differed very little from another on board, and the description of one is, in every particular of any importance, a description of all.

And from Robert Peary, who may or may not have exaggerated his claims to have reached the North Pole in 1909:

If it were possible for a man to arrive at 90 degrees north latitude without being utterly exhausted, body and brain, he would doubtless enjoy a series of unique sensations and reflections. But the attainment of the Pole was the culmination of days and weeks of forced marches, physical discomfort, insufficient sleep, and racking anxiety. It is a wise provision of nature that the human consciousness can grasp only such degree of intense feeling as the brain can endure, and the grim guardians of earth’s remotest spot will accept no man as guest until he has been tried and tested by the severest ordeal.

Some may quibble that the volume is over-stuffed with such tales of early explorers’ machismo. Indeed, from the relative security of his well-stocked ship, Nansen laments, “I am almost ashamed of the life we lead, with none of those darkly painted sufferings of the long winter night which are indispensable to a properly exciting Arctic expedition. We shall have nothing to write about when we get home.” But looking deeper into the book, I found plenty of variety beyond the standard explorers’ memoirs and logs. Fictional offerings include works by Jules Verne, Jack London, and Andrea Barrett, and expository nature essays appear from Gretel Erhlich, Barry Lopez, and other contemporary masters. Lopez’s essay from his 1985 Pulitzer Prize winning Arctic Dreams in particular gains fresh relevance when read in this context, as he relishes the movements of caribou and snow geese from the perspective of a man not near starvation, as well as extolling immutable rhythms of animals in wild nature in a time before acute awareness of climate change.

Given the ever-more alarming news of shrinking ice sheets and vanishing polar bears and penguins, it may also surprise readers that only a few of authors explore how global warming is impacting the earth’s extremes. Co-editor Elizabeth Kolbert, author of a galvanizing climate change report, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, addresses such concerns briefly but grimly in her introduction, admitting, “A landscape that once symbolized the sublime indifference of nature will, for future generations, come to symbolize its tragic vulnerability.” But I, for one reader, am pleased that the vast majority of the book offers a pure white escape. This warm winter, I found in it a place to refresh my winter memories and, perhaps, to learn how to proceed bravely instead of hunkering down in the cold and dark.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Decluttering Destinations

Has your decluttering resolution resulted in a towering stack of gently-used books in need of new homes? Are there too many to seek appreciative readers one-by-one through friends or Freecycle? There are plenty of organizations that welcome book donations, either to pass along to needy individuals, schools, shelters, and others or to sell as fundraisers for charitable projects. To me, chucking my beloved books in the Salvation Army bin feels a bit cold. I prefer to think of them being handled lovingly by devoted book people, even if they don't necessarily know the full literary merit of an extra copy of A Sand County Almanac. Most cities have non-profits dedicated to re-distributing used books. Near me in D.C., there’s Books for America, which has announced an urgent need for children’s volumes and accepts mailed donations. Books for America would be a great destination for Owl Moon, Crinkleroot’s Guide to the Trees, Hatchet, or any of your kids’ other neglected old favorites. Baltimore’s The Book Thing also takes used book (and magazine) shipments as well as on-site donations. Unlike many other book-based charities, The Book Thing accepts books on any topic with any publication date. Check out their list of the 14 Strangest Titles donated to The Book Thing, and see if you can help them fulfill their simple mission “to put unwanted books into the hands of those who want them."

Please let me know if you're aware of other good places to donate quantities of good books. . . .

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Celebrate 2008 with Trees

Festival of the Trees
The ball has dropped and the champagne has gone flat, but there’s still time to get your New Year off to a great start with some fine reading and photos at the 19th edition of The Festival of the Trees. This month’s host is Hoarded Ordinaries, a blog worth your time if only to discover what the author means by “Mundane Musings from a Collector of the Quotidian." There’s nothing ordinary about the stunning photos of a solstice tree at Frizzy Logic, Renaissance tree poetry at Via Negative, or “Read It and Weep,” a review of The Golden Spruce from sarala. Click around to find your own favorite entries.

If you enjoy this festival, check out past editions at the coordinating site for the Festival. And make plans to contribute your own tree-philic musings, quotidian or otherwise, to the next version at Ginko Dreams. Happy 2008!