Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Stamp of Approval

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1896-1953), among her many literary talents, could write with remarkable sensitivity about plants. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning children’s book, The Yearling, her twelve-year-old hero notices everything about the Florida backwoods where his family subsists, studying the vegetation to understand more deeply his surroundings:
The tar-flower was in bloom, and the fetter-bush and sparkleberry. He slowed to a walk, so that he might pass the changing vegetation tree by tree, bush by bush, each one unique and familiar. He reached the magnolia tree where he had carved the wild-cat’s face. The growth was a sign that there was water nearby. It seemed a strange thing to him, when earth was earth and rain was rain, that scrawny pines should grow in the scrub, while by every branch and lake and river there grew magnolias. Dogs were the same everywhere, and oxen and mules and horses. But trees were different in different places.

Rawlings’ close observations of plants also contribute to the enduring charm of her memoir Cross Creek. In her chapter, “The Magnolia Tree”, she rhapsodizes:
I do not know the irreducible minimum of happiness for any other spirit than my own. It is impossible to be certain even of mine. Yet I believe that I know my tangible desiratum. It is a tree-top against a patch of sky. If I should lie crippled or long ill, or should have the quite conceivable misfortune to be clapped in jail, I could survive, I think, given this one token of the physical world. “ And the tree that she would need would have leaves “shining like dark polished jade” and “great white waxy blossoms” “delicate as orchids,” for in the same way that Aldo Leopold loved all trees but was in love with pines, Rawlings was passionate about magnolias.

Now, I hadn’t read any of these passages of Rawlings' until this week. My mother loved her writing, but I’d resisted picking up her books during childhood from stubbornness and more recently from distaste for the racist aspects of Rawlings’ depictions of some Cross Creek neighbors. What made me pick up two of her books at last? On Thursday, February 21st, the U.S. postal service issued a 41 cent stamp in her honor. Old friends and admirers gathered for the first day of issue ceremony at her preserved Cross Creek farm, where a postal service spokesperson announced the stamp's specific goal: to honor her writings about Florida’s natural environment and people. At least for this reader, the stamp did its job of generating fresh interest in a sometimes-neglected writer and, as a result, in the place she loved.

That’s exciting to me, since I’m always trying to think of ways to get people to read more nature books. I checked to see what other nature writers might be depicted on stamps and found Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Muir, Henry Thoreau, and Rachel Carson so far. The Rawlings stamp took years of work by the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Society to convince the government that she deserved commemoration. I can think of other nature writers at least as deserving—Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, John Wesley Powell, Henry Beston, William Warner. Of course No. 1 on my list is Aldo Leopold. Maybe after a few years of satisfying effort, we could all gather at Leopold’s Sand County farm to celebrate his work and welcome thousands of new readers to the Almanac, courtesy of the U.S. postal service. I'm not sure how to get the task started, but if it's a letter writing campaign, I'll affix a Rawlings stamp to my first missive.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Jane Austen Saves the Earth!

For a late winter diversion, I’ve set about the task of reading Jane Austen’s six complete novels in six weeks. I’m a bit behind, just now starting #4 (Emma), five weeks into the project. But I’m dedicated to finishing, at least before the current Masterpiece Theater series, The Complete Jane Austen, concludes. I’ll make it as long as I’m not too distracted by the show’s website, where I fritter away my days perusing reactions to the films on the discussion board (I didn’t know Austen readers could be so vicious), watching video clips of a screenwriter’s interview, and picking my favorite Austen hero, based on their online dating profiles. Based on 55,228 votes so far, Mr. Darcy is the dreamiest of them all.

But perhaps there’s no escape for one obsessed by environmental literature. Though most think of Austen as a prescient social critic and no one cites her as a source of green bon mots, she’s surprising me in every volume by her keen eye for nature and its relationships to individuals and society. Especially in Mansfield Park, the book I just finished, there’s no evading Austen’s insights into nature’s value to the human world. Here’s a little of Jane’s wisdom that I’ve gleaned so far.

1. Beware of those who fail to appreciate the natural world. Emma’s fussy, hypochondriac father warns his daughter, “It is never safe to sit out-of-doors, my dear,” and Fanny Price, heroine of Mansfield Park, recognizes that her romantic nemesis cares little about the landscape they pass on a carriage ride. Says the omniscient narrator of the calculating Miss Crawford, “She had none of Fanny’s delicacy of taste, of mind, of feeling; she saw nature, inanimate nature, with little observation; her attention was all for men and women, her talents for the light and lively.”

2. Loving the planet is sexy. Though Henry Crawford is a scalawag, he loves Fanny and is almost redeemed in her eyes on a walk by the beach: “The loveliness of the day, and of the view, he felt like herself. They often stopt with the same sentiment and taste, leaning against the wall, and considering he was not Edmund, Fanny could not but allow that he was sufficiently open to the charms of nature, and very well able to express his admiration.”

3. Nature heals all wounds. Persuasion’s Anne Elliot finds solace for her benighted love life in strolls along Lyme Regis’ shore. Marianne Dashwood, in Sense and Sensibility, takes long, solitary walks to salve her broken heart and health (and don’t forget Willoughby’s wildflowers that relieve her sprained ankle). In Mansfield Park, Fanny’s visit to Liverpool reveals cities as unhealthful places of “closeness and noise, to have confinement, bad air, bad smells,” in contrast with the bucolic Mansfield estate. There one night, Fanny’s beloved Edward joins her at a window to stargaze, and they look together,

where all that was solemn and soothing, and lovely, appeared in the brilliancy of an unclouded night, and the contrast of the deep shade of the woods. Fanny spoke her feelings. “Here’s harmony!” said she. “Here’s repose! Here’s what may leave all painting and all music behind, and what poetry only can attempt to describe. Here’s what may tranquillize every care, and lift the heart to rapture! When I look out on such a night as this, I feel as if there could be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world; and there certainly would be less of both if the sublimity of Nature were more attended to, and people were carried more out of themselves by contemplating such a scene.

4. Renew your nature connections often. Banishment to Liverpool reminds Fanny of nature’s value to her.

It was sad to Fanny to lose all the pleasures of spring. She had not known before what pleasures she had to lose in passing March and April in a town. She had not known before, how much the beginnings and progress of vegetation had delighted her. –What animation both of body and mind, she had derived from watching the advance of that season which cannot, in spite of its capriciousness, be unlovely, and unseeing its increasing beauties, from the earliest flowers, in the warmest divisions of his aunt’s garden, to the opening of leaves of her uncle’s plantations, and the glory of his woods.

5. Words can save the wild. Despite her deep response to landscapes, the reticent Fanny remains mute while Sotherton’s doltish owner spouts plans to hire a landscape gardener to “improve” his gracious estate. Fanny cringes only inwardly as others applaud his vision of replacing wilder landscape elements with more lawns and formal plantings. But when Mr. Rushworth states his intention to destroy a tree-lined avenue, Fanny remembers a poem and cannot keep silent. She says, “Cut down an avenue! What a pity! Does it not make you think of Cowper? ‘Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.’” Though she couldn’t articulate her personal feelings or muster a cohert original argument, Fanny’s familiarity with Cowper’s “The Task” prepared her well to combat the destructive impulses of everyone surrounding her. What better lesson could I gain from a few weeks of novel-reading than renewed appreciation of the value of poetry and prose in protecting the natural world? Thanks, Jane!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Horseshoe Crab Resource Roundup

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“Crash: A Tale of Two Species” premiered on PBS last night, a beautiful documentary about the grim story of how overharvesting horseshoe crabs may doom a migratory shorebird population. The film takes viewers from the red knots’ Tierra del Fuego wintering grounds to their nearly vacant nesting habitat above the Arctic Circle, explaining the vital role of Delaware Bay horseshoe crab eggs in the birds’ ability to survive their astonishing spring journey north. Anyone who cares about animals will be moved when one of the red knot researchers tries to explain why the little “beach robin” matters.

This happens to be one of the conservation issues closest to my heart. I hadn’t ever seen a horseshoe crab until I spent a college summer at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. I was taking a course in marine algae and didn’t know that MBL was (and still is) a center for horseshoe crab research. But I noticed a few strange, helmet-shelled creatures washed up on the first ocean beaches I’d ever seen, and I fell in love. In the years since, I’ve traveled to witness the joint spectacle of millions of nesting crabs and 100,000s of egg-hungry shorebirds converging on Delaware Bay in spring. I’ve also assisted, with my family, in a nesting beach census (can you tell a male from a female horseshoe crab? It’s a cinch!), visited a classroom that raises juveniles, and written about horseshoe crabs whenever I could, in the hope of generating more support for their protection.

So of course I know a few books for your horseshoe crab reading pleasure. Here goes. . . .

For adults, I especially recommend a poignant new look at the ancient phenomenon of mass wildlife movement: No Way Home: The Decline of the World’s Great Animal Migrations. While not focused on horseshoe crabs or red knots, it puts the crisis these species face in perspective with lost passenger pigeon flocks and constricted wildebeest, caribou, and pronghorn herds. Wilcove, author of an outstanding history of North American wildlife populations (The Condor’s Shadow: Loss and Recovery of Wildlife in America), relates the current state of scientific understanding of how animals accomplish these feats of navigation and endurance. He also emphasizes that much is lost when a migratory species survives without room to roam, as with South Africa’s springbok. Wilcove writes, “What is gone is not the species but the phenomenon of the species, the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of springbok marching across the Karoo desert, kicking up great clouds of dust, as they wander in search of forage.”

Children have several wonderful books to choose from. For the youngest crab fanciers, I recommend Ruth Horowitz’s Crab Moon. It’s a gentle picture book about a 7-year-old boy, who quietly watches horseshoe crabs coming ashore to nest one moonlit night. Young readers looking for more ecological detail will appreciate Horseshoe Crabs and Shorebirds: The Story of a Food Web. Author Victoria Crenson describes how the food web connects the lives of horseshoe crabs, shorebirds, and many other wildlife species around the Delaware Bay. Another fine, topical picture book is Red Knot: A Shorebird’s Incredible Journey, by Nancy Carol Willis. Presented like an ornithologist’s notebook, entries begin in southern-most South America and follow the birds all the way north and back. Detailed illustrations accurately depict both behavior and habitat at each vital stage along the way.

The web offers reading and activist opportunities for all ages. Here are just a few:
The Shorebird Project follows an international team of red knot biologists as they track their movements from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic. This blog is written by globe-trotting knot expert Dr. Larry Niles, featured in the PBS “Crash” film.

The Ecological Research and Development Group is a leading organization working to protect horseshoe crabs along the Atlantic Coast and around the world. Their website offers everything from basic horseshoe crab anatomy lessons to academic conference announcements, to invitations to participate in crab counts, information on the “Just Flip ‘Em” campaign, and contest entry rules for children designing crab conservation posters.

Children may especially want to visit the site Friends of the Red Knot. Students at a Green Mount School in Baltimore started a club to advocate for red knots in 2007 and are now conducting a letter writing campaign to have the birds children’s group that’s conducting a letter writing campaign to convince the Interior Department to add the birds to the Endangered Species list.

A lively teacher’s guide to “Crash: A Tale of Two Species” and the horseshoe crab-red knot relationship can be found at the PBS Nature website. I’m happy to report that the guide lists my horseshoe crab book (Extraordinary Horseshoe Crabs) for elementary students in its list of teacher resources.

I hope that “Crash”, one of these books, or maybe the sight of a tired but determined migratory bird this spring inspires you to get involved protecting not just individual wildlife species but vital relationships like those between ancient, helmet-headed crabs and migratory shorebirds.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Winter Reading Roundup

I’ve been feeling a bit under the weather this weekend, not up to reading, much less blogging. But my stationary lifestyle allowed me to listen to a couple of excellent nature book-related audio programs. Friday, I heard naturalist Mark Garland, of the Audubon Naturalist Society, recommending a variety of winter reading choices, including works I haven’t read yet by authors I greatly admire—Robert Michael Pyle and David Wilcove. Mark Garland sounds as enthusiastic about Pyle's Sky Time in Gray's River as I usually am about Pyle's books.

I also listened to a superb January 24 interview with Michael Shnayerson on the Diane Rehm show archives about his new book, Coal River. Activists from Coal River Mountain Watch and the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment joined Shnayerson discuss how & why mountaintop coal mining is being allowed to destroy one of the world’s most ancient mountain ranges . Peter Matthiesson’s blurb on the book says, “This damning account of mountaintop beheading and rampant watershed destruction in four states of Appalachia should be obligatory reading for every Congressperson who deserves the name of lawmaker (and the lobby-led political hacks who claim it, too).” Read the first chapter for yourself, then mail a copy to your legislator to help stop this outrage.

Once I’m feeling better, I’m going to catch up on these books and other reading too. One blog-reading (& photo-viewing) destination I’m looking forward to is Ginkgo Dreams for the 20th Festival of Trees. And, thanks to Ivory-bills Live!, I’m also looking forward to a book coming out mid-month--Life of the Skies, by Jonathan Rosen. Scott Weidensaul says, “It is a thoughtful and often unexpected exploration of birding through the lens of history, literature and loss—the process, as author Jonathan Rosen says, of loving a diminished but still seductive world.” I’m planning to order a copy of that one for myself, for some post-flu reading pleasure.