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.