So what is this blog about?
Sunday, July 29, 2012
This blog is going on hiatus. There are several reasons. First and foremost, I'm running out of books I actually think everyone should read. I also just have too many irons in the fire, and something has to give. However, if you want me to start posting to this blog again, please say so--if there is a demand, I'll pick it up again.
In the meantime I will be reading more books, and if I come across any I think everyone needs to read, I will let you know.
Saturday, June 30, 2012
The title alone makes
me smile-- but the words of this book speak volumes to
I know you'll get it--
Happy Winter Solstice
I'm not so sure of the name at the bottom, the first letter of which is stylized with loops and a heart and hard to read. "Amy" is just my best guess. I don't know who these people are; I found the book in a used book store while browsing there with my mother. How did this gift, this speech from one soul to another, end up in a used book store? Did the relationship fade, such that James no longer cared for the gift? Did James die, or fall on hard times such that he had to sell all his books? Was the book simply lost?
James, if you're reading this, contact me; I have your book.
If James (or Amy) does not contact me, there is no way I can ever know what happened. I have only this inscription, this spoor, of Mystery. And mystery, both in the sense of the unknown and the sense of the unknowable, is the thing that stalks and is stalked by Chet Raymo throughout these pages. As he says,
Knowledge is an island. The larger we make the island, the longer becomes the shore where knowledge is lapped about by mystery.
Raymo is a scientist, and apparently a rather atheistic scientist at that. In many individuals, myself among them, religion in the traditional sense cohabits in the mind quite nicely with scientific ideas. If there is any friction between the two sets of ideas, they have long since called a truce, but not so for Raymo. And yet, he found himself wondering,
What is the relevance of traditional religion in the world described by contemporary science? Is scientific knowledge a satisfactory ground for the religious experience? Can the language of traditional religion constitute an appropriately modern language of praise?
Raymo's answers to these questions, in the form of a serious of essays touching and going from his rambles on Ireland's Dingle Peninsula, are interesting enough for their content, but absolutely captivating for their poetry, a rush and surge of image and language that begs to be read aloud, that begs to be performed. And that is why you should read this book. I would read it aloud to you if I could.
Raymo is an atheistic mystic, an alchemist capable of calling from even unadorned geology and physics, yes, honey. The words are sweet on the tongue. In the end, his insistence on science instead of theology becomes less a closing of the mind upon the rigorous and narrow and more a kind of dedicated openness, a mind held taut by the dedication of not knowing and of seeking to know. As he says,
When I called out for the Absolute, I was answered by the wind. If it was God's voice in the wind, then I heard it.
Raymo, C. (1987). Honey from stone: A naturalist's search for God. Hungry Mind Press: Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Friday, June 22, 2012
Saturday, June 9, 2012
I read this book for the first time as an undergrad, as part of an independent study project. I don't remember why I chose the book, but I do remember really liking Gary Snyder’s writing. It was as though I'd always liked it, even though I'd never read any of it before, since so much of it seemed like something I had thought myself but hadn’t articulated yet, or perhaps hadn’t articulated as well.
Saturday, May 26, 2012
Sunday, April 29, 2012
But I bring this up because the author, who is both my teacher and my friend, had his retirement party yesterday, and this post seems a fitting tribute--because this is the book that made him more less a star. A very woodsy and homey star, to be sure, but the man has a Wikipedia entry. This is also an appropriate book to follow the three books on restoration landscaping I've just recommended, because this is the book that inspired my interest in suburban ecology--though I'd be surprised if anyone who doesn't already know can identify the connection. This is a book about the woods, as the name implies.
Basically, it is possible to walk into a wooded area, look around for a while at the plants and the ground, and figure out the history of the area going back decades or even centuries. This book will tell you how to do that, or at least give you a taste of how you might do it, if you keep at it long enough. More importantly, this book is a way for people to connect more deeply with the landscape...you read it and you start to notice more. It's written for central New England, and a lot of the details (which tree species mean what) will be different in other areas, but the method can be adapted to any forested area.
It's a fun book, easy to learn from, with wonderful pictures (thanks for them go to an illustrator I have never met), and I've found myself quoting from it, or at least using ideas and information from it, in person or print, often over the years. So I guess I have to take that back--I DO think everyone needs to read this book, or at least learn what it has to teach. If I didn't, I wouldn't keep passing on what I learned from it every chance I get.
Wessels, T. (1997). Reading the forested landscape: A natural history of New England. Woodstock, VT: Countryman Press.
Saturday, April 14, 2012
This book, Bringing nature home, is the exception.
Natives, we often hear, are important because exotic plants can become invasive, or because they are not well-adapted to their new homes and so need extra water, extra fertilizer, and so on. Both are quite true, and both are very good reasons for avoiding exotic plants, but clearly they can't both be true of the same exotic plant species...explanations like these, and there are others, don't really get to the heart of the matter. They are reasons to avoid some exotic species, reasons to plant some natives, but they don't provide any cohesive justification for preferring natives categorically. These reasons do not help with questions such as are naturalized plants native? Are plants from another part of the same continent native? Are plants that were historically present on this exact spot before the climate zones moved still native?
Nobody has clear answers to these questions--except Dr. Douglas Tallamy.
Dr. Tallamy is an entomologist, and he therefor tends to see plant/insect interactions from a perspective the rest of us tend to miss--the insect's perspective. Some years ago, he noticed that exotic plants tend not to be chewed up by insects as badly as natives usually are--he wasn't the first person to notice this. In fact, one common explanation for how fast some exotic plants can grow is that the native insects don't know how to eat them. But Dr. Tallamy didn't look at the uneaten plants and think about the growth of vegetation; he looked at the plants the insects hadn't eaten and he thought about hungry insects.
Being a scientist, Dr. Tallamy didn't simply take his own word for it, of course; he conducted a series of experiments and found that, yes, native insects don't usually eat exotic plants. And yes, yards with a lot of exotic shrubs have fewer butterflies--and fewer songbirds--than yards landscaped with natives (songbirds mostly raise their chicks on insects, so no insects means no chicks).
The thing is, here on Planet Earth, all energy ultimately comes from the sun and is soaked up by plants. From plants, the energy goes through a series of animals, and makes the whole world go. Generally, the bulk of the plant-eaters are insects; insects are what a lot of other animals eat, either directly or indirectly. Planting a lot of plants insects can't eat is the same thing as shutting off the flow of energy from the sun.
Dr. Tallamy saw all this, and, alarmed, he started talking to everyone who would listen about landscaping with native plants. The people who listened asked if he could given them anything on the subject to read, so he wrote this book.
So, now that I've told you the moral of the tale, as it were (grow bird food: plant natives!), why do you need to read this book?
First, Dr. Tallamy delivers his message better than I do. He is one of the few writers I know of who can write well for both academic and popular audiences, and Bringing nature home actually follows all the major rules of good academic writing (clear, simple, and properly cited), while still being enjoyable to read--even if you're not an ecology geek. On the page (and in person), he is the very opposite of intimidating.
Second, there's other important stuff in the book; helpful plant lists and tables, beautiful pictures, and little hints at the mind-bending complexity of ecology. We are so used to thinking of good bugs and bad bugs, good plants and bad plants, and the real world doesn't work that way. For example, Dr. Tallamy describes finding a caterpillar eating one of his plants. He was on the verge of killing to protect the plant, when he noticed it had been parasitized by wasps--and the wasps had been parasitized by something else. If he killed all of the caterpillars, then the wasps would have nothing to eat and they would fly away. Then, when new caterpillars moved in (they always do), no wasps would be there to keep their numbers in check. But if nothing ate the wasps, the wasps would kill all the caterpillars themselves. So in order to protect his plants from the caterpillars, Dr. Tallamy not only had to actually have caterpillars in his garden (to provide food for caterpillar-killers), he also had to have caterpillar-killer-killers, to protect the caterpillars from the caterpillar killers, so enough caterpillars would be left to provide caterpillar-killer food.
This is how ecology works; there are no good guys and no bad guys, only a system of interactions that is only as stable as it is complex. Simplify the system--add exotic plants insects won't eat, remove insects that eat the plants, whatever it is, and something will go wrong.
See, this provides both a definition of "native," and a reason why native plants are important; a native organism is one that belongs to a complex web of relationships. If those relationships are missing, then it doesn't matter how long the plant is been here, and it doesn't matter how nearby its home is; it isn't native. And planting non-natives will jam the ecological web, like throwing rocks into the gears.
And of course, it's more complex than that. There are circumstances where exotic plants appear to be a good thing--places where exotics are the only known food of an endangered native butterfly, for example. See, insects don't read the scientific literature. They don't know what they're supposed to eat or not eat.
But wrapping ones' mind around this kind of complexity, and finding out a little more about what we do know, are more than enough reason to read this book. It could change the way you garden.
Tallamy, D.W. (2007). Bringing nature home: How native plants sustain wildlife in our gardens. Timber Press: China.
Noah’s garden is Ms. Stein’s account of converting her property from an unusually large version of a standard suburban yard (six acres) to something more like…recovering wildness. The book is a brilliant introduction to ecology by way of explaining why she did what she did to her yard. The sequel, Planting Noah’s garden, explains how she did it—and how you can do it. There’s garden planning and how to order bare-root stock and where to buy seeds. There’s how to rescue plants from development and how to organize a plant buying club. Most inspiring, the memoir continues and we get to hear what happened after the previous book was published. What happened was a gardener who happened to be a writer became an in-demand speaker and teacher and then—one day at the end of one of her classes the students refused to leave. Within a few minutes they had become a different kind of gardening club, a group people working together to rehabilitate their yards and, by the way, have a blast.
The take home message here is if you set out to do something—fix your yard, say—and keep going with it, you can become someone making a real difference. There’s quite obviously nothing Ms. Stein did that the rest of us can’t do (except she was an uncommonly good writer). And yet David Mizejewski—the simple thing for you to do is Google his name, he’s kind of a big deal in wildlife-friendly landscaping--credited Sara Stein as a major influence.
See, I love practical dreamers. They’re my favorite kind. You think of something you want to do and you find some small part to start working on, and you keep going. Do you know, everything that’s ever been done has been done by people doing stuff?
And Ms. Steins dream is one dear to my heart; it’s also mine, or one of them (I have lots of dreams). See, the issue is that the non-human part of the world is running out of room. That’s an issue, first for the obvious reason, and second because we need the rest of them for our own survival. It’s true; you can look it up. Anyway, eventually humanity is just going to have to shrink some to get more in proportion to our resources, but since I’d rather it be by attrition, that’ll take a while. In the meantime, the more of the land we can get to do double-duty the better. Suburban yards that also work as wildlife habitat is one of the tools we have—and if you have a backyard, you don’t need to ask anyone’s permission to do it.
And the memoir continued, and ended with a tribute to Ms. Stein’s husband, Marty. It’s a quiet little tribute, involving a large rock that this evidently marvelous man wanted, an extravagant and simple tenderness particular to him. I love that story. And oh, how I wish this story had not ended. Everyone, plant a little wilderness in memory of this woman.
Stein, S. (1997). Planting Noah's garden: Further adventures in backyard ecology.
Monday, April 2, 2012
Sara Stein died two years before I set out to try to talk to her. Ultimately, biology claims us all. Having become familiar with her writing, and with some of her work between the writing, I can say we lost a great woman.
So, on to this book that I think everyone should read. The title is fairly self-explanatory. The Biblical Noah, of course, is our archetypal conservationist; the rising tide drowns the animals, except for the breeding stock preserved aboard the Ark. The Ark is not a permanent solution, but as a temporary refuge it makes the difference between the end of everything and the possibility of survival. During our current flood of ecological destruction, where are our arks? There are parks, of course, and zoos, but no one boat can float breeding stock for all the animals and plants there are; no dozen arks can. We need lots of arks. We need big ones and little ones, country ones and city ones, desert ones and forest ones and prairie ones. We need professional arks and we need amateur arks. So if Noah had a garden-ark, rather than a boat-ark, a garden plot planted to ride the metaphorical sea, what would it be like?
Read this book; find out.
I should say that you may have encountered the idea of the wildlife garden already. Landscaping for wildlife is getting kind of popular, and the principle has its organized advocates. Among the largest and most organized is the Certified Wildlife Habitat Program, run by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and its affiliates. Some affiliates use the older name, Backyard Habitat program, and there are other, similar, programs run by people like the Audubon Society. Basically, you fill out a form listing all the ways your yard is friendly to wildlife, send in a small fee, and get a sign for your yard stating that it is certified habitat. Walk around a suburban neighborhood and you’ve got a pretty good chance of seeing one of these signs. The yard behind the sign will usually be a glorious riot of shrubs, flowers, and decorative grasses attended by happy bugs and happier birds.
The thing is, though, when I interviewed the former head of the Certified Wildlife Habitat program, he said that the thing that first really inspired him to get involved with backyard ecology was reading this book by Sara Stein.
The organizations do a definite public service by popularizing the idea of restoration landscaping. Their advice is generally simple and flexible—you don’t need to do a lot of research to get started, so more people will go ahead and get started. But Ms. Stein went further. She went deeper. Ecology, as my thesis adviser likes to say, is not rocket science; you can send a rocket to the moon and back with a single equation, but there’s nothing that simple in ecology. Floating a workable garden-ark ultimately requires engaging with that complexity, and Ms. Stein does. In this book, Ms. Stein provides a lot of interesting information and ideas, but even she cannot provide a simple and complete set of instructions, a kind of ark-in-a-kit. There’s no way to avoid the process of discovery she went through. Instead, she provides herself as a role-model for that process.
And, if you’re not ready to build a whole ark, maybe Noah’s garden will inspire you to let at least some of your lawn grow long. After all, some kinds of lightening bugs need long grass to grow up in. They eat slugs there. More long grass means fewer slugs and more wonderful little beetles that glow. I used to be really good at catching them when I was little, before I started needing glasses.
An example; “Imagine me,” says Sara Stein, on page 107, “in the grip of conversion, reading the radical literature of ecology.” After reading up on aphids (she tells us that they are “polymorphous, polyphagous, viviparous, parthenogenic parasites of plants,” before helpfully explaining what all these words mean), she discovers that while aphids damage plants we like, and hence might be considered bad, and certain ants protect aphids and hence might also be considered bad, aphid ants also drive away any competing plant pests and accidentally protect the larvae of certain aphid-eating wasps—and so might be considered good (and, of course, if aphid ants are good, then so are the aphids that support them…). It’s not that Ms. Stein runs herself into paralysis in little intellectual circles of run-on sentences like mine. It’s that she ultimately concludes that even a garden is beyond our capacity to sort into good and bad. We can’t play favorites among organisms without getting way over our heads and probably making things worse. What we can do is be gardeners of a whole ecosystem. What we can do is maintain and guard the integrity of the ark.
Near the end of the book Ms. Stein asks if all of this will really work; will the animals whose habitat was destroyed by development come back if we plant the world that can contain them? I’ve been asking the same question (remember I mentioned having a thesis adviser?), and almost twenty years after the publication of Noah’s garden, I am in a position to answer with a definite maybe. There are still no clear-cut answers, still no way out of detailed research and educated guesses and discovery, no blue-prints for an ark-garden. But Ms. Stein’s answer to her own question still appears to be the right one:
Perhaps wild turkeys can return; perhaps they can’t. But when each of us, alone and in community, on acreage and in small back yards, for reasons of ecology, economy, or style has done all that can be done to restore the abundance of the land, many other animals will surely rejoin us.
Then it will work. Then there will be plenty. Then we will have reason for thanksgiving.
Stein, S. (1993). Noah’s garden: Restoring the ecology of our own back yards. Houghton Mifflin: New York, NY
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
I was living in Vermont, for work, while my then-boyfriend lived in Maryland, for work. We wrote letters, made phone calls, missed each other, and planned to get together for his birthday, in July.
I saw this book in a bookstore and grabbed it. My guy liked history, and I'd heard vaguely that the letters were romantic, and his birthday was coming up. That was all. And from such humble beginnings, oh, what a romance has blossomed!
Since that day, we've both read this book, seen the HBO mini-series, the A&E two-part special (which isn't very good), toured their house, read a separate biography of John and Abigail each...and I, who read faster, have read a second biography of John, a book about the Revolutionary War, and some of the collected letters of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. We're kind of besotted. Oh, and we've gotten married--I'm not sure if that's related, but maybe the Adamses helped.
There are three reasons I'm recommending this book to everybody in the world. First, doing so gives me an excuse to tell you all that we've just had our first anniversary, and I love my husband dearly. I think the Adamses would approve of my using them as the (something of a stretch) reason to celebrate that. Second, many people saw the HBO mini-series, and it had some shortcomings. If you saw the series, you really should read up on the Adamses. Although this book doesn't cover the part where the series was weak, it's charming enough to get you interested in reading about this family. Third, both John and Abigail Adams did just about everything right that a person can do, and as such they are important role models.
I don't mean that they never made mistakes. John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were patently unConstitutional, wrong, and stupid, and he should have known better. Abigail Adams refused to write publicly, as she considered her writing poor and her opinions less important than her husband's, neither of which was true. She actually begged John to burn her letters, which he obviously did not.
But they were excellent parents, loving partners, great friends, and they changed the world. We could all learn a thing or two.
Abigail--it is impossible not to think of them in familiar terms after reading this book--gets a lot of press as a kind of proto-feminist. She is, certainly, a feminist hero for good reason. She was, for her day, extremely radical in her advocacy for women's rights and in the assertive way in which she lived--especially toward the end of her life. Further, she was a shining example of female excellence. She was a business woman and farm manager in a time when women were expected to be neither, she spoke three languages (English, French, and Latin), she could quote long passages of literature from memory, she could argue coherently about the Constitutionality of party caucuses (among other issues), she raised four children to adulthoood, and in a day when slavery was still legal in every state, she had the gumption to ask General Washington if perhaps his military problems were divine punishment for the sin of slavery. Remember, Washington was a slaveholder. AND she had only a third-grade education.
But she did not believe men and women were, or should be, equals. She might well have been scandalized by the idea of the Women's Movement, if she could have known about it. She was a woman of her time, as he was a man of his time. That means racism and sexism mild only in comparison to what was typical of their day. We must see them wholly if we are to respect them.
But man were they brave. You see that here. John, as a signer of the Declarations of Independance, would have been hanged if the revolution had failed. Abigail spent many nights, early in the war, lying awake listening to cannons. Both lived through the war, and they were both quite old when they died, she of typhus, he of a stroke, but in a very real way they gave their lives to their country with a selflessness and faith few people have. There are writers who see their modesty as a fiction they used to cover their ambition, and certainly they were ambitious in some ways. John, particularly, wanted to be noticed and remembered for his service. But I think the modesty was also genuine. They just really liked this country. They were the real deal.
And in this book, you get to see the ordinariness inside that strength. Philosophy, politics, spirituality, and which kid took a puke this morning and the horribly high price of butter these days. This is the nuts and bolts of greatness. This is how it works.
And it IS romantic, at least sometimes. Like when Abigail says she's spent all morning with John, meaning that she's been rereading his letters, and says that if she can't have real pleasures, at least she can have her thoughts. Or how he often addresses her as "my dearest friend."
Or, when Abigail finishes a letter with;
"Heaven grant that I may continue to receive its blessings. One of its greatest is that I can subscribe myself wholly yours."
Adams, A., Adams, J., (2004). The letters of John and Abigail Adams. Penguin Books: New York, NY.
Sunday, March 11, 2012
"Mathis Wackernagel!" I retorted, proudly.
This sort of thing is very encouraging for writers with strange names. If mine ever comes up in an argument with your mate, it's easier to pronounce than it looks; A lan thus. The "i" doesn't do much, so you can ignore it.
Anyway, the idea of the ecological footprint starts with the fact that a certain portion of the Earth's surface is dedicated towards your personal upkeep. Imagine that you are a subsistence farmer, and that all the water you use falls as rain on your farm, all your fuel wood comes from your farm, all your waste is composted there, and so forth. In such a scenario, your ecological footprint is the area of your farm. If you start buying hay from your neighbor, then your ecological footprint, or EF, grows to include part of your neighbor's hay field. If you sell produce to raise money with which to buy hay, then part of your vegetable garden is transferred to the EF of whoever buys your produce, and tracing the location of your EF very quickly becomes impossibly complicated. It is still possible to calculate the rough size of your EF, however, if you know how much land is necessary to support all the things you do. For example, If you eat a loaf of wheat bread every week, you can calculate the size of the wheat field necessary to make your bread, because you can find out the average yield per acre of wheat.
The reason ecological footprints matter is that there is a finite surface area of the Earth. The total surface area of the Earth is the maximum total ecological footprint. Dividing the Earth's total surface area by the total human population yields the "fair Earthshare," or the size that everyone's EF would be if resources were distributed equally. If your EF is bigger than a fair Earthshare, then either someone else is using less, to subsidize you, or you are borrowing against the future by using resources too fast. It has nothing to do with how much you deserve, how good a person you are, or how much you care about the planet, it's just a measure of how much you use in comparison to how much there is. It's just math. Ecological footprint calculation is a way to make ecology personal.
This book is an introduction to the concept, and also a detailed description of how to calculate your own footprint. You can also get a rough estimate of your footprint through any number of online EF calculators, though the online calculators simplify the calculation by making a lot of assumptions, which may not be relevant in your case. Reading this book will give you the context to understand that calculators better. Ecological footprint is different from carbon footprint, by the way; your ecological footprint includes your carbon footprint in that one of the things you need Earth's surface area to do is to re-sequester the carbon emissions freed by your lifestyle. EF distills your entire ecological impact to a single measure; surface area.
The book's descriptions are clear, and the pictures are thought-provoking and funny. The authors explore a number of different implications of the EF concept, far more than I have space to summarize here. If the authors have a weakness, it is their tendency to announce periodically that EF calculations are fun! which they aren't, but at least the whole thing is important food for thought.
And no, ecological footprint calculations are not as simple as the online calculators, or even this book, make it seem. For example, the carrying capacity of an acre quite obviously varies, not only across space but across time. A degraded ecosystem can't support as many people as it once could. A related complication (and one the book does address, at least in part) is that resource use is rarely about absolute amounts. Sustainable resource use is a matter of rate. It's a bit like finance, to use a metaphor Wackernagel and colleagues also use. If you've got $100,000 invested and earning 1% interest per year, then you can spend $1000 every year forever. If you spend $2000 a year, you will eventually run out of money. With environmental decisions, the big question is always are you spending the interest or are you spending the principle? Since not all acres on the planet have the same sized endowments, and the size of the endowments changes as the principle is spent, calculating a sustainable rate of use that is valid all over the planet and then expressing that rate as an area is at best an estimation tool.
There are other complications. The ecological footprint is not a tool one can use without a great deal of thought--but that's not really the point.
The point, first and foremost, is that ecological limits may be complex and difficult to understand, but they are not arbitrary or subject to debate. It's like driving a car (and this is my own analogy). If you hit a patch of ice on the highway, what happens next to your car has nothing to do with how much you deserve to have a good day or how important it is for you to get where you're going. What happens to your car is a matter of physics, and physics dosn't care what you think. Environmental issues are equally non-negotiable. There is only so much of the planet to use, and that's all we get.
Secondarily, the concept of the EF gives environmentalism a clearly defined goal, at least in theory. Much of the talk of "green" living these days is entirely relative; you hear about saving so many trees or keeping so many tons of greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere, but there is really no way to put any of this in context. On a bad day, it's possible to conclude that no one can ever be green enough, so why bother? On an entirely different kind of bad day, it's possible to conclude that since you recycle and do other "green things" periodically, you're already doing enough. EFs are the antidote to this kind of relativistic thinking. If your EF is equal to your fare Earthshare or smaller, you're done! You're sustainable! You've arrived! In practice, you might not be able to work through the various complications well enough to define your EF that precisely, but at least that finish line exists, and you can approximate it.
And in the process of finding your way to living within your fare Earthshare, you'll probably make it easier for the people around you to find their way there, too.
Reese, W.E., Wackernagel, M., Testemale, P. (1998). Our ecological footprint, by Reese and Wackernagel. New Society Publishers.
Sunday, February 26, 2012
Occasionally, though, I find a novel that's a better essay than most essays are, and then I really get excited. Fictional essays have the freedom to braid together several different strands of an argument, without ever directly stating their point. In the hands of a master, the result is not vagueness but richness and subtlety. Barbara Kingsolver is such a master, and this novel is such a book.
Prodigal summer uses an alternating chapter format, where three shorter stories all set in the same community take turns presenting themselves. Initially, all three seem quite separate, but they become progressively less so. One story is that of an entomologist who has recently married a Virginia tobacco grower, and has still more recently been widowed. Another story is about a forest ranger who loves coyotes, yet becomes involved with a man who hunts them. The third story is that of an old and widowed man who is trying to breed blight-resistant chestnuts while feuding with his neighbor, an organic apple grower. Each of these threads has at its heart a debate about ecology, whether that debate is an actual argument between two people, as in the two orchardists' arguments over pesticide use, or something more subtle, as when the widowed entomologist must figure out how to make a living from her land. None of the debates are ever just about ecology, and though some of the characters are sometimes quite clearly wrong, none of them are badguys.
There is actually quite a lot of ecology lecture embedded in the story, usually quite gracefully--one character will explain something to another within the flow of the tale. At least as important is the fact that no one is trying to cause anyone a problem; these are not debates between good and bad people, these are stories about people in different situations with different priorities trying to find ways to get along with each other. When I went to graduate school and heard my professors start talking about stake-holders and community buy-in and the strange, counter-intuitive twists of the science and the art at hand, I knew what they were talking about. This book had told me.
I suppose, one could find Kingsolver's style annoying; my sister does. It's a bit over-done in places, perhaps, and maybe not everyone likes their fiction riddled with science and politics, however graceful the riddling. But the style works for me, and this book says some things that need to be said.
Here is an example of its food for thought; eventually, the entomologist widow settles on raising goats for slaughter, rather than tobacco. Part of her reasoning is that tobacco requires pesticide use and goats don't. As she tells another character, "this way I only have to kill 50 animals, not 50,000."
And there's a sex scene involving a giant moth.
So, read this book, have a good time with the story and the characters, and let your thoughts feed.
Kingsolver, B. (2000). Prodigal Summer. HarperCollins: New York, NY
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
I know starting a review with a quote from someone else's review is a bit weird, but really I could not ignore that sentence. Mr. Schama's whole article is posted on Pollan's own website (http://michaelpollan.com).
ANYWAY, I'm recommending Omnivore's dilemma as another book under the heading of Books That Make Important Things Make More Sense. In this case the "thing" in question is how America eats, and the economic, political, and ecological issues visible through that lens.
The basic structure of the book divides American food culture into three distinct types of food-chain. Each section follows one chain, and then follows Pollan as he makes a meal from food derived from that chain. This is participatory journalism, an example of a writer doing something quirky while we sit on his shoulder and learn from his experiences. Not all writers can pull this sort of thing off; in a clumsy hand, first-person journalism comes off as self-centered and melodramatic. The very fact that the writer has somehow convinced a publisher to pay for him to cook dinner for his friends interferes with the audience's ability to relate.
But Michael Pollan pulls it off. He always keeps the focus on the journalism part of participatory journalism. He keeps himself comfortably out of the way of his own story, acting simply as the reader's own avatar within the text. Not that his own personality doesn't shine through, but it shines as a texture of consciousness, not an object of focus. Pollan uses his experiences and reactions to help make his story specific, a valuable function given that many of us already know the vague outlines of these stories.
We know that fast food is bad for us. We know that feedlots are horrible places for animals to live. We don't necessarily know how a particular field of corn becomes a particular hamburger (neither does Pollan, but he did get pretty close to that level of specificity), nor do we know the history and ramifications of using corn this way.
Probably the section on what Pollan calls the industrial food chain, the one that begins with corn and often ends with meat, is the important for most people. This is the food chain from which most of us derive the bulk of our food, and it is also the most difficult chain to understand. Later sections deal with grass-fed beef and feral hogs, but if you go out into the woods to shoot a hog, you more or less know how that food-chain works. The story behind the meat in a fast-food joint or a grocery store is much less obvious. Obvious or not, this is a story that unfolds with the blessing of our money, so it is something we all need to be aware of.
Pollan is not exactly anti-meat, and though he does appear to be anti-factory farm, he is not bombastic or prescriptive about it. He is a journalist, and as such his interest is on understanding what is going on, looking straight at it, and reporting what he sees. That he also reports what he thinks and feels is more a form of interpretation than editorializing. If you finish the book unwilling to participate in the industrial food chain anymore, that may be simply a good call on your part based on available facts--but feel free to look elsewhere for corroborating or disconfirming evidence. I'm sure Pollan wouldn't mind. Treat this book as a source of good leads for further research.
Be forewarned that you are as likely to put the book down resolving to eat more meat, rather than less, if you are currently partially or completely vegetarian. All three food chains in the book are at least three links long, meaning that they all end with a human eating an animal. The book functions as an exploration of carnivory, from moral as well as ecological and economic angles. Pollan returns from his journalistic travels with a view that is far from simple.
Part of his journey actually involves temporarily becoming vegetarian, out of a sense that he couldn't adequately cover meat as a journalist if he ate the stuff. Pollan's temporary vegetarianism may be the only weak point of the book; it isn't clear whether he was actually vegetarian for a significant length of time, or whether he ever seriously considered staying that way, so his statements on behalf of "us vegetarians" are a bit suspect. More interesting is his reporting of various forms of meat production, particularly the second half of the second section.
The second section covers what Pollan calls the pastoral food chain, which begins with grass, and here is is possible to follow the meal from sun to plant to animal to plate, because all the steps happen on the same farm. I won't summarize the entire section (or the rest of the book), but in discussing grass-fed beef, Pollan makes the point that vegetables are not necessarily more sustainable than meat. Yes, I know that eating higher on the food chain automatically means you're consuming more energy. This is simple physics. If the planet were a homogenous sphere of interchangeable resources, and if the idea were simply to maximize human carrying capacity, then yes, we should all be vegetarians. But in the real world, well-managed pasture is sometimes better for the land then a vegetable plot is. How a human being can eat lightly on the land depends on what land the human is trying to eat on. And in a landscape that includes grasslands already, raising livestock simply means adding a species to the existing mix of grazers. Raising crops on the same land means killing or displacing all the animals and plants who could have shared that land with cattle. As to animal rights, the animals Pollan meets appear to be happy while they live. The wild animals he does not meet, but who likely share the same pasture, are not irrelevant to the moral calculation.
I have visited a farm similar to the one Pollan visited, incidentally, on a field trip in graduate school. It looked much as described, and seeing something in person that one has previously read about is always a tickle. That the tour we received covered the same material, the same procedures, ideas, and philosophy, as what Michael Pollan heard on his tour of a different farm may be regarded as a reassuring second opinion. That our professor had spent a decade studying grazing ecology and appeared to approve of this guy may be regarded as further confirmation yet.
But again, the point of the book is not to convince anyone but to provide food for thought (about food). If you haven't thought much about food before, it's an appatizer, and should be enough to get you started. If you're an old hand, this book may still give you a new idea or two.
Which is why you need to read this book.
Pollan, M. (2006). The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Penguin Press: New York, NY.
Sunday, February 5, 2012
But this is a good book. It's not a great book--there's very little in Food matters that some other author doesn't cover as well or better, but the thing is Bitman manages to cover all of the topic. And he does it in a friendly, accessible way.
The topic is the environmental and nutritional problems with the standard American diet, plus suggestions on how to eat better. There is history, ecology, politics, nutrition, climate science, the author's personal history, recipes...and the recipes are my kind of recipes. Here's one;
about two pounds of any vegetable, prepped appropriately.
lemon juice or olive oil, as you like
herbs or seasonings (optional)
boil or steam the vegetables, then add what you want so it tastes good.
I've edited that rather severely--he did have a bit more detail--but that's the gist of it. And that's how I cook, and how I learn about cooking. This isn't recipe as algorithm, it's walking a relative newbie through thinking about how to work with food.
Food does matter. Food matters because it is the stuff we build and fuel our bodies with, for better or worse. Food matters because food production is a major industry, and our collective choices about it dictate much of the course of our economy. Food matters because food production is a major part of human environmental impact, and our choices about it dictate much of the course of our biosphere. Food matters because, as a necessity for life, who controls food production and how is an axis of history. Food is what my thesis adviser would call a lever--something one does well to pay attention to, because it makes other things move.
All of that is here, at least in an introductory way. If it is not already obvious to you that food matters, you need to read this book.
And if it is already obvious to you, the book is still worth a gander, because where Bitman makes mistakes, the mistakes are food for thought.
For example, in the Introduction he says that "Global warming, of course, was accidental. Even 30 years ago we couldn't know that pollution was more than stinky air." That just isn't true. Assuming that those words were written somewhat before the copyright date of 2009, that means he's talking roughly about the year of my birth. OK. Except I learned about man-made global warming, including the possibility of sea-level rise, when I was no more than seven or eight years old. My Dad told me about it. I'm a science geek and a daughter of a science geek and a scientist (my mother trained as a geologist and has spent her career cleaning up contaminated sites) so I learned about a lot of things kind of young, but there is no way an eight-year-old, no matter how geeky, was one of the first people in the country to hear about global warming.
The Mona Loa Observatory has been recording the changing atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide since 1956, a study initiated because some scientists were concerned that human-caused climate change might be happening (http://celebrating200years.noaa.gov/datasets/mauna/welcome.html). In 1977, that study had already collected twenty-one years of data confirming the scientists' suspicions. That carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas was discovered in the mid 1800's, by the way, according to John Houghton (in a book I recommended to you last November). It's simply a well-known property of the gas.
I don't know how old Mark Bitman is, but I'm pretty sure he's closer to my parents' age than to mine, and that he remembers 1977 clearly. Why he asserts that we "couldn't" know something in that year that pretty much every expert in the subject actually did know is puzzling.
My personal challenge to anyone is to see how many times Bitman makes these interesting mistakes; they're common mistakes, in one way or another, and if you can catch them all you're probably doing pretty well with your personal science literacy.
One of the things Bitman is not mistaken about is his assertion that it is impossible to feed all living human beings as much meat per capita as the average American eats, and it is impossible to produce as much meat as is currently eaten without recourse to factory farming. You can come to the issue from ethics, economics, environmentalism, environmental justice, or nutrition, but then there is physics; certain things are not so much wrong--or not merely wrong--as physically impossible, not an option. One of the things that is not an option is any substantial change in global food production without an associated change in consumption. Sorry.
Bitman never says "you must," or "you are a bad person if you don't." He says these are your options, here are some suggestions, now think about this. And, by the way, here's how I eat, here's how I prepare food, and it tastes pretty good. I'm healthier, too.
So think about it. Read this book.
Bitman, M. (2009). Food matters: A guide to conscious eating. Simon & Schuster: New York, NY
Wednesday, January 25, 2012
This recommendation concerns two books; Thinking in Pictures, and Animals in Translation, both by Dr. Temple Grandin, an expert in both animal behavior and human autism. The reason I'm recommending two of her books together is that I read both at the same time, and I have a hard time remembering which book was which. And it's my blog.
Dr. Grandin is more or less famous for being autistic, since she is one of the few experts on autism who is actually on the spectrum herself. Her training, and much of her career, has involved figuring out how to make the American meat industry less frightening to farm animals. Her insight is that other species find different things frightening than we do, and that correcting details like harsh shadows or flapping rags can take the terror out for cattle. Perhaps learning to think like a steer prepared her to bridge the gap between human minds. Perhaps the necessity of coping with the vast majority of humans who think differently than she does prepared her to understand that different species have different perspectives. I don't know--either way, she has become a kind of bridge.
In her books she explains autism in clear, detailed terms, synthesizing disparate disciplinary streams in a way experts with formal training in neurology or psychology generally don’t. Equally important, she describes the autism spectrum as a place with its own perspective. She describes autistics as people.
Dr. Grandin does not strike me as political per se. She is not publicly campaigning for a fundamental re-conceptualization of the autism spectrum; she does not come off as an angry member of a disenfranchised minority. Although she describes her own mental processes as carrying real gifts, she does not seem to object to autism’s status as a disorder. Based on her description of autistic minds as focused on detail, for better or worse, it could be that whether autism is a disorder or not is irrelevant to her. What is relevant is that there are useful things she and others like her can do, and difficulties she and others like her have, so is there some practical method of dealing with the difficulties so people’s lives can improve? But she is autistic, and whether she regards it as part of her work or not, she presents autism as a condition with its own integrity, its own human wholeness.
In another of my blogs, I recently suggested that the “Nowhere Man” in the movie “Yellow Submarine” is autistic, and that one reason to think so is the way the other characters talk about him. Most poignantly, they say “he doesn’t have a point of view, knows not where he’s going to.” Start paying attention to discussions about autism by the neurotypical and see how often this message comes across. It’s baloney, of course, and it’s a mistake Dr. Grandin does not make.
Dr. Temple Grandin is not, of course, some kind of random Autistic On The Street. It is the decidedly mixed blessing of the demographically surprising to be at least as notable for what they are as for what they do. Annie Oakley was not just famous for being a fantastically good shot; she was a fantastically good woman shot. Barack Obama gained national attention not just for being a brilliant man, an excellent orator, and a very canny politician (a characterization I believe even most of his detractors would accept), but for being all those things and black. As much as I cheer such demographic surprises, they are symbols of only the beginning of change. If the change were complete, no one would think these things are surprising. But as much as it irritates me that Dr. Grandin’s status as autistic tends to get top billing, I am glad that she is around as an example.
Several ideas from these two books are worth noting.
First, there is the clear description, in Thinking in pictures, of the subdivisions within the autism spectrum. Although the definitions are in flux, and these descriptions could be, or soon will be out-dated, the detail still gives a window into the complexity of the condition. One surprise for me was that sometimes autism develops with the child, manifesting as speech delays, among other issues, while other children develop normally until around two years of age, when they all but lose language. I wondered, reading this, whether the two development patterns could have very different causes. In either case, autism, by definition, involves early childhood onset. Similar traits developing later are not considered autism.
Second, to varying degrees, people on the autism spectrum have trouble processing sensory perception. I had heard that sensory over-sensitivity is an autistic trait, but I had not appreciated what such sensitivity might mean from the inside--even though I have a mild version of such sensitivity myself. In Dr. Grandin’s description, perception-processing problems can reduce the sounds of language to a cacophonous, meaningless buzz. The sound may even be painful. I had always thought that autists with social problems have an altered social drive or an altered understanding of self and other. Adult autists may, indeed be emotionally different; Dr. Grandin reports that her own emotions are intense but simple, and that her friends are people she does things with, not the other way around. But what if you were a young child, just learning about language and people and emotions, and when people spoke all you heard was a painful jumble? When your parents hugged and kissed you it made you feel icky and weird? How is a kid going to figure out how to deal with people under conditions like that?
The other thing that grabbed me was the description, in Animals in translation, of an odd similarity between autistic intelligence, and normal animal intelligence. Apparently, many animal species can remember details in a way humans can’t—with the exception of autistic savants. Not all autists have the kind of memory as the fictional Rain Man, but some do. People who sustain injury to the frontal lobes also sometimes develop savant skills. Dr. Grandin says that the large frontal lobes that give humans our conceptual intelligence actively depress our perception and memory of detail. Autists have large frontal lobes, but, to varying degrees, the frontal lobes connect poorly to the rest of the brain, and so do not depress the older, detail-oriented brain structures. The savant skills are released.
These details help provide a sense of how autistic people think, the mental processes behind the odd behavior. They bring commonality out from behind difference, and, at the same time, show up the real spread of cognitive diversity in our species. In my experience, failure to notice that we are all alike does not cause half so much trouble as failure to notice that we are also all different. When someone does something unexpected or inconvenient, most people think “ah, this person is thinking and feeling what I would think and feel if I acted like that.” Low-functioning autistic people especially don’t do a lot of very basic things that everybody else does as a matter of course; obviously, they must be retarded, insane, or both, right? That whole, intelligent people might behave so oddly implies a fundamentally different kind of thought, something I’ve noticed most people do not easily accept.
I have personal experience with this. One example is the job I lost because my supervisor assumed I didn’t care about my work; I didn’t follow dress code, something someone who cared would do. Actually, I cared very much. I just really don’t know how to think about clothes—and not knowing how to think about them, I didn’t realize other people might have thoughts about clothes I didn’t understand. My supervisor and I, making the same mistake in opposite directions, passed each other like ships in the night.
Even Dr. Grandin may have made the same error; in Thinking in pictures she repeatedly attributes her keen intelligence to her visual thinking. She knows she is a much more visual thinker than most people, and that her visual thoughts allow her to do things most people cannot do. She is unusually good at design, for example. She can simulate the workings of machines or buildings in her mind’s eye and so spot failures before they actually happen. She also has an amazing memory for visual detail, so she can mentally assemble new designs from parts. Fair enough. But I’m willing to bet that there are people who can run simulations as well as she can, and who can remember design elements just as phenomenally, who do not think in pictures. We are all of us so often stuck within our own skulls.
What we have in common is the way we persistently misjudge each other. We misjudge across differences of neurology, differences or culture, even difference of opinion. By not recognizing the depth of our real diversity, we so easily miss the brilliance, the usefulness, and the humanity of others.
Read these books. Recognize another mind.
Grandin, T. (1995). Thinking in pictures: And other reports from my life with autism. Vintage Books: New York, NY.
Grandin, T. , Johnson, C. (2005). Animals in translation: Using the mysteries of autism to decode animal behavior. by Temple Grandin. Scribner: New York, NY.