So what is this blog about?

These are the books I would insist everyone read if I were Queen of the Universe. I am not Queen of the Universe, so you don't have to read them, but hear me out. Most book reviews are about new books, but most books are not new. How else are you going to find out about what's out there? Anyway, aren't you just a bit curious about WHY I think these books should be read by everyone?

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England., by Tom Wessels

Ok, in point of fact, I don't think everyone really needs to read this book, but I certainly needed to read it, and many people have found it both enjoyable and transformative. Maybe you will, too.

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 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

Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens, by Douglas W. Tallamy

People interested in ecologically sensitive landscaping are generally interested in native plants, but hardly anybody has a good definition of "native," nor any clear explanation of why nativeness is important.

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.

Planting Noah's Garden: Further Adventures in Backyard Ecology, by Sara Stein

Last week I recommended Noah’s garden, by Sara Stein. This week I’m recommending the sequel, Planting Noah’s garden. Actually, there are three members of the series, a kind of gardener’s memoir. The first of the series is My weeds, which I haven’t read. But the latter two members of the series are fantastic. Read them, please.

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

Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Back Yards, by Sara Stein

Ok, first of all, I really, really like Sara Stein. She is a science writer, and began as a children’s science writer when her children were small. As her children aged, so did her target audience, until she was writing accessible and personable popular science books for adults. I’ve only read one of her children’s books, The evolution book, which I acquired and first read when I was ten. I went on reading and rereading for years, until I actually cited the book for a major college paper (for which I got a really good grade). Anyone who can respect the mind of a ten year old that much wins my respect in return. Aside from the more specific reasons I think you should read Noah’s garden, the book makes a clear and interesting introduction to certain aspects of ecology.

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