Posted on

Book Review: Kinship Of Clover

Kinship Of Clover, a novel by Ellen Meeropol
Red Hen Press, 2017

Ellen Meeropol’s third novel, Kinship of Clover, spreads out over generations and from multiple points of views, with one eye on the aging 60’s generation of activists, and another on the rising generation. One of these is Jeremy, a college student so obsessed with plant genocide, he finds himself compulsively repeating the names of the departed species: dryopteris ascensionis, fitcha mangarevenis. An endless list. His obsession threatens to send him over the edge as he starts hallucinating plants, in effect bringing them back to life through his grief. Jeremy is from a complicated mixed-race family, leftovers from a former hippie cult/commune gone very awry (some of the characters are from Meeropol’s second novel, House Arrest. Jeremy’s conservative twin brother is his opposite, even to the point of being a climate change-denier, but he rallies when Jeremy needs to be rescued. Love also comes to Jeremy’s aid in the form of Zoe, a young woman with spina bifida confined to a wheelchair. Like the planet, it will take a diverse population, with solutions coming from all angles, to get the Jeremy healthy again.

But there are those who could do Jeremy more harm than good in their quest to save the planet. Mary, who is proud to call herself an eco-terrorist, announces that “Civilization is a serial killer.” Perhaps. But putting innocent lives at risk to bring attention to her cause is hardly the answer. Besides which, Mary and her friends run environmental teach-ins and other actions, but the plants in their apartments are dead from neglect. They ignore the first lesson of activism, that in order to change the world, we must change ourselves first, and that means taking the time to water the houseplants. It means letting go of anger about inheriting a rapidly self-destructing world and find more productive solutions. Life isn’t fair, as the bossy grandmother with Alzheimer’s insists, one of the older generation of activists. She is worried about who is going to carry on her work when she’s gone, “how to fight a threat that’s overwhelming, when defeat and disaster seem inevitable.”

We just have to keep moving forward with what we’ve got, whether in a wheelchair, with a deteriorating brain, or having visions of writhing tendrils. There are no easy answers in Meeropol’s book. Or any one book. Jeremy reads a text popular among his new activist friends that calls for a return to a simpler lifestyle without fossil fuels or plastic, similar to the back to the land movement of the early 70’s. But Zoe points out to Jeremy that she relies on plastic tubing and high-tech devices to keep her alive. Finding a solution that we can all live with is the problem of the age. Kinship Of Clover, a celebration of diversity in a time of dire threats to the environment, is a book to read during the struggle.

Posted on
Posted on

The Narrow Edge

 

TheNarrowEdge

 

The Narrow Edge

By Deborah Cramer

Yale University Press, 2015.

 

The “narrow edge” in the title of this engaging book by Deborah Cramer evokes the image of comedian Harold Lloyd, in the 1923 film Safety Last!, teetering on a skyscraper ledge, clinging for dear life to the hands of a clock. It is an apt metaphor for the uncertain future of the red knot (“a small sandpiper about the size of a robin and weighing about as much as a coffee cup”), which roams the sliver of sand between land and sea, a precarious place to be these days. This indefatigable bird lives for five months on desolate tidal flats at the tip of South America, then, as if possessed, travels 9,500 miles north, following the coasts of two continents, to breed in the Arctic.

Unknown

In The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey, Cramer explores this flyway by plane, kayak, helicopter, and foot, feeding on history and science as she goes, wrestling with the consequences of human interaction with the natural world. Her journey ends at a scientists’ field camp in the most northern of Canada’s territories, where the red knot lays its eggs. The birds arrive with just the feathers on their backs, while Cramer is weighted down with supplies, bulky clothes, a GPS, and the requisite twelve-gauge shotgun to ward off polar bears. It was the worst summer for shorebirds in the field camp’s history.

Unknown-2

In her travels, Cramer often sustains herself on pilot biscuits, but the red knot needs high protein fuel and lots of it, preferably the eggs of the homely horseshoe crab. Yet this living fossil, which has survived on Earth for half a billion years, is running out of breeding grounds. The beaches on which it lays its eggs are being destroyed from over-development, rising waters, oil spills, and industrial run-off. As if the crab didn’t have enough to worry about, it is also of considerable value to humans: Aside from its historical use as fertilizer and bait, the crab’s blue blood is used to ensure the safety of intravenous medical procedures. In theory, the blood harvest should not kill the crab, or at least not many, but Cramer’s research suggests another story—and so the red knot’s fortunes rise and fall with the crab’s.

Unknown-1

Cramer walks and talks with a wide band of scientists and naturalists who are working against the clock to save the red knot, because if this shorebird disappears, it won’t be the only one, and we cannot predict the consequences. “The foundation of food webs may not be apparent until they fray,” she writes, citing the disappearance of the passenger pigeon with the rise of Lyme disease. (Read the book to discover the connection.) When an extinction occurs, there is no way to know which species will be the next to cling to the hands of time.

Unknown-3

 

 

Originally published in Orion Magazine, September/October 2015

Posted on
Posted on 1 Comment

Zoologies

Zoologies, On Animals and the Human Spirit (Milkweed Editions)

By Alison Hawthorne Deming

zoologies-230

Every day, as I walk from house to barn, or go up the driveway to get the mail, I am closely monitored by the resident crows who glide from oak to oak, loudly discussing my movements amongst themselves. In a cacophony of caws and clacks, I understand the gist of their conversation: Look, look. There she is! Here she comes! Is she carrying food? Are her barking things with her? Look, look. She’s going back to her nest! She’s gone.

Crows are intelligent animals with the leisure time, like humans, to gossip and conjecture, and so I am an endless source of amusement for them. Likewise, they are for me. I even count crows, searching for meaning in their numbers. One for sorrow, two for mirth, Three for a wedding, four for a birth, and so on, an old nursery rhyme I used to read to my children, a nudge for them to pay attention to the natural world. This interaction between humans and non-human animals is the driving force of Zoologies, a collection of essays by poet Alison Hawthorne Deming. Armed with a gorgeous palate of words and images (Of a backyard bobcat: “The sharp indifferent eyes, the ears like cups to fill with sound, the leather cushions of the lobed paws.”) Deming contemplates our relationships with creatures as small as microbes to as large as mammoths. She does not just gaze at her navel for answers, but searches for revelations with the help of scientists, getting to the bare bones of behavior. In “Crow,” she interviews Kevin McGowan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology about the mourning habits of the black bird with feathers that “shine like obsidian.” She is touched to find out that during the West Nile epidemic, no crow died alone. When one was dying, either its mate or some member of its family would sit by its side to the end. In a similar vein, Deming writes about her brother’s death in “Liberating the Lobster,” and how she incorporated his love of lobsters into a compensating ritual. Humans and crows alike, we connect and we grieve.

Unknown

We share a great many traits with a wide range of animals, not all so endearing. In “Murray Springs Mammoth,” Deming visits Paul Martin at the Desert Laboratory near Tucson, where they ponder an activity known as “surplus killing,” often seen in hyenas. Martin believes that the extinction of North American megafauna, like mammoths and giant sloths, was brought about by over-hunting by the human arrivistes from the Bering land bridge. Martin points out that killing, like sex and eating, must have some innate pleasure so that humans won’t starve, a joy that makes us kill beyond what is necessary to survival. “The hunters were skilled and took pleasure in their skill,” writes Deming, and so say good-bye to the giant sloth. The buffalo. The passenger pigeon.

090jpg

Greed plays no small part in human behavior, and like surplus killing, it can be over ridden by the forebrain. But will it? In “Elephant Watching,” Deming visited Africa and writes about the horrors of poaching which will certainly lead to the extinction of the species. Zoologies often reads as a eulogy to what is being lost on our watch. In “Chimera,” she writes, “For most of human history, the ability to read animals with acuity was a matter of life and death … In modern life its focus has less to do with supper than it does with an intangible sense that our lives are enriched by animal presence and our empathy is educated by their diminishment.”

Unknown-1

We lose species not just though hunting and greed, but inadvertently by our own cleverness, such as with the invention of plastic, which might very well be the death of our own species. Deming notes that it is possible that nature might evolve microbes—the most basic of animals—to dissolve the immortal building blocks of plastic, but it will be too late for us. “Culture is fast,” she writes, “biology slow.” Unless we start acting from our higher selves with a common purpose, humans might have already had their brief day in the sun, and the crows left high in the oaks, wondering where we all went.

DSC_0553

 

 

Posted on 1 Comment
Posted on 1 Comment

The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2014

9780544003422

Once a year, courtesy of Houghton Mifflin, we get to be wowed, disgusted, depressed, amazed, revolted, terrified, and sometimes even amused with the publication of The Best American Science and Nature Writing. This is not a book geared for science nerds, this is reading for anyone interested in life. I wish there was a different name to use other than “science,” so that the word would not conjure up the dry horrors of high school chemistry and biology, so boring, so gross, so uncool. We are now paying the price of having not paid enough attention all along, but it is not too late to become science literate.

 

In this anthology, whose series editor is Tim Folger, and whose 2014 edition guest editor is Deborah Blum, you will start seeing the world and the universe from new perspectives. Many of the articles are from magazines I would not be reading otherwise, such as Matter, Pacific Standard, and Nautilus. And of the ones I do read, like Orion, Harpers’s and the New York Times, it was nice to reread or discover articles I have missed. My favorite writers are included, including Rebecca Solnit, who has a piece from Harper’s on leprosy, a Biblical disease that still lives among us. Elizabeth Kolbert is here with an excerpt from The Sixth Extinction (reviewed on this site by Midge Raymond in January, 2015) originally published in two parts in the New Yorker. I had read it before, but I had forgotten so much that needs remembering, such as the fact that fertilizer factories (read: humans) produce more nitrogen than is fixed naturally by all terrestrial ecosystems.

fertilizer plant

An article I had read before in horror, and gladly reread here, was “Awakening” by Joshua Lang in The Atlantic. Lang writes that we don’t know much about anesthesia, and that it sometimes doesn’t work in the worst possible way, when the patient is in a paralyzed state and can’t tell anyone about the pain as they are being cut apart. But this is not just about gore in the operating room, it is about the very meaning of consciousness. If you want to read more about surgery, read “Imagining the Post-Antibiotics Future” by Maryn McKenna. Without antibiotics – a strong possibility in the not-so-distant future – one out of every six recipients of new hip joints would die. Time to pray to St. Joseph, the patron saint of the good death.

St. Joe

Many of the writers in the anthology were a joy to discover for the first time, such as Barbara King who wrote “When Animals Mourn,” where she asks the big question of why grief evolved. Grieving costs species, such as our own, a great deal in emotional suffering. It is a time-consuming sentiment that detracts from food-gathering and child-raising. King suggests that grief may be epiphenomenal to the strong emotional bond that many species form. In other words, grief is the price we pay for love. And love has such strong benefits, such as enhanced cooperation in nurturing or resource-acquisition tasks, that nature considers it worth the trade-off. King’s article was from Scientific American, and I thank the editors for bringing it to the attention of a broader audience.

Unknown

In “23 and You,” Virginia Hughes explores the privacy issues surrounding DNA home testing. As in, do you want to know that Grandma was no paragon of virtue? She certainly didn’t. Does your birth mother or sperm donor father really want to hear from you? They might, but it’s probably not what they signed up for. Another article on DNA was “The Social Life of Genes,” by David Dobbs, where he ponders the relationship between genes and gene expression. Our DNA is hardly destiny. It’s not nature or nurture, but nature and nurture.

Unknown-1

Sarah Stewart Johnson’s “O-Rings” is a report from Antarctica, with katabatic winds included, (I had to look them up: winds that rush down a mountain). Johnson was there to study how bacterial cells eke out a living under extreme conditions, but she began contemplating the last two minutes and forty-five seconds of the Challenger crew. It’s a smooth segueway, and is as much a demonstration of the brain’s capacity to make connections as it is a moment of somber reflection. “Danger! This Mission to Mars Could Bore You to Death!” by Maggie Koerth-Baker, is a related article, not connected so much by space missions, but in the way they both consider the consequences of isolation and chronic boredom.

Unknown-2

I promise, you won’t be bored reading this book. And if you read it as an e-book, be sure not to miss Ferris Jabr’s article on “Why the Brain Prefers Paper.”

 

Posted on 1 Comment
Posted on

Book Review: Trash Animals

How we live with nature’s filthy, feral, invasive, and unwanted species

Kelsi Nagy and Phillip David Johnson II, editors

University of Minnesota Press, 2013

TrashAnimals

In this collected cross-section of stories and essays about trash animals — the loathed species we deem dirty or dangerous nuisances, such as pigeons and coyotes — the authors differ in subject matter and narrative focus, but they all have one thing in common. They ask that we see these animals in a new light.

Why is that so difficult? Mostly, as the authors argue, because we hate species who survive on our sloth, such as cockroaches and rats, who clean up after us. And we don’t much like animals who invade environments we have created for our own enjoyment, such as Canada Geese on golf courses, or coyotes in suburban yards. They can alter the landscape! They can destroy the land and the water!

What invasive, destructive species does that remind you of?

Unknown

Reading these pieces, I know I am as prejudice or blind as most. In the essay “See Gull,” Continue reading Book Review: Trash Animals

Posted on