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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.

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The Narrow Edge

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Originally published in Orion Magazine, September/October 2015

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Zoologies

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

By Alison Hawthorne Deming

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2014

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

 

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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

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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?

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

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Home Ground, A Guide to the American Landscape

Edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney

(Trinity University Press, field edition 2013)

 

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“What draws our attention?” Barry Lopez asks in his introduction of Home Ground, a surprisingly entertaining guide to the language of the American landscape. Humans are predisposed to pay attention to subtle changes in the natural world, harking back to our hunting/gathering days, when knowing and naming these distinctions helped the tribe find dinner, or discourage the setting up of camp on shifting sands. Lopez and Gwartney commissioned a tribe of writers to gather up the words and define them through the lens of the humanities. The evocative phrase angle of repose Continue reading Home Ground, A Guide to the American Landscape

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Writing Wild

Writing Wild
Forming a Creative Partnership With Nature
By Tina Welling
New World Library, 2014
 
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My favorite quote from Writing Wild is one Tina Welling borrows from Jesus, of all people: “If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you.” This comes from the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, which was considered too New Age in its day, and promptly buried. Likewise, with its touchy-feely Spirit Walks, Writing Wild has a whiff of New Age about it, but should by no means be buried. Taken with the right pragmatic attitude, the walks are touchy-feely in the best possible way. As Welling says, “We create a relationship with nature the same way we create a relationship with a person. We spend time in their presence.” By the end of the book, I felt her wisdom was not just constructive for writers, but for anyone who seeks a more deliberate relationship with the natural world.

When using all the senses to name, describe, and interact with the world — conscious acts designed to encourage readers to go beyond surface impressions — it is possible, as Welling puts it, to become fully awake on the planet. It is not unlike journaling, which I did for many years in a journal group (yes, I know, as New Age as it gets, but that was then and this is now). The theory behind journaling is that it doesn’t much matter what the writing prompt is, because what is currently going on inside will find a way out through the words. Free associative writing — which is done for a timed period without lifting pen from paper, and without crossing out or making corrections — will eventually sneak past the inner censor and reveal one’s themes, so to speak. The same for Welling’s walks, which go somewhat like this: One: venture out into nature; Two: focus on one object or scene, listing its characteristics; then, Three: write about the personal meaning those characteristics have for you. The results might reveal buried or unresolved conflicts, or simply tap interesting memories and psychological information.

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This is the raw material with which writers mold their work. but as in journaling, finding personal meaning in the world around you seems a useful tool for everyone. My journal group (of whom there were only a couple of members who considered themselves writers) met monthly in rotating homes, and in late May we would gather at Babette’s house by the quarry. Our ‘prompt’ for the evening was a walk through the woods where lasciviously pink Lady Slippers were in bloom. Every year, we’d laugh at the flowers’ resemblance to deeply-veined scrotums, then we’d go back to her house and write. In reading our work out loud to one another, the unworldly Lady Slippers never failed to stir up fervent, often emotionally complicated responses. Then last year, on the heels of Lady Slipper season, a year after her husband’s death, Babette took her own life. No one knows what to make of it. I tell myself a story of grief, love, and Lady Slippers.

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There, you see. I begin writing about one thing, and I am led away with the mere mention of a Lady Slipper. My unresolved sadness and confusion is still dangerously close to the surface, and bubbles up with the written word. Nature bleeds with meaning such as this.

Welling believes we can interpret the world in the same way we might interpret a dream, in that the outer world often reflects our inner condition if we open ourselves to the possibility. When a deer crosses our path in our sleep, we wake up and wonder what it could mean, often contemplating what is going on in our lives and who or what the deer might represent. When a deer crosses our path in real life, why not ask the same questions? It can lead to unexplored territory. To the wildness inside.

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Here is one of Welling’s exercises to steer you in that direction: Take a deep breath, close your eyes, open your eyes, then make a quick list of everything that catches your attention using all five senses. Then do a brief interpretation of the list. What is the tone? Negative? Positive? What images are symbols for you? How might the list inform a question you have about your life today? Go where it leads you, and watch out for the inner censor. “Eventually,” says Welling, “the wildness outside leads to the wildness within, that place that gives space and reflects truth and accepts everything.”

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Accepting everything might be too grand a goal for any exercise, but making space for wildness, there’s something worth walking for, New Age or not.

 

 

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The Human Shore, Seacoasts in History by John R. Gillis

 

The Human Shore, by John Gillis University of Chicago Press, 2012
The Human Shore, University of Chicago Press, 2012

 

The interior section of Cape Ann, which includes Gloucester and Rockport, is called Dogtown. It was the earliest part of the Cape to be settled, and was later abandoned, so that its only occupants for many years were dogs, witches, and other assorted outcasts. It is still largely undeveloped. “Why here?” visitors ask, Continue reading The Human Shore, Seacoasts in History by John R. Gillis

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The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Edited by Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Tim Folger, Series Editor…

 

Science is a scary word. At least, it used to be for those of us who grew up messing around in the hazy world of literature and art, not empirical facts. Science was what made it possible to go to the moon, so science meant rocket science. But it seems to me now that a fear of science is a result of a rigid (and, in my day, gender-biased) educational system, where disciplines are divvied up into discrete categories, as if one had nothing to do with the other.

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How wrong, and how sad. Science seeks answers to the same questions that the humanities do: Who are we? What is our purpose? Where did we come from? It is all about observation. Galileo studied the moon and determined that it was not flat, and from this went on to claim that the Earth was not the center of the universe. In the Foreword of The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013, series editor Tim Folger points out that Galileo’s discovery was rejected in his time, not unlike climate change in ours. And so it goes.

 

I’m glad to see Nature Writing is part of this series, and not because it makes for an easy segueway to “science,” but because we need to rethink nature altogether. We have made nature plush and Disney-like by removing most all of our predators, as J.B. MacKinnon writes in “False Idyll” (originally published in Orion). “We have rendered nature an easy god to worship,” MacKinnon says. “Nature is not a temple but a ruin.” If Man against Nature is one of the great recurring themes of literature, then we have been battling a straw dog. In “Our Place in the Universe” (Harper’s) Alan Lightman contemplates the enormity of the universe and wonders how such a remote concept can ever fit into our idea of nature. He notes that in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Nature,” Emerson separates humans from nature, and crowns nature as being morally superior. To Lightman, we are not separate so much as insignificant.

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The essays in this collection, each a small revelation unto itself, cover the waterfront, what is left of it. From “Which Species Will Live?” (Scientific America), Michelle Nijhuis argues that it is not enough to save specific species, but the eco-systems in which they live, or what is the point? Sylvia Earle, in “The Sweet Spot in Time” (VQR) writes about the disappearance of coral, the sad state of ocean life as a whole, and how this is the moment to take action, “the next ten years will determine the direction of the next ten thousand.” In “Recall of the Wild” (The New Yorker) Elizabeth Kolbert (whose most recent book is The Sixth Extinction), writes about the strange re-wilding programs taking place around the world. Governments in Europe are using marginal land to introduce herds of animals, like feral horses and deer, and letting them roam under the high power lines. The article raises questions about the ultimate purpose or benefits of re-wilding, with the sober realization that now even wilderness is a human creation.

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In “Out of the Wild” (Popular Science), David Quammen writes about our most dangerous predator, and the smallest, the zoonotic viruses that are transferable from animals to humans, such as Ebola, SARS, and AIDS. Tim Zimmerman in “Talk To Me” (Outside magazine) interviews researchers who are attempting to communicate with dolphins, even though the sentiment is that we might very well have nothing to talk about. It is a sentiment that ties in to Nathaniel Rich’s “Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?” (The NYT Magazine), which looks at Turritopsis dohrnii, a jellyfish that instead of dying, returns to being a polyp to start its life cycle over. The conclusion of which is that we are perhaps intelligent enough to achieve biological immortality, but we don’t deserve it.

The benefits of a book like this is that it directs the lay reader to the best in science writing, and that will help make us all more science literate. And we’d better pay close attention to science, because it is going to have to save us from ourselves. “As Sylvia Earle says, “We may be the planet’s worst nightmare, but we are also its best hope.”

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Falling In Love With Trees

Seeing Trees

Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees.

Timber Press, 2011
By Nancy Ross Hugo
Photography by Robert Llewellyn

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“The most effective way to save the threatened and decimated natural world is to cause people to fall in love with it again, with its beauty and reality.” Author Nancy Ross Hugo quotes British naturalist Peter Scott to explain why she does what she does, which is to delve deeply into the nature of individual trees. She wants the reader to come along with her on this journey, in the hope that to know trees is to love them. Seeing Trees is one beautiful book, big and splashy enough to sit on the coffee table, but you will not want it to languish there. Page through it in awe.

The good people at Timber Press have been providing the world with quality nature and gardening books for decades, and have given Hugo and photographer, Robert Llewellyn, the task of making us see trees with new eyes. Hugo’s loving attention to tree minutiae goes a long way towards this end, but much of the attraction of this book is due to the hyper-realistic photographs. Using software developed for microscopes, Llewellyn creates an image by taking many shots, each with a different point of focus, then merging them together. The leaves, seeds, and flowers are then displayed on a white backdrop like a vintage horticultural print. The photographs are pure nature porn, with the reproductive organs of the tree presented in such articulated clarity, it will be hard to look some trees in the eye again.

In what Hugo calls a process of discovery, she narrates an intimate backstory to the photos. It is like awakening to a new world. I am surrounded by shagbark hickories, and had never noticed the delicate pink bracts that unfurl beneath the glory of spring leaves. But Hugo had, and now I know where to look. Thanks to her, I finally know the difference between red oaks and white oaks (bristled leaf tips vs. smooth lobes), but she goes much further than mere identification. She points out that leaf size, shape, color, and arrangement on the twig are aspects to be noted not just between species, but are variations on a single tree in different seasons and stages. For example, leaves on the shady side of a tree are bigger than on the sunny side, because they need a greater surface area to collect the sun. Who knew?

Hugo is careful not to frighten us away with technical terms. When she must use nomenclature, she walks the reader through it. I was already familiar with words like catkin, angiosperm, lenticel, and drupe, but here’s a new one: Marcescent. This refers to the leaves on deciduous trees, such as beech, that hold onto their brown leaves until the spring leaves push them off the branch. The spot where the leaf had been attached to the twig is called a leaf scar, which would seem observant enough, but Hugo goes deeper still to bring attention to the bundle scars within, where the veins had been severed. Speaking of falling leaves, I cannot wait for next fall to try catching leaves in mid-air. I will do as she suggests and try for twelve, since the saying goes that every leaf you catch in the fall means a happy month the coming year.

Hugo is even smitten with tree litter, and considers the fallen leaves, twigs, and fruit as part of its personality, and as ornamental. It was news to me that some gardeners pair late-blooming perennials, such as golden mums, with the colored leaves that fall around them, such as red maple. I have admired such whimsical combinations in my own yard, without ever thinking one might consciously create the effect.

So grab your photographer’s loupe and get cozy by the tree in the backyard. It doesn’t even matter if you do not know its name. Stretch out and look up. Marvel. Rethink bark. Consider the tree as a community, complete with animal companions. Pick up a leaf and twirl it in your hand. As the poet Mary Oliver wrote, “If you notice anything, it leads you to notice more and more.” The first step in saving the natural world is to notice that it’s there. Then let yourself fall in love.

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