Posted on

Eager: The fall and rise of the North American beaver

Pity the keystone species.

Those animals upon which the health of so many ecosystems depend — wolves and jaguars, sharks and sea otters, to name just a few.

Due in large part to their outsized impact on our planet, they are often blamed for getting in our way. Wolves take our cows and sheep. Sea otters take our seafood. And jaguars and sharks take away our sense of comfort on land and in water.

Beavers are also a keystone species and, not surprisingly, no friend to many city managers or land owners. They create chaos with our human-built rivers and drains. And, because they are the member of a family with few human friends — the rodent family — we tend to view them as just another invasive species.

But what if beavers are not the sharp-toothed Beelzebubs we make them out to be?

What if beavers are actually a solution to many of the environmental crises we face today (crises brought about in part because we have done such a good job of getting rid of beavers in the first place)?

As author Ben Goldfarb makes engagingly clear in the timely book Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter the eradication of the beaver across the United States over the past several centuries has had a significant and negative impact on water quality and supply, fish populations, riparian vegetation and the countless creatures that depend on those millions of ponds that once dotted continental North America.

And why did we lose the beavers?

Blame it on a hat, the beaver hat. This European fashion craze brought about their near extermination. Eager takes us back to the 1500s when Europeans began trading pelts with the natives until the fur gold rush attracted fortune hunters from far and wide. The killing was so complete that it was widely assumed by those who settled in California in the 1800s that beavers had never lived in much of the state (when in fact they once blanketed the state). But researchers and historians are finally and gratefully setting the record straight. And they are making clear that beavers played a critical role in building not just dams but in conserving water for dry summer months, providing nesting places for other animals, and breeding waters for fish.

Fortunately, we’re starting to relearn what was forgotten so long ago — that beavers are essential to healthy ecosystems. And there is a growing chorus of “beaver believers” who are spreading the word about their many benefits of these animals. These believers stand up in city hall meetings and write letters and letter our cities know that there are people who do not want to see beavers killed. Besides, one does not easily eradicate beavers. City leaders are learning that it’s far wiser to learn to coexist with beavers than try to kill them, because when you create a vacuum you only encourage new residents to set up shop. And there are businesses now that will help you build flow-through tunnels that allow beavers to have their dams while also maintaining human-built infrastructure.

It’s not often I feel inspired after reading books about animals these days. Everywhere I turn I find another species in rapid decline (and it’s partly my fault because I’m drawn to endangered species).

And yet we have the beaver, a species that despite our best efforts continues to survive and, in many parts of the world, thrive.

Thankfully, a growing number of scientists, citizens and ranchers now see that beavers not only have much to offer this land, but may in fact play a essential role in saving it.

Out here in the west, water can never be taken for granted. Once the snow melt goes dry so too do the valleys, unless we dam enough of the snow melt along the way, which we’ve done. But beavers do it better, in staggered steps, in ways that not only collect water but recharge the water table, provide nesting sites for birds (sandhill cranes in particular), filter the water that passed through and over the dams, providing the perfect spawning ponds for salmon. We talk a lot in the Pacific Northwest about removing human-built dams to save the salmon, but we also need to talk about allowing beavers back to building some of their dams, which will also help salmon rebound.

It’s nice to read examples of old-school ranchers who would have once shot a beaver on site now working to protect them (a handful of ranchers had been doing this way back in the early 1900s). To protect beavers is to embrace a degree of chaos. But the fact is, the more we try to manage nature the less manageable it becomes.

And I’ll leave you with a photo of a beaver from my neck of the woods, spotted just a few weeks ago here in Southern Oregon…

Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter

Chelsea Green Publishing

 

Posted on

The Overstory: An arboreal love story (and lament)

When we started EcoLit Books five years ago, this was the type of book I had in mind.

A novel that places nature in its proper place in relation to people. That is, above us — in this case, both figuratively and literally.

In The Overstory, Richard Powers has crafted an epic novel that stretches hundreds of years, culminating in a series of life-and-death environmental battles. But even more so, this is a novel about rediscovering the largest and oldest living creatures on our planet.

So many of the characters are alien to the trees they share the planet with until various events open their eyes. And they look. They smell. They see and feel the loss. And they act up.

The book could be used to teach a course on trees. And it should be used for just that purpose. I have books about trees — mostly identification. But identifying a tree is only step one. How does a tree relate to the creatures around it? How does it respond to insect attacks? How does it care for its siblings? And other species of trees? For example, the Douglas Fir, which we live among here in Southern Oregon, are called “giving trees” because the dying trees will send out nutrients to the Ponderosa Pines. Powers does an outstanding job of providing insights into beings we have only just begun to understand.

But there are oversights in the novel in regards to activism. While the novel addresses environmental activism in Oregon and elsewhere, the players are too often seen eating meat without any awareness of the irony of defending one living entity while eating another. I know that many of those activists who have served actual time behind bars for similar crimes are vegan. They don’t differentiate between protecting trees and protecting non-human animals. And it must be noted that millions upon millions of acres of forests have been cleared for the sole purpose of raising cows and sheep for human consumption.

In many ways I feel that this novel begins where Barkskins by Annie Proulx ends. And I highly recommend reading them in chronological order. And I’m not just talking about time but about awareness — our collective awareness that the planet is not some all-you-can-eat buffet, that the planet is, like us, finite and fragile. If you are not a “tree hugger” before reading these two books, you will be afterwards.

And I think what I like most about this book are the voices he gives those who have no (human) voice. Such as: All the ways you imagine us–bewitched mangroves up on stilts, a nutmeg’s inverted spade, gnarled baja elephant trunks, the straight-up missile of a sal–are always amputations. Your kind never sees us whole. You miss the half of it, and more. There’s always as much belowground as above.

Like the trees Powers writes so beautifully about, this book towers above us and nurtures us. And, I certainly do hope, it motivates us to do more. And quickly.

The Overstory: A Novel

Posted on

Happy Earth Day

It’s been nearly 40 years since the first Earth Day, and unfortunately we’ve recently taken a lot more steps backward than forward.

Still, we humans have taken a lot of great steps forward since the 1970s. There’s a lot to celebrate about our planet, and so many ways to help it survive and thrive. We founded Ashland Creek Press to raise environmental awareness through literature … this combines two of our passions: stories and taking care of our planet. There are myriad ways to help out the planet, and to make every day Earth Day in your own life.

  • Immerse yourself in environmental literature! We love books like Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and Ann Pancake’s Strange As This Weather Has Been — each is a stunning work of eco-lit, each in such a different way. Naturally, we also love every one of our Ashland Creek Press titles, from eco-fiction to veg lit to books about animals.
  • Watch movies. A few environmental films that are interesting, important, and well worth watching: Earthlings, Cowspiracy, What the Health, Forks Over Knives, If a Tree Falls, An Inconvenient Truth and An Inconvenient Sequel … the list goes on, but this is a great start.
  • Take action. Clean up a beach or a park; step up your recycling; plant a new tree, bike or walk instead of driving; eat vegan for a month (or more) … there are so many small changes we can make that become regular habits and definitely make a difference.
  • Get political. Of course, don’t neglect to vote for candidates that believe in climate change and want to do something about it — but you can also write letters, sign petitions, march, and otherwise make your opinions known…every voice does matter.
  • Get kids involved. It’s clear that today’s young people are the ones who are going to change the world, and they’re realizing they need to do this for their own survival. Help them out, whether it’s by giving them books about environmental issues, spending time with them outside, volunteering with a nonprofit to clean a beach or maintain a hiking trail, or taking them to an animal sanctuary. Show them what’s at stake being out in nature.
  • Support organizations that do good work. From conservation to animal rescue to protecting the oceans, there are a lot of great organizations that need support to do what they do. Be sure to investigate nonprofits carefully to be sure your money is used wisely and that the organization is truly environmental (you might watch Cowspiracy before making donations). Here are a few organizations we feel are worthy of our support via the Ashland Creek Press Foundation.

We wish you all a very happy Earth Day, and here’s to much more progress to celebrate in years to come!

Posted on

Our 2017 Siskiyou Prize judge is Jonathan Balcombe

We are thrilled to announce that our 2017 Siskiyou Prize judge is Jonathan Balcombe.

Jonathan’s most recent book is the New York Times bestseller What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of our Underwater Cousins, an extraordinary journey underwater that reveals the vast capabilities of fishes. He is also the author of the books The Exultant Ark, Second Nature, Pleasurable Kingdom, and The Use of Animals in Higher Education.

Jonathan has three biology degrees, including a PhD in ethology (the study of animal behavior) from the University of Tennessee, and has published more than 50 scientific papers on animal behavior and animal protection. Formerly department chair for Animal Studies with the Humane Society University and senior research scientist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Jonathan is currently Director of Animal Sentience with the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy in Washington, DC. Learn more at jonathan-balcombe.com.

This year marks our fourth annual Siskiyou Prize, and we are delighted to be offering a $1,000 prize and a four-week writing residency thanks to the generosity of our amazing prize partner PLAYA. All manuscripts submitted for the prize will be considered for publication by Ashland Creek Press.

Please visit the Siskiyou Prize website for complete details about the prize — submissions open September 1, 2017. We look forward to reading your work!

Posted on

ASLE announces 2017 book award finalists

The Association for the Study of Literature and Environment has announced the finalists for their bi-annual book awards. The ASLE book awards “in the areas of ecocriticism and environmental creative writing recognize excellence in the field.”

 

Creative Award Finalists

The judges were Emily McGiffin, the winner of the ASLE Creative Writing Award in 2015, who lives in Vancouver, BC; Rich King, a finalist for the 2015 Creative Writing Award, a research associate with The Maritime Studies Program of Williams College and Mystic Seaport; and Tom Hallock, who teaches in the Visual & Verbal Arts Department at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg.

Branch, Michael P.  Raising Wild:  Dispatches from a Home in the Wilderness.  Boulder:  Roost, 2016.

“A beautifully-written collection of essays that splices memoir with natural history as it carries us deep into the unsung terrain of domesticity in the wilderness. Michael Branch is keenly observant and unfailingly witty as he schools us in the natural wonders of his home.”

 

 

Hanson, Chad.  This Human Shape.  Northfield, MN:  Red Dragonfly, 2016.

“A beautifully-written collection of essays that splices memoir with natural history as it carries us deep into the unsung terrain of domesticity in the wilderness. Michael Branch is keenly observant and unfailingly witty as he schools us in the natural wonders of his home.”

 

 

Moore, Kathleen Dean.  Piano Tide:  A Novel.  Berkeley:  Counterpoint, 2016

“A beautiful, unique, and suspenseful novel. Kathleen Dean Moore has somehow channeled the ecology and humanity of E. Annie Proulx’s Shipping News and John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row into Good River Harbor, an imaginary town in Southeast Alaska. Even while focusing on the details and spinning a page-turner, Moore encompasses most of the major issues of the twenty-first century in the Pacific Northwest: salmon, water, tourism, jobs, global warming, wilderness, and the lives and legacy of First Peoples. Howard, her straight man caught in the middle, begins to think the same as Nora, the eco-activist: Imagine how you can live in a place without wrecking it.”

Raymond, Midge.  My Last Continent: A Novel. New York:  Scribner, 2016.

My Last Continent is a love story. Raymond teaches us how and why to love Antarctica. She lures us into loving her nuanced protagonist, a field ornithologist named Deb Gardner. And Raymond shows us how and why to love all the other scientists and romantics who spend part of each year at the bottom of the world:” those who have run out of places to go, and those who have run out of places to hide.” Can a drama of romance and shipwreck and penguins also have something to say about ecotourism and climate change? Yes. My Last Continent is what happens when a nature writer crafts an event like the Titanic.”

(Midge Raymond is an EcoLit Books contributor!)


Savoy, Lauret Edith.  Trace:  Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape. Berkeley:  Counterpoint, 2015.

“Well researched, timely, gracefully written; particularly intriguing on the connections between landscape, memory and race.”

 

 

 

Sutherland, Kate.  How to Draw a Rhinoceros:  Poems by Kate Sutherland.  N. p.:  Book Thug, 2016.

“Surprisingly insightful in its contemporary adaptations of earlier natural history traditions.”

 

 

 

 

Tevis, Joni.  The World Is on Fire:  Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse.  Minneapolis, MN:  Milkweed, 2015.

“Some of the most explosive prose I’ve read in some time. Unsettling.”

 

Ecocriticism Book Award Finalists

The judges were Nicole Seymour, winner of the the winner of the ASLE Ecocritical Book Award in 2015, Tom Lynch, founding coordinator of the ASLE Book Awards and editor of the journal Western American Literature, and Molly Westling, Professor Emerita at the University of Oregon and author of The Green Breast of the New World: Landscape, Gender and American Fiction.


Stacy Alaimo, Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures (University of Minnesota Press, 2016)

“This book is a rich, very original extension of Alaimo’s influential concept of “transcorporeality” from her previous scholarship. Exposed explores the radical ways such a perspective erases illusions of human separateness from the rest of the living world, thus leaving Cartesian objectivism far behind. With ingenuity and nuance, Alaimo here applies queer theory, marine biology, feminist posthumanism, and exciting aesthetic analysis to insist on human embeddedness in the deep material reality of earth and especially sea on the one planet where we belong and whose climates are rapidly, dangerously changing.”

 

Derek Gladwin, Contentious Terrains: Boglands, Ireland, Postcolonial Gothic (Cork University Press, 2016)

“An original, richly theorized examination of the deep landscape histories embodied in Northern European boglands, especially in Ireland, and literary treatments of their meanings by writers from Bram Stoker, Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Faolain and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney to more recent poets and playwrights and remarkable geocultural nonfiction writer Tim Robinson. Gladwin as a Canadian ecocritic brings fresh postcolonial approaches to consider these shifting spaces that are part water, part earth and that have moved and changed in radical ways over geological time and more recently through empires from Celtic and Roman to Viking and Anglo powers.”

 

Ursula Heise, Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

“Heise brings her formidable analytical skills and erudition to an analysis of how we think about and respond to one of the main aspects of the Anthropocene, extinction. Makes a strong case for the importance of the humanities in how we understand what is often considered to be a purely scientific problem. Well written, this will be a key text in the field for years to come.”

 

Erin James, The Storyworld Accord: Econarratology and Postcolonial Narratives (University of Nebraska Press, 2016).

“James adeptly combines three fields often seen as distinct: ecocriticism, narrative studies, and postcolonial studies. Of special note is how the book uses narrative theory, supplemented by cognitive neurobiology, to explain how readers come to inhabit the world of stories, helping us to move beyond the poorly theorized “mimesis” conundrum that has bedeviled ecocriticism. Surprising and innovative insights on every page.”

 

Jesse Oak Taylor, The Sky of Our Manufacture: The London Fog in British Fiction from Dickens to Woolf. (University of Virginia Press, 2016).

“This book fills a significant gap in terms of ecocritical work on both Victorian studies and modernism. Indeed, Taylor makes a persuasive case for literature of that period as Anthropocene literature – and, in so doing, offers a stronger account of the notion of Anthropocene literature than I’ve seen elsewhere. This book seems as important to ecocriticism/environmental humanities as it does to studies in the novel, modernism, Dickens studies, etc. – which I think is quite a feat. It’s also elegantly written and displays highly original thinking.”

Priscilla Solis Ybarra, Writing the Goodlife: Mexican American Literature and the Environment. (University of Arizona Press, 2016).

“This book also fills a significant gap — in this case, when it comes to coverage of Latinx/Chicanx literature and culture. I believe it’s the first book-length ecocritical study of Mexican-American literature. While groundbreaking in these ways, the book also provides a nice complement to extant work on African-American, queer, and other minority traditions of eco-engagement. It makes a bold, counterintuitive but ultimately crucial case against terms such as “environment” and “environmentalism,” showing how they are coded in racially exclusive ways. I also appreciate how the preface models the importance of the personal in the scholarly.”

 

Winners will be announced in June.

ASLE

Posted on

Q&A with Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative

Florence Williams is a journalist and Fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature who often writes about the connections between people, health, and nature. She is a contributing editor at Outside magazine, and she also writes for  the New York TimesNational Geographic, Slate, Mother Jones, High Country News, and other publications.

In her latest book The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative (W.W. Norton 2017), Williams sets out to uncover the science behind nature’s positive effects on the brain. From forest trails in Korea, to islands in Finland, to groves of eucalyptus in California, she investigates the science at the confluence of environment, mood, health, and creativity. Delving into completely new research, she reveals the powers of the natural world to improve health, promote reflection and innovation, and ultimately strengthen our relationships.

Where and when did you develop your love for the outdoors?

I grew up in New York City. My parents were divorced, and every summer my father took me on long wilderness vacations to Canada or out West. From an early age, I learned that forests and rivers and big landscapes provided fun and excitement, as well as peace and reflection. As a teenager, I sought out pockets of green in the city. I spent tons of time in city parks, biking, running, and hanging out with friends. We felt like we owned the parks, which is how city parks should make us feel.

Your book examines natural environments all over the world, but you’re American. How does the way people in other countries engage with nature compare to people in the United States?

I think some other countries are way ahead of us in terms of understanding how valuable nature can be for mental health. I think we have a lot to learn from how Asian and Northern European countries incorporate nature engagement into everyday life, from house plants to recreation to preschools to medical treatment. Our healthcare establishment is largely driven by drugs and profits, whereas a lot of other countries take preventive health more seriously, but I think there is growing awareness of that here.

America has had a long literary relationship with the outdoors, from Thoreau to Bill Bryson. Where do you see yourself within this long tradition of American nature writing?

I don’t really consider my work nature writing, which can lean a bit too romantic for my taste. I have a journalist’s eye, and I like finding connections that are sometimes obscure. I’ve always been interested in the intersection of humans and the environment. I like putting people into the equation, and I like to think I bring a balance of humor and serious science and social questions about why we feel and think the way we do.

An extended excursion into nature is a privilege that many people living in cities don’t often have access to. How can civil and state governments adapt existing urban environments to enhance them and make them more nature friendly?

That’s a really important question as we become an ever-more-urban species. I was surprised to learn that most large cities in the U.S. have pretty decent park and natural resources. The problem is making them accessible to everyone and then reducing the hurdles to using them. These include cultural hurdles, perceptions of safety, and finding plain old time. I’d love to see schools and civic institutions promote programs that help urban populations feel more comfortable in nature from an early age. The more we use the parks, the safer they’ll feel, both physically and culturally.

Much of the environmentalist discourse of the twentieth century has been founded on scientific principles, but you cite Wordsworth in addition to scientific research. Why?

Actually, I would argue that not enough discourse is founded on science. I think we are still very much living out the Romantic legacy, which became the basis of the American environmental movement. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Romantic poets taught us how to see beauty and even divinity in the world apart from the way organized religion did, and they understood that time in nature was critical to humanity. In a lot of ways the Romantics inspired and anticipated the neuroscience we see now. But not everyone can relate to the Romantic discourse, and often it didn’t make allowances for, say, native populations or the realities of conservation. Science can really help us there. For example, there is more biodiversity in cities than we think, and we should be putting resources into coexisting with nature where we live as well as protecting it “out there” in the backcountry.

You say that “a 15-minute walk in the woods causes measurable changes in physiology.” Have you found that different natural environments yield different physiological and psychological benefits?

Definitely. Humans are primed to love the natural world, but we still have to cultivate it, and cultivate it early. Because of how and where we do this, I think there’s a lot of variation in what people respond to emotionally. For some, it’s the ocean. For others, the ocean freaks them out and it’s a sunset over a city skyline. Because of where I grew up, my heart starts to sing when I enter Central Park. I also love the desert and a big river rolling through it. Think about where you were happiest outside as a child, and chances are you will feel joy in landscapes that are similar.

Did you find, while you were doing research and working on The Nature Fix that your engagement with the natural world had a direct effect on your writing?

I think the natural world inspires me to be a better person and to care about the communities I live in, and that in turn drives my journalism. On a more logistical level, writing a book is like running a marathon. Because I was aware of the nature-creativity-productivity axis, I did make an effort to go for regular walks in the woods and parks. I positioned my writing desk so that I could see the trees in my yard, and I was fortunate to spend some nice chunks of time in the wilderness. I’m convinced all of these things helped me stay sane under deadline as well as give my brain big and little rests to help me think. These are all things I will continue doing as long as I can, which I hope is a long, long time.

How can one balance a modern, digital life with a life that’s also connected to the natural world?

With increasing difficulty! We are all distracted and time crunched. We work longer hours and spend dramatically more time inside. I think the first step is to just notice this, and then it may begin to naturally self-correct. Beyond that, parents need to foster the connection to nature in their children’s lives so that it will always be there on some level. In the same way as we are coming to value exercise as part of a healthy daily routine, I think we will also come to appreciate time in nature as a critical part of the mix that keeps us going. It’s not a luxury; it’s essential to who we are and who we want to be. Because it’s joyful, spending time outside, in whatever way you love, doesn’t feel like a chore.

Is there an activity that you do that makes you feel particularly connected to nature?

My own weird eccentric habit is that I crumble leaves in my hand as I walk, even in the city, and take in the scents. I’ve always done it, but after writing this book I understand better the power of these substances in the trees and shrubs, and sometimes I can imagine them boosting my immune system and lightening my mood. I feel like I’ve discovered that trees have a secret superpower.

Posted on

Announcing the 2016 Siskiyou Prize finalists

This is the third year of the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature (which is sponsored by Ashland Creek Press, which also sponsors EcoLit Books).

We’re pleased to see the Siskiyou Prize gaining momentum and awareness. Now more than ever we need a chorus of creative and passionate voices speaking up for the planet and all of its species.

This year, we received more than a hundred submissions, which included a wide range of fiction, short story and essay collections, memoirs, nonfiction nature books, and a number of previously published works in all categories. We began reviewing submissions when the contest opened in September of last year and have been reading steadily since then.

Every manuscript was given careful consideration, and the decision-making process was very difficult, given the exceptional quality of this year’s entries. As much as we love this contest, the hardest part is having to narrow the list down to only a few titles. It’s a completely subjective process, of course, and we thank all who contributed their work to this year’s prize.

We are delighted to announce the finalists and semifinalists:

FINALISTS

Three Ways to Disappear
A novel by Katy Yocom

Small Small Redemption
Essays by Sangamithra Iyer

The Heart of the Sound
A memoir by Marybeth Holleman
Published by Bison Books

Song of the Ghost Dog
A novel by Sharon Piuser

SEMIFINALISTS

Karstland
A novel by Caroline Manring

Rumors of Wolves
A novel by C.K. Adams

The Harp-Maker of Exmoor
A novel by Hazel Prior

The four finalists will move on to final judging by JoeAnn Hart.

We hope to announce a winner in the next month or so. To be among the first to hear the announcement, stay tuned to this blog or subscribe to the Ashland Creek Press newsletter.

Again, thanks to everyone who submitted and everyone who writes with the goal of making this world a better place.

The Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature

Posted on

New EcoLit Books: Fall 2016

screen-shot-2016-10-07-at-5-58-25-pm
Here are some of the books that were submitted to us over the past few months that are recently published (or soon will be):

The After
Author: Melinda Mueller
Publisher: Entre Ríos Books
Book Description: An important new collaborative work by Northwest artists responding to the sixth extinction. The first book by Seattle poet, Melinda Mueller, since her award winning “What the Ice Gets”. “The After” is a single poem sorrowing the world we will alter and leave unseen. A meditation on extinction and the anthropocene, it blends science and poetry with an urgency of a heartbreak. Interspersed with the poem is the stunning sub Arctic art of Karinna Gomez, a printmaker currently teaching in Alaska, all presented in full color. The book ships with a CD with music by the Seattle experimental jazz duo, Syrinx Effect (Kate Olsen and Naomi Siegel), commissioned specifically for “The After”.

Sustainability at Work: Careers that make a difference
Author: Marilyn Waite
Publisher: Routledge
Book Description: Through inspiring narratives and a structured framework, Sustainability at Work illustrates how sustainability can be incorporated into every imaginable career to impact the quadruple bottom line: environment, economy, society, and future generations.

The Man Who Harvested Trees and Gifted Life
Author: Gabriel Hemery
Publisher: Sylva Press
Book Description: A remarkable true story sows a seed in a young girl’s mind which grows into a lifelong relationship with a forest and its trees, yet she develops an affinity richer than she could ever have imagined. The Man Who Harvested Trees And Gifted Life is a sequel to Jean Giono’s much-loved 1954 classic, The Man Who Planted Trees And Grew Happiness, and a compelling short story in its own right.

The Nocturnals: The Mysterious Abductions
Author: Stacey Ashton
Publisher: Fabled Films Press
Book Description: The Nocturnals is a middle grade series that features three unlikely friends: Dawn, a serious fox, Tobin, a sweet pangolin and Bismark, the loud mouthed, pint sized sugar glider. The stories all play out in the nighttime world with teamwork, friendship and humor in every adventure.

Law and Disorder
Author: Mike Papantonio
Book Description: In his new fast-paced legal thriller LAW AND DISORDER bestselling author Mike Papantonio skillfully examines issues that could be pulled from today’s newsfeed—billionaires funding litigation, partisan judges ruling personal politics instead of the law, a reckless media seeding innuendo-filled stories—in a suspenseful, highly entertaining read.

After the Texans
Author: Kate Appleton
Publisher: Clink Street Publishing
Book Description: Having exposed the corrupt plans of the disgraced former government in Papua New Guinea, the UN’s carbon market watchdog, the Global Carbon Markets Organisation, is basking in the limelight. Behind the scenes, however, all is not well. Emil Pfeffer, head of market integrity, is in meltdown. With a high-stakes legal battle taking place in Hong Kong – one that will decide the future of the carbon market and, with it, the last chance for a globally coordinated response to climate change – his girlfriend is suddenly snatched by those who hope to put a stop to his work.

Jesus and Magdalene
Author: João Cerqueira
Publisher: Lion Publications
Book Description: Jesus returns to earth and meets activist Magdalene who is fighting for a better world. He find an extremist ecological group, which is plotting to destroy a maize plantation it believes to be genetically modified.

Posted on

Barkskins by Annie Proulx: An epic (and ongoing) story of extraction

barkskins

Barkskins: A Novel

Barkskins tells the intertwined and intergenerational stories of the natives and immigrants of the North American territory once known as New France.

Because this novel takes place over more than 300 years, there are quite a few stories to tell; I found myself frequently consulting the two lengthy family trees in the appendix to keep track of the many characters that come and go.

But the primary (and most tragic) character of this novel is one with no dialogue at all.

As Annie Proulx noted in a recent interview with  The New Yorker:

For me, the chief character in the long story was the forest, the great now-lost forest(s) of the world. The characters, as interesting as they were to develop, were there to carry the story of how we have cut and destroyed the wooden world. There was the real tragedy, and there was no way to make it seriocomic. But rather than calling it an environmental novel I think of it more in the sense of a writerly nod to human interplay with climate change, what some in the humanities and arts are beginning to think of as a cultural response to the environmental changes we have inherited in the so-called Anthropocene.

For early European settlers, the trees were a gold rush with no end. The patriarch of one family tree, Charles Duquet, devotes his life to harvesting as much of this gold as he can. And in a pivotal scene he sheds light on the rage that  fueled his rise from poverty to timber baron:

Inside Duquet something like a tightly close pinecone licked by fire opened abruptly and he exploded with insensate and uncontrolled fury, a life’s pent-up rage. “No one helped me!” he shrieked. “I did everything myself! I endured! I contended with powerful men. I suffered in the wilderness. I accepted the risk I might die! No one helped me!”

Ultimately, there would be too many Duquets arriving in search of unlimited trees and land; natives suffered this violent and slow-moving disaster firsthand. As a Mi’kmaw elder observed:

“We are sharing our land with the Wenuj and they take more and more. You see how their beasts destroy our food, how their boats and nets take our fish. They bring plants that vanquish our plants. Most do not mean to hurt us, but they are many and we are few. I believe they will become as a great wave sweeping over us.”

Proulx, like Cormac Mcarthy, has a dark sense of humor that expresses itself through the bizarre and unpredictable ways many of the characters meet their demise. I sometimes felt like I was watching Game of Thrones in the sense that just as I become attached to a character he or she would be quickly expired.

In a work of this scale, it’s not surprising that some characters and scenes feel rush or underdeveloped. Proulx was forced to cut a good 150 pages out of the book, which could be a reason why some chapters feel this way. I would have gladly read another 200 pages.

I’m in awe of how Proulx balanced documentary like detail with a plot that takes readers not only across time but halfway around the world. It’s easy to attach “epic” to any novel that weighs in at more than 700 pages, but when I say this novel is epic, I’m talking about what Proulx set out to accomplish, and ultimately did accomplish. Where Sometimes a Great Notion is a testament to the forests along the coast range of Oregon, Barkskins is a testament to all forests.

Despite the overarching sadness of seeing so much beauty and innocence wiped away, there is hope. And it is the young who offer it up. Like the son of a compromised logger, Charley, who asks one day:

“Father, how do you feel about this logging enterprise? Better and better?”

“I give it my support, as we start replanting a year after they get out the cut. It is a balanced process.”

“I can’t image what you think will replace two-thousand-yer-old redwoods–Scotch pine seedlings? And what of the diversity of the soil? Erosion? All those qualities you once cared about? Are you cutting old-growth fir and cedar and planting pine? You mentioned Oregon and Washington.”

Living near the redwoods, where only 5% of these majestic trees remain from a forest that once stretched a thousand miles along the Pacific coast, we came all too close to losing it all.

Proulx dedicates this novel to “barkskins of all kinds” which includes not only those who fell trees for profit, but those who study them and those (we meet near the end of the novel) who devote their lives to protecting the trees we have left.

With each chapter, each passing generation, this book gains a presence that you don’t fully appreciate until you are near the end. At least I didn’t. As I approached the end, chronologically the present, I felt the weight of all that was lost. But I also felt a growing sense of optimism for what people are doing today to save what is still here and to regrow what is lost.

Barkskins: A Novel

Posted on

Book Review: Lab Girl

Lab Girl

I approached Hope Jahren’s memoir, Lab Girl, with a bit of trepidation. You see, Jahren is an award-winning geobiologist who studies plants, making her area of expertise one in which I’ve never had much interest. (Confession: I can’t tell an oak from a maple or a peony from a petunia.) So when The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani wrote that Lab Girl “does for botany what Oliver Sacks’ essays did for neurology,” I was persuaded to pick up the book. I’m glad I did, for Lab Girl is as much a paean to self-discovery and enduring friendship as it is an illuminating introduction to the life of plants.

Hope Jahren grew up in rural Minnesota. As a young girl, she spent her days with her mother, the two immersed in literature and poetry as her mother worked toward a bachelor’s degree in English literature. She spent her evenings with her father, playing in his laboratory at the community college where, for more than four decades, he taught introductory physics and earth science. The lab was her father’s sanctuary, and it became Jahren’s, too. So strong was its pull that, even as an adolescent, she knew that one day she, too, would have a lab of her own. Today, that lab is in Honolulu, at the University of Hawaii, where Jahren is a tenured professor.

Jahren interweaves the story of her coming of age as a research scientist with chapters on the life-cycle of plants. These latter chapters—devoted to trees and flowers, seeds and soil—are as information-rich as they are engagingly written. I will likely never forget this discussion of the relationship between trees and mushrooms, which, Jahren writes, are “the best—and really only—friends that trees have ever had.”

“You may think a mushroom is a fungus. This is exactly like believing that a penis is a man. Every toadstool, from the deliciously edible to the deathly poisonous, is merely a sex organ that is attached to something more whole, complex, and hidden. Underneath every mushroom is a web of stringy hyphae that may extend for kilometers, wrapping around countless clumps of soil and holding the landscape together. The ephemeral mushroom appears briefly above the surface while the webbing that anchors it lives for years within a darker and richer world. A very small minority of these fungi—just five thousand species—have strategically entered into a deep and enduring truce with plants. They cast their stringy webbing around and through the roots of trees, sharing the burden of drawing water into the trunk. They also mine the soil for rare metals, such as manganese, copper, and phosphorous, and then present them to the trees as precious gifts of the magi.”

Jahren relays her personal story through prose that is just as evocative. With brutal honesty lightened by moments of humor, she reveals her complicated relationship with her mother, her battle with manic depression, and the challenges facing research scientists who are forever seeking the funding that is the lifeblood of their work. (“Ask a science professor what she worries about. It won’t take long. She’ll look you in the eye and say one word: “Money.””) For Jahren, though, there is the additional challenge of being a female in a male-dominated field. When she becomes pregnant and is banned from her lab, she breaks down—and then fights back the only way she knows how: “After five o’clock when everyone in the building has gone home for the day, I … sneak into the lab. I cannot do anything productive, but I instinctively resist the cruelty of my department chair’s order by staging a sort of one-woman pregnant sit-in.”

Always in Jahren’s labs—at times, literally, living in them—is Bill Hagopian, Jahren’s best friend and lab manager. The two cross continents together, rummaging for plant life in places as far away as the North Pole. It’s Bill, himself brilliant and carrying his own emotional baggage, who helps Jahren through her manic episodes and who relocates with her as she moves from university to university trying to secure tenure. Theirs is a love story without sex or sexual tension, for their relationship is grounded in an almost religious devotion to the science they do in the laboratories they build.

If Lab Girl has a purpose beyond being an educational and engrossing read, it is to raise readers’ awareness of the natural world in all its beauty and strength and fragility. “As a rule,” Jahren observes, “people live among plants but they don’t really see them.” She “can see little else.” And she is concerned about their future. So, Jahren closes her book with a plea to readers to plant a tree, to care for it, and to watch it grow. “Every day, you can look at your tree, watch what it does, and try to see the world from its perspective.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA