(Archive: TLC's Book Club)
4 January 2010, Monday
Samuel Johnson, direct to you from the 18th Century and the literature-searching work of Graeme Gibson, offers:
Swallows certainly sleep all winter. A number of them conglobulate together, by flying round and round, and then all in a heap throw themselves under water, and lye in the bed of a river.
I received The Bedside Book of Birds as a Christmas gift three or four years back. By definition then, this is a book I would not have bought for myself... I'd seen it at Borders, and as if it were a men's tie, I passed it by. Too many Catesby plates of lizard-looking birds or birds drawn from arranged corpses and therefore not enough true knowledge for me, by way of too much time spent back behind the gate and by the hearth contemplating the lesser and wilder... and not enough J. Fen Landsdowne. But there it was, gifted, the Graeme Gibson compendium, "an avian miscellany," season's greetings.
The selections range from the early Greeks through Gilbert White and other pre-Darwin era naturalists, and on into modernity — there's Robinson Jeffers, Bruce Chatwin, Peter Matthiessen, naturalists certainly, but literati all. Combined now, his two books of a feather are about the birds, beasts, and finally us. Immensely tweedy, like the author's wardrobe with cockade included at no extra charge, there are quite a few insights to be had, as well as some selections that went right over my head (attention span). But all in all, I'm glad I read it... a little at a time, from the nightstand, as the author suggests in the title. A work like this can aid the fellow or gal who spent their college days out and about with a fieldguide, instead of lounging on campus with Keats or Highsmith.
I hadn't thought about this book/author since, but last Sunday there was Graeme Gibson being interviewed in the Toronto studio on The Sunday Edition by the terrific Michael Enright. In The Bedside Book of Beasts: A wildlife miscellany, Gibson turns more inward for this companion volume and the selections reflect more about us and our disconnect with the wild world, hence "beasts" as distinct from just "animals," as he explains. The two Canadians chat in the first-half of the second hour, December 27th program. To listen in, scroll down to "Listen to Hour Two:" and click.
Also included in that second hour, is a radio documentary on William Blake following the musical interlude, "To Close for Comfort," summing up the discussion of us and the beasts. Being Canadian radio, the song is played in its entirety (for the attention span of an actual adult, realized or in training). So now I want the new Gibson and some old Blake on my nightstand for the Winter nights, and lake effect afternoons.
As I said, I think reading and listening are exactly tuned to better scanning and seeing (hawks in flight). Both the inside and out skills sets are lost arts; at least diminished. So to work on the one keeps us fit and ready for the other, sez me.
18 January 2010, Monday
And otherwise, according to popular American author and food-thinker, Michael Pollan, are served up in The Botany of Desire (2001). Pollan says we desire sweetness, beauty, intoxication and control... interesting list — ask your friends to make such a list and see what you get! He explains his list of our desires through the human history and connection to the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. Aren't you curious already?
Along with McDonalds, Kellogg's, Healthy Choice, his is literally another brand in the food biz of late, but certainly in another direction. All four of his books about our eating habits are disarmingly simple reads, but Pollan leaves you shocked and/or enlightened every page or two. While the others get more geopolitical, Desire is about the botany; the science... and natural history. But because these are all short books, Pollan handles the science like he does the politics — with crystal-clear 'oh' and 'hmm' moments preceded by interesting, yet factual tales that lead you right up to the point.
You don't have to have any scientific interest in botany, just be ever so slightly self-reflective, to be smiling and nodding (to yourself) within a few pages of this one. Non-fiction and nice story-telling are not mutually exclusive, as Michael Pollan's success on the bookshelf, Kindle, TV, interview and lecture circuit attests.
All manner of formats are available for your Pollan-a-tion. And while I'm always likely to cite an interview on The Daily Show, when available/possible, Bill Moyers on PBS had a pre-election '08 interview showing the influence, beyond the usual non-fiction realm, that he is having in these times (but, okay, there is a very recent appearance on TDS too — January 4th).
Google Books is a monster project that would put everything online that's in-print. The Botany of Desire is there, and can be sampled... actually you can read just about the whole book with selected (legally randomized) pages omitted. Creepy, IMO. My point in reading, still, is the use of a warm book, or something on my iPhone screen that I've put there with the intention of reading "cover to cover." To have and to hold.
So, I recommend The Botany of Desire, along with the rest of the Michael Pollan Winter '10 Get Acquainted Tour. And you'll especially enjoy reading about the (true) Reagan Revolution (and it was all about the smoke).
26 January 2010, Tuesday
Have you heard of Elizabeth Gilbert? No? Ask someone with a pair of x-chromosomes and she'll tell about the woman writing about women these days... she's on top of that half of the world and the New York Times Bestseller List (right now)! Nowadays, Ms. Gilbert is the rare example of a millionaire non-fiction writer.
Before Elizabeth Gilbert enter Oprah popularity territory with Eat, Pray, Love (2006) and Committed (2010), she was writing for GQ magazine and about the male of the species exclusively... fame, but no fortune there. Writing very well mind you, as The Last American Man (2002) was a National Book Award finalist and her earlier volume of short stories, a PEN Award finalist.
Non-fiction novelists are often called journalists, maybe to distinguish (or extinguish) them from the real novelists. And if not journalist originally, the non-fictionalist has some jDNA in there somewhere. Here are three offerings for the Winter reader. I discovered and picked them up as they came out as paperbacks, on display on the storied window tables at the Harvard Book Store... impulse buying at its best:
Last American Man (2002)
is as much anthropology as it is a biographic endeavor about
a young man with serious mountain-man skills. Eustace Conway
excels at living off the land and is driven, often maddeningly
so, to pass this lifestyle on to others. Of course this arrested
development presents all kinds of problems for anyone who might
try to closely associate with such a man-child... in business,
in a community, and any woman initially attracted to him. Elizabeth
Gilbert has her hands full too, but tells his story truthfully;
The Beast in the Garden (2004) is the Mountain Lion, as it lives in and around Boulder Colorado in the late '80s and today. And journalistic technique works well here for David Baron's study of the cougar... and us. This is an old story, the same story, but Baron retells it with facts, details, reporting, some history, and a lot of connections. All this: is a tall order, filled.
Nature Noir (2006) is the first book by a guy who spent over a decade as a park ranger... and then wrote about it, a little like Edward Abbey. But his is a tale of the underbelly of the parks, not the soul of the natural places patrolled, as was Abbey's bottomline, always. Jordan Fisher Smith's memoir of drunks with guns, drugs, floods, thieves, and everyday law enforcement — a hundred miles from the nearest backup — makes for a gritty and often funny read, even if the book jacket comparisons to Abbey, Gary Snyder, John Muir(!) and Elmore Leonard are not lived up to in the end.
Here's a nearly contiguous excerpt from early on in The Beast in the Garden:
The author and champion of wilderness Edward Abbey,
who enjoyed a rock star-like following in Boulder, praised cougars
and urged their protection in an article for Life magazine.
"We need mountain lions for the same reason that we need more
bald eagles, golden eagles, Gila monsters, alligators, redtailed hawks,
coyotes, bobcats,badgers, wild pigs, grizzly bears, wild horses, red
racers, diamondbacks, sacred datura, wild grapes and untamed rivers,"
he wrote. "How to say once more what has been said so often? Who
is listening?" Abbey ended the article on a reassuring note. He
pointed out that despite America's brutal treatment of the mountain
lion—despite the butchery, the savagery, the humiliation people
had heaped upon the cougar—the cats did not respond in kind. "There
is no authentic record of a lion actually attacking a human being."
It was a nice sentiment, but Abbey was wrong. [...]
3 February 2010, Wednesday
That's the opening line from Timothy; or Notes of an Abject Reptile. Told in first person, by our narrator, who by the by is a tortoise. Verlyn Klinkenborg, has gone to great pains to transcribe the thoughts of an otherwise quiet herp who is transplanted from Turkey and living out a quite long life in pre-suburban England. Instead of being silly, anthropomorphic, all Beatrix Potter and Disney, this is a brilliant tale of perspectives: one of hubris and distance; the other abject and true, mostly. Sort of a Stewie Does Selborne.
A hundred years before Darwin's time, it was the natural world according to Gilbert White. He was the Man (gentle-), and in the 1700's, observations from his country gardenside, nearby paths and other cultivations were our observations... having cultivated our place in our world as: us and them, with us doing all the thinking and speaking, not always in that order.
By the midpoints of these two centuries, things changed: White to Charles Darwin. But things change back and forth, even today, depending on who you're talking to about what, in the world we live in. Oh, did I mention this is just about the best little book I've read in many many years? It is, because it puts things in perspective... there's that word again.
Klinkenborg is a master writer, and would need to be to pull off the shell game he's set up for himself (and his reader): that of retooling Gilbert White's A Natural History of Selborne into another history, via White's own words (and even receipts), told to us by Timothy, who turns out is actually a she-turtle... due to the state of men and/or their science in seventeen and something or other.
16 February 2010, Tuesday
I bought Our Natural World, "compiled and edited with comments by" Hal Borland, used, for "299." That was the penned-over price, $2.99, for this nearly nine hundred page anthology, listing for ten bucks — when new and published in 1965. I bought it at the Economy Book and Stationery Store in 1973. This kind of establishment has gone the way of the dinosaur and book store. Is finding something to read next? There's a new anthology in town, so I have hope.
Hal Borland, along with Edwin Way Teale, Joseph Wood Krutch and many other like-named old boys of natural history wrote about walking along a country road or seeing a million Snow Geese at sunset back in the fifties. Rachel Carson and Edward Abbey came along just a little later. While Mary Austin, Thoreau, Emerson and John Burroughs were more turn of the century (comma twentieth). Borland samples them and many others with his reader in mind, maybe sitting across a heavy wooden table at a Connecticut country store and post office.
An anthology like Our Natural World is a big book containing a lot of smaller books, actually excerpts, therefore a sampler. Think chocolates... the really really good ones. How else will you know that you want to invest in a quarter pound of the ones with the toffee nougat center, and another measure of the just solid milk chocolate ones (square with the sharp sides... until they start to melt, in your mouth), or Mornings in Mexico by DH Lawrence.
A couple of decades later I bought the small but hardy Sierra Club paperback, Words for the the Wild, containing some portable writings from John Muir (of course), but also Joseph LeConte, Isabella Bird, Aldo Leopold, Wallace Stegner, plus most of the authors listed above.
Bill McKibben's American Earth came out last year and it is a dangerous book. Do not drop it on anyone's foot: you are warned. Post warning: this book contains a very nice sampling of earthy writings, and may lead to a lot of trips to the library, or Amazon.com for whole books. Or maybe a small book emporium known only to a few, and invisible to many.
In addition to all or most of the above, McKibben adds a bit of Garrett Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons — a seminal pre-Earth Day essay on personal responsibility, a commencement address by Stephanie Mills to post-Earth Day bright-eyed bushy-tailed seniors, and the absolutely amazing nature-journalism account of a mass whale stranding by Barry Lopez with the chilling headline: A Presentation of Whales.
Having an anthology of some sort on your shelf is as necessary a draw for any birder or biologist as strong southerly winds or a chorus of spring peepers.
2 March 2010, Tuesday
The iPhone, and the Palm Pilot before it, work because they are handy. Fit in the hand. Always at hand. I hope, like the resurgence of little Moleskine notebooks with accompanying tiny pens and pencils, that small books have the same comeback. Penguin Books agrees. As a last installment in this Winter's readings, I would like to praise the small book.
Barry Lopez is known for a couple of big books — Of Wolves and Men and Arctic Dreams. These are great (big) reads. Amazing, and I say required for anyone wanting to make the most of hawkwatching or any other endeavor requiring attentiveness. Before these, he penned a series of short books — each, a series of short stories. So not only are the books small, he breaks that down into smaller reads. It rains; I read. Squall line; read. Sea breeze kicks in; finished.
River Notes, Desert Notes, and Winter Count are his small books. I read them and listened to them on tape. Lopez read them to me. At $2.50 a pop, I bought extras of each and gave them away. A decade later he penned Field Notes. Who wouldn't want to read a book by that title?
Desert Notes has some truly devastating pieces. In my very yellow paperback edition (imaged above), I just read the titles and flash back: "Winter Herons" (snow falls at 5th Avenue & 94th), "Buffalo" (why some are white), "The Lover of Words" (he was a gardener), "The Location of the River" (it was always right here), "The Orrery" begins...
North of Tucson and east, beyond Steadman, is a place hardly accessible by car called The Fields. I do not know how it came by this name. I was told by someone, a lifelong resident, that the name grew up after an attempt to irrigate and sell some of the land had failed, that the reference was cynical. The person who tried to sell the land was from Chicago, he said. I think I was told this because I seemed to be traveling through.
Penguin Books Great Ideas hopes you might travel with Orwell (Why I Write) or Ruskin (On Art and Life). Might I suggest you take Darwin (On Natural Selection) or Ralph Waldo Emerson (Nature) with you, day or night. While Barry Lopez has written whole books, Penguin provides snippets, essays, chapters, but that's okay... they work well from my sampling. I ask you: has Mary Wollstonecraft or Proust been to your hawkwatch, lately? One might extend an invitation and see.
9 March 2010, Tuesday
To tag Everett Ruess as a traveler, an adventurer, or an artist comes up short. First, exploring Big Sur during the (last) Depression, he met Edward Weston... and ended up staying with him and his family for a while in Carmel. Imagine. In his teens, he had also met less famous(!) photographers Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams. Lange made an image.
Decades later, western writers like John Nichols and Edward Abbey were fascinated by the many stories of young Ruess who vanished into the harsh light of the Utah wilderness, around Escalante, leaving behind only three years of journals, some letters and postcards, his haunting woodcuts, and the legend of a seeker. Did Master Everett lose himself in the beauty? Did he run out of time instead of place? Did he have a minor accident, but being many miles from aid, succumb to his injuries? Or was he murdered? At twenty.
Everett Ruess: traveler, adventurer, or artist? Sure. He was a seeker, and that's a little different. He called himself "a vagabond for beauty" and disappeared.
Winter's over and so is the book club, but I need to bring up Ruess (and a couple of books) in order to talk relevantly about the opposite of something else. I'm finding it harder and harder to explain the "sacrificial birder" concept. It's a story that's worn out its welcome with me. It's like the "four o'clock eagle." It's the stuff of old-fart hawkwatching and time to move on, but the story goes that one birder needs to leave so a good bird can be seen... "Guess what we had last Sunday after you left?" Goes the story. Out with the old; in with the new.
Nowadays the seekers of beauty stay, until they want to go. They'll be back to seek some more and really-see the fleeting beauty of the hawk flight. One bird at a time and all the way through. Nothing missed here. After all, the reasons to leave your place of beauty are present and pressing all the time, but to stay, singular — the beauty.
Everett Ruess is not the first wanderer for wonder and he'll not be the last. But his short life was wondrous and unfortunately (for him) an unfinished tale told in two parts by WL Rusho: a biography and ER's journals, both lavished with the strength of Ruess's woodcuts and his strong heart. Later Gibb Smith Press combined the two volumes (you can check out the woodcuts via GoogleBooks). Hints of the ramblings and fate of Ruess can be found in the books of Edward Abbey, who roamed the same territories for his life's blood. The ghost of Everett Ruess was it, until the one rumor became a story passed along by an old man. And then there were the bones, and a new story in National Geographic's Adventure Magazine.
So let's chuck the many sacrificial birders and what they missed for the legend of the seeker and the quest of Everett Ruess. Maybe through his young eyes — that never grew old — we'll see, everything.
18 March 2010, Thursday
Books are not obsolete yet, although they come to us in more ways. NYTimes Science section on Tuesday had a review of a fascinating and kind of off-the-hook new insect book, Insectopedia by Hugh Raffles. This one is a book book (and there's a bit more of pre-release info at Amazon.com).
In 26 chapters varying from 2 to 42 pages, from “Air” to “Zen” and “The Art of ZZZs,” with “Chernobyl,” “Fever/Dream,” “Kafka,” “Sex,” “The Sound of Global Warming” and “Ex Libris, Exempla” in between, he takes us on a delirious journey, zooming in and out from the microscopic to the global, from the titillating to the profound, from Niger to China, from one square mile above Louisiana to the recesses of his own mind.
Amongst the entries highlighted in the review, is a piece on high-flying spiders that also caught the eye of Jerry Coyne over at Why Evolution is True (a blog named after his book). That's where I found the clip of ballooning spiders.
The idea of three-dimensionality in our world — whether down into the oceans or up the similar volume of air overhead — is a thought worth conceiving and holding in one's mind... it's the POV thing, as well as detection and imagination, again.
They've got the urge
for going, and
Original recipe Hawksaloft.com
Not everything that
counts can be counted