July 2019 books read

  • The Welsh Girl – Peter Ho Davies, 2007
  • The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature – David George Haskell, 2012
  • Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter & Organize to Make Room for Happiness – Gretchen Rubin, 2019 – Not much content, but it was pretty good I guess? A little cotton-candy-ish: enjoyable going down but barely remembered afterwards.
  • The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy – Tim Pat Coogan, 2012 – quotes pulled, post tbd
  • Wanderers – Chuck Wending, 2019 – I’ve followed Wendig on Twitter for a while, to get his nutso morning encouragements (like Lin-Manuel Miranda but 5x), so I saw a lot of promotion of this as a doorstop masterpiece, like The Stand, etc. And yeah, it was good and kept me engrossed! I don’t think I’d re-read when there’s so much else out there, but enjoyable.
  • O, Pioneers! – Willa Cather, 1913 – quotes pulled, post tbd

The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature – David George Haskell, 2012

Nature and Environment group selection. I recommended it because I’d seen reviews for The Song of Trees, his subsequent book which we will probably read in the next few years, but that title was a little too new and a little too close in topic to The Hidden Life of Trees (our 3/2018 selection, which I kinda hated).

It was a small group this month—just three of us—but we all loved this book. Occasionally it’s a little overwritten or purple, but it’s an amazing overall accomplishment. Haskell visits a specific patch of old-growth forest in Tennessee—a meter-diameter circle he calls the mandala—over the course of a year, in all weathers, and writes short essays on what he notices there. (The chapters are just a bit longer that Ross Gay’s delights, and remind me of them in some ways).

I learned about:

  • Lady Julian of Norwich’s hazelnut (not as cool as it sounded because it’s not an actual nut, but still interesting)
  • lichens cover 10% of the earth’s surface (!)
  • it takes time for plants to prepare for winter, which is why early frosts will damage branches that would survive much worse later
  • the hoatzin bird, which I had heard of because the babies have claws, but not that they eat leaves and have a fermentation sack to digest them, like ruminants (and also that makes them slow and lethargic, like sloths and koalas!)
  • and in the same chapter how impressive the rumen’s ability to grow microbes is—“A million million individual bacteria of at least two hundred species swim through every milliliter of rumen fluid”
  • honey locust and osage orange fruit evolved to be eaten by mastodons
  • Jakob Böhme
  • “human sweat is made from blood with all the large molecules removed, like soup passed through a sieve”
  • egg-laying birds build up a medullary bone from calcium in order to break it down when ready to lay
  • pot worms and horsehair or Gordian worms
  • what he calls “sunflecks” (beams on a normally-dark patch of forest floor) are problematic for dimness-adjusted plants—“to cope with the arrival of a sunfleck, plants unplug some of their light-harvesting molecules before they can gather too much energy”
  • cicada tymbals
  • “in most forests [caterpillars] consume more leaves than all other herbivores combined”
  • vulture guts kill cholera and anthrax, unlike mammals or insects!
  • on our descent from shrew-like creatures: “Our ancestors were shrill and vicious, leading a caffeinated existence in dark corridors”

There were a bunch of longer passages I found interesting or delightful. It’s a sign of how much I liked a book when the post ends up super-long with quotes:

Grooves on the surface of stems wick water from the mosses’ wet interiors to their dry tips, like tissue paper dipped in a spill. The miniature stems are felted with water-hugging curls, and their leaves are studded with bumps that create a large surface area for clinging water. The leaves clasp the stem at just the right angle to hold a crescent of water. These trapped drops are interconnected by water trapped in woolly hairs and surface wrinkles. Moss bodies are swampy river deltas miniaturized and turned vertical. Water creeps from slough to lagoon to rivulet, wrapping its home in moisture. And when the rains stop, the moss has captured five to ten times as much water on its body as it contains within its cells. Moss carries a botanical camel’s hump as it trudges through long stretches of aridity.

A bravura description of observing a snail through a hand lens culminates in this:

I peek over the lens and suddenly it is all gone. The change of scale is a wrench into a different world; the fungus is invisible, the snail is a valueless detail in a world dominated by bigger things. I return to the lens world and rediscover the vivid tentacles, the snail’s black-and-silver grace. The hand lens helps me harvest the world’s beauty, throwing my eyes wide open. Layers of delight are hidden by the limitations of everyday human vision.

This perfectly captures the sonic personality of the red-eyed vireo:

The vireo questions the forest, then answers over and over, lecturing into the midday heat when other birds have retired from the podium. As befits his professorial temperament, the vireo seldom descends from the heights of the canopy and is usually detected only through his bright, repetitious song.

Philosophers and theologians love paradoxes, regarding them as honorable signposts to important truths. Scientists take a dimmer view, having learned from experience that “paradox” is a polite way of saying that we are missing something obvious. The resolution of the paradox will likely show one of our “self-evident” assumptions to be embarrassingly false. Perhaps this is not so far removed from a philosophical paradox. The difference lies in the depth of the false assumption: relatively shallow and easily uprooted in science, deep and hard to dislodge in philosophy.

The tree’s answer to the wind’s force echoes the Taoism of the lichens: don’t fight back, don’t resist; bend and roll, let your adversary exhaust herself against your yielding. The analogy is reversed, for the Taoists drew their inspiration from nature, so “the Tao is Tree-ist” is more accurate.

Dehydration is the ticks’ main foe during their quests. Ticks sit in exposed locations for days, even weeks, waiting for their hosts. The wind whisks away moisture, and the sun bakes their small leathery bodies. Wandering off in search of a drink would interrupt the quest and, in many habitats, there is no water to be found. So, ticks have evolved the ability to drink water from air. They secrete a special saliva into a groove near the mouth and, like the silica gel that we use to dry our electronic gadgets, their saliva draws water out of the air.

Boy, those are some tough little organisms! Plus, they have to get rid of all the excess water they get in their gigantic blood meals, so they spit it back into their host, which explains why they can transmit so many diseases… yuck but wow.

When mushroom spores germinate, they produce baby filaments that grow through the dead leaves, seeking mates. Filaments exist not as male or female but as different “mating types.” These mating types all look the same to us, but fungi use chemical signals to sense the differences and will reproduce only with a mating type that differs from their own. Some fungus species have just two mating types, but others have thousands.
When two filaments meet, they begin an elaborate pas de deux, coordinating their dance with alternating chemical whispers. The opening sequence involves one filament’s sending out a chemical that is unique to its own mating type. If its partner is of the same type, the dance ends and the filaments ignore each other.

Terrestrial vertebrates whose lives require speed have reworked the fishes’ ancient architecture at least three separate times. The ancestors of mammals and two lines of dinosaurs each came up with modifications to the sprawling inefficiency of the fish-on-land. Legs moved in and under, putting the animal’s weight directly over its feet. This made it easier to balance and, therefore, to run without toppling over. The spine’s side-sway was replaced with an up-and-down flex. Mammals are masters of this flex and can reach forward with both forelegs while pushing off with the combined power of both hind legs, then curve the spine down and stuff their forelegs back while swinging the hind legs forward to plant them ready for the next push-off. No salamander can match the bounding gait of a mouse, let alone the enormous leaps of a running cheetah. This newfangled spine has, ironically, returned to the ocean to compete with the old fishy spine. Whales move their tails up and down, rather than side to side, revealing their terrestrial ancestry.

The mandala’s community emerges from the give-and-take of thousands of species; a golf course’s ecological community is a monoculture of alien grass that emerged from the mind of just one species. The mandala’s visual field is dominated by sex and death: dead leaves, pollen, birdsong. The golf course has been sanitized by the puritan life-police. The golf green is fed and trimmed to keep it in perpetual childhood: no dead stems, no flowers or seed heads. Sex and death are erased.

Feeding birds learn to associate ragged holes in leaves with the presence of caterpillars. Because leaves remain damaged long after caterpillars have moved on, birds continually update their feeding patterns based on their recent experience of feeding in particular tree species. Caterpillars that excise obvious holes in leaves, then linger next to these holes, will quickly attract the attention of these smart birds. Therefore, only well-defended caterpillars can afford to be messy eaters. Caterpillars that are more vulnerable to birds, such as those with few hairs, fastidiously pare leaves down from the edges, leaving no telltale holes, maintaining the silhouette of an entire leaf.

The wear of vegetation, grit, and wind will grind the feathers down, and by midsummer feathers will be ragged-edged and slim. Hooded warblers turn this aging process to their advantage, however. The birds abrade themselves into their breeding costume. Their crowns and throats are muted yellow now, but as the outer edges of these feathers wear away, the black of the breeding plumage is revealed below. This is a thrifty strategy; most other bird species acquire their breeding colors by growing new feathers, each one of which is made from costly protein.

Our living on land further distances us from the rest of the animal kingdom, augmenting the handicap of gigantism. Nine-tenths of the animal kingdom’s main branches are found in water—in the sea, in freshwater streams and lakes, in watery crevices within the soil, or in the moist interiors of other animals. The desiccated exceptions include the terrestrial arthropods (mostly insects) and the minority of vertebrates that have hauled themselves onto land (most vertebrate species are fish, so terrestrial life is unusual even for a vertebrate). Evolution has plucked us out of our wet burrows, leaving our kin behind. Our world is therefore populated by extremists, giving us a distorted view of life’s true diversity.

It is with this help that I have explored the forest mandala. I hope this book will encourage others to start their own explorations. I was fortunate to be able to watch a small patch of old-growth forest. This is a rare privilege; old growth covers less than one-half of a percent of the land in the eastern United States. But old forests are not the only windows into the ecology of the world. Indeed, one outcome of my watch at the mandala has been to realize that we create wonderful places by giving them our attention, not by finding “pristine” places that will bring wonder to us. Gardens, urban trees, the sky, fields, young forests, a flock of suburban sparrows: these are all mandalas. Watching them closely is as fruitful as watching an ancient woodland.

We wished there had been photos in the book, but here they are!

The Welsh Girl – Peter Ho Davies, 2007

Second Monday book group selection. I didn’t care for it particularly—pedestrian writing, tired WWII setting, ill-fitting parts, female protagonist who’s entirely wrapped up in the men around her—but others very much did.

Things I looked up: bartender “sets the shaker out for those who want to salt their drinks to melt the foam” (adding salt increases the head on a flat beer, according to what I’m seeing, but there are lots of other interesting reasons for this old tradition); the Ladies of Llangollen (although again, the context seems slightly off, describing them as having popularized hiking, when they just liked walking near their home); the expressions, as quoted in the book, “nargois” and “uckavie,” which are both kinda wrong; raddle, sheep paint to see which ewes have been bred, from the same root (red ochre/rouge) as “raddled.”

The most interesting theme of the book to me is connection to place and thoughts about nationalism, and now I see that almost all the quotes I pulled relate to it. A Welsh word, cynefin, comes up again and again. It’s defined as “the flock’s sense of place, of territory,” but it turns out it’s also now a framework for decision making, covering five “domains” of problems (disorder, obvious, complicated, complex and chaotic)—I’m interested in following that up. First, short quote: “she sees his nationalism for what it is, selfishness, and more than that, a kind of licensed misanthropy.”

It comes to her now that cynefin is the essential nationalism, not her father’s windy brand, but this secret bond between mothers and daughters, described by a word the English have no equivalent for.

And suddenly it felt not only possible but right to not be German or British, to escape all those debts and duties, the shackles of nationalism. That’s what he had glimpsed at the pub, what had sent him into that fit of laughter [he thought he was being treated rudely because he was Jewish, but it was because the Welsh bartender read him as English]. The Jews, he knew, had no homeland, yearned for one, and yet as much as he understood it to be a source of their victimization, it seemed at once such pure freedom to be without a country.

And one more quote I found interesting, but which to me also reveals a trace of sexism or gender essentialism that bothered me throughout:

Their dishonor, men’s dishonor, can always be redeemed, defeat followed by victory, capture by escape, escape by capture. Up hill and down dale. But women are dishonored once and for all. Their only hope is to hide it. To keep it to themselves.

No longer about the book but about my process: this post took about an hour to write, about 3/4 the pleasurable research and transcription and 1/4 the more laborious and active ordering and writing context. The quotes give me the most benefit as the primary reader of my own blog, but the shaping of the post (even though I don’t do it as thoroughly as I could, partially because it’s not really for an audience) is better for me as a writer. I’m dwelling on this because I have such a huge backlog and I’m trying to figure out if catching up is a realistic goal. I think I’ll focus on doing this month’s books quasi real-time first…