The Overstory

shopping  A recent article making the rounds on the internet reported on an Idaho artist converting a 110 year old dead cottonwood tree trunk into a little free library. Before I read Richard Powers’ The Overstory, it never would have occurred to me to wonder how the tree felt about it.  Now, every time leaves rustle outside my window or a tree sways in the wind as I drive past, I listen  – not necessarily for messages from the tree but for the shift in my awareness.  Richard Powers has changed my perception, but it sadly will probably not last.

The Overstory is a long and challenging book, and its message should not be taken lightly.  Barbara Kingsolver in her review for the New York Times tries to explain the premise:

“The handful of readers who come to the book without benefit of reviews or jacket copy will believe it’s a collection of unrelated short stories…{but} These characters who have held us rapt for 150 pages turn out to be the shrubby understory, for which we couldn’t yet see the forest. Standing overhead with outstretched limbs are the real protagonists. Trees will bring these small lives together into large acts of war, love, loyalty and betrayal, in a violent struggle against a mortgaged timber company that is liquidating its assets, including one of the last virgin stands of California redwoods.”

Although Powers frames his narrative around the environment, with scary references not only to artificial intelligence but also to the extremism of the righteous on both sides of the conversation, he uses trees to tell the real story of civilization or perhaps the lack of civility.  I read the book slowly, trying to digest its depth; I attended a discussion led by brilliant and thoughtful readers who had read the book more than once, and still I wonder if I caught all of Powers’ intent.  Powers is a MacArthur genius and winner of what Barbara Kingsolver calls the “literary-prize Olympics” – way over the head of most of us – but he manages to integrate encyclopedic information on botany and computers with relatable perspectives in the lives of his nine characters, to nudge the reader to think about the bigger picture in this book.

If you read the book, it helps to take notes on the characters as they are introduced in the first section of the book, but, don’t worry if you mix them up or forget all their details as you continue.  The characters are there to be the understory, the familiar connection, but  the trees – here long before us – carry the message.  If only we would listen.

Urban Homesteading – Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living

Is home-grown sustainability possible? Rachel Kaplan and K. Ruby Blume offer a textbook-like reference in Urban Homesteading – everything you need to know from growing your own food to strengthening community connections with practical ideas for better use of resources. Kaplan and Blume offer pictures, graphics, short quizzes, instruction, and information – not expecting a complete revolution, but at least a start…

“…no one has a handle on every aspect of homegrown sustainability, (because) each place is marked by the limits of space and time and skill and affinity.”

The Green House

From bees to goats to growing your own herbal medicine chest, and more, the book not only provides information but also describes the urban homesteading movement, identifying those who are successfully working at sustainability. Although not mentioned in the book, the Green House in Hawaii is a local model of sustainable living.

Not everyone will pour over all the ideas or want to try all the suggestions. This is not a book to be read in single sitting, but Urban Homesteading is digestible slowly – a chapter or a topic at a time – and you might find something you can do to start to save the planet.

Could You Please Keep It Down?

What’s worse – the steady beat of the bass from someone else’s radio, or the undercurrent of mumbling from someone’s TV news show?

Living in close quarters is best left to communes and dormitories, but, after years of living in an unattached house surrounded by grass and trees  – where knowing neighbors was often optional –  the move to a great ocean view promised to make up for the lack of space, privacy, and quiet of condo living.  Sometimes, it’s enough to fantasize that the ocean is my great front lawn – and confirm that minimalism is good for the carbon footprint.

But the sound of the waves crashing is not always loud enough to drown out the grad student/surfer with all-night parties or the high-pitched screamer who does cannonballs off the seawall…

My next-door neighbor, a retired architect, takes his book into the adjacent park during the worst hours.  I’ve discovered sound-proof ear plugs, my iPod with mostly Mozart turned up, and riveting stories that distract from everything around me.

Right now I’m reading George Prochnik’s In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise.  Did you know the word “noise” is derived from “nausea”?  In the third chapter, “Why We Are Noisy,” he clarifies why those high-pitched screamers are always girls:

“…females make a racket to indicate their choice of partner…”

Noise is not healthy, and Prochnik cites studies that prove the hazards in his chapter, “This is War!”  He suggests that soundproofing and noise reduction regulations may be futile: “Noise is getting worse, even though the policy gets better.”

He suggests finding a quiet spot – “…a road where no one drives, a bench where no one sits…{find out where} the culture is pulling…{then} turn around and walk the other way…”   I can do that.

Related Article:

Trying to Dial Down the Volume

The Wild Places – Are There Any Left?

Ever want a tree like Christopher Robin’s where you could send Pooh up in a balloon for honey?  Robert Marfarlane starts The Wild Places by climbing up a beechwood, leaning against a sturdy branch, and surveying the lower forty.  Not liking what he sees in urban Cambridge, he plans a quest to discover the wild places that still exist.

Macfarlane brings you with him, as he travels through remote valleys, moors, summits, holloways, and ridges, swims the rivers, and sleeps under the skies, in search of untouched beauty.  Mapping his journey, he marvels that “ (the) landscape was here long before we were even dreamed.  It watched us arrive.”  He notes the history of places, and discards the notion that “wild places had to be…outside history.”

Reading Macfarlane’s The Wild Places is a welcome respite –  written in calming, beautiful language and set in England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland – with literary references to Thomas Hardy, Coleridge, Orwell, and others.   In this nonfiction account of a journey to places still untouched and marred by civilization, Macfarlane becomes a modern Thoreau, with more attention to trees and birds than philosophy.

Only a few moments in the book bring back the reality of civilization:  the dead seagull with oil on its wings, the mention of trees growing again at Chernobyl, and his travel companion and mentor dieing.

Ultimately, he comes back to where he started, with the understanding that life goes on and the wild places will hopefully survive:  “…the weed thrusting through the pavement, the tree root impudently cracking a carapace of tarmac: these were wild signs, as much as the storm wave and the snowflake…”

The book is organized in a series of essays on sites visited on the journey:  island, valley, river-mouth…  You could dive into any chapter and get the feeling of poetic language and awe for the beauty of nature.

But, this is one of those books to read slowly, savor, keep on the shelf, and revisit.   Especially, when you need to vicariously be Macfarlane ”…walking out of winter.”

Earth Day at 40

Some “green” reads to remind us that Earth Day is not just an excuse to make green cupcakes or watch movie stars on the National Mall…

Michael Pollan’s piece two years ago in the New York Times magazine is worth a look…

Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe sent out a warning in 2006; is anyone listening yet?

Need a little humor with your environmental friendly reading? Carl Hiaasen’s Hoot about an endangered miniature owls is fun with a lesson.

More inspiration? Watch The Ballad of Thoreau

Better yet – read Waldon (first published in 1854)

“We have forgotten how to be good guests, how to walk lightly on the earth as its other creatures do.”                                                Barbara Ward, Only One Earth, 1972