Growing an Understanding of Plants: Salal

SalalLaurie Ricou’s Salal: Listening for the Northwest Understory is an intriguing book. On the one hand, it is a book about a single species of plant that is common on the northwest coast of North America. On the other, it is a surprising, entangled, and lively narrative about the way in which human lives are deeply interconnected with this plant. Salal is difficult to classify because it is alternately a kind of literary criticism – analysing literary representations of salal, anthropological fieldwork – interviewing various fieldworkers whose lives are bound up with salal, philosophical musings on the human connection to plants, and a travelogue of Ricou’s attempt to think through Salal. It is a book unlike almost any other I have read. Being in the final stages of a dissertation that attempts to bridge literary criticism into the natural world, it is also a book that I can only hope to aspire to in my writing.

I was surprised that I found myself pulled into Ricou’s book, especially given that I am not the biggest fan of the ecosystem he writes about. I find British Columbia too wet, too grey, and too claustrophobic for my Prairie-bred taste for open spaces and my southern Ontario desire for a modest topography. Mountains intimidate me and the lushness of the rainforest vegetation irks me in some weird way. Either way, Salal is very well-written as Ricou pulled me into this obscure yet everyday world of salal-pickers, sellers, dreamers, and writers. In case you didn’t know, salal is a commonplace plant from the northwest coast grows low on the ground, produces edible (but not really delicious) berries, and is valued in landscaping for its hardiness and low-maintenance. I didn’t know what it was, but Ricou ably introduces it. My sense is that Ricou sets up a kind of detective narrative where by we follow him trying to come to some kind of deeper, elusive understanding of the plant over the course of the book’s pages. He does find a deeper sense of the plant’s meaning, but he also leaves plenty of mystery and open-ended thought for readers to chew on.

This book is probably not for everyone, but for me it was invigorating to read and inspiring in terms of the way it connects the arts not only to the natural world but also to the many diverse and mundane places that we live and work in. Ricou’s enthusiasm for the plant is contagious and I found myself growing remote roots into the northwest soil. When I’m next in the area, I’ll be sure to keep my eye out for salal.

I recommend this book to anyone from the Northwest area and to anyone with an interest in some of the best ecocritical writing there is.

Ricou, Laurie. Salal: Listening for the Northwest Understory. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2007. Print.



The Book I Wish I had Read Two Years Ago: Crow Planet

downloadI think every PhD student has a secret worry that there is a book out there that makes the same argument they plan on making. Well, turns out that Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness is that book for me. I really wish that I had read this book 2 years ago as it would have saved me a fair bit of work …. There is an element of facetiousness in this of course. Haupt does not take up literature like I do and instead writes as a naturalist (which I am decidedly not). However, Crow Planet is a very well written and engaging book that makes clear how important it is for urbanites to embrace the natural world around them. In the opening chapter she writes:

I have come to believe that opening ourselves to [close and detailed] inquiry and participating daily in the process of discovery it implies is our most urgent work as humans in the new millennium. And not because engaging these questions will make us happier, or smarter, or make more of our moments feel enchanted, though it will certainly do all of these things. It is urgent because an intimate awareness of the continuity between our lives and the rest of life is the only thing that will truly conserve the earth – this wonderful earth that we rightly love. (12-13)

Haupt was an avid bird watcher and committed environmentalist who placed high value in wilderness experiences. However, after her editor pushed her to do a project on crows, she began to see the necessity of studying and understanding her own urban (Seattle) context. I think this is what makes Crow Planet so persuasive. Haupt is forthright about her own struggles with the compromised nature of urban nature and about the everydayness of crows in general. However, she very quickly finds wonder in this bird’s adaptability and life in the city. And in this wonder, she begins to sketch out a way to embrace and engage with urban nature. I am struck how similar our overall projects are even though our methods ended up being quite different.

This is a very good book that I highly recommend to anyone who lives in a city. This is what environmentalism should look like! Seriously. Go get this book now.

Haupt, Lyanda Lynn. Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness. New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2009. Print.

Well That Was That: Dune

herbertduneAfter a couple of marathon reading sessions, I finished Frank Herbert’s Dune. Frankly, I don’t know what to think of it. On the one hand, I could not put the novel down (although I am running behind in the challenge right now, so that might have played a role). On the other, there was some a lot of rolling my eyes throughout these sessions. Okay, Dune predates most mainstream contemporary sci-fi because it was published in 1967. If you’ve seen Star Wars (the old movies … I will not talk about the new ones), reading Dune might seem like Herbert was ripping off Lucas. However, I am almost certain it was the other way around. You have a desert planet, a young hero called to a great destiny, sand worms that eat people, an evil baron/ruler who is physically huge, and so on. Dune has a huge cast of characters, a complicated mythology and history, and a compelling plot line that managed to string me along. The learning curve is initially steep but my edition also included a number of appendixes among which was a handy glossary of terms.

Dune  is also a space opera. According to The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, space opera is “by analogy to soap opera or horse opera science fiction with an interplanetary or galaxy-wide setting, especially one making use of stock characters or situations.” Wikipedia is considerably more direct: “space opera is a subgenre of science fiction that emphasizes romantic, often melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in outer space, usually involving conflicts between opponents possessing advanced technologies and abilities.” Although the book is set mainly on Arrakis, the desert planet the book’s title refers to, it is also about changing relationships within the Landsraad (a council of different aristocratic houses) and the Imperium (an emperor held in check by the Great Houses of which Paul Atreides’ father is leader of one). There is galaxy-wide conflict here as the House Atreides continues its blood feud (kanly) with the House Harkonnen. There is also romantic melodrama in the tension of who Paul chooses as wife/concubine, the issue of his mother’s relation to the duke (concubine but wants to be wife but cannot because of political reason). All this to say that, space opera is probably not my thing. While works in the genre create vast galaxies populated by interesting stories, conflicts, and so on, I feel like my appetite for such work has since disappeared. I used to love space operas as a kid (I may have read the entire Star Wars collection in the local library), I am not sure I like them anymore. Perhaps it is because they take on too much self-importance and lose relevance to the contemporary world (Although there are some interesting environmental themes in Dune that some grad student somewhere has written about I’m sure).

Part of my problem with Dune is structural (I am not interested in investing huge amounts upfront just to understand the plot). But part of it is also the content of the book itself. At one point I groaned loudly because of course, Baron Harkonnen (the novel’s villain) has homosexual tendencies which are alluded to throughout. In 1967 this might have had carried popular weight (gays are evil beings), but in 2013 it just comes across as a gross act of heteronormativity. Although Herbert gives women some roles to play in Dune‘s narrative, I kept having a sense that women were ultimately secondary in the grand scheme of the novel. This is a novel about boys/men fighting with swords while the galaxy hangs in the balance. I briefly scanned where Herbert goes in the other books in the Dune series and he does seem to switch focus to female characters later on, but in this novel it’s all about the men. I am just not interested in patriarchal reinforcement anymore.  It is, without a doubt, a key work in science fiction, but it does tend to show its age (a problem that I’m not sure will go away).

I would recommend this novel to sci-fi fans who want to see where many of the big ideas/motifs/themes come from, but I have a suspicion that most fans of sci-fi will have already read this book. If you are not a sci-fi fan, it’s probably best passing on this one.

Herbert, Frank. Dune. 1967. New York: Ace Books, 1987. Print.

Life is Complex: Discordant Harmonies

Discordant_HarmoniesThis review is going to be a bit of a struggle as Daniel Botkin’s Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-First Century is more of an academic introduction to current ideas in conservation biology than a piece of pleasure reading. This is not to say that the two are separate, but to suggest that the content of this book is the primary reason I read it. I am hoping that some of the other environmentally-friendly books on my list will have more focus on narrative and story than on facts and theories.

This is not to say that I did not enjoy Botkin’s book. I did and I found his writing accessible and engaging. He uses a number of great examples to demonstrate his central point: that the tropes we use to talk about nature and the natural world are outdated and, in fact, hinder us in addressing the current environmental challenges. I was familiar with the gist of what Botkin was proposing before reading the book, so it was not a sea-change moment for my thinking. If I can sum up his idea it is this: that we have previously seen nature as either a kind of organic being that possesses some form of consciousness/ divine intention (and which we cannot truly impact) or as a machine that essentially runs itself. He argues that current biological research has proven these ideas false. Nature is not a steady-state machine that will simply repair itself if we have damaged it or achieve a kind of optimal state of equilibrium. Instead, Botkin shows nature to be a much more dynamic, complex, and ambivalent thing. Natural history shows that the climate has changed many, many times in the Earth’s long history and that our current conditions, while optimal for our life, are not guaranteed to stay that way. He also argues that we, as human beings, have had an impact on the environment and that we need to think long and hard about what kind of future we desire and how we might get there. Botkin is neither a deep ecologist who argues humanity’s tendency to destroy the natural world (the “nature is best left on its own” position) nor is he a technological utopian (we can fix and manage nature better than it could). He does believe that technology will play a very important part in our future, but he argues that we need to be very careful about new technologies and what their potential impacts are.

The blend of science and broad cultural thinking makes this book an important work in terms of re-thinking how we are currently living. I want to believe that this book is out-dated, but the fact that any number of environmental organizations are still preaching the leave nature alone/wilderness gospel proves me wrong. This book took me a long time to finish – I started it near the beginning of January – and I think this is, in part, because of the complexity of the material. It is heavy reading and cannot be simply plowed through. I both like that, it forces a slower process of reading that is very beneficial, and dislike it because I have a tendency to demand scientific soundbites. Our culture has conditioned us to desire short-term, concise, and reasonable solutions to problems. Botkin argues that this is precisely not the case with global environmental problems. We will neither know everything we could possibly know if we are to act in time nor will we truly know what kind of consequences our actions will have. Reality is more complex than the 30 second news clip has room for. Amen.

I would recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand the cultural components of nature and the natural world, but I would recommend taking your time with this book.

Botkin, Daniel. Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-First Century. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1990. Print.