What I'm Reading: Nature

Do we gravitate toward something we are interested in or does it come to us? Does it appear at the right moment because we have tuned ourselves to it? I've been reading a lot about moss, trees, and how different religions and cultures look at nature. Most of the books have been recommended by friends and readers here, others I've found through exhibits or they've been on my bookshelves, the ones I reread. They seem linked, interconnected. A sampling follows.

The Overstory: A Novel by Richard Powers (2018). A friend loves this book, and because she is a friend, a writer, and I feel in sync with her, I got it as an ebook to read while traveling. Billed as a novel, one wonders: the characters and situations change with every chapter. Except. The through-point is the connection to a tree or trees, humans and nature. That interests me, but I am finding the stories a bit melancholy. Realistic, I suppose, because the book clearly makes it known that the author is worried about the planet. The prose is lovely, well-written, lyrical and poetic, sometimes a little too much.

I have a little trouble with the characters: while they seem to be based on real people and situations (although I read they are not), we have a seemingly autistic one, one in a wheelchair, strong sisters, one hard of hearing, many immigrants, all together makes me feel uneasy, particularly since the characters don't feel completely grounded or emotionally true to me. But the trees do, which I suppose is the point. (An aside: J.R.R. Tolkien noted the importance and interconnectedness of trees, particularly with Treebeard and the Ents in the The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings series. His painting on the cover of The Hobbit has trees with interconnected roots, as if that were how they communicated. I just saw the Tolkien exhibit at The Morgan Library in NYC, so it's on my mind.)

The novel has echoes of some of the other nonfiction books on my list, particularly those by Robin Wall Kimmerer, but hers remind us of and reinforce our connection with nature, and this one speaks of our divide. Barbara Kingsolver reviewed The Overstory and wrote that the humans in it are merely the understory. I wonder. Will the trees really be here after the humans are gone? Or are we just too good at killing things? This book won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction and has gotten much acclaim. So, perhaps it is just my subjective taste. I'm still reading, and it makes me want to research trees myself, so that means something is working.

Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses and Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer, both award-winning books. I was most struck by the dialogue that Kimmerer has with herself: the spiritual world both pushing against and holding hands with the scientific one. She spent her childhood outside studying the natural world on her own, is a trained scientist, a botanist and plant ecologist in the academic way of degrees and PhDs, and is also an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, so she has much to weave together. Gathering Moss (2003) is a collection of essays, each taking on a different place, a different kind of moss, as her love for the tiny forests shines through. It becomes clear that the mosses are our origin story, too: how they reproduce, what they do when in danger, on what and whom they rely. One of the most powerful (or memorable) stories is when she is called in as a consultant to what turns out to be a rich client who wants moss in specific places. Best you read it as she wrote it. The prose is a bit overly poetic for me, but that is a small thing; what she has to say is quite moving.

Braiding Sweetgrass (2013) is as much a memoir and family story as it is filled with essays about plants and their stories. Both books stress our attitude toward the earth, to nature, and the gratitude she feels and puts forth for us to feel toward the earth as well. We are meant to reflect. Uplifting, the books gently call on us to pay attention and to take action in our own daily lives, however and wherever we can.

Rules of the House (2002) and In the Absent Everyday (2005) by Tsering Wangmo Dhompa. I first encountered her work at Thomas Ingmire's calligraphic books exhibit in early 2019 at the San Francisco Public Library, "Visual Poetry: A Lyrical Twist." According to the exhibition text, Tsering was the first contemporary poet Thomas collaborated with. She chose a then-recent poem, "My rice tastes like the lake," which became the title of a book, finalist for the 2012 Northern California Bookseller's Award. This is one opening in the book he created with her poem. You can hear her read it here. (I believe the last line, at least the part used in the calligraphic book, ends with the word "sentence.")



Luckily, there are many more excerpts of her work online, particularly at the Poetry Foundation, from one of her poetry books. She weaves impressions, things she is told, memories, and random thoughts in a brilliant collage of words that bring an experience to the reader that magically makes sense. That's all I can say. Just read her.

Coming Home to Tibet: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Belonging (2013/2016). Her memoir is wonderful. Her prose easy to read and thoughtful, and at times gritty. It goes deep, exploring her family and Tibet, her mother's country, Dhompa is the place name, where her ancestors were tribal leaders. She goes to visit and recognizes people from stories her mother told her. She stays high up on her family's land, where relatives still live in what those of us with running water and electricity and gas stoves might say is primitive. "Take only what you need," is the lesson. I was particularly struck by one anecdote: there is a large stream with fish in it and the author would really like to catch and eat one, but none of her ancestors has ever fished the river. Why? Because a yak can feed a whole family for month, whereas a fish can feed only one person one meal. She feels the responsibility and decides she doesn't want to be the first of her line to break with the tradition.

The Signature of All Things: A Novel by Elizabeth Gilbert. And here was where the recommended reading seemed to start in December 2018. A massive, deep novel that not only reveals a full life of a woman botanist who studies moss, but begins by setting the stage and letting us know about her father's character and origins. It reads as true as any biography. Entertaining as well as fascinating.

Essays of E. B. White by E.B. White (1934-1977). This is my go-to reread book, one I have had since the 1980s and the only physical book of this batch that I actually own. I love the humor, the attentiveness to detail, and the humility in the writing. One might rightly call these "ponderings." Watching a raccoon mom and brooding about technology (written in 1956); gulls and smelts and snow; brown eggs and white eggs; bringing foster goslings to his widowed gander; watching someone move and thinking about how exposed they are; New York City versus his farm in Maine, and more. "Are we independent or interdependent? We can't possibly be both" (96). Some of the essays are a little dated, but many are timeless, as they refer to an appreciation of the natural world. Time to read it again.

Gratitude. Take only what you need. Appreciation. These are lessons about us and the earth, us and nature, but the attitudes could very well spill over and have us taking care of one another a little better.


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