Posts tagged ‘ecology’

July 14, 2020

Braiding Sweetgrass – Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Penguin, £9.99, out now Robin Wall Kimmerer BRAIDING SWEETGRASS.jpg

“Even a wounded world is feeding us.  Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy.  I choose joy over despair.  Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift” (p. 327).  I came across Robin Wall Kimmerer, botanist and popular science and nature writer, through references to her earlier work Gathering Moss.  She is the Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York.  Gathering Moss has been mentioned in literary reviews, in nature writing, in science writing, and on the thoughtful blog Brain Pickings (https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/05/13/gathering-moss-robin-wall-kimmerer/).  Anything so niche, which appeals across such broad spectrum of readers, intrigued me.

I still haven’t managed to read Gathering Moss, mainly as it’s hard to find in the UK, but I am completely bowled over by her latest work, Braiding Sweetgrass.  Wall Kimmerer shares her vast knowledge and wisdom about plants and the natural world and introduces a completely new (and yet also ancient) way of thinking about nature.  She draws on her many roles: as a Native American, a mother, an observer, a scientist and a joyful activist.

She provides a refreshing and vital alternative approach to thinking about human and non-human life.  Language is key here: for her, and the indigenous cultures she describes, every living thing is a who, not a what.

Her writing about specific engagements with nature is as engrossing as her big picture analysis, and often the two meet. As she and other volunteers gather to help salamanders across a busy road, so they will not be killed by passing cars, the second Gulf War begins.  “Somewhere another woman looks out her window, but the formation of dark shapes in her sky is not a skein of spring geese returning” (p.349).

There is nothing fluffy or foolish about her coherent and radical ecology.  “… it seems to me we humans have gifts in addition to gratitude that we might offer in return.  The philosophy of reciprocity is beautiful in the abstract, but the practical is harder” (p. 238).  She is ready to engage with the practical questions of how we live now, as a planet, as a species, as nations and as individuals.

Review by Bethan

May 20, 2018

Our Place – Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before it is Too Late? by Mark Cocker

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Jonathan Cape, £18.99, out now

Mark Cocker OUR PLACEThe answer given by nature writer and environmentalist Mark Cocker is ‘maybe’.  This unusual book gives a brief history of attempts to protect nature in Britain over the last 150 years, told through the stories of some of the organisations and individuals involved.  It is framed by the catastrophic findings of the 2013 State of Nature report, which found that 60% of native species in the UK had declined over the last 50 years, 31% badly, and that over 600 species were under threat of extinction.  Cocker notes that the figures “don’t indicate the bottom of a curve: they chart the direction of an arrow.  It means that, however bad things are, they will get worse without major change”.

Cocker is critical of the largest of the environmental organisations, including the National Trust and the RSPB, finding them sometimes overly concerned with competing for members and also unsuccessful in critical campaigning.  He finds that failures to work together mean that whole-ecology approaches are being undermined by separate projects.  But he allows that their difficulties may reflect something of the British public’s own ambivalence towards nature.  He quotes a letter to the Daily Mail from a National Trust member apparently responding to the Trust’s campaign on climate change: “Thanks to Dame Helen Ghosh’s political agenda outside the true objectives of the National Trust, that’s £100 membership saved this year.”

He also gives due credit to individuals both within and without these groups who have been effective in seeking to protect nature, or who remind us to pay attention.  I loved the example of his friend and colleague Tony Hare, who on looking at “a square foot of turf dotted with miniscule scarlet fungi and prostrate lichens” reminded his friend that “what was happening here was the same as any rainforest”.

The approach taken is not straightforward polemic.  Cocker successfully mixes history with accounts of several localities as informal case studies showing how particular types of areas are faring.  As a result, Our Place is readable and interesting.

Where the book has limitations they are deliberate and mostly acknowledged.  There is not much about international frameworks or organisations working for the natural environment in my view, and marine protection is almost entirely missing.  But as a personal rallying call for a different attitude to nature protection in the UK, it works, and shows that any of us can choose to pay attention to this critical concern.  I echo his praise for those amateurs and professionals who study and protect even the unpopular or obscure bits of our natural world, and especially those who make this possible for children and young people.

Review by Bethan

June 20, 2017

Earthly Remains, by Donna Leon

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Cornerstone, £18.99, out nowDonna Leon EARTHLY REMAINS

Commissario Brunetti, the senior Venetian police officer and star of Leon’s previous books, is sent to recuperate from stress in a secluded house on Sant’Erasmo, an island in Venice’s laguna.  While there he makes friends with a local man.  They spend days rowing in the laguna, tending to the man’s bees, and talking.  But the bees start to die, and then his friend is found dead…

I have read many of the Brunetti books, and this is the best so far in my view.  Set in Venice, the books are stuffed with spectacular surroundings, wonderful food, and chaotic corruption in public life.  They are easy to read, and strangely addictive.

Brunetti wrestles with what is right when dealing with crimes, but also when dealing with the opaque and shifting concerns of the various authority figures he comes across, and as he addresses the other complexities of family and political life. I don’t always agree with the politics presented in the books, but I have a sneaking fondness for his arch and progressive wife Paula.

A previous winner of the prestigious Silver Dagger Crime Writing Award, Donna Leon has maintained both her popularity and the quality of her work over a long and impressive career.  Ecological themes feature increasingly strongly in her work, as this interview makes clear, and this only adds to the relevance of her work (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/15/donna-leon-interview-commissario-brunetti-earthly-remains).  Earthly Remains is a thoughtful, interesting summer read.

Review by Bethan