Posts tagged ‘environment’

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 4, 2019

Underland – A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Hamish Hamilton, £20, out nowRobert Macfarlane UNDERLAND

Underland is an exploration of the subterranean world, and Macfarlane interprets this widely.  He ranges from a glacier in the middle of a warm mountain range to the tunnels under Paris, from mines under Yorkshire to London Bridge (which is hollow and can be climbed through by those in the know).  He does not shy away from difficult subjects, dealing with war crimes and human rights violations in European caves and crevasses, as well as the Anthropocene and climate change.

It is always a pleasure to read a new Robert Macfarlane book.  Here at the Riverside Bookshop we loved The Lost Words (see https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2017/10/03/the-lost-words-by-robert-macfarlane-and-jackie-morris/).  He writes beautifully and manages to include very diverse fields of knowledge without alienating the reader or appearing like a dilettante.  His account of visiting an underground lab exploring dark matter gave me the first explanation of this phenomenon I felt even vaguely able to understand (p. 56).  He can make mysterious landscapes vivid, as when walking in the Julian Alps: “Holes in the trunks of the beeches hold micro-gardens of moss and ferns.  Dwarf pines spread between the boulders of the streambank.  Harebells, gentians and edelweiss star the understorey.  Little trout flick as quick shadows in the bigger stream-pools.  Towering above us are scree-slopes and bone-white summits jagging several hundred feet up from the ridge line” (p. 231).

Happily for me, Underland also includes much ice and snow.  There are reflections on physical culture and the impact of global warming: “There is something obscene both to the ice and its meltings – to its vastness and vulnerability.  The ice seems a ‘thing’ that is beyond our comprehension to know but within our capacity to destroy” (p. 363).  This reminded me of some of the things I liked about the Library of Ice by Nancy Campbell (https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2018/12/02/the-library-of-ice-by-nancy-campbell/).

The book is as much about challenging our experiences of time and space as anything else. How do we find language that will be understood for certain thousands of years from now, in order to warn those in the far future of our sealed tombs of nuclear waste?  Do we carve warnings into rock in English?  Macfarlane notes that only about 1,000 people read Cuneiform on Earth now, where once it communicated powerful proclamations across vast spaces – how do we know English will still be understood?  Should there be ceramic tiles with pictograms?  Showing what?  He asks us to expand our thinking: “…a deep time awareness might help us see ourselves as part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy stretching over millions of years past and millions to come, bringing us to consider what we are leaving behind for the epochs and beings that will follow us” (p. 15).

Fans of Macfarlane’s writing on mountains, lost ways and obscure words have a treat in store with Underland.  A bonus for the curious and engaged.

Review by Bethan

April 23, 2019

Heiða, a Shepherd at the End of the World by Steinunn Sigurðardóttir

by Team Riverside

Hardback, John Murray, £16.99, out nowSteinunn Sigurdardottir HEIDA

Heiða details a year in the life of a solo woman sheep farmer hard by the highlands of Iceland.  Heiða Ásgeirsdóttir took over her family farm at Ljótarstaðir in her early 20s, when her father became ill.  She is an environmental activist and poet as well, and during the year considers standing for Parliament for the Left-Green Movement (she is already a local councillor).  From the farm, she can see highland pastures, a glacier, mountains.  This is an engrossing quick dispatch from an unusual life.

Volcanic eruptions as well as extreme cold and snow on her remote farm make for hard work.  Her commitment to her 500 sheep and other animals is evident, and leads to both her extreme work ethic and her worries when things go wrong.  She is clear about the essential role farmers like her can play in conservation: “Icelandic agriculture is very close to my heart, no less than environmental conservation.  As I see it, the two are totally intertwined since the farmer is entirely dependent on nature for his survival and has a duty, in my view more than in any other profession, to defend it by any means possible” (p. 161).  Sometimes she works co-operatively with other farmers and family members, and you begin to understand how such working is essential to survival in extraordinary places.

She is resisting construction of a power plant near her farm, which would involve flooding part of her land.  She resists despite the anxiety it causes her: “In these kinds of circumstance, I feel as if a knife has been thrust between my ribs – almost as if I’m having a heart attack” (p. 128).  She also talks usefully about surviving depression: “now I also began to come to better terms with the things that I couldn’t fix, and to forgive myself for making mistakes…” (p. 273).

She notes that the farm has been worked since the 12th century.  Refreshingly, she expresses her commitment to the land alongside her stance against discrimination: “I can’t bear prejudice based on skin colour, race, sexual orientation, nationality” (p. 249).

When Heiða gets to relax, it sounds heavenly, but you are clear it is hard won: “A winter’s night with a book is the best.  Surrounded by stillness in my own mountain palace, lit up by stars and the moon;  and maybe by the world’s most spectacular display of Northern Lights” (p. 205).  There are memorable animals, including her cat Huggan (Solace) who can’t stand the smell of sheep and herds mice into the house.  Also her excellent German Shepherd puppy Fífill (Dandelion).

The book is likely to be popular – Heiða has been interviewed in the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/food/2019/apr/14/heida-asgeirsdottir-icelandic-shepherd-new-biography) and will appear at the Hay Festival.  I wish they had done an illustrated version of this book, as the places and people are so intriguing.  This will appeal to lovers of nature writing, to those who love to read about completely different lives, to anyone who wants a story of women doing it for themselves and to other activists who find themselves at the forefront when they already have vastly too much to do…

Review by Bethan