Reading Dead Trees

Stewardship means using nature for human flourishing rather than preserving it in a museum, but it also implies a fine appreciation of the constraints implicit in ecosystems where human life exists  –Paul B. Thompson, The Agrarian Vision: Sustainability and Environmental Ethics

Southeast Michigan has experienced the second coldest February in recorded history!  I’m fairly cold tolerant myself, but even I have limits.

If you can’t get outside, even when the weather is more amenable (like today, I think it was 44F), try reading.  Turn off the TV, power down the computer, the phone, and engage your imagination.

Before children, I read voraciously.  That has since slowed down.  A. Lot.  Still, somehow, I can read at least ten books a year.

I recently came across this article which lays out a plan to finish a book a week.  It’s ambitious, but do-able with discipline.  I’m achieving about 75% success with it.  See what you think.

So yes, the sap should be running soon, the daylight is increasing (Ugh, Daylight Savings Time started today), and the average temperature is eking upwards, but you still might find time to read by a fire or the old forced-air furnace.

I did this a little over a year ago, and am repeating the challenge: briefly review some books that fit the blog’s theme and am encouraging you to read them or find some others and report back.

The biography

The biography

At first glance, Paul Mariani’s biography of Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins might appear out of place, but Hopkins brilliantly melded his Christianity with many poems about nature.  Mariani, a poet himself, examines Hopkins’ emotional and spiritual landscapes as well as the natural landscapes that inspired much of the poetry in Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life.  All of Hopkins’ life was lived in very anti-Catholic, very Victorian Britain.  If biography isn’t for you, I highly recommend his poetry.

 

Wes Jackson, of the Land Institute, has a 100-year goal: to get food crops to mimic the perennial nature of the prairie.

The Blue Book

The Blue Book

The point of this is to preserve the soil, without which we won’t have many plants.  Additionally, he wants farming to go back to the more natural model of polyculture versus our industrial monoculture that is easy prey to pests, disease, and genetic die-off.

Jackson claims to be about 50 years into his plan.  Obviously, the institute will have to carry on after him.  It’s an uphill battle, as industrial agriculture has the mountain lion’s share of money and is firmly ensconced in our political culture.

New Roots for Agriculture isn’t a dry book about Ag techniques; it’s about his labor of love.  He quotes the first director of the Soil Conservation District (in the country?) by saying that the “land must be loved to be protected.  To him the plain truth was that ‘Americans as a people, have never learned to love the land and to regard it as an enduring resource.'”

The CAFO Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories, edited by Daniel Imhoff, has been quoted in an earlier post and to reiterate briefly, the essays look at the costs associated with our current meat and animal byproduct method of “farming.”

You may reconsider your meaty meal after this.

You may reconsider your meaty meal after this.

The various authors, only a few of whom are shrill, calmly examine the energy, health, environmental, social, and even spiritual costs we incur from this endemic system.

Next up, a 25th anniversary edition (2004) of Donald Worster’s history of Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s.  I had seen parts of Ken Burns’ PBS documentary of a similar name, but when it aired, for whatever reason, it didn’t grab me.

Worster manages to make the details lively and includes plenty of oral history.  Considering he was interviewing people who lived through it in the 70s, his history seems fresher than Burns’ 30+ years later.

Of course, the ecological causes and effects are delved into, but Worster doesn’t shy away from squarely bringing the blame to American culture:

The culture of modern, western man rests on the belief that he is autonomous in nature.  He is confident that he is a sovereign creature, independent of the restraints that plague other species–not controlled as they are, but in control [emphasis mine–SFM].  That has not been the view of most people in world history.

Included in the volume are quite a few photographs from WPA photographers and others of the period that help to concretize Worster’s prose.

Not a dusty tome

Not a dusty tome

Perhaps most shocking–I didn’t see it in the Burns’ show–was that the Dust Bowl returned to the region two more times!–in the 50s and the 70s.  For much the same reasons–industrialized agriculture–in an ecosystem that rejects that kind of farming.

 

 

 

 

Lastly, I finished The Agrarian Vision: Sustainability and Environmental Ethics most recently, on 28 February to be pedantic.  Paul B. Thompson attempts a philosophy of farming.  He succeeds–partially.

I enjoyed about the first two-thirds of the chapters, but then it bogged down in defining sustainability.  The author explains why it’s tricky (think about it–what exactly is meant by the term?) and even apologizes for creating previous material on the subject that was dull, but slogs on anyway.

Maybe worth your time, maybe not.

Maybe worth your time, maybe not.

In the end, he pushes for a hybrid of Jeffersonian and other thinkers’ agrarianism.  I could see a place for religion in his argument, but he only mentions it near the end.

Most of the titles in this series (the University of Kentucky’s Culture of the Land) have been excellent.  This one?  Not so much, but if you enjoy philosophy this might make for something different.

 

So, did you read anything of note this winter that was ecology-related?  Leave a comment and tell us if it was worthwhile or not.

See you in April!

I Resolve…

Most dictionaries (I haven’t checked them all) state that “resolve,” among other things, indicates  making a firm decision about something.  It comes from a Latin word for paying a debt.  So, to make a resolution, to resolve to do something is, by definition, something serious.  Not, as seems to be the annual custom, to make a claim for a change and then drop it by the third week of January.

Make 2015 (Where are our rocketpacks, by the way?) the year you learn the names of three trees in your neighborhood.  Perhaps even go the extra step by differentiating more than “that maple over there” to “See that black/red/sugar/Norway maple?”

Good ol' Calvin and Hobbes

Good ol’ Calvin and Hobbes

Aim for two or three herbaceous plants.  How about identifying those three birds you always see, but don’t know what they are called?  Insects and arachnids–what are they exactly?

Whatever goals you might set, make them achievable–saying you’re going to know all the plants in your yard by December might be too lofty–or maybe not.

Visit some new areas in your community; observe what problems may exist.  Is it in your power to effect a positive change?  Our duties go far beyond entering a voting booth.  Let this be the year.

Resolve to love your community, the ecosystem you inhabit and are already embedded in.

Lakeport State Park, MI

Let me end with an excerpt from farmer and writer Joel Salatin’s essay “Healing” found in The CAFO Reader, a book I recommend if your interests lie in ag issues.

For the first time in human history, people can move into a community, hook a water pipe into one coming in, the sewage pipe into one going out, buy food at the Wal-Mart from unknown sources, flick on a light switch for energy from who knows where, and build a house out of materials covered in bar codes from Home Depot.  We don’t have to know the local ecology, economy, society, climate, agriculture, or anything.  Just hook up.  Such a noninvolved existence inherently breeds contempt for the community that sustains our existence: physical, spiritual, mental.  Respecting our humanness requires that we respect–by appreciating our codependence on–that community of air, water, plants, animals, soil, and microbes.

What do you resolve to learn to love in 2015?  Leave a comment.