Category Archives: Book Review

A Book, a Boy, and a Yew Tree

How did I not know about the inspired and inspiring 2011 book by Patrick Ness? Inuit people sometimes call a storyteller isumataq, “the person who creates the atmosphere in which wisdom reveals itself.” That is what the author, and thereby the monster in A Monster Calls, does. He tears open the known world, at the worst time in a boy’s life, to make room for the kind of truth that leads to wisdom. Illustrated by Jim Kay and based on an idea from the late author Siobhan Dowd, the book won both the Carnegie Medal and the Kate Greenaway Medal, and then was made into a movie. Which is what brought it to my attention: I caught the last half of the movie on HBO and was enchanted from my first glimpse of the yew tree “monster.” (I love trees! Also, taxotere, the medicine from yews, helped me overcome cancer.)

In this book, Conor O’Malley’s mother has cancer and it keeps getting worse. Conor is beside himself and it doesn’t help that he is often visited at seven minutes past midnight by the yew tree that’s come walking down the hill from the cemetery, bursting into his room uninvited to tell him tales.

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What he needs, Conor insists, is medicine to cure his mother, not stories. The monster tells him, “The yew is a healing tree. It is the form I most choose to walk in.” Yet the monster offers no clear answers to the boy, challenging him, “You still do not know why you called me, do you? You still do not know why I have come walking. It is not as if I do this every day, Conor O’Malley.”

“It wasn’t just to hear terrible stories that make no sense,” Conor says.

“Stories are important. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth,” the monster says before departing in a gust of wind.

Without giving away the stories within the story, just know there are no easy answers here. The book, intended for “Age 12 and up,” has been lauded by many adults. What is life, at every stage, but a cycle of needing to hold on and having to let go? Between yew and me, I’m holding on tight. To life. This story, my story, and your stories are all part of the healing journey, to live life and to let go when the time comes.

When one’s world is torn open, one’s own truth can lead to wisdom and a heart that can be reconciled, if not consoled. In this book are words and pictures to tell the tale.

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TREE BOOKS FOR KIDS & OTHERS

Some of my favorite characters are trees. With Earth Day (April 22) and Arbor Day (April 29) coming up, I’m thinking of arboreal authors and their tales of trees and people who live in them, from Tarzan to the Swiss Family Robinson. Trees have played important roles, if only in the background, of many terrific books.

As much as I loved Mary in The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, I never became much of a gardener. I loved Sam Gribley’s home in a tree far better.  Mary cultivated the titular overgrown garden at an old Yorkshire mansion and made it her refuge, sharing it with the invalid, Colin. Sam, on the other hand, ran away from his family’s New York City apartment and lived in the woods of upstate New York with a falcon in My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. That’s the life for me, I thought when I read it in fifth grade at about the same age as the woodsy character, Sam. I was a tree-climbing girl though not as experienced at living off the land as Jean Craighead was. She grew up in a family of naturalists and her first pet was a turkey vulture. She gave her main character many chances to use survival skills, from harvesting wild foods to hollowing out a tree with fire to make a home.

In a tragic, true tale, a young woman named Sara sought out her favorite tree, known as the Senator, and built a small fire there one January night in 2012. Sadly for her and the world, the fire spread and she accidentally burned down the 3500-year-old bald cypress, the largest tree east of the Mississippi. Writer Julia Shipley asked Sara if she’d been inspired by My Side of the Mountain when she got in the habit of visiting the Senator and sitting inside it. “No,” Sara said, “But do you know The Giving Tree? That’s one of my favorite books and that’s how I look at what happened.”

Sara had been addicted to meth for eight years and getting in trouble for incinerating a national treasure forced her to get sober. “Basically the tree saved my life,” she said.

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Shel Silverstein’s book, The Giving Tree, is for all ages, showing how a tree can nurture and support us throughout our lives. Silverstein’s simple drawings convey a human lack of reciprocity that could be shameful yet is somehow touching. The trees give so much to us and now and then we pause and notice and appreciate it.

A 1942 book called Tree in the Trail charmed me in my youth with its Native American version of reciprocity with a cottonwood tree and how such a tree could “witness” 224 years of history. But reading it now I cringe at the stereotypes of Indians, Spaniards and others depicted by Holling Clancy Holling.

A better source for Native American stories about trees is Keepers of Life: Discovering Plants Through Native American Stories and Earth Activities for Children by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac. They write, “Living in balance, in many Native North American cultures, means to live within and honor the circles of life. A circle of giving and receiving becomes part of our relationship with the natural world when we take only what is necessary to survive and return the remains of plants and animals to the earth with gratitude.”

A Seneca thanksgiving for trees is included in the book, ending with “Let us put together our thoughts that we will always be grateful” for the medicine, firewood, and other gifts of trees.

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Haudenosaunee Tree of Peace illustrated by John Kahionhes Fadden

 

As for picture books, The Happiness Tree: Celebrating the Gifts of Trees We Treasure by Andrea Albin Gosling and illustrated by Lisa Burnett Bossi is lovely in every way and suggests values we can learn from the trees. For instance, a White Pine stands for courage. The last page recommends, “Plant a Happiness Tree on Arbor Day.”

Another good one for Arbor Day is Janice Udry’s A Tree Is Nice. Marc Simont’s illustrations show the many things children like to do among trees. My favorite is, “We can sit on a limb and think about things.” The book won a Caldecott award.

I’ll end with a quote from a 2015 novel for young adults, Trampoline, by Robert Gipe. An edgy book about a strip-mined town, the main character fights for her life in a devastated landscape. Yet she finds renewal in her Kentucky hills: “The trees and the roll of the earth held me up like the ridge holds the cloud from passing so it can pour down rain. The vines and the rabbits and the squirrels and the orange lizards out on the rocks after a storm–all those things I’d forget when people dragged me down–I needed them close and always.”

Who lives in this tree?

Who lives in this tree?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Big cedar tree in Freeland, Washington

Good Stress Versus Distress

Most everything I learned about stress is wrong.

I was once asked to teach a course called “Stress and the Family.” Besides being a redundancy, what did that course title mean? Stress was such a loose concept that we could go in many directions, and my students did, writing papers about everything from anorexia to xenophobia. I taught them how endocrinologist Hans Selye developed his concept of stress in the 1930s while studying lab rats. He injected various substances into his subjects and noticed that the health of all the rats deteriorated, regardless of what was injected. He finally determined that the trauma of the injections themselves led to ulcers, illness, and early death. He called the rats’ experiences “stress” and applied the concept to humans.

Selye made a distinction between distress (bad stress) and what he called eustress (good stress), but that distinction was largely lost over the years. Instead, psychologists developed questionnaires that assigned stress points to major life events, such as moving to a new home or losing a loved one. Since many of those events are unavoidable, lots of us started to worry about our accumulation of all those “points.” Were we destined to get ulcers and high blood pressure? How would we manage?

In 1936, Hans Selye identified stress in rats.

In 1936, Hans Selye identified stress in rats.

Kelly McGonigal’s 2015 book, The Upside of Stress, is changing how we think about our life challenges. (For a quick overview, the book’s main points are beautifully summarized in her TED Talk.) As a Stanford University health psychologist, McGonigal had been telling people that stress makes you sick, as I had been telling my students as well. She changed her tune when she read a study that tracked 30,000 adults in the United States after asking them about their stress levels and whether they believed stress was bad for you. Among those who reported high levels of stress in their lives, risk of dying was increased by 43%, but ONLY in those who believed stress was harmful to their health.

What about those with lots of stress who did not view their stress as harmful? McGonigal says, “they had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those who reported experiencing very little stress.” These results and others that McGonigal dug up for her book call for new approaches to dealing with difficulties. By interpreting our stress and anxiety differently, our bodies and minds react differently as well.

The clear and compassionate message of the book changed the way I’m dealing with stress in my life. For instance, several studies have shown how tending-and-befriending can be a healthy alternative to the fight-or-flight response that Selye described. In fact, one of the ways to transform stress (page 149) is to “turn self-focus into bigger-than-self goals.” We cope better with huge challenges when we recall our values and remember WHY we are doing what we’re doing, such as caring for others and contributing to the world.

Maybe we need a new stress inventory that for every big life event says, “Congratulations! You have another chance to challenge yourself, excite and delight, and tend and befriend, along with the rest of humanity.”

Like your early family life, and your birth for that matter, stress is the beginning, not the end of the story. The plot is up to you.

Awesome Life: Take Time to Savor

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Yes, you can get high on nature.  And, doctor’s orders, you should, for your own happiness, let it blow your mind.  The humbling emotion of awe can transform your life and revise your view of the world.  About 75% of the time, the feeling is elicited by nature, according to Sierra magazine.  It is an energized pleasure that seems almost on the brink of fear, touching infinity or at least something beyond ourselves.

What triggers awe?  Flowers?  For some people, yes.  Clouds are ordinary yet can be seen as awesome, particularly at dawn and dusk.

As Scott Russell Sanders wrote in A Brief History of Awe (2006), witnessing a thunderstorm on his porch as a child first provoked the feeling in him.  Sanders is a soulful environmental writer, sensitive to both brutality and beauty.  He is as much a conscientious affirmer of life as he is a deeply conscientious objector to war.  His memoir is a beautiful study of love for the world and its beings.  His Earth Works essays continue in that vein.

Being awestruck is a good thing as researchers at Stanford confirmed and as described in this video.  I remember walking with my husband for twenty miles through a misty fern forest and emerging onto a rocky beach of a New Zealand fjord.  The view of mountains and sparkly water was spectacular.  Taking the experience clear over the top were the yellow-browed penguins nearby, hopping from rock to rock.  That was a big kind of awesomeness to be in an extraordinary place I’d never seen before with creatures that charmed the socks off us.  But I also like the everyday experiences that fill me with a sense of the sacred.  Seeing a pair of crows, common as they are, in a tree can be awesome, too.  Crows and ravens are as intelligent as human toddlers and I view them as protectors, listening for their warning calls.

Pair of crows in a white pine tree.

Pair of crows in a white pine tree.

Being grateful also has some benefits and is certainly enhanced by allowing ourselves to be awed and moved, as suggested here.  Take time to smell the roses, a baby’s head, and your dog’s paws that smell like popcorn.  Notice and acknowledge those who enhance your life.

While standing on the vast shore of Lake Superior, I take in the whole vista of sky, sand, and November breeze, and soak it in.

Lake Superior beach, November 2014

Lake Superior beach, November 2014

Then I turn my attention to the small miracles of agates and other stones along the beach.  Whether or not I reach the worshipful level of awe, I take time to savor.  And in savoring, I believe, is the salvation of the world.

Pebbles on the shore

Pebbles on the shore

Evening clouds

Evening clouds

Ancient Advice for Sustainable Harvests

Greenery

The passenger pigeon named Martha was kept in a Cincinnati zoo.  This September 1 marks 100 years since her lonely death as the last of her kind.  I attended a forum reflecting on Martha and other extinctions at the Chicago Botanic Garden.  One speaker I wanted to hear was Robin Kimmerer, a Potawatomi woman and Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology, SUNY.  I also wanted to get her new book, an Orion award finalist.  She is  an expert on moss, among other things.  The heart of her talk was what she called the Honorable Harvest, principles by which we can interact sustainably with the world.  She called these ancient tenets “rules for those of us who can’t photosynthesize,” because really, when you think about it, all life relies on the sun and we rely on those forms of life that can harness solar energy and pass it on to us as food.  Let us not take them for granted.  And let us not take more than our share or, like the passenger pigeon, they will be no more.

Here are some wild harvest guidelines I gathered from Dr. Kimmerer’s talk.  She also has a chapter in Braiding Sweetgrass on “The Honorable Harvest” in which she says that these things are not usually written down but “reinforced in small acts of daily life” and apply to all “the gifts of Mother Earth–air, water, and the literal body of the earth: the rocks and soil and fossil fuels.”  These “small acts” can be practiced every day in some form or another.

1.  Never take the first one you see.  How do you know it’s not the last one?

2. Introduce yourself.  Approach the fungi or roots or whatever you’re gathering and tell them your intent.  Ask permission to take them.

3. Listen for their answer.   There are ways to communicate and receive an answer.  If you are quiet enough, you can hear (or feel) it.

4. Respect the answer.  If permitted to harvest, take only what is needed.

5. Minimize harm.  Be careful how you harvest and how you move around the area.

6. Use everything you take.  “Do eat food that is honorably harvested, and celebrate every mouthful,” Kimmerer writes.

7. Be grateful.  “The practice of gratitude is a radical act,” Dr. Kimmerer said.  It is humbling and it is part of reciprocity, giving back.

8. Share what you’ve taken.

Similarly, Anishinabeg (Ojibway) elder, Anne Dunn, let me know that wild rice is harvested with gratitude and “cherished as a gift from Great Spirit” and will “flourish and feed many generations of countless people” as long as it is treated with appreciation and respect.  The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) gave an address in 1977 in Geneva, Switzerland, “A Basic Call to Consciousness,” noting, “The Western culture has been horribly exploitative and destructive of the Natural World.  Over 140 species of birds and animals were utterly destroyed since the European arrival in the Americas… The air is foul, the waters poisoned, the trees dying, the animals are disappearing.  We think even the systems of weather are changing.  Our ancient teachings warned us that if Man interfered with the Natural laws, these things would come to be.  When the last of the Natural Way of Life is gone, all hope for human survival will be gone with it.”

Robin Kimmerer said at the May 2 Nature and Ethics forum, “It is not land which is broken but our relationship to land.”  She said we are in the time of the seventh fire, at a fork in the road.  Honoring our plant and animal relatives, “we can light the eighth fire of kinship” and heal some of what we have broken.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Chicago Botanic Garden

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Chicago Botanic Garden

Have a healthy harvest and enjoy!

50th Anniversary of “Silent Spring”

Reaction to Rachel Carson’s research

Of “The 25 Greatest Science Books of All Time” listed in Discover Magazine http://discovermagazine.com/2006/dec/25-greatest-science-books/article_view?b_start:int=1&page=2, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson is #16.  That book, credited with sparking the environmental movement, was published September 27, 1962, meaning its 50th anniversary is coming up.  Rachel Louise Carson (May 27, 1907- April 14, 1964), the marine biologist and naturalist who wrote the book, has since been both credited and blamed for just about everything under the sun.  At the very least, we can say that many bird species that would have gone silent are still singing today.  That is worth celebrating.

The book is a valuable but difficult read due to the density of technical information with which Carson shored up her arguments.  Yet, it caught on in her day and was selected for the Book-of-the-Month Club.  President Kennedy considered it a wake-up call, as did so many others, and authorized studies of the effects of chemicals, leading to increased regulation.  DDT was found to kill a broad spectrum of insects and then work its way up the food chain.  I remember being amazed, back in the 60s, that a bug spray was causing birds to produce thin-shelled eggs, thus threatening the survival of Bald Eagles.  DDT was  banned in the United States for agricultural use.

Such bans and regulations did not sit well with corporations that produced synthetic pesticides.  They attacked Rachel Carson and Silent Spring, which served to give the book publicity.  As TIME Magazine reported in 1999, “In their ugly campaign to reduce a brave scientist’s protests to a matter of public relations, the chemical interests had only increased public awareness.”  Even now, some people blame Carson for malaria and mosquitoes in general, as if DDT could have wiped out an insect known for developing immunity to insecticides.

“Carson was not arguing for banning all pesticides,” notes John Wargo of Yale University, who spent six months going through 117 boxes of Carson’s personal files. “She was simply arguing against the broad-scale prophylactic application that would lead to widespread contamination and exposure. Her arguments follow a train of logic and a narrative that would be extremely useful today.” (Lauren Peeples in HuffPost Green)

When Rachel was a child, her mother used to take her on walks, awakening her sense of wonder.  Carson urged us to continue to foster that appreciation of nature in her book The Sense of Wonder.  She closed that book with these words: “The lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world are not reserved for scientists but are available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of earth, sea and sky and their amazing life.”  Noticing bird song today is a good place to start.

Two of Carson’s books

Animal Friends

Our shepherd gets acquainted with a ball python.

Making friends across species lines is part of what makes life on earth so fascinating.  The majority of households in the United States have pets in them, and many people consider animal companions to be friends or even family.  It turns out that we’re not the only ones to do this.  Jennifer Holland, a writer for National Geographic (and occasional visitor to my yoga class when she’s in town visiting family), gives 47 examples of finned, furred, and feathered friends mixing it up in her book, Unlikely Friendships.  You can also see videos of social critters on National Geographic’s Unlikely Animal Friends.

Having a friend, whether for a short time or a long time, can make all the difference in the world.  Sometimes our friends are a lot like us and sometimes they’re very different from us.  You never know who will reach out to you, bring you some warmth, and make your day.  Some of the stories in this book are about brief encounters, such as a manta ray who insisted on being pet like a cat by a diver off the coast of Florida.  Some are lifelong bonds.

Holland acknowledges the view of some people that “anthropomorphic anecdotes have no place in science,” and she is careful not to impose her own interpretations of what the animals are feeling and experiencing.  But clearly the animals she describes are acting on more than instinct.  She quotes from her interview with Jane Goodall, “You cannot share your life in any meaningful way with an animal and not realize they have different personalities.  Are their capabilities and emotions similar to ours?  Absolutely.”

Many stories feature that miracle of adaptation, the dog.  When a family in Ohio took in a nearly blind deer named Dillie, it was the family poodle that licked her, slept with her, and brought her toys.  Dillie is afraid of any other dog, but loves to be with Lady the poodle.  A dachshund welcomed a piglet to her litter of puppies when he was unable to compete with the other, bigger piglets for his mother’s milk.  The pig survived and now acts more canine than porcine.

Other pairs in the book are such unexpected combinations as a snake and a hamster, a rat and a cat, monkeys and capybaras, and a leopard and a cow.  Holland’s retelling of the famous case of Koko the gorilla and her tiny kitten, Ball, is as moving as ever.  We not only learn about animals from these stories, we learn from them as well, perhaps to overlook that bit of DNA that separates us, one species from another, and simply see a being with a capacity different from our own but no lesser.

After facing racially charged abuse, Rodney King asked, “Why can’t we all just get along?”  Part of the appeal of these stories is the hope they provide that, no matter our differences, we can.

UNLIKELY FRIENDSHIPS: 47 Remarkable Stories from the Animal Kingdom by Jennifer S. Holland, Workman Publishing, 2011.

Jennifer Holland and shiba inu, Tai
(Photo courtesy of John Holland)