Friday, April 22, 2011

The Earth Day Reading Project: A Blog Meme

Earth Day is all about taking time to consider what is our place in the biotic community and how to improve our relationship with the living earth. This year, as part of a month of activities on and off line, I am taking part in the Earth Day Reading Project,  a meme begun by The Sage Butterfly in which the blogger is to "list at least three books that inspired you to perform any sustainable living act or inspired you to live green, and then tell us why they inspired you." Jean P. from Jean's Garden tagged me, and I'm only too happy to comply. The only difficulty is choosing just a few books to write about and recommend.

In her delightful autobiographical novel about rural England, Lark Rise to Candleford, Flora Thomson describes how she learned, when asked her favorite flower or author, to say, "besides the rose…" or "after Shakespeare…" Thus it is with books. When asked about books that have influenced me to live a green, gardening life, I must say, like nearly every other imaginative young girl who became a gardening woman, "besides The Secret Garden…" but so it is.

The books I've selected for the Earth Day Reading Project are classics. There are excellent reasons why books become classic and enduring, such as profound content expressed in great prose. Each of the following I read at certain pivotal points in my life as a child, adolescent and young adult and have returned to since. Each changed my life by changing the way I saw and continue to see the world, which resulted in changing the way I lived and continue to live.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. There is a story that when C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien went on walkabouts through the countryside, Lewis would go striding ahead, wanting to discuss Important Topics, and would get dreadfully annoyed with Tolkien, who would be loitering along, looking at the plants and soaking in the landscape in all its aspects. Their prose shares these qualities--Lewis' couched in broad terms and Tolkien's so lovingly detailed you could imagine living in Middle Earth--and my twelfth summer I did, to the extent that I created my own country and people and added it to the map. As I read The Lord of the Rings, which W. H. Auden called the great novel of the twentieth century, I began to see my own world differently.

Reverence for the natural world permeates the book, which defies easy categorization or summarization.  When first I read it I was still young enough to imagine I had heard language in the whisperings and groaning of the trees, and had played in the woods enough to feel nature as a living presence--to be unable to objectify it--so was completely receptive to Tolkien's vision. At that age I hadn't learned to analyze books and didn't yet understand The Lord of the Rings, as literature, for its ethical structure, or in its display of prodigious learning and inventiveness. The story seeped directly into my consciousness like myth: it rang so true that forever after I saw the world in Tolkien's terms.

Like Sam Gamgee, I spend much time gardening and helping others. Like Eowyn and Faramir, who lived in Ithilion and brought it back to life after the war, my ethos is one that values the arts and sciences of peace and disdains wilful environmental destruction. And I completely understand both sides of the argument between the ents and entwives. I sometimes think of the maple syrup my friends make as being a version of entwater. (The film version unfortunately emphasizes the battles at the expense of so much that as a peace-loving child I adored. But such is the nature of film.)

The next two books I read as a late adolescent, and they remain inextricably linked in heart and head. 

Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. I sometimes joke that I read Thoreau and was ruined for life. These days Thoreau suffers from either being something of a cliche, whose quotes are used everywhere, or as a figure of fun--too idealistic,  went to his mom's to have his laundry done, not a worldly success: these repeat what even his friends said at the time, and all minimize his accomplishment. The man could write. He presents his case for the simple life, for self-reliance and for appreciation of nature as well as anyone ever has. The quality of his observation and reflection is such that by reading his essays (Walden was only the first), I learned to actually see and think about what I was looking at. He also taught me how to cast a critical eye on and rethink conventional wisdom, which, after all, is much the same now as it was then, though perhaps with higher stakes--there are so many more of us and we have learned to be so much more destructive.

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. Thoreau wrote Walden as a young man, and it is full of youthful idealism. Leopold wrote A Sand County Almanac after a long career in conservation, a field he helped invent. An accomplished outdoorsman, he, like Thoreau, found a refuge on the land at his place in Wisconsin. He spent a lifetime working against the grain of the American habit of exploitation of the land. In consequence he developed some attitudes extremely critical of our culture. In this he is not unlike Tolkien. In writing about concepts that combined ethics and science, such as the ideas of the land, land health, and the biotic community, he articulated in a new way what our relationship to the natural world should be. He is a patron saint of this site, since he taught me to focus on that place-- physical, intellectual, and ethical--where humans interact with nature. And the Midwestern region he writes about is my home.

Noah's Garden by Sara Stein. When I was a young married woman with a child, we moved into the old house where we still live. We bought this place for many reasons: inexpensive enough, good schools, close to public transportation and the city, in a diverse neighborhood. And, though in an inner-ring suburb, most emphatically not suburban: I had, and continue to have, a claustrophobic reaction--panic, upset stomach--to modern, manicured, car-centric sub-divisions.

With this house I inherited a garden of grass, trees, non-native flowers and shrubs. As I tended it, I began to understand how separate it was from the the real Illinois landscape. Then I read Noah's Garden and encountered the idea that the suburban garden doesn't have to be dominated by non-native plants suitable for nursery-industry production. Stein--a woman writer! with children!--challenged conventional wisdom with her idea that we can garden according to natural models, to encourage wildlife and birds, and that we can look to nature and the surrounding landscape rather than the gardening industry for the kinds of native plants that might grow well in our gardens. From her I first learned the idea of the green corridor and that with a small yard you can still be a conservationist, can still practice earthcare, can still live simply. In a way, much of what I do, including this blog, is derived from reading that book.

Naturally, I continue to read. There are other authors and sequences of books which have caused me to live greener and to look at history and society in new ways.  Some of them are listed on the "Useful Books" page tabbed above. These days, for understanding our energy dilemma, I often recommend Collapse by Jared Diamond, The Party's Over by Richard Heinberg, and The Long Descent by John Michael Greer; and for the climate change dilemma, Eaarth by Bill McKibbon and Down to the Wire by David Orr. And then there are the poets...who deserve another post entirely.

As part of this meme, we were to invite three other bloggers, but I invited two:

Dave at Osage + Orange reads, helps restore natural areas and got me thinking about hedgerows. Kelly at Metropolitan Field Guide blogs about urban wildlife habitats.

19 comments:

The Sage Butterfly said...

Like you, Walden was one of my favorites since college. Thoreau really understood our connection to the earth. I am very interested in reading some of your selections. And I am glad you even offered more to consider. Thank you for participating in The Earth Day Reading Project and happy Earth Day.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Thanks, this was a really good project you started.

Elephant's Eye said...

This child grew up in Cape Town, on the slopes of Table Mountain in a mediterranean climate. Sunny, but near the sea.

jeansgarden said...

Adrian, I knew that your choices and your explanation of why you chose them would be inspired; I was right. Sand County Almanac is definitely going on my list, as is Noah's Garden. I have heard of both of these; I don't know how I missed reading them. (Happily, summer's coming, with all that time free of teaching responsibilities to sit in the garden and read. :-)) -Jean

Don Plummer said...

Adrian, Tolkien has been one of the foundations of my own world view as well. I've read TLoTL many, many times, including out loud to the kids when they were younger. That has instilled in them a love of Middle Earth as well; my son has the words of the dying Thorin from The Hobbit on his Facebook list of favorite quotes: "If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world."

Of course, just as important as Tolkien's love of nature and growing things is his insightful critique of industrial civilization. I understand he hated what motor vehicles did to the central part of Oxford, for example.

One can see this attitude in Tolkien's descriptions of Mordor and of the wanton devastation of Isengard and surroundings. Perhaps Tolkien's attitude toward industrialism is best summed up by what Treebeard says of Saruman: "He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment."

I would also put Wendell Berry on my list, although I'd be hard pressed to identify a particular essay, poem, or story that I could point to. Berry's attitude toward industrialism mirrors Tolkien's, of course, and his critique of our society--especially the destruction of local community and sense of place--is almost prophetic. In fact, I'm currently wrestling emotionally with some of the consequences of our atomized society.

Thanks for writing this!

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi EE, That sounds like a beautiful setting; perhaps not unlike California. Does one's childhood landscape influence one's responses to books? Of course. How so? A more mysterious, complex process. Where does imagination meet reality and how do they influence each other?

Jean,thanks, I've learned a few things from you, too. Oh yeah, reading in the garden--a most favorite activity. I do think you'll like Leopold and Stein.

Don, thanks for the response. You bring up so much that deserves full discussion. I agree about Wendell Berry. I'm thinking one could put together "mini-courses," or sequences of three or four thematically grouped, interdisciplinary books. Berry would fit in any number of such sequences.

And re Tolkien: part of my family culture, my children's frame of reference as well.

It's interesting that since the beginning of the industrial revolution there has been such a persistent critique of Saruman-style thought and action--and that critique is turning out to be supported by so many disciplines across our culture.

I like to think the poets and writers began it, but now the sciences are delivering the proof. (Though the underlying ethic is thousands of years old. Leopold loved the book of Isaiah.)

Have you seen "The Economics of Happiness?" It's worth a look.

Kelly Brenner said...

Ah I thought of Lord of the Rings too! It really does paint a beautiful picture, I was enthralled with Rivendell and the other elf cities. I love the trees as buildings and the idea of building seamlessly right into the landscape. There are certainly design ideas to draw from there. I love the subtle messages throughout the books as Don pointed out.

I'm a huge fan of the films of Hayao Miyazaki, some of which are very subtle in their nature message, others not as much. But they're all beautiful.

I'm ashamed to still not have read Walden and A Sand County Almanac despite having both sitting on my shelf. Every year I tell myself this is the year and every year they haven't been read. Noah's Garden I'd heard of but wasn't familiar with, sounds like a good one to check out!

Thanks for inviting me to participate! It was a fun exercise that really made me think about what and why I'm doing what I'm doing.

vera said...

Adrian, I just saw your comment on JMG. Humans are flawed? How do you mean? And have you read Ishmael?

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

hi Kelly,

Thanks for participating. Your books really expanded the diversity of the recommendations.

The design factors you mention in Lord of the Rings are interesting--how do we integrate buildings into the landscape both visually and functionally? I wonder if living buildings start to answer this question.

Haven't seen any Miyazaki films. I just looked him up and think I'd like to watch a couple.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Vera,

Thanks for visiting. I haven't read Ishmael, though it looks like an interesting novel, judging by the Wikipedia write-up.

What I mean by my statement at JMG that "humans are flawed"? The short answer is that I mean just what it says.

A longer answer? My conclusion is based on a grounding of experience, observation, education, reading, and Quaker beliefs. To be human is to be imperfect. To be human is to err. To be human is to contain both the seeds of right understanding and the seeds of destructive action. To be human is to lack understanding of oneself or the world one lives in, though one hopefully has chosen to work towards greater understanding and greater maturity.

But, being human, we always fall short (as I regularly discover in my own efforts to discern right action) and get tripped up by our own arrogance and hubris. Even our saints and the most enlightened among us.

The subject is vast, time is short, my resources puny. And this is a gardening blog. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, the lotus must grow in the mud. ;)

vera said...

:-)
A fine response. Ishmael has much to say about this very thing, and it is a very enjoyable novel.

What Ishmael would say is... humans are no more flawed than gorillas, or hyenas, or rattlesnakes. The problem we are all trying like mad to solve, is not caused by faulty human nature. It is caused by the behavior of people of one culture.

Which of course does not negate what you say. Best luck with gardening. It's hailing where I am...

Kelly Brenner said...

Adrian,

I'm pretty convinced that Malcolm Wells (http://www.malcolmwells.com/) must have be inspired by the Shire from Lord of the Rings when he started creating his earth-sheltered buildings. I think he's a good example that really does model after the Shire, intentionally or not.

Another aspect of integrating the built environment into the landscape I found in Helsinki. Being so far north, it is very rocky from the glaciers. As a result, as you walk through it, you find among the buildings giant rocks protruding from the ground that were left in place instead of blasting them out to make room for another building. It's very refreshing to see a break in a row of buildings with rocks and a bench placed among them. They also tend to place buildings among the trees, instead of removing everything before building. Helsinki is full of trees, they're everywhere. It really gives the sense that the Finns build around nature, and although that's not entirely true, it's a nice feeling.

My favorite Miyazaki films are Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa.

garden girl said...

Inspiring reading about inspiring reading Adrian!

I'm inspired now to read Sand County Almanac and Noah's Garden. My mom lives in rural southwest WI. While I was sad she moved away from us when she retired, I now know she wasn't really moving away, but rather towards something. Years ago I fell in love with her beautiful place and lifestyle, and kind of wish I could live there too. Still, she continues to inspire me, as she has since childhood, to always grow and to live as lightly as possible and in deep communion with the natural world.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Vera, Thanks for your comments.

I see your point about humans being no more flawed than animals. Where I disagree is with the one bad culture idea--I believe human traits are fairly constant and only express themselves differently in different cultures.

Plenty of non-western cultures have been aggressive, warlike, and caused ecological disruption as well as having oppressed their own peoples.

I would have to read the book before I could discuss the idea further in Ishmael-specific terms.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Kelly,

How could I forget earth-sheltered houses? Though not familiar with Malcom Wells, I know about that kind of building and used to think I might live in one someday. There are several companies in the Midwest that do that kind of work.

Helsinki sounds like an interesting place to visit. Thanks for the movie recommendations. I'll let you know when I've watched one.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Garden Girl,

I love southwestern Wisconsin, myself, and have imagined living there, too. Your mom sounds like an inspiring person.

I hope you enjoy the books, and feel that you will.

Don Plummer said...

Yes--Miyazaki films are worth watching. They are stunning visually. Good recommendations, Kelly.

Adrian--I haven't seen "The Economics of Happiness" and am not famiilar with it.

Anonymous said...

Adrian, I reflect on my ecological minded friends and relatives as I read your choice of books.
The Secret Garden: I read it this winter, upon learning it is my sister's favorite.
The Lord of the Rings: My husband read the entire trilogy to my sons when they were young.
A Sand County Almanac: My friend Mary read aloud to me as I rested in the hospital.
Walden and Noah's Garden: I will add to my reading list.
Keep up the good work.
Mary Jo K.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Mary Jo,

Thanks for the good words. Happy reading!