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.