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The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors, by David G. Haskell

Reviewed by Ann DiFiore

“To listen to the songs of trees is to know their communities, their network of family of which we and our voices are members”

David Haskell’s most recent book, The Songs of Trees (2017, 252 pp) continues his examination of forests and the interconnectedness of organisms. This book, however, is marked by a feeling of particular urgency as he explores not only the natural history of trees, living and dead, wild and cultivated, but the impact of climate change, deforestation, and political pressures on trees, the populations that depend on them, and the planet as a whole.

Haskell divides his work into three parts. Part I profiles individual trees and their environments, from the rainforest to the boreal forest; part 2 covers living and fossilized trees; and part 3 introduces cultivated, or urbanized, trees, ranging from cottonwoods to bonsai.

By tree songs, Haskell means the music of water, sunlight, insects, rock, machinery, fungi—every living and non-living thing with which trees interact. For example, the rainforest’s Ceiba pentandra tree’s song incorporates the rush and patter of rain flowing from canopy to roots, across the myriad bromeliads, ferns, and philodendrons that make this tree ecosystem a “sky lake.”

Sensors on the trunk of a Bradford pear growing at 86th and Broadway records the rumbles of the subway beneath its roots and the screech and blare of taxis hurdling down neighboring thoroughfares. A ponderosa pine’s melody combines the whine of windswept needles, the grating of a sapsucker probing for ants, the pop of wood cells thirsty for water, the grinding of beetles under its bark.

For Virginia Master Naturalists Haskell’s book serves as both inspiration and guide to ways in which we can enlighten and engage the public. By helping people interact with trees and experience them—seeing, listening, touching, smelling, tasting– the trees become animate. When we educate the public on their role as living community centers, we communicate their value and the interconnectedness of all lives.

As in The Forest Unseen, Haskell provides fascinating insights into the ecology and evolution of the forest. In this book, human attitudes and ethics vis a vis their environment play prominent and compelling roles. To the Waori people of Ecuador, ”the Ceiba is the tree of life in their creation story “ (p. 16). They view the forest as a whole organism, made up of living things, “spirits and dreams:” that can only exist cooperatively (p. 18).

While Haskell believes that few Westerners can match the Waori’s connectedness to their environment, he implores humankind to try harder to interact, learn, and care for the trees and ecosystems vital to our survival. The abandonment of centuries-old olive groves on the West Bank epitomizes the upheaval and loss that occurs when populations are uprooted, due to environmental or political change.  A loss, he laments, of both their knowledge and identification with the land. While he addresses the exploitation of both rainforests and boreal forest, which he describes as our last and greatest terrestrial carbon store, Haskell looks for signs of redemption among the devastation. The fossilized redwood in Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument that mesmerizes a young girl and her family is a promise of engagement. Street trees in New York championed by the people who value their shade and flowers give him hope.

Like the Yamaki Japanese white pine, a bonsai tended by the Yamaki family for four hundred years and gifted to the US National Arboretum by the government of Japan, trees are “living strands of relationship.” The tree survived the bombing of Hiroshima and is now a symbol of friendship between the two nations. While carefully cultivated and often non-native, bonsai’s miniaturized forms let viewers access trees in a way that is more personal, more intimate.  “Trees are masters of integration, connecting their cells into the soil, the sky, and thousands of other species.“(p. 153).  Haskell’s book will strengthen FMNs’ resolve to help  their communities renew those strands of relationship.

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Review of Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses, and Citizens Can Save the Planet, by Carl Pope and Michael Bloomberg

Reviewed by Wendy Cohen

Climate of Hope (2017, 277 pp) avoids the usual gloom-and-doom discussion around climate change by offering up two premises: First, if we shift the focus from international treaties to projects in local municipalities, much work can be done to mitigate climate change. Second, rather than view the multiple causes of climate change as problematic, seeing them as numerous opportunities for solving the problem of rising earth temperatures can help us make headway with the problem. Every sector of society can help with climate protection. In other words, “think globally, act locally,” and above all, act. These two tenets are also at the core of the work of master naturalists.

Citing example after example of actions that have had a proven positive impact, Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City and current head of Bloomberg Philanthropies, and Carl Pope, longtime environmental activist and former executive director of the Sierra Club, give the reader cause for hope in the fight against environmental threats causing rising temperatures. In addition to showing how innovative public/private partnerships have helped fund greener technologies, Climate of Hope points to the natural world as “an enormous, largely unread library of solutions.”

Bloomberg and Pope show examples of something naturalists have long known: investing in more sustainable agriculture and forestry practices is key to combating climate change. In their words, maintaining healthy ecosystems allows them to “do what they are equipped to do–suck carbon out of the atmosphere and turn it into soil and vegetation”(p. 178). One example they give is mangroves: According to their research, if half of what has been lost of the mangroves found mostly in Asia were restored, 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide could be stored, a number that matches total U.S. emissions each year! An additional advantage would be greater protection of the tropical coastline from typhoons.

Climate of Hope demonstrates how local efforts to protect our ecosystem can have a ripple effect. Promoting environmental stewardship goes a long way in helping to counter rising global temperatures. This book validates the work of master naturalists.

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Review of The Forest Unseen, by David George Haskell

Reviewed by Ann DiFiore

A square meter of Tennessee forest can give us insights into all forests.

This is the premise of The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature (2012, 288 pp). Haskell, Professor of Biology at Sewanee, the University of the South, visits a corner of old growth forest every few days over the course of a year to record his observations. Inspired by the intricate sand paintings, or mandalas, created by Tibetan monks to represent the cosmos, Haskell lays down a hula hoop to mark the boundaries of his mandala. Armed with a hand lens, he uncovers within this microcosm stories of creation, evolution, adaptation, life unexplored, and man’s relationship to the natural world.

For Master Naturalists, this book deserves a place of honor on our bookshelves, alongside A Sand County Almanac and other classics of ecology/natural science. Through Haskell’s penetrating lens, readers are able to see and appreciate the often unseen organisms that populate the forest’s soil and upper layers. He then switches to a wide-angle lens, educating the reader on larger ecological issues and emphasizing always the interconnectedness of life on our planet.

In his January 1 entry, “Partnerships,” Haskell discusses the amazingly successful union of fungi and algae—the “world-conquering” lichens and the first living thing he encounters in the mandala. Lichens cover 10% of the earth’s surface. How symbiotic relationships push evolution forward–microbes living in digestive tracts, the interdependence of fungi and plants—is a recurring theme in the book.Humans, he notes wryly, “… are lichens on a grand scale” (p. 5).

A sense of humor infuses his writing. In “Faces,” he reluctantly confesses to finding a trio of young raccoons adorable (naturalists aren’t supposed to make such judgments)—and then analyzes human responses to animals. In “Earthstar” he debates removing golf balls from the mandala and decides to allow geological forces to return them to their elements, reminding us that humans are part of nature and “our biggest failing is a lack of compassion for the world, including ourselves” (p. 158).

Haskell’s sense of wonder at nature’s ingenuity and variety is evident in each entry. The firefly’s incandescence, the turkey vulture’s ability to destroy anthrax bacteria and cholera viruses through digestion, the snail’s reproductive strategies—fascinate him, and his enthusiasm is infectious.

Haskell takes the scientific community to task for its alarm cry that the recent rise in deer population is ruining our forests. He argues that historical and archaeological records point to deer being plentiful inhabitants until the 1800s, when they had been extirpated. “The deerless forests of the early and mid-1900s were aberrations” (p. 31). For 50 million years, large mammalian browsers—wood bison, oxen, tapirs, peccaries, herbivorous bears, and mastodons—feasted on forests until they were hunted into extinction. Only the deer remain. In “Flowers,” he credits deer for dispersing wild flowers from their post Ice Age home along the Gulf Coast across the continent, arguing that ants who travel little more than a few feet from their nests would not have been able to accomplish the task so quickly.

The author laments that while science informs and educates us, it does not help us “listen” to nature. In “Epilogue,” Haskell urges us to create our own mandalas for ecological exploration. His advice: To leave behind expectations and to be present—see, listen, smell—and return, over and over again.

“The desire to name, understand, and enjoy the rest of the community of life is part of our humanity. Quiet observation of living mandalas offers one way to rediscover and develop this inheritance” (p. 245).

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Review of Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren

Reviewed by Sarah Glassco

Lab Girl (2016, 512 pp) recounts the life and career of a research scientist in the field of  geobiology. Because her roots are relevant to her present, Jahren writes about  her childhood in Minnesota, where she was raised in an unemotional, uncommunicative family. She spent her days with her mother, who gardened to put food on the table and studied literature to earn a college degree by correspondence course. In the evenings, Jahren played in her father’s laboratory. (He taught college physics and earth science.) Here she felt she “transformed from a girl into a scientist,” so she took the necessary steps to become a plant scientist with a gift for writing. Her anecdotes are as compelling as her insights. Clear-sighted, funny, and unromantic, she describes the professional challenges for a female scientist.

A failed experiment early in her career caused her to shift her approach to botanical research. “I tried to visualize a new environmental science that was not based on the world that we wanted with plants in it, but instead based on a vision of the plants’ world with us in it.” Much of what we study in our master naturalist training backs up this sensibility. The whole field of ecology is based on understanding the complex interrelationships of unique organisms. In our naturalist training lecture on botany, we learned about the importance of fungal mychorrizae to the growth of plants. We also learned that the invasive garlic mustard is particularly destructive because it poisons the arbuscular fungal mychorrizae on which many native plants rely.

Science is complex, but good storytellers like Jahren make it as simple as possible. To this end, she structured the book in layers, with essays about plant lives that parallel phases in her life and career. She recounts the latest research into plants, and gives us glimpses of discoveries that are changing scientific ideas about their natures.

Her observation that “perhaps I was destined to study plants for decades only in order to more fully appreciate that they are beings we can never truly understand” is relevant to all of us, no matter where we are in our own quests to be worthy, engaged participants in the natural world. Now, when I see a maple tree, I remember that the saplings beneath it rely on water drawn up and shared from the mature tree’s roots for their survival. When I see a willow tree, I remember that its annual growth rate is nearly twice that of its closest competitor, and that it stores nutrient reserves in older branches and sheds them to send colonists out into the world.

You too will be amazed by the stories this masterful naturalist tells, and inspired to share her appreciation of plants as complex beings with lives of their own.

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Review of The Humane Gardener, by Nancy Lawson

Reviewed by Ann Di Fiore

As a Fairfax Master Naturalist and Audubon at Home Ambassador, I am always on the lookout for books on native plant and wildlife gardening. The Humane Gardener (2017, 224 pp) offers insights on both topics, but what sets Lawson’s book apart from others is her emphasis on creating habitats that nurture all forms of wildlife. Interspersed with chapters on native plantings, creating habitat, and the benefits of decaying plant material are profiles of humane gardeners whose properties range from modest backyards to commercial farms.

Many of the principles Lawson lays out are well known to master naturalists: “Plant for all seasons and sizes” to address “diverse diners”; use “green mulch”—native grasses and groundcovers—rather than bark in between shrubs and trees to improve soil; choose straight species over cultivars; and don’t “love” –overwater and over fertilize—native plants.

Lawson urges us to be attentive to gardening activities that have tragic consequences for wildlife.  In a section entitled “Don’t Mow the Teenagers,”she warns us that mowing, pruning, and raking can cut short the life cycles of ground insects and other animals. Fritillary larvae, for example, crawl onto violet plants in early spring and, as Doug Tallamy puts it, “we murder them with our lawn mowers.”  Baby rabbits in hidden nests and other young animals are vulnerable as well.

When removing invasive plants from our properties, Lawson asks us to “triage” their removal to minimize adverse effects on wildlife that make use of these plants. Early blooming invasives may be the only available nectar sources to bees, fruiting shrubs like Amur honeysuckles may fill a significant part of a bird’s diet.

In The Humane Gardener, Lawson addresses an uncomfortable truth:  the wild creatures most gardeners want to support are songbirds and pollinators. Many other forms of wildlife we consider interlopers—enemies. She enumerates the cruelties inflicted by pest removal services, glue traps, even “humane” deterrents (predator urine, for instance, is captured from caged coyotes and other animals on fur farms). She advocates flexibility and a more generous perspective:  opossums and raccoons eat carrion, ticks, and slugs; rabbits devour dandelions; and moles and chipmunks till the soil, increasing its fertility.

In a world of shrinking natural spaces and biodiversity, Lawson asks us to reconsider our ideas of ownership and make room for all forms of wildlife.  Above all, she asks that we be conscious of the consequences of our routine gardening choices.  She promises that our gardens will be healthier—and more humane—as a result.

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Review of Dire Predictions: Understanding Climate Change (2nd ed.), by Michael E. Mann and Lee R. Kump

Reviewed by Jim Wilcox

The facts about global warming and climate change are indisputable at this point, but all good naturalists still do their own research. To this end, for the past five years, I’ve completed more than 20 online courses and read about 30 well-researched books (references coming in a related post). If you have time to read only one book now, though, consider Dire Predictions (2015, 224 pp).

Mann and Kump, both professors at Pennsylvania State University, cover the science behind global warming and climate change; Earth’s climate history; how the water cycle and carbon cycle affect climate change; projections for future changes and what impact those changes will have on our environment, ecology, and sociology; possible mitigating actions; adaptive responses; and much more.

As scientists, the authors don’t shy away from data or math, nor are they dogmatic. Instead they speak in terms of probabilities and write for a general reader in easily understandable terms. Photographs and effective graphics document and illustrate complex concepts. A comprehensive glossary serves as a ready reference as do the frequent embedded bookmarks to other sections within the book.

Dire Predictions draws its information primarily from the 5th Assessment Report (AR5) of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (hence the book’s second subtitle: The Visual Guide to the Findings of the IPCC).

Dr. Mann is probably best known for his work showing the rise of Earth’s average temperature graphically, the graph for which became known as the hockey stick.

You can preview the contents and layout of Dire Predictions at no charge and with no effort by clicking on this link to the abridged pdf. The Fairfax County Public Library system has 13 copies of the complete book. Borrow one. Read it. You will walk away better able to have an informed discussion.

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Review of Wonderful Life, by Stephen Jay Gould

Reviewed by Marilyn Kupetz

There’s an element of determinism in our master naturalist studies: if we are good stewards of the land and water, if we respect our fellow creatures and organisms, we all stand a better chance of surviving. It’s true, of course, but in Wonderful Life (1989, 323 pp) Stephen Jay Gould guides us through the murkier parts of the algorithm: sometimes it’s not entirely up to us, even in an Anthropocene era. Sometimes, natural contingencies determine what survives and what doesn’t.

The wonderful life of the title refers to the 500-million-year-old fossilized creatures of the Burgess Shale marine ecosystem in British Columbia. Unearthed in the early 19th century, the remains of some truly unusual creatures (look at opabinia, for example, or hallucigenia) still fascinate scientists, paleobiologists, naturalists, and other folks curious about evolution. Why didn’t these creatures make it? According to Gould, it may have less to do with fitness than with fate: the area appears to have been buried by mudslides during the advent of the Rocky Mountains. No, Gould is not anti-Darwin; he’s added a corollary, which is as fascinating as it is contested.

Why is the book worth your time? He’s a superb storyteller, able to discuss the facts of life with lucid grace. You will neither suffer nor fall asleep, and the line drawings are worthy of emulation as we head into the field ourselves. Gould is one of a small group of scientists who’ve chosen to make complex material accessible to the public, with a generous lack of ego. I also recommend his The Lying Stones of Marrakech and Crossing Over: Where Art and Science Meet, equally wonderful collections. As you choose your own life’s work as a naturalist and begin to share your stories, staring at one of the forks in life’s path is not a bad place to start.

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