At the end of the nineteenth century, because no one had ever been there, the virtual consensus among geographers was that the North Pole resided in a warm, open sea. One needed only to sail a ship through the ice surrounding it to reach the open ocean. In 1879, Captain George DeLong and a crew of 30-plus sailors set off for the North Pole. At end of the their first year, their ship, having failed to find open water, was instead frozen in place, where they remained out of communication with the rest of the world for three years. Half of their time was in near total darkness and nearly all of their days and nights were below freezing. Finally, sheets of ice crushed and sank the U.S.S. Jeannette. The crew walked and sailed for hundreds of days across ice floes and freezing oceans with hopes of reaching the coldest landmass on earth, the north coast of Siberia. The test of human physical and psychological endurance is simultaneously contemporary and otherworldly. The relationship of European and American men to the environment, native people of the Arctic, to women, and stoicism is history not to be overlooked.
The Wildlife of Our Bodies by Rob Dunn *** (of 5)
Rob Dunn is a microbiologist determined to make the invisible world of microscopic organisms present in our everyday lives. In this book he focuses on the human body and its evolution from wild animal to modern species. He points out, for example, that our appendix, long thought to be vestigial, actually served a purpose as an island for productive bacteria to grow. When vicious bacteria, like cholera, wipe out the productive flora in our gut, our large intestines could be repopulated with good bacteria from our appendix. In another example, Dunn points to new research suggesting that our immune systems evolved in cooperation with parasitic worms and when antibiotics and modern hygiene removed these from our digestive tracts, autoimmune disorders blossomed. Lupus, allergies, asthma, Crohn’s and similar diseases are plentiful in the world’s most developed countries and virtually nonexistent in countries where parasites persist. There is some evidence that infecting sick patients with parasitic worms can bring relief. Dunn sometimes gets so excited by new discoveries that he effervesces for pages when he could just get to the punchline.
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald **** (of 4)
Three parallel stories expertly told. In the first, the author trains a goshawk to fly from her glove to hunt pheasants and rabbits on the British countryside. In a second, Macdonald recounts the life of T.H. White, author of Arthurian novels, depressed, gay, abused, and also a goshawk trainer. And, in the third, she writes a memoir of the year that her father died unexpectedly, she acquired a hawk, named it Mabel, trained Mabel, lost her happiness, read everything of T.H. White’s, scrambled in the British woods behind her not always cooperative goshawk, and muddled through. We learn to see Britain’s hedges and forests through the eyes of an expert hawker and the eyes of a hawk, and Britain’s mid-twentieth century rigidity through the writings of T.H. White.
The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan *** (of 4)
This recounting of America’s dust bowl is a vivid, filthy painting of an American environmental disaster brought about by greed, hubris, and ignorance. After demolishing the Comanche and the bison, an American government anxious to “settle” the West gave away its prairie in huge chunks. Plows sliced prairie grasses from their deep roots creating caskets of bare soil over buried sod. Homesteader wheat, mining untapped soil nutrients and decomposing grasses, produce unimaginably profitable and prolific yields. When the Great Depression struck in 1929, jobless masses in East Coast cities could not afford to pay for food and wheat piled up in the Great Plains. In terrible need of income farmers expanded production, exacerbating the problem. Then one of the periodic droughts that has always cycled through the Great Plains struck the year following the crash of the stock market and stretched nearly a decade. Crops died. Then trees and streams, horses and cattle all withered. Great roiling winds picked up tons and tons of soil hurling black blizzards of sand and grit across the plains and finally people, their lungs so full of dust they could not draw sufficient oxygen, they, too, started to die and with them the farms and towns of Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Kansas that should never have exchanged perennial grasses, bison, antelope, snakes, and hares for wheat, corn, and cotton. The soil of the Great Plains was eventually tied down by the Soil Conservation Service and new plants grown on water mined from the Ogallala Aquifer, which shortly will run dry.
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell **** (of 4)
This is a tale both microscopic in scope and biblical in scale. The scene is 1920s Illinois before the age of machines and corporations when farmers depended upon themselves, their neighbors, their children, wives, an itinerant hired hand or two, and their dog. Cows were milked by hand and fields were reaped by horse, man, and sweat. Yet, while this black and white idyll of American farmsteading remains in our collective imagination, what happens when the ten commandments are violated. In this case, page by patient page we observe rippling repercussions when one man covets his neighbor’s wife, a woman not pleased to be imprisoned on a rural Illinois homestead.
The Town that Food Saved by Ben Hewitt ** (of 4)
Hardwick was a down and out village in rural Vermont. Unemployment was high, farmers were struggling, and main street was worn out. As if almost by magic a resurgence of local food and agricultural organizations galloped into town and everyone it appears is destined to live happily ever after. For example, one agripreneur is persuading beleaguered dairy farmers to dedicate some fields to soybeans for his tofu factory. Another invested in an enormous concrete cellar so dairy farmers can supply milk for cheeses he sells at $20 a pound. The Center for an Agricultural Economy opened on Main Street and soon the town was featured in the New York Times. Hewitt argues that every small town should replicate Hardwick, but seriously? How much tofu will Americans eat? Expensive cheese is going to save rural America? And is either one of those things really selling in Hardwick? The underlying premise of the book that conventional American agriculture with its admittedly anti-environmental impacts on soil, water, and air is in fact already coughing its death rattle is passed over without question. For all its flaws, American agricultural productivity is at global and historic highs. Hewitt’s prescription for replacing American agriculture with small local farms, absent any specifics on where or how his agripreneurs cobbled together their capital, or even if they are turning a profit, could have been written by Polyanna.
Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett ** (of 4)
As these things go, not too bad. Consider it everything you ever wanted to know about the hydrological cycle (there are similar books on coffee, cod, oil, and so forth). Well written and organized loosely from the most ancient rains, those that fell on a recently cooled planet, forward toward contemporary discussions of floods, droughts, dams, rivers, crops, and the livelihoods of humans at rain’s mercy. The book is remarkable for its breadth and inclusiveness, and strongest when Cynthia Barnett’s stories are longest, but the final result is like so many unending raindrops. A drowning in more facts about rain than anyone really wishes to endure.
Gold by Matthew Hart ** (of 4)
Matthew Hart purports to answer all your questions about gold. Why does it have value? How is it mined? What is the historical significance of gold? Why should anyone own any? After dispensing with theft from contemporary South African mines and the history of gold rather briefly, the book devolves into two rather dense sections. First, is a jargon-rich explanation, best understood by fellow economists, for the gold standard that backed much of the world’s currencies until the 1970s. Second, is a tedious description of how a few ounces of gold are chemically extracted from tons of useless rock. Interspersed are some not very compelling travelogues to some of the world’s most interesting gold mines. Though it is presented only as a passing thought the inevitable conclusion is that gold’s value is currently no different than the value of a famous painting. It is worth only as much as someone who collects such things is willing to pay.
The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh *** (of 4)
An American-born ecologist of Indian immigrants travels to the Sunderbans to study the Irriwaddy Dolphin. She joins three additional main characters — a translator, an unlettered fisherman of the tide country, and nature. As a scientist she is so painfully American I must believe that Ghosh’s accounts of the others in the book are equally accurate. It’s a fine story full of area legends, sights, history, and aromas of islands that submerge to their treetops at every tide, enhanced by the outstanding narration on Recorded Books by Firdous Bamji. August 2009.
I finally read it. The first story about Johnny Appleseed is astounding. The second story about tulips is interesting. Marijuana: enough already. I know four people who started the book. Not one of us finished it. Maybe the last chapter is meaningful and none of us will ever find out. Nevertheless, Pollan is a Master wordsmith.