vocabulary lessons: The Fish in the Forest by Dale Stokes

If you’re interested: see other vocabulary lessons as well.


fish forestAs you know, I found the salmon’s story in The Fish in the Forest simply mesmerizing. I also learned a lot – and not just about salmon. Here are some vocabulary words I had to look up.

epiphytes attach to their host plants for support and as a means to reach more sunlight… but are traditionally classified as non-parasitic”: “There are epiphytic plants that grow on trunks and branches high in the forest canopy…”

relict, “a surviving species of an otherwise extinct group of organisms”: “The present salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest stem from relict populations that have been extant since the last ice age…” (I suspected a typo here for “relic” – this being a pre-publication proof edition, typos would not surprise. But no, I learned something new here. “Relict” is perfectly appropriate.)

trophically, “of or relating to nutrition”: “Even when not preying on salmon directly, humpbacks are linked to them trophically because they feed on fishes that compete with salmon for food.” Further explained a little later on within the book itself: “The troph in heterotroph and autotroph implies nourishment…” In other words, what we’re talking about here (in context) is organisms that are linked on the food chain, or the food web. They are trophically linked.(Another that looked like a possible typo; except that “tropically” would have made no sense in context!)

collocate, “to occur in conjunction with something”: “The other two races have overlapping ranges along the coast but seldom interact or collocate.”

semelparous, “reproducing or breeding only once in a lifetime” (or, to put it more bluntly, once they breed, they die): “Their life history of anadromy and semelparity transports millions of tons of salmon flesh into nutrient-poor freshwaters that then shape the entire Salmon Forest.”

gestalt, “the general quality or character of something”: “All living things possess a unique gestalt…”

I had previously come across the concept of anadromy (I don’t recall where) and looked it up (defined: “ascending rivers from the sea for breeding”); but finding it repeatedly in this book made me curious about the pronunciation of anadromous: “…the critical return to freshwater to spawn is called an anadromous life history…”

I like a good vocabulary lesson alongside a fine reading experience – don’t you? Or does reaching for the dictionary frustrate you?

The Fish in the Forest by Dale Stokes

The thoroughly engrossing story of the salmon and its science.

fish forest

Seven species of salmon inhabit the Pacific in strikingly diverse ecosystems–ocean, river and stream, forest–in California, Alaska, the Bering Sea, Japan, Korea and Russia. Research oceanographer Dale Stokes calls these territories the “Salmon Forest” in The Fish in the Forest, a loving study of the salmon’s place in our world.

Salmon may strike some readers as a potentially dull subject, but in Stokes’s knowledgeable hands, the singular story of this fish is utterly riveting. Pacific salmon are anadromous and semelparous (born in fresh water, they mature in the salty ocean before swimming back up rivers and streams to breed just once and then die shortly thereafter); they possess an internal compass and map, enabling them to navigate over thousands of kilometers to the waterways of their birth; they are temporally aware, following a timetable for their reproduction and death.

Stokes presents a good deal of hard science (such as the complex cellular interchange of ions that allows them to survive in both salt and fresh water), but all of it is easily understandable. He explains why salmon are a keystone species; their feat of bringing rich marine nutrients well inland and at every point on a complex food web; and the interconnectedness of every resident in the Salmon Forest. Doc White’s 70 color photographs are stunning, focusing not only on fish and forest, but also the species of wolf, bear and eagle that interact with the salmon.

Fans of the Pacific Northwest, trees, water and nature, and readers concerned with ecology or science, will find much to enjoy in this gorgeous and illuminating fish tale.


This review originally ran in the July 1, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 alevins.

“Tawny Grammar” by Gary Snyder

And with this post Gary Snyder gets his own tag.


wildEssays from The Practice of the Wild:

  1. The Etiquette of Freedom
  2. The Place, the Region, and the Commons
  3. Tawny Grammar

I am struck, again, at how we encounter the same phrases over and over in this world and in our reading… just days ago I read Land of Love and Drowning, in which certain scenes are set to the song, “Rum and Coca Cola” – generally credited to the Andrews Sisters but originally by Lord Invader. Here it is in the opening pages of Snyder’s essay “Tawny Grammar,” in which he makes the point that music and dance belong to time and place. One time-and-place’s song or dance may be popular in other times and places, but will never belong to them the way – for example – Snyder has formed a memory of dancing with a girl for the first time to this song in 1943. His next point is that, as we established in “The Place, the Region, and the Commons” that we no longer belong to place, “we are not quite sure what our home music is.”

He then takes his reader on a trip to a remote Alaskan village, where he muses with local teacher friends on the question of what it is reasonable, realistic, helpful to teach the children there.

So these children should prepare to be mining engineers? The company will bring its own experts with it. Heavy equipment operator? Maybe. Computers? Computers are in all the schools of the Far North, along with video cameras. There may be more computer literacy in the schools of northwest Alaska than in those of Los Angeles. Even so, there is no guarantee that any school anywhere in the whole world can give a child an education which will be of practical use in twenty yeras. So much is changing so fast – except, perhaps, caribou migrations and the berry ripening.

Good gosh, he wrote this in what year? Still true… my profession, librarianship, has been talking for decades about CHANGE and how we will adapt (the need to be more than people who stamp due dates in books), but this problem is not unique to us. The world is indeed changing so fast; and while I love the idea that caribou migrations and berry ripening may be our constants, and that’s partly true, it’s also true that mass extinctions and climate change have begun to prove him wrong.

He writes about the Inupiaq values posted in the village classroom, and the contradictions we teach our kids: in this case, tribal values vs. external Western societal ones, “one for getting what’s yours, another for being decent.” I am strongly reminded of another few lines – I can’t for the life of me remember who wrote them; was it Doug Peacock? – something to the effect that war is traumatic for our youth because we teach them from the beginning that killing is wrong, right up to the moment we send them out to kill, and then expect them to come home and readjust.

More discussion of our interrelatedness, the importance of social constructs, perspectives, and recognizing the nonhuman world too:

American society… operates under the delusion that we are each a kind of “solitary knower” – that we exist as rootless intelligences without layers of localized contexts. Just a “self” and the “world.” In this there is no real recognition that grandparents, place, grammar, pets, friends, lovers, children, tools, the poems and songs we remember, are what we think with.

He goes on to tell us what he means by grammar, and the importance of language in our interactions with the world, and muse on what language really means. Under the subheading “Nature’s Writing”:

The stratigraphy of rocks, layers of pollen in a swamp, the outward expanding circles in the trunk of a tree, can be seen as texts. The calligraphy of rivers winding back and forth over the land leaving layer upon layer of traces of previous riverbeds is texts.

While this makes for a lovely metaphor, I think he means it – and I understand it – far more literally. “A text is information stored through time.”

I was tempted to play with his Whorfian challenge:

“Is there any experience whatsoever that is not mediated by language?” I banged my heavy beer mug sharply on the table and half a dozen people jumped and looked at us. We had to give up and laugh at this point, since it always seems to come back to an ordinary mystery.

Isn’t that an example of just such a one? Or in other words, if a tree falls in the forest, etc. If we have an experience – a shared but wordless experience – have we experienced it, or shared it, any the less for not discussing it in language?

As much as I enjoyed this essay, which was intelligent, thoughtful, musing, informed, and seasoned by references to the classics and mythologies from around the world (I love this), I found myself wondering if there was a point coming down the line. Of course, there rather was, but it was typically cerebral and conceptual in nature, so I needed Snyder to help me wrap it up. He does so in his conversation with a linguist friend, about whether language is biology, and whether it follows evolutionary lines (sort of, in its own way, but not in the way biology does); and finally by quoting Thoreau and Dōgen. The end point, as I take it, is this: language should not be a weapon, considered as belonging to humans alone and used to differentiate ourselves from the world, but should be considered one of the many ways in which we live in and with rather than above.

I close by asking a question. Do we agree with Snyder in the following suspicion?

Nonhuman nature, I cannot help feeling, is well inclined toward humanity and only wishes modern people were more reciprocal, not so bloody.


Up next, essay 4: “Good, Wild, Sacred.”

Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild by Novella Carpenter

Back-to-basics urban farmer Novella Carpenter investigates family in her second contemplative memoir.

gone feral

When Novella Carpenter was 36, her father went missing. It turned out to be a false alarm, but the threat of losing him helped Novella realize that, if she was ever to get to know George Carpenter, she might be running out of time, since their relationship had been stuck somewhere between uneasy and estranged for years. Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild charts her journey home.

After a romantic meeting in 1969 San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, her parents embarked on an idealistic European tour before settling on a farm in Idaho in “voluntary poverty.” But the marriage ended when Novella and her sister were five and seven, and their mother moved them to Washington State; Novella didn’t see much of her father after that. Now, three decades later, she has a small urban farm in Oakland, Calif., which she documented in her memoir Farm City. When she and her boyfriend, Bill, decide to try to get pregnant, she wonders about her own genetic legacy. Breeding ducks, chickens and milk goats has taught her the importance of the stock line. In working to become a parent herself, after the scare of George going missing, she goes in search of her father, hoping to build the relationship they never had.

George is still scraping by near the Idaho farm where Novella was born. He’s a regular backwoods curmudgeon, making a meager living by logging and cutting firewood and sharing his cabin with wild animals. She hopes they’ll go fly-fishing, re-creating the romance of A River Runs Through It. Maybe they’ll forage for wild foods or he’ll teach her how to fell a tree perfectly. Instead, he rants about the devils that possess the old family farm and exhibits previously unnoticed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (the legacy of his service in the Korean War). Novella is disturbed, angered all over again at what she sees as his abandonment, and concerned about the genes she’ll pass on to a child, if she ever succeeds in getting pregnant.

Gone Feral is reflective, as Novella ponders the paradoxes of her upbringing–for example, the liberal hippie value system (hers and her mother’s) that rejects her father the mountain man–and wonders what it is she really wants for her own child. Traveling through the country and her own past teaches her about herself, her origins, and how to build a future that includes father as well as child.


This review originally ran in the May 20, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 5 babies.

The Reef: A Passionate History: The Great Barrier Reef from Captain Cook to Climate Change by Iain McCalman

The Great Barrier Reef is both easily understood and awe-inspiring in this history of its discovery, exploitation and beauty.

reef

With The Reef, Iain McCalman (Darwin’s Armada) has composed “a passionate history” of the Great Barrier Reef, opening with his own long-awaited voyage (part of a reenactment of Captain Cook’s original trip). Following the prologue, he withdraws to the role of historian rather than participant, and chronicles the Great Barrier Reef as known to Western society over the last few centuries.

The Reef is divided into three parts. Beginning in 1770 with Captain Cook and proceeding through later explorers who helped chart the reefs in the 1800s, “Terror” emphasizes the threat the reef posed to ships and their navigators, and the fear of cannibals and others thought to inhabit the area. In Part II, “Nurture,” the reef begins to offer refuge for those seeking to escape civilization or make a fresh start. Europeans are taken in by native islanders, or discover island paradise; naturalists arrive, captivated by the biodiversity and beauty of the area while beginning to realize that coral is a resource that can be exploited. “Wonder” sees the scientific community take an interest, disagreeing about the origins and biology of the reef. Ecology emerges as a new field of study, its proponents seeking to place the reef in the larger context of other natural environments, to study relationships and cause and effect. Individual activists work to defend the unusual and changing ecosystem from mining, oil spills, overfishing and the rough use of tourism.

At the end, we are introduced to nature-loving scientist J.E.N. Veron, nicknamed “Charlie” after Charles Darwin, an engaging character who communicates the final dire message of the Great Barrier Reef’s looming extinction. Returning to the personal nature of his prologue, McCalman’s epilogue speaks to the grim consequences of climate change but holds forth hope as well.

The few images in The Reef include portraits of the personalities involved but not the corals themselves (although McCalman refers his reader to books that offer the latter). This work’s strengths include a coherent structure, friendly narrative style and a reasoned culminating call to action that does not disrupt its primary role as a comprehensive history. Plentiful notes indicate strong research, but McCalman’s writing is accessible to any reader interested in the intersection of science, nature and history. From perceived threat to resource to paradise destination to climate-change indicator–Charlie Veron calls corals “the canaries of climate change”–the Great Barrier Reef is fully explored in this engaging study.


This review originally ran in the May 6, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 dives.

“The Place, the Region, and the Commons” by Gary Snyder

This is the second essay in Gary Snyder’s collection, The Practice of the Wild. The first was “The Etiquette of Freedom.” I am proceeding, very, verrrry slowly.

wildI found this essay much more accessible than the first, which you may recall I found a little bit dryly academic and theoretical and less useful for reclaiming or repurposing our real world. This one jumps right in with a discussion of what a place means to us, and what it used to mean to us. In human history, there was a time when we were defined by our physical, geographical surroundings; culture was inextricable from the place in which it was set, with mythical explanations for a nearby mountain or a nearby stream, and close cultural understandings of native plants and their uses, etc. This really got me thinking about how disconnected we are now from our place – which of course is Snyder’s point. For instance, pardon my getting personal here, but I have wondered about my own cultural identity in terms of place…

I was born in Texas and have lived here all my life: just shy of 32 years at present. My mother is a native Texan, too, and lived here over 60 years before she left. My father’s parents moved around a lot when he was growing up, so in a way he’s from nowhere; but the family roots have always been in New England (Vermont, mostly), and he clearly identifies with that past, despite having lived in Texas for the majority of his years, too. I’m from the South (maybe not the “Deep South”; under many folks’ definitions, Texas doesn’t generally qualify, or only East Texas does), but I’m also from the fourth-largest city in the country, so I’m no country girl. And I’ve been brought up by radical leftists, so I am politically very much a minority in my home region. As a city girl, I’m also guilty of the removal from my local plants & trees that Snyder cites. I have sometimes had the odd feeling that my father is surprised to find that he’s raised a Southern girl – but he raised his daughter in Texas for all her life, so whence this surprise? I think he thinks of himself as somehow not a Southerner despite all his years here. He was born in the region; spend a few years of elementary, high school, and college years here; he raised his daughter here. Is he not “from” the South because he doesn’t think of himself that way?

Sorry to have gotten sidetracked. What I’m trying to point out is that we no longer have our fingers in the dirt where we were born or live, figuratively or literally; but we used to. And that’s what Snyder is getting at. No wonder we’re confused or distressed; we don’t know who we are any more.

He talks about bioregions, about the naturalness of conceiving borders based on ecosystems, or the area in which a certain plant grows or a certain animal roams. Why draw county lines so that one county stretches over a high mountain pass that allows no travel for part of the year? Better to use that high ridgeline as a boundary line. Etc.

I stood with my climbing partner (Allen Ginsberg) on the summit of Glacier Peak looking all ways round, ridge after ridge and peak after peak, as far as we could see. To the west across Puget Sound were the farther peaks of the Olympic Mountains. He said: “You mean there’s a senator for all this?”

And then he talks about the concept of the “commons,” which ruled for much of human history worldwide. The commons were that land that was usable by all for shared grazing, gathering firewood, building materials, and general foraging; it served as a buffer zone between the absolute wild and the village, therefore allowing the wild to exist in itself, and contributing to the health and well-being of both wild and village. I love the line, “the parts less visited are ‘where the bears are.'” It reminded me of that old-time phrase seen on maps where the known world ends: “here be dragons,” which is charmingly fantastical and filled with possibilities. (There is also a good book by that title.) The commons are about the wild; but they’re also about human society, culture, our relationships with each other – as much as they are about our relationships with the rest of the world, the parts that aren’t human. He writes, “The commons is a level of organization of human society that includes the nonhuman.”

This segues nicely into a discussion of a human compact or contract not only with one another (what we call “society” – the agreement that we won’t kill each other [except in times of war... don't get me started]), but with the nonhuman world. The idea that we owe something to that nonhuman world, that flowers and trees and newts and grizzly bears and even dirt are entities that we should, must, respect is an idea that I find self-evident; but clearly that isn’t the majority opinion, or we wouldn’t be where we are today. Derrick Jensen knows what I mean.

Of course then Snyder is compelled to tell us about the death of the commons, the enclosing of those common spaces around the world and how and when it took place, and its economical and ecological toll. In search of ever-increasing profits and the famous “growth” we worship, we fenced in the commons, made them private land (or exploitable “public” land), stripped them of resources and exported those resources for money. Now we have less wild, fewer resources, and the rural homeless were sent to the cities to work for wages. Again, I find these arguments easy to agree with – I’m nodding throughout – but not everyone will react that way. Finally, he debunks the “so-called tragedy of the commons,” the idea that if it’s free to all, some will abuse it. He points out that commons are properly not ungoverned, but are governed by the community, and that this model worked for a great many years.

A survival of commons practice in Swedish law allows anyone to enter private farmland to pick berries or mushrooms, to cross on foot, and to camp out of sight of the house.

Can you just imagine!! I can’t, not living in Texas, where we shoot people for setting foot on our property.

I love the bioregional perspective, and I certainly agree that “we need to make a world-scale ‘Natural Contract’ with the oceans, the air, the birds in the sky.” I think he speaks to the beautiful idea of the commons – community-based, in a community that is larger than humankind – articulately and passionately and sensibly. I wish more people would read his work.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

wild

From essay #2, “The Place, the Region, and the Commons,” I wanted to share a Thoreau reference.

Thoreau says in “Walking” that an area twenty miles in diameter will be enough to occupy a lifetime of close exploration on foot – you will never exhaust its details.

And it rather makes sense. We travel far and wide, but if we only made our world smaller and noticed it more, we’d be satisfied with less space. This is an observation also made by Harold Fry in another book I’m reading; he’s a fictional character, but I think that’s okay.

John Muir and the Ice that Started a Fire by Kim Heacox

The carefully researched and engaging story of John Muir, Alaska’s glaciers and the movement they built together.

muir ice

John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire is neither a straightforward biography of Muir nor a simple study of the global significance Alaska’s glaciers. Rather, Kim Heacox (The Only Kayak) is concerned with the relationship between Muir and the glaciers that rivaled Yosemite in his affections, and the impact that pairing had.

From a humble background in Scotland and Wisconsin, and between stints as a surprisingly apt businessman, Muir lived as a self-described tramp, ardent nature lover and student of flowers, trees, mountains and–upon finally reaching Alaska–glaciers. His famed role as author and activist came late in life, and not easily: he found writing hard work and political activism distasteful, though necessary. However, Muir made perhaps the greatest impact on conservation of any individual in United States history.

Heacox meticulously researched and lovingly describes Alaska’s rivers of ice and Muir’s path toward them, his emergence as writer and preservationist, and his far-ranging influence in legislation, literary legacy and new traditions–including the birth of the conservation movement as we know it. Though often descriptive rather than persuasive, Heacox lends his own voice to the cause in his final chapters: “To debate [climate change] is to give credibility to an argument that shouldn’t exist.” He closes by adding the arguments of Aldo Leopold, Bill McKibben and Derrick Jensen to Muir’s, in the interest of preserving our wild spaces–thereby continuing Muir’s work.


This review originally ran in the April 11, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 little dogs.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (audio)

In A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson describes his experience on the Appalachian Trail. He and his family had just moved to New Hampshire and he discovered the trail almost literally in his back yard, and decided, what the heck? he’d try walking it. At the last minute, an old friend agrees to join him, to his relief (now he won’t be alone out there with the bears); this old friend turns out to be overweight, a smoker, recently sober, and in no shape for such a lengthy walk in the woods, but they set off nevertheless, beginning to walk the AT in Georgia and headed for Maine.

a walk in the woodsOh, Bill Bryson, you funny, infuriating man. I have had a love-hate relationship, as they say, with this book. Bryson is very amusing, and this is his strongest suit; at his best, he had me giggling aloud on the train during my commute, which I try not to do because that’s weird, right? But he can be downright annoying as well. I’m not sure what he conceives this book actually is; amusing memoir? (For which, grade B+, at least.) Nature tale? (C-, on which more in a moment.) Camping satire? (Please stop.) His ineptitude at the outdoorsiness might be funny to somebody, but I just find it obnoxious and …well, kind of stupid. On the other hand, he hiked the Appalachian Trail for months, you guys, completing nearly 900 miles of it, and I have to respect that, as I’ve never done any such thing. But with such an opportunity to tell us about the AT, he spends a great deal of time telling us what poorly prepared rookie campers he and his friend Katz are; the trail itself is often just background, if even that. The book was 1/3 through before he even mentions a view, let alone describes one; and precious few times from then on. In fact, I think I’ve answered my question: Bryson conceives of this book as an amusing memoir, and the fact that it takes place on the AT is mere coincidence and in no way important to the story he has to tell.

When he rails against our destruction of natural areas and our Park Service’s poor management of those lands, he does a fine job, and I both learned something and enjoyed the polemic; but then he pulls punches, as when writing about tree diseases:

A great tragedy, of course. But how lucky, when you think about it, that these diseases are are least species-specific. Instead of a chestnut blight, or Dutch elm disease, or dogwood anthracnose, what if there was just a tree blight? Something indiscriminate and unstoppable, that swept through whole forests? In fact, there is. It’s called… acid rain.

No, Bryson, it’s called people! Call a spade a spade! Sigh.

Later in the book, when Bryson and Katz (the brunt of all the best jokes) part company temporarily, Bryson shifts focus a bit toward the history of the AT and gets less jokey. I appreciate this content, but it lacks the sparkle of his more humorous writing. In other words, I felt that A Walk in the Woods struggled throughout with an identity crisis.

The audio edition is good, I’ll say that without qualification. William Roberts’s reading is hilarious, and suits Bryson’s writing voice well. The book is absolutely at its best when describing Bryson & Katz’s mishaps on the trail, and only mildly interesting (for those interested in such things) when it leaves their narrative to wander the AT on a more intellectual level. One final pet peeve: as far as I can understand, Katz and Bryson do a lot of littering. Katz repeatedly handles the frustration of his heavy pack by dumping gear, and I don’t think there are garbage cans out in the woods. (I hope not.) There are a cigarette pack and three butts discarded by Katz at an important point. This makes me ANGRY. Littering on the AT?!

Representative quotation:

I had come to realize that I didn’t have any feelings towards the AT that weren’t confused and contradictory.

Me too, Bryson.


Rating: 5 cream sodas.

I wasn’t sure whether to go with 4 or 5; but I did finish the book, so there’s that.

book beginnings on Friday: Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild by Novella Carpenter

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

gone feral

Novella Carpenter’s Gone Feral tells the story of seeking a relationship with her mostly-estranged father, who prefers the outdoors to the city. It begins:

My dad officially went missing on October 17, 2009.

The morning I found out, I woke up to the hum of traffic from Interstate 980 harmonizing with the nickering of milk goats at my back stairs.

She managed to sneak right in there her own preferred ratio of city-to-outdoors: she has an “urban farm” in Oakland. Not a bad beginning, I think.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

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