Teaser Tuesdays, in praise of words: Gods, Wasps and Stranglers by Mike Shanahan

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.


If you’ll excuse me for reprising the book from last Friday’s book beginning, I couldn’t resist these lines about how the name of the Ficus benjamina came to be.


Linnaeus gave the name Ficus carica to the common domesticated fig species after Caria – a region of ancient Anatolia in what is now Turkey. The scientific name he gave the other fig of my childhood, Ficus benjamina, has a more convoluted origin. Cut the tree and white latex will bleed out. Various other species also produce this particular kind of sticky fluid, which people have used for centuries to make perfumes, incense, medicines and other products. This substance is known as gum benzoin, from an Italian interpretation of a Javan word that is Arabic in origin. English tongues mangled the word some more to form ‘gum benjamin.’ So over time, the benzoin trees ended up being called benjamin trees, hence the benjamin fig (Ficus benjamina). I prefer its better-known name – the weeping fig – which it got because, when it sheds its leaves, they fall like green tears to the ground.

Whew! and, isn’t it extraordinary, the journey that term has made through languages and geography to bring a standard “ficus” tree to us? I love language.

The rest of the book is excellent, too.

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

book beginnings on Friday: Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees by Mike Shanahan

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.


Finally we receive mail at the new address! Which means books! Up next on my reading schedule, thanks to US Postal, is this short profile (if you will) of the much-discussed fig.

It begins:

The figs were big orange beacons that lured me from afar. The snake was lime green and venomous and just centimetres from my face.

I love the colors, and the immediacy! That’s a good start.

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

The Hidden Lives of Owls: The Science and Spirit of Nature’s Most Elusive Birds by Leigh Calvez

This enthusiastic study of the owls of the Pacific Northwest may inspire new fans and citizen scientists.

hidden lives of owls

Leigh Calvez had studied orca and humpback whales, spirit bears and brown bears, before owls crossed her line of sight. The Hidden Lives of Owls: The Science and Spirit of Nature’s Most Elusive Birds is the story of the time she spent pursuing the owls of the Pacific Northwest, where she lives.

Calvez meets with citizen scientists and professional researchers, and travels through Alaska, Montana, Washington and Oregon in her quest to spot and, more significantly, to understand a range of species. In a wondering tone, she considers the hard science and spiritual connections of Flammulated, Snowy, Great Horned, Great Gray, Burrowing and the controversial Barred Owls–which have thrived in the Pacific Northwest at the expense of other owls. Calvez shares some of the fascinating particulars of owl biology: specialized feathers that support silent flight; asynchronous hatching and fledging schedules; reversed sexual size dimorphism (females are larger than males in most owl species). She investigates the environmental threats to these birds, and she sympathizes with mothers forced to choose between the safety of their babies and their own.

The Hidden Lives of Owls is both informative and often reverential. While Calvez has chosen her subjects by their proximity to her home, many species considered here migrate or travel from coast to coast in the United States, and from Canada to Mexico, giving this book appeal across North America. In the end, Calvez makes a strong argument for the owls’ particular needs and interests.

This review originally ran in the August 26, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 6 feathers.

selections from Cascadia: The Life and Breath of the World ed. by Frank Stewart & Trevor Carolan

cascadiaI just read a few pieces from this collection, so I won’t finish with a final rating, but I think it’s recommendable overall for readers interested in a sense of place in this place in particular; nature & ecology; First Nations peoples; or Emily Carr.

The table of contents is organized by category: essays, oratory, poetry, memoir. Unusually, the order of the table of contents is not the same as the order in the book itself. I picked out a few things I wanted to read: essays “In the Shadow of Red Cedar” by Wade Davis, “Reinhabitation” by Gary Snyder, and “Nature’s Apprentice” by Rex Weyler; Barry Lopez’s fiction “In the Great Bend of the Souris River”; and all three pieces of memoir, “The Laughing One: Word Sketches from Klee Wyck” by Emily Carr, “The Sasquatch at Home” by Eden Robinson, and “Lew Welch: An Appreciation” by Maxine Hong Kingston. Emily Carr’s sketches appear throughout, illustrating not only her own writing but all of Cascadia.

The work of Barry Lopez and Maxine Hong Kingston were among my favorites; Eden Robinson’s story about her mother and Elvis was curious and enjoyable. But by far the standout for me was Emily Carr, a woman I know best from a work of fiction: Susan Vreeland’s The Forest Lover. I marveled here at her skill with words as well as pencil and paintbrush. She recounts experiences as a teen visiting a mission school and other native communities, and the wisdom and humor as well as observations she expresses are impressive. I marked several startling phrases.

The house was of wood, unpainted. There were no blinds or curtains. It looked, as we paddled up to it, as it if were stuffed with black.

It must have hurt the Indians dreadfully to have the things they had always believed trampled on and torn from their hugging. Down deep we all hug something. The great forest hugs its silence. The sea and the air hug the spilled cries of sea-birds. The forest hugs only silence; its birds and even its beasts are mute.

The old man sawed as if aeons of time were before him, and as if all the years behind him had been leisurely and all the years in front of him would be equally so. There was strength still in his back and limbs but his teeth were all worn to the gums. The shock of hair that fell to his shoulders was grizzled. Life had sweetened the old man. He was luscious with time like the end berries of the strawberry season.

Luscious with time like a strawberry. I tell you. And this woman is famous for her paintings! (Etc.)

From Barry Lopez’s story, in which the narrator pours his passion into working with wood, reading wood, and using that work to read his world, comes a metaphor:

Nothing solid, I learned, can ever be built without shims.

I’ve just taken a quick overview of what this book has to offer; but I can see that it addresses the politics, history, cultures and ecology of the region of Cascadia (“a great arc from Southeast Alaska to Cape Mendocino, California”) through a variety of lenses and voices. And with some lovely words in between.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Hidden Lives of Owls: The Science and Spirit of Nature’s Most Elusive Birds by Leigh Calvez

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.


I haven’t done a synchronicity post in a while, but here we are. Just the other day, on a mountain bike ride in Squamish, B.C., Husband and I had to stop to observe this guy (or girl?) sitting in a tree, watching us.

(click to enlarge)

Husband got up pretty close.

(click to enlarge)

My research when I got home tells me that this is a Barred Owl.

And then I started reading this book, The Hidden Lives of Owls: The Science and Spirit of Nature’s Most Elusive Birds. From the chapter on Barred Owls, which is titled “Opportunistic”:

hidden lives of owls

Barred Owls are the opportunists of the owl world. Like coyotes, Glaucous Gulls, rats, and cockroaches, Barred Owls are not picky about what they consume.*

In other words, they are the scavengers, the ones happy to be near humans – the commensal species. I guess this explains the ease with which we encountered one, too: they are considered an invasive species around here by many scientists. It would have been much more remarkable to see a Northern Spotted Owl; but they prefer old growth, where the Barred Owl is easier to please.

I am always pleased when my reading aligns with my life.

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

*Note: the author states that she capitalizes all official bird names according to the customs of the International Ornithologists’ Union. In this teaser, it looks a little funny next to lower-case coyotes and rats; but I guess those aren’t the official names, anyway.

Wintergreen: Rambles in a Ravaged Land by Robert Michael Pyle

wintergreenAs I mentioned last week, I read Wintergreen in preparation for a class I am taking this very weekend from the author, Robert Michael Pyle. It was an intriguing read, and I’m looking forward to learning from the man himself.

The copy I read, borrowed from Pops, is a Pharos Edition, meaning that “one of today’s most exciting authors” hand-picked and introduced it in a reprint. Wintergreen was originally published in 1986 by Scriber; this 2015 edition is being called a 30-year anniversary, and David Guterson (The Other, Snow Falling on Cedars) brought it to Pharos.

In a word, Wintergreen is a book in defense of the ravaged land of the subtitle. That land is the Willapa Hills of southwest Washington (near where the Oregon line meets the coast), where Pyle settled after growing up in Colorado and studying in Seattle and at Yale, and some other stops along the way including Great Britain. This land is ravaged, of course, by logging; but Pyle argues that it is still beautiful, still deeply rich in natural wonders, and worth saving. Pyle is a biologist and a writer, and his style is both reverent and carefully descriptive and detailed. His tone can be occasionally irreverent and jokey; he is conversational, humble, and disarming, absolutely likable. I intend to like him, when I meet him.

In his own words,

This is the plan of the book: to describe the Willapa Hills and the wildlife they support, both native and alien; to examine the impact of intensive forestry upon the land and its life; and finally, to assay the ability of organisms (including ourselves) to survive in the aftermath of massive resource extraction. Throughout, questions of biogeography, ecology, and evolution in the wet, wintergreen world find their way into the text.

And four sections of four essays each do this work, as promised. It is kept from being overly square, in that structure, by Guterson’s intro, a Prologue, and an updated Afterword written for this 2015 edition.

I felt a great affinity for the sense of place that is so central to this work, especially because the place Pyle loves is an underdog, a humble and much-derided place. He writes,

In attending to these neglected hills I try to appreciate them for what they still are, without holding against them what they once were.

He takes his reader leisurely through what this place once was – the hugest of the huge old-growth Douglas firs et al, the ones whose stumps were repurposed as roomy homes for families – and what it is now – second-, third- and fourth-growth, and stump fields that however hold their own beauty, and remarkably biodiversity. He writes beautifully. There is undeniable poetry in the line,

The backs of old barns break and ancient boats and Studebakers deliquesce into the fundament.

Or, when introduced (and little-loved) nutria are quirkily described:

Wombatlike but generally black, they add a definite presence to an already-altered ecosystem, and they are somewhat more interesting than cows.

His audience is understood to be somewhat sympathetic to his feelings and beliefs: that the natural world deserves our protecting even while that is a rather arrogant concept; that old growth forests are special; that green is good. He takes some background knowledge for granted (first approaching the question, “what is old growth?” on page 198), but this is not much of a risk. He is right about the background his readers come to him with.

As he acknowledges in the newly-added Afterword, some of the specific details of politics, policy, and specific local conditions in the 1986 edition are a little dated now. But none are incorrect; and he brings us up to date in this Afterword. The questions I noted during my reading were well answered. Any period-specific feeling to the whole is enriching, if slightly distracting: it makes this text feel grounded in time as well as literal ground.

The pace of these 369 pages is not rushed, but indeed rambling. Patient readers, however, who love a certain level of detail and a good, rain-soaked, mature story, will be well rewarded.

Rating: 8 individually loved stumps.

book beginnings on Friday: Wintergreen: Rambles in a Ravaged Land by Robert Michael Pyle

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.


I am reading this in preparation for the upcoming Chuckanut Writers Conference and a class I will be taking from Robert Michael Pyle himself. An introduction from David Guterson is intriguing, as is the Pharos Edition (same folks who brought Still Life With Insects back into print). It begins:

At any time of the year and in any weather, my bedroom window frames a green and pleasant country scene. Halfway open, it makes a Kodachrome slide of the bucolic valley below, bordered by white sashes and molding.

Lovely. And this setting is just a few hours south of where I live.

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