"The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible." -Vladimir Nobokov

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Five Books for Earth Day

I've always loved Earth Day, but I'm usually not very good at celebrating it. I think that being environmentally conscious starts, not with recycling or water conservation (though those things will come later), but with a deeply rooted appreciation and respect for the natural world. So, to help you celebrate Earth Day, here's a quick list of my favorite books about nature and the environment:

1. Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story about Looking at People Looking at Animals in America by Jon Mooallem

This book was my favorite non-fiction book last year, and it has earned its place in my top 10 books of all time. As the title suggests, it examines the lengths that humans will go to save endangered species, and believe me, we will do dome crazy things. From air-lifting polar bears out of Churchill, Alaska, to tirelessly counting butterflies the size of fingernails, humans will often go to extreme lengths to save certain species but not others. Wrapped up in all of this is science, politics, tourism, and even teddy bears. Wild Ones is a funny, gorgeously written, and at times very poignant look at the way humans view the environment and the animals we share it with. If you only read one book on this list, it should really be this one. 

Bonus: I heard about this book through one of my favorite podcasts, 99% Invisible. In this episode you'll hear parts of the book read aloud with musical accompaniment, and it's one of my favorite things ever.

2. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard's strength is observation. Reading this book is a lot like going on a nature walk and suddenly seeing every insect, every bird, every path made by a slug, every place where a frog laid their eggs in shallow water. While reading this book, I found myself looking at an altered world. Sunlight slanted differently through the leaves of trees. The air smelled of pine and earth and water. Everything felt more alive than it had before. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek will teach you, by example, to always be alert to the world around you. What really, could be more important? 

To give you some idea of how powerful her prose is, here is one of my favorite quotes:

"I was sitting on the sycamore log bridge with the sunset at my back, watching the shiners the size of minnows who were feeding over the muddy sand in skitter schools. Again and again, one fish, then another, turned for a split second across the current and flash! the sun shot out from its silver side. I couldn't watch for it. It was always just happening somewhere else, and it drew my vision just as it disappeared [....] So I blurred my eyes and gazed towards the brim of my hat and saw a new world. I saw the pale white circles roll up, roll up, like the world's turning, mute and perfect, and I saw the linear flashes, gleaming silver, like stars being born at random down a rolling scroll of time. Something broke and something opened. I filled up like a new skin. I breathed an air like light; I saw a light like water."

3. Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat

Never Cry Wolf is the (possibly fictionalized?) memoir of a governmental scientist's journey into the Alaskan wilderness. It is a beautiful look not only at a mostly unexplored wilderness, but the people and animals who live there. Originally published in 1963, it's also a fascinating window into the scientific process more than half a century ago. 

Favorite quote: "Somewhere to the east a wolf howled, lightly, questioningly. I knew the voice, for I had heard it many times before. It was George, sounding the wasteland for an echo from the missing members of his family. But for me it was a voice which spoke of the lost world which was once ours before we chose the alien role; a world which I had glimpsed and almost entered, only to be excluded, at the end, by my own self."

Bonus: It also got turned a beautiful and moving film that is definitely worth watching.

4. The Poetry of Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets. She seamlessly interweaves the spiritual world with the natural world, and can encompass both minute detail and vast philosophical ideas in a single stanza. Her poems speak to both the vitality of the human spirit as well as powerful transcendent quality that our environment can bring into our lives. Next time you plan to take a walk in the woods or along the shore of a deserted beach, I highly recommend bringing along a book of Mary Oliver's poetry.

My favorite poem: Wild Geese

Bonus: Here is a rare and wonderful interview that Mary Oliver did on Krista Tippet's podcast/radio show On Being.

5. The Oldest Living Things in the World by Rachel Sussman

I have yet you actually get my hands on this book, but ever since I learned about it on BrainPickings, I can't get it out of my head. The book is the result of a long term project in which Rachel Sussman took it upon herself to photograph the oldest living things on Earth. From 3,000 year old Chilean lichen to the 80,000 year old Pando forest in Utah, this book's beautiful photographs put the fleeting nature of our own lives in sharp relief.

Maria Popova on The Oldest Living Things in the World: "Above all, however, the project raises questions that aren't so much scientific or artistic as profoundly human: What is the meaning of human life if it comes and goes before a patch of moss has reached the end of infancy? How do our petty daily stresses measure up against a struggle for survival stretching back millennia? Who would we be if we relinquished our arrogant conviction that we are Earth's biological crown jewel?"

I think I'll just leave you to sit with this question for a little while. Feel free to leave the titles of your favorite nature-related books in the comments, or if you've read any of the books on this list. Most of all, have a wonderful Earth Day!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A Place Outside of Time

There comes a point near the end of every semester when time speeds up. There are just four weeks until finals, and the amount of work I have to do before then seems ridiculously out of proportion to how quickly the days are flying by. This past weekend however, I found myself in a place that felt completely outside of time: the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory.

I spent Easter in the Twin cities with my roommate, and on our second day there we visited the conservatory with her grandmother. The day was just chilly enough to make the fragrant humidity a welcome change. We only saw the Palm Dome, Sunken Garden, and Bonsai exhibit, with a speedy walk through the Japanese Garden. We didn't even get a chance to visit the zoo. Even so, the conservatory made a big impression on me.

The conservatory was celebrating its 100 year anniversary, and stepping inside felt a little like going back in time. There was something timeless and location-less about it, and I could easily imagine people in the early 20th century doing much the same things as their 21st century counterparts.  Artists setting up easels to paint the gardens. Lovers walking the paths arm and arm. Children making a wish before tossing a penny into one of the fountains. 

Suddenly the outside world and all of its trappings fell away. I forgot I was in a city. I forgot about school, and that we'd be making the long haul back to Iowa later that day. Instead I walked around in a daze, marveling at the contrast (or perhaps the similarity) between the ribbed windows above and the spindly leaves all around. 

(When I took this picture, the woman behind me commented and said "I wonder how many people have that exact same photograph." There's something really cool about that.)

After about five minutes, there was no denying that I was in love. This place managed to combine the sensory experience of being in nature with the peaceful, contemplative state of mind native to art museums. If I lived anywhere nearby, I'd probably visit every other weekend.

Now more than ever, I think it's important to have places where we can simply give in to experience. Places like the conservatory facilitate a slower, focus-driven way of thinking, from the closeness of the palms in the main atrium to the intricacy of the bonsai trees. Even the organized beauty of the sunken garden has something to offer in the way of contemplation and attention. All you have to do is give in to the spell of the conservatory: the hush of running water, the feeling of freedom from the rules of time and space, and the connection to something simpler, greater, and altogether too beautiful to capture on camera. You just have to experience it for yourself.

Until next time, then.