Margaret Atwood, Dearly (#BookReview)

Earlier this year, I decided to try audiobooks more regularly – and thought short stories would be a good way to go. Julie Koh’s Portable curiosities was my choice. It was, overall, a positive experience. Then I thought poetry might be worth trying given it’s such an aural form. I chose Margaret Atwood’s latest collection Dearly for my first foray into audio poetry since, although I’ve been an Atwood fan, I’ve only reviewed her once on my blog. Also, Atwood was a poet before she was a novelist. An added benefit was that the audio version was read by her. 

It worked really well – as a reading experience. For blogging, it was tricky. I found it difficult to capture the details I like to have for a review, much harder than remembering the plot, characters and themes of a novel experienced in audio form. Short stories fall somewhere in the middle. Anyhow, all this is to say that this post will share my overall thoughts, and a little about a few poems that I managed to jot down notes about or find online.

Overall, the collection came across as melancholic in tone, which is not to say the poems are uniformly grim, as there’s also plenty of Atwood’s cheeky humour. The worldview tends to the dystopian, reflecting Atwood’s concerns, but it felt realistic rather than hopeless. The subject matter is both political, dealing with issues like climate change and war, and personal, exploring ageing, grief and mortality. All of these speak to me.

Many of the poems draw on nature for their imagery, if not their subject matter. There’s a sense that nature is bearing the brunt of our wilfulness, that it shows evidence of our wilfulness, and, conversely, that it may also provide the answer. But, there are other poems which explore her themes through worlds I know nothing about, like zombies, aliens and werewolves.

And, of course, there’s Atwood’s love of language. The poems are accessible rather than obscure, but they’re not simple, because Atwood understands the weight of words and loves to play with them. This comes across really well in the audio version.

The collection is broken into five parts, starting, perhaps counter-intuitively, with “Late poems”. Many of the ideas here appealed to me, such as the idea in “Salt” that we don’t recognise the past was good until later. But, the poem that most touched me in this part was “Blizzard” in which Atwood talks about her nearly centenarian mother, asking “why can’t I let her go”? I could tell her why.

I enjoyed poems in Part 2, like “Health class (1953)” and “A genre painting”, but in Part 3, we find many poems inspired by nature. “September mushrooms” talks of fungi bringing “cryptic news of what goes on down there”. Halloween is the ostensible subject of “Carving the jacks”, which concludes with such a great line, “After we’re gone, the work of our knives survive us”. Atwood can do last lines.

In “Update on werewolves” (read it online), Atwood riffs on the masculine threat inherent in werewolves, then expands it to explore the empowerment of women. “Zombie” is prefaced by a lovely epigraph by Rilke, that “poetry is the past that breaks out in our hearts”. In “The aliens arrive”, Atwood runs through various movie aliens and their actions:

We like the part where we get saved.
We like the part where we get destroyed.
Why do those feel so similar? 

I love these pointed, paradoxical lines.

“At the translation conference” toys with language and culture, and how different cultures have words (or don’t) for different things. Some languages have “no word for him her … have no future tense”. There’s a wry reference to women and the word “no”, and, more scarily, to translation as a dangerous activity where punishment can result if the translation is “wrong”.

Part 4 also contains many nature-inspired poems. It continues the concerns and questions about where we are going, particularly regarding the environment. Finding a “Feather” causes Atwood to think of the “calligraphy of wrecked wings” and of the feather’s owner being “a high flyer once as we all were”. (This is one of many references to birds, which are a particular passion of Atwood’s.) “Improvisation on a first line by Yeats” continues the exploration of our rapacious attitude to land, as does “Plasticine Suite” with its word play on ages – the Pleistocene, the Myocene, now the Plasticine, “evidence of our cleverness, our thoughtlessness”. It addresses the arrogance of proselytising developed nations disregarding the needs of the less rich. “Oh children” ends with “Oh children … will you grow up in a world without ice … will you grow up?”

The collection concludes on the personal, with Part 5 devoted to ageing and loss, largely inspired by the death of Atwood’s husband in 2019 from dementia. There are some really lovely meditations here. In “Sad utensils” she writes of “the word reft/ who says that anymore?” despite its being honed over years and used by many. As words pass, so do our own lives, and the people we love. In “Silver slippers” she reflects on ageing and the things we give up along the way, “no dancing anymore … all my wishes used up … where did you go and when/ it wasn’t to Kansas”.

The second last poem is the titular poem, and it speaks directly to her loss of her husband, starting with the loss of the word “dearly”:

It’s an old word, fading now:
Dearly did I wish.
Dearly did I long for:
I loved him dearly.

Moving, and to the point – as is the final line of the book, from the poem “Blackberries”: “the best ones grow in shadow”. More paradox. I will leave my thoughts there and pass you over to Margaret Atwood herself in her essay for The Guardian on this collection. She says it all far more eloquently than I ever could.

Margaret Atwood
(Read by Margaret Atwood)
Bolinda Audio, 2020 (Orig. pub. 2020)
1hr 48mins (Unabridged)
ISBN: 9781867504009

Gene Stratton-Porter, The last Passsenger Pigeon (#Review)

I have passed up reading and/or posting on so many Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week offerings over the last months – sadly, because there have been some excellent selections chosen for their political relevance. However, when I saw a sentimental favourite, Gene Stratton-Porter (1863-1924), pop up, I knew I had to break the drought.

Gene Stratton-Porter (Uploaded to Wikipedia, by gspmemorial; used under CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Some of you may not be familiar with this American Midwest author who wrote, says LOA, “sugary (and extremely popular) fiction to underwrite her work in natural history”. It was one of these works, The girl of the Limberlost, that I loved, and later introduced to Daughter Gums who also loved it. Yes, it was sentimental, though it has its tough side, but it did also leave an everlasting impression on me of its setting, Indiana’s Limberlost Swamp. According to LOA again, it was the immense success of this book, and Freckles which I also read, that resulted in her publisher agreeing to also publish her less saleable nature books. She was, writes LOA, “a fighter for the world she saw disappearing around her, as Standard Oil of Indiana drilled new wells and farmers drained more land”.

Interestingly, LOA’s as usual excellent introductory notes focus not on Stratton-Porter but on her subject, the Passenger Pigeon. LOA discusses others who have written about this bird – novelist James Fenimore Cooper, a chief of the Potawatomi Indians Simon Pokogon, and naturalists John James Audubon and John Muir – before eventually getting to Stratton-Porter herself. LOA’s point is to document the extinction of these birds from the early 1800s, when they were still seen in immense flocks, to a century later in 1914 when the last one died in captivity. Stratton-Porter wrote her piece just 10 years after that.

So Stratton-Porter’s piece. She commences by describing the beauty of her childhood farm, including its woods and forests where birds, such as the Passenger Pigeon, loved “to home”. She writes, introducing her environmental theme, that:

It is a fact that in the days of my childhood Nature was still so rampant that men waged destruction in every direction without thought. Nature seemed endlessly lavish …

When people started to clear land they “chopped down every tree on it” without, she says, having any “vision to see that the forests would eventually come to an end”. She writes – and remember, this was 1924:

… as the forests fell, the creeks and springs dried up, devastating winds swept from western prairies, and os the work of changing the climatic conditions of the world was well under way.

She talks of animals and game birds “being driven farther and farther from the haunts of civilisation”, but she also talks of people who did not believe in living so rapaciously, preferring instead to live in log cabins in small clearings. She describes her family’s own hunting practices, including of quail. As their numbers decreased, her minister father forbade the family’s trapping and egg-gathering. He’d noticed that when bird numbers were low, grain-damaging insect pests were high.

He had never allowed, however, the hunting of Passenger Pigeons, despite their being significantly more numerous in those days than quail. Stratton-Porter thinks this stemmed from his having “a sort of religious reverence” for pigeons and doves. Others, though, had no such qualms, and she describes some brutal hunting practices involving wild pigeons, which apparently made good eating. Gradually, it became noticeable, writes Stratton-Porter, that their numbers were decreasing. Not only did her family miss the sound and beauty of these birds, but

The work that they had done in gathering up untold quantities of weed seeds and chinquapins was missed and the seeds were left to germinate and become a pest, instead of pigeon food.

Once again, she notes the wider ecological or environmental implications of species reduction or loss. She then writes of the death of the final two birds in captivity before sharing her own searching for any remaining wild birds. It was while she was watching and photographing, over a period of time, a brooding goldfinch, that she heard the unmistakable “wing music of a bird that should reasonably have been a dove, but was not”. She describes this beautiful bird, but says “it had not the surety of a bird at home; it seemed restless and alarmed”. This was, she argues, “one of the very last of our wild pigeons”, a male bird “flying alone, searching for a mate and its species”.

Stratton-Porter closes her essay with a cry from the pigeon, whose song she says sounds like “See? See?”:

Where are your great stretches of forest? Where are the fish-thronged rivers your fathers en- joyed? Where are the bubbling springs and the sparkling brooks? Why is this land parching with thirst even in the springtime? Why have you not saved the woods and the water and the wildflowers and the rustle of bird wings and the notes of their song? See what you have done to me! Where a few years ago I homed over your land in uncounted thousands, to-day I am alone. See me searching for a mate! See me hunting for a flock of my kind! See what you have done to me! See! See! See!”

And that was written in 1924! Nearly 100 years ago, and yet we still destroy habitat including, here in Australia, that of one of our most popular native animals and national symbols, the koala. Will we never learn?

Gene Stratton-Porter
“The last Passenger Pigeon”
First published: Good Housekeeping, 1924 (Collected in Tales you won’t believe, 1925)
Available: Online at the Library of America

William T Hornaday, The bird tragedy of Laysan Island (Review)

William Temple Hornaday (1854-1937), whose article “The bird tragedy of Laysan Island” was a recent Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week offering, is a tricky man to write about. Originally a taxidermist, he became one of the pioneers of the wildlife conservation movement in America after he realised, around the 1880s, the dire situation regarding the country’s bison population. In this LOA article,  published in 1913, he chronicles the bird massacre on Laysan Island and the role played by President Theodore Roosevelt in helping to end the plumage trade. But he wasn’t without controversy, of which I’ll write more a little further on.

Laysan Island

Laysan Island. By Robert J. Shallenberger, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

“The bird tragedy” is a powerful piece which starts by describing the island as “sandy, poorly planted by nature, and barren of all things likely to enlist the attention of predatory man” but as the home of many varieties of birds, including the “Laysan albatross, black-footed albatross, sooty tern, gray-backed tern, noddy tern, Hawaiian tern, white tern, Bonin petrel, two shearwaters, the red-tailed tropic bird, two boobies and the man-of-war bird.” It was a “secure haven” for them, and, since 1891, had been viewed as “one of the wonders of the bird world”.

But, along came “man, the ever-greedy” looking for ways to make money, first via guano and egg collecting, then feathers for the plumage trade. The culprit was Max Schlemmer, who also introduced rabbits and guinea-pigs which multiplied and started to destroy the vegetation. Hornaday describes the horrendous massacre in 1909 of 300,000 birds for their wings. According to LOA, Hornaday is somewhat wrong in ascribing the massacre to Schlemmer. The say a biography of Schlemmer argues that he was ‘”cash-strapped” and sold the rights to the island to a Japanese entrepreneur. Whatever the situation, the destruction of the birdlife was massive in number and horrific in cruelty. Fortunately, it was stopped before complete destruction by a Zoology Professor who called the Government who in turn sent in the Navy – as you do!

Hornaday’s language makes clear his disapprobation of what happened and of the people who carried it out. His description of the massacre is horrifying, some of it quoted from a report by a 1911 scientific expedition to the island. This report notes that their “first impression” was that the island had been stripped of its birdlife:

Only the shearwaters moaning in their burrows, the little wingless rail skulking from one grass tussock to another, and the saucy finch remained. It is an excellent example of what Prof. Nutting calls the survival of the inconspicuous.

Hornaday says that if the Government had not intervened

it is reasonably certain that every bird on Laysan would have been killed to satisfy the wolfish rapacity of one money-grubbing white man.

Fortunately – albeit a little after the horse had bolted – Roosevelt, in 1909, created “the Hawaiian Islands Reservation for Birds” which includes Laysan and which, Hornaday writes, will ensure that

for the future the birds of Laysan and neighboring islets are secure from further attacks by the bloody-handed agents of the vain women who still insist upon wearing the wings and feathers of wild birds.

However, as Bill McKibben, the environmentalist whose memoir Oil and honey I’ve reviewed, writes in the headnote to the article, Hornaday had his own controversy. He became, in the late 1890s, the head of the New York Zoological Park (the Bronx Zoo), but, as McKibben writes,

a rough sense of the reasons why the social justice and environmental movements have often parted ways may be garnered from the fact that he saw nothing wrong with exhibiting a live African pygmy, named Ota Benga, in the zoo’s monkey house, later remarking that it was the “most amusing passage” in the institution’s history. His 1913 book Our Vanishing Wild Life … has a strongly nativist edge: immigrants and negroes are singled out as villains for their hunting of indigenous fauna.

According to Wikipedia, he was criticised, including by African-American clergymen James Gordon, who said that “Our race … is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes … We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.” With the controversy, Benga was released to roam the zoo, even though Hornaday did not see anything wrong with what he’d done. Benga was later released to Gordon’s custody, but eventually committed suicide at the age of 33 when the start of World War 1 prevented his return to Africa.

Another wonderful LOA offering in a genre I always enjoy reading – nature or environmental writing.

William T Hornaday
“The bird tragedy of Laysan Island”
First published: Our vanishing wild life, 1913
Available: Online at the Library of America

Cassie Flanagan Willanski, Here where we live (Review)

Cassie Flanagan Willanski, Here where we live“Write what you know” is the advice commonly given to new authors – and it’s something Cassie Flanagan Willanski, author of Here where we live, seems to accept. Set in South Australia, where Willanski lives, this debut collection of short stories reflects her two main interests, creative writing and the environment. The book won Wakefield Press’s Unpublished Manuscript Award a couple of years ago, and I can see why.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I opened the book. Adelaide author and creative writing teacher Brian Castro is quoted on the front cover as saying “I was moved and I was haunted” and on the back “Her stories are as spare and understated as the harsh landscape she describes…” I’d concur. Her stories are not your typical short story. That is, they don’t have tight little plots, nor do they have shock (or even just surprising) endings. They are more like slices-of-life, or like chapters of a novel, in the way they tease out moments in people’s lives that you can imagine continuing into a larger story. And yet, they are complete in themselves and absolutely satisfying.

However, there is more to these stories than “just” slices of life. Willanski writes in her author’s note that they were written as part of her Master of Arts degree, in which she explored “the ways white Australians have written about (and for) Indigenous people in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries”. She introduces the notion of “Indigenous invisibility” which she describes as “ignoring Indigenous Australian people’s current existence, and mourning them as extinct”. She then talks about the issue we’ve discussed here before noting that as white writers became aware of this “Indigenous invisibility” they started to “write about them as characters in their books”. She says she has tried to reflect in her stories the various attitudes she found in her research. I found them authentic and sensitive, but the real judges of whether she’s been successful are indigenous people, aren’t they? There’s a reference to indigenous elder and activist Sue Haseldine in her acknowledgements, which may suggest some acceptance?

There are nine stories in the collection, three told first person, and the rest third person, except for the last and longest story which has two alternating voices, one third, the other second. Her protagonists include a young girl, a young male teacher, a 70-something woman, and a woman grieving for her late female partner. A few stories are connected, but this is not critical to appreciating the collection. Several of the stories, Willanski says in her author’s note, were inspired by real events but in each her imagination has created something new and fictional. Some of these real events are matters of history, such as the Hindmarsh Island Bridge controversy and the Maria shipwreck, while others draw from personal experiences.

Despite the historical inspiration behind some stories, they are all set in contemporary South Australia. The first two are told first person: “This is my daughter’s country” opens the first (“My good thing”) and “The night my husband told me he was going to leave me we were in the middle of a heatwave” starts the second (“Drought core”). Straightaway we are introduced to Willanski’s nicely controlled, pensive tone, and her ongoing themes: family relationships, indigenous issues, the environment and climate change.

The first story is told in the voice of a white woman who has an indigenous husband and a daughter. They are going back to country to clean rockholes. No-one is named – “this is my daughter”, “this is my husband”, “my daughter’s grandmother” – which gives the story a universal, almost mythical sense. There are hints of challenges – subtle references to the Stolen Generations and to environmentally destructive tourism – but it’s a short, warmhearted story about the drive to connect with land and people, and sets up the collection nicely.

I can’t describe every story so I’ll jump to the fourth one, “Stuff white people like”. It is lightly, self-mockingly satirical. It tells the story of a young couple, Oliver and Clay, visiting Ceduna where Oliver is considering a job as a “Nature School Teacher”. They are both earnest, Oliver particularly so, in wanting to understand and relate to indigenous people, so they decide to attend a “healing ceremony” for “‘Maralinga, climate change, feral animals, you name it,’ said the principal vaguely.” It’s an uncomfortable experience, and Oliver doesn’t know how to react to the event which isn’t what he expected. He doesn’t want to be “like the other white people” but how should he be? Clay is able to go with the flow a bit, but not Oliver. Later, on their trip home, she is able to laugh, and take the jokes in the book Stuff white people like, while Oliver is “crippled with self-awareness”. He can’t quite match Clay’s insight. She reads from the book about white people “knowing what’s best” for others:

“Do you think I’m like that?”
“‘Cos you’re excited to get to work with Aboriginal  kids? No!” She stopped for a minute, trying to piece together her thoughts. “Well, I mean–” she said and stopped again.
“What?” said Oliver.
“Well it’s just that Aboriginal people already know about having school outside.”
“I know,” said Oliver. “What’s your point?”
Clay looked at him again, then said, almost irritably, “Well, you’re taking something they’ve been doing for thousands of years and putting the white seal of approval on it.”
“But the missionaries took it away,” said Oliver.
He didn’t say it, but it was implied, and they didn’t know what to do with the implication. Oliver would be giving it back.

I love this on so many grounds – the personal and the political, the desire and the discomfort, the sincerity and uncertainty. These underpin the collection.

Desert oaks

Desert Oaks, Centralia

There’s only one story in which Willanski speaks “for” or “in the voice of” indigenous people, “Oak trees in the desert”. It’s about the First International Woman Against Radioactive Racism Conference, held in Monument Valley, Utah. This is a fictional conference, but “radioactive racism” is “real” and the aforementioned Sue Haseldine is active in this area.

Willanski opens the story with an indigenous Australian woman introducing herself at the conference. It’s a strong story, with the first-person voices of various First Nation conference attendees interspersed with the third-person story of white Australian woman, 76-year-old Bev, whose late husband had worked at Maralinga and had contracted cancer. There’s also a young white woman activist-organiser providing, again, a light satirical touch. Like many of the stories, it’s very personal but also has a big political message. (I also enjoyed it because I love Australia’s desert oaks, and I’ve driven in the stunning Monument Valley.)

This is getting long so I’ll end with the last story, “Some yellow flowers”, which contrasts a mature love, through the grieving Jean whose partner Nancy has died, with the young love of two teenagers, Loretta and Jackson. This story brings together several of the collection’s themes, including developing and maintaining loving relationships, climate change and caring for the environment, and indigenous-settler relationships. There is a big storm – one of those one-hundred-years storms that are occurring more frequently these days:

The roof shrieks and the sea spray pelts against the front verandah. The separation between land and water, sea and sky, past and present and living and dead becomes more obviously a figment of daytime imagination.

Dreams are had, stories are told, relationships are resolved – not simplistically, but with a sense of continuum.

This is the sort of writing I like: undramatic, understated, reflective stories about ordinary people coping with breakups, death, new relationships, but overlaid with a strong set of values and contemporary concerns, in this case encompassing the intertwined issue of respecting indigenous people and caring for our country. While not always comfortable reading, it’s a hopeful book – and I like that too.

awwchallenge2016Cassie Flanagan Willanski
Here where we live
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781743054031

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)

John Muir, Save the redwoods (Review)

Giant Sequoia, Yosemite

Giant Sequoia, in the Sierras

Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot defend themselves or run away. And few destroyers of trees ever plant any; nor can planting avail much toward restoring our grand aboriginal giants. It took more than three thousand years to make some of the oldest of the Sequoias, trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra.

“A wind-storm in the forests” by American naturalist/environmentalist John Muir (1838-1914) was the first Library of America (LOA) story of the week that I ever reviewed here. I was consequently keen to read his short essay “Save the redwoods” when it popped up as an LOA story-of-the-week three weeks ago. It’s an interesting piece, partly because it was found amongst his papers, posthumously, so was not published during his lifetime.

As LOA’s notes say, Muir spent four decades writing articles for the national press which argued for the “protection of such natural wonders as the Petrified Forest, the Grand Canyon, and—above all—Yosemite.” Yosemite was a particular love of his. LOA tells how it was his and Robert Underwood Johnson, associate editor of The Century Magazine, alarm about the “substantial damage caused by lumbering, sheepherding, and tourism” there that eventually resulted in the creation of Yosemite National Park.

It is this issue of lumbering that Muir takes up again in “Save the redwoods”. It was apparently written around 1900 when there were concerns that the Calaveras Grove of Big Trees or Giant Redwoods (Sequoiadendron giganteum) was at risk of being sold and cut down for timber because the owner, James Sperry who had protected them, was old and no longer able to maintain it. A lumberman, Job Whiteside, planned to buy it – but there was a public outcry. This is when Muir apparently wrote his piece, arguing that the various scattered groves of redwoods not included in Sequoia National Park should be protected..

In his piece Muir, as was his style, draws on religious imagery, analogy and personification, amongst other devices, to argue his case. He discusses the destruction of a couple of Big Trees in the grove back in the 1850s:

Forty-seven years ago one of these Calaveras King Sequoias was laboriously cut down, that the stump might be had for a dancing-floor. Another, one of the finest in the grove, more than three hundred feet high, was skinned alive to a height of one hundred and sixteen feet from the ground and the bark sent to London to show how fine and big that Calaveras tree was—as sensible a scheme as skinning our great men would be to prove their greatness. This grand tree is of course dead, a ghastly disfigured ruin, but it still stands erect and holds forth its majestic arms as if alive and saying, “Forgive them; they know not what they do.”

He then comments on the new plans to mill this grove, saying

No doubt these trees would make good lumber after passing through a sawmill, as George Washington after passing through the hands of a French cook would have made good food.

That’s an analogy to get our attention! He argues that if one of these

Sequoia kings [could] come to town in all its god-like majesty so as to be strikingly seen and allowed to plead its own cause, there would never again be any lack of defenders.

He describes the proliferation of sawmills and the ongoing destruction of these big trees, and sets this activity against Mr Sperry’s protection of the sequoias in his Calaveras Grove. Muir notes that when news starts to come through of this Grove being bonded to the lumberman, there is suddenly a “righteous and lively indignation on the part of Californians”. This, he says, seems strange given “the long period of deathlike apathy, in which they have witnessed the destruction of other groves unmoved”. However, he writes, public opinion had been rapidly changing in recent years and there had always been a special interest in the  “Calaveras giants [because] they were the first discovered and are best known”.  Moreover:

  • they have a worldwide reputation;
  • they are visited and admired by “travelers from every country”; and
  • the names of great men have long been associated with them (including Washington, Humboldt, Torrey and Gray, and Sir Joseph Hooker)

He argues that “these kings of the forest, the noblest of a noble race, rightly belong to the world” but, as they are in California, Californians “cannot escape responsibility as their guardians”. Then comes some patriotism and buttering up! He writes:

Fortunately the American people are equal to this trust, or any other that may arise, as soon as they see it and understand it.

It is here that we find the excerpt I opened my post with. It’s followed by his brief description of a bill being put before congress to protect the Calaveras Grove. He argues that not only will the bill protect this particular grove of trees but the resultant/concurrent “quickening interest in forest affairs in general” will result in improved chances for other groves and forests.

The piece feels a little rushed and unfinished, which is probably why he never submitted it for publication, but the work of Muir and others did eventually result in most of the west coast’s major sequoia and coastal redwood groves being “gathered under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service”. I saw many of these trees in the 1980s and again in the 1990s. They are unforgettable.

“Any fool”, Muir wrote, “can destroy trees”. Saving them is much harder. It takes passion, patience and persistence, something Muir exemplified in his life-time. Luckily, a long succession of environmentalists – around the world – continue this tree-saving work today.

John Muir
“Saving the redwoods”
First published (posthumously): In Sierra Club Bulletin, January 1920.
Available: Online at the Library of America

Bill McKibben, Oil and honey (Review)

Bill McKibben, Oil and Honey

Courtesy: Black Inc

It’s coincidental, but nicely appropriate, that the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) published its Provisional Statement on the Status of the Climate in 2013 last week, just as I was finishing US environmental activist Bill McKibben‘s latest book, Oil and honey: The education of an unlikely activist. It’s likewise coincidental that, three days before WMO’s announcement, Stefanie (of So Many Books) published a post titled Gardening for Climate Change* containing her thoughts on her garden and how climate change might affect it.

WMO’s statement says, among other things, that “During the first nine months of 2013, most of the world’s land areas had above-average temperatures, most notably in Australia, northern North America …”. As you know, I live in Australia; Bill McKibben and Stefanie live in the northern part of the USA. We are seeing (feeling) the changes, and are concerned. What I’m going to say next is pretty obvious, but I’m going to say it anyhow because I always like to start with the basics in discussions like this. There are two critical issues in the climate change debate: Is the climate changing and, if it is, Is it human-caused? It’s hard to imagine, given all the data available, that there’s anyone out there who really believes the climate is not changing, though I believe there are still some who think it’s simply a case of “climate variability”. These people think that the climate will get back to normal (some year soon, they hope). The trickier issue, however, is the causal one. Most of the deniers are not so much denying that the climate is changing, but that we are causing it. This brings me to Bill McKibben.

McKibben does not, in Oil and honey, spend time trying to prove that humans are causing climate change. For him it’s a given. Rather, he shares how he changed from being an environmentalist, who researched and wrote books, to an environmental activist who campaigns (and writes books). It’s an interesting, clearly written book about one man and his path, but can also be read as a how-to for those who want to get active.

You may now, though, be wondering about the title. Oil and honey? I’m sure there’s an ironic allusion here to the biblical “land of milk and honey” (which we are not heading towards), but there is also a literal meaning to the title. The narrative shifts pretty seamlessly between his two main passions. One is to do with bees, honey and good farming practice. The other is oil, or the fossil fuel industry, and how to stop its impact on the climate. Oil and honey, climate and farming. It’s all related.

You may also be wondering, particularly if you’re not American, who Bill McKibben is. As the blurb on the back of my edition says, he has written over a dozen books including the New York Times bestselling Eaarth and The end of nature. He also founded the environmental organisation and “was among the first to warn of the dangers of global warming”. Despite all this, he did not until recently see himself as an activist. After graduating, he worked as a journalist for The New Yorker for five years, but quit in 1987 when its long-term editor was forced out of his job. Since then he has been a freelance writer.

Oil and honey is his latest book. I’d call it part-memoir part-manifesto, because it is both the personal story of his transition to full-blown activism and the story of his passion for saving the planet. The personal aspect of the book helps make it a good read. We get to understand his thinking, we feel his anxiety about becoming not only an activist but a leader of activists, and we learn that his activist philosophy is inspired by the non-violent resistance ideas of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. We see his love for nature and for working close to the land on the bee-farm he bought for his friend Kirk Webster to run. This farm functions both as respite and as a place for him to see land stewardship working.

That’s the memoir aspect. In the manifesto aspect, he shares with us the development of his ideas and strategies. We learn of various campaigns he has been involved in since 2009, including Step It Up, Keystone XL,  Do the Math. And he explains how he and his co-activists have shifted from focusing on politics and politicians – through such activities as sit-ins at the White House and lobbying politicians – to directly tackling the fossil fuel industry. He came to realise, he says, that the situation was/is becoming so dire there’s no time “for slow graceful cultural evolution”. Consequently, the last part of the book deals with the goal of encouraging educational institutions to divest their investment portfolios of fossil fuel industries. They’ve targeted educational institutions because students represent a significant percentage of climate change activists. For these students the question is simple:

are you paying for our education by investments in an industry that guarantees we won’t have a planet to make use of that learning?

I’ve only touched the surface of what this book covers. Like many books of its type, chances are that it will only be read by the converted. That’s a bit of a shame, but it’s not useless says McKibben:

You might think it’s a waste to preach to the choir, but the truth is, you need to get the choir fired up, singing loudly, all out of the same hymnal. The choir is there, but most of the time it’s just humming in the background, or singing so many tunes that no distinct harmony emerges.

So, if you’re part of the choir, this book is still for you. And if you’re not, think about joining. It could be the most important thing you do.

Bill McKibben
Oil and honey: The education of an unlikely activist
Collingwood: Black Inc, 2013
255 pp.
ISBN: 9781863956178

(Review copy supplied by Black Inc)

* Stefanie has since posted a link to a British blog called Climate Change Garden.

Tim Flannery, After the future: Australia’s extinction crisis (Review)

Quarterly Essay No 48 Cover

Quarterly Essay 48 cover (Courtesy Black Inc)

Tim Flannery is an Australian palaeontologist-cum-environmentalist who has been on the public stage for a couple of decades now. He has published several books on environmental issues, some best-sellers, including The future eaters and The weather makers. He was Australian of the Year in 2007, has starred in three television documentary series with comedian John Doyle, and is currently Chief Commissioner of Australia‘s Climate Commission.  With the environment being his passion, he is used to controversy, but many of us regard him as a national treasure. There, I’ve shown my hand!

Needless to say, I enjoyed his current Quarterly Essay titled After the future: Australia’s new extinction crisis. In it he analyses the causes of the second wave of extinctions, and suggests solutions.

The essay is divided into 8 short sections. Near the end of the second section, Flannery writes

I hope the message is loud and clear. Australian politics, and the bureaucracy that supports it, is failing in one of its most fundamental obligations to future generations, the conservation of our natural heritage.

It’s scary stuff. On the preceding page he discusses public ignorance, arguing that most people are unaware that a new wave of extinction is happening, and that those who are aware “commonly believe that our national parks and reserves are safe places for threatened species”. I fall into this latter camp, I’m afraid. I knew it wasn’t all hunky-dory but I had assumed that the parks and reserves were working. Apparently not. The reasons are complex. Funding is of course one aspect and underpins some of the issues he raises, such as the lack of resources and support for effective planning and management, and a decrease in scientifically trained staff able to research and monitor the situation.

However, Flannery argues there are more systemic issues, mostly relating to “politics”. One is the increasingly risk-averse behaviour of governments, resulting in their being prepared to do nothing rather than risk failure. Another is the fact that the environment is no longer the bipartisan issue it once was, with the right increasingly seeing the environment as a left issue. The conservatives are, paradoxically, losing interest in conservation! Environmental stewardship, Flannery argues, once inspired leaders of the right, like Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan in the USA, and Malcolm Fraser in Australia. It was Malcolm Fraser “who first used federal powers to prevent sand mining on Fraser Island, who proclaimed Kakadu a national park, and who ended whaling in Australia”. However, the rise of green parties (here and in other first world nations) is alienating the right, and yet are not always friendly to conservation. “Animal rights issues, such as opposition to the culling of feral species”, for example, “can sometimes get in the way of environmental stewardship”. The result of environmental issues being seen through the lens of party politics and ideology is that the effort to discredit conservation has resulted in the rejection of science as “a guide to action”. This, says Flannery, is dangerous territory.

While Flannery spends around a third of the essay setting out the problem and discussing the causes, his main thesis is that the current focus of environmental programs on preserving ecosystems is not working – and he presents some convincing arguments for changing the focus to saving individual species. He describes programs in the Kimberleys which are managed by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (with which he is connected) in partnership with indigenous groups, using their fire management techniques. But his most impressive example is a privately managed program in Papua New Guinea, the Tenkile Conservation Alliance, focused on saving a tree kangaroo. He argues that it “is a prime example of saving an ecosystem by concentrating on saving a species”, and asks:

How is it that one Australian couple has almost single-handedly transformed the fortunes of a people and the biodiversity of a mountain range while trying to save  an endangered species of tree kangaroo? The answer is simple: the Thomases [zoologists] set clear goals, used scientific methods to monitor their progress, and reported back to the people.

I’m not sure I’d call that simple. Or, perhaps I’d say the process is simple, but deciding on environmental priorities and finding the right mix of people/organisations to manage it is not so simple. Flannery’s solution is there needs to be:

  • a legislative commitment to zero tolerance on further extinctions;
  • the establishment of a Biodiversity Authority [yes, I know, another bureaucratic body] that is independent of government, that has “unequivocal targets”, and which faces strong consequences [what, I wonder?] on failure to deliver; and
  • the acceptance and formal involvement of non-profit organisations in managing biodiversity programs.

The Conversation, an Australian academic and research sector blog, is currently running a weekly series on endangered species. A commenter on last week’s post suggested outsourcing the listing of endangered species to peak groups, pretty much mirroring Flannery’s argument regarding partnerships between the government and non-government sectors.

Overall, the essay is clearly argued, but occasionally Flannery makes a statement that jars. One is his statement that “even under Labor governments with a strong green bent, national parks are not always safe” which he supports using the example of the Bligh Government’s starting the process of de-gazetting a part of the Mungkan Kaanju National Park with a view to returning it to its traditional Aboriginal owners. He doesn’t elaborate on this. I wrote in the margin, “Is this wrong”? Not surprisingly, at least one indigenous leader, Marcia Langton, took offence. I suspect it was a case of Flannery finding a poor example to support his argument regarding national parks being threatened even by supposedly sympathetic governments, but I don’t know.

Despite odd moments like this, I did find his argument convincing. However, as I’m sure he’d say himself, it’s not a guaranteed solution. Early in the essay he makes a point of discussing scientific method, arguing that “science is not a search for the truth” but about “disproving hypothesis”.  The hypothesis he proposes here is surely worth testing given the failure of current methods. It begs his early questions, though, regarding political and social will, which may in fact be the critical variables that we need to resolve.

Tim Flannery
“After the future: Australia’s new extinction crisis”
in Quarterly Essay, No. 48
Collingwood: Black Inc, November 2012
ISBN: 9781863955829

(Review copy supplied by Black Inc.)

John Muir, A wind-storm in the forests

Giant Sequoia, Yosemite

Giant Sequoia, in the Sierras

Being rather partial to trees, I could not resist reading “A wind-storm in the forests” by Scottish-born American naturalist/enviromentalist John Muir (1838-1914) when it lobbed in by email today as this week’s Library of America story of the week. Anyone who has been to the stunning Yosemite – or visited the peaceful Muir Woods north of San Francisco – will have heard of John Muir.  Not only was he responsible for preserving many wilderness areas including of course Yosemite, but he founded the Sierra Club, an environmental organisation that remains today.

“A wind-storm in the forests” is more essay than story, but perhaps it is best described as a mood-piece: it uses a lot of musical imagery, not to mention sea imagery, religious imagery, and any other imagery that suits his purpose. And that purpose? To convey the grandeur and timelessness of the forests he loves and wants to protect. The story commences with a discussion of trees in the Sierra and how they variously respond to the wind, and then moves onto a description of a particular wind-storm during which he climbed a 100 ft Douglas Spruce to experience the storm first hand:

I kept my lofty perch for hours, frequently closing my eyes to enjoy the music by itself, or to feast quietly on the delicious fragrance that was streaming past.

Muir’s is a typically nineteenth century Romantic sensibility, and his prose is of the purple variety – but gorgeous for all that in its patriotic passion for the trees (“we are compelled to believe that they are the most beautiful on the face of the earth”) of the Sierras:

The waving of a forest of the giant Sequoias is indescribably impressive and sublime, but the pines seem to me to be the best interpreters of winds. They are mighty waving goldenrods, ever in tune, singing and writing wind-music all their long century lives.


…the Silver Pines … wave like supple goldenrods chanting and bowing low as if in worship, while the whole mass of their long tremulous foliage was kindled into one continuous blaze of white sun-fire.

All eight pages or so are written in idolatrous prose like this. According to Wikipedia, Muir found writing hard, feeling that words were not really up to the task. Whether the problem is words or Muir himself, the prose is a little heavy-handed – and yet how wonderful it is to have the writings of such a man. We would, I think, have been the poorer without a written record of his passion.

POSTSCRIPT: Apologies to my Australian readers. I have no idea why, on Australia Day, I have chosen to write about American trees! I will, however, write one on a lovely book of Australian trees soon.