I can't let a long day at work pass without celebrating the naming of Philip Levine as our new Poet Laureate. He's one of my favorite poets, and even though I work in a cluttered cubicle and not a factory, I think he'd appreciate my too-late night at the office tonight, and maybe even this spare tribute. Levine is, after all, a poet sometimes bitter, always honest of Detroit, of the blue-collar worker, and he's one of my favorites.
Just this weekend I had to relocate a book shelf to make way for the baby that's soon to be joining us in the house, and in the process had to make some hard decisions about which books to keep, and which to trade in at the used book store or store in a box in the attic. The Levine poems stayed. My son might need them some day.
For those of you who don't know his poetry, I urge you to buy his books of course. (Start with New Selected Poems and What Work Is, both from 1992.) But because poetry is a spoken art first, anyway, you can get more than a taste at the Poetry Foundation's website, which features no fewer than 10 audio recordings of Levine reading is work, including his classic "What Work Is". For The Daily Green readers, though, you can't do better than to start with "Animals Are Passing from Our Lives", in which he embodies a hog going to slaughter "suffering the consumers who won't meet their steady eyes for fear they could see," and evokes our own desire for dignity and defiance against mortality. The last line is one of those lines that makes you ... well, at the very least, it makes you shut down your computer, rise from your cubicle, and head out.
Tomatoes grow wild, in an impressive but dwindling variety, on the dry West coast of South America. You can still find ancestral tomatoes growing on the side of the road there, as the author Barry Estabrook did while researching Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. As the title suggests, a whimsical history of the tomato, this is not. He dispenses with the interesting anecdotes (we think of tomatoes as vegetables, not as the fruit they are, in great part because the Supreme Court deemed it thus, in an 1893 case that defended domestic tomato growers from competition from Cuba) in the first chapter, and then gets on to his real story, which is about how badly we treat the environment, and especially the workers, needed to grow off-season winter tomatoes in Florida.
Tomatoland is a very good title. The subtitle could have been better if it specified that the story is, for the most part, narrowly focused on Florida, where the winter tomato crop for the East Coast originates. There, the soil is poor and sandy, the weather often unforgiving and the pests prolific, so farmers have resorted to a variety of chemicals to make their crops flourish. These chemicals include some of the harshest still on the market, and they've often been used with too little regard for their effects on the workers asked to use them (or stand by, picking tomatoes, as sprayers pass them by). Accounts of heartbreaking birth defects ensue.
You can really stop at any point during the narrative and decide that you've bought your last supermarket tomato, but Estabrook is just warming up. Modern-day slavery and its nearly-as-bad derivatives make up the bulk of his tale, centered on Immokalee, Fla., where most winter tomatoes are grown. He describes workers who speak neither English nor, in many cases, Spanish, being trucked in illegally from Mexico, and held in a state of indentured servitude, as they rack up living expenses charged by farmers or their charges that exceed their wages. They're sprayed by pesticides, occasionally beaten and made to wait hours unpaid before being asked to pick tomatoes at super-human rates for less-than-human wages. As described, it's a shocking and shameful tragedy.
All this to grow tomatoes that have been bred to be picked green, trucked across the country and "ripen" to a reddish hue only after being gassed with ethylene. That is, not bred to taste good. Taste, as one grower tells the author, has never been a priority.
Disclaimer: This book is about my local butcher shop, and the people who run it, and I'm big fans of both. Another disclaimer: It's co-authored by Alexandra Zissu, a friend and occasional colleague.
But even in the absence of those associations, don't think I could find anything bad to say about The Butcher's Guide to Well-Raised Meat: How to Buy Cut, and Cook Great Beef, Lamb, Pork, Poultry, and More. (OK, I thought of one: That's an awfully long title.)
The book does two things: It tells the story of Fleisher's Grass-Fed & Organic Meats, the butcher in Kingston, N.Y., founded by Joshua and Jessica Applestone; and it offers practical information and advice about understanding, preparing and cooking meats from animals that have been raised ethically.
The Applestones were not meat-eaters when they started Fleisher's, which takes its name from Joshua's family name (which means butcher), and his grandfather's butcher shop in Brooklyn. Joshua was a vegan, and Jessica a vegetarian with a weakness for bacon and a desire to eat meat; both shared a reversion to the industrialized system that produces meat in the U.S., and a disappointment in the options available for people seeking alternatives. So they opened Fleisher's, which buys only animals (usually organic) raised on pasture without the use hormones or antibiotics from local farms in New York's Hudson Valley.
In The Ragged Edge of the World ($17.80 at amazon.com) Eugene Linden aims to tell the untold stories of his globetrotting adventures as a journalist covering environmental and cultural loss and resilience at the intersection of the modern world and wilderness and the societies that live in the wilderness. His 40-year career as a book author and magazine writer for Time, National Geographic and others has given him the enviable opportunity to visit some of the world's most remote places, from Polynesia to Midway Island and Antarctica to the Alaska, where he's reported on environmental issues and the impact of modern encroachment on indigenous cultures. He's a writer of flawless sentences who can evoke scenes and dialog as well as he can explain complex science in simple ways.
The earlier chapters of Ragged Edge, though, came off as too anecdotal, with too little time spent on the substance of his reporting trips and too much on disconnected remembrances. I have a feeling they'd be more enjoyable to a reader of Linden's other works, but this is the first book I've read by him, so they came across as incomplete and fragmentary. (Which is to say that they deliver on what Linden promises he'll do in his introduction: "It is these vignettes that are freshest--my memory has inverted the priorities of my career," he writes.) The latter chapters didn't suffer from this problem, and each chapter told its story fully, with emphasis shared between the anecdotes of a traveler and journalist, and the substance of his report about the visit. In both cases, I'd have liked, as a writer, to hear more about the challenges of reporting exciting stories such as these, beyond the logistics of traveling in Africa, say, or the rules of weather-proofing one's body in Antarctica. But I think there's enough detail to satisfy most readers.
Freddy Olmsted was a spoiled brat.
That's not the theme of Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted, Justin Martin's biography of the famed landscape architect and "proto-environmentalist," but I could not escape the conclusion as I read this straightforward and enjoyable book.
Before Freddy got around to designing Central Park (with the inspired but impotent Calvert Vaux) in New York, or Prospect Park in Brooklyn, or the Chicago World Fair site, or any of the other parks and estates in the U.S. that helped him establish the field of landscape architecture... before he helped preserve Yosemite or Niagara Falls, in the years before there was a notion of a National Parks system... Olmsted was a chronic failure and a mooch.
He couldn't hack it at school so he moved home with his father and stepmother. He gave up his first job as a surveyor to sail to China. Then he spent a summer on an upstate New York farm, and he became inspired in the way that a good vacation sometimes inspires, and he decided to become a farmer... so he asked his father to buy him a farm. Not just any farm, but a farm in Connecticut on Long Island Sound. What's more amazing: His father bought the farm... and the seed... and the tools and equipment, and everything else Freddy would need (no one really called him Freddy, and in fact he was born into the first generation of Americans to be given middle names, a convention that had previously been viewed as too Old World, too pretentious). Fred gave up after a year, but not before contemplating an expensive renovation to the farmhouse with the nation's premiere architect, Alexander Jackson Davis, even though the farm was a complete failure.
TheDailyGreen.com is honoring Jane Goodall with a Lifetime Achievement Award this month as part of our Heart of Green Awards, and I'm please to report that there's a new children's book out that features Goodall.
A beautiful book with a simple message, Me...Jane tells a brief story about her childhood love affair with nature, and how it inspired her career. She has a stuffed chimpanzee, she loves the outdoors, she has fun learning new things about nature and then... she becomes who we all know her to be, the world-famous chimpanzee researcher and conservationist.
The drawings, by "Mutts" comic strip artist Patrick McDonnell, are charming, with each page spread consisting of one cute cartoon image that illustrates the narrative and one collage of images, including 19th and early 20th century ornamental engravings, for a poetic counterpoint.
McDonnell is also donating half his proceeds from the book to the Jane Goodall Institute, and the book offers information about Goodall's Roots & Shoots program for childhood education. The book also benefits from a message from Jane Goodall at the back, and it certainly helps to promote her inspiring message that nature is a wonder that deserves protection, and that we should all feel empowered to better the planet and follow our dreams.
Me...Jane, $15.99 or $10.50 at amazon.com.
Biocidal: Confronting the Poisonous Legacy of PCBs, by Ted Dracos, is a briskly written and worthwhile account of the history of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, the "magic fluid" cooked up by shoestring entrepreneurs and then spread the world over by industry and pollution. PCBs were so useful to manufacturing that they were used in a wide variety of products, but the health effects of exposure led the U.S. government to ban their use starting in the 1970s. I was compelled to read the book primarily because I've written about PCB contamination in the Hudson River, where General Electric Co. dumped its waste (plausibly claiming it was legal, though there are counter-arguments) for 30 years, and where one of the largest toxic waste cleanups the nation has ever seen is now underway.
For a history of the substance, its creators and users, its industry boosters and its purported health effects, the book does the job. But it seemed a little under-reported at times. Why no quotes from experts that had been interviewed? Why no interviews with people affected by PCB poisoning? Or former company men with an insider view of the described malfeasance? Why such a reliance on phone interviews and, especially, website visits? At times, that or the author's preconceived biases inspired doubt in some of his conclusions; the former leads one to doubt the latter.
It's easy to imagine the author with a hammer (PCBs) hitting every conceivable nail (particularly in the sections on the health impacts of PCB pollution) when in fact maybe there are some screws to be turned. That said, you can't help be persuaded by the author's argument that the companies that made, marketed and used PCBs neglected the public interest repeatedly, systematically and with unhealthy consequences, for humans and the environment, and that they did so often with the help of weak government policies or political friends in high places.
Biocidal: Confronting the Poisonous Legacy of PCBs, $25.50 at amazon.com.
To say it simply, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival is John Vaillant's account of the hunt for a man-eating tiger in Russia's Far East. But the book is not at all simple.
Layered and complex. Action-packed. Masterfully told. Awesome. These words would be more appropriate.
What makes the book so engrossing is that it tells a dramatic adventure story, but doesn't stop at just telling a dramatic adventure story. Instead, Vaillant's story of the hunt, which takes place in just a few days in 1997, unfolds over the course of 300 pages, and by the time you get to the heart-thumping climax, you've read a complete portrait of the Russian Far East and the people living in the taiga; surveyed Russian history and particularly the after-effects of Perestroika; delved a bit into anthropology, folklore, biology and conservation; and enjoyed novel-worthy character studies of the main actors (including the tiger) all without once being the least bit bored. Far from it.
If you enjoy travel writing, history, conservation, natural science, action/adventure or ... oh hell, just read this book.
The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, $15.30 at amazon.com.
For a history of the modern environmental movement, A Force for Nature: The Story of NRDC and Its Fight to Save Our Planet is a good place to start. Written by John and Patricia Adams, it tells the story of Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the bigger and more multi-faceted environmental groups in the U.S. Sure, it pumps up NRDC it's a book written by its founders, after all buy it is persuasive. You come away deeply impressed at the success of NRDC and the impact the organization has had on the environment, not only of the U.S. but of the world.
For me, it was particularly gratifying to see how the Hudson River loomed large in the formation of NRDC; it was the Storm King case which culminated, after many years, in a settlement that prevented Con Edison from carving a chunk out of Storm King Mountain to build a new power plant that launched or boosted not only NRDC but other prominent organizations, including Scenic Hudson and Riverkeeper. The case led to the federal National Environmental Policy Act, which requires the federal government to consider the environmental impact of its actions and decisions, a landmark in the early years of the environmental movement.
Pick it up. It's written well, tells an important story and will leave you feeling that big environmental problems can in fact be solved.
A Force for Nature: The Story of NRDC and Its Fight to Save Our Planet $16.50 at amazon.com
If you haven't already read Bill McKibben's Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, you should take author Barbara Kingsolver's advice: "Read it, please. Straight through to the end. Whatever else you were planning to do next, nothing could be more important."
Quite an endorsement, and the book deserves it. Fortunately for us stragglers, it's coming out in paperback April 1 ($10 at amazon.com) just in time for Earth Month, when McKibben's group, 350.org will no doubt be mobilizing another round of demonstrations in support of climate change action on scales both global and local.
As the senior editor of The Daily Green, I didn't find much new information in Eaarth. But I did find a lot of very good information in one persuasive place. And I know, because my Mom recently read it in her local book club, that it makes that case effectively not just to those who spend their days reading about the environment, but to a general audience as well.
The Last Lions, in movie theaters in February, is a thriller more than it is a eco-doc.
The human element, and the conservation imperative, is hardly mentioned. Framing the drama of Ma di Tau (Mother of Lions), our hero, as she tries to salvage the blood line of her fallen mate and save her cubs, are visions of the Earth being swallowed by the lights of cities. A voiceover Jeremy Irons tells us that the Earth will hold 7 billion humans by the end of 2011, while the population of wild lions has dropped from the nearly half a million to as few as 20,000 in just 50 years. Other than that, there's no story told about why lions numbers have dropped so precipitously or what we can do about it, short of trusting the National Geographic Society to take care of it with a $10 text of the word LIONS to #50555.
That said, the movie holds up as a thriller. The characters are so iconic it's almost unbelievable: A handsome couple split and run out of their home by a terrifying pride led by a one-eyed lioness named Silver Eye; Ma di Tau's squeaky cubs haplessly facing one threat after another; and the deeply scarred bull leading a herd of menacing buffalo against her.
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