Book Reviews: For Earth Day and Beyond

A methodist preacher once said to his congregation: “Heaven is a Kentucky of a place.”  The paradise he was referring to could have had something to do with the trees.  Oak and beech, sycamore and sweet gum, cedar and pine and wild cherry.  Maple, dogwood, redbud, and elm.  At one time Kentucky’s 25 million acres of land surface were covered with 24+ million acres of virgin forest.  A paradise, to be sure.


I have read and re-read each of the following books.  They’ve been dog-eared, starred, underlined, and note-riddled.  They retain prominent, easy-to-reach spots on a shelf beside my desk.  Have a look…

(click on the title for ordering and other info)

Enduring Roots: Encounters with Trees, History, and the American Landscape by Gayle Brandow Samuels

Ms. Samuels tells the stories of historic trees with each chapter focusing on a specific tree or group of trees and its relationship to both natural and human history.  I have followed my trail of “stars” through the book to give you a taste… on John’s Island, South Carolina there is an Angel Oak that is believed to be the oldest living thing (1400 years old) east of the Mississippi; there are 7,500 apple varieties (it would take one person twenty years and two hundred days to try them all); cabinetmaker Paul Downs of Philadelphia loved his cherry trees and claimed they had the ability to communicate — “when a tree senses an insect predator it relays that information to neighboring trees and those trees in turn change their chemical composition to help ward off the unwanted intruder”; in an Arbor Day address in 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt drew attention to a link between children and trees, saying, “A people without children would face a hopeless future; a country without trees is almost as hopeless;”  Herodotus tells how Persian King Xerxes stopped on his way to invade Greece because he was in awe of a beautiful sycamore tree on the banks of the Maeander River; and, in Kentucky, there’s a tree that owns itself!

This last story, like the hundreds of others in the book, must be read in its entirety to fully appreciate the significance of the situation.  Suffice it to say that a woman had a tree deeded to itself so it could never be cut down; likewise, she started a college for kids who had no money and could never have gone to school otherwise. Many of these stories have been passed down from generation to generation.   Read, collect, and pass down a few of your own.

Into the Porcupine Cave and Other Odysseys: Adventures of an Occasional Naturalist by William W. Warner

Mr. Warner is best known for his Pulitzer Prize winner, Beautiful Swimmers, a book about life on the Chesapeake Bay.  This book of essays, however,  is my personal favorite.  It’s a collection of nature stories about his adventures around the world, beginning with the day he and a young friend were exploring in a cave in New England and ran into a dozen porcupines.  The stories leap to college and beyond — to dinosaur digs and birdwatching tours and treks into the jungles of Guatemala.  He camps in the Maine woods, swims with barracuda in the South Pacific, and falls asleep to the roar of howler monkeys on the Polochic river in Central America.  These essays are quite beautiful, sprinkled with a little humor, and show a great understanding and appreciation of the natural world.

Small Wonder: Essays by Barbara Kingsolver

If you like Ms. Kingsolver’s fiction, you’ll be sure to enjoy these essays.  Barbara Kingsolver grew up in Kentucky and has kept a deep connection to the land that seems to be a natural part of the Southern Appalachian heritage.  In these 23 essays she travels from the world of her tin-roofed cabin in Appalachia to her home in the Tucson desert, from the ruins at Uxmal in the Yucatan to Sanibel Island, from the sights at the Grand Canyon to the chickens in her own backyard.  These contemplations of place are laced with her personal opinions about genetic engineering, TV-watching, civil rights, the struggles of adolescence, the struggles of a nation and its place in time and the larger world.  At the core, these are political essays and I don’t always agree with Ms. Kingsolver’s views, but I do respect her opinions, appreciate her love of the natural world, and enjoy the stories.


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