The Secret Wisdom of Nature by Peter Wohlleben

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Wohlleben_secretnatureHe who writes about nature’s intricate webs needs a quick tutorial from he who writes about Charlotte’s web.

Wohlleben, Peter. The Secret Wisdom of Nature: Trees, Animals, and the Extraordinary Balance of All Living Things; Stories from Science and Observation. Trans. Jane Billinghurst. Vancouver, CAN: Greystone Books, 2017. Print.

 

Genre: nonfiction (nature)

 

Summary: Wolves impact river levels. Beavers influences where trees grow. Earthworms control wild boar populations. Forest trees eat salmon, which helps the trees grow faster and healthier. Wohlleben illuminates and explains all of these curious, unexpected, seemingly impossible connections scientists are discovering between organisms and nature.

More than merely fascinating, these organic bonds and interactions are crucial. Once disrupted, the broken relationships lead to ever more cataclysmic ruptures. When any one population disappears or booms beyond the balance, all other organisms across a natural system are threatened. As one example, Wohlleben looks at how a proliferating elk population mows down soft, sweet riparian trees that beavers eat and build with. If beavers can’t dam rivers, then other water-dependent plants go thirsty and die. The animals relying on those plans for food must relocate or else also die.

The consequences intensify when we stop to consider the mass extinctions of entire animal species over the last several hundred years. Human activities have largely divested the planet of some 8,000 plant and animal species, according to the Smithsonian Institute. Add to that another 15,000 species under threat.

Our booming cities and suburban sprawls erase entire habitats. Our lifestyles chew through fossil fuels which rapidly alter the planet’s temperatures, further disrupting ancient cycles and the mysterious relationships Wohlleben chronicles.

Spoiler alert: Wohlleben proffers slender hope. He advises readers to join a local forestry class or outdoors survival group. Perhaps get more time outdoors in order to cultivate a passion for the spaces we need to preserve.

 

Critique: I am not certain this text adopts the most effective structure for an international translation. In nearly every chapter, Wohlleben’s examples begin with a global context, then narrow down to a specific instance isolated to his native Germany. No doubt, this structure appealed to German readers who could conceptualize a world problem through a familiar lens. But an American readership can’t really relate to Berlin’s wild boar dilemmas. And wouldn’t all readers everywhere feel more compelled if a chapter’s scenario began with an isolated, local predicament that mirrors or micro-illustrates a broader, global crisis?

Besides structural setbacks, the text also suffers from translation hiccups.

Wohlleben is a natural storyteller. His tone feels as cozy as A.A. Milne (Winnie the Pooh) and as animal-loving as E.B. White (Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, The Goshawk). Unfortunately, the translation to English corrodes this intrinsic style. As I read the opening chapters, I found my attention continually sliding off the page. Paragraphs bogged down with the clause-y, conditional verbs that I continually tell my students to beware.

For example:

“Forest agencies are offering to step in and help…”

“Timber was becoming increasingly scarce because it was being used so heavily as fuel and building material, and people were not giving trees time to grow old.”

“In Yellowstone, however, in addition to declining elk numbers, there was something else going on. Thanks to the presence of wolves, the elk’s behavior was changing, and what was triggering this change was fear. Elk began avoiding open areas…”

This passage goes on to describe how the elk “were retreating…”or else “were constantly scanning” and so on.

For writers, the poor writing red flags are not just rising, they’re blasting out of bazookas in these examples. Anytime a sentence involves a “to be” verb phrase (there is/was/were/are…), that sentence has veered into passive voice territory. Passive voice describes when the typical order of operations in a sentence inverts. Usually, a sentence lines up the subject and verb. A someone or something does something. The cat sleeps. The boulder fell. A change occurred.

 Passive voice use a “to be” phrase and puts the doing before the thing. There was a change.

What’s the big deal? As E.B. White (same as above and of the classic Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style) notes, that inverted structure creates a wordier sentence which bogs down the reading experience. Thus why my attention slid off the page.

Another tell-tale sign of passive voice are diluted, weak, clause-y verbs. Were retreating. Began avoiding. Are offering. Was being used. “To be” verb clauses barnacle themselves to perfectly good verbs. Why waste ink on were retreating when you could say the elk retreated?

I have my students find and fix these problems in the news articles and ad brochures I bring to class or tutoring sessions. Below are the problematic passive sentences and a quick, concise fix:

Forest agencies are offering to step in and help.
Forest agencies help.

Timber was becoming increasingly scarce because it was being used so heavily as fuel and building material, and people were not giving trees time to grow old.
Timber became scarce…

(That’s ok, but if I choose better verbs, the whole sentence improves by leaps and bounds.)

Timber dwindled as people relied on it for fuel and building material; trees lacked essential time to grow old.

In Yellowstone, however, in addition to declining elk numbers, there was something else going on. Thanks to the presence of wolves, the elk’s behavior was changing, and what was triggering this change was fear. Elk began avoiding open areas…
In Yellowstone, other anomalies unfolded. Elk behavior changed. Fear triggered new habits as the elk avoided open areas…
They retreated…
They scanned…

I’d love to recommend this book to all the world’s would-be Greta Thunbergs and passionate climate change fighters; however, I’ll most likely recommend it to writing coaches who are passionate about fighting writing change.

P is for Pterodactyl by Raj Haldar and Chris Carpenter

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Repeat after me: W is for wren. M is for mnemonic. D is for Djibouti. This book is the worst alphabet book EVER…and it’s proud of it!

Haldar, Raj and Chris Carpenter. P is for Pterodactyl: The Worst Alphabet Book Ever. Illus. Maria Tina Beddia. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2018. Print.

Genre: picture book (ABC)

P-for-PterodactylSummary: Like any alphabet book for young readers, this text runs through all 26 letters providing a key word starting with each letter, a funny sentence incorporating that word, plus a memorable illustration to depict the action described and the letter featured. Unlike any other alphabet book, the letters here misbehave. Either they go entirely silent or they take on the sound of another letter.

Critique: When I sat on my front steps to read this book, I had no idea what an uproar it would cause. My neighbors and random strangers out walking their dogs all paused to inquire if I was okay.

I was doubled-over, face-palming, snorting, snrking, and straight up laughing out loud. Every page of this text delighted me. I adored its original concept: using silent letters to teach the alphabet and help early readers grasp the many weird and irregular spelling combinations inherent in English. So subversive!

Subversive books — those that buck or invert genre and audience expectations — are among my all-time favorites. P is for Pterodactyl soars to the top of my favorites list not only because of its irreverent play on sounds (k is for knight and h is for heir), but also because of its engaging and comprehensive glossary and for the way it fearlessly embraces and showcases big and bizarre words like eulogy, psoriasis, or bdellium, aeon, quays, and czar.

Children’s authors are trained to avoid big words because young readers won’t grasp them, which is a practice I find about as useful as blindfolding a track and field athlete every time a hurdle appears. Heaven forbid they should glimpse a challenge…

Without guidance from a skilled adult reader, this book is likely to frustrate new readers who don’t fully grasp basic spelling rules. With thoughtful conversation, however, this text can spark a rewarding dialogue about the miracle that is written and spoken communication.

 

 

Feeld by Jos Charles

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charles-jos-feeldLanguage. It’s as slippery and fluid as gender. And some of us need poetry to grasp that.

Charles, Jos. feeld. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2018. Print.

Genre: poetry

Summary: Jos Charles, trans editor and poet, recipient of the Poetry Foundation’s 2016 Ruth Lily & Dorothy Sargent Rosenburg Fellowship, crafts poetry in Chaucer’s English to simulate and capture a transgender existence.

Critique: About the time I found feeld at my public library, I had just listened to a series of mind-blowing podcasts on gender; how it’s determined genetically, why it’s never fixed or chemically constant, and how modern society is coming to terms with new definitions and expectations for “female,” “male,” and everything we now realize is possible in between.

(Curious? Check out RadioLab’s “Gonads” series.)

These episodes broadened my scientific understanding of the gender spectrum; however, Jos Charles’ poetry irrevocably enlightened my internal, heartfelt sense of that spectrum.

At first, reading a contemporary text in Middle English (the version of medieval English best preserved in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales) was jarring. Middle English arose after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. The cultural, social, political upheavals waylaid what had been a relatively standardized language. In other words, grammar rules, punctuation patterns, and spelling conventions all went out the window. Consequently, when I read Middle English, I am reminded of my earliest attempts to spell without adult/academic supervision. Acting with only the slimmest understanding of phonetics, I (and many young children) kobbul letrs that mach the sownz uv the werds.

Under Charles’ precise, poetic influence, the Middle English spelling variations result in sparkling homonyms and heteronyms that spur new understandings, reinterpretations, and re-appropriations.

For instance, Charles’ writes:

1 drags so much alonge the bottom off the see

and..

i care so much abot the whord i cant reed/ it marks mye back wen i pass

and…

as mye hole extends it nevre entres conchesness as myne

See or sea. Whole or hole. Reed or read. Either way, these words resonate with so much fecund and versatile meaning that suddenly all the standardization rules built into modern English to produce precise, clear, unambiguous communication seem limiting and naive. To that same end, all the societal conventions we’ve built into gender definitions to prohibit the unambiguous also seem to hamper more than help.

See or sea? Hetero or homo? Male or Female? What’s the difference and who cares if I am not truly comprehending and appreciating the inherent and beautiful complexity that is humanity?

A Wilder Time by William Glassley

When taught to love this Earth like a geologist, we appreciate and crave even the smell of rocks.

Glassley, William. A Wilder Time: Notes from a Geologist at the Edge of the Greenland Ice. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2018. Print.

Genre: narrative nonfiction

Summary: Two geologist colleagues invite Glassley on a return visit to Greenland because a newly published research paper accuses them of misinterpreting data they published years ago. Their thesis: Greenland is but geologic scar tissue; the site of colossal tectonic subduction; a place where the earth slowly swallowed a mountain range that would have shadowed the Himalayas. Unless Glassley and the team go back to reassess their data, the scientific community may think them imbeciles.

Critique: As a writer dealing with a somewhat obscure topic, Glassley is a patient teacher. Readers steadily acquire complex geologic concepts and terminology as the book progresses.

My favorites: foehn (a strong warm wind forming on the downslope side of a geologic feature), palsa (a round mound of soil many feet across, rising out of a watery region), and pingo (a larger palsa, measuring hundreds of feet across).

As a writer brokering in passions on the page, Glassley is a master. He is to science prose what Byron is to poetry. Quite often, Glassley wallops readers with revelations like, “In Greenland, water and rock are consanguineous.” He is so deft at describing the grand, cyclical conversations between atoms, chemicals, gravity, and molecules which form not only continents, but also life.

Like the handsome Indiana Jones lecturing about archaeology, Glassley gets us swooning over a topic we didn’t know we could crush on so hard. He convinces us not just to study rocks, but to go so far as to smell them! Why? Because one day their atomic makeup will fold into our atomic makeup and feed our very thoughts, ideas, and dreams.

His superpower is to make the study of rocks something intimate, delicate; something blush-worthy to read about. Take, for example, Glassley’s nearly erotic description of the way foamy waves coax and massage all the pebbles on a beach to align. The bubbles charm the small stones to flatten together and form the kind of slope which water prefers to slide along. One pebble sits askew until the waves tickle it with foam. “One wave, one pebble, and the metronome of process registers one more click,” says Glassley.

This book, at its core, is a love poem to science. Glassley explains, “When Kai, John, and I return to our laboratories, we will describe much of what we have seen through equations that honor the observations and data we have collected.”

Wait–wait–wait! You mean equations aren’t just devious and maniacal forms of mathematical torture? They are devotional and even a tad spiritual?

Could somebody please get me a fresh college registration form? I think need another degree…in geology.

“Earth,” Glassley writes, “is the construct of wandering stardust, accreted from the atomic debris of supernovae and the elemental winds of unknown starts. The gentle fall of interstellar particles, the collisions of comets and meteors and frozen water, gave rise to our planet in a rush of cosmic artistry just over four-and-a-half billion years ago.”

In other words, our world derives from galactic erosion! Our home is but space tallus recombined!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to fill all my spiral notebooks with the equation: me+rocks=<3.

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

A pervasive color, temporal slip n’ slides, hop-scotching graphics, one voice to rule them all—everything you’ve ever loved in a Samuel Beckett play now in a graphic novel memoir!

Bui, Thi. The Best We Could Do. New York: Abrams ComicArts, 2017. Print.

Genre: graphic novel memoir

Summary: A graduate school assignment turns into a decades-long quest to collect one family’s immigrant history morphs into a graphic memoir. The author recounts her family’s escape war-torn Vietnam and their rough, raw transition to America.

Critique: Orange hues pervade, warm, and stain every page and panel. It’s an apt color because the memoir roots back to Vietnam’s most turbulent and violent years of occupation, liberation, and civil insurrection. However, the unrelenting “Agent Orange” on every page adds as much as it detracts. To be sure it contributes an entire whispered universe of historic weight and suffering and survival. At the same time, it muddies the narrative timeline which alternates between then and now. The orange past is often indistinguishable from the orange present.

Perhaps this temporal slipperiness is exactly how the author lives with her heritage. The graphic novel may well be her attempt to share that experience with readers. And isn’t that one of the primary and most fundamental objectives embodied within every literary work? Creating that magical, telepathic exchange between the writer and the reader (to poorly paraphrase Stephen King from his memoir, On Writing). I believe it is, but I’m not convinced the exchange here has been entirely successful.

And the omnipresent orange is not the only culprit.

The confusion between past and present may also be tied to how this novel uses its panels. Commonly, graphic novel panels contain moments arranged sequentially—like individual frames from a movie reel. One panel can show a man approaching a door. The next can show keys sliding into a doorknob. The reader connects these two otherwise disconnected ideas: ah, that man is unlocking that door.

As Scott McCloud puts it in Understanding Comics, “…panels fracture both time and space, offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments.” Our minds have the power to fill in the gaps based on experience and prior knowledge, thereby creating a continuous narrative.

In this graphic novel, the moments within the panels are not entirely sequential. For instance, in one panel, you might have two people huddled at a dining room table. In the next panel, farmers work rice fields. It takes a while to decode that those farmers exist in the past and are being remembered by the people at the dining room table set in the present.

Presumably, the dialogue in that first panel would have made it clear that the subsequent panel was going to represent the memory being discussed. That’s not the case and is almost never the case because this novel rarely employs dialogue. Instead, exposition pervades the panels. It’s a one-way dialogue—the author’s monologue. Imagine watching a movie with no sound other than a voiceover telling you about what you’re seeing. Characters come together, interact, discuss, argue, but you don’t get to hear any of that. You only get the voiceover…for 330 pages.

Pervasive orange…. Temporal slip n’ slides…. Hop-scotching graphics…. One voice to rule them all.…

I can’t help feeling as if all these oddly juxtaposed elements should have combined into a brilliant, unconventional narrative. I mean, really, aren’t these precisely the kinds of bizarre components we know and love in every Samuel Beckett play?

Sigh. If only Samuel Beckett had made graphic novels.