Monday, June 20, 2016

Catalog

In my 365 blog, I listed alllllllll the articles I ever wrote for Coast & Ocean, the California Coastal Conservancy magazine, which had a long healthy run until the economic crash.

Today I want to list the several articles I've written for the UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources magazine Breakthroughs. With a new one, a profile, in the works this week. Hopefully I'll be able to keep updating this list.

Spring 2014
Sergio Núñez de Arco: Creating a New Staple (quinoa)

Fall 2014
Can Extreme Science Fix the Planet? (geoengineering)
Pop-Up Wetlands: A Success Story (feeding the birds)

Spring 2015
Parks Forward: Rebooting California's State Parks

Winter 2016
Q&A: The Berkeley Food Institute
Profile of Bill and Barbara Steele: Listening to the Land (biodynamic winemaking)

Fall 2016
Profile of Christina Brown Campbell, CNR's new Alumni Association president

Monday, June 13, 2016

61 Books: #30

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–29 are below this post.

30. Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (2016) (6/13/16)
It has taken me a while to read this book because I only ever wanted to take it in a bit at a time, and then sit with the lessons Tippett, host of the NPR show On Being, offers up, and savor them. Which means that, having now read through to the last page, I feel I wouldn't be remiss to go back to page one and start over: there is so much quiet, profound wisdom in this book.

It is composed of six chapters: Introduction: The Age of Us; Words: The Poetry of Creatures; Flesh: the Body's Grace; Love: A Few Things I've Learned; Faith: Evolution; and Hope: Reimagined. It seemed particularly appropriate to finish this morning on hope, given yesterday's tragedy in Orlando. There is so much ignorance and hatred in this world, and yet it is important, imperative, not to succumb, but instead to nurture gratitude and hope and remain active, to fight against the bigotry and arrogance.

Tippett, over the years, has spoken with hundreds of wise men and women. In this book, she turns to those conversations and reproduces some of the pithiest exchanges. Her quest feels very personal: she is trying to make sense (and heart) of it all for herself. But her quest also feels universal—because don't we all want to make sense of this crazy thing called life? The questions she asks, the thoughts she pursues, are questions and thoughts I might have if I paid these matters more attention. I thank her for doing it for me.

My copy of the book is bristling with flags. For this report, I think I will just quote some of the lines and passages that struck me.

"What does it mean to be human? What matters in a life? What matters in a death? How to be of service to each other and the world? These questions are being reborn, reframed, in our age of interdependence with far-flung strangers. The question of what it means to be human is now inextricable from the question of who we are to each other. We have riches of knowledge and insight, of tools both tangible and spiritual, to rise to this calling. We watch our technologies becoming more intelligent, and speculate imaginatively about their potential to become conscious. All the while, we have it in us to become wise. Wisdom leavens intelligences, and ennobles consciousness, and advances evolution itself."

She speaks of the inquiry into the nature of "soul" or "spirit" as leading "organically, along straight or meandering paths, into the roots of the curiosity that becomes, in adulthood, passion and vocation."

In one conversation, she discusses "generous listening," which itself is "powered by curiosity. . . . It involves a kind of vulnerability—a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity." Generous listening, she says, yields better questions—because, contrary to what we learn in school, there is such a thing as a bad question. "It's hard to meet a simplistic question with anything but a simplistic answer. It's hard to transcend a combative question. But it's hard to resist a generous question. We all have it in us to formulate questions that invite honesty, dignity, and revelation. There is something redemptive and life-giving about asking a better question." Surely, Tippett herself epitomizes generous listening. When she needs to "hold" a question, turn it over in her mind, dwell on it, she's not afraid to do so.

"The crack in the middle where people on both sides absolutely refuse to see the other as evil—this is where I want to live and what I want to widen."

"We are matter, kindred with ocean and tree and sky. We are flesh and blood and bone. To sink into that is a relief, a homecoming. Mind and spirit are as physical as they are mental. The line we'd drawn between them was whimsy, borne of the limits of our understanding. Emotions and memories, from despair to gladness, root in our bodies. . . . Our bodies are longing and joy and fear and a lifelong desire to be safe and loved, incarnate."

"If we are stretching to live wiser and not just smarter, we will aspire to learn what love means, how it arises and deepens, how it withers and revives, what it looks like as a private good but also a common good. I long to make this word echo differently in hearts and ears—not less complicated, but differently so. Love as muscular, resilient. Love as social—not just about how we are intimately, but how we are together, in public. I want to aspire to a carnal practical love—eros become civic, not sexual and yet passionate, full-bodied. Because it is the best of which we are capable, loving is also supremely exacting, not always but again and again. Love is something we only master in moments. It crosses the chasms between us, and likewise brings them into relief. It is as captive to the human condition as anything we attempt."

Oh, and there's so much more: about compassion, about allowing our hearts to be educated in relationship with others, about paradise being right in front of us, about mystery (which "lands in us as a humbling fullness of reality we cannot sum up or pin down"), about befriending reality in all its beauty and pain, about hope and truth.

She ends: "We are so achingly frail and powerful all at once, in this adolescence of our species. But I have seen that wisdom emerges precisely through those moments when we have to hold seemingly opposing realities in a creative tension and interplay: power and frailty, birth and death, pain and hope, beauty and brokenness, mystery and conviction, calm and buoyancy, mine and yours. . . . The mystery and art of living are as grand as the sweep of a lifetime and the lifetime of a species. And they are as close as beginning, quietly, to mine whatever grace and beauty, whatever healing and attentiveness, are possible in this moment and the next and the next one after that."

Thursday, June 9, 2016

61 Books: #29

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–28 are below this post.

29. Scott O'Dell, Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960) (6/9/16)
I had not read this book in something like fifty years, but as a girl it was one of my favorites. I was brought to it again via a job: proofreading a new "critical edition"—a long introduction to the book, plus a couple of essays on archeology and "Native American persistence," that serve as commentary and contextualization for the Newbery Award–winning classic of 1960.

What a pleasure it was, after slogging through the academic prose, to sit back and savor O'Dell's elegant narrative. The language is just right: a little formal, a little old-fashioned, as befits a young woman stranded for eighteen years on a small (35 sq. mi.) island off the coast of Santa Barbara in the early 1800s. His descriptions of the natural history of San Nicolas Island, with its otters and elephant seals, wild dogs and little foxes; octopus, abalone, and grunions; cormorants and gulls—and of course dolphins—are mostly spot-on. For example:

"Blue dolphins were leaping beyond the kelp beds. In the kelp otter were playing at the games they never tire of. And around me everywhere the gulls were fishing for scallops, which were numerous that summer. They grow on the floating kelp leaves and there were so many of them that much of the kelp near the reef had been dragged to the bottom. Still there were scallops that the gulls could reach, and taking them in their beaks they would fly far above the reef and let them drop. The gulls would then swoop down to the rocks and pick the meat from the broken shells. . . . Dodging this way and that I went to the end of the reef where the biggest fish live. With a sinew line and a hook made of abalone shell I caught two that had large heads and long teeth, but are good to eat. I gave one to Rontu [her dog] and on the way back to the canoe gathered purple sea urchins to use for dyeing."

In that one passage we see the young heroine, Karana's, ingenuity and industry, but also her love of this place that is the only home she's known.

The story is simple: After a tragic incident with Aleut otter hunters, Karana's people leave the island on a "white men's ship," but she and her younger brother remain behind. Soon he is killed by wild dogs, and she must break old gender-based taboos to survive. At one point she attempts to paddle a canoe to the mainland, but soon turns back because the boat proves no longer seaworthy; blue dolphins guide her to safety. For most of the next eighteen years she is alone, though she befriends several animals (it is a very sad passage when Rontu dies). At one point, the Aleut hunters return, and she at first reluctantly but then with pleasure spends time with a young woman who is traveling with them. They don't speak the same language, but they find other ways to communicate.

And finally, another ship arrives, and, "wish[ing] to be where people lived," she goes to the cove where they are anchored.

"Now that the white men had come back, I could not think of what I would do when I went across the sea, or make a picture in my mind of the white men and what they did there, or see my people who had been gone so long. Nor, thinking of the past, of the many summers and winters and springs that had gone, could I see each of them. They were all one, a tight feeling in my breast and nothing more."

But go with them she does. "For a long time I stood and looked back at the Island of the Blue Dolphins. The last thing I saw of it was the high headland. I thought of Rontu lying there beneath the stones of many colors, and of Won-a-nee [an otter she nursed to health], wherever she was, and the little red fox that would scratch in vain at my fence, and my canoe hidden in the cave, and of all the happy days."

Island of the Blue Dolphins is based on a true story, that of the "Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island" (see this link for an account of the historic woman and her people). In the real story, the woman died less than two months after arriving in San Diego and being taken in by the ship's captain and his wife, no doubt because she had no immunity to the diseases of the European mainland. No one spoke her language, so her story remains lost to time. But O'Dell was a historical novelist, and I believe (especially after reading the long critical introduction to this book) that he did his homework and presented her and the life she lived on the island as well as could possibly be done.

I'm delighted to have spent time with Karana on her beautiful island again.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

61 Books: #28

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–27 are below this post.

28. Sharon Bolton, Little Black Lies (2015) (6/5/16)
Every year or two or three, my brother-in-law, a mystery fan, writes me out of the blue to inquire whether I've read a particular book. Two days ago, another such inquiry came. Although I am actively reading a clutch of (mostly nonfiction) books right now, none of them is proceeding quickly, and I've been feeling a bit of pressure over this project because here it is already June, and I still have 34 books to read by December. So when the "suggestion" (which I suppose the inquiries amount to) of a new book arrived, I dashed to the library, then planted myself on the couch for the duration.

This book, winningly, is set in the Falkland Islands, with its unusual recent history (the war of 1982), landscape (hilly, windswept, boggy, mostly treeless), and wildlife (especially birds and cetaceans), not to mention its close-knit society, which begins to unravel as, over the course of a few years, children, periodically, go missing.

The story is told sequentially from three points of view: Catrin, who three years earlier lost her two young sons in a freak accident caused by her best friend, Rachel—who is the third narrator; and the middle narrator, Callum, a Scotsman who remained on the islands after the war, and Catrin's lover at the time of the accident. In the intervening years, Catrin has withdrawn from those she once was close to, including her now ex-husband. She functions mainly through her job, working for Falklands Conservation as a marine biologist.

As the third anniversary of her boys' death approaches, another boy goes missing: making for three mysterious disappearances in as many years. And then, yet another follows: this time, it's Rachel's youngest.

Events are recounted from each point of view in a day-by-day narration. Masterfully, Bolton does not repeat—or if she does, it's deliberate. She relies on the reader to be soaking in the relevant details and adding new ones in as each narrator steps up.

Woven through the tale are snippets of Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," with its albatross (a Falklands resident), the symbol of guilt and grief.

As I reached the end, the story was twisting and turning like a writhing rattler, and I prepared myself for disappointment. But happily, Bolton came through. It's all not necessarily believable: I doubt any such tale could happen in reality. But this is a mystery, genre fiction, and the story is crafted beautifully. Right up until the last page.

More than the mystery itself, however, I was taken by the elegant descriptions of the land and people, human history and natural history, of the Falklands. For example:

"As I drive across the stone run some small, grey birds that have been sheltering among the rocks fly up and, for a few seconds, I am surrounded by them. It's as though the rocks themselves have taken flight.
"The stone runs are strange, almost unearthly rock formations. Barely known in other parts of the world, they are common here, snaking across the landscape like rivers. I like to think of them as ancient pathways, built for travellers as distinct from man as we are from the thousands of other creatures we share these islands with. There is a purpose to these stone runs, I'm convinced, a reason why ribbons of boulders should snake across the countryside.
"There have been times when I've driven this way and sworn the stone run has come to life, started flowing again as scientists believe it once did. It happens when the light is playing a peculiar trick, when the clouds are low and both the wind and the sun are strong. Then, shadows are cast, millions of small absences of light that race across the ground, and the stones, which are anchored as firmly as any rock could possibly be, seem to slide, tumble, roll on down the hill. Blink hard and they stop. Glance back from the corner of your eye and they resume their crazy, imaginary flow."

Google "Falklands stone runs" to see. They do look beautiful.

There's a brilliant, brave description of the euthanization of close to two hundred beached pilot whales, as well as flashbacks to battles during the Falklands War. Even such mundane things as the colored roofs of the town of Stanley are vividly described.

Three things rubbed me wrong: a talking horse (not really, but the character's imagination didn't need to let the horse have the last word); too much reliance on a PTSD blackout; and use of the phrase "clinging to her like cheap perfume." Noooo, not a cliché! Otherwise: okay, maybe not perfect, but pretty darn good. And not even just for a mystery.