Botanical exploration and Norwegian fiction: What I’ve been reading lately, part 2

Ok. “Lately” isn’t entirely accurate; the books discussed below are more along the lines of “What I was reading this winter and spring and then never got around to writing a blog post about.”

This is the second installment of my “What I’ve been reading lately” series; the first post in the series is here. If your read my reflections on the first post, you’ll remember that it was conspicuously lacking in fiction. I decided to wait until I had read at least one novel to publish this post, and if you scroll all the way to the end, you can read about the novel I finished reading last week. 

The Books

American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation (Eric Rutkow, 2012, Scribner), 348 pp. text + 55 pp. notes, bibliography, and index

American Canopy is a book about United States history examined with a focus on forests and trees. In mostly chronological order, Rutkow discusses the history of the United States from European colonization, westward expansion, and the Industrial Revolution all the way to the World Wars, New Deal, and environmental movement—a span of about 1580–2011. He gives each time period a typical historical treatment (who was President, what was Congress up to, etc.), but, unlike any other book I have read, this treatment centers on the impact of the United States’ leaders and people on the nation’s trees, and the reciprocal effects of those trees on both (political and thought) leaders and the general public.

This book was a truly fascinating read; in particular, I learned a great deal about the history of US public lands (their creation, management, and use) and historical patterns of timber harvest and consumption across the US. I also gained a renewed appreciation for just how many ways wood has been used, and continues to be used, in the United States.

Here’s one passage from the last chapter that sums up the central idea of the book:

“The trees and forests are not passive actors, despite what appearances may suggest. They channel our collective behaviors and influence the way we think. American attitudes toward resource consumption were formed against a backdrop of seemingly unlimited access to wood. The country’s industrial expansion differed from that of Europe in large part because of trees, which allowed (perhaps even encouraged) a style of development that favored speed and immediacy over permanence. It may well be that the reason Americans today consume more that any other nation traces back to the once limitless bounty of their forests.

“But this aspect of American identity hardly suggests the full extent to which trees have shaped and continue to shape national culture. The woods have been the source for many of the country’s traditional folk heroes, from Johnny Appleseed to Daniel Boone to Paul Bunyan. An American style of literature first emerged when writers such as James Fenimore Cooper began reflecting on the great tree-filled wilderness that stretched across the continent’s interior. We are all inheritors of the municipal parks movement of the mid-nineteenth century, the national parks program that John Muir inspired, the forestry crusade of Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt, the alphabetical conservationism practiced under Franklin Roosevelt, the wild regions saved by men like Aldo Leopold, and the regulatory framework of the post-Earth Day generation. With all of this as the basis for our modern culture, it is understandable why most Americans feel an affinity for trees.” (p. 347)

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in environmental issues, US history, etc.


Landscapes and Labscapes: Exploring the Lab–Field Border in Biology (Robert E. Kohler, 2002, University of Chicago Press), 308 pp. + 17 pp. bibliography and index

I have a general interest in the history of science, particularly the history and philosophy of biology. The title of this book caught my eye because I tend to work right along the “border” between lab and field, in different projects and at different times moving more towards one or the other (I’ve been meaning to write a post about that; maybe there will be one in the next few weeks).

Kohler uses the “border” metaphor as more than a shorthand for “place where two things meet”; throughout the book he returns to examples of what life is like along political borders in the real world as ways of understanding the border between two disciplines. The book deals with the (early 1990s) rise and decline of different ways of doing ecology and evolutionary studies in the field while the pendulum of those disciplines swung between natural history and laboratory manipulation. A brief excerpt illustrates the book’s overall theme:

“The failed first attempts to create scientific field practices disabused biologists of the belief that natural history could be made scientific by simply importing laboratory paraphernalia or protocols. This belief was a powerful impediment to the creation of effective field practices, at least as powerful as the practical difficulties of dealing with natural populations and complex environments. It was an understandable assumption at a time when a dominant and confident lab culture encountered ‘big nature’ for the first time after half a century of astonishing achievement in dealing with ‘little nature’ indoors (the words are Eugene Odum’s). Nonetheless, unrealistic expectations that laboratory methods would work well in the field served at first mainly to diminish the appeal of more humble but doable ways of working ‘big nature.’ It took a generation or more for field biologists to learn through hard experience to have confidence in their homegrown practices, to borrow critically and selectively from laboratory culture, and to value their own identity as border practitioners.” (p. 292)

Kohler admits from the beginning that his background is on the laboratory side, but I thought that his treatment of field biology was quite fair (his sympathetic treatment of certain field biologists maligned by their laboratory colleagues certainly won him a few points in my opinion, at least). I enjoyed this book and look forward to reading more of Kohler’s work.


The Hunt For Vulcan: … And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe (Thomas Levenson, 2015, Random House), 185 pp. text + 43 pp. notes, bibliography, and index

This was a fun read for a free afternoon for those interested in the history of science. I am just now remembering that total solar eclipses played a key role in science this book describes, so I sort of wish that I had finished this post before the eclipse earlier this summer. I wasn’t able to travel to see the total eclipse, but in Durham, NC, we got a good view of the partial eclipse. I was amazed at how bright the sun was even when 93% of it was blocked. The crescent-shaped spots of light filtered through tree leaves were my favorite part of the whole event.


The Collector: David Douglas and the Natural History of the Northwest (Jack Nisbet, 2009, Sasquatch), 255 pp. text + 34 pp. notes, bibliography, and index

I read this in June while flying to a conference ; it’s an interesting book about the life of a unique character in American botany. One element I particularly liked was that it told several stories around the discovery and naming of western North American plants (I’ve held a fondness for the West Coast flora ever since doing fieldwork in California several years ago). I also enjoyed how, through telling Douglas’ story, Nisbet also discussed the  connections between various European and American botanists and horticulturists of whom I’ve read (or at least heard mentioned) before.



The Half Brother (Lars Saabye Christensen, trans. Kenneth Steven, 2004 [2001], Arcade Publishing) 682 pp. text

I’m in awe of Christensen’s mastery of the craft of writing. This book makes exquisite use of Chekov’s gun in telling the story of a Norwegian family across multiple generations. I won’t give away any more than that, because you should go out and read the book!

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