History of botany and warnings for Trump: What I’ve been reading lately, part 1

Inspired by Mike Taylor’s What I’ve been reading lately posts at the Reinvigorated Programmer, I have decided to start posting an occasional annotated list of the books I have read recently. Here is the first installment.

One thing I noticed upon making this list is the absence of any works of fiction. That was not the result of any deliberate choice on my part, but it is a reminder to me that I should look for a good novel or collection of short stories next time I drop by the library.

Note that I added bold text for emphasis in several of the passages quoted below.

 

The Books

Asa Gray (A. Hunter Dupree, 1959, Harvard University Press), 420 pp. text + 82 pp. notes and index

Asa Gray (1810–1888) was the leading botanist in the United States in the mid to late 19th century, a frequent correspondent of Charles Darwin, and one of the first university professors in the USA to adopt the professional specialization that is now standard practice in science. A biography of Gray, therefore, ends up being much more than a simple profile of his life. All while telling the story of his main subject, Dupree provides historical accounts of botanical research in North America (and contemporaneous research around the world), scientific societies in the USA, growth and change in private and public universities, and the debate surrounding Darwin’s Origin of Species.

Gray’s role as one of the original Darwinians is fascinating from multiple angles. He was the only scientist in the western hemisphere in Darwin’s inner circle, and accordingly he was the person responsible both for ensuring the publication of the Origin in the United States and for defending natural selection and common descent in scientific meetings throughout 1860 (especially in debates with Louis Agassiz). At the same time, Gray was a devout Christian and wrote extensively during the following decades to argue that his faith and his science were not incompatible.

Because of my interest in the gymnosperm genus Torreya, one of the passages from this book that caught my eye mentions Gray’s own pilgrimage to the Apalachicola, back in the years before this species’ tragic decline.

“The railroad journey into the byways of the deep South required long delays, poor quarters, and ‘ablutions made at the tank of the locomotive.’ But to see Torreya [taxifolia] growing in its unique locality on the Apalachicola River was a thrill. Gray had some eye for a romantic landscape as he passed on a steamboat ‘down the brimming river, bordered with almost unbroken green of every tint, from the dark background of the Long-leaved Pines [Pinus palustris] to the tender new verdure of the Liquidambar [Liquidambar styraciflua]…interspersed with the deep and lustrous hue of Magnolia grandiflora.’ The names were there, but so was the landscape.” (p. 408)

Although this book starts off slowly with a somewhat plodding introduction to Gray’s genealogy, it is quite good overall and is worthwhile reading for anyone interested in the history of botany or evolutionary biology.

 

The Imperial Presidency (Arthur Schlesinger, 1973, Houghton Mifflin Company), 419 pp. text + 82 pp. notes and index

This book is a fascinating historical study on the Presidency of the United States. Schlesinger discusses how ambiguity in the Constitution and international crises have led, over time, to the concentration of military and foreign relations power in the Presidency at the expense of Congress’ explicit constitutional authority to declare war and ratify treaties.

Schlesinger’s book feels especially relevant today in light of the current administration. I have seen a few articles online (such as this one from the BBC) drawing a parallel between Nixon’s Watergate scandal and various scandals surrounding Trump (contacts with Russia, unreleased tax returns, the misuse of ‘fake news,’ etc.). While such comparisons may be appropriate, what concerns me most is not the smoke—Watergate, tax returns, nonsense on Twitter—but the fire: a President both unaware of and openly hostile to the real world.

“Presidents like Roosevelt [FDR] and Kennedy understood that, if the man at the top confined himself to a single information system, he became a prisoner of that system. Therefore they pitted sources of their own against the information distributed to them through official channels. They understood that contention was an indispensable means of government. But Nixon, instead of exposing himself to the chastening influence of debate, organized the executive branch and the White House in order to shield himself as far as humanly possible from direct question or challenge—i.e., from reality.

“The result was the enthronement of unreality. ‘The more a President sits surrounded only by his own views and those of his personal advisers,’ said Senator Charles Mathias, ‘the more he lives in a house of mirrors in which all views and ideas tend to reflect and reinforce his own.’ … With Nixon, withdrawal from external reality allowed him to impose his private sense of what was real on the government and, if he could, on the nation. America was entering the age of the solipsistic presidency.” (pp. 222–223)

As I read this book, I was stuck time and time again by how Schlesinger’s comments on Nixon could apply equally to Trump.

“The president, it could only be supposed, suffered from delusions of persecution.” (p. 230)

Trump even seems to borrow from Nixon’s public relations playbook at times. When his first press conference as President-elect featured a large stack of manilla folders purportedly containing his plans to eliminate conflicts of interest with his business holdings, all I could think of was Nixon’s appearance on television with stacks of three-ring binders containing, he said, transcripts of conversations that would show he had no knowledge of the Watergate coverup.

This is why it’s important to read history. It points out that patterns that have succeeded and have failed in the past. It also reminds us that, in some sense, we’ve been here before.

 

All the President’s Men (Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, 1974, Simon and Schuster), 336 pp. text + 12 pp. index

I’d previously read the sequel to this book (The Final Days, which addresses Nixon’s resignation), so I though I ought to read this one too. It is a fast-paced, enjoyable read about Watergate from the perspective of the reporters who investigated the story. Still relevant today and well worth reading.

 

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (Olivia Laing, 2016, St. Martin’s Press), 281 pp. text + 25 pp. notes and bibliography

I was drawn to the title of this book because it reminded me of a cold, lonely December I once spent in Chicago, subletting a small, unheated room in Hyde Park and dealing with a breakup while doing research on lichen taxonomy. This is actually a book of art history, and so I learned quite a bit about artists of New York City while also reading Laing’s insightful comments on loneliness.

 

Leopold’s Shack and Ricketts’s Lab: The Emergence of Environmentalism (Michael J. Lannoo, 2010, University of California Press), 159 pp. text + 33 pp. notes and index

Having previously read Steinbeck and Ricketts’ The Log from the Sea of Cortex, and planning to finish Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, this seemed like it would be an interesting book. A few months after reading it, however, I mainly remember it for the facts about Leopold and Ricketts that I either learned or recalled while reading it, and not for any original idea that Lannoo advances. Still, it is a quick read and is worth reading, particularly if (like me) you haven’t read much of the literature about either of these men.

 

A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There (Aldo Leopold, 1949, Oxford University Press), 226 pp. text.

Although I have read portions of this book before, I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that I’ve never before read it in its entirety. It was everything I had been told to expect in terms of beautiful nature writing.

“Lunch over, I regard a phalanx of young tamaracks, their golden lances thrusting skyward. Under each the needles of yesterday fall to earth building a blanket of smoky gold; at the tip of each the bud of tomorrow, preformed, poised, awaits another spring.” (58)

I’d love to write a paragraph like that.

Sand County Almanac also fulfilled my expectations as a work of environmental philosophy, written over 60 years ago but still, in many ways, ringing true today.

“It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land, and a hight regard for its value. By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense.

“Perhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of a land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, and intense consciousness of land. Your true modern is separated from the land by many middlemen, and by innumerable physical gadgets. He has no vital relation to it; to him it is the space between cities on which crops grow. Turn him loose for a day on the land, and if the spot does not happen to be a golf links or a ‘scenic’ area, he is bored stiff.” (224)

As I pursue my passion for biology into grad school and beyond, I always want to keep in mind that one of my reasons for doing science, for working to understand the natural world, is to spread understanding, respect, and even awe for nature, and thereby encourage its protection.

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