Book Review: What the Robin Knows

What-the-Robin-Knows

Jon Young is a well-known naturalist, tracker, author and teacher based in Santa Cruz, California. I’ve heard many people praising his bird language classes, , but didn’t think I would ever be able to take one of his classes, because they’re too far away.  S0 the moment I heard about his new book, What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, I scampered to my email, contacted his publisher and begged for a review copy. They kindly obliged. And that is my full disclosure. But if they hadn’t been so obliging, I would have scraped my pennies together for this one.

Studying bird language is different from bird watching. It is a nature awareness practice which uses the observation of commonplace birds, like robins and sparrows, to teach you about the larger workings of the nature and yourself.

In a nutshell, Young asks you to choose a place to sit outdoors and commit to sitting in this place regularly, for about 40 minutes per session, watching the birds, watching all that happens around you. This sit spot might be your yard, a public park, or the wilderness. It doesn’t matter where–all that matters is that the location is easy to access, and you go there regularly. Over time, you’ll learn what he calls the baseline environment looks, sounds, feels like. The baseline being the ordinary sets of bird sounds and bird motion you see and hear in that place, at that time or day, at that time of year. To facilitate this recognition, he teaches you the five basic types of calls birds make (alarm calls, companion calls, etc.), using online audio files to help with the most common birds.  He goes on to teach about behavior, predators, etc.

Once you understand the baseline you will be able to tell when the baseline is disturbed, and eventually, you will be able to tell why. Knowing this allows you insight into the workings of nature. With study, what once seemed generic bird noise to you (if you heard it at all) becomes pinpoint-specific information. If the birds alert on something, for instance, with practice you can not only tell where that something is coming from, but you can distinguish whether that intruder is a person, a house cat or a hawk.

Indoors, we are all networked and interconnected by our electronic devices. (Twitter indeed!!) Outside, there’s just as much communication going on–and that communication is interspecies communication. Different types of birds listen to each other.  They both help and trick each other. The coyote and the raccoon and the fox listen to all of them. It’s an intense world out there around the bird feeder or up in those maples in the park. And with a little study, you can plug into this world, and regain your place in it.

Why should you want to plug in? Lots of reasons. First, sitting in nature heals our frazzled brains and eases our souls. I don’t think it goes too far to think of this practice as meditation. Most of all, studying bird language gives you a reason or an excuse to spend time in nature–and that alone is enough.

Another reason is animal watching. If you like to take walks and hope to see a deer or a fox once in a while, you need to listen to the birds. Birds are the first alert system of the forest. Their alarm calls can show you where predators are moving. They also tip off all and sundry that you’re coming, clearing an empty path in front of you as efficiently as Hollywood bodyguards plow through paparazzi. Young says if you ever want to see other wildlife when you’re out walking, you need to ask the birds’ permission first.

Perhaps he says it all best:

Eons ago, Homo sapiens were just as alert and aware as all other creatures…our sensory equipment and our brains are still designed for this awareness. These instincts are still in each of us, just buried, maybe deeply buried. Connecting with bird language begins the process of unearthing them. It changes the whole dynamic of our lives immediately. We now recognize the robin. We recognize the sparrow. These birds lift us from our troubled minds. They give us a reason to move and see and listen respectfully. They unlock the outdoors. They reflect our knowledge and our attitude, and ultimately yield the first rite of passage when we’re allowed a close encounter with an animal that would otherwise have fled our presence long before.

Most of all I like this book because he asks a lot of you. At one point in the book he’s talking about how there’s no formula for this stuff, just lots of dedication and time, and notes, “The lifelong learning curve is the ultimate appeal of what we do.”

This made me laugh out loud. Appeal? The notion of working on one skill all your life (especially one as unglamorous as robin-watching)  is not a popular notion it contemporary culture, when everything is the “20 Minute This” and the “4 Hour That.”  But I understand the appeal of a lifelong practice myself, and I have the deepest respect of long term practitioners of any art.

I just finished the book and spent 40 minutes this morning in the backyard, utterly puzzled.  It’s a beginning.

A note on the text:

The book is not structured like a “how-to” manual. It’s full of anecdotes and has a relaxed, meandering tone which is actually quite nice. It’s easy to imagine you’re just hanging outwith Jon Young in some nice green place, listening to his bird stories. The key concepts are woven in along the way.  You don’t need to take notes as you read, or worry you’ll miss some important step. At the end of the book he gives a summary and set of instructions on how to actually begin your practice. And again, he provides audio files online to illustrate all the basic calls of the common birds, and references those audio files throughout the text.

Last of the Saddle Tramps

Mesannie Wilkins

Mesannie Wilkins riding Rex,  Depeche Toi on Tarzan

A wise man once told me it’s good practice to read books published before you were born. Last of the Saddle Tramps just makes the cut. Published in 1966, it is a memoir, Mesannie Wilkin’s accounting of her great journey from Minot, Maine to Los Angeles. On horseback.

In 1954, Mesannie was 63 and she didn’t think she’d survive another winter in Maine. She’d been a farmer all her life, but now her kin were dead, her stock gone, she was plagued by bad lungs, and the bank was foreclosing on her house. Worse, her doctor told her she only had two or so years left to live–if she lived quietly.

Instead of following his advice, she decided to spend almost all of her money on a cheap horse, and traveled to the Golden State with her little dog, Depeche Toi, the clothes on her back, $32.00 in her pocket, and very little else. Along the way, she met with great kindness–and scores of unforgettable characters.

I read this book in a single sitting–it is that engrossing. Her voice is honest and engaging and the clear prose is full of  slow, country wit and precise character sketches. (Kudos to her co-writer, Mina Sawyer.)  The humor caught me first, and then I began to boggle at how tough this woman was. Rawhide tough. Seriously, reading this made me wonder why I’ve ever complained about anything in my life.

This story is a reminder that you’re never too old to change your course, shake up your life–or even have a grand adventure. It’s also refreshing to read a book where the hero is an older woman. Such stories are scarce as hens’ teeth.

I won’t say more. Highly recommended. I was lucky enough to find this book at the library. It’s also sold through the publishing arm of the Long Rider’s Guild (I think?), Horse Travel Books, where they keep all sorts of obscure, horsey memoirs in print. Bless them. It’s also available at Amazon, and you might find a used copy here or there, too.

Book Review: An Everlasting Meal

Everlasting Meal Book Cover

An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, by Tamar Adler, is  a popular book. I had to wait in a queue of 40 people to get it from the library. So I suspect some (all?) of you have already read it. I know someone mentioned it in the comments lately. But I thought I’d mention it for others who, like me, are always the last to know what’s going on. The theme of the book is also on track with last week’s posts about cheap eating and beans.

Adler’s book is not a cookbook. It has recipes throughout, but its mission is more about imparting an attitude, a style, a way of thinking in the kitchen, than delivering recipes. In fact, the core of her message is that you don’t need a recipe to cook.

I was attracted to this book because it is reportedly inspired by M.F.K. Fisher’s book, How to Cook a Wolf, which is one of my favorites, and well worth checking out if you haven’t. Wolf is a wartime book about living well on very little. And An Everlasting Feast is indeed very Fishereque, both in form and tone.

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Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Dealing With the Crisis of Overconnection

Hamlet's BlackBerry

All too often in recent months I’ve found myself pulled into a vortex of emails, Facebook updates, Twitter feeds and just plain mindless internet surfing sessions.  Let’s face it, the screens in our lives are highly addictive and who among us actually feels better after an info-crack bender?

Published in 2010, William Power’s Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, is a reasonable, balanced and practical guide to navigating our hyper-connected age (and how ironic it is that the fast pace of technological change makes “BlackBerry” a quaint reference in 2013–the book, however is more relevant than it was in 2010).

Powers does not take a finger waving “eat your Brussels sprouts” approach. Rather, he acknowledges the immense potential and usefulness of computers and smart phones while offering sage advice on using them intelligently. He draws on an unlikely set of philosophers, inventors and writers: Socrates, Seneca, Johannes Gutenberg, William Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Henry David Thoreau and Marshall McCluhan, each of whom dealt with sweeping change in communication technology in their own times. Powers earns extra points for mentioning my favorite architect, Christopher Alexander.

Using these sources, Powers offers the following suggestions for avoiding technological overload:

  • Distance: it’s good periodically, to take a walk and leave all screens at home.
  • Developing inner peace: make time for meditation practices, working in the garden, working on your bike etc. Powers advocates something I’ve experimented with over the past few years–cutting off national news and letting conversations with friends and relatives fill me in on what’s going on.
  • Read books made out of paper! Even e-book technology can encourage mindless surfing. Reading an old fashioned book can help develop powers of concentration and focus.
  • Use old tools: Powers gives the example of note taking with paper and pen. Sometimes older tools can help reduce distractions–your paper notebook, after all, is not going to chime in with an incoming email.
  • Rituals: As Powers puts it, “Vow to finish all screen tasks by a given time, with a reward if you make it.” Don’t check email first thing in the morning–get some work or exercise done first. I have a disclaimer at the bottom of my emails stating that I check email at noon and sunset. I’ve found this works for me and I’ve trained people to call me if there is something important.
  • The Walden Zone: set up a screen-free area of your house, but don’t get puritanical about it. Your Walden Zone does not need to be quiet. In addition to a peaceful space you might want a fun, loud, party room (minus the screens). And don’t forget about the backyard–most Americans are so addicted to screens that they don’t ever go out there! Powers turns off his modem for the entire weekend. Powers claims that his internet “Sabbaths” have been very successful even with a teenage son in the household.
  • Use technology intelligently: Powers is not Amish! He acknowledges that the internet and cell phones are incredible tools. Understand how technology works and harness it for useful tasks while reducing unnecessary chatter.

Powers acknowledges that what works for one individual or family may not work for another. We have to be flexible in our approach to working with technology. Some of us may be able to ditch our smartphones (I’ve never had one and don’t plan on getting one) but others may need that connectivity for work. But the more important point is that we need to avoid becoming, as Thoreau put it, “the tool of the tool.” We need to use our new powers of connection with mindfulness: to build community, to educate and to inspire.

A Review of Masanobu Fukuoka’s Sowing Seeds in the Desert

First published in Japanese in the mid 1990s, Masanobu Fukuoka’s book Sowing Seeds in the Desert: Natural Farming, Global Resotration, and Ultimate Food Security is now in English in a beautiful translation published by Chelsea Green.

Fukuoka’s writing deals with the tricky practical and spiritual issues involved with our place in nature’s synergistic complexities. To intervene or not to intervene is often the question when it comes to what Fukuoka called his “natural farming” method.

Fukuoka councils a humbleness before nature, a cessation of the materialist drive to understand and control. Fukuoka illustrates this approach in a pen and ink drawing reproduced in the book. Of the drawing he says,

I call it “the cave of the intellect.” It shows two men toiling in a pit or a cave swinging their pickaxes to loosen the hard earth. The picks represent the human intellect. The more these workers swing their tools, the deeper the pit gets and the more difficult it is for them to escape. Outside the cave I draw a person who is relaxing in the sunlight. While still working to provide everyday necessities through natural farming, that person is free from the drudgery of trying to understand nature, and is simply enjoying life.

Paradoxically his natural farming method involves, on the one hand, letting vegetables reseed on their own and revert to their wild ancestry, while on the other avoiding the neglect that led to the loss of hundreds of trees at his parent’s farm when he first took it over. And in the second half of the book he suggests a radical interventionist approach to what he calls “deserts” (by which he means areas ruined by human activity). Here he chronicles his trips to wastelands in India and the Central Valley of California. Fukuoka suggests carpet bombing these areas with seed pellets (a how-to for making seed pellets is included in an appendix). And the content of those seed balls? Whatever will re-vegetate the landscape most effectively regardless of whether those plants are native or not in order to achieve what Fukuoka calls a “second Genesis.” As he puts it,

I would mix the seeds of all plants–forest trees, fruit trees, perennials, vegetables, grasses and legumes–as well as ferns, osses, and lichens, and sow them all at once across the desert.

Nativists will cringe at this suggestion but to me it makes a lot of sense. Fukuoka says that these desertified areas lack the seeds needed to recover on their own.

Sowing Seeds in the Desert is a book steeped in a passionate Buddhism. The real desert is in the human heart. It’s our hearts that Fukuoka is trying to heal and by so doing, bring about that second Genesis.

When people try to grow crops using human knowledge, they will never be anything more than farmers. If they can look at things with an empty mind as a child does, then, through the crops and their own labor, they will be able to gaze into the entire universe.

Those unfamiliar with Fukuoka’s philosophy should start by reading The One Straw Revolution. And if you want to get the nitty-gritty how-to on how to apply his natural farming methods you’ll want to pick up a copy of  The Natural Way of Farming. Sowing Seeds in the Desert serves as a deeply moving coda to his life’s work. And it got me to start sowing the seeds in my own front yard desert. Thanks to a winter rain, a mixture of clover and greens is now sprouting beneath the fig tree that graces our front yard.

Thanks to the wonders of Youtube, you can watch an hour long documentary about Fukuoka here.

Book Review: My Side of the Mountain

Illustration from the book: Sam Gribley and his falcon, Frightful. And his homemade shirt with extra large pockets.

Naturalist and author Jean Craigshead George wrote My Side of the Mountain–the story of a boy from New York City who runs away to live on his own in the Catskill Mountains–in 1959.  Since then, it has won the Newbery Medal and been consistently ranked high in recommended reading lists for children. Recently I re-read My Side for the first time in many, many years. I suspect that many Root Simple readers will be familiar with this book, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

I’d rank this book as one of the most influential in my life. I read it in elementary school, and it burned its messages into my already-receptive neural pathways. My earliest memories are set in the Colorado Rockies–because that is where I lived when I was very young. By the time I was old enough to read My Side of the Mountain we’d moved on to Californian suburbs, but my early experience of the mountains made it seem quite reasonable to me not only that the main character, Sam, should be able to live on his own in the wilderness, but also that once I got a little older maybe I could do the same thing, too.

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Notes on Mark Bittman’s “Behind the Scenes of What We Eat”

Last week Erik and I went to see well-known food writer Mark Bittman speak on food policy. He spoke in a huge room in The California Endowment–and it was a full house. Afterward, Erik and I compared it to being in church. We were surrounded by people of the same faith, being told things we already know, and being reminded to be good. And I don’t mean that in a bad way! It never hurts to meditate on how to be better, to do more. Bittman is an engaging speaker and it was a great evening. I took notes, and will share a little of what I learned.

He spent a good deal of time describing how our national food system and food policy is depressing and screwed up. We all know this, right? Factory farms, fuel waste, massive environmental degradation, obesity crisis, etc. & etc.

(One quick scary fact from the roll of shame: Did you know that 80% of antibiotics used in the US are fed to farm animals? That number has been shooting up fast for the last 20 years. Why are they used on animals? Not so much for illness, but rather to prevent illness in animals living in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, and to speed growth. They’re prophylactic. Lovely. Antibiotic failure happens to be one of my favorite doomsday scenarios.)

Bittman believes that in 50-100 years we will no longer be shipping food across country or across planet–we’ll be relying on local/regional agriculture systems, based on family farms. Whether this shift is a positive, pleasant transition or made in a state of dreadful calamity, is entirely a matter of how soon we begin working on the shift.

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Book Review: The Machine Stops by E.M. Forester

Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk-that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh-a woman, about five feet high.

Those are the first words of The Machine Stops, a haunting, odd–and oddly prescient– short story about the dangers of over-reliance on technology. It is extra noteworthy for a few reasons. The first is that it was written by E.M. Forster. Yes, that one. Passage to India Forster. Room with a View Forster. Who knew he dipped his toe in SF?

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Book Review: The Blood of the Earth: An Essay on Magic and Peak Oil

Phoebe

Phoebe says that despite her midnight coat and lambent eyes, she has nothing whatsoever to do with magic. Or peak oil. And for the record, she also scorns Halloween.

What do magic and peak oil have to do with one another? Quite a lot, actually, if you believe the author, John Michael Greer. And if you read The Blood of the Earth: An Essay on Magic and Peak Oil you’ll probably come to agree with him, because in this book, as in all of his writing, Greer is remarkably lucid, straightforward and persuasive.

Blood of the Earth is unlike any other book you’ll read on peak oil. It’s challenging, honest, sobering and inspiring.

It’s not a end-times book. Greer doesn’t do apocalypse. Nor is it an airy-fairy “we’ll save the world by the magic of positive thinking” sort of book. Instead, it is an investigation of the spiritual/psychological impulses that play out in our responses to peak oil. Part of this is understanding behavior and propaganda in magical terms. To do this, Greer offers a quick, intriguing primer on Western magic.

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