Tag: Nature

Tales from a life without technology

by Mark Boyle

Near the end of this book, the author says “I decided that instead of spending my life making a living, I wanted to make living my life.” He left the city and job behind, built a cabin on a piece of land and committed himself to living without a phone, electricity, plumbing, etc. Doing all his work with hand tools. Living off the land, engaging in a bartering and gift economy with neighbors (though most of them had the usual conveniences). He deeply felt that this would make his life more purposeful, even though without internet or cell phone he soon lost contact with myriad people, remaining close only to those that lived nearby or stayed in touch via paper mail. I have to say I know what he means, feeling like doing things with your own hands and simple tools is more meaningful. I prefer an hour weeding in the garden or trimming shrubs to typing on a keyboard myself. I don’t know if I could go so far as to do without electricity and heating, though. It’s hard to eschew all the easy things most people take for granted, and live in a way that takes a different kind of work. Boyle doesn’t avoid admitting the difficulties, or things he has to do without. But he also waxes long on the rewards, which are of a different kind. Feeling tied into the seasons and close to the land. Paying more attention to the other living things around him- insects and plants. Learning skills that seem forgotten in this day and age.
His book doesn’t have a lot of day-to-day details (which I might have enjoyed) rather it’s a series of vignettes and noted thoughts on varied topics, as the mood took him to recount them. Sometimes he discusses how decisions were arrived at, where he came from, or how his thinking has shifted (he used to be vegan but now fishes and eats venison). Other parts of the book are little stories about things with his neighbors or specific pieces of the work he does around his land- planting trees, washing clothes by hand, cutting wood, building a hot tub (I wanted to see a picture of that!), foraging berries and greens, starting seeds, turning compost, making candles, etc. He also recounts a lot about visiting the Great Blasket Island, quoting from written works by the people who once lived there (in a very sustainable manner) and reflecting on why they eventually had to leave. I didn’t feel as immersed or connected to those parts of the book. Also some segments started to get repetitive near the end. He lives in Ireland, by the way. And now I’d like to read a previous book he wrote, The Moneyless Man.
I did notice, and appreciate, how old-fashioned this book itself feels as a physical object. It’s a clothbound hardback, without the slick plastic cover library books usually have. The paper is a nice muted off-white and has the texture of good recycled paper- or at least so I imagine. It felt like a book in hand I’d usually from a discard sale or found in a thrift shop, not a relatively new book produced just a few years ago! I’d like to think this was a conscious choice the author made in having his book printed- which seems very in harmony with his stated purpose and lifestyle.
Borrowed from the public library.
Rating: 4/5
266 pages, 2019

by Raynor Winn

After their long hike on the South West Coast Path, the author and her husband finally settled. No longer homeless, but not completely at ease. First they lived in a small apartment behind a church, where Raynor did research into his illness and started writing, while her husband attended university, working towards a degree. He struggled constantly with worsening symptoms, while she had her own issues with anxiety at being around so many other people after their long walk mainly in solitude on the path. The success of her first book’s printing was encouraging and brought them some much-needed income, but it was also stressful for her to deal with the public events and travel for book signings. Well, then someone local who read their book offers them another place to stay- on a farm that had been run into the ground and neglected. They’re supposed to restore it, and do work hard at that. It’s just starting to show signs of recovery when they decide to go on another long walk with two friends- in the barren and difficult landscape of Iceland. I didn’t realize how many volcanoes Iceland has- or at least, in the area where they hiked. This part of the book was a lot more like the previous one- focused on the rigors of the hike, interactions with people on the trail- in this case much younger fellow hikers who seemed to scorn them for their age- and remarkably, another visible improvement in her husband’s condition. The scholarly lifestyle he lead at university apparently was bad for his health, whereas the intense physical exercise on the steep paths soon had him limber and full of energy again. Still no explanation. But convinced by the results, they return to the farm ready to dive into outdoor work again.

It does have a lot more than I’m letting on here- musings on assumptions of strangers, interesting little exchanges, signs of the wildlife on the farm returning, incredible almost surreal landscape in Iceland, where the world seems to be continually coming into being. Also many segments about pieces of their lives from the past, and a very touching, sometimes hard-to-read piece in the beginning on her mother’s death in a hospital where she had to make difficult decisions for her care (which made me think of this book a lot). Somehow it all didn’t feel as intense as The Salt Path, or I’ve just been too busy this past week and a bit distracted from reading. I liked it, I just didn’t feel quite as deeply moved.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
278 pages, 2020

translated by Mercer Cook

by Djibi Thiam

A story from Guinea, set in a small village called Koundjea. The protagonist is a man named Bamou, who lives with his wife and young son in a hut. One night a leopard kills their dog, right outside the door. Next morning the man tracks it, confirming the predator’s identity and locating where it is hiding- in a sacred part of the forest. The people are deeply troubled, as the leopard is their tribal totem, they believe the animal is supposed to protect them. Never had conflict with one before. This particular leopard appears to be injured and soon they hear of a hunting party from another village seeking the leopard, that it’s been killing people. Bamou knows the leopard is a serious threat and must be dealt with immediately, but he also feels compelled to treat it with the utmost dignity and respect, because of their tribe’s reverence for the animal. He meets with a village elder for advice, performs sacrifices to appease the gods and spirits, then drinks tea with a special herbal concoction to keep him alert. Then tracks the leopard down. Alone.

Reading this book was an odd disconnect. The style of it reminded me very much of Things Fall Apart (which I read long ago in high school)- simple words and plain sentences, which belie the actual depth of the story. I liked the glimpse into everyday lives in this small settlement deep in the bush, the people’s deeply held superstitions and beliefs, their formalities and kindnesses, supporting each other. The role of the blacksmith was particularly interesting. It’s full of details on the natural surroundings and wildlife Bamou encounters as he follows the leopard- keenly aware of all the animals, their usual habits, what their behavior tells him, and what the leopard herself is doing. A lot of the narrative is the main character talking as if musing to himself or relating what happened to a listener. I found it a bit difficult to connect with, as if I read it all at arm’s length, interested but unable to really sink into it. Bamou does face the leopard in the end, armed with several weapons- including poison-tipped arrows which he doesn’t use, thinking this isn’t fair to the animal! though he well knows the leopard holds the advantage in speed and strength, even with her injury. This book reminded me a lot of The White Puma, and I also kept thinking of The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag, comparing the two different leopard encounters in my mind, with their contrasting hunting styles and attitudes of men, towards this dangerous and beautiful predator.

Borrowed from a person I know.

Rating: 3/5
205 pages, 1980

by Raynor Winn

This couple was dealt a double blow in their fifties. After raising their children in a farmhouse they’d renovated themselves, they lost it all due to a bad investment with a so-called friend who turned out to be a bad business partner. House taken away, no livelihood, nowhere to go. All their attempts to find a place they could afford to rent with the little money they had left, failed. Public assistance was not really helpful, and the generosity of friends/family letting them stay wore thin quickly. Then in the same month, the husband was diagnosed with a serious neurological disease. He was told to rest and take it easy, but since they had no home, they decided to just take a long hike, on the South West Coast Path of England, from Somerset to Dorset, all of 630 miles. With two packs, a cheap tent and thin sleeping bags, not much else. So reminiscent of a few books I’ve read about hikers on the PCT or Appalachian Trail, and I also thought many times of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Though this book is really nothing like those. It’s so individual. It was tough. It was wild and beautiful, and the people they ran into were friendly or aggravating, encouraging or unkind in turns. Some just downright odd. They could barely afford food (often went hungry or picked berries, collected mussels on the shore, etc) and rarely pay for a proper campsite, so very soon were dirty and ragged. Fellow backpackers commiserated, but other people they encountered- usually tourists as many of the villages they passed through had long since lost their original occupations of fishing or mining and were now just surviving as tourist attractions- reacted to their appearance in one of two ways. If they said they’d left it all behind and were just walking the path- letting people assume they’d sold their house- they were admired for doing something inspiring. If they honestly said they’d lost it all and were actually homeless, people were immediately uncomfortable or disparaging. If it was by choice they were brave, whereas if by accident, they were pariahs. Why are people so judgmental. I’m sure their version of being homeless- not due to addiction or mental illness but just plain misfortune- is not all that uncommon.

It was a pleasant surprise that I’m vaguely familiar with some of the places they walked through (geography of foreign countries is not a strength of mine). They went through the village where Doc Martin was filmed, along the cliffsides where Poldark was situated, and also Tintagel- site of many King Arthur legends. Also very strange but in the end amusing, was how many people mistook her husband for a poet (apparently famous, but I’d never heard of him). It got to be a running joke between them.

I liked the author’s voice, and look forward to reading her sequel, The Wild Silence. I enjoyed the bits of humor, the interesting encounters along the way, glimpses of wildlife (birds, deer, seals, occasionally a badger), and thoughtful words. Although they’d anticipated the long hike would be a time to figure things out (facing her husband’s illness, grieving the loss of their home, what to do next) for the most part she said they spoke little, reminisced hardly at all, just were. Just surviving. Experiencing the weather, the difficulty of putting one foot in front of the other when tired, hungry and footsore. Finding to their surprise that her husband’s condition improved with the exercise, in counter to the doctor’s advice- I’d really like an explanation for that! And I’m glad that it had a good ending. Just as suddenly as their world fell apart at the beginning of the book, a few things suddenly came together at the end of their hike to put them back in the functional world again. Though- did they want it, now?

Some quotes:

But on that beach it was as clear as the saltwater running over the Bideford Black that civilization exists only for those who can afford to inhabit it, and remote isolation can be felt anywhere if you have no roof and an empty pocket.

After meeting a man who was going blind from glaucoma:

The light grew, prizing the sky and the sea apart. Had I seen enough things? When I could no longer see them, would I remember them, and would just the memory be enough to fill me up and make me whole? 

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
271 pages, 2018

More opinions:
Book Chase
Read Warbler

the Mountain Goat Observed

by Douglas H. Chadwick

This is one book I will always recall vividly- still remember how I came across it at the public library as a high school student (several decades ago) when I had just discovered that narrative accounts about wildlife field studies was a thing. I think the first one I actually read was Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man, which I’d found at a thrift shop. The section of the library (adult books!) that had nonfiction about wildlife became my favorite spot to browse. This book remained top in my mind, and now finally reading it again so many years later, I still find it excellent. I mentioned it once here before, but can now give a clearer picture.

The author spent seven years studying mountain goats, mainly in Glacier National Park. He camped on the slopes and followed them closely, collaring and tagging some but also learning to identify others by slight individual differences, and to tell males/females apart at different ages, which sounds particularly difficult. He describes the animal in all regards- its physical shape which is so perfectly adapted to living on steep slopes, its eating habits, survival strategies and social structure. The terrain it favors and why, the other animals that share its habitat, how it has avoided competition from most other species and also most predators, but is particularly vulnerable to hunting and distubances caused by man. There is a chapter about how mountain goats evolved (they are more closely related to chamois and serow than to bighorn sheep or any kind of actual goat), and another about why their behavior is so different from sheep. The book explains why they are so belligerent to their own kind and how this actually facilitates their survival. There are diagrams and explanations of their distribution across mountain ranges and what happened when they were introduced to new areas. On a more personal bent, there are passages where the author describes his experiences climbing the mountains to follow the goats, his first sighting of a newly-born mountain goat kid, the harshness of winter storms, many examples of how the goats lead their day-to-day lives and how he was finally able to approach a few mountain goat herds closely enough to sit among them and be part of their social interactions (literally- he knew enough of the goats’ body language to maintain dominance among them until one larger male threatened him a few times when he was too close, and then his social standing among the others gradually slipped!) It’s very apparent that the author greatly admired these animals and enjoyed spending time with them in spite of the hardships during his study. His writing about the wildlife and the surrounding landscape is beautifully done. Constant references to the mountain goats as “the white beasts” or “the bearded ones” did get a bit repetitive! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book again.

Rating: 5/5
208 pages, 1983

by R.D. Lawrence

The author lived with his wife on 350 acres of forest in Ontario, Canada. He studied the local wildlife and was willing to take in animals that needed care (there was no wildlife rehabilitation center around in those days) so before long people in the area knew to bring him any injured or orphaned creatures they found. The largest character throughout the book is a black bear named Snuffles, that they took in as an orphan when it was the size of a cat, which eventually grew to be several hundred pounds standing taller than seven feet when upright! Snuffles makes repeat appearances through the narrative, gentle and mild-tempered unless denied food he wanted- then he’d fly into a rage and become destructive. The couple had to bar him from the house as he got larger, coax him to den up by himself for winter sleep, and were glad when he eventually made his own way in the wild. The bear was close companions with their malamute dog when it was a puppy- but as the two got older their wrestling bouts turned into serious confrontations and eventually the dog saw the bear as a rival and enemy. Which caused them a lot of trouble until the bear finally went off into the woods.

Among the many other animals they tended to and raised were a skunk, woodchuck, raccoons, porcupine, several squirrels, a lynx, moose, pair of river otters and one small but very lively weasel. They nursed back to health injured geese, ducks, rabbits, owls and a hawk.  The wildlife on their land came to recognize the couple would not harm them, and they had flocks of chickadees and blue jays demanding food on a regular basis, a chipmunk that would feed from their hands, flying squirrels and deer that would come to the yard also for food. Such a wide range of animals, all treated with compassion and respect- but also a heavy dose of caution especially the bear and lynx. The stories about their interactions are amusing and full of interesting details, and there’s close observations on all of them. In many cases the author was particularly interested in answering questions he had about the animals’ habits. One that struck me was his idea that raccoons don’t really “wash” their food- he suggests that the behavior is caused by the stress and boredom of being shut up in captivity (hence often seen by people) and that raccoons in the wild never repetitively handle their food in water. I’d be interested to know if anyone else has made this conclusion.  The tone of this book is very much like Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America. Both authors had a very similar companionship with their dogs, stalking the wildlife together to approach animals for close observations. However they had directly opposite opinions on deer hunting.
Rating: 4/5
308 pages, 1981

by Helen Hoover

This is a nice little book about whitetail deer in northern Minnesota. The author and her husband lived in a remote cabin in the woods. They habitually put out food for the birds and squirrels in winter and one particularly hard year, a starving deer showed up. They helped the buck survive- cutting cedar branches for it to eat (recognizing that corn would be too rich and a shock on its system). They named the deer Peter and he became very accustomed to hanging around their cabin, even stamping on the porch to demand food if it wasn’t set out yet. Before long other deer joined Peter in their yard, and then the Hoovers watched fawns appear with the doe they named Mama and grow up, several years in a row. The narrative describes the woods and other widlife- birds, squirrels, a bobcat and lynx that seemed to be companions, a moose that trampled their garden, a groundhog that ate cookies from their hands. A young bear that they were troubled to see tourists feeding (yet they had no qualms about feeding the deer and other wildlife themselves). Mostly though it’s about the deer, and the social interactions they observed which was really interesting- especially as I was able to connect some details with information I’d learned in Heart and Blood just prior. Sadly and not surprisingly, it turns out that the deer, now being partially tame, were more vulnerable to hunters who showed up even though it was private land with posted signs. In the end I think they regretting having fed the deer so regularly, and were relieved to see the animals grow more wary of people following the hunting season. The author has published several books with titles including A Place in the Woods and The Years of the Forest, which I’ll probably pick up if I come across them someday.

Rating: 3/5
210 pages, 1965

More opinions: Puss Reboots
anyone else?

Living with Deer in America 

by Richard Nelson

Marvelous book. It looks at all sides of the relationships deer and people have in this country. The author is a hunter himself but holds great respect for the animals and their environment, which you can palpably feel in his personal descriptions. The opening and closing chapters detail time he spent in the woods with his border collie dog- whom he depends on for alerting him to the proximity of wildlife with her keen senses. He follows deer but also has a close encounter with a marten (riveting scene) and is tailed by a brown bear, and in the final pages tells of witnessing a doe actually giving birth. It\’s incredible. All the other chapters tell about deer, both from his research and personal experiences as he crosses the country witnessing how people live alongside or utilize the cervids. There is a chapter that tells of the evolutionary history of deer (more in brief than Whitetail Tracks) another that explains the difference between North America\’s three deer species, their physiology and way of life. Most of the book is about deer / human interactions, with far greater depth and understanding than I once gleaned from Nature Wars.

Nelson visits many areas in turn: first an island in Alaska where deer are being studied, and discusses the impacts of various types of studies in general- including whether or not their means are considered humane. (Some studies have deliberately allowed deer to starve, others subject wild deer to a lot of stress). He visits an island off the California coast, and another near New York, where deer populations have far outgrown the space, looking at the various methods used to attempt controlling population numbers and why they don\’t work. He goes to an area of Texas that has a very healthy deer population, where the wildlife live alongside cattle on ranches (they eat different plant types) and then are thinned each year by hunters who pay for access- and it\’s very specifically managed.. He accompanies several Wisconsin hunters on public lands, where the control is slightly different, and contrariwise, also goes along with a group of animal rights activists in a different part of Wisconsin, whose aim is to interrupt the hunters (very civilly done, I might add). The varied hunts include stalking deer through the forest on foot, sitting in tree platforms near open areas where deer might visit, and walking with a group of men on a drive across fields and hillsides. Finally, he visits farmland in southern Wisconsin, where deer are also hunted- in this case mostly to protect the crops. Which is a very serious thing- it sounds like not a single crop grown could be brought to reasonable harvest if deer are not fenced out (which is often impractical) or shot.
Overall I felt like this was a really well-rounded look at the deer situation, one approached with admiration for the animal, honest friendliness towards various types of people the author visited and interviewed, willingness to try and understand other points of view, interpretation of the science for laypeople like myself, and finally, a love for the beauty of the land and wildlife. I was struck by how time and time again, occasions were reported where deer that were troublesome in suburban areas were relocated in attempts to control their numbers- and what a failure that is. Some die of shock during handling, and most or all of the rest die within the first year of being moved. And it\’s expensive. Birth control for deer doesn\’t work, which is explained. Natural predators are for the most part missing, so it leaves human hunters to keep the population in check. Otherwise the deer destroy habitat leaving it unfit for other animals as well. Oh, and there\’s a chapter about forest growth, and how monocultures of trees replanted after logging usually don\’t support deer or other wildlife and why. The author himself personally witnessed the state of deer starving in winter in an overpopulated area; it sounds like the misery and suffering of the emaciated animals deeply affected him. He not-so-subtly hints that he disagrees with the animal rights people who assert that starvation is nature\’s way of handling the problem, opining that a hunter\’s precise mark which ends their lives quickly and gives them purpose as someone\’s dinner (for a family, it can supply a year\’s worth of protein) is a far more humane option.
I found that many of his sentiments closely harmonized what I read recently in Braiding Sweetgrass. In particular I marked a few quotes:
Organisms we buy in stores and array on the table are our makers, the creators and nurturers of our bodies, until eventually we die and nourish other organisms in turn. As a society, we could benefit enormously by finding ways to remember, acknowledge, and celebrate this process, to accept with gratitude and respect the plants and animals who keep us alive, who weave us into the living tapestry of earth.
A true ecological wisdom, it seemed to me, is one that keeps people and land together in the business of producing food while they develop a more balanced and sustainable relationship with the natural environment.
This is one of those books I lingered over, then read through the pages of references in the back, to add more to my never-ending, always-growing TBR. Including now several other titles by the author which look just as good.
Rating: 4/5              390 pages, 1997

Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants 

by Robin Wall Kimmerer

     The author of this beautiful book has Native American roots, and scientific training in botany and ecology. She deftly weaves science with knowledge rooted in her indigenous culture, expounding on how if we care for the land and treat nature with respect, the earth will shower us with abundance. How the land itself can teach us, can heal us, can lift us up. That simply leaving nature alone to do its own thing isn\’t enough, if we work together in harmony with it, respecting other (non-human) lives (non-human), all will thrive. I tend to think our earth is better left alone after all the harm we\’ve done to it; Kimmerer gently encourages me to see otherwise. Even details a study she did with a graduate student to prove that sweetgrass is more prolific when it is regularly harvested, then when left alone. There is so much in this book about native cultures, social ills, and intricate details on plant life I just don\’t know how to phrase it all. Things about migrating salamanders and the balance of nutrients in a pond. About cedar trees, black ash, and maples known so deeply by the indigenous people who used them well. Strawberries, wild leeks, corn, witch hazel, lichens (most fascinating), blackberries, cattails, pecans, salmon, wild rice . . . The individual and distinctive beauty of raindrops. The cleansing sweep of controlled fire. Personal stories about gardening, harvesting, replanting forests, mothering children, learning the nearly-forgotten language of her people and teaching students to see and feel the land again. Or at least to know it by plant names. Painful stories from of native american history. Wise stories from cultural myths, hopeful stories looking into the future, hopeful to heal the earth together with humankind. I can\’t name all the things. Others have share their impressions, linked below. Now wanting to read her book Gathering Moss

My father gave this book to me, I am grateful.

Rating: 5/5               390 pages, 2013
More opinions:

the Great Smoky Mountains

Natural and Human History 

by Edward Abbey and Eliot Porter

     I liked this book, but was initially confused about it. The photographer\’s name (Porter) is the only one on the spine and prominent on the cover, so naturally I assumed most of the text was by him- especially as some excerpts noted to be by Edward Abbey are in italics at the ends of pages indicating they pair with photos on the following spread. It wasn\’t until I was nearly halfway through that I realized the words I read echoed sentiments of Edward Abbey I\’d read in The Journey Home. So then I thought well, this chapter at least must be by Abbey- however it wasn\’t distinguished from any other chapter as to the author. Not until I was looking at details of the book on LibraryThing did I at last realize that all the main text is Edward Abbey, and Elliot Porter the photographer. There are also many quotes in here by Ivan Turgenev, John Hay, Frank Russell and others, plus several poems by E.E. Cummings.

So it is in turns a picturesque description of the region especially the immensely diverse plant life, a rant against development (Abbey went on for pages at one point on his stance that only foot traffic- no cars- should be allowed into the Great Smoky Moutains National Park- even though he himself visited there in a vehicle), the history in particular of how Cherokee were forced out of their homes, the way hillside farmers make a living and their distinctive local culture and pride- and how it\’s been degraded by strip mining which ruins the land. Maybe it sounds a jumble but really it is very well presented together and my mind moved seamlessly from one aspect to the next. The photographs are beautiful (if a bit aged in appearance after all this book as an object is almost fifty years old) featuring waterfalls, brilliant fall leaves and bright forest floor wildflowers from the region. 
I read this book as an interlude during Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. That one is very much about how native american mindset and living is in close partnership with the land- and there\’s a chapter where the author takes a group of students to survey plant biomes in a patch of the Great Smoky Moutains- and I remembered I had this Appalachian Wilderness on a shelf somewhere, and wanted to see the pictures. It was a perfect pairing.
Rating: 3/5                118 pages, 1973


All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it


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