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Science & Nature

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Nov 18, 2016, 8:19am

Because reality is gorgeous.

Editado: Nov 18, 2016, 9:38am

So I've been reading A Natural History of North American Trees and it is just wonderful. Scientifically accurate and beautifully written. I don't know how I've missed Donald Culross Peattie all this time but I'm going to have to go through all his other books, of which there are many.

This book is a consolidation of his two famous volumes: A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, and A Natural History of Western Trees. Each chapter focuses on a tree -- Sequoia, Redwood, etc. His tribute to the eastern White Pine is a thing of beauty.

This is old-fashioned natural history, a reference book that relies on good writing to communicate its secrets. In the introduction written by his son is an account of the resentment this literary style tended to arouse:

One curmudgeonly specialist, whom he asked to fact-check his work on wheat, returned the paper, which he pronounced factually flawless, adding sourly, "I see you could not resist the temptation to make it interesting."

Here's a section from the beginning of the redwood chapter:

Your footfalls make no sound on the needles and moss that have lain there for centuries. Your body casts no shadow in that green, lakelike diffused light. The goose honking of a car, the calling of a child, fade into the immensity of silence. Time, the common tick-tock of it, ceases here, and you become aware of time in another measure -- out of an awesome past. For this forest has stood here since the Ice Age, and here, together with this transfixed past, is the future too, for these immense lives will outlast yours by a thousand years or so.

But this solemnity is not like that of church or tomb; it is enlivened by the soft dispute of a stream with its bed, or the swirling, blurred whistle of the black-throated gray warbler so high in the clerestory of the woods that he cannot be seen. And not and then the treetops utter a slow, distant sea-hush, a sigh that passes, and then comes again, as if it were the breathing of a life beside which our lives are a single day. At any time in the day the mist may roll silently through the forest aisles. It may rest on the forest floor, drenching the beds of oxalis and moss; it may move through their crowns, leaving the forest floor quite dry. But always the strong sun comes piercing through the fogs in beams of smoky light, slant shafts that fall with unerring drama upon some high altar log swathed in the emerald cloth of Hypnum moss of bearing aloft the great tuft of a translucent fern or a spray of the phantom orchis. Many of the wild flowers of the Redwoods -- the oceanspreay, the sugarscoop, the deerfoot, and the inside-out-flower -- are pale and delicate and small of corolla, as if the great trees had used up all the bigness at the time of creation. goes on like that for several pages.

Nov 18, 2016, 9:02am

Well, like most things these days that made me burst into tears.

Nov 18, 2016, 9:11am

I meant to say, I created a list for books about trees:

Nov 18, 2016, 10:08pm

Oh, that sounds like just a fabulous book, and that's a great list. A couple more I'd add: Thomas Pakenham's Meetings with Remarkable Trees—he just reviewed a couple of new tree books for the most recent NYRB, in fact, including The Hidden Life of Trees, which is on your list, though I haven't read the review yet—and Limber, by Angela Pelster, a series of short narrative essays on trees that I reviewed for Like Fire a few years back.

Nov 19, 2016, 8:01am

I was just about to mention that Secret Life of Trees book -- I've picked it up like ten times. It seems a little woo woo but I'd be happy to be wrong about that.

Nov 19, 2016, 8:43am

I think anyone can add to that tree list. I didn't make it private. Limber has been on my radar for awhile. Maybe I'll get it for my mom (my go to excuse for buying half the books I want to read).

I have a review copy of Hidden Life of Trees -- my brother was reading it while he was visiting earlier this year and he liked it. I am always suspicious of anthropomorphizing nature so like DG was was leery, but a number of people whose opinions I trust have said it isn't really like that.

Editado: Nov 25, 2016, 2:27pm

So I'm just going to pop back here to say that I finished reading A Natural History of North American Trees in a bit of a binge, and it really is a wonderful book. I'm going to have to find the originals. I would recommend the hardcover over the paperback, because the book deserves the same kind of longevity as some of its subjects, and because the woodcut illustrations are lovely, and deserve the permanence of a cloth bound volume holding them together.

But really, it is just a pleasure to read. And if Mr. Peattie sometimes waxes overly eloquent on the attributes of his favorite trees, such lapses are easily forgiven since they come few and far between more thoughtful and considered sections about the uniqueness of trees, the woods, and the way we experience them and live for them and with them. And Peattie's "grand old scholar" persona not withstand, he is capable of some beautifully pointed barbs at the mismanagement and abuse of what he consideres a national resource and treasure, the woods.

Plus, his understated scorn for what he calls "The Golden Oak era" of quartersawn oak furniture is a thing of beauty.

Dic 11, 2016, 6:40am

Any recommendations of current books about the environment from a political angle? I'd like to get one for a present.

Dic 12, 2016, 3:11pm

Woodcut illustrations?! Clicky-clicky.

Dic 12, 2016, 4:23pm

The Guardian also just published a list of best science books of the year. 2016 Science Reads

And Science Friday had some very good recommendations as well.

Dic 12, 2016, 8:34pm

>9 LyddieO: Are you looking for specifically political political? I've heard that Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction is really good.

Dic 12, 2016, 9:21pm

I'm not sure what I want, except the friend talks liberal politics with me and the other day mentioned the environment is a big issue for her. Every year, I give her a gift card, but would like to do something more personal this Christmas. It just can't be dense. I don't think she'd like that.

Dic 12, 2016, 11:08pm

>13 LyddieO: It's not new, and I have no idea if it is anywhere near your part of the country, but Janisse Ray's book on the Altahama River, Drifting Into Darien is a lovely account about a kayak trip she took down the river. The trip is a scaffolding for the story of the river basin itself, her memories growing up on the river, and the political struggles between industry and economy and environmentalist priorities. (She comes down solidly on the side of the latter.) She also talks about the history of the "River Keeper" movement, the goals of the Nature Conservancy, and various local groups fighting to preserve this or that part of the river basin ecosystem.

All really well laid out, but to be honest the parts that stay in my mind are her own memories -- moths in the moonlight, hummingbirds under disused railroad bridges, the low-hanging branches of the over-arching trees as the river becomes swamp.

Other possibilities:

Our Only World by Wendell Berry

Half-Earth by E O Wilson -- I haven't read it, but I've read other things by Wilson and for a guy who specializes in ants, he's got a real "macro" view.

Terry Tempest Williams -- especially Refuge, and When Women Were Birds but really most of her books are simultaneously meditative on our place (well, her place, her family's place) on the land, and also a good account of her own environmental activism.

There's a book called The Spine of the Continent that is a pretty readable account of the attempt to create a great wildlife corridor through Mexico, the US and Canada.

And Bill McKibben wrote a bunch of books -- Oil and Honey is maybe the most personal, but there's also Eaarth and the doomsdayish The End of Nature

And for perspective that is focused on the oceans, I like Sylvia Earle, Sea Change.

Dic 12, 2016, 11:20pm

Thanks, Lisa and Southern! These suggestions will be great to explore.

Editado: Dic 16, 2016, 12:40pm

I recently bought Plant: Exploring the Botanical World, and my god, it is gorgeous. Big color plates of historical and contemporary art, with excellent discussions of the plants themselves and their artists. Throughout, the plates are paired--for example, a 17th century illustration of various stages in seed germination placed next to electron microscopy of a seed, an engraving emphasizing the leaves of a maidenhair fern next to a 19th century quilt featuring the leaves of local plants, James Audubon beside Maria Sibylla Merian. I'm savoring this one.

Plant: Exploring the Botanical World

Dic 16, 2016, 12:38pm

Wow, that's gorgeous.

Dic 16, 2016, 12:51pm

>16 shelleysilva: I've been gazing longingly at that book from afar....

Dic 16, 2016, 12:57pm

It is pricey. It's listed at $60, but Phaidon had some special so I got it for $40.

Oh, now I see that there a map book to go with it!

Editado: Dic 16, 2016, 2:39pm

Those Phaidon books are always really hubba-hubba, but that one in particular. Wow.

Dic 16, 2016, 10:09pm

Just wow!

Dic 29, 2016, 2:52pm

I'm actively avoiding the pretty map books. I have too many coffee table books, and they're all in boxes right now anyway. But map ones can suck me in for a long time. I might just buy a globe. All the millennials will ask me what it is.

Ene 6, 2017, 11:48am

So I've been meaning to post about my Christmas vacation, which I spent with my parents outside of Rochester, NY. What you need to know about where they live is that their house was built on old farm land -- you can still see the a few old apple trees around -- but their property is bordered on three sides by a state park. For the last fifteen years they have lived there, mom has been on a mission to return the property to it's native open woods habitat, which meant no mowing (they have a nice "upper" and "lower" meadow) and planting native trees that she gets from some guy in the area who cultivates them for re-foresting purposes. Right now the yard is dotted with young trees protected by fencing against the deer that will eat everything to the ground in the winter. But the steady dedication to tree planting is starting to show results, and she now has small stands of maples, white oak and bur oak, hornbeams, serviceberries, chokecherries, black cherries, and white pine, among many others.

Naturally I gave her a copy of Peattie's book for Christmas! We had fun looking up the trees she'd planted to see what he said about them.

The nice thing is that the wildlife seems to consider their yard as part of the park. And in the winter, it is easy to see all the coming and going. Every morning we would get up early to have coffee and watch a red tailed fox make its rounds through the scrubby brush, hunting mice under the snow.

And, on the morning I left, a great horned owl swooped down low into one of the trees behind the house and stayed their for more than half an hour.

I just stood there and watched it. It was my first in-person meeting with a great horned owl, and it was magnificent.

And huge. It looked as big as one of my dogs.

Ene 6, 2017, 8:16pm

What a lovely image - the farm going back to nature, and nature coming back to the farm.

Ene 6, 2017, 8:41pm

>23 southernbooklady: Aren't Great Horned Owls amazing? I wish I could have stood there with you. We saw one in our meadow after dark a couple years ago. We couldn't quite figure out what it was because it had its back to us as we pulled into the driveway. It turned its head and looked at us with those amazing eyes and then took flight. Gorgeous and huge!

Ene 6, 2017, 9:07pm

Wow, Nicki. I've never seen a Great Horned Owl. I very much hope to someday... probably not in the Bronx, though you never know (we're less than a mile from a big park with a lot of wildlife, so it could happen).

Ene 7, 2017, 8:02pm

Explorers' Sketchbooks: The Art of Discovery & Adventure was just fabulous. My full LJ review is pending publication, but I will say that the intersection of adventure, art, and memoir doesn’t get any better than this. Short bios and vignettes of 70 explorers along with really pretty reproductions of art, notes, ephemera, etc. It's not out until March, but that's not so far away.

Ene 8, 2017, 12:03pm

>27 lisapeet: It was from reading Amitav Ghosh's Opium Wars trilogy that I first came across the term "painted gardens" for the collections of botanical illustrations plant hunters would take with them on collecting expeditions as reference guides and I'm a little obsessed with the idea:

In Cuninghame's time, travelling in China was a little easier for foreigners than it was later to become: on his first visit he had had the good fortune to spend several months in the port of Amoy. He had discovered there that Chinese painters were exceptionally skilled at the realistic depiction of plants, flowers and trees: this was fortunate for him because in those days no one could hope to bring live speciments from China to Europe by sea; the collector's aims were rather to amass stocks of seed and to assemble 'dried gardens'. To these Cuninghame had added another kind of collection, the 'painted garden'" he had returned to England with over a thousand pictures. These illustrations had elicited much admiration while arousing also a great deal of scepticism -- to eyes accustomed to European flora it had seemed unlikely, if not impossible, that flowers of such extravagant beauty could actually exist.

--from River of Smoke

Ene 8, 2017, 12:11pm

I could totally go on a kick just reading about explorers and naturalists. I've had a copy of Remarkable Creatures for a while that I ought to start with.

Ene 8, 2017, 12:22pm

>29 lisapeet: One of my favorite books as a kid was my grandfather's copy of Green Mansions. If you're looking for fiction, there are two Cesar Aira books well worth: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter and The Hare.

Ene 8, 2017, 7:25pm

Oh cool, and those are all library-ebook-able too. Thanks for those!

Editado: Ene 12, 2017, 10:52pm

Speaking of which, I just grabbed a fine-looking galley: Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition 1761-1767, by Thorkild Hansen.
Arabia Felix is the spellbinding true story of a scientific expedition gone disastrously astray. On a winter morning in 1761 six men leave Copenhagen by sea—a botanist, a philologist, an astronomer, a doctor, an artist, and their manservant—an ill-assorted band of men who dislike and distrust one another from the start. These are the members of the first Danish expedition to Arabia Felix, as Yemen was then known, the first organized foray into a corner of the world unknown to Europeans, an enterprise that had the support of the Danish Crown and was keenly followed throughout Europe. The expedition made its way to Turkey and Egypt, by which time its members were already actively seeking to undercut and even kill one another, before disappearing into the harsh desert that was their destination. Nearly seven years later a single survivor returned to Denmark to find himself a forgotten man and all the specimens that had been sent back ruined by neglect.

Based on diaries, notebooks, and sketches that lay unread in Danish archives until the twentieth century, Arabia Felix is both a story of intellectual rivalry and very bad manners and an utterly absorbing tale of high adventure.

Well, you had me at "very bad manners."

Ene 13, 2017, 10:14pm

Ooh, I need to keep my eyes out for that, lisa!

Ene 16, 2017, 11:34am

This article from n+1 is worth reading if you're a nature-inclined person... probably even if you're not: What I Had Lost Was a Country
Nature and landscape are palimpsests of history and social violence more than they are alternatives to them. They show back to the observer the durability and definiteness of the world people have made so far, as well as its fragility. In my mind, at least, thinking in response to terrain, as Thoreau always tried to do—and sometimes found, in the grip of politics, that he could not—can also support a kind of political clarity, an alternative to the hopeless way in which the world runs away from us but still will not let us go. It can propose a vantage point.

Ene 23, 2017, 5:38pm

For our drive down the Baja peninsula, I downloaded Lab Girl. Although I knew I'd like the sciencey stuff (the author, Hope Jahren, studies plants), I was skeptical about how that could be folded into a memoir.

Jahren grew up in her college-teacher father's lab, and from the outset she is unpretentious about her career, insisting that the only requirement for doing science is curiosity: "People will tell you that you have to know math to be a scientist, or physics or chemistry. They're wrong. That's like saying you have to know how to knit to be a housewife, or that you have to know Latin to study the Bible. Sure, it helps but there will be time for that. What comes first is a question. . . . It's not nearly as involved as people make it out to be."

This may be true, but becoming a working scientist is a different matter, and she is wry about the challenges involved in financing one's curiosity. Fortunately for her--and us--she meets Bill, a kindred spirit who becomes her field assistant and then her lab manager. A friendship like theirs is a rare and wonderful thing, and it forms the emotional core of the book, a counterpoint to the drudgery of the work, the disappointments of academia, and the challenges of her bipolar disorder.

Jahren brings it all together seamlessly, moving back and forth between observations about the plant world and the events of her own life in a way that doesn't seem forced or pedantic. My only quibble is her penchant for fancy dialogue tags when the simpler "he said, she said" would work better. This was probably more noticeable in audio form than it would be on the page.

Ene 24, 2017, 7:42am

>35 shelleysilva: I'm hot to read that one... I have the ebook and rave recommendations from coworkers.

This is neat: Seeing Science from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is a yearlong online project that explores photography’s role in defining, promoting, and furthering science.
Curator Marvin Heiferman noted that many art museum exhibitions on scientific photography tend to focus on the 19th century and then track progress into the present. This approach is partly represented in Seeing Science. An interactive timeline begins in 1021, with Arab physicist Alhazan’s description of a pinhole camera and camera obscura, and culminates in 2016, with a camera the size of a salt grain that can be injected into the body. Yet Seeing Science is more focused on what artists and photographers have created around ideas of science, along with how scientists have presented themselves and been portrayed in pop culture.

Ene 24, 2017, 11:29am

Nice! I'm glad it can be visited online, too.

Feb 15, 2017, 10:50am

I need to read Lab Girl. I also have the ebook, but just haven't gotten to it yet.

I have been kind of craving some kind of "smartypants" book, as I call them. Something about science, history, social science, etc. So I am now listening to The Age of Wonder, which I've wanted to read since it came out. I've only listened to the first part, about Joseph Banks, from Captain Cook's first (or second?) voyage. Mostly about their time on Tahiti, and then very little about the rest of his career. But I've always really enjoyed science history, so I look forward to finishing this one.

Feb 15, 2017, 12:38pm

My favorite part of that book was Herschel.

Feb 15, 2017, 1:35pm

> JulieCarter: "I have been kind of craving some kind of "smartypants" book, as I call them. Something about science, history, social science, etc."

Have you read this one, Julie?

The Future of Life by Edward O. Wilson

Feb 27, 2017, 4:00pm

Embarrassingly, I have never read any E.O. Wilson. I'm pretty sure I have a couple of his books somewhere, though.

I'm actually in the Herschel part of The Age of Wonder right now. Kind of wishing I was reading instead of listening to it. There's nothing wrong with the narrator or anything, I just get distracted sometimes when driving and then get a little lost. It's a bit longer than I expected, also. Something like 21 hours?

Jun 8, 2017, 7:07pm

So The Hidden Life of Trees. I finished it a little while ago and I've been trying to find time to talk about it. I had actually been avoiding the book for much of last winter, because I was leery of what looked like its blatant, unapologetic anthropomorphism. It's "woo woo" feel. The author describes forests as communities, trees as having friendships, personalities, parenting skills. He talks about the way they hear, feel, touch, talk. Even love. Really, it's enough to drive a person nuts. it turns out, Wohlleben takes this approach deliberately, in order to make his readers do one very specific thing -- let go of the instinctive hierarchy we all implicitly assume exists between the plant and animal kingdoms. And between humans, and all the rest of life on earth. So when he discusses the difference between a solitary tree planted in a park setting that rarely lives up to its potential girth or age and the tree in a forest setting surrounded by many others of the same species which lives longer and grows stronger, as the difference between being raised on the streets and being raised in a good stable family -- he's not exactly imposing human centric concepts on an oak tree. He's really trying to get the reader to view the plant world -- the tree world -- as something dynamic, sensitive and responsive to its own environment, participatory and engaged in that environment. And that is something that is surely true, even if the language of intention he often falls into makes me squirm.

But then, people tend to regard themselves as apart from the ecosystem. They are, one might say, unempathetic, blind and deaf to the pulse of other kinds of life. So they do not consider it a moral problem to, say, cut down a tree, because in a human's mind, they are not "hurting" anything. Wohlleben's book is basically an extended explanation and description of how someone hurts a tree-- and the forest -- by cutting it down. In the world of trees, the book would probably come with warning labels for graphic violence.

But it is all science -- all a detailed account of how a wounded tree attempts to heal itself, what happens if it can't, what happens when opportunistic species -- fungi, bugs, critters, (people!), exploit a weakness. And the science, it has to be said, is absolutely fascinating. Do you know, I never realized that the circulatory system of trees which brings water up and down the trunk -- explained to me in grade school as "osmosis and capillary action" -- is not understood? That neither osmosis nor capillary action can account for the amount of water that has to be pushed up sometimes hundreds of feet, gallons at a time. And in fact we just don't know how trees do it.

Wohlleben packs a lot of truly very cool scientific research into what is really a quick and very readable book, and if he is sometimes a little too speculative on what all that research is telling us, nevertheless he succeeds in what he set out to do: convince the reader that if we want to understand and be awake to the rhythms of life around us, then distinctions between plant and animal are arbitrary and not particularly useful.

Jun 8, 2017, 8:02pm

I probably am the audience for that book. Yesterday I had tears in my eyes listening to my neighbor's leaning tree coming down. Being cut and ground into nothing. So majestically helpless, it makes me cry. Joy that I live in Wisconsin, capital of timber country. Sigh. I still don't think I'm ready for it. Walked in some gorgeously messy and enchanting woods today though and I hope nothing ever happens to wreck it.

Jun 8, 2017, 10:39pm

>43 Bookmarque: One of the weirdnesses about reading The Hidden Life of Trees is that I read most of it on my back deck, in between bouts of gardening. Next door, my neighbor had decided to get his property under control or something, which meant spraying some kind of nuclear weed killer in the green buffer between our houses and those of the street behind it -- essentially clearing out all the underbrush of the scrubby woods, turning it into a brown waste that he then, bizarrely, laid a turf path through.

I could not even watch.

Editado: Jun 16, 2017, 12:42am

That looks tantalizing. I still haven't quite gotten over the deaths of the ponderosa pines, Gambel's oaks, and cliffrose on the lot adjoining ours (now filled with another tacky built-to-property-line house). These species are very common where I live, but I had been looking at those particular individuals everyday for more than two decades the day the new owner fired up his backhoe and tore them out. One of our pines dripped (wept?) sap into the driveway for months afterwards.

Feb 16, 2018, 10:14am

It was a typical phone conversation with my mother a couple weeks ago. "I'm hardening off some of the seedlings," I told her. I had the trays of chamomile, horehound, and feverfew outside sitting in the sun.

"We're under several inches of snow," she told me. "Cold winter. But the witch hazel is blooming." We digressed into wondering what could possibly be pollinating witch hazel in the middle of winter, when there were no insects, and the ground was still frozen. And of course while we talked, I looked up "witch hazel, pollination" on the computer and sure enough, people had written about this mystery.

"There are winter moths," I told her. "They can actually raise their body temperature as much as 50 degrees by shivering" -- we both paused at the implications of that. 50 degrees? she repeats, and yeah, I double checked, vague bells ringing in my head. "the citation is a paper called Thermoregulation in Winter Moths, Bernd Heinrich"

"Bern Heinrich!" mom says, "I love him. He's crazy." She gives me a run down on the life and weirdness of Mr. Heinrich that makes it sound like she read his books last week, not twenty years ago.

I glance at the bookshelf I have for science-y and naturalist writing, and "Oh!" I break in, Bern Heinrich, Hot-Blooded Insects!"

What? says mom.

And in one of those weird cases of serendipity that happen to mom and me over books, we both discover that we each came to the same writer via completely different directions. Mom, who stumbled on his memoirs of living in the Maine woods and observing the life around his small cabin. Me after finding one of those appealing science-for-the-layman books about the mysteries of how small insects can endure vast changes in temperature without cooking or freezing themselves.

I put "Hot Blooded Insects" in the pile I have of "books for mom" and tracked down a copy of Heinrich's memoir-slash-nature essays-slash-travel account, In a Patch of Fireweed. Pencil illustrations by the author, which are lovely. And the writing is beautiful, which makes up for the fact that some nitwit designer at Harvard University Press decided to set the book in an italicized san-serif font.

More Pictures here:

Abr 26, 2018, 5:59am

southernbooklady (and any other corvid fans here), did you see this?

At the Tower of London, a Ravenmaster for the Digital Age
One sunny afternoon in the ancient courtyard at the Tower of London, Christopher Skaife stands in full ceremonial regalia: a towering top hat and thick navy tunic, his chest emblazoned with a crown in scarlet fabric. Among the guardians of the thousand-year-old fortress of the murderous King Henry the Eighth, Skaife has a unique position: He’s the official Ravenmaster, in charge of a six-bird flock kept there to fulfill their mythic role as guardians of the tower.

He's got a book coming out from FSG in October, The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London. I'd read that.

Abr 29, 2018, 9:06am

>47 lisapeet: So, okay, I might read that too. But I have to say, the British win the prize for creating and holding onto weird ceremonial jobs, with outfits.

Abr 29, 2018, 11:58am

Truth. Which recalls my favorite Small Lisa story (which I may have told already, in which case just skip it): When I was five we went to England, which included the ubiquitous Tower of London trip. My parents told me what we would be seeing, as parents do, which included the Queen's Guard and the Beefeaters. We did the whole tour, and then at the end as we were leaving I burst into tears because we didn't get to see the bees—I thought we were going to see the Bee Feeders, which assumed were the Queen's Guard, with their big tall bearskin hats. I thought the bees lived in there and came out to be fed.

C'mon, you'd cry too if you thought you missed that.

Mayo 23, 2018, 9:48pm

Sticking with this theme for one more post:

The Tower of London’s Ravens Can Be Dismissed for Bad Behavior

Mayo 23, 2018, 9:56pm

>50 lisapeet: His final offense? He had destroyed five TV antennas in just one week.

I'm on George's side on that one.

Jun 16, 2018, 10:03am

I think I'm developing a kind of obsession for "nature writers who do their own illustrations." My latest discovery is Ann Zwinger, who missed my notice until now since she writes about the Colorado Rockies -- a place I've never been:

"The familiar vistas are framed through the gate, always constant, yet always changing. The fate creaks as I walk it open and I unconsciously note the progress of the season. The rough notched cure of the meadow, the sentinel ponderosa pines and Douglas firs, the vast stretch of sky are always there. But where there was snow last week, there is today a delicate Pasque flower, so pale as to seem formed of snow crystals. Where the meadow was sere and bleak, bearded with dry grasses, today wild candy-tuft and early daisies sprig the returning green. Or, in the warming sunshine of summer, the magenta and silver-green Colorado locoweed is in full bloom in the middle of the road, like Thoreau's flower between the wagon tracks. Or, where there was a meadow ablaze with purple asters, there is now snow a foot deep."

Zwinger, who only died a few years ago, was from Indiana and studied art history, and came late into her calling -- she was 45 when she published her first book, Beyond the Aspen Grove. The book arose out of a decade's worth of watching life on some property she and her husband had purchased in the mountains near Colorado Springs. Zwinger began a kind of project to illustrate and catalog all the plants on the property. She'd go on to become interested in and a champion for alpine ecosystems.

But this book, her first book, although mostly observation and little in the way of personal reflection, is still underneath an account by a woman in the process of becoming -- funny, since no doubt many people would say that a wife of a military pilot with three children had already "become" whatever she was meant to be.

Not so. Something drove her husband and her to seek out the land they eventually bought. A desire for "openness and freedom" and space for their children to grow. Her husband wanted a place "with water." But Ann wanted a place "far from civilization." And she discovers quickly that while they might "own" their land on paper, it is nothing of the sort in reality -- "But to own this land as one owns a book or a pot or pan is simply impossible. We own it only as it becomes a part of the experience of each one of us. It is its own reason for being. Human values are extraneous. The life fo the wood, meadow, and lake go on with or without us. Flowers bloom, set seed and die back; squirrels hide nuts in the fall and scold all year long; bobcats tack the snowy lake in winter; deer browse the willow shoots in spring. Humans are but intruders who had presumed the right to be observers, and who, out of observation, find understanding."