Time interacts with attention in funny ways

a tale for the time beingA Tale for the Time Being
by Ruth Ozeki

I bought this book because it had good reviews and is set in Tokyo – and what better way to prepare for a holiday? It’s a strange story, with unusual narrators and perspectives, and I really do feel that it gave me some insights into life in Tokyo.

The story opens with Naoko, a 16-year-old girl, who is sat in a Tokyo cafe directly addressing her reader. She says that she is a time being and that she plans to write for her reader the story of her 104-year-old great grandmother Jiko before she dies.

Nao is confrontational, sarcastic and has a very dark sense of humour. She texts stories to Jiko about dead prostitutes, which is especially odd because Jiko is a Buddhist nun, formerly a feminist anarchist novelist, now living in a temple in the mountains north of Tokyo.

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A Who’s Who of pesticides is of concern to us all

Silent SpringSilent Spring
by Rachel Carson

This is a book that changed the world and brought hideous criticism on its author, and I’m loath to add to or ratify any of that criticism but this book took me six weeks to read and honestly it often felt like a slog. And yet I still think Carson was a good writer, or capable of good writing.

For those who don’t know the book, this now-legendary tract is a polemic against the widespread of use of pesticides such as DDT, on the grounds that they are dangerous poisons that kill far more than the target insects or fungi. Carson gathered together evidence that the supposedly safe pesticides that were widely sprayed from aeroplanes onto thousands of acres of land were killing fish, birds, pets, livestock, even people. A lot of this evidence came from scientific journals, so it’s not as though the problem was unheard of before she got interested, but she brought it to a wider audience and as a direct result, President Kennedy ordered an investigation into pesticide misuse.

“A Who’s Who of pesticides is therefore of concern to us all. If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals – eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones – we had better know something about their nature and their power.”

With my long history of interest in environmental issues, I am curious why this book didn’t engage me. I think there are several reasons, but they should be cast against the plain fact that this book was a bestseller and has remained in print for decades – obviously others had a better experience than me!

To begin with, I found the tone very uneven. The book starts with a long emotive intro completely devoid of facts, then launches into super technical explanations. This pattern continues, though the balance overall tends to be of more technical language interspersed with poetic sections. The references are all hidden at the back of the book so it’s near impossible to tell what’s scientific fact and what’s speculation in some places – but then elsewhere it’s perfectly clear so obviously Carson was capable of achieving that balance.

“In Greek mythology the sorceress Medea, enraged at being supplanted by a rival for the affections of her husband Jason, presented the new bride with a robe possessing magic properties. The wearer of the robe immediately suffered a violent death. This death-by-indirection now finds its counterpart in what are known as ‘systemic insecticides’. These are chemicals with extraordinary properties which are used to convert plants or animals into a sort of Medea’s robe by making them actually poisonous.”

Another issue I had was that, although we still face many similar problems, the specifics are different. I struggled with the current-day relevance of the endless facts and found myself wishing for an up-to-date equivalent. Of course, the difference is that these days that information is available to me if I go looking for it (in fact a quick scan of the petitions I’ve signed on Change.org is a good start).

On the other hand, this book also had the presumably desired effect of making me furious at the ignorance and deliberate misinformation that led to Carson writing this book – partly because I know that governments continue to side with big business against scientific advice, even when the advice is a cautious “let us do a couple of tests”.

“Soil is in part a creation of life, born of a marvellous interaction of life and non-life long aeons ago. The parent materials were gathered together as volcanoes poured them out in fiery streams, as waters running over the bare rocks of the continents wore away even the hardest granite, and as the chisels of frost and ice split and shattered the rocks. Then living things began to work their creative magic and little by little these inert materials become soil.”

Overall, I’m glad I’ve read it but can’t say it holds a candle to more recent examples of popular science – the science itself is explained clearly but isn’t made interesting and isn’t presented in a logical order (to my mind) and varied wildly in how engaging it was. Clearly this was an early example of a genre that has since been refined and practised much more.

Sections of this book were first published as a series of articles in the New Yorker.
First published 1962 by Houghton Mifflin.

Source: Borrowed from the library.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge.

Germaine Greer on the environment

Germaine Greer

White Beech: the Rainforest Years
@Bristol, 12 June

The packed audience for Germaine Greer’s talk at Bristol Festival of Ideas were mostly women, as you might expect, but for once the topic at hand was not feminism but the environment and conservation. Greer was introducing her new book White Beech: the Rainforest Years by giving some background to what might seem like a surprising episode of her life.

In 2001 Greer bought an abandoned farm in Australia with the sole intention of returning the land to the sub-tropical rainforest it once had been, a small area of which remained. She had very clear ideas about how and why she wanted to do this and had spent some time choosing the right piece of land, but where did this unusual idea come from?

Greer spoke eloquently and passionately about her lifelong love for nature and her growing realisation, as she got older, that she preferred “real” nature to anything artificially managed. She spoke about the difference between the artistic notion of “landscape” and the Aboriginal term “country”, which encompasses not only land and vegetation but also sky above and creatures living there. (I say “creatures” deliberately because as president of the charity Bug Life, Greer tends to be more concerned with insects, crustaceans and the like rather than birds or mammals). While landscaped land can be pretty or picturesque, Greer finds real beauty in wilder nature. She also finds that natural plants in their natural habitat tend to make sense and work together, creating more biodiversity than anything artificial manages.

Which led her to begin educating herself about natural vegetation versus introduced species. She has become pretty knowledgeable on this subject about both the UK and Australia. The UK’s long history of landscaped gardens and parks hasn’t done our native species any favours. There are now more monkey puzzle trees in the UK than in their native Chile but the very British larch tree is struggling.

Greer is nothing if not opinionated and while her passion and her project are both wonderful, there are points on which she seems wilfully naïve. For instance, she is very against captive breeding programmes for endangered animals and says that we should instead declare their habitats protected areas and leave them to regenerate. It would be a wonderful world if that were possible but look at the number of protected reserves around the world that have failed to protect animals from poachers or illegal tree felling or other damaging human activity. Humans are just not that easy to control.

Greer also says that her hope with this project is to start a trend, to encourage others to do as she has. Which is all very well for her to say but most of us don’t have the time or the money for such a huge project, or even a smaller version of it. She employs a staff of botanists on her bit of Australian rainforest and made sure we all knew that she pays them a decent wage (apparently paid work is a bit of a rarity for botanists these days). I’m glad for them but perhaps this section of the talk would be better saved for audiences of the very rich, rather than having multiple questions from the audience about what the average person can do be dismissed out of hand. Not a lot, was the largely disguised answer. This is a rich person’s solution.

However, Greer’s eagerness to do what she considers to be the right thing and her pleasure in the success she has had so far on her own project shone through. She describes the experience as “fun, surprising, joyful, unalloyed, exciting and dramatic”.