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Branner Blog » Environmental Classics
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Everglades classic

November 19th, 2007

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The Everglades are in the news again, with Congress for the first time (11/9/07) over-riding one of President Bush’s rare vetoes. At issue was a $23.2 billion water projects bill, which includes funds for restoring the damaged southern Florida ecosystem. For a vivid picture of the Everglades landscape and ecology before decades of development changed it, read Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s “Everglades, River of Grass.” The first edition came out in 1947, a revised edition in 1978, a 50th anniversary edition in 1997, and the 60th anniversary edition this year. Douglas was a lifelong champion of the ‘glades, and a long life indeed she lived: 108 years. Even in old age, she was a riveting speaker. Before she was an environmentalist, Douglas was a journalist (for her father’s Miami Herald newspaper), and her book contains lively stories of early Florida history and flamboyant personalities. Although untrained in science, she had taken a course at Wellesley in environmental geography, so she saw and wrote about the Everglades as a complex system, whose fragile aquatic balance was greatly impacted by agriculture (sugar-growing in the south and dairy-farming in the north), drainage, channelling, and “improvement.” She grasped the intricate interplay between environment and public policy, and strove to influence policy in the direction of preserving the unique and precious region she cherished.

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In August, I visited the lovely and evocative Walden Pond, where I examined a replica of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin, strolled along the shore to his original homesite in the woods, saw and heard commuter trains across the water, and watched a kayaker and swimmers brave the early morning chill. On the plane ride east, I had begun re-reading “Walden”, considered by many to be America’s first environmental classic text. Published in 1854, it sold poorly during the author’s lifetime, but since then has appeared in more than 200 editions. Readers today are faced with a dilemma/opportunity: which edition to choose.

Style-wise, my favorite has illustrations by Thomas Nason. Info-wise, there are several annotated editions, and also versions with introductions by such writers as Joyce Carol Oates, Edward Abbey, and Bill McKibben. If you want a lightweight edition, there’s a Bantam Classics paperback with an introduction by Joseph Wood Krutch. And there are various digital copies, of which I recommend the editions available to Stanford affiliates through ebrary.

Check out SULAIR’s offerings at ebrary. Use the “advanced search” tab, with title “Walden”, to locate particular phrases in the text, e.g. “lives of quiet desperation,” “castles in the air,” “cats in Zanzibar.” With digital books, you don’t have to flip pages to find these passages. Just enter your search terms, and let the computer hone in.

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Whereas Louis Bromfield focused on sustainability in agriculture, another ecology-minded Ohioan David W. Orr has widened his lens to include architecture, energy, forestry, hydrology and biodiversity. Orr is currently Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College, and is most eloquent in writing about education and its connection to concern for the environment. Degradation, pollution, and climate change are not happening because there is a lack of knowledge about problems and possible solutions. Education’s purpose should be to “draw out” people’s affinity for life (and the life-sustaining planet), and to make people realize they cannot “opt out” of the land community (although they can choose to be either constructive or destructive members). “Earth in Mind” first appeared in print in 1994, and Island Press issued a 10th anniversary edition in 2004. Read there Orr’s concise and clear exposition of the state of the world and the role of education thereto; and if you want more, google “David W. Orr” and find a host of pertinent and timely articles.

Closing circle

July 16th, 2007

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Almost 40 years ago, about the time of the first Earth Day, biology professor Barry Commoner published a succinct explanation of how humankind’s technological innovations were fatally upsetting the balance of nature. The closing circle: nature, man and technology explains in layman’s terms how continued exploitation of the environment (for short term profit) causes pollution, exhausts the soil, and is unsustainable.

Progress has occurred. Much remains to be remedied. Commoner’s book is still timely, and it’s refreshing to read a recent New York Times conversation with the 90-year-old scientist, writer, and one-time presidential candidate (June 19, 2007 by Thomas Vinciguerra).

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Inspiring and enlightening essays on land restoration comprise Louis Bromfield’s farm books, most notably “Pleasant Valley” (1945) and “Malabar Farm” (1948). An Ohio native, the author (1896-1956) achieved early fame and fortune writing fiction, enabling him to travel and live abroad for most of his twenties and thirties. With the advent of WW II, he left France and returned with his family to Pleasant Valley, where he bought four “worn-out” farms, with the goal of restoring them to health and productivity. His principles were sound, his vision idyllic, his energy prodigious, and his writing about agriculture both accessible and inspirational. Bromfield’s novels are now seldom read , but the 1926 Pulitzer Prize winner’s most important legacy is apparent today at Malabar Farm State Park and in his non-fiction environmental classics.

Guardians of the land

June 15th, 2007

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The Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1963 published “The Quiet Crisis,” alerting Americans to environmental degradation on multiple fronts. Twenty-five years later, Stewart Udall updated his seminal work, with addition of Part Two, “The Next Generation.” This second section described ecological progress during the intervening decades, albeit with some rollback under the Reagan administration. I consider this work a classic not so much for its eloquence and originality, as for its addressing a serious problem in a readable, well-organized, compelling way. And I’m impressed that this country once had an Interior Secretary who not only cared about preserving federal lands for future generations, but was talented enough to write a book about it.

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas was another government official whose concern about environmental degradation led him in 1972 to write The Three Hundred Year War: a chronicle of ecological disaster. Even after Congress’s passage of the Clean Air (1967) and Clean Water (1966) acts, Douglas found much to worry about, in his chapters on air, water, radiation, pesticides, garbage, noise, estuaries, mining, wildlife, forest and wilderness, transportation, and land use. Add to these on-going problems, the hole in the ozone layer and global warming, and there’s no dearth of issues for environmentalists to work on. But how are they to effect change? Douglas’s chapter on “Political Action,” is sobering, but not without hope. He counseled a shift in priorities from war abroad to righting the wrongs of the “300 year war” at home, with the judiciary playing a key role in upholding laws and checking abuses of power. Surfing the web, I see that Douglas’s writings, including his Supreme Court opinions, have been criticized for being hasty, dashed-off, draft-like. “The Three Hundred Year War” is not beautiful prose; but it is a passionate and informed argument about the fate of our national (and increasingly global) commons.

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One hundred years ago on May 27th, Rachel Carson was born in rural Pennsylvania. Author of three classic books about the sea, she also helped launch the environmental movement of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, with the publication of Silent Spring in 1962. Every literate denizen of the earth should read this book, as relevant today as it it was forty years ago. Check out the online bookclub, commemorating the anniversary of her birth; a website put up by the Fish and Wildlife Service, for whom she worked for many years; and another informative site.

The plaque in the thumbnail photo is attached to a rock (granite?) on the banks of the Sheepscot River in Newagen, Maine, where Carson’s ashes were scattered, following her death, too young, from breast cancer. It reads, in part:

RACHEL CARSON
Writer, Ecologist, Champion of the Natural World
1907-1964

Ian McHarg (1920-2001) founded the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and in 1969 published his classic Design with Nature. Before computers were ubiquitous, it was difficult to store, process and display large amounts of spatial data. Many environmental and social factors were therefore ignored in planning highway and residential projects. McHarg devised a method to display multiple “factors,” such as water, forest, wildlife, residential, historic. He assigned each factor a value and created a map transparency for it, with dark tones signifying greatest value. By overlaying the transparencies on a topographic map, one could immediately grasp which areas should be preserved for agriculture, for example.

Nowadays, the same results are achieved by turning on multi-color GIS layers. But McHarg’s notions of how to balance conflicting values are as pertinent today as in 1969.

Copies of this classic work are at Falconer Biology Library, and at SAL 1-2.

In 1994, the Wiley Series in Sustainable Design published a 25th anniversary edition of the book.

Ahead of his time

April 16th, 2007

A century and a half ago, a Vermont farmer travelled to the Mediterranean, first as minister to Turkey and later as minister to the newly-unified Italy. While there, he observed long-range effects of practices occurring in his home state: deforestation, soil run-off, flooding, lowering of the water table. And he made notes.

George Perkins Marsh, statesman, polymath (18 languages) and astute observer of the natural environment, worked on his magnum opus, Man and Nature, for several decades before publishing it in 1864.

The book is not an easy read. It’s long and full of lengthy explanatory/anecdotal footnotes. But it’s rewarding to realize how clearly this 19th-century author understood “ecosystem services.”

Branner Library’s 1885 edition is in the Locked Stacks; but Green Library has several circulating editions, including the 2003 “Weyerhaeuser Environmental Classic” edition highlighted above.

Classic sea tale

April 9th, 2007

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First published more than fifty years ago, Rachel Carson’s 1951 best-seller, The Sea around Us, recently reappeared in a handsomely-illustrated commemorative edition by Oxford University Press, 2003.

With an Introduction by oceanographer/explorer Robert Ballard, an Afterward by geologist Brian J. Skinner, and an eloquent Preface by Carl Safina of the Blue Ocean Institute, the new edition contextualizes Carson’s classic work, and brings it up-to-date. Rarely are such informative books so delightful to read. Before Carson became a marine biologist, she studied English literature. Her biographer, Linda Lear, has described Carson’s method of reading aloud her works-in-progress, to assess the flow and euphony of her prose!

Branner Library owns both the 2003 edition, and a 1991 paperback edition with an introduction by the naturalist and artist/writer Ann Zwinger.