The Monday After Christmas…

It’s December 28th and here’s a list of what Santa dropped off at our house this year.

  • Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer by Tim Stark – So far I’m really enjoying this book.  Basically, Stark began farming heirloom tomatoes in Pennsylvania and selling them to chefs at NYC’s Union Square Greenmarket.  Interesting reading particularly for vegetable gardeners.  Fortuitously, my Seed Savers Exchange catalog arrived a few weeks ago and March is right around the corner!  A great way to escape the ice and snow.
  • The Ventriloquist’s Tale by Pauline Melville – I am so excited about this book!  It was Melville’s first novel and winner of the 1997 Whitbread First Novel Award.  I took a peek at the Prologue, which establishes the narrator in a way that is surprisingly similar to Eating Air.
  • Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn – A recent issue of The New York Review of Books had an article on this book which caught my interest.  The authors are a husband & wife journalist (and Pulitzer winning) team who in their travels discovered that  one of the things struggling countries have in common is the oppression of women.   In Half the Sky they explain how this kind of attitude toward women is not only morally wrong, but economically ruinous.
  • Plagues & Peoples by William H. McNeill – Originally published in 1976, Plagues & Peoples examines the effect of diseases (particularly large scale outbreaks) on history & society.   It’s covered with excerpts of rave reviews from the likes of The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books & the Washington Post.   This is a great additional to my library’s Disease shelf.
  • Interaction of Color: New Complete Edition by Josef Albers – A surprise Christmas gift, I’ve already begun flipping through the pages – but I anticipate the need for an extended sit down before I’m comfortable reviewing this gem.  The color illustrations are gorgeous and I won’t even get into how beautiful the books are, by themselves, in the slipcase.  This is one of those books that moves into the realm of an object, and if you have the opportunity to look one over in person (regardless of whether you are interested in art books) I definitely recommend doing so.

Books given as gifts are my favorite things, if only because they show as much about how the giver’s mind works as they do about the receiver’s tastes.  I’ve never been that big of a fan of the end of the year/end of the decade lists, because, let’s face it – the same books are pretty much repeated again and again.  But a list of the books exchanged over the Holidays… that’s always going to turn up something new.

Leave a comment below with what turned up under your tree (or other appropriate holiday accessory) this year…  And if you’re interested in what everyone else is reading the Monday after Christmas, stop by J. Kaye’s Book Blog for the weekly meme.

Dig into a good book! (pun intended) Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire & the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf

Voltaire said to cultivate your garden… so what are you waiting for?   It’s time to go outside and dig up the backyard.  No backyard?  Sign up for a community plot.  If all else fails, do a little guerrilla gardening.

In between pulling up the weeds I recommend Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire & the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf.  This very readable book traces how a mail order seed business between two men, John Bartram of Philadelphia and Peter Collinson of London, fueled England’s dual obsessions with botany and empire.

Don’t be fooled by the dust jacket – Brother Gardeners is more than a superficial overview on the lives of a handful of 18th century botanists.  This book is surprisingly well crafted and informative, despite the amount of material it encompasses.  Andrea Wulf covers the years 1733-1820, intelligently choosing to bookend her narrative between the lives of John Bartram and Joseph Banks.  In between we are introduced to men such as Carl Linneaus (the father of modern taxonomy & ecology), Phillip Miller (caretaker of the Chelsea Physic Garden), Thomas Fairchild (who created the first man made plant hybrid), Captain Cook (famous explorer) and a host of others.  Brother Gardners succeeds in smoothly transitioning from one character to another by employing a strange version of seven degrees of botanist separation.  These transitions help to establish a context for each man’s contribution to what was a botanical Golden Age.

It was in this period of less than a hundred years that the small island of England became the metaphorical and literal greenhouse of the world.  (Interesting aside:  Many of the plants Wulf discusses can still be found in British gardens today – putting a major hitch in the whole native plant movement.  There’s a useful glossary at the end of the book which gives the year when individual  plants were first introduced).  These men and their gardens would ultimately change the landscape of England and its colonies.   They would influence major, seemingly unrelated, historical events.   Carl Linnaeus’ classification system of binomial nomenclature, the colonization of Australia and the infamous mutiny on the Bounty all had their impetus in the quest for botanical discovery.

It’s difficult not to be left with a newfound appreciation for  what is too often viewed as an eccentric English hobby – batty old ladies potting around their cottage gardens – but was in fact a keystone in the foundation of a colonial empire.  How so?  Well… if you have slaves in the West Indies that need a cheap and productive food supply you import bread trees from Tahiti.  You can ship New Zealand flax plants to Australia in order to create a niche in the linen industry.  You attempt to break China’s monopoly on tea by sending plants (and willing Chinese planters) to India.  The list goes on.

Overall it’s pretty fascinating stuff.  But what makes Wulf’s book so accessible is that Brother Gardeners focuses on the relationships between the men whose stories it tells.  It describes friendships that were based on a common scientific interest and which ultimately transcended nationality, politics and war.  With the current resurgence in the popularity of gardening – demonstrated by the increase in vegetable gardens,  as well as the growth of the slow and organic food movements –  it’s an important lesson for modern day readers to walk away with.

The Rodale Institute’s farm is located in Kutztown, Pennsylvania and was founded in 1947.  It is home to the longest running U.S. trial comparing organic versus conventional farming methods.  (They also publish Organic Gardener Magazine).  You can find a whole section on their website on the topic of Global Warming.  It lists several articles on how climate change can be managed, even combated, by sequestering carbon in soil through organic farming.  Their stated mission is to “improve the health and well-being of people and the planet”.

Here’s a link to a video interview with Tim LaSalle, the Rodale CEO, explaining how U.S. farmers can become leaders in the fight against global warming:  http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/20080515/gw4

And here’s the link the main website:  http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/

Wulf’s Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire & the Birth of an Obsession tells us the story of how 275 years ago, because a few men cultivated their gardens, the whole world changed.  Who knows?  If we’re lucky it might happen again.