Book Read: Being You

Being You: A New Science of ConsciousnessBeing You: A New Science of Consciousness by Anil Seth

Being You is, as reviewers and blurb writers note, a well-written and accessible book. I also enjoyed reading it, even though I do not understand enough of the science or philosophy to be able to critique it. I will defer to Andrew Walsh (yes, he’s a relation) for a real review.

My one observation about the arguments Mr. Seth makes is that he makes no mention of anything remotely religious or theological. Billions of people believe that they owe their existence and consciousness to a supreme being or spirit. As one of those people, specifically a Protestant Christian practicing my faith in the Reformed tradition, I find explorations of human existence such as Mr. Seth has undertaken here to be sources of awe and wonder at the universe that the supreme being has brought into existence.

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Book Read: Beyond Racial Division

Beyond Racial Division: A Unifying Alternative to Colorblindness and AntiracismBeyond Racial Division: A Unifying Alternative to Colorblindness and Antiracism by George Yancey

Until now I’ve tended to read books on the history, reality, and consequences of racism by authors like Isabel Wilkerson, Jemar Tisby, Bryan Stevenson, Esau McCaulley, and others. I’ve devoted less attention to books on how to deal with racism and racial divisions.

George Yancey takes issue with two current approaches to racism: colorblindness and antiracism, the latter of which is very much part of the racial Zeitgeist of this moment. He proposes a third way to approach racial division, based on mutual accountability. Beyond Racial Division deserves a wide reading, especially in the broader Protestant Evangelical community of which Mr. Yancey is a part.

Beyond Racial Division would be a great resource for discussion groups and working groups on race relations within communities. To that end it would be well if it included discussion questions or if it were accompanied by a discussion guide. Individual readers (white readers like myself) who struggle with how to approach race relations will benefit from reading it with or without supplied discussion aids.

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Book Read: A Gentleman in Moscow

A Gentleman in MoscowA Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

This is brilliant, witty storytelling. I can’t unreservedly say that the characters are entirely believable; it’s hard to imagine some of the central characters having the same jobs as long as they did in such an era of turmoil as Amor Towles describes. But the characters are well drawn and, given the time span of the novel, almost four dimensional.

It is largely coincidence that I decided to read this book during the early stages of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It has taught me a fair amount of Russian history. It has also suggested some insights into the psyches of people who can engage in the barbarism that the world has witnessed in the past eight weeks. Discussing Russian history, both distant and recent, with Count Rostov, the count’ friend Mishka says this of the Russians:

Do you know that back in the ’30s, when they announced the mandatory collectivization of farming, half our peasants slaughtered their own livestock rather than give them up to the cooperatives? Fourteen million head of cattle left to the buzzards and flies. . . . How can we understand this, Sasha? What is it about a nation that would foster a willingness in its people to destroy their own artwork, ravage their own cities, and kill their own progeny without compunction? To foreigners it must seem shocking. It must seem as if we Russians have such a brutish indifference that nothing, not even the fruit of our loins, is viewed as sacrosanct.

At 462 pages, A Gentleman in Moscow requires an investment of time, but I found it an investment well worth making. I look forward to reading The Lincoln Highway and I may also go back and read Rules of Civility.

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Book Read: Jesus and John Wayne

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez

From the late 70s through the 90s I attended conservative evangelical churches that sit well inside the camp that Ms. Du Mez discusses in this book. Situated as most of them are in the New York metropolitan area, they tend to be somewhat less rigorous in their paternalism and patriarchy and in their approach to the culture wars. But they still fit the pattern of lionizing Donald Trump and his brand of aggressive, authoritarian, white-male-centered leadership.

One incident in one of those churches, the last such church I attended — I have since apostatized and joined a PC(USA) church — has stuck in my mind for almost three decades. During the investigations that led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton, two prominent laymen, both attorneys, were discussing his testimony about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Believing that Clinton had been caught in a lie, these two men were rubbing their hands together in glee at the thought that he had committed perjury, an impeachable offense, as they discussed the matter after a midweek prayer service. After witnessing that exchange I began to question my allegiance to that church’s brand of conservative evangelicalism.

Oddly, as I was reading passages where she described prominent evangelical leaders being caught in legal or moral lapses, or both, I pictured Ms. Du Mez rubbing her hands together in glee as she read the details of those lapses.

The details of excesses, abuses, lapses, and outright failures Kristin Kobes Du Mez relates in Jesus and John Wayne are well documented. She is to be applauded for the thorough job she has done in bringing together so much relevant information in one volume. But as I’ve thought many times in the past twenty years or so, what damage has been done to the cause of the Kingdom of God by those excesses and failures. And are there no corners of conservative Christianity where truly good work is being done in the name of Jesus Christ? I know that there are, and it is incumbent on me to seek and listen to those stories instead of just shaking my head at the damage.

American Christianity is now three generations removed from the Cold War era, when patriarchal male supremacy and privilege asserted itself over much of Protestantism. Many Boomers, GenXers, and now Millennials have turned their backs on that conservative evangelical Christianity, but Christianity, evangelical and otherwise, still has a vital role to play in American life. Those of us who still choose the label of “Christian” can proclaim forgiveness and mercy, pursue justice, feed the hungry, care for the wounded and diseased, and provide refuge for those driven from their homes by adversity. Read Jesus and John Wayne, yes, but then find the corners of Christianity where the excesses and failures described therein have not obscured the purpose of the Church.

To read a genuine review of Jesus and John Wayne, visit Englewood Review of Books. To hear an interview with Kristin Kobes Du Mez, listen to a podcast from Christianity Today, a publication that is mentioned several times in Jesus and John Wayne.

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The Complete Maus

The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman

Maus has been in the news for several weeks because one county in one state banned it from their eighth-grade reading lists. I was fortunate that a copy was available in my library; apparently Maus has risen to the top of some best-seller lists since the ban was announced. I won’t comment on the content of the book except to say that ordinary human beings are capable of great evil, and the evil that was unleashed in Europe in the 1920s through the 1940s could arise anywhere. If the attempt to ban Maus has made more people read it, then that is a good outcome of the ban. I hope the ban is removed.

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Book Read: Finding the Mother Tree

Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the ForestFinding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard

In the spring of 2017 our city’s parks department planted a tree in a nearby park — at our request and expense — in memory of my brother Tim, who had passed away the previous September. Tim spent many hours playing basketball in the park where the tree had been planted, and we thought it would be a fitting way to honor his memory. The tree was planted near the basketball court, but the nearest mature tree was many yards away. The tree blossomed and leafed the next two springs, but it did not survive a third winter. When I noticed that the tree was not thriving I wondered and wrote a blog post asking if trees can be lonely.

While it may be too anthropomorphic (are there degrees of anthropomorphism?) to say that trees experience loneliness, it turns out that trees do a great deal to care for other trees in their vicinity, even trees of different species, through underground networks of fungi. That is a central premise of Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree.

Suzanne Simard is professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia. She has spent thirty years researching how trees communicate and interact with each other and with other plant life. Finding the Mother Tree is written for popular audiences; it draws on work that has been published in over two hundred peer-reviewed articles in scientific and academic journals. It does contain scientific and technical terminology, but it is still quite readable, partly because it is also a memoir, and the personal stories the author tells communicate scientific information in a manner that makes it easy to understand.

In composing her memoir Dr. Simard, who admits to being shy, does not shy away from discussing the tremendous challenges to her career, her family, her marriage, and her personal health that she has faced in those thirty years. Stripped of those details, Finding the Mother Tree would be a much briefer book but would more closely resemble the journal articles that the author has published.

Dr. Simard also is the model for the character Patricia Westerford in Richard Powers’s The Overstory. (Hat tip to poet Sandra Duguid Gerstman, author of Pails Scrubbed Silver, for giving me a copy of that book). Her work is said to have influenced the development of the “Tree of Souls” in James Cameron’s Avatar. She gave her TED Talk: “How Trees Talk to Each Other,” in June 2016. She was Krista Tippett’s guest for the On Being interview, “The Forests are Wired for Wisdom,” in September 2021. I can see a connection from the sentient bamboo, Stevland, in Sue Burke’s Semiosis to the trees of Suzanne Simard’s research. (Hat tip to Andy Walsh, author of Faith Across the Multiverse: Parables from Modern Science, for introducing me to Semiosis.) Finally, a hat tip to a good friend and fellow church elder, Jean, for recommending Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Dr. Simard draws on the indigenous wisdom about plant life that Dr. Kimmerer discusses at length in her book, including the “Three Sisters” concept of planting corn, beans, and squash together in a garden (p. 122) and the concept of asking permission of trees, plants, animals, and other creatures before interacting with them.

Spoiler Alert: Readers who prefer an element of surprise and discovery in their reading may want to stop here and investigate the books on their own.

Suzanne Kimard is a teacher, and she wants to use this book to teach her readers about what is at stake in our forests and other ecosystems. She bears witness to the damage that ignorance and greed have done and are doing to forests in particular and the environment in general. She ends, though, with hope and with calls to action. Pointing to evidence of recovery from decades of damage from mining operations, she writes, “These are signs that the earth can be forgiving.” (p. 297). Later, she writes,

We have the power to shift course. It’s our disconnectedness — and lost understanding about the amazing capacities of nature — that’s driving a lot of our despair, and plants in particular are objects of our abuse. By understanding their sentient qualities, our empathy and love for trees, plants, and forests will naturally deepen and find innovative solutions. Turning to the intelligence of nature itself is the key. (p. 305)

One challenge jumped off the page. Wendell Berry and Robin Wall Kimmerer and probably others issue challenges similar to this one from Suzanne Simard:

It’s up to each and every one of us. Connect with plants you can call your own. If you’re in a city, set a pot on your balcony. If you have a yard, start a garden or join a community plot. Here’s a simple and profound action you can take right now: Go find a tree — your tree. Imagine linking into her network, connecting to other trees nearby. Open your senses.” (p. 305)

Most relevant to our moment in space-time is this comment on what we can do to move forward:

Ecosystems are so similar to human societies — they’re built on relationships. The stronger those are, the more resilient the system. And since our world’s systems are composed of individual organisms, they have the capacity to change. We creatures adapt, our genes evolve, and we can learn from experience. A system is ever changing because its parts — the trees and fungi and people — are constantly responding to one another and to the environment. Our success in coevolution — our success as a productive society — is only as good as the strength of these bonds with other individuals and species. Out of the resulting adaptation and evolution emerge behaviors that help us survive, grow, and thrive. (p. 189)

In about two months from this writing spring will arrive in the northern hemisphere and the trees and other plant life around us will display the life that has been hidden since last fall. While we wait, reading Finding the Mother Tree is an excellent investment of time and attention, and it may just improve the way we regard the flora in our communities.

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Book Read: Braiding Sweetgrass

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Winter is the season when gardeners browse catalogs from nurseries, seed companies, and garden supply companies, or they read books on gardening, looking for ways to grow more or bigger flowers or vegetables or to better control garden pests. I would encourage gardeners to add Braiding Sweetgrass to their reading lists. If you are a gardener, Robin Wall Kimmerer is your people: “People often ask me what one thing I would recommend to restore relationships between land and people. My answer is almost always ‘Plant a garden.’ It’s good for the health of the earth, and it’s good for the health of people.” (pp. 122–23) Braiding Sweetgrass is about more than gardening, though; it is about restoring a healthy view of the natural world and restoring a right relationship to everything and everyone in that world.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a Native American, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She brings centuries worth of the wisdom of indegenous peoples to bear on humanity’s relationship to the earth, to land, to soil, to plants and trees, and to insects, birds, fish, and animals. A central tenet in that body of wisdom is the interconnectedness of all things: “One thing I’ve learned in the woods is that there is no such thing as random. Everything is steeped in meaning, colored by relationships.” (p. 289)

Dr. Kimmerer is a teaching scientist, specifically “a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology, and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment.” ( Her chapters touch on a wide range of topics: wild rice harvesting in Wisconsin; the devastation brought on Onondaga Lake, near Syracuse, New York; the Carlisle Indian School; harvesting materials for traditional basketmaking; clearing a farm pond to make it safe for her daughters to swim in; restoring forests; making maple syrup and sugar, and others. There is something new to learn about the natural world and about humanity’s relationship to it in every chapter.

I would have to reread the book to do a creditable job of describing how sweetgrass fits into the narrative. I returned the book to the library before I wrote these comments, and I didn’t take adequate notes. However, the book is divided into sections that are named for different phases in the life of sweetgrass: planting, tending, picking, braiding, and burning. It is notable and heartening that the book is published by Milkweed Editions, a nonprofit publisher. Milkweed believes that “literature has the potential to change the way we see the world.”

Finally, Dr. Kimmerer grounds the treatment of her subjects in indigenous cosmology and theology. I profess a Christian, trinitarian, reformed Protestant faith that was brought to the Americas by European conquerors and colonizers. Thus, we have very different understandings of matters spiritual and religious, and she would say that the faith I profess, or at least the adherents to that faith, are responsible for much of the damage that has been done to the earth. Despite the tension that creates, there is much I can and should learn from teachers like Robin Wall Kimmerer, from her ancestors and community writ large, and from Braiding Sweetgrass. I hope some of my gardening friends will join me in sitting at her feet and taking in these lessons.

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Book Read: Reader, Come Home

Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World

Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World by Maryanne Wolf

I look for ligatures when I read a book. A ligature is a combination of letters, such as fl, fi, and ae, that are set as a single character. The presence of ligatures suggests that the publishing team — editorial, design, and production — wanted the aesthetics of the book to match the quality of the content.

Reader, Come Home has fl and fi ligatures. The book also has beauty that goes beyond thoughtful typography. Maryanne Wolf cites beautiful thoughts. Italo Calvino, Marilynne Robinson, and David Brooks contribute to the discussion in one three-page stretch. Toni Morrison follows shortly afterward. Wolf also creates much of that beauty herself, as when she refers to herself as a “farmer of children” (p. 105), but also when she is speaking against the shortening and flattening of communication that digital media produces.

[W]e must work to protect and preserve the rich, expansive, unflattened uses of language. When nurtured, human language provides the most perfect vehicle for the creation of uncircumscribed, never-before-imagined thoughts, which in turn provide the basis for advances in our collective intelligence. (p. 86)

Good writing, and the reading of good writing, requires sustained effort. It is the notion of sustained effort that occupies much of Maryanne Wolf’s attention. Using digital media to produce and consume content in small, condensed packages is conditioning us to avoid that sustained effort. It’s one thing when I, a Baby Boomer, shorten my attention span through my use of digital communications tools. It’s quite another issue when children are provided with digital communication tools as soon as they are able to communicate. They may never develop the ability to read passages longer than a few sentences over a sustained period of time.

Children’s reading and learning are the primary focus of Reader, Come Home. Wrapping her prophet’s mantle a bit tighter, she writes,

No self-respecting internal review board at any university would allow a researcher to do what our culture has already done with no adjudication or previous evidence: introduce a complete, quasi-addictive set of attention-compelling devices without knowing the possible side effects and ramifications for the subjects (our kids). (p. 125)

In the middle of her focus on children, in one confessional moment, however, she describes her initially failed attempt to read The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse, a novel that in her estimation might not find a publisher today because of its length and complexity. She discovers that she “had begun to read more to be informed than to be immersed, much less to be transported.” (p. 98) Sustained, deep reading exercises parts of our brains that weaken the more we indulge our appetite for brief bites of information and entertainment.

Maryanne Wolf includes recommendations for building the reading life of children from infancy to age ten. I hope you, dear reader, will get a copy of this book from your library or independent bookseller and learn about them yourself. I might have wanted Ms. Wolf to spend some time on how adult readers, in particular we older adults, can rebuild the reading stamina that we might have lost to text messages and social media. Even if you don’t find yourself in that condition, a few hours spent with Reader, Come Home is time well spent. If you find your ability to engage in face-to-face conversations similarly weakened by your use of digital devices, I might also recommend Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Both will open your eyes.

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Hornet Nests

The wind blew a small bald-faced-hornet nest into our yard recently. I had seen the nest on the ground in a neighbor’s yard the day before. The red berries embedded in it suggest that it was built in a shrub, maybe a barberry bush. After I took the photo I picked it up and tossed into our yard-waste barrel, but not before a hornet crawled to what was left of the entrance hole. No confrontation resulted, but I am afraid that poor hornet is not long for this world unless it’s a healthy queen that will be able to overwinter.

Although they are beneficial, all hornets are aggressive and defend their nests vigorously. Although I’ve been stung many times by yellow jackets, I’ve never been stung by a hornet. I’m told it’s much more painful than a yellow jacket sting. Bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) are also not true hornets (genus Vespa).

A bald-faced hornet from our neighborhood, at least a generation removed from the hornet in the nest.

Sometimes it feels like we live in a big hornet nest, or right next to one. Maybe we even behave like hornets ourselves, vigorously defending beliefs, conceptions, misconceptions, and theories with stinging commentary that’s intended to cause as much pain or humiliation as it can. People who might have something reasonable and valuable to say won’t dare say it because they don’t want to be subjected to those attacks.

A bald-face-hornet nest in a tree in a neighboring town.

Bees, on the other hand, are much more likely to go about their own business without aggression. They will defend their hives, sacrificing their lives in the process, but they will also tolerate the presence of beekeepers and others who will treat them with the respect they deserve. Maybe we can treat each other with that kind of tolerance and respect.

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Book Read: The Genius of Birds

The Genius of BirdsThe Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman

The day after I finished reading this book, in late September in Northern New Jersey, a mockingbird perched on our chimney cap and serenaded the neighborhood. Mating season, even for birds that can raise multiple broods in a single season, had ended weeks before. So why was this bird singing? The mockingbird is one of the stars of Jennifer Ackerman’s narrative in The Genius of Birds, and she offers an intriguing answer to this and other avian questions.

Other stars in The Genius of Birds include the New Caledonian crow, the pigeon, the bowerbird, the African grey parrot, the black-capped chickadee, the zebra finch, and the house sparrow. Many other species, from various jays and tits to ravens and even turkeys have supporting roles or make brief appearances. Most of the birds that Ms. Ackerman includes are creatures with astonishing skills.

New Caledonian crows can make and use tools and solve multi-step problems to secure food. Bowerbirds build and decorate elaborate dance floors to attract mates. Much maligned in the United States at least, pigeons can find their way home from locations that they’ve never seen that are hundreds of miles away from their homes. Equally underappreciated, house sparrows have adapted to human habitation and can nest in just about any cavity in a human-made structure. Other birds can cache large quantities of food in many different locations, then locate the food days, weeks, or even months later.

How do birds learn and remember such astonishing collections of information with brains that weigh at most only a few grams? Like any excellent science writer, Jennifer Ackerman explains what has been uncovered through extensive research, and acknowledges where the gaps in understanding still lie. Naturally there is abundant science in her narrative, mostly descriptions of bird anatomy and physiology, along with accounts of experiments and elaborate studies of bird behavior. There is some technical language, and focused attention to the story, rather than skimming, will be rewarded with many moments of insight and wonder.

For most of the book Ms. Ackerman focuses on the facts of the genius of birds. She generally avoids discussions of the risks that birds face until she gets to the last chapter, “Sparrowville,” where she discusses the house sparrow’s adaptability and success at survival. Sparrows have adapted to survive, even thrive, in urban environments. Sparrows survive in almost every climate, while many other species must keep moving as global temperatures continue to rise. Yet even the “canny and adaptable” house sparrow is seeing declines in numbers (p. 259).

Jennifer Ackerman’s summary lament is found on page 260: “The wisdom is that humanity is driving roughly half of all known life to extinction, including one in four birds. It appears to be mainly the specialists we’re pushing out — the small brained, the particular, the old lineages.”

Even with these laments and cautions, The Genius of Birds is a smart, readable, and enjoyable paean to the intelligence and skill of all birds and an acknowledgment of “how little we still know” about them (p. 266).

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