Life sucks

A memoir of changes in the land and people
I will get to the bad part eventually. I sometimes think my life could be described as a series of love affairs with various kinds of plants and gardens, and definitely I am a serial killer of books: I find a writer I like (not an easy thing any more) and I quietly munch through their oeuvre. I did this in the past few years with Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bruce Chatwin. Some authors are so voluminous that I space them out over decades: John Updike, Robert Graves, Philip Roth, Nadine Gordimer and many more--I read a book or two, and then move on. A few months ago my colleague Mike Kintgen found Grass by Joe Truett on remainder at the Tattered Cover and gave me a copy. By the time I finished the first few chapters I knew I'd found a contemporary classic: Only Robert Michael Pyle among contemporary naturalist/scientists wields  such a wonderful pen. I'll get to the Grass in a bit. Tonight I finally finished Circling Back: I don't think I have ever read anything that cut more quickly or deeply or decisively to the bone of our modern dilemma: Joe combines a history of his family's ancestral land in East Texas, and weaves into it his own very rich life story--and overarching the whole thing is our dilemma as Americans, as modern humans: he maps out a dozen ways the enormous cost of technology on the American landscape: a fabulously rich corner of America has essentially been turned into a botanical slum of wall-to-wall Loblolly pine plantation, and the rich tapestry of human habitation that goes back to the Pleistocene has been eliminated, leaving a mere residue of Duck Dynasty level ex-urbanites who by and large have only the most tenuous connections to the land. It is a terrifying and graphically described horror story: written with such charm and nostalgia that you almost forget that it's a tale that's been repeated in every corner of America. It is a tale we need to read, internalize and act on. It has the heft and import of Silent Spring or Ominivore's Dilemma in that it limns the ecological disaster we are all party to--although he does put out the slimmest glimmers of hope as well. Assuming you're not a complete literary light-weight (i.e. if you don't move your lips while you read)--and no one who reads my blog would do that--this book would be your cup of tea.
A serues if essays about grassland: great science and cadenced poetry all in one
I shan't belabor the grass book--it's very different--a whole series of essays that encapsulates Truett's lifelong work as an ecologist on the American prairies. Once again he shows the ways we have damaged and compromised biodiversity at every hand--but I hasten to say, this book gives hope: as lead biologist for Ted Turner's endangered species initiative, Truett had enormous sway and success in reintroducing prairie dogs to former habitat, and helping the success of black footed ferret reintroductions. He devotes several chapters to prairie dogs--and I have come to realize their enormous importance to America's prairies thanks to him...now I must get the rest of his books right away!

Reading two awesome books by a contemporary (just five or six years older than me), you can hardly blame me for wanting to talk to Joe, to contact him and let him know how much appreciated his work his prose. I was hatching a secret plan to see if we couldn't invite him to speak, perhaps at a lecture series. I was savoring the possibility that we might walk together around Denver Botanic Gardens, or on Mt. Goliath: For me, books are a kind of tangible friendship--alas! Most of my favorite authors are classics whom I shall not meet in this life. But Joe lives only down the road in New Mexico! Heck, maybe I could drop in on him this summer?

Google search makes everything so much faster than it used to be: I punched in his name and the town he lived in and Google provided a long list of valuable information about Joe: there are several publications by Joe you can download off of various websites (just click on that link to see them)...and there was (here's the sucky part) his obituary and a wonderful tribute to him by the Wildlife Society.

In Circling back, Joe describes the pathway that took him back to his roots, and the appreciation of traditional American agrarian life practiced by his parents and grandparents. It is sobering when people more or less contemporary with you pass away like this, all the more so since I felt I had not only found an author I admired intensely, but someone who could be a friend.

Comments

  1. Hi Panayoti, I think you have a mistake in the title of your post. It is not “life” that is bad. It is loss that is bad. I expect losing your own life is the worst of all. I am grateful that I have not yet experience that loss. However, I do have some experience with loss. In fact, I have lost many things.

    I have lost relatives. I have lost people’s respect. I have lost out in love, and was lucky for it. I have lost jobs. I have lost opportunities. I have lost lots of money, yet I still buy the occasional lotto ticket. I have lost pride. I have lost my keys. I have lost an uncountable number of games to my young son. :) And like you, I have lost the privilege to knowing people I admired before they had passed away.

    However, the dreary days of winter are not the time to remember great people. This is my prescription for you. Go outside and get some exercise. Snowshoeing or cross country skiing would be good. I built an igloo to stay active. Finally, I have found a way for people to admire my garden in winter! Next, take a long soak in a hot tub. Finally, return to your blog and write something positive. People need happy thoughts after enduring “the most wonderful time of the year.” lol

    Sincerely,
    James

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  2. Very well put, James: if I didn't have the dregs of a head cold I would do just that! You are so right about how much we go through life losing--and there usually is a silver lining. However much we lose, we seem to ignore or overlook at what we win, don't we? I shall look for that lining it in the late afternoon sun over the Rockies!

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    Replies
    1. I hope you feel better soon.

      Sincerely,
      James

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    2. I'm sure I will...I feel that I'm over the hump! Colds are nature's way of reminding us who's boss!

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  3. But just think if Joe Truett had never lived or had never written any of these works!! " a man (or woman) is remembered by the good deeds and acts of kindness he performs in his life " from the Talmud "

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  4. Very sensible, Anonymous: I appreciate your wisdom.

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  5. I'm working on a memoir right now about my family's settling in 1894 Oklahoma. The whole thing is about the frontier, prairie ecosystem, Cheyenny culture, Mennonites culture, the collisions of cultures human and non -- trains, sooners, boomers, oil, outlaw gangs. I hope it's a Silent Spring for the prairie. I hate seeing lesser prairie chickens and Texas horned lizards vanish. I hated OK as a child, but as I come back to it as an adult with all this eco theology and deep ecology spinning in my head, something changes. The wheat fields below the Wichita Mountains are the agony of our species disconnected from home. We are homeless on the prairie.

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  6. I look forward to reading that memoir one day: my too few visits to Oklahoma have impressed me with the magnificence of the landscape there. Many of America's greatest horticulturists live there, or came from there (J.C. Raulston, Alan Tower, Steve Bieberich leap to mind). And of course, OK borders on CO--so it will resonate for me as well! Keep me in the loop, Benjamin!

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