The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World

German forester Peter Wohlleben puts on his writing cap (with the help of English translator Jane Billinghurst) to share the secret life of trees. This book had the potential to be amazing, but the writing bogged it down, laborious and heavy where it could have danced in the wind among the treetops.

So many crazy facts!  Trees can accurately identify the insect attacking them by their saliva and release a specific pheromone to attract a “beneficial predator” to get rid of the attacker.

Trees talk to each other by electrical pulses in interconnected root systems carried by fungal networks. WHAT?! This has been deemed the “wood wide web.” Cultivated plants, however, lose their ability to communicate above or below ground, and as isolated beings are easy prey for insects. Trees also help each other out, funneling nutrients to their sick or dying friends.

This is simply insane: “When you measure water pressure in trees, you find it is highest shortly before the leaves open up in the spring. At this time of year, water shoots up the trunk with such force that if you place a stethoscope against the tree, you can actually hear it.”

This also mind boggling: “To protect its needles from freezing, a conifer fills them with antifreeze. To ensure it doesn’t lose water to transpiration over the winter, it covers the exterior of its needles with a thick layer of wax.”

Trees act as disinfectants, killing germs by releasing phytoncide from their needles. Walnut trees have compounds in their leaves that are insect repellent (gardeners are advised to put their benches under walnuts to avoid mosquitoes).

One group of researchers registered roots crackling at a frequency of 220 hertz. “Whenever the seedling’s roots were exposed to a crackling at 220 hertz, they oriented their tips in that direction.”

Man’s Search for Himself

Rollo May’s book from 1953 is oddly appropriate many decades later, mentioning the “semi-psychotic state, Third World War and catastrophe hovering around the corner.” The first half of the book was devoured greedily, but then I got somewhat bored by the last parts. He quotes T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men a lot, along with Kafka, Goethe, Freud (who always gets some adjective like “venerable” before his name).

May says, “The chief problem of people in the middle decade of the twentieth century is emptiness.” People don’t know what they want or even what they feel.  Another common characteristic is loneliness: “when a person does not know with any inner conviction what he wants or what he feels… he senses danger and his natural reaction is to look around for other people who will give him some sense of direction or comfort that he is not alone in his fright.” He mentions the anxiety that swept over the world “like a tidal wave when the first atom bomb exploded over Hiroshima,” causing interior panic since no one knew which way the world would turn.

To combat this aloneness, we gather in useless groups. May dips into a typical cocktail hour where people meet the same people every night and have the same conversations. “What is important is not what is said, but that some talk be continually going on.”

Another scary parallel to today’s hyper-connected world of false sentiment expressed in Likes, Claps, or various other virtual reality praise:

Since the dominant values for most people in our society are being liked, accepted and approved of, much anxiety in our day comes from the threat of not being liked, being isolated, lonely or cast off.

May points out the oddity that radio programs frequently signed off with “Thanks for listening.”…

Why should the person who is doing the entertaining thank the receiver for taking it? To acknowledge applause is one thing, but thanking the recipient for deigning to listen and be amused is quite a different thing. It betokens that the action is given its value by the whim of the consumer.

Hate yourself? Probably part of the reason you hate other people:

The self-condemning substitute provides the individual with a rationalization for his self-hate, and thus reinforces the tendencies toward hating himself. And, inasmuch as one’s attitudes toward other selves generally parallel one’s attitude toward one’s self, one’s covert tendency to hate others is also rationalized and reinforced. The steps are not big from the feeling of worthlessness of one’s self to self-hatred to hatred for others.

Melville: His World and Work

Who cares if Melville was gay? I certainly don’t give a fig (one of his favorite snacks) about his or any other genius’s sexuality. Yet that’s a bugaboo that must be faced in every single biography about the man. To be fair, his circle jerking in the “A Squeeze of the Hand” chapter of MD is over-the-top madness and hilarious, but must we dissect him to this degree?

Delbanco takes on the thankless task of creating a vivid biography of someone who left mostly traces of himself only in his written work, scattered letters, a thin journal here and there. This book is expansive in its exploration of Melville’s oeuvre, panning for nuggets of his life in the gold streams of prose. The best part was a re-ignition of my desire to read MD again.

Other bits:

  • I appreciated learning about Melville’s habit of buying a book for his library only after he’d read a copy borrowed from a friend or the library. Hey-yo, fellow traveler!
  • After the thudding failure of MD, Melville actually proposed publishing his next book under a pseudonym!

Georgia: A Guide to its Towns and Countryside

As expected, this WPA guidebook written about Georgia in 1940 sucks. Anything written by Southerners about the South before the Civil Rights Movement must be approached with caution. Nothing in here worth taking away. Provides the usual details about towns, only helpfully denotes that of the 6 movie theaters, 2 are for blacks, er, Negroes.

This topic even merits its own section. Which one of these chapters is not like the others?

Gross.

 

Henry Darger

Life is sometimes too perfect. I’d requested two Darger books from various libraries that arrived just in time for the furor over Confederate statues to reach fever peak and was delighted to find several depictions of statues strangling children just as they are strangling us right now. (See images below)

The first book was Michael Bonesteel’s Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings from 2000, which includes Bonesteel’s great essay “Henry Darger: Author, Artist, Sorry Saint, Protector of Children.” This recounts Darger’s childhood (sent to an asylum for feeble-minded children at age 12, there when one of the inmates tried to castrate himself and died 4 days later) through decades in Chicago working as a dishwasher and making art and writing and going to Mass 3 or 4 times a day. The rest of the book includes selections from Darger’s writing: Realms of the Unreal (“the reason the story runs so much with little girls as the actual heroes in this warfare is because, under most circumstances, women are braver than men”), The History of My Life, Book of Weather Reports, and his diary. In this book Bonesteel informs us that Darger pronounced his name with a hard G like Berger.

The second book was Henry Darger, edited by Klaus Biesenbach, including another essay by Bonesteel. This was almost 6 pounds of glossy reproductions of Darger’s work, including several pages of his History of My Life, which fittingly ended with “There is one really important thing I must write which I have forgotten.” Definitely a must-read for anyone who is even slightly interested in Darger.

The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It

I know, I know. Dull business books have no place on my read pile rubbing shoulders with amazing literature and non-fiction gems. But this book kept coming up in conversation after conversation I’ve been having with business owners and I finally held my nose for the plunge. It didn’t stink, filled with rather straightforward and readable talk about what it takes to build a business that doesn’t consume you but that you can replicate and eventually sell. The book garnered one of the highest star ratings that I’ve ever seen for a hugely reviewed book (1658 reviews on AMZN). The “e” in e-myth is for entrepreneur, not for “electronic”, thank god.

I suppose having my own business also helped retain my interest, if you can call my consulting shop of one a business. The idea of managing folks gives me the cold sweats, so I’ve never really considered what it would take to build my business into, say, an agency. This book allows you to dream a little in that direction.

Once you make your first hire, you can celebrate, offload tasks you hate: “you suddenly understand what it means to be in business in a way you never understood before: I don’t have to do that anymore!”

The first thing he has you do is to define your Primary Aim:

  • What do I wish my life to look like?
  • How do I wish my life to be on a day-to-day basis?
  • What would I like to be able to say I truly know in my life, about my life?
  • How would I like to be with other people in my life—family, friends, biz associates, customers, employees
  • How would I like people to think about me?
  • What would I like to be doing 2 years/10 years/20 years from now?
  • What specifically do I want to learn during my life: spiritually, physically, financially, technically, intellectually, about relationships
  • How much $$ will I need to do the things I want to do and by when?

And I get it—putting things in writing makes you more able to commit to them.

There are some wacky ideas and various suggestions that I disagree with, such as the tired idea that people respond to salespeople touching them. He includes a letter to the fictional woman that he’s helping with her pie shop and creepily ends it by saying “And remember, my heart will be with you wherever you are.” Then an epilogue, then an afterword. I’m sure Gerber would invent an after-afterword if he could.

Verdict: possibly useful for anyone starting a non-consulting business.

The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed

Michael Meyer’s book about living in one of the surviving hutongs that was slated for destruction in the tidal wave of modernization that the 2008 Beijing Olympics brought. This was a great read, well written and packed full of detail about the crumbling neighborhood that was a community destined to be exploded to the winds. Once evicted by The Hand, they could fight for compensation that would barely get them a part of one of the new (and not yet constructed) apartments that were in suburbs far from their current location. It was a great reminder that this type of destruction of the past is happening everywhere, and nowhere as rapidly as in China.

Meyer comes to China with the Peace Corps and stays on to teach English at a local school in his hutong, Dazhalan. He is known as Little Plumblossom and accepted into the community, and his book provides us with a stunning first-hand experience of the destruction of this part of town. Drawings go up around town to depict the future avenue, only the people aren’t Chinese but white-skinned. “The only depicted shop signs were for Pizza Hut and Starbucks.” This new plan completely disregarded the principles of feng shui that once governed the construction of imperial cities in China, where a town’s central axis should be unimpeded in the south and shielded in the north.

He used to play hockey with other locals on a lake near the Drum and Bell towers and there was an old man who had been sharpening skates since 1937, even during the 8 winters of Japanese occupation. “He was no match for developers, however. In the winter of 2005, his locale had been fenced off with panels of blue-painted tin shrouding the construction of an upscale restaurant. In a sense, the center of the Old City was reverting to its original form, when it was the playground of royalty and its acolytes.”

Construction never stops, even in the case of discovering 2,000 year old artifacts. The Cultural Relics Bureau was given a week to grab what they could from the discovered site before the land was covered with new cement foundations.

One explanation for the lack of interest in historic sites comes from architect Zhang who noted that Chinese building materials and design remained largely unchanged over 2,000 years. Old buildings were seen as reminders of feudalism.

This section reminds us that the whole world was destroying its old buildings:

The assault continued worldwide throughout the last century, as historic cities modernized. “Between the years 1900 and 2000, nearly one quarter of the landmarks of Amsterdam were leveled by Amsterdammers,” writes Anthony Tung in Preserving the World’s Great Cities. “More than half of the indexed buildings of Islamic Cairo—one of the few intact medieval Muslim cities that had existed at the beginning of the century—were destroyed by Cairenes.”

Singapore tore itself down. Athenians looted “all but a minute fraction” of their city’s nineteenth-century design. Thousands of New York building were razed by New Yorkers. Moscow knocked over its onion domes and bell towers. Despite that their city was spared from incendiary bombing during World War II, Kyoto’s residents pulled down most of its wooden buildings afterward. “Romans demolished a third of Rome’s historic structures.” The Turks allowed Istanbul’s Ottoman architecture to rot. Beginning in 1949, Beijing worried its Old Cit like a scab, scratching away the city wall, tearing off its hutong. So did the rest of China: of the three hundred walled cities that existed at the founding of the People’s Republic, only four remained intact.

Haussmann’s Paris also gets discussed. But is preservation the right answer? Meyer mentions seeing the ancient capital of Luang Prabang, Laos threatened not by bulldozers, but tourists. The historic structures were converted to guesthouses, increasing sewage, traffic, and making the city a cultural Disneyland.

This is crazy to think about: “At a time when New York was building skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building, Beijing still delivered water to homes by wheelbarrow.”

 

On Writing Well

I read this book ten years ago (here’s my breathless and inept review from 2007) and was reminded of Zinsser’s book after reading Jessica Mitford’s Poison Penmanship. The re-read was coincidental to the launch of my August writing group and provided some guide rails of additional thought.

Most advice about writing circles around the same concepts—be yourself, tell your story, provide interesting detail, avoid platitudes.

Writing about a trip? “Nobody turns so quickly into a bore as a traveler home from his travels. He enjoyed his trip so much that he wants to tell us all about it—and ‘all’ is what we don’t want to hear. We only want to hear some. What made his trip different from everybody else’s? What can he tell us that we don’t already know?” You don’t actually have to travel far to write about a place, just settle into a spot and distill its uniqueness. Another exercise: think about one place that’s important to you, tell us why you want to write it and how you want to write about it. Bonus points if quest or pilgrimage.

This also struck me: “Think narrow, then, when you try the form. Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.”

The advice offered by S.J.Perelman also rings out: “[To write humor] takes audacity and exuberance and gaiety, and the most important one is audacity. The reader has to feel that the writer is feeling good. Even if he isn’t.” You have to jump start your own engine, get started, and do it every day.

Final advice: “Living is the trick. Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested. That’s almost the whole point of becoming a writer. I’ve used writing to give myself an interesting life and a continuing education. If you write about subjects you think you would enjoy knowing about, your enjoyment will show in what you write. Learning is a tonic.”

Bruce Conner: The Afternoon Interviews

Tape recorded conversations with Bruce Conner from the 1970s until 2000s, speaking to V.Vale who started the punk mag Search & Destroy and got Conner to photograph punk banks at Mabuhay Gardens. The chats are transcribed into meandering bits, always interesting tales. Many rants against the behavior of Timothy Leary and his institution which sidled up to millionaires to solicit funds but never really did much beyond funding Leary and a tight cohort of his friends. Leary also boorishly blared into Mexican villages demanding to know where the mushrooms were and how people felt when they took them, acting as the obnoxious American and ensuring people would just clam up and not talk to him. Also of interest is when Conner meets Duchamp, brings him a box sealed up that has his signature stamp inside and asks Duchamp to give it to a mutual friend, which he does. Lots of talk about music and the bands that were in town, and a digression where Conner was trying to remember the name of a group of black men in the 1950s who were actually several different groups sent out on the road to maximize ticket sales because the producers felt like people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Calling Jello Biafra a nut, “he’s insane.” Getting death threats when he ran for the Board of Supes (BC got 5400 votes). His experience in Tokyo with everything running on time and feeling like an “enormous intruder… I’m too big. I’m too clumsy.” At one point BC is trying to convince Vale to go to the club that night but Vale wants to stay home and watch television, specifically “The Prisoner” which was on PBS. Bruce tells him:

“You should’ve seen it on commercial television. Because what happened was, when the commercials came on, there wasn’t any difference between ‘The Prisoner’ and the rest of the television thing. It was like the commercials are all part of this diabolic thing that was happening… It was as though you were locked into this labyrinthine structure and the TV commercials just fit right into it… It would come on and then it would just totally alter your consciousness of television, so you’d get into this grotesque, surrealistic thing of who’s number one and who’s number two and obscure plots where you don’t know who’s causing what and posters–all sorts of things that are caricatures of our 20th century of living And then the commercials would come on and the people that were in them were just like these sort of robot-like number threes and number fours, talking about brushing their teeth and happy all the time, and positive, and announcements – everything was like that, even the breaks for the station.”

The Prisoner,” by the way, looks amazing.

A few hours after reading this, I’m struck by the fact that Jean, Conner’s wife, comes into the conversations a few times, always as someone telling Bruce it was time to eat. This another example of a male artist benefiting from the structure of marriage, to the detriment of Jean’s own artistic work.

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life

I spent way too much time reading this book but I’m a sucker for adventure travel books, especially when they combine lyrical descriptions of surfing/beaches/the sea. I’m sad to see that this won a Pulitzer, since it’s a fairly uneven book. If Finnegan had stuck to writing about surfing, he would have earned that prize fully, but he veers into the danger zone when he starts blathering sexist comments about the ladies he’s encountered. He doesn’t know that he’s being terrible, laying himself bare with eye-popping statements. The utter cluelessness yet confidence of white males will never cease to amaze me. One of  many examples: he breaks into an all-women commune in Australia to search for a girl and has the cops called on him.

Unlike most negative reviews I issue here, I won’t obsessively catalog the flaws of this book, since it was buoyed by its positive aspects. I will mention a few: a phrase that should never be used— “pursing his own PhD in having fun;” the time a woman lets him know that his endless chatter about surfing is mindlessly boring, she’s “rudely interrupting;” his pretentious lit-talk discussing “the decadence of Sartre and situationism;” his goal go “sleep with women from many lands” being cruelly foiled by the prudishness of the Tahitian women— “I did not want to leave someone else weeping. Neither did I want to get my ass kicked by her uncles.”

The good parts are the surfing parts and luckily that’s most of the book. He takes up surfing early as a kid in LA, then his family moves to Oahu where he surfs, then he ditches UC-SantaCruz to surf some more, then a quasi-round-the-world surf trip for 4 years where he finds many occasions to be an asshole surf tourist somewhat aware of his privileges but pushing on regardless (and years later having regrets about not paying the family that they imposed on for many weeks, instead giving them worthless trinkets).

Really interesting section about surfing San Francisco’s Ocean Beach in the 1980s. Apparently there were pedestrian tunnels under Great Highway—now you’ve got to scurry across the road like a chicken. The surfing sections are where his descriptive powers excel and all the cultural bullshit he’s caught up in unawares fades away. He moves to NYC and surfs there, finds a buddy who convinces him to surf Madeira in Portugal before it gets modernized (they actually destroy the surf by building a seawall for some reason).

If you’re an old white man, you’ll probably enjoy this book 100%. Everyone else might register at 85% or less as you see what types of adventures are possible if you were a white male growing up in the 1960s.

San Francisco: A Map of Perceptions

This book perfectly captures the mood of the city… until it doesn’t. I was dreamily reading along, appreciating an outsider’s perspective on my city, loving the descriptions of fog, small paragraphs about disparate topics, peppered with watercolor drawings of the city itself. But then our opinions differ and he seems to crap all over my neighborhood while glorying in all that North Beach contains (clearly the preference for any Italian). A callous attitude about homeless here, a snide comment about the committee to prevent the Manhattanization of the city there, then he loops the Bay from Berkeley to SF to Marin to Richmond to Berkeley to end the book. Strange.

He’s absolutely in love with the Beats, claiming that “with Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s last breath, San Francisco will become a different city.” Alas that time has already come while Ferlie is still alive, although he’s approaching 100 years of age.

Perhaps the best section was describing the Embarcadero Freeway (R.I.P.):

An architect friend of mind told me, in the long-ago 1980s, that speeding into downtown San Francisco on the Embarcadero Freeway was one of the most exciting experiences he had ever had. The Embarcadero exit was the last turnoff before the elevated freeway entered onto the Bay Bridge in the direction of East Bay. Drivers felt as if they were riding a hyperurban roller coaster, flying along for at least a mile in the midst of skyscrapers very close at hand until, after a broad curve, they glided into the heart of North Beach. Seen from the ground, the freeway had a completely different flavor: it was an incongruous, Brutalist wilderness of enormous concrete pilings, a barrier separating downtown from the front along the bay. The long piers and the beloved Ferry Building were cut off form the rest of the city, relegated to a narrow space, wedged in between the freeway and the sea.

The freeway ended at North Beach, but the idea of its original designers was to continue it all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. This would have meant six miles of uninterrupted destruction of the most beautiful waterfront in America. The advantage was that it would save motorists the inconvenience of having to pass through the residential areas of North Beach, Russian Hill, and the Marina. A potential premeditated urban murder, this insane plan was luckily never carried out.

But great descriptions of fog swirling around the streets. Not terrible, but slightly disappointing.

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White

I hate this book. I’m a lazy writer and loathe the rules, giving myself leeway and pretending that all my reading soaks proper writing into my brain. I’ve tried to read it closely a number of times over the years and always end up sighing and skimming. The latest attempt was due to Jessica Mitford’s urging in Poison Penmanship. Yes, commas should be placed before conjunctions that introduce independent clauses; yes, of course we should use definite, specific, concrete language; yes yes the number of subject determines the number of the verb zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

The only real help I got was definite info around further vs farther: “farther serves best as a distance word, further as a time or quantity word.”

Apologies to all my future editors out there, but I’ve got an 80% grasp on these ideas intuitively and will simply rely on the grammar nazis to set me straight where needed.

Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital

I cannot resist books by flaneurs. This is a translation of Hessel’s 1929 book of walking through Weimar-era Berlin, although the longest section is his tour of the city by car. This edition includes an intro essay by Walter Benjamin which has a great quote, “The flaneur memorizes like a child, asserts his wisdom like an old man.”

Sadly much of this was not worth perusing, perhaps due to my lack of connection to Berlin, seen only in fleeting glimpses over a decade ago. My favorite part was the first chapter, The Suspect, wherein Hessel describes the suspicion of everyone he meets when he saunters through their avenues.

“Walking slowly down bustling streets is a particular pleasure. Awash in the haste of others, it’s a dip in the surf. But my dear fellow citizens of Berlin don’t make it easy, no matter how nimbly you weave out of their way. I attract wary glances whenever I try to play the flaneur among the industrious; I believe they take me for a pickpocket.”

Perhaps this would be worth reading as one flew to Germany. Otherwise, it gets a solid pass from me.

A Tale of Two Cities

This is Dickens’s worst book. There, I said it.

Oh yes, it has some memorable parts, like that epic first sentence—”It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Dickens is notorious for taking his time warming up in a novel— Pickwick only starts to get good once Sam enters the scene. But 150 pages in, and six weeks of forcing myself to try to read this, I’m throwing in the towel.

I think the main problem is that he strays from what he does best—describing the working conditions of London’s underclass—to churn out this historical novel about the French Revolution. Because he’s so far afield, he doesn’t have the right grip to be able to toss out the bevy of jolly and ridiculous characters that usually propel a story forward. I felt no connection to any of these stilted names, making it harder and harder to pick up the book and push through a chapter.

Please tell me this is not inflicted on schoolchildren still.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Figured I’d take a break from real life controversies by dipping into a literary one and re-read Huck Finn. Parts are delightful, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the depiction of Jim, the slave that joins Huck on his swirl down the Mississippi, left me queasy. The squabble that’s been around since the book came out is around the question of Racist or Not and it drops so many “n word”s that the idea of whitewashing the book by search/replace with another word is laughable. I can only equate the feeling to when I read books about terrible things said about women, only usually those are couched with a glimmer of hope or irony, a strong woman character plotting revenge in the corner or muttering pithy replies under her breath. In this, Jim has no counterpoint to the stereotypical image of an enslaved black man. There are no gibes he gets in about the white men going to pieces all around him.

In my mind, the best parts are at the beginning, on the river, Huck and Jim. Even the parts with the “king” and “duke” joining the caravan are good at first, then become tedious. But the book clunks to a halt when Tom Sawyer arrives in the deep south to bungle the attempt to free Jim. Tom prefers to gussy up the plan by making it more dramatic, when they could have simply popped out a board to free him. This disrespect of the life of a man convinces me that the book is largely flawed, despite whatever intentions Twain had for poking fun at racism.