Books at budtime: spring reading

Barbara Kiser
Apr 17 · 11 min read
Ferdinand Hodler, Cherry Tree in Bloom, 1905

Budding, rising, rooting — the rush hour of life is on with the northern hemisphere’s tilt towards the long day and the light. Meanwhile, either side of the equinox, new leaves on the literary tree have unfurled. One investigates the shadow side of a scientific icon. Two give art history a salutary shakeup. A number of these books reframe nature (environmental or human) in singular ways, and manage to do so with a kind of recalibrated optimism, even bone-dry humour. We’re a long way from the formulaic here.

Elizabeth Kolbert writes with a wry, at times almost Taoist, detachment. Thus Under a White Sky, while yet another volume on the Anthropocene — the unofficial epoch defined by human influence — evades the sorrow, rage or jaunty fatalism so common among writers on the environment. Kolbert examines our obsessive tinkering with nature sparely, shunting us into adulterated landscapes almost before we know it.

She begins with the strange case of the Chicago River, engineered in the late 19th century to flow backward. At the time, the river and its cargo of excrement, manure and decaying stockyard detritus ran into Chicago’s main water source, Lake Michigan, triggering outbreaks of cholera and typhus. To redirect the river towards the Mississippi watershed instead, a huge ditch — the Sanitary and Ship Canal — was cut to join and divert it. But the trade-off cut deeper, Kolbert shows: in effect, it “upended the hydrology of roughly two-thirds of the United States”. Today, the hybridized river remains polluted, its canal portion part-electrified to keep bighead carp and other alien fish out.

The waterway becomes a metaphor for the new nature, motley and intermingled, which calls for a new form of planetary management that “begins with a planet remade and spirals back on itself”. What you control is the control itself, an insight Kolbert drives home via a range of other post-normal cases. There is the disappearing southern fringe of Louisiana, where soil that increasingly resembles “warm Jell-O” is being swamped by the very levees and revetments designed to protect it from Mississippi waters. There are also, of course, disappearing animals, extinct, endangered or, like some desert pupfish, “Stockholm species” — minuscule populations utterly dependent on humanity. And there are the hyper-risky geo-engineering propositions to counter the climate crisis, such as shooting diamond dust into the stratosphere.

“Drive out nature though you will with a pitchfork, yet she will always hurry back, and before you know it, will break through your perverse disdain in triumph.” Kolbert quotes Horace, but her own deadpan estimation of our tug-of-war with nature is as powerful: “It’s hard to say who occupies Mount Olympus these days, if anyone.”

If Kolbert, as a reporter, casts a cold eye on the science of planetary collapse, Michael Mann delivers a stinging insider’s account in The New Climate War. The renowned climate scientist propels us to the frontlines of his field, where fossil interests and their billionaire backers long ago set up camp to war with the research. With Mann’s earlier The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars and The Madhouse Effect (reviewed in the journal Nature here and here), the book forms a running account of how denialists attempt to undermine our sense of urgency, agency and reality in the face of climate crisis.

Mann unrolls the sorry history of earlier misinformation campaigns focused on tobacco, acid rain and ozone depletion, preludes to the 2009 Climategate and subsequent assaults on climate science. He shows how today, denialism — in part spread by trolls and bots across social platforms — has largely moved on from challenging the scientific evidence to casting doubt on the severity of climate impacts, or deflecting attention from the source of the problem. Thus industries may rip through resources and pollute with impunity while their lobbies slily guilt-trip consumers about personal lifestyle choices.

As Mann rightly notes, the solution is not personal or systemic, but both. We each need to change our patterns of consumption, but in tandem with fighting for the needed technological transformation — not least through voting for, supporting and pressurising politicians capable of turning the Titanic around. His “battle plan” is a pragmatic template for next steps, from disregarding climate nihilists to actively calling out untenable technofixes.

And we won’t be alone in following it. Mann sees a social tipping point towards real climate action emerging, along with bigger renewables capacity and takeup, fossil divestment and other needed trends. Hope, so often gone AWOL these days, pops up refreshed in The New Climate Wars.

We obsess about altered nature because it’s the sea we swim in. But two other new books step out, dry off and re-examine the concept. The environmental philosopher Melanie Challenger’s How to Be Animal examines how, in the face of the science, we deny our kinship with the rest of animalia — and in so doing impoverish self and environment. As she notes, “it’s blindingly obvious that we’re animals and yet some part of us doesn’t believe it”.

In parsing the divorce proceedings, Challenger points to how the scala naturae and notions of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ lifeforms persist despite Darwin’s revolution. Human culture is exceptional in many ways, but all-round human exceptionalism is a dangerous idea, devaluing other lifeforms, even stunting the scientific imagination. (The shock over Svante Pääbo’s finding that modern humans mated with Neanderthals is just one instance of speciesism.)

As for human intelligence and consciousness, we have not reached a common definition for either — so what is it that we’re talking (and thinking) about? Just as fluid is the concept of ‘personhood’ that we tether to these attributes, permeated as it is by the social realities of conflict and cooperation, the vagaries of the “we-mind”. Social psychology, Challenger asserts, “has primed us to both seek out and deny the minds and feelings of others” — including animals. From the reverence revealed in Palaeolithic cave art to the ‘disassembly lines’ of today’s slaughterhouses, our relationship with other species has shifted radically. Many of us float in a bubble of cognitive dissonance, adoring dogs and perceiving pigs merely as sausages waiting to happen.

Challenger trawls and mulls a great deal of research — on physiological responses such as fight-or-flight, fears about mortality, the rise of AI, animal intelligence (a subject the philosopher of science Peter Godfrey-Smith has probed at depth in Metazoa, reviewed by me here). Out of this swirling multiplicity emerges a powerful depiction of our “creatureliness”, from the internal zoo of the human microbiome to our entanglement in the tree of all life. In an era of extinctions, a salient reminder of what we really lose in that great ebb.

In some sense, denying our inner animal untethers us from the natural per se. But after we have tamed, abused, extracted and exited nature — what then? In Islands of Abandonment, the journalist Cal Flyn moves the story on from Kolbert’s, exploring rewilding in the slag heaps, ruined cities and irradiated messes we leave behind. Riches in ruins: ‘abandon’, after all, can mean both desertion and a wild celebratory recklessness. (It’s interesting that her subtitle, Life in the Post-Human Landscape, could almost do duty as Challenger’s too.)

As a child of the Rust Belt, I have always seen beauty in industrial decay, but Flyn digs below the busted concrete and rot to uncover the ecological succession and species booms taking over improbable places. Her book is also international in scope, roaming from West Lothian to California’s Salton Sea and, more predictably, Chernobyl and Detroit. But she has an eye for the fresh facet and telling detail, delivered with a crisp lyricism.

Flyn examines wartime exclusion zones in Cyprus, accidental nature reserves alive with fruit bats, curlews, mouflon. In Estonia she tours the shattered remains of a Soviet collective farm, its sapling-strewn terrain in the throes of succession. The country has gained 500,000 hectares of forest since the fall of the USSR in 1991; astonishingly, Flyn notes, over two-thirds of global forests are now seen as “naturally regenerated”, the result in part of widespread rural exodus. She hangs out with Wheeler Antabanez, an urban explorer in Paterson, New Jersey, where old textile mills have become a “dingy purgatory” that paradoxically summons a “shadow of the sublime”. And with Martin Kimweri, a lab assistant at the long-disused Amani Imperial Biological-Agricultural Institute in Tanzania: since 1985 he has been feeding the resident mouse colony, waiting for the scientists to return.

Islands of Abandonment is ultimately far more than a factual survey of liminal geographies, although it’s a well-researched one. And it is more than an eloquent foray into landscapes of the mind. By mapping the ecological recovery now sweeping the globe, it celebrates the power of benign neglect in enabling nature to do the journeywork of regeneration — a point the British ecologist and historian of woodland Oliver Rackham drove home throughout his life.

If the drain of people from geographies can restore natural abundance, its obverse — unjust exclusion — grossly diminishes the integrity of place, culture and society. In I Belong Here the Mancunian writer Anita Sethi recounts how — in the aftermath of a vicious hate crime — she reclaimed her sense of belonging in Britain’s northern wilds on a journey that “is not just linear but takes us inwards”.

In 2019 Sethi, a woman of colour, was on a train to Newcastle and primed to give a reading when a man a few seats away subjected her to a flood of racist abuse. The perpetrator was arrested. Meanwhile Sethi, raw with rage and claustrophobia, conceived a plan to trek the Pennine Way. Her walk along Britain’s spine is a transformative journey: she finds solace mental and physical in springing grasses, riverine flows, the geologic bones and veins of the land.

In this often arduous act of self-restoration, Sethi necessarily focuses too on the forces of alienation: the language of racism and misogyny, and its wellspring, the imperialist history in which her ancestors were enmeshed. She writes how “it is nature that is at the heart of these journeys — the misplaced belief that nature belonged to the British Empire and that they had a right to exploit it using brown and black people as cheap labour”. Today, Britain’s countryside too often serves as yet another stage for performative privilege and ‘othering’. If we value and protect nature, Sethi writes, we must also value the protected characteristics of people.

Imperialism is a presence, too, in science historian Patricia Fara’s penetrating new biography of Isaac Newton. As its title Life After Gravity suggests, this is not the story of Newton’s Cambridge triumphs in celestial mechanics, optics and mathematics. Instead, it tracks his final three decades in London, where he became the rich, powerful, politically influential president of the Royal Society and head of the Royal Mint. Here, Fara notes, he was “paid a bonus for every coin minted from slave-trade gold”. That accumulated. As the inventory of Newton’s house after death reveals, he was evidently “as susceptible to the newly created pleasures of retail therapy as his neighbours”.

Newton the man, ever difficult to discern, emerges as a volatile and often overweening presence in the pages of Life After Gravity. Here he is claiming sexual abstinence but writing obsessively about lust; sabotaging his rivals John Flamsteed, Robert Hooke and Gottfried Leibniz with ruthless energy; delivering luxe ‘presentation’ copies of the Principia, complete with a madly flattering portrait of himself on the frontispiece, to important colleagues. But it’s the ‘material man’ that really appals — how aside from his personal acquisitiveness, Newton’s strategic stint at the Mint fattened Britain’s coffers and boosted the building of empire.

A figure as brilliant, fastidious and unorthodox features in Philip Hoare’s Albert & the Whale. In books such as Leviathan and The Sea Inside (reviewed by Callum Roberts here), Hoare — explorer of all things cetacean and of culture’s wilder shores — has carved out a distinct place among writers at the nexus of art and science. In this rich and fascinating new work he gives us Albrecht Dürer as both a Renaissance sophisticate and a “childlike” being who thrills over corals, nautilus shells and the remains of a bowhead whale in Antwerp, which he construed as a giant’s bones.

Dürer had studied descriptions of whales in De animalibus, the 13th-century opus of German philosopher Albertus Magnus. But the restless wunderkind was also a traveller, a seeker of prodigies and sensations, and Hoare parallels that quest with his own wanderings by sea and land in the company of Marianne Moore, Robert Byron, Jung, Blake and, at one point, a pod of sperm whales. Through these dual odysseys Hoare interweaves his own acute reassessments of Dürer’s masterworks, forming a narrative as mesmerising as the dart and pulse of shoaling fish.

Dürer’s astounding self-portraits make you wonder how very different art history — and history, by implication — would have been if the female gaze had been so enabled. That was the question the late Linda Nochlin explored in her landmark 1971 essay ‘Why Have There Been No Great Woman Artists?’, in which she calls out centuries of structural discrimination:

things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class and, above all, male. The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education…

Yet from Artemisia Gentileschi to Suzanne Valadon, Amrita Sher-Gil, Frida Kahlo and Nora Heysen, women have defied the denial of their personhood and the commodification of their bodies by making art, including self-portraits. A subversive act of self-actualisation, as Jennifer Higgie reminds in The Mirror and the Palette.

In taking on 500 years of art history, Higgie is ambitious, and freely admits that some of her biographies are “sketchy”. However, there is room on the shelf for new histories: redressing the balance is proving a lengthy process. Despite Nochlin’s groundbreaking work and classics such as Old Mistresses by Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock, too many exceptional women artists still fail to surface in the collective mind.

Catharina van Hemessen, Portrait of a Young Lady, 1560

Catharina van Hemessen is one. The Flemish artist progressed from modest self-portraiture to the arresting 1560 Portrait of a Young Lady, its unknown sitter’s thousand-yard stare an exquisite and troubling rendering of ‘motions of the mind’. Elsewhere Higgie offers insight into better-known painters such as Gwen John, Augustus’s gifted sibling. John believed that solitude is “nearer reality”, was given to sleeping outdoors (occasionally in the Luxembourg Gardens), came over as painfully shy — yet the self-portraits reveal an inner fire and resolve not lost on the great connoisseur of Modernism John Quinn, who bought 100 of her works.

In short, and in the turn of the year, spring’s here — whether it has arrived “mud-/luscious” or as something very like a rave (Rilke: “Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colours, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night”). These remarkable books are one way of joining the party.

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Barbara Kiser

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I’m a writer, editor and former commissioning ed. for books and arts at Nature, at home in science and culture. Follow me on Twitter: @barbkiser

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