How Nature and Humans Shape Each Other

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Last year I made more of an effort to read narrative non-fiction, and unconsciously followed a theme of how the natural world and the human world have shaped each other through different lenses.

On the subject of animals, I highly recommend two titles: American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by Nate Blakeslee, and The Soul of an Octopus: a surprising exploration into the wonder of consciousness by Sy Montgomery.

Blakeslee follows the wolf called O-Six, a denizen of Yellowstone National Park and descendant of some of the first wolves brought back to the United States by animal conservationists. He illuminates why people become so obsessed with wolves and describes the bitter battle between conservationists and the ranchers and anti-wolf advocates who are opposed to wolves in North America and lobby to change legislation so they can continue to hunt and kill wolves like O-Six.

Montgomery, on the other hand, tells a story about how she unexpectedly found a deep connection with an octopus, and details the fascinating habits and biology of the creatures as well as the personalities of the several single specimens she comes to know and befriend at aquariums and research stations.

Plant-wise, I found Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Sprout Lands: tending the endless gift of trees by William Bryant Logan, to have changed the way I see the world around me.

Although I seldom listen to audiobooks, I did for Braiding Sweetgrass, and Wall Kimmerer’s voice is the perfect way to experience her narrative. As an indigenous person, she was always fascinated with the natural world, and curious as to why plants behaved how they did and why the knowledge of her elders worked – why do asters grow with goldenrods? Why don’t we harvest the first plant we see? As a botanist, she follows her curiosity and fights for that indigenous knowledge to be studied and accepted by the academic world.

Sprout Lands is broad in a different way, moving throughout time and geography to collect the ways that humans and trees have supported each other, specifically the way that groves were coppiced and pollarded (cut down in systematic ways) to produce specific sizes and types of branches – including shaping branches to make the hulls of boats. While this may sound straightforward and maybe a little dry, it is anything but.

American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West

The history of the wolf in America is noble as well as bloody. European colonists and their descendants hunted the animals almost to extinction under the guise of protecting ranches and farm animals. Yellowstone National Park is one of the places where animal conservationists have brought back the wolf, but outside the park, antagonists still wait to legally hunt any animals that cross the border into their land. Blakeslee follows one of these wolves, telling the story of her and her family and in doing so, the story of the wolf in America.

Sprout lands: tending the endless gift of trees

The history of the human-tree relationship is a very long one and, since the dawn of the Industrial Age, has changed considerably. Once trees were used for so many everyday structures and processes that groves were held in common to be tended and harvested, while today they are mainly thought of by the city dweller as street and park decorations. Arborist William Bryant Logan must find out the old ways of pollarding trees when he gets a job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and so begins a deep journey into trees, how they have shaped humanity, and why this is still important today.