The Blue Plateau

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A review by Carolyn Servid, from
Writing Nature 2010

The Blue Plateau: An Australian Pastoral by Mark Tredinnick

This book is an exquisitely crafted tapestry of an extraordinary landscape and a few dozen characters who are shaped by it. The Australian edition’s subtitle, A Landscape Memoir, is more telling. Mark Tredinnick has evocatively captured a place, its geological history, and its profound role in human lives rooted in it. Australia’s Blue Plateau was Tredinnick’s home at a significant time in his life. The place itself commands his respect and love, and both of those deepen as he comes to know the plateau, its steep valleys and its sometimes-trickling-sometimes-raging rivers through the eyes and lives and stories of the book’s cast of characters: generations of long-time settlers who wear the landscape like their own clothes; others learning and making their way; still others lost to the country’s wildness. Most striking is Tredinnick’s lyrical prose — not only his painterly descriptions and his telling of stories, but his refections on the language of landscape, how it can shape our hearts, our very being.

Thanks to Carolyn Servid for steering us to a beautifully written study of landscape from down under. The Land Library can also recommend these well-crafted works by Mark Tredinnick:

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The Land’s Wild Music: Encounters with Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiessen, Terry Tempest Williams, and James Galvin, A Place on Earth: An Anthology of Nature Writing from North America and Australia, plus Writing Well: The Essential Guide (not pictured).

For more book recommendations (plus a whole lot more), take a look at Writing Nature 2010!

A Natural History of North American Trees

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You come home after a good day in the field, pantlegs smelling of sage, cradling a cluster of needles still in their sheath. A field guide supplied you a genus and species under the noonday sun. Now Donald Curloss Peattie’s masterful study can take you the next step and root you in a tree’s particular natural history, especially its niche in the cultural history of a region.
For each tree, Peattie gives us a concise list of vital features, followed by a more wide-ranging essay. It’s clear that he not only knows a tree’s length and breadth, but also its sensual delights. And last, but not least, in one of the most inspired pairings of authors and illustrators, Paul Landacre’s bold scratchboard etchings puts this work in a class by itself!

pictured above: A Natural History of North American Trees (the most recent single-volume edition of Donald Curloss Peattie’s original two volume set), and one of the original volumes from that set, A Natural History of Western Trees.

And here’s a typical page from Peattie & Landacre’s classic work:

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It was a perfect collaboration, the words of Donald Curloss Peattie and the bold imagery of Paul Landacre:

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Black Walnut Juglans nigra

Neglected Histories, Moral Uncertainty, & the Harvesting of the West

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This is what Ivan Doig had to say about Mark Wyman’s new book Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West:
This profoundly researched book is itself a rich harvest, bringing to life forgotten workers of the field and forest in the days of riding the rails. Mark Wyman has mastered the epic of an America unable to do without migrant laborers but often morally unsure what to do with them, a story that goes on to this day.

Farms followed the railroads west, making way for Kansas wheat, Colorado sugar beets, and Washington apples. But with this new agriculture came the need for harvest workers. Mark Wyman: Later scholars would define them as “agricultural nomads” …. They often carried a rolled-up blanket known variously as a bundle or “bindle” — hence their nickname, “bindlestiffs.: And they were also called “hoboes,” “fruit tramps,” “harvest gypsies,” “floaters,” “transients,” “drift-ins,” “apple glommers,” “almond knockers,” “and “sugar tramps.”

Whatever their name, Mark Wyman tells the migrant worker’s story with real insight and sensitivity, laying the groundwork for future harvests ahead — from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath to Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers Movement.

The Land Library has hundreds of books on farms & farmworkers in the West, and here’s just a few that cast more light on Mark Wyman’s Hoboes:

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The Harvest Gypsies by John Steinbeck, Bull Threshers & Bindlestiffs: Harvesting & Threshing on the North American Plains by Thomas D. Isern

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Irrigated Eden: The Making of an Agricultural Landscape in the American West by Mark Fiege, The Likes of Us: Photography and the Farm Security Administration by Stu Cohen

The Poetry of Birds

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Thanks to the generosity (and imagination!) of a Land Library supporter, a few times each year we receive a shipment from an English bookseller. As you can imagine, we’re always excited to open a well-traveled box of new and used books, containing treasures we have never before seen, this side of the Atlantic.

More on these deliveries in a later post, but as National Poetry Month winds down, we wanted to sing the praises of one very special book from the UK — The Poetry of Birds, edited by Simon Armitage and Tim Dee. What a wonderful anthology!

The editors have arranged their collection by bird type, not poet. There’s Sylvia Plath on the shrike, Elizabeth Bishop on the sandpiper, Robinson Jeffers on hawks, John Ashberry on orioles, W.S. Merwin on crows, Edward Thomas on lapwings, Kathleen Jamie on the dipper, and Wallace Stevens on the red-winged blackbird. There’s certainly a wide range of birds written about in this 384-page collection, and just of few of the other featured poets include Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Charles Simic, Marianne Moore, Paul Muldoon, Alice Oswald, John Clare, Dylan Thomas, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and many, many more.

And here’s a very fun link to The Guardian, which lists Simon Armitage and Tim Dee’s Top 10 Bird Poems, starting with Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Windhover: ” a poem that enacts as well as describes, as if Hopkins were channelling a kestrel hovering 100 feet up in the wind; it is mind-blowing no matter how many times you read it.

The Wolverine Way

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It’s always a fun occasion at the Land Library when a new Douglas Chadwick book arrives. Douglas is a wildlife biologist who has studied mountain goats and grizzlies in the Rockies, elephants in Africa, and whales in the world’s oceans. Each book (shown below) is inspired by Chadwick’s long-term field studies — and his latest is no exception.
The Wolverine Way is largely based on the ongoing northern Montana Glacier Wolverine Project, and it’s the only book-length natural history of this elusive creature that we know of. As usual, Chadwick’s writing is quite timely, as the wolverine’s future is in doubt, due to global warming and habitat change. H. Emerson Blake, editor of Orion magazine writes: “Is there an animal that embodies the spirit of wildness more than the wolverine? Chadwick’s account of these remarkable creatures and the people who study them expresses the environmental crossroads that wolverines — and all of us — stand at.

And here’s a few of Douglas Chadwick’s earlier works — all classic field studies!

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The Fate of Elephants, True Grizz, The Grandest of Lives: Eye to Eye with Whales, A Beast the Color of Winter: The Mountain Goat Observed

Altered States

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These are the Altered States of America, if we had only been visionary, and wacky enough to see it through. Michael Trinklein has just written a wonderful imaginary cartography based on hundreds of actual statehood proposals that never came to pass.

Here’s an A-Z of just a few lands-that-never-were, from Michael Trinklein’s Lost States: True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States that Never Made it: Absaroka, Acadia, Chippewa, Jacinto, New Sweden, Nickajack, Rio Rico, Sequoyah, Shasta, Vandalia, Wyoming (no, not the one you know), and Yazoo.

The loss of Yazoo is especially tragic, Because I think I well might have become Governor of Yazoo. The twists of fate and geography…

and here’s a few more books on our quirky borders, from the Land Library’s cartography shelves:

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The Fabric of America: How Our Borders and Boundaries Shaped the Country and Forged Our National Identity by Andro Linklater, How the States Got Their Shapes by Mark Stein, Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States by George R. Stewart, and Arc of the Medicine Line: Mapping the World’s Longest Undefined Border Across the Western Plains by Tony Rees.

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A Parallel Universe

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From a cover that looks like a 1950’s B-movie poster, to Mark Moffett’s amazing photos and very fun text, Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions is the box-office hit of the week at the Land Library. Moffett is a quirky combination of photographer, biologist, and explorer. To confuse matters even more, he has been called the Indiana Jones of entomology, and also the Jane Goodall of ants! Field biologist and author Bernd Heinrich had this to say about Mark’s book: “Think you know all about ants? Think again, and take it from Mark W. Moffett, who has traveled all over the world to study them. The world of ants seems to be a parallel universe to our own. It’s rife with warfare, terrorism, traffic jams, and highway infrastructure. A stimulating read, with stunning photography.”

To learn more about Mark’s work and the world of ants be sure to visit the Smithsonian Institution’s AntLab — it’s a great site.

pictured above: larvae and adult bulldog ant

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pictured here: Leafcutter ants, carpenter ant

Giving Voice to Ludlow

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April is National Poetry Month, and in the next few weeks, we will feature some of our favorite poetry books, all pulled from what has become one of the Land Library’s strongest sections.

Colorado poet David Mason was just featured on the PBS Newshour Arts Beat page. David is the author of Ludlow, a novel in verse that tells the story of a handful of immigrant families — Greek, Mexican, Scottish, Italian — in the southern Colorado coalfields, climaxing in the infamous Ludlow massacre of April 1914. You can click on the Art Beat page to hear David Mason read a passage from Ludlow.

pictured above: Ludlow: a Verse-Novel by David Mason, the original cover art of The Masses for “The Class War in Colorado” report, Buried Unsung: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre by Zeese Papanikolas.

The Land Library has several other titles on the Ludlow Massacre, the Colorado coalfields, and labor strife in the West (such as our recent posts on Cesar Chavez & the United Farm Workers Union). Here’s just a few:
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Trembling in the Bones, poems by Eleanor Swanson, Killing for Coal: Americas’s Deadliest Labor War by Thomas Alexander, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West by Scott Martelle.

The Perfect Blend of Pancakes & Paleontology

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You never know who you’ll come across along the Fossil Freeway:

Kirk Johnson is the chief curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and one of the world’s leading paleobotanists. Ray Troll’s art has been exhibited across the globe. Put them together and you have — well, actually, I’m not sure what you have, but science has never been as much fun as this!
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All points bulletin: artist Ray Troll & paleontologist Kirk Johnson, authors of Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway: An Epoch Tale of a Scientist and an Artist on the Ultimate 5,000 Mile Paleo Road Trip.

and, the Land Library strongly recommends these titles as well:

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Prehistoric Journey by Kirk Johnson, Rapture of the Deep: The Art of Ray Troll, Planet Ocean: Dancing to the Fossil Record by Brad Matsen & Ray Troll

for more information on Ray Troll’s work, and to order books, cards, t-shirts, posters, and more, be sure to visit his website, where you can also order a wall-size map inspired by Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway (a detail of the map is below).

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Child’s Play, Bush Houses & More

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Earlier in the week, as we sang the praises of The Field Guide to Fields, we thought more about the power of nearby landscapes, especially in the life of a child. All of this reminded us of one of the Land Library’s favorite quotes:

…the places children like best for play are the secret places where no one else goes….the peaks of a child’s experience are not visits to a cinema, or even family outings to the sea, but occasions when he escapes into places that are disused and overgrown and silent. To a child there is more joy in a rubbish heap than a flowery rockery, in a fallen tree than a piece of statuary, in a muddy track than a gravel path.” — Iona & Peter Opie

Very much in keeping with the Opie quote are two books from our Waterton Canyon Kids Library: In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids’ Inner Wildness by Chris Mercogliano, and David Sobel’s classic book Children’s Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts, Dens, and Bush Houses in Middle Childhood. May every child have a bush house in their life!

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When the Opies write about a secret place disused and silent, they definitely could be describing the imaginary town that’s the subject of Alice McLerran & Barbara Cooney’s picture book Roxaboxen (pictured above). To the adult eye, Roxaboxen was a rubble strewn hilltop, but to a child this was a magic place where imagination was let out the door. They line the “streets” with white stones and broken glass, and use pebbles for their currency. This is a classic book that captures a children’s innate ability to infuse their environment with meaning, fun, and excitement.

and here’s three more titles that will keep your sense of wonder alive, no matter how old you are:
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I Love Dirt! 52 Activities to Help You & Your Kids Discover the Wonders of Nature by Jennifer Ward, Natural History of Vacant Lots by Matthew Vessel & Herbert Wong, and A Natural Sense of Wonder: Connecting Kids with Nature through the Seasons by Rick Van Noy