Inspires new respect for weeds—and life. (Illustrations)

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SEED TO SEED

THE SECRET LIFE OF PLANTS

A scientist discovers a world of wonder in a graveyard weed.

Nearing 50 and feeling directionless in his research, leading British plant geneticist Harberd (Biological Sciences/Univ. of East Anglia) stole away from the routine of academic science at the noted John Innes Centre to rekindle his sense of wonder outdoors. In St. Mary’s churchyard in Norfolk, he observed over a yearlong period the life of the thale-cross plant. “It’s just a weed, we’ve got plenty of them in the garden at home,” remarked his young son. This exquisitely detailed journal—at once rigorously scientific and yet bordering on the mystical—belies that statement. The author recounts the many stories a weed can tell as it grows, flowers, faces threats (first a slug, then apparently a rabbit) and is finally destroyed by a mourner weeding at graveside. Because the plant was in the world (rather than isolated in the lab), Harberd found new ways of seeing its growth, death and regeneration, all of which depended on “connectivity” to the earth and sun. While cycling from home to his beloved churchyard, working in the lab, attending concerts or traveling on business and holiday, the author muses on nature, memory, life and death. His written-on-the-run observations eventually helped break his “scientist’s block” and left the hardheaded DNA expert with a newfound, quasi-religious reverence for the oneness of life: “Music, landscape, life, all connected.” Although Harberd’s intended reader is the nonscientist, some passages are daunting. Those with the patience to stick with him will be rewarded by fascinating glimpses of a first-rate scientific mind at play. Most refreshing is the author’s candor about the imperfections of science: its starts and stops; the gap between separating and classifying things in the lab, and the wholeness and harmony of nature in the field.

Inspires new respect for weeds—and life. (Illustrations)

Pub Date: May 2, 2006

ISBN: 1-58234-413-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2006

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Whether you call this a personal story or nature writing, it’s poignant, thoughtful and moving—and likely to become a...

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H IS FOR HAWK

An inspired, beautiful and absorbing account of a woman battling grief—with a goshawk.

Following the sudden death of her father, Macdonald (History and Philosophy/Cambridge Univ.; Falcon, 2006, etc.) tried staving off deep depression with a unique form of personal therapy: the purchase and training of an English goshawk, which she named Mabel. Although a trained falconer, the author chose a raptor both unfamiliar and unpredictable, a creature of mad confidence that became a means of working against madness. “The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life,” she writes. As a devotee of birds of prey since girlhood, Macdonald knew the legends and the literature, particularly the cautionary example of The Once and Future King author T.H. White, whose 1951 book The Goshawk details his own painful battle to master his title subject. Macdonald dramatically parallels her own story with White’s, achieving a remarkable imaginative sympathy with the writer, a lonely, tormented homosexual fighting his own sadomasochistic demons. Even as she was learning from White’s mistakes, she found herself very much in his shoes, watching her life fall apart as the painfully slow bonding process with Mabel took over. Just how much do animals and humans have in common? The more Macdonald got to know her, the more Mabel confounded her notions about what the species was supposed to represent. Is a hawk a symbol of might or independence, or is that just our attempt to remake the animal world in our own image? Writing with breathless urgency that only rarely skirts the melodramatic, Macdonald broadens her scope well beyond herself to focus on the antagonism between people and the environment.

Whether you call this a personal story or nature writing, it’s poignant, thoughtful and moving—and likely to become a classic in either genre.

Pub Date: March 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0802123411

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2014

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An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.

THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY OF PLANTS

A neurobiologist reveals the interconnectedness of the natural world through stories of plant migration.

In this slim but well-packed book, Mancuso (Plant Science/Univ. of Florence; The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior, 2018, etc.) presents an illuminating and surprisingly lively study of plant life. He smoothly balances expansive historical exploration with recent scientific research through stories of how various plant species are capable of migrating to locations throughout the world by means of air, water, and even via animals. They often continue to thrive in spite of dire obstacles and environments. One example is the response of plants following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Three decades later, the abandoned “Exclusion Zone” is now entirely covered by an enormous assortment of thriving plants. Mancuso also tracks the journeys of several species that might be regarded as invasive. “Why…do we insist on labeling as ‘invasive’ all those plants that, with great success, have managed to occupy new territories?” asks the author. “On a closer look, the invasive plants of today are the native flora of the future, just as the invasive species of the past are a fundamental part of our ecosystem today.” Throughout, Mancuso persuasively articulates why an understanding and appreciation of how nature is interconnected is vital to the future of our planet. “In nature everything is connected,” he writes. “This simple law that humans don’t seem to understand has a corollary: the extinction of a species, besides being a calamity in and of itself, has unforeseeable consequences for the system to which the species belongs.” The book is not without flaws. The loosely imagined watercolor renderings are vague and fail to effectively complement Mancuso’s richly descriptive prose or satisfy readers’ curiosity. Even without actual photos and maps, it would have been beneficial to readers to include more finely detailed plant and map renderings.

An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-63542-991-6

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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