An appreciative, environmentally sound reminder of how trees benefit and cultivate life on Earth.


A lifelong nature lover explores the versatility of the ash tree.

Journalist and avid cyclist Penn (It’s All about the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels, 2011) grew up beneath the shadows of an ash tree and developed an uncanny connection to it: “the gatekeeper to my dreams.” In adulthood, the author lives in a small woodland area in the Black Mountains in Wales, where the ancient, self-propagating ash stands as the third most common broad-leaved variety. Penn celebrates the ash’s usefulness as the building block for ladders, flooring, crutches, shovel handles, and a wide range of furniture; its leaves are also medicinal for humans and nutritious for livestock. Noting how it is supremely practical yet historically undervalued and “reduced in our minds today to a material you burn,” the author comprehensively acknowledges the ash through diligent research, examples of the tree’s historical and social significance, and a series of interviews with master artisans. Penn provides profiles of village craftsmen who use and respect this particular species, including a bowyer, bowl-turner, Austrian toboggan maker, baseball bat manufacturers, and, most fascinatingly, a wheelwright. The author also oversaw the professional felling of a nearby ash in order to execute a “zero-waste policy” in his discovery of how many uses could be achieved from a single tree. Infrequently but no less interestingly, Penn also touches on the more intimate relationship he shares with trees and nature; he regularly enjoys the healing, stress-relieving, and spiritual properties of “forest bathing” (strolling among old growth woodlands), something which soothed the grief of his father’s sudden passing. By the conclusion of his project, Penn found 44 uses for the ash he’d felled. With an arborist mindset and smooth, poetic prose, the author reflects on the usefulness and the living splendor of trees, which he believes “summon us to witness nature; they are closest to its heart.”

An appreciative, environmentally sound reminder of how trees benefit and cultivate life on Earth.

Pub Date: July 26, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-393-25373-3

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 4, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2016

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The book is not entirely negative; final chapters indicate roads of reversal, before it is too late!


It should come as no surprise that the gifted author of The Sea Around Us and its successors can take another branch of science—that phase of biology indicated by the term ecology—and bring it so sharply into focus that any intelligent layman can understand what she is talking about.

Understand, yes, and shudder, for she has drawn a living portrait of what is happening to this balance nature has decreed in the science of life—and what man is doing (and has done) to destroy it and create a science of death. Death to our birds, to fish, to wild creatures of the woods—and, to a degree as yet undetermined, to man himself. World War II hastened the program by releasing lethal chemicals for destruction of insects that threatened man’s health and comfort, vegetation that needed quick disposal. The war against insects had been under way before, but the methods were relatively harmless to other than the insects under attack; the products non-chemical, sometimes even introduction of other insects, enemies of the ones under attack. But with chemicals—increasingly stronger, more potent, more varied, more dangerous—new chain reactions have set in. And ironically, the insects are winning the war, setting up immunities, and re-emerging, their natural enemies destroyed. The peril does not stop here. Waters, even to the underground water tables, are contaminated; soils are poisoned. The birds consume the poisons in their insect and earthworm diet; the cattle, in their fodder; the fish, in the waters and the food those waters provide. And humans? They drink the milk, eat the vegetables, the fish, the poultry. There is enough evidence to point to the far-reaching effects; but this is only the beginning,—in cancer, in liver disorders, in radiation perils…This is the horrifying story. It needed to be told—and by a scientist with a rare gift of communication and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Already the articles taken from the book for publication in The New Yorker are being widely discussed. Book-of-the-Month distribution in October will spread the message yet more widely.

The book is not entirely negative; final chapters indicate roads of reversal, before it is too late!  

Pub Date: Sept. 27, 1962

ISBN: 061825305X

Page Count: 378

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1962

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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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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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