Book Review: The Gyroscope of Life

Gyroscopes are entertaining toys and incredibly useful tools. They retain their balance and resist changes to their orientation as long as their flywheel is spinning. As the flywheel slows or stops, the gyroscope wobbles out of control and ultimately quits. Considering their design and function, it’s easy to find parallels between gyroscopes and living systems. Consistent energy inputs keep living things alive. Changes can bring imbalance; major disruptions can lead to death. There is a reason we often describe the natural world as a sort of balancing act. It is the work of an ecologist to make sense of this balancing act. The better we understand it, the more equipped we are to protect it and operate responsibly within it.

It is through this lens that David Parrish writes about the biological world in The Gyroscope of Life, a book that Parrish refers to as “a love song to the field of biology.” Parrish has spent much of his life observing and studying the natural world and, as professor emeritus of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences at Virginia Tech, undoubtedly shared much of what he presents in his book with countless students over the years. The Gyroscope of Life reads like part memoir and part last lecture, and is the work of someone who has an obvious passion for science and nature.

Parrish spends the first few chapters of his book writing mostly about his life and how he came to be a biologist. He acknowledges his privelege – “born male, white, and American in an era where each of those attributes provided me major advantages” –  having essentially been placed on third base from the start, “well down the third base line.” An aspiring zoologist turned botanist, he spent his early years in graduate school studying seeds and seed dormancy. It’s a topic that obviously interests him, as several pages of the book are spent considering what’s going on inside of a seed. “Seeds provide the widest-spread examples of suspended life,”  Parrish says. Are they alive or dead or neither?

Two additional, major life events play a prominent role in the arc of Parrish’s book. One being his break from organized religion and the other his battle with advanced prostate cancer. He grew up in an orthodox Christian home with a very literal understanding of the Bible. His education put him at odds with what he was taught growing up about (among other things) the age of the earth and its creation. Eventually he came to understand that science and religion “exist in separate non-overlapping spheres – the physical and the metaphysical.” He doesn’t necessarily see science and religion as being inherently at odds with each other, but his understanding of science makes it difficult to “find resonance in religion” due to the “cacophony of dissonance” it offers.

In addressing his prostate cancer, Parrish underwent an operation that gave him a newfound perspective on gender. Freed from “testosterone poisoning,” he was able to more fully consider sex and gender from a biological perspective, which he says he had been doing for decades prior to the operation. He spends a good portion of the book “demystifying sex and gender.” One compelling example he offers involves avocado flowers, which actually change gender over time, a phenomenon known as synchronous dichogamy.

avocado flowers (Persea americana) via wikimedia commons

Over the course of its pages, The Gyroscope of Life covers a significant number of topics in the fields of biology and ecology. It’s a relatively short book, but as it careens through such wide-ranging material, it does so in an approachable and suprisingly succint manner. Parrish’s sense of humor, which doesn’t waver despite how bleak the discussion sometimes gets, helps carry the story along and keeps things interesting. Parrish covers evolution (“[Biologists] argue that, if evolution didn’t happen, it should.”), taxonomy (“the name for naming things”) and sytematics, ecological niches (“[humans] are essentially living niche-free and ecosystemless”), domestication, and so much more. The last chapter is spent discussing agroecosystems (“the organisms and abiotic environment that interact in a human-managed agricultural setting”), a topic he spent much of his career studying.

The underlying message of this book, as I see it, is a simultaneous celebration for life on earth and a concern for the direction things are going considering how humans have managed things. Parrish has some admonition for humans in light of how we’ve treated our home planet, but he isn’t too heavy-handed about it. Overall, reading the book felt like sitting in on a lecture given by a friendly and dynamic professor who has obviously given a lot of thought to what he has to say.

Check out the following video to see David Parrish describe the book in his own words.

More Book Reviews on Awkward Botany:

Book Review: Fruit from the Sands

“By dispensing plants and animals all around the world, humans have shaped global cuisines and agricultural practices. One of the most fascinating and least-discussed episodes in this process took place along the Silk Road.” — Fruit from the Sands by Robert N. Spengler III

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My understanding of the origins of agriculture and the early years of crop domestication are cursory at best. The education I received was mostly concerned with the Fertile Crescent, as well as crops domesticated by early Americans. The Silk Road, as I understood it, was the route or routes used to move goods across Asia and into eastern Europe well after the domestication of many of the crops we know today. Other than the fact that several important crops originate there, little was ever taught to me about Central Asia and its deep connection to agriculture and crop domestication. I suppose that’s why when I picked up Fruit from the Sands by Robert N. Spengler III, published last year by University of California Press, I wasn’t entirely prepared for what I was about to read.

It wasn’t until I read a few academic reviews of Fruit from the Sands that I really started to understand. Spengler’s book is groundbreaking, and much of the research he presents is relatively new. The people of Central Asia played a monumental role in discovering and developing much of the food we grow today and some of the techniques we use to grow them, and a more complete story is finally coming to light thanks to the work of archaeologists like Spengler, as well as advances in technology that help us make sense of their findings.

This long history with agricultural development can still be seen today in the markets of Central Asia, which are loaded with countless varieties of fruits, grains, and nuts, many of which are unique to the area. Yet this abundance is also at risk. Crop varieties are being lost at an alarming rate with the expansion of industrial agriculture and the reliance on a small selection of cultivars. With that comes the loss of local agricultural knowledge. Yet, with climate change looming, diversity in agriculture is increasingly important and one of the tools necessary for maintaining an abundant and reliable food supply. Unveiling a thorough history of our species’ agricultural roots will not only give us an understanding as to how we got here, but will also help us learn from past successes and failures. Hence, the work that Spengler and others in the field of archaeobotany are doing is crucial.

To set the stage for a discussion of “the Silk Road origins of the foods we eat,” Spengler offers his definition of the Silk Road. The term is misleading because there isn’t (and never was) a single road, and the goods, which were transported in all directions across Asia, included much more than silk. In fact, some of what was transported wasn’t a good at all, but knowledge, culture, and religion. In Spengler’s words, “The Silk Road … is better thought of as a dynamic cultural phenomenon, marked by increased mobility and interconnectivity in Eurasia, which linked far-flung cultures….This network of exchange, which placed Central Asia at the center of the ancient world, looked more like the spokes of a wheel than a straight road.” Spengler also sees the origins of the Silk Road going back at least five thousand years, much earlier than many might expect.

Most of Spengler’s book is organized into chapters discussing a single crop or group of crops, beginning with grains (millet, rice, barley, wheat) then moving on to fruits, nuts, and vegetables before ending with spices, oils, and teas. Each chapter compiles massive amounts of research that can be a bit overwhelming to take in all at once. Luckily each section includes a short summary, which nicely distills the information down into something more digestible.

Spengler’s chapter on broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum) is particularly powerful. While in today’s world millet has largely “been reduced to a children’s breakfast food in Russia and bird food in Western Europe and America,” it was “arguably the most influential crop of the ancient world.” Originally domesticated in East Asia, “it passed along the mountain foothills of Central Asia and into Europe by the second millennium BC.” It is a high-yielding crop adapted to hot, dry conditions that, with the development of summer irrigation, could be grown year-round. These and other appealing qualities have led to an increase in the popularity of millet, so much so that 2023 will be the International Year of Millets.

The “poster child” for Spengler’s book may very well be the apple. Popular the world over, the modern apple began its journey in Central Asia. As Spengler writes, “the true ancestor of the modern apple is Malus sieversii,” and “remnant populations of wild apple trees survive in southeastern Kazakhstan today.” As the trees were brought westward, they hybridized with other wild apple species, bringing rise to the incredible diversity of apple cultivars we know today. Sadly though, most of us are only familiar with the small handful of common varieties found at our local supermarkets.

Of course, as Spengler says, “No discussion of plants on the Silk Road would be complete without the inclusion of tea (Camellia sinensis),” a topic that could produce volumes on its own. Despite the brevity of the section on tea, Spengler has some interesting things to say. One in particular involves the transport of tea to Tibet in the seventh century, where “an unquenchable thirst for tea” had developed. But the journey there was long and difficult. Fermented and oxidized tea leaves traveled best. Along the way, “the leaves were exposed to extreme cold as well as hot and humid temperatures in the lowlands, and all the time they were jostled on the backs of sweaty horses and mules.” This, however, only improved the tea, as teas exposed to such conditions “became a highly sought-after commodity among the elites.”

“In Central Asia, Mongolia, and Tibet, tea leaves were oxidized, dried, and compressed into hard bricks from which chunks could be broken off and immersed in water.” – Robert N. Spengler III in Fruit from the Sands (photo via wikimedia commons)

As dense as this book is, it’s also quite approachable. The information presented in each of the chapters is thorough enough to be textbook material, but Spengler does such a nice job summing up the main points, that there are plenty of great takeaways for the casual reader. For those wanting a deeper dive into the history of our food (which in many ways is the history of us), Spengler’s book is an excellent starting point.

More Reviews of Fruit from the Sands:

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Book Review: A Feast of Weeds

Since I am planning on eating more weeds, it seems appropriate that I review this book. Not to be confused with Feast of Weeds, a series of apocalyptic novels about a world-ending plague, A Feast of Weeds, by Luigi Ballerini is tangentially about foraging and cooking wild, edible plants. I say “tangentially” because it’s not like other foraging guides. This is a “literary guide,” as the subtitle states, so in the place of plant descriptions and harvesting tips, etc. are verbose and erudite essays summarizing the various literary references that each of the species profiled has accumulated from antiquity to the modern era. Apart from dozens of recipes, the information presented in this book is more entertaining than it is practical; however, when telling the stories of plants, the human element is an important facet – particularly in the stories of edible and medicinal plants – and it is the human element that this book is concerned with.

Ballerini is an Italian poet, a cooking historian, and a professor of Italian literature at UCLA. The 31 plant species he chose to profile can all be foraged in Italy (most of them in one specific region), and all except for maybe capers can be found somewhere in the United States. The majority of the plants in this book are commonly cultivated as crops, ornamentals, or landscape plants – few are truly weeds – but all of them can be found growing wild somewhere. And that’s one of Ballerini’s main points – wild food and the act of foraging is a very different experience from farmed food and the act of buying it at the grocery store. Take arugula for example:

Try making a salad with arugula that you have gathered yourself in a field and compare its taste with what you have made a hundred times with pre-washed and sterilized arugula bought at the supermarket or even at a farmers’ market. It’s easy to predict the comment that will immediately come to your lips: ‘There’s no comparison.’

A selection of recipes accompanies each of the plants that Ballerini writes about. These recipes were “invented or elaborated” by Ada De Santis, who lives on a farm in the “heel of Italy” and who “enthusiastically agreed to divulge the secrets of her kitchen.” Ballerini partnered with De Santis because of her Italian ancestry and her vast experience with both wild and cultivated plants.

Each chapter in the book follows the same basic format: a discussion of the myriad references a certain plant has received in various writings throughout human history, an overview of the (often bizarre) medicinal uses the plant has had throughout the centuries, and a brief statement on when to harvest the plant. References include plays, poems, songs, myths, fiction and non-fiction, religious and sacred texts, medicinal plant guides, and even artwork. Reading through the book, my interest and attention waned often, partly due to Ballerini’s way of writing and also due to my lack of familiarity (and lack of interest, frankly) with the references. But there were enough interesting bits here and there that made it worth the effort.

common mallow (Malva neglecta )

Of course, my interest was mainly held by the chapters about the weeds. Apparently, mallow (Malva spp.) has been written about prolifically, leading Ballerini to write, “the history of mallow is complex and contradictory, rich in illustrious testimony but, given its effects, not always very noble.” Like other plants in the book, the medicinal uses for mallow have been so numerous that it could be considered “a true cure-all,” if in fact it truly treated all the things it has been claimed to treat. On a humorous note, Ballerini writes in the chapter on wild fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), “we have come to understand … if a plant is good for you, it is good for nearly everything – but particularly for snakebite.”

Ballerini especially enjoys sharing odd medical claims, like in the chapter about sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus), in which Nicholas Culpepper promoted some interesting uses for its juice. Purportedly, bringing it to a boil or “warming it in some bitter almond oil inside the skin of a pomegranate is a sure remedy for deafness and tinnitus.” The medicinal uses of wild chicory (Cichorium intybus) are “as old as the hills,” with a medical papyri from ancient Egypt (circa 1550 B.C.) referencing its medicinal uses among “magic formulas and spells for driving away evil-intentioned demons.”

sow thistle (Sonchus sp.)

A couple of paragraphs about dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) find their way into the chapter about wild chicory. The rosettes of these two plants look similar, and the roots of both, when “roasted and ground, can be used as a substitute for coffee.” Dandelion is also known to be a diuretic, and is thus referred to as pisciailetto in Italy, pissenlit in France, and piss-a-beds in England.

Speaking of the names of things, how things came to be called what they are is a topic that Ballerini addresses frequently throughout the book. However, such origins aren’t always clear. In the chapter on wild raspberries (Rubus idaeus), Ballerini reflects on the “general uncertainty regarding the origin of the English term raspberry.” Does it originate from the Old French word rasper, the Spanish word raspar, and the Italian word raspare, all of which mean to rasp or to scrape? Ballerini laments, “this introduces very unpleasant connotations for such a delicate fruit (yet there are those who, when faced with roses always think of thorns).”

While the bulk of this book is of little use to me – I guess I’m just not that interested in classic literature or mythology – it’s worth keeping around for the recipes alone, several of which I am anxious to try. If the idea of an unconventional field guide appeals to you, this book might be up your alley, just as it apparently was for this reviewer.

Additional Book Reviews on Awkward Botany:

2015: Year in Review

Raise your glass. 2015 has come to a close, and Awkward Botany is turning three. Two great reasons to celebrate.

I started the year with the goal of posting at least once per week. Consider that goal accomplished, with a couple of bonus posts thrown in for good measure. I had also deemed 2015 the “Year of Pollination.” The underlying purpose was to teach myself more about pollinators and pollination while also sharing my interest in pollination biology with the wider world. That endeavor yielded 17 posts. There is still so much to learn, but we are making some headway. I started two new series of posts (Poisonous Plants and Botany in Popular Culture) and I continued with two others (Ethnobotany and Drought Tolerant Plants). I also went on a couple of field trips and wrote a few book reviews. All of that is reflected below in “Table of Contents” fashion.

Year of Pollination:

Botany in Popular Culture

Poisonous Plants

Ethnobotany

Drought Tolerant Plants

Book Reviews

Field Trips

Three posts that perhaps didn’t get the attention they deserve:

juniper in the snow

Going forward, I will continue to post regularly – as there is no shortage of plant-related things to write about – but I will likely take a week off here and there. I have other projects in mind – some related to Awkward Botany, some not – that will certainly demand much of my attention and time. I have some big ideas for Awkward Botany and beyond, and I will share those with the wide world in due time. For now, I would just like to say thanks all for reading, for commenting, and for sharing Awkward Botany with your friends. Overall, it has been a great year here at Awkward Botany headquarters, and I have you to thank for that. I feel privileged to be part of a community that is infatuated with plants and is fascinated by the natural world.

Good riddance to 2015. It was good, but it gets better. Now we look ahead to 2016. May it be filled with peace, love, and botany.