Book Review: The New Wild

What if we were to look at invasive species with fresh eyes? Traditionally we have viewed them as interlopers hellbent on environmental destruction, but have we considered the good they can do? Should our efforts to eradicate them be tempered – eliminating them when it seems absolutely necessary, but accepting them when they are doing some good; welcoming them when they have something to offer. What does their presence mean anyway? What does it say about the ecosystems they inhabit and about us? Invasive species are convenient scapegoats, taking the blame for much of the ecological devastation that we started in the first place. Is that justified?

This is, essentially, the theme of The New Wild, a book by Fred Pearce that urges us to reconsider the ways we think, talk, and act towards invasive species. More than that, it is about dumping the idea that pristine nature (a mythological concept anyway, and one that is not all that useful) is the only true wild, and that nature invaded by alien species is a lesser thing that needs to be fixed. The truth is, nature is and always has been in a constant state of flux, and it is unconcerned about the provenance of the species that compose it. As Pearce puts it, if it’s doing “a useful job,” “it matters not a jot where a species comes from.”

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Invasion biology is a relatively new field of study, stemming from the publishing of Charles Elton’s book, The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants, in 1958. For thousands of years, humans have had a hand in moving species of all kinds around the planet, but it was in the latter half of the 20th century that our awareness of the ecological damage that some of these species can do really developed. Since then we have made great efforts to remove such species and put things back the way we found them. The zeal with which we have done so hasn’t always been justified or effective, and throughout what at times has felt like an all out war against foreigners, a profound sense of animosity and suspicion towards anything non-native has taken root in our psyche.

Pearce hopes to mitigate these feelings and get us to reconsider some of our actions. To start with, he calls into question the distinction between aliens and natives: “A broad time horizon shows there is no such thing as a native species. All lodgings are temporary and all ecosystems in a constant flux, the victims of circumstance and geological accident.” Also, “many aliens are so well integrated that they are assumed to be native,” and “species come and go so much, as a result of both human and natural forces, that conventional hard distinctions about what belongs where have long been all but meaningless.”

Instead of judging a species by its provenance, “we should treat species on their merits and learn a little tolerance and respect for foreigners.” While “being alien can sometimes be problematic,” it can equally result in the renewal of “flagging ecosystems, creating new space for natives and providing ecosystem services.” Seeing that those services are in place is what should really matter, and “[ecological services] are best done by the species on hand that do it best.” After all, nature is not a system of “preordained perfection,” but instead “a workable mishmash of species, constantly reorganized by the throw of the dice.”

In his criticisms of the field of invasion biology, Pearce investigates some of the “constantly recycled ‘facts’ about alien species.” He finds many of the claims to be unfounded and oft-repeated statistics to be blatant misrepresentations of the original studies. He concludes that “some of the most widely used statistics in the canon of invasion biology do not stand up.” To support his point, he offers several examples of how alien species have added to the biodiversity in certain ecosystems and he shares stories that “show how we instinctively blame aliens for ecological problems that may have a lot more to do with our own treatment of nature.”

Immigrant Killers by Carolyn King, one of many books making a case for the war on alien species.

Immigrant Killers by Carolyn King, one of many books published in the past few decades that makes the case for waging war on alien species.

In so many words, Pearce’s stance is that the classic “aliens are bad, and natives are good” approach is outdated – “nature doesn’t care about conservationists’ artificial divide between urban and rural or between native and alien species,” which means that our perception of aliens should shift from being “part of the problem to part of the solution.” Abandoned farmlands, secondary forests, recolonized waste places, urban sprawl, and other novel ecosystems across the globe offer explicit examples of species from all backgrounds coming together to create functional habitats. This is the new wild.

Pearce is not advocating that we throw in the towel and let invasive species run rampant: “It would be foolish to claim that alien species never do any harm or that efforts to uproot them are always doomed to fail.” His support for the new wild is “not a call to let it rip.” Instead, “conservation in the twenty-first century requires an open-minded assessment of what might work – not a sullen retreat into blinkered orthodoxy.” So, rather than try to stop the flux of nature (an act that is decidedly “anti-nature”), let’s see where it goes, alien species and all; and when we do decide to beat back invasives and intervene “to preserve what we like,” we should be mindful that nature may be “traveling in a different direction.” As Pearce writes, “the new wild is flourishing, and it will do better if we allow it to have its head.”

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Obviously this is a controversial topic, but the ideas in this book are worth exploring further. Pearce’s notes are extensive, and I intend to read through many of his resources. Stay tuned for more posts. Meanwhile, you can listen to an interview with Pearce on this episode of Talking Plants. For a more critical veiw of Pearce’s book, check out these reviews by Los Angeles Review of Books and The EEB & Flow.

 

2016: Year in Review

2016 was another busy year at Awkward Botany headquarters. A major highlight was the response I received from the Help Wanted announcement that I posted early last year. Several people expressed interest in writing guest posts, while several others volunteered to help out in other ways (contributing images, illustrations, logos, etc.). The offer still stands, so please be in touch if you would like to contribute in any way.

Speaking of being in touch, the comments I’ve received and the connections I’ve made through social media and beyond really add to the experience of doing this blog. Not only does it make this more of a conversation, but it is greatly motivating to know that people find this to be a valuable and entertaining resource. Thank you to all who have reached out. And thanks to silent observers as well. Let’s stay in touch.

As I have done in the past, I am including a list of some of the posts from this past year, mainly those that are part of ongoing series. Many posts don’t fall within these categories, so all others can be found in the ‘Archives’ widget on the right side of the screen.

Book Reviews:

Poisonous Plants:

Famous Botanists in History:

Drought Tolerant Plants:

Field Trips:

Ethnobotany:

Botany in Popular Culture:

Tiny Plants:

Rare and Endangered Plants

Podcast Review:

Guest Posts:

What Is a Plant, and Why Should I Care? part one, part two, part three, part four

Along with the great guest posts, I also received Awkward Botany logos from three incredible artists/graphic designers. I loved them all, and I am very thankful for the time and talent that was spent creating them. The logos are featured below. In order of appearance they were created by Franz Anthony, Mesquite Cervino, and Mara McCall. If you have an idea for an Awkward Botany logo, please let me know. I would love to see it.

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And now a heads up…

In the coming months I plan to focus most of my posts on “weeds” and invasive species. These are topics that I have found increasingly intriguing, so I am hoping that writing a long series of posts about them will help satisfy my curiosity. This may or may not be your thing, but I hope you will stick around regardless. I plan to continue to include some guest posts, which will hopefully help break up the monotony. Also, I know I said this last year and it didn’t actually happen, but I will most likely be taking some breaks from my weekly publishing schedule in order to work on some other projects. Those projects and more will be revealed at some point in time, along with other ideas I have rolling around in my head. If the thought of me taking breaks from posting here bothers you, I invite you to join me on twitter and tumblr, where I will continue to post random things regularly.

Until then, I wish you all a splendid 2017. It should be an interesting one, so buckle up.

Yucca in the snow at Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho

Yucca in the snow at Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho

Children’s Books About Evolution

Evolution is a difficult subject to learn, let alone teach. Because evolution is generally such a slow process, it involves a timeline that is challenging for us to comprehend. Evolution is also commonly misunderstood, so misconceptions abound, be they purposeful misrepresentations, gaps in understanding, or otherwise. Wrapping one’s brain around even the basic tenets of evolution can take years of study, yet it is one of the most fundamental concepts of biology; failing to understand it stifles one’s knowledge of and appreciation for the study of life on Earth. On the flipside, gaining an understanding of the workings of evolution can inspire a greater appreciation for our place in the universe and can instill in oneself the urgency of conservation.

Despite being a tough subject to grasp, there is no reason why children should be exempt from learning about it. However, because it is such a complex topic, adults can struggle to find ways to explain it. Luckily, there are some great children’s books about evolution that introduce the subject in basic ways. These books are good starting points and can help cultivate a desire to explore the topic further. Understanding evolution and the science surrounding our world and the broader universe is a lifelong pursuit. Children will benefit from a head start.

What follows are reviews of a handful of books that may be useful in teaching kids about the theory of evolution.

I Used to Be a Fish by Tom Sullivan

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This book is an excellent place to start. It is a quick and easy read, and it introduces – in a very simple way – the evolutionary lineage of humans. It doubles as a lesson on evolution and, as Sullivan puts it, “a tribute to every child’s power to transform their lives and to dream big,” which is achieved by highlighting the imagination of the main character and defining evolution as the gradual development over a lifetime towards achieving goals and aspirations.

In the Author’s Note, Sullivan briefly explains some important aspects of evolution: it is “a very slow process” that “occurs over generations to entire populations of creatures,” it doesn’t occur in a straight line like the book implies but instead looks “more like a tree with many complicated branches,” and “it doesn’t happen because a creature wants it to.”

One step in our evolutionary lineage as depicted in I Used to Be a Fish by Tom Sullivan

One step in our evolutionary lineage as depicted in I Used to Be a Fish by Tom Sullivan

Life history

Timeline from I Used to Be a Fish by Tom Sullivan. Look how far we’ve come!

Grandmother Fish by Jonathan Tweet; illustrated by Karen Lewis

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This book is similar to Sullivan’s book, but it adds a little more detail to the story and invites interaction from its audience. As major periods in our evolutionary lineage are reached, readers are asked to “wiggle” like our Grandmother Fish, “crawl” like our Grandmother Reptile, “squeak” like our Grandmother Mammal, “hoot” like our Grandmother Ape, and so on. As the story transitions from one main character to another, simplified versions of evolutionary trees are shown (like the one below).

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A larger version of “Our Evolutionary Family Tree” is featured at the end of the story followed by several pages of additional information that adults can use to further explain evolution to children, including discussions on three major concepts of evolution (descent with modification, artificial selection, and natural selection), more details on the main characters in the book, and a guide to correcting common errors about evolution.

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When Fish Got Feet, Sharks Got Teeth, and Bugs Began to Swarm by Hannah Bonner

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This book is much more text heavy than the first two, but is still very approachable. The illustrations are both humorous and informative, and Bonner excels at explaining complex topics in a way that makes them easy to digest. Rather than covering hundreds of millions of years of evolution like the first two books, this book focuses mainly on events that occurred during the Silurian and Devonian periods – between 360 and 444 million years ago. It was during this time that plants were making their way to land and diverging into many different forms. Arthropods were doing the same. During this period, the earth’s atmosphere became more oxygen rich and soil began to accumulate largely due to the growth and expansion of land plants.

Recipe for a land plant from When Fish Got Feet by Hannah Bonner

Recipe for a land plant from When Fish Got Feet by Hannah Bonner

This was also a period of great diversification in the fish world. Jaws were becoming more common and skeletons made of bone (as opposed to cartilage) were developing.  The first tetrapods (fish with legs) emerged from the oceans and onto land in the Devonian period. These tetrapods were our early ancestors, and Bonner explains how some of the skeletal features that fish developed during this time period were precursors to our current skeleton.

Unlike the first two books, the evolution of plants receives some attention in Bonner’s book. It is during the Devonian period that the first trees and seed-bearing plants appear. As in the other books, there are additional resources at the end, including this important warning by Bonner: “Please remember that anyone can set up a Web site, so not everything you will encounter will be good science.”

A time line of life on earth from When Fish Got Feet by Hannah Bonner

A timeline of life on earth from When Fish Got Feet by Hannah Bonner

Key to helping children understand evolution is understanding it ourselves, and there are, of course, endless resources out there to help with this. I will suggest just two additional books. In keeping with the spirit of children’s books, there is a great illustrated biography of Charles Darwin (who is considered the Father of Evolution) called Darwin For Beginners by Jonathan Miller and Borin Van Loon. It’s basically Darwin’s life told in graphic novel form. And keeping with the fish theme, you can’t go wrong with Neil Shubin’s, Your Inner Fish, a fascinating look into the origins of many of the parts, pieces, and other features of the human body.

Do you have a favorite book, children’s or otherwise, about evolution? Please share it in the comment section below.

Podcast Review: Native Plant Podcast

Always on the lookout for more podcasts to listen to, I somehow stumbled upon Native Plant Podcast. I wish I could remember the rabbit hole I went down that brought me to this masterpiece, but I can’t. What I do remember is being hesitant at first. I am all for calling things what they are. A restaurant called “Restaurant?” Why not? A podcast about native plants called “Native Plant Podcast?” Sure. It’s not the most creative name, but it works. What I was worried about, though, was that a podcast calling itself after native plants was going to be preachy, pushy…or just dull.

Yet I work with native plants every day(!), and I love them – so my initial judgement must say more about myself than anything else. Despite my hesitation – and my inclination to judge a podcast by its cover – I gave it a shot. I’m so glad that I did, because what I found was a highly informative show that is simultaneously delightful, fun, goofy, and entertaining. It’s a podcast that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The hosts and their guests share an important message about the benefits of native plant gardening, and they do so with passion and a sense of urgency while remaining lighthearted and approachable.

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Native Plant Podcast is young. The first episode came out in January 2016. It is run by three individuals that met at the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference in North Carolina (a conference that is often mentioned on the podcast). Mike Berkeley and John Magee are the regular hosts; Jesse Turner mainly operates behind the scenes but makes appearances on a few episodes. They each have their own nursery and/or landscaping businesses that deal largely with native plants. Together they have decades of experience working with native plants. In an episode with Neil Diboll of Prairie Nursery, Mike makes the comment that they “were into native plants before it got cool.” Several of the guests that have been on the podcast so far can say the same thing.

One such guest is Miriam Goldberger, owner of Wildflower Farm and author of Taming Wildflowers, who appears on two episodes (part 1 and part 2). Other notable guests include Thomas Rainer, co-outhor of Planting in a Post-Wild World, and David Mizejewski, a naturalist for the National Wildlife Federation. So far all of the guests have been great, and since the the podcast has only been around for a few months, it is easy to catch up on past episodes.

As someone who enjoys sitting around talking about plants, this podcast is perfect since much of the “airtime” is taken up by such discussions. The episodes about winter interest and spring gardening are particularly great for this sort of thing. Two other standout episodes are the introductory episode, in which Mike and John discuss how they got started working with native plants, and the episode about defining native plants, in which Mike, John, and Jesse all take a crack at coming up with a definition. A topic that comes up often on the podcast is native plant cultivars (John understandably cringes each time he hears the portmanteau of “native” and “cultivar”), which seems to be a controversial topic in the native plant world.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus cryptandrus) - one of Mike and John's favorite grasses and a plant that comes up frequently on the podcast. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus cryptandrus) – one of Mike and John’s favorite grasses and a plant that comes up frequently on the podcast. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

In each episode of the podcast there is an interview/discussion followed by three short segments: listener questions, stories about dogs or other pets (the hosts really love their dogs), and a toast (in which the hosts pop open their beers in front of the microphone for all to hear). The twitter bio for the Native Plant Podcast sums it up well: “A podcast started by a group of goofballs to highlight the beauty and functionality of native plants in the landscape.” These goofballs really know their stuff, and I highly recommend listening to their show.

Bonus quote from the episode with Neil Diboll:

Everybody says they love Mother Nature, but if you look at people’s yards, very few people actually invite her over. Most people have lawns that are mown to within an inch or two of their lives, and the typical American garden is like a big pile of mulch with a few perennials stuck in it or maybe a few shrubs stuck in it. These are really non-functional gardens from a standpoint of an ecological approach, so bringing your landscaping to life is creating ecological gardens that are not just for the owner of the property, but for all life that you can attract to the land for which you are the steward.

In Defense of Plants – A Podcast Review

I’m an avid podcast listener; however, the majority of the podcasts I listen to, while satisfying many of my varied interests, don’t speak to my interests in plants and plant science. Recently, when I went searching for such a podcast, I happened upon In Defense of Plants. Alas, my podcast queue felt complete.

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In Defense of Plants began as a blog authored by a guy named Matt. The podcast emerged about 3 years later, and in the first episode (which was posted in January 2015), Matt explains why he started the blog. While searching the internet in an effort to learn more about plants, he discovered that people weren’t writing the stories that he really wanted to read – stories that went beyond mainly talking about the anthropogenic uses of plants. Rather, Matt was interested in the stories of the plants themselves, their biological and evolutionary histories and how they fit in with the ecological world around them. Unable to find such a blog, he decided to start one himself.

His passion for plants for plant’s sake continues in his podcast. It’s evidenced both in the topics he covers as well as in the way he speaks enthusiastically and affectionately about the plants involved in the stories he tells and their habitats. He finds people to interview that are as excited about plants as he is – some are friends, some are research scientists, and some are people otherwise involved in botany or horticulture. All have interesting things to say about the world of plants and plant ecology.

Ludisia discolor - the plant that inspired Matt to start the blog

Ludisia discolor – the plant that inspired Matt to start the blog (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Over the mere nine months that the podcast has been in existence, Matt has shared some of his personal botanical explorations. When he started the podcast he was living in Buffalo, NY. He completed a Master’s degree program there and has since moved to Illinois to pursue a PhD. His most recent episodes find him exploring the tallgrass prairie of the Midwest. He’s got my attention, since this is one of my favorite ecosystems in North America.

Standout episodes to me so far have been the two part episode with Russel Funderburk as they walk through the grounds of the Highlands Biological Station, the discussion with Dave Spiering about urban ecology, and the interview with Dr. Robert Warren about invasive species (“a refreshing take”). The episode about pack rat middens and the candid discussion with Matt’s friend Steve about why they botanize are also great. Matt and Steve also do an episode about plant poaching, a topic that deserves much more attention than it gets.

The love Matt has for plants is infectious, and it is hard not to feel his excitement as he helps tell their stories. So, if you find that your podcast queue is lacking something purely plant related, In Defense of Plants is a podcast you should definitely be following.

Yerba Mate (Ilex paraguariensis)

Yerba Mate (Ilex paraguariensis) is featured in two episodes of In Defense of Plants. Listen to part one and part two. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

 

In Defense of Weeds – A Book Review

Weeds have been with us since the beginning of human civilization. We created them, really. We settled down, started growing food, urbanized, and in doing so we invited opportunistic plant species to join us – we created spaces for them to flourish and provided room for them to spread out and settle in. During our history together, our attitudes about weeds have swung dramatically from simply living with and accepting them, recognizing their usefulness, incorporating them into our religious myths and cultural traditions, to developing feelings of disgust and disdain and ultimately declaring outright war against them. In a sense, weeds are simultaneously as wild and as domestic as a thing can be. They remind us of ourselves perhaps, and so our feelings are mixed.

Considering our combined history and the fact that weeds have stuck with us all along, perhaps it’s time we give them a little respect. This seems to be the objective of Richard Mabey’s book, Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants. In Mabey’s own words, “this book is a case for the defense, an argued suggestion that we look more dispassionately at these outlaw plants, at what they are, how they grow, and the reasons we regard them as trouble.” Additionally, we should recognize that we wrote the definition for weeds: “plants become weeds because people label them as such.” We introduce them, create conditions in which they can thrive, and then turn around and despise them for doing what they do best. “In a radical shift of perspective we now blame the weeds, rather than ourselves;” however, as Mabey ultimately concludes, “we get the weeds we deserve.”

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But before he arrives at that conclusion – and certainly Mabey has more to say than that pithy remark – Mabey takes readers on a remarkable journey. Starting with the origins of agriculture – and the origins of weeds – he recounts the story of how weeds followed civilization as it spread across the globe. He describes our diverse reactions to weeds, how we have dealt with them, and how they have infiltrated our myths, art, cultures, food, medicine, rituals, philosophies, and stories. Along the way, certain weeds are profiled using Mabey’s unique prose. Each weed has a story to tell – some more sordid than others.

Mabey is a British author, and so the book has a strong Anglocentric slant. But this seems fitting considering that the explorations and migrations of early Europeans are probably responsible for moving more plant species around than any other group in history – at least up until the modern era. Mabey describes the myriad ways these plants were introduced: “Some simply rode piggy-back on crop and garden plants…others were welcomed as food plants or glamorous ornaments, but escaped or were thrown out and became weeds as a consequence of unforeseen bad behavior.” The seeds of many species hitched rides with numerous agricultural and industrial products, while others attached themselves to clothing, shoes, and animal fur. Everywhere humans traveled, weeds followed.

Weeds are one of the great legacies Europeans brought with them as they settled the American continent. A veritable wave of new plant species entered the Americas as the Europeans trickled in, some were purposeful introductions and some accidental. Ever the opportunists, Europe’s weeds traversed across the continent as settlers tilled and altered the land. Mabey details the introduction of “invasive European weeds” to the western United States, claiming that “by the twentieth century two-thirds of the vegetation of the western grasslands was composed of introduced species, mostly European.

One of these European species in particular has been wholeheartedly embraced by American culture; it was even given an American name. Kentucky bluegrass, Poa pratensis, “is a common, widespread but unexceptional species of grassy places in Europe…but in uncontested new grazing lands of North America it could color whole sweeps of grassland.” It has since become a preferred turfgrass species, and it’s innate ability to thrive here makes it partly responsible for Americans’ obsession with the perfect lawn. Oddly, other European invaders infiltrating a pristine, green lawn are unwelcome and derided as “weeds.” In actuality, considering its relentless, expansive, and spreading nature and its reliance on humans to perpetuate its behavior, turfgrass is much more fit for the label “weed” than any other species that invades it. As Mabey asserts, “a lawn dictates its own standards…the demands made by its singular, unblemished identity, its mute insistence that if you do not help it to continue along the velvet path you have established for it, you are guilty of a kind of betrayal.”

Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) also known as smooth meadow-grass - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis), also known as smooth meadow-grass – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Reading along it becomes clear that Mabey is infatuated with weeds. You can see it in sentences like, “the outlandish enterprise of weeds – such sharp and fast indices of change – can truly lift your heart.” This doesn’t mean that in his own garden he doesn’t “hoick them up when they get in [his] way.” It just means that his “capricious assault” is “tinged with respect and often deflected by a romantic mood.” Does Mabey wish his readers to swoon the way he does over these enterprising and opportunistic aliens? Perhaps. More than that he seems to want to instill an awe and admiration for what they can do. In many cases they serve important ecological functions, including being a sort of “first responder” after a disturbance due to their fast acting and ephemeral nature. In this way, weeds “give something back” by “holding the bruised parts of the planet from falling apart.” They also “insinuate the idea of wild nature into places otherwise quite shorn of it,” and so despite their dependence on human activities, they could be considered “the very essence of wildness.”

For all the love Mabey has for weeds, he remains convinced that some absolutely need to be kept in check. He calls out Japanese knotweed specifically – an “invader with which a truly serious reckoning has to be made.” In speaking of naturalized plant species – introduced species that propagate themselves and “spread without deliberate human assistance” – he makes the comparison to humans becoming naturalized citizens in countries where they were not born. In this sense he argues for more acceptance of such species, while simultaneously warning that “there are invasive species that ought never to get their naturalization papers.”

Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) is listed as one the 100 Worst Invasive Species - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) is listed as one the 100 Worst Invasive Species – photo credit: wikimedia commons

This is an engrossing read, and regardless of how you feel about weeds going in, Mabey will – if nothing else – instill in you a sort of reverence for them. You may still want to reach for the hoe or the herbicide at the sight of them – and you may be justified in doing that – but perhaps you’ll do so with a little more understanding. After all, humans and weeds are kindred species.

As a type they are mobile, prolific, genetically diverse. They are unfussy about where they live, adapt quickly to environmental stress, use multiple strategies for getting their own way. It’s curious that it took so long to realize that the species they most resemble is us.

Listen to Mabey talk about his book and his interest in weeds on these past episodes of Science Friday and All Things Considered.

Botany in Popular Culture: The Sunset Tree by the Mountain Goats

My obsession with plants means that I see botany everywhere – in the music I listen to, the shows I watch, the books I read, whatever. Just a fleeting mention of something plant related in any type of media will catch my attention, no matter how ancillary it is to the major themes. And that is the impetus behind this series of posts about botany in popular culture. Well that and, believe it or not, I do enjoy many non-plant related things, and this gives me an excuse to write about those things on a plant-centric blog.

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The Mountain Goats are a folk rock band formed by John Darnielle in 1991. It could be said that John Darnielle is synonymous with the Mountain Goats, as Darnielle is the chief songwriter and at times has been the only member of the band. The Sunset Tree is the Mountain Goats ninth studio album and only the second album featuring songs that are primarily autobiographical. The album that preceded The Sunset Tree, entitled We Shall All Be Healed, was about Darnielle’s teenage years as a methamphetamine user. The Sunset Tree describes growing up with an abusive stepfather. Heavy topics are kind of the Mountain Goats’ thing.

Darnielle’s lyrics are highly poetic and often nebulous – the listener is left to fill in the gaps. Thus, the storytelling in The Sunset Tree isn’t always direct. However, the scene begins to unfold in the second track, “Broom People,” as Darnielle seems to be describing his childhood living conditions: “all sorts of junk in the unattached spare room,” “dishes in the kitchen sink,” “floor two foot high with newspapers,” “white carpet thick with pet hair.” He also sings of “friends who don’t have a clue; well meaning teachers,” and how he would “write down good reasons to freeze to death in [his] spiral ring notebook.”

“Dance Music” reveals more as Darnielle at 5 or 6 years old is getting “indications that there’s something wrong.” As he sits watching TV, his stepfather is yelling at his mom, then “launches a glass across the room, straight at her head, and [Darnielle] dashes upstairs to take cover.” He turns on his “little record player on the floor” and makes a discovery: “so this is what the volume knob is for.”

A similar scene unfolds in “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod,” only this time Darnielle is the victim. He arrives home to find his stepfather asleep, so he sneaks up to his room knowing that if he awakes his stepfather, “there will be hell to pay.” But he does wake up, and he bursts into Darnielle’s room to find him sitting with his headphones on oblivious. The beating begins, and Darnielle sings, “then I’m awake and I’m guarding my face / hoping you don’t break my stereo / because it’s the one thing that I couldn’t live without / and so I think about that and then I sorta black out.” Darnielle describes being “held under these smothering waves” by his stepfather’s “strong and thick-veined hand.” But he remains hopeful that eventually – “one of these days” – he will “wriggle up on dry land.”

That sense of hopefulness can be found throughout the album. In “This Year,” Darnielle is a 17 year old longing to break free. The chorus repeats resolutely: “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me.” In “Up the Wolves,” he assures us, “there’s gonna come a day when you feel better / you’ll rise up free and easy on that day.”

But there is obviously some anger and frustration expressed as well. Later in “Up the Wolves,” Darnielle sings that he’s going to get himself in “fighting trim” and then makes a series of threats: “I’m gonna bribe the officials, I’m gonna kill all the judges, It’s gonna take you people years to recover from all of the damage.” The song “Lion’s teeth” is a revenge fantasy. Darnielle envisions “the king of the jungle asleep in his car,” and since “nobody in this house wants to own up to the truth,” he takes it upon himself to wrestle the beast. He reaches into the lion’s mouth, grabs onto “one long sharp tooth,” and holds on. The chaos that ensues makes him realize he is “gonna regret the day [he] was born,” but since there is no good way to end it, he is determined to “hold on for dear life.”

The mood lightens during the last two tracks of the album. They seem to be about forgiveness, understanding, and letting go. In “Pale Green Things,” Darnielle tells of hearing from his sister that their stepfather had died “at last, at last.” Upon hearing the news, one of the first memories Darnielle has is of he and his stepfather going to a racetrack to watch horses run. In one scene he recalls looking down at the cracked asphalt and “coming up through the cracks, pale green things.”

It’s a poignant ending to an album full of dark memories. It’s also fitting, as it adds to the bits of hope scattered throughout. Seeing plants push up through concrete or sprout up in detritus collected in gutters and corners of rooftops or even just up out of the dirt in the middle of summer when the ground is hot and bone dry, all of these moments are testaments to the tenacity of living things. Life can, rightfully so, be described as fleeting, short, and fragile – easily snuffed out and erased. But the struggle for life is also fierce, enduring, and relentless. Darnielle’s story is one example of that.

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The “pale green things” that Darnielle saw also symbolize the struggles of the little guy, the underdog, the downtrodden – a tiny, fragile plant pushing its way past solid, suffocating asphalt. It’s a common theme in Darnielle’s music – his latest album is called Beat the Champ, for example. His song “Wild Sage” is also a sign of that ongoing theme.

I work with plants all day, and I am continually awed by them. Daily I am stopped in my tracks, practically forced by some plant to admire one or more of the fascinating features it displays. It doesn’t surprise me that Darnielle would use “pale green things” to express hope and resiliency. Every day I find some kind of hope in plants, that whatever tough thing we are going through, we can one day “wriggle up on dry land” – pale green things pushing up through asphalt, wild sage growing in the weeds.