Buy The Battle for the Black Fen!

Category Archives: Book Reviews

Has Anyone Ever Died For Lack of Gossip?

I often asked myself this question when my soul shuddered down the mute corridors of my academic department, where a heavy silence always prevailed.  There were no huddles of chatting professors, no voices to be heard except those of cowed students from behind closed office doors, nor did my colleagues ever pause to chat on the sofas of our comfortably furnished faculty lounge.

My University of Wisconsin culture was totally different from  Wayne State, where my husband Henry taught. Everywhere in his building you could be distracted  by  gaggles of fascinating gossip, both personal – “and do you know she said…and then, the gall of it, he said.. and political – an ever-fraught entanglement of academic cliques and territoriality.

Here’s a poem I wrote then:

We are born for a web of words, an embracing patter about baseball plays, whose mother called,

what she said, what you said, who is born and who is dying. 

Sometimes in the store when I pass by women talking all together, I feel a terrible hunger – has anyone ever died for lack of gossip?    

Well, what do you know? My feeling that gossip is a mortal necessity turns out to correct. According to Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens, his striking new book on human history, around 70,000 years ago (about halfway into our 150,000 year residence on this planet)  human beings experienced a “Cognitive Revolution.”  As hunter-gatherers, we had communicated with our own bands and a few others nearby, but now we were able to exchange

larger quantities of information about the world surrounding” us, to have “the ability to transmit large quantities of information about Sapiens social relationships,” and also to “transmit information about things that really do not exist, such as tribal spirits, nations, limited liability companies, and human rights” (p.17).

Harari thinks that It all began with gossip, the passing along of personal, social, and spiritual information garnered from far and wide, an exchange of information that become the covenantal glue binding cities, nations, and civilizations.

We live by legal and social agreements; we are all in covenant, one with the other.

 

When our social agreements begin to crumble, argues New York Times columnist, David Brooks 

“We’re going to have to restore and re-enchant the covenantal relationships that are the foundation for the whole deal.”

The cognitive mind-set of the far right perceives liberal progressives like me as so existentially “other” that they dismiss everything we say as “lying propaganda.”  To our shame, from within our similarly obdurate cognitive bubbles we  demonize them as deplorably stupid, inexorably evil and  unworthy of our conversation.

Our national covenant, the constitution,  prescribes a balance of powers within which we can thrash out our differences; it presumes that if citizens  exchange ideas it will be possible for us all to reach a compromise.  If, in both our personal and civic behavior, we cast aside our national covenant about how to handle disagreement, our democracy is in peril.

So this Thanksgiving, lets try good old gossip for starters, perhaps some  give-and-take about baseball scores, whose mother called, what he said, what she said, who was born, and who is dying. Having established our commonality, we might find openings to discuss what else – our economic needs, our fear of fire and flood, our hope for our families – that we have in common and can work together to ameliorate.

 

(The three bronze women are a sculpture by Rose-Aimee Belanger called “Les Chuchoteuses,” the whsperers)

 

 

,

 

 

Review: Nina Munteanu, Water Is…:The Meaning of Water

Water Is…The Meaning of Water by Nina Munteanu. Pixel Press 2016

Are you fascinated by what goes on in the physical world? Are you curious about the inner workings of natural phenomena? For anyone like me who is fascinated by water, Nina Munteanu’s Water Is…:The Meaning of Water  offers wonderful analyses from minutia like the construction of a single drop to the way whirlpools and eddies form in the flow of a river and more macro issues like the relationship between the “stable chaos” of turbulence and quantum physics.

Water Is provides delightful explanations of things you thought you knew –

  • That “water occupies over 98% of a human cell molecule,”
  • That “what we do to water we do to ourselves.”
  • How water’s negative charge benefits the health
  • How water arrived in earth from the cosmos
  • What are we drinking, e.g. In various bottled waters?
  • Issues of sustainability at various locals- the Arab Sea, the Empire of Angkor

Though a practicing limnologist and water scientist, Munteanu considers herself “one of the mavericks of the scientific community,” attentive to what her colleagues term “weird water” – aspects of the way water behaves for which traditional science has not (yet) found formulas. The result is a trove of disparate treasures, like how Galileo understood water flow, the Chinese character for water,  Leonardo da Vinci’s water drawings, the Gaia Hypothesis, and David Bohm’s theory of flux

 

 

This is less a sit-down-all-in-sequence read than a quirkily diverse compendium of disparate wonders which I dipped in and out of, sitting on my cabin dock as the river babbled and eddied by me, all summer long.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Farming Life Was Really Like

 

 

Annis Pratt’s Review of Merrickville Days

by elliewilson

One of my former professors at the University of Wisconsin, now retired, and a dear friend, Annis Pratt, has written a very positive review of my new book Merrickville Days, for the book’s page on Amazon, and she is allowing me to also share it with you here. Annis is also a writer, the author of the four-volume Eco-Fiction series Infinite Games, and her web site and her own blog are at http://www.annispratt.com. Her review follows:

How can we really get a grasp on history? Is it possible to achieve a truly “insider” understanding of the minds of people from another place and another century? When we read about historical periods or about the lives of particular families, it is always at one remove, through the eyes of someone whose insight is necessarily skewed by a different time and a different world-view from the world they are trying to depict.

Diaries are different because they take you right inside the head of the person experiencing life in their times, as they understand them.  That’s why, in adhering closely to diaries that her grandmother and grandfather kept in 1907 and 1908, Eleanor Wilson, in Merrickville Days,  achieves such a deep and detailed portrait of life in rural New York State.

Rather than offering the diaries themselves (which are included, in full, at the end of the book) Wilson’s technique is to develop a third person narrative line closely adhering to their content.  The dialogue, which is oddly formal to our ears (though genial and, sometimes, humorous) is adapted from the way Wilson heard her grandparents (who were both alive when she was growing up) actually speak, so that they tell you about their lives in their own way of speaking.

The result (once you get used to it the oddities of diction) takes you right into the hearts and homes of farmers in the early twentieth century and to a discovery of interesting aspects of their life style.  We know, of course, that farm life of that time involved crushingly hard work, but Wilson’s grandparents, while chronicling their day in day out mucking of stables, milking of cows, struggling with laundry, rearing of children, sewing their own clothes, all amid constant and often massive cooking sessions, undertake all of this with pleasure in what they accomplish on a backbreaking, daily basis. imagestsr7xyar The men work hard, the women work hard, the children have chores, they get tired out and go to bed for a nap or a whole day, all amid a genial tone of mutual appreciation.

Another surprising phenomenon, which Wilson comments on, is that far from being isolated on their farmsteads they are extremely social and cannot live without visiting each other on a constant basis. Any rainy day or a few hours free of chores and they get into their wagons to  visit friends and relatives in the surrounding area. Their doors are open, anyone is welcome to drop in, pick up and help at any chores going on, and have a good catching up session; visitors who turn up from further away often stay for weeks.

What was the rural life of our farming ancestors like? Merrickville Days is a good way to find out!

 

elliewilson | September 6, 2016 at 8:23 pm | Categories: Uncategorized | URL: http://wp.me/p2bhSh

 

HOW I BECAME A CITIZEN SCIENTIST, AND YOU CAN TOO

Review of Sharman Apt Russell, Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World

I started keeping bird lists in 1947 when my school’s Audubon Club suggested we list birds and describe their behavior. This was New York City, and I had lots of fun observing pigeons and English sparrows. Then, one wondrous day.  we were taken to Central Park to see the spring migration. Tanagers and goldfinch, hermit thrush and grosbeaks and warblers of every kind tumbled all around us. I was hooked for life.

Read more… →