Circular Reoccurrence in the Anthropocene: Eight recent books authored by women that address the most important themes of our time
by Obi Kaufmann
The trust I afford the long-narrative form of the book to be a source of authority and information is reliably superior to any other media platform. It never fails to astonish, how the alchemical process of understanding any given topic takes shape through the hours it takes to receive an author’s transmission, as if illumination itself were a flower blooming, or a tide coming in. When not adventuring, I read in the same comfortable chair in a well-lit corner of my home every morning and every evening for an hour or two each sitting, and I’ve learned that it takes me about two weeks to finish a regularly sized book. Lately, I have been fascinated by non-fiction works that unravel the sticky issues of our time: the ones that really matter with profound global resonance. I noticed a pattern in the books I’ve most recently read and a chorus of voices has emerged in my mind, guiding me toward an aesthetic integration of what might otherwise be disparate questions: how does the role of beauty work to heal, both the isolated, inner world of self and in the communally-damaged, outer world of the world’s ecology in the twenty first century? Who are the teachers of the teachers we can trust to tell the stories of history that will lead us out of the thorny now?
The fact that the last eight titles sitting on my book stand were all authored by women dawned on me slowly. Mining this intellectual vein, this network of authors who are all at once storytellers (Camille Paglia, Joan Didion, Terry Tempest Williams), scientists (Diane Ackerman, Laura Cunningham, Robin Wall Kimmerer), and journalists (Naomi Kline, Elizabeth Kolbert) it occurs to me that any attempt to categorize the voice of any one is a discredit to the whole. One theme I encounter again and again – and it may be related to the nature of the engendered voices gathered in this collection of authors – is the idea of cyclical reoccurrence itself. Throughout these books, there is the pervading sense that history moves in a circular trajectory, both an embrace and a resignation towards the providence of retread ground being the path from and the path to. By acknowledging and analyzing this mode of potentially transcending a chaotic, linear view of our common story, we might navigate a course from the noisy and often dark waters upon we which our collective boat now sails and into would could be a bright and fruitful future.
#8 – Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Milkweed, Minneapolis, 2014)
Although a botanist by vocation, Kimmerer’s voice moves with a calm and holistic tone, almost like the water-searching roots of her subject to break up the dense earth of some basic misconceptions. In Kimmerer’s world view, all of nature speaks with a language of generosity and wisdom that is open to interpretable study despite our callous, modern deafness. The subtitle of the book is “Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants”, and if I were to add one more leg to this three-part prescription it might be that she suggests a “restoring the balance of justice to the nature world.” Of course my language here is not smooth but I do find in Kimmerer’s work a backdrop of morality and deliverance from old wounds that calls out to us for compensation, remediation or both.
Kimmerer invokes the myth of Windigo, a ravenous spirit that infects the soul of the people to be a metaphor for the kind of blind, consumerist madness that seems to have taken over the modern mind. “Some folks argue that we need to do nothing at all – that the unholy coupling of greed and growth and carbon will make the world hot enough to melt the Windigo once and for all. Climate change will unequivocally defeat economies that are based on constant taking withough giving in return. But before Windigo dies, it will take so much that we love along with it. We can wait for climate change to turn the world and the Windigo into a puddle of red-tinged meltwater, or we can strap on our snowshoes and track him down.”
#7 – Where I was From by Joan Didion (Vintage, New York, 2003)
Didion’s voice is among the great angels of western literature: Stegner, Abbey, Snyder, et al. who have forged warm, fluid identity from cold stone. What is the West? What is California? There is almost an effortlessness here in her subject matter that arrests me with such aesthetic power that we are all made a bit more whole for it just existing at all in our subtle memory.
“For most of my life California felt rich to me: that was the point of it, that was the promise, the reward for having left past the Sweetwater, the very texture of the place. This was by no means to say that I believed all or even most Californians to be rich, only to suggest that the fact of having no money seemed to me to lack, in California, the immutable gravity that characterized the condition elsewhere. It was not designed to be a life sentence. You were meant, if you were Californian, to know how to lash together a corral with bark, you were meant to know how to tent a raft and live on a river, you were meant to show spirit, kill a rattlesnake, keep moving.” – Joan Didion
#6 – Break, Blow, Burn – Camille Paglia reads forty-three of the world’s best poems by Camille Paglia (Pantheon, New York, 2005)
This may be the best and only book on poetry you need. Each of the poems is presented cleanly on the page for your easy digestion and then presented with a scalpel-like analysis that is always rather dizzying with its knockout erudition. I’ve been picking this book up again and again for the past ten years, and every time I do, the smell of roses fills my lungs and I feel a bit drunk.
Regarding Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”, Paglia writes “Garish, sarcastic, and profane, “Daddy” is one of the strongest poems ever written by a woman. With driving power of voice, it marries the personal to the political against the violent backdrop of modern history. Like Emily Dickinson, another shy New Englander, Sylvia Plath challenges masculine institutions and satirizes outmoded sexual assumptions. But the energies aroused by “Daddy” ultimately become self-devouring. The poem is so extreme that nothing can be built upon it. Plath has had many imitators, but she may have exhausted her style in creating it.”
#5 – This Changes Everything by Naomi Kline (Simon and Schuster, New York, 2014)
The maelstrom of noise and disinformation circling the American mind regarding the complex and largely abstract concept of Global Warming and Climate Change is tragic. It is that perhaps our inability to come together – as Americans, as one of a few industrial players in the world – and acknowledge and attack the problem adequately is as tragic as the phenomenon itself. Kline’s voice is a welcome respite from both the doomsayers and the deniers. She blows them all away in the deft manner that she unpacks the data and proposes some ground-shaking ideas: Can unregulated capitalism, or market fundamentalism, save us from the largest threat our species has ever collectively faced? Her answer is no, and she defends her position with profound ability.
“The massive global investments required to respond to the climate threat – to adapt humanely and equitably to the heavy weather we have already locked in, and avert the truly catastrophic warming we can still avoid – is a chance to change all that; and to get it right this time. It could deliver the equitable redistribution of agricultural lands that was supposed to follow independence from colonial rule and dictatorship; it could bring the jobs and homes that Martin Luther King dreamed of; it could bring jobs and clean water to native communities; it could at last turn on the lights and running water in every South African township. Such is the promise of a Marshall Plan for the Earth.” -Naomi Kline
#4 – The Hour of Land by Terry Tempest Williams (Sarah Crichton Books, New York, 2016)
Every time Williams writes a book, she hits it out of the park – what she hits is a fireball of eloquent rage and elucidated wisdom. The subtitle of the book is “A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks” and she opens it by stating in the first sentence, that “Language and landscape are my inspiration.” While those two ideas might be her inspiration, the product is work largely centering around the people and their relationship to the land, specifically National Parks and what that designation means to the larger conservation movement.
One passage has her merging the destructive zeitgeist of contemporary man, in specific reference to wasteful, land-resource extraction methodology, with suggest the merger with the landscape of Utah’s Canyonlands as a mode of atonement – typical of her eloquence: “These acts of greed would come at the expense of a geography so stark and arresting that it renders one mute. The hands of erosion cut windows in sandstone; a spire, an arch, or a natural bridge framing a sunset. The curvature of the Earth is not only seen but felt. Burnished and bronzed through time, this geologic architecture has inspired our American character, where self-reliance is predicated on humility, not arrogance
#3 – The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert (Picador, New York, 2014)
There are few subjects as potentially sorrowful as the current state of the biosphere – that thin, living blue line that separates the earth from black space. There are also few subjects more important to bravely face and wrestling understanding from than the Sixth Extinction, at this, the dawn of what geologists and ecologists are referring to as the Anthropocene. Extinction is the fate of all species, and a global extinction is when a large swath of the world’s taxonomic genera disappears in a geologically insignificant period of time. The history of life in the world can be drawn as a pulse of extinction events that extend back to when land plants first pushed onto land nearly five hundred million years ago in the Ordovician period. We know live in what has been called the most-lyrical time for life on the planet. There are more species now than ever before. And we are the meteor to disrupt that lyrical state in the most terrible manner. At least knowing, or coming to terms with the historical manner that this has happened before, that it is a core function of life itself, brings a modicum of reassurance – especially when it is all laid out, as clearly as Kolbert does here.
In her introduction, Kolbert observes that “No creature has ever altered life on the planet in this way before, and yet other, comparable event have occurred. Very, very occasionally in the distant past, the planet has undergone change so wrenching that the diversity of life has plummeted. Five of these ancient events were catastrophic enough that they’re put in their own category: the so-called Big Five. In what seems like a fantastic coincidence, but is probably no coincidence at all, the history of these events is recovered just as people come to realize that they are causing another one.
#2 – A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California by Laura Cunningham (Heyday, Berkeley, 2010)
I have a few books in my library that I consider true prizes; pieces of history or artifacts that carry such aesthetic significance and cultural worth that I hold them up as testament to our collective potential – books that represent profound symbols of hope, and this book is one of them. Cunningham is as gifted a writer as she is a poet as she is a scientist. The triple threat her talent represents is as entertaining as it is academic. The journey she takes us on is the story of California over the past 15,000 years or so, in a period of time known as the Recent Interglacial Period of the Holocene. There is a dreamy reverie present throughout this book, ever-present in her immaculately rendered paintings and her lucid writing style. Instead of picking a particular quote to demonstrate this lucidity, let’s consider the painting on page 247, “In the past, a jaguar stalks through a coast live oak woodland in central California among sword ferns, poison oak, and hazelnut. Oil on paper, 8 x 6 inches, 2005.”
#1 – The Human Age by Diane Ackerman (Norton & Company, New York, 2014)
Ackerman coined the term “scientifically accurate poetry” and is presently one of the world’s great voices. In this book, an endlessly recommendable book that presents an unquenchably positive vision of humanity’s function in the larger dream of the world, Ackerman presents a parade of prose that unpacks like a poem. Full of nuance, Ackerman’s voice skates through paradox and dilemma with an authority that feels so badly needed. What are the global machines, the algorithms that have been set in ancient history that we are living out today? What new machines are being born today that will impact the deep future? For surely the other side of destruction is always, inexorably creation.
“I began writing this book because I was puzzled by certain questions, such as: Why does the world seem to be racing under our feet? Why is this the first year that Canada geese didn’t migrate from many New England towns, and why have so many white storks stopped migrating to Europe? The world is being ravaged by record heat, drought, and floods – can we fix what we’ve done to the weather? What sort of stewards of the future planet will today’s digital children be? What will it mean to travel when we can go anywhere on our computers, with little cost or effort? With all the medical changes to the human body – including carbon blade legs, bionic fingers, silicon retinas, computer screens worn over one eye with the ability to text by blinking, bionic suits that make it possible to life colossal weights, and a wonderland of brain enhancers to improve focus, memory, or mood – will adolescents still be asking, “who am I?” or “What am I?” How will cities, wild animals, and our own biology have changed in fifty years?”