Essential Reads

Appetite for Profit
How the Food Industry Undermines our Health & How to Fight Back

Michele Simon
Nation Books, 2006, $14.95

Few Americans think much about their daily cheeseburgers and fries until their waistlines or clogged arteries remind them. In fact, most have no idea of the politics behind obesity and our food supply. Michele Simon sets out to expose the corporate food industry’s effects on our health in Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines our Health & How to Fight Back.

Public health attorney Simon is founder and director of Oakland’s Center for Informed Food Choices, and her training comes across in hard-hitting “how to fight back” legalese. The book does an excellent job of detailing corporate control of our food supply while educating consumers about the politics behind the food industry’s scrambling attempts to cover its tracks in the race to reveal who’s really at fault for our obesity epidemic.

Appetite raises a poignant and perplexing dilemma: is it the consumer’s responsibility to make nutritious choices, or is it corporate responsibility to provide healthy fare by disentangling itself from its sugary products? The latter means sacrificing billions of dollars of profit, with publicly owned corporations under edict to increase shareholder value at the expense of other considerations. When government and corporations walk hand-in-hand, with billions of dollars of profit as an incentive, who is motivated to protect citizens? Simon makes it disturbingly clear how corporate goals conflict with public health. Read her book and learn how to fight back in your community. The appendices include valuable additional resources. —Mary Vance

Indian Baskets of Central California
Art, Culture, and History

Ralph Shanks and Lisa Woo Shanks
Miwok Archaeological
Preserve of Marin, 2006, $45

I want to cheer when an undersung subject is finally given its due. Start the applause—this volume, the first of three location-based books planned by husband and wife team Ralph and Lisa Woo Shanks—thoroughly explores the basket weaving of central Californian Indians. Natives in this part of California, extending from Monterey and San Francisco bays up to Humboldt County and the Sierras, used baskets for everything from tools, cooking implements, hats, and cradles to ceremonial objects and storage containers. Some are watertight; some so large several men were needed to lift the filled basket. No matter their use, these baskets are some of the world’s finest art.

The book is its own deft combination of utility and beauty; technical details about methods of weaving and plant material preparation are juxtaposed with exquisite photographs by Lisa Woo Shanks and paintings by Grace Carpenter Hudson. The large-format volume is so packed with information and photographs that it could be called a coffee table book with content. The Shanks spent seven years interviewing tribal members, museum curators, and historians, and much is new to print. The book is arranged by tribe, including Pomo, Miwok, Maidu, Yokuts, Ohlone, and others, with cultural information and descriptions of the unique features of the tribe’s weaving and preparation methods. A few tribes are represented only by their surviving baskets: the Huchnom, near Dos Rios in Mendocino County, were nearly wiped out by whites.

An acknowledgement of the violence these people faced is a terrible undercurrent; even to gather plant materials, artists had to brave encounters with thuggish whites. Thankfully, basket weaving continues today, and the Shanks include a bibliography and contact information for the California Indian Basketweavers Association. This is art created from the land on which we all live. The book is a testament to the courage of weavers who continued their thousands-years’-old craft against all odds. —Linnea Due

The Human Experiment
Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside Biosphere 2

Jane Poynter
Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006, $26.95

In 1991, four men and four women entered a privately funded, hermetically sealed three-plus-acre biosphere in Arizona. The eight stayed inside for two years, during which a scientific oversight committee came to blows with management, fakery was alleged, thousands of jokes made on late-night TV, and the eight divided into warring camps and barely spoke to each other for more than a year. Poynter gives blow-by-blow descriptions of the controversies, the feud between Us and Them, and the hardships and successes of managing this astonishing experiment.

The loss of oxygen and build-up of carbon dioxide in Biosphere 2, which threatened to end the venture, is steadily being duplicated on Biosphere 1, or Planet Earth. Escape was possible through Biosphere 2’s airlock, but the eight struggled to maintain their atmosphere by manipulating a tiny ocean, forest, and savannah. The connection between agriculture, plants, forests, and oceans is strikingly detailed; critical information emerged from the experiment because on this small scale effects could be seen so quickly.

The impact of global warming was little known or discussed 15 years ago, so this book could not have come at a more opportune time. Biosphere 2 stands empty today, after having been taken over by Columbia University, only to dissolve into the same ego clashes that led to its being wrested from private ownership. The science is fascinating, emotions wrenching, and the miniaturization depicts so well that our future depends upon ending the squabbling. This is a must-read. —Linnea Due

Introduction to California Chaparral
Ronald D. Quinn and Sterling C. Keeley
University of California Press, 2006, $19.95

This new addition to the California Natural History Guides is a must-peruse for California newcomers—and for those of us who’ve lived here so long we may think we know it all. The authors are professors with over 30 years’ experience teaching about the chaparral environment. Both decided to write a book on the subject without knowledge of the other’s efforts. When UC Press told them of their parallel manuscripts, they joined forces and produced a collaborative account that is lively and intriguing, making full use of Keeley’s botanical expertise and Quinn’s knowledge of chaparral animals.

The term chaparral is a broad blanket thrown across California’s shrubby Mediterranean foothill habitats. Though the main players differ—manzanita, ceanothus, and chamise are the most common—all are drought-tolerant, evergreen, fire-hardy, and form dense thickets that look soft and blue-gray in the distance but up close can prove to be virtually impenetrable. This guide provides a close look at details of plant and animal life in the chaparral as well as the sort of overview that leads to real appreciation, especially as to the natural role of fire in this habitat we all live in or near.

Many of us are familiar with the spectacular wildflower displays found only after fire years. What we may not have realized is that most of these plants can germinate only in the presence of fire. Their seeds may lie dormant for a century, waiting. Seeds of the chaparral shrubs also require fire, though many species employ the quicker option of resprouting from crown burls that can live through many fire cycles, for a thousand years or more.

There are also animals that depend on cyclical fires, like the fire beetles that fly to any fire within a 20-mile radius to mate and lay their eggs on still-smoldering branches. The sensitivity of these beetles to smoke is so acute that they can be drawn to false alarms. The authors relate that in the 1940s and 1950s, the heyday of cigarette smoking, UC Berkeley football games “were regularly affected by a rain of fire beetles dropping from the sky in search of a suitable place to lay their eggs.” —Gina Covina

Birding Babylon
A Soldier’s Journal from Iraq

Jonathan Trouern-Trend
Sierra Club Books, 2006, $9.95

For this nature lover but non-birder, this beautiful little book is an inspiration in form; it’s an elegant method of journal-keeping for any journey. The illustrations are lovely, and there is an organized index of species seen at the end.

The Iraq war has been a life-ending experience for tens of thousands, but Trouern-Trend views it through his life’s list of birds. There is no doubt that our author is at risk; he writes of devastated landscapes, incredible heat, and bombs. Once, lying on his stomach in a defensive perimeter around his downed humvee, he watches two crested larks conduct a mating dance not ten feet away. We learn that he is a father who birds at home with his children. His way of being in the world is illuminating; he is continually focused on the natural world and attentive to detailed observation.

The suffering that is today’s Iraq is balanced by the joy of birding: watching behavior, counting numbers, identifying rare birds, and sharing his passion with other soldiers. This small book contains a major lesson in survival. —Rosa Venezia

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