Essential Reads & Views

Climate Chaos: Your Health at Risk
Cindy L. Parker, MD, and Steven M. Shapiro, PhD
Praeger, 2008. $49.95

Subtitled What You Can Do to Protect Yourself and Your Family, this book is an uneasy mix of an academic text and a nonfiction thriller. Once you delve past clunky subtitles (“Particulate Matter,” “Malaria and Climate Change”), you discover an articulate, enlightening description of each topic. The book is full of points I hadn’t heard: a 15-21 foot rise in sea level is very possible; there is only enough high-grade uranium in the Earth’s crust to power nuclear plants for sixty to seventy years; fifty million barrels of oil are needed to produce the plastic bottles containing bottled water in the US; dengue fever could affect half the world’s population; reforesting a piece of land would reduce more carbon than growing plants for ethanol on the same site. The authors are not afraid to make suggestions: they suggest that it may make more sense to reforest while reducing petroleum use than to switch to alternative fuels.

The authors, a Johns Hopkins public health physician (Parker) and a Johns Hopkins psychologist (Shapiro), follow a family through a few days in the future: the couple’s kids have asthma, the wife’s siblings escape from the West (no water) and from the Southeast (hurricanes and encroaching sea levels), and want to move in with Sis. Everyone’s overheated, stressed out, struggling to survive. A final chapter paints a happier picture of the same family, in which readers of today took the steps the authors suggest at the end of each chapter. These action plans are divided into individual, community, and national and international solutions. Climate Chaos
turns our attention from fright or avoidance to solid resolutions; its value cannot be overstated. —Linnea Due

Nature’s Beloved Son: Rediscovering John Muir’s Botanical Legacy
Bonnie J. Gisel, with images by Stephen J. Joseph
Heyday Books, 2008, $45

We tend to think of John Muir as a dynamic combination of 19th-century mountaineer and forward thinking environmentalist. This handsome Heyday Books offering reveals Muir as he saw himself—first and foremost a botanist—and in the process restores the worshipful study of plants to its rightful place at the center.

Muir began his investigation of plants during an age in which religion and science had not yet diverged. He could go “to the woods and fields to make acquaintance with God’s plant world,” and find flowers “revealing glorious traces of the thoughts of God,” as he put it. His botanical observations, quoted extensively here, remain emotionally charged with the ecstasy of his communion with nature. After Muir’s time, as science came to view natural processes mechanistically, Muir’s words took on a quaint and irrelevant shine. Today, as scientific awareness of the complex intelligence of all life grows, Muir sounds fresh and understandable again. Good timing.

Preeminent Muir authority Bonnie Gisel writes with admirable clarity of Muir’s beginnings in botanical study, of the considered decisions and surprise turns of fate that led him through his lifetime of travels in wild places. The book’s lavish reproductions of Muir’s actual pressed plant specimens accompany the text as it follows Muir from his student days in Wisconsin and Indiana, on through his thousand-mile walk from Kentucky to the Gulf of Mexico, and then his extensive ramblings in California and Alaska. Pages from Muir’s journals are included, many with leprechaun-like figures of himself. For example, one drawing shows Muir attempting to climb a Georgia grass that, if his scale is correct, stands a good 25 feet tall. In every drawing his plant press is strapped to his back or carefully laid nearby.

The plant specimens—over 150 are included—are both awesome and underwhelming. On the one hand, just to know that John Muir picked this particular bird’s foot fern frond in Yosemite in 1869, dried it in his backpack press, and sent it off to the Missouri Botanical garden, makes us feel somehow like a fly on the brim of his hat, eerily intimate with his comings and goings. Stephen Joseph’s masterful digital cleanup and repair of the images leaves them so crisp and precise they could be real dried plants pressed between the pages of the book. Still, they remain flattened dried plants, most lacking the color and pictorial drama usually associated with lavish coffee-table volumes. On balance, even this monotony may aid the presentation, helping us slow down and
appreciate details, reminding us of plants’ ephemeral reality, and most of all making us want to go outside and
look at plants with the particular quality of attention John Muir modeled for us. —Gina Covina

The Recycling Movie

A kindergarten teacher in Shaker Heights, Ohio, made this movie with his 2008 class to encourage kids all over the country to recycle. Only six minutes long and set to a catchy tune, the movie manages to get the message across that recycling is key to preserving Earth’s resources. Teacher and filmmaker Craig Matis and Nancy Clark say that their school, Laurel Elementary, successfully integrates environmentalism into its preprimary and primary curriculum. Each classroom has receptacles for garbage and recycling material, and every year the preprimary class takes a trip to a recycling plant/landfill in Oberlin, fifty minutes away, to let children know where garbage ends up. This video is a great tool for teachers wanting to introduce students to recycling and disposal. The ideal audience ranges from preschool to second grade. Copies of The Recycling Movie can be ordered free. Send an email to Matis at or —Scarlet Garcia

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