Essential Reads

The Contributions of Ruby and Arthur Van Deventer With an essay by David Rains Wallace
Edited by Rick Bennett and Susan Calla
Heyday Books (2009), $35.
When California’s leading botanist Willis Linn Jepson met Ruby Van Deventer in 1936, the wild and practically roadless northwest corner of the state presented the most conspicuous gap in knowledge of California flora. Van Deventer, a lifelong resident of Del Norte County and an
enthusiastic amateur naturalist, undertook to fill that gap, with Jepson’s tutelage and encouragement. Eventually Van Deventer gathered and described over 3,500 specimens. Her
husband Arthur made meticulous watercolor paintings of hundreds of plants. This handsome book offers a sampling of Arthur’s plant portraits and a glimpse into a botanizing friendship that helped create a record of a remarkable flora.

Arthur’s botanical illustrations seem underwhelming at first, with their timid brushstrokes and modest amateur air. A second look reveals how very carefully he watched the plants to see how they showed him their characters through gestures of leaf and stem or the angle of a flower’s nod, all of which he reproduced faithfully. The result: a beauty and dignity specific to each species. David Rains Wallace’s accompanying biographical essay lights up the relationship
between Van Deventer and Jepson. What a lot of fun they had finding plants, identifying them, and leaving a record still useful and beautiful today. —Gina Covina

Tree Spiker
From Earth First! to Lowbagging: My Struggles in Radical Environmental Action

By Mike Roselle with Josh Mahan
St. Martin’s (2009), $24.99
The CliffsNotes of radical protest, particularly around forest issues, Tree Spiker zeros in on the good stuff at the expense of haggling and history. This has its positives: for instance, although the decades’ long pounding of egos among the environmental movement’s bull elephant seals
can be easily inferred, we don’t have to hear much about it.

Mike Roselle dove into the world of activism to party (remember the Yippies?), but stuck around out of conviction. The cofounder of Rainforest Action Network, Earth First!, and the Ruckus Society, Roselle has a low tolerance for appeasement and long meetings. He may also have had a low tolerance for putting together this book, hitting the high points over a few pints. Many of these stories are hilarious, and the book is written in a chatty, no-holds-barred style that takes you behind the scenes to see, for example, what happened during that Woody Harrelson/Golden Gate Bridge stunt. In his time on the frontline (which continues as he fights King Coal), Roselle
discovers that the important features of success are persistence, nonviolence, and having fun. This will surprise some, but Roselle is convincing, and his lambasting of anarchist-led riots
at the Seattle WTO makes the point.

Although the book is enjoyable all the way through, the last couple chapters, in which Roselle sums up his hard-won wisdom, are worth the price. This is a great gift for budding activists. They’ll insist on learning these lessons themselves, but it helps to have a nudge, and it’s inspiring to see how much sway a few dedicated people can bring to an argument, gradually shifting the weight of public opinion from apathy to appreciation. —Linnea Due

Evolution: The Story of Life
By Douglas Palmer, illustrations by Peter Barrett
University of California Press (2009), $39.95
This year marked naturalist Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, as well as the 150th anniversary of the publication of his masterwork On the Origin of Species. In commemoration, the University of California Press has released Evolution: The Story of Life, a stunning coffeetable picture book showing the twists and turns life has taken over approximately the last 600 million years.

The book’s central feature is a timeline of a hundred full-color, vividly illustrated “snapshots” of the world’s best-known fossil sites, each displaying a representative spectrum of the creatures and plant life that existed at that location during a key geologic era. Author Douglas Palmer is quick to point out that portraying extinct species, particularly those with no surviving ancestors to serve as artists’ models, is an uncertain process. Each of the illustrations is accompanied by photographs of fossils from that time period, showing the basis for illustrator Peter Barrett’s work, as well as inset maps showing how the Earth’s continents were arranged at the time.

The illustrations portray ancient fauna that are, by turn, elegant (the Confusciusornis, a primitive bird of the Early Cretacious Epoch with two strikingly long feathers that blaze behind it like the tail of a shooting star), terrifying (the Dunkleosteus, an armored fish of the Late Devonian Epoch that “could deliver the most powerful bite of any fish known in the history of life, with a chopping force… in the Tyrannosaur league”), and downright bizarre (the Beipairosaurus of the Early Cretaceous Epoch, that looks like what you’d get if you crossed a turkey with a lizard and added a set of ten-centimeter claws.) And, oh yes, we and our ancestors
are in there, too, at the very end of the timeline along with the last of the giant bison and the flightless moa birds. It’s a pleasure to page through this book and marvel not only at the infinite variety of what the evolutionary process has already wrought, but to wonder where natural selection will take us next. —Kara Platoni

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