Books I Liked in 2020

With plenty of time on my hands because of the pandemic, I expected I’d have read many more books than I did in 2020. Then I realized that I used to do most of my reading during my train commute!

Still, I recommend a few, mostly written by women:

“Vesper Flights” is a beautiful collection of essays by the British naturalist Helen Macdonald. The title essay is one of the best things I read all year – deep and powerful and inspiring. The book was my constant companion while reading in my garden this summer, with a pair of binoculars at my side in case any interesting birds stopped by.

Perfect summer garden reading

I also enjoyed reading the science-fiction short story collection “The Future Is Female,” which includes stories by famous and obscure writers, some of whom hid their gender from magazine publishers. One story in particular, “He Created Them,” by Alice Eleanor Jones, has haunted me. You can read it here.

In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, I wanted to educate myself more about racism and get ideas about what I could do. I read “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo after attending a lecture she gave about her research into racism and white people’s inability to discuss or reckon with their actions. This is pretty heavy book, but it’s also very approachable. DiAngelo is not trying to shame anyone, she’s just trying to encourage white people to be better.

I also wanted to read more books by nonwhite authors, so I read “The Fifth Season” by N.K. Jemisin – a science fiction novel about a society that enslaves and denigrates people who can save their society from ruin. I also recommend another science-fiction anthology, “Dark Matter,” stories written by Black authors. Science fiction works best when it shines a mirror on our society, and there are plenty of stories in this book that will make you think.

For pure escapism in books, I didn’t get far in 2020. (I guess reality was pretty strange enough). The closest I got was “Natural History” by Carlos Fonseca. The first half of the book was excellent – beautiful and strange with fabulous characters and atmosphere – but the second half was very disappointing. Boo.

Finally, to try to understand what is going on in American society and the power of Donald Trump, I thought it was important to look beyond the headlines. I recommend “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism” by Anne Appelbaum. She lays out many examples of history where people get sucked into support for authoritarian regimes – most often not because they really agree with authoritarianism or hope to profit from it – but because they see no other choice, lack courage to fight, hope to use the system for “good,” or think they can work from within to defend their society from authoritarianism’s darkest impulses.

She also provides lots of examples of die-hard supporters of regimes, who suddenly see authoritarianism for what it is, and then work to defeat it. One good example is a man who was a devoted foot soldier of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, who’d blindly followed and did anything asked of him. One day at party headquarters, he met a similar Communist foot soldier from another country, who was visiting to learn about the Soviet system. The visitor asked for directions to the cafeteria to get a meal. He was asked what kind of meal ticket he had – there was one cafeteria for the rank-and-file and another for the elites. The visitor was outraged at this system – are they not all brothers in Communism? Why do they not all eat together?

Good point, the Soviet party foot solider thought. Why is that? And with this little seed of doubt planted in his mind, this man would doubt more and more, and eventually go on to be a leader in the fall of the Soviet Union.

I end with this little story of hope in bleak times.

Looking forward to 2021, what do you recommend?

Four Years On

I voted yesterday for Joe Biden. And as I stood in line to vote (we waited about an hour as a socially-distanced line snaked around the block) I took stock in all I have done during this past four years to unclench the dread in my stomach brought on by Trump’s election.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg mask for Election Day

Those of you not in the US may not understand or care much about what’s happening in the US, but for those of us in the US who oppose Trump, it’s all we’ve been able to think about for four years.

I used to be a journalist and was truly objective in my personal political views. I belonged to no political party, because I didn’t like either of the two choices I got. I found things to like in both parties, and things not to like. I trained myself to see both points of view. When voting, sometimes I chose Republicans and sometimes Democrats.

In 2016 I voted for Hillary Clinton for president. I was not an enthusiastic supporter, but there was no way I would vote for Trump. I posted on Facebook “Go Hillary!” It was the start of an awakening for me.

I arose after a sleepless night the day after the 2016 election in deep mourning over Trump’s victory. A mentor told me I’d better be prepared to fight like hell for what I believed in, for I’d better kiss it goodbye.

But what did I believe in? This crisis made it clear. I believe:

  • A woman’s body is her own.
  • Black lives matter
  • Love is love.
  • Climate change is real, and humans are responsible.
  • Science is real.
  • God is not real.
  • Greed is killing us.
  • Clean air and water are basic human rights.
  • Education is a basic human right.
  • A living wage is a basic human right.
  • Health care is a basic human right.
  • I could go on and on

In some ways, I have been radicalized by Trump’s election. I am responding to an existential threat. I don’t see how anyone can sit on the sidelines.

I sewed piles of pink “Pussy Hats” and participated in my first Women’s March that January.

Women’s March in New York City, January 2017, with Grand Central Terminal in the background

And I have been to one every year since. A sign I got from Planned Parenthood at a rally lives in my car trunk – I take it out whenever I need something to hold.

Women’s March January 2020

I opened my wallet to support organizations that were fighting against the Trump administration’s crimes against the environment, health care, education, immigrants, voting rights, and many more.

I wrote letters. I attended lectures. I read books. I made phone calls to strangers. I spoke out, early and often, to express my point of view.

Sierra Club’s letter-writing campaign

What good did it all do? Did my work convince anyone, move the needle one iota? Or did it just make me feel good? Was I naive to think that an army of women in pink hats was going to change anything?

Yes I was. I now see the depths my country can sink to. How so many people can disregard rampant corruption and incompetence, lying, cruelty, bigotry, misogyny, hatred, and embrace fantastical thinking, violence, and destruction, all because of what? A few more dollars in your pocket? A feeling of “white power?” The right to carry a gun anyplace? A stop to abortion? A gleeful feeling from making progressive thinkers cry?

And what about the Democrats? What a bunch of idiots! I really DO NOT like either party. They get a big share of the blame for taking votes for granted and for nominating some bland old career politican to fight Trump.

The next few days are going to be rough for me as the votes are counted and as challenges wind up in court. I have no sense of optimism. Regardless of whether Trump wins or loses in the end, this is my country – a place where millions and millions of people think he’s the best.

Martin Luther King said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It is hard to see that arc right now.

But, texting with a friend this morning, I was reminded that there will come a day when Trump is no longer President. Whether that’s in January 2021, January 2025, or some day in between, this too shall pass. And even if Biden wins, the work is not over – we will need to continue to fight, weary as we are.

For self-care I sewed some quilts this spring, as Covid-19 killed Americans even as Trump ignored it:

Persist!

We must keep going – must persist – no matter what happens.

Fighting Against Fitting In

The moss is taking over the patio. And I love it.

I like to lie on a chaise and stroke the moss with the tips of my fingers, like how you’d pet a tiny sleeping kitten.

Thick lovely moss

I like to watch the way the spores spread and bloom and thicken throughout the summer. I like visit places where something – probably a skunk or opossum – has dug up the moss in the night, in search of fat moist invertebrates to eat. During the day, in spring, birds strip off pieces, springy and green, to line their nests and cushion their eggs.

Spores spreading – and a bird visited recently.

But moss is one of those things that don’t fit in. One of those things we’re supposed to strip away from the bricks, so carefully and expensively laid in the garden. So we have to find ways to argue against the desire to make every bit of nature conform to our expectations.

Why can’t we resist the urge to remove whatever doesn’t fit in? How badly do we want to have things our way?

Things start easily enough. Let’s have a nice garden, we say. Let’s have a lawn, some flower beds, a vegetable plot, a patio. So we hire someone to do the bits we can’t or don’t want to do, and we take on the rest of the work. We plan, shop, dig, plant, water, fertilize – and then we expect to enjoy.

Nature laughs at our plans.

Our property is overrun with the native weed purslane this summer. It’s been very hot and dry hardly any rain all summer – and the purslane took full advantage of its opportunity.

Purslane takes over

Mile-a-minute weed also spread. And crabgrass. And then we had lots of bare patches of dirt where everything died and nothing replaced it.

So now we have planted grass seeds. Which means we have to water. The lawn is crisscrossed with hoses to golf course sprinklers that need to run daily for an hour. Stop watering, we have wasted time and money. And then will come the pressure – or the expectation – to apply the crabgrass killer, the grub killer, the other chemicals to remove whatever doesn’t fit in with our concept of “lawn.”

A pretty garden, if not for a mile of black hoses everywhere…

I needed to arm myself with a lot of information to fight the urge to slide down this slippery slope. Lawns are a waste of water. In the future there will be water shortages anyway, so the effort will be wasted. We will have to mow all the time. These chemicals are irresponsible to use, bad for the environment. Harmful to birds. The annual maintenance of a perfect lawn will cost thousands of dollars.

Lawns are stupid.

So we agreed to seed and water, and water more next summer, if needed – if the hot dry conditions continue. And why won’t they? The Pacific Northwest, California, the Amazon, Australia – all in flames. Surely we will be next.

Once we accept a less-than-perfect lawn, how freeing! Let the moss stay! Leave the spent perennials as they are – the goldfinches and siskins will pick them clean in no time.

Goldfinches have been filling up on seeds from these coneflowers.

Citizen Science for the Love of Trees

I love ginkgo trees so much that for my birthday one year, I asked my husband for a tree. It’s been growing steadily for four years, and now it’s going to contribute to climate science!

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My little ginkgo – ready for action!

I joined up on the National Science Foundation’s “Fossil Atmospheres” project, which combines contributions from citizens and scientists from the National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center to conduct climate change research. The project needs citizens around the US to send leaves and photos of ginkgo and to enter data about the tree into a database. (See Fossil Atmospheres for more info.)

Ginkgo are native to China and are the among most ancient trees on earth, little changed from the days when dinosaurs munched on their leaves. Because they are so ancient, they provide a great fossil record for comparison with modern trees.

You’d know a ginkgo if you ever saw one – they are the only tree on earth with a leaf that remotely looks like this (and yes, I have read a whole book about ginkgo).

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It’s hard for even the most callow citizen scientist to misidentify one. If you do, some ginkgo in public gardens and parks will have labels, like this one, on another ginkgo in a park near my house:

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I wanted to send in at least two samples, so I sampled my little tree and also a very large, older tree that sits on the grounds of the public library near my house.

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Grandma ginkgo

I love looking at this tree – which I call “Grandma Ginkgo” and imagining what my little tree might look like in 100 years.

The project requires you to take a few samples, photos and observations. You need to take one cluster of at least six leaves off each tree to be sampled. You must cushion the leaves inside a few sheets of newspaper and then reinforce the bundle with cardboard, so the samples don’t get damaged in the mail.

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Leaf samples ready for mailing

You also need to note the sex of the tree. Yes – ginkgo are male or female. Most trees you see around are male, because people usually don’t want to deal with female trees’ stinky fruit. The fruit covers a nut that some people find delicious. I have never tried it but I promise to this year (it involves a lot of prep work and can be toxic in large doses, so there are other issues besides the smell). Here’s what a developing fruit looks like (courtesy of Grandma Ginkgo). It turns golden yellow when ripe:

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You also need to note what side of the tree the sample came from (north, south, east or west) so the scientists can adjust for sun exposure. And you note the approximate height of the tree – 10-30 feet or 30+ feet.

Here are some other fun facts about ginkgo:

  • The oldest specimens are over 2,500 years old, making them among the oldest living things on earth
  • In the fall, the leaves turn a lemony yellow color. All the leaves drop in one day.
  • The first European visitors to China took home ginkgo seeds to plant in the UK, the Netherlands, France, and Germany
  • They’re among the most popular street trees in Manhattan – accounting for about 10% of all trees there
  • The leaves and nuts have many medicinal properties

And here are some gratuitous photos of some of the ginkgo motif items in my own home. What can I say? I am a nut for ginkgo!

If you want to participate in this project, follow the directions at Fossil Atmospheres and get your samples in by September 1!