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?

The Joy and Heartbreak of Apple Trees

I planted two apple trees 10 years ago. Each year, I faithfully watered, fertilized, pruned and cleaned up around the trees. I even tried sprays to control for insects and blights.

And I got no apples.

Deer invaded our yard and ate the new growth. We put up a fence. One tree died after five years when some rodent chewed up the tender graft point. The other tree lived but never thrived. It didn’t take root properly and blew over in a hurricane. I rerooted and staked it. I kept up the orchard husbandry. I got a few apples, but most of them were lost to squirrels, birds, and bugs.

Two years ago, I said the heck with it and left the tree to its own devices.

This year I got a ton of apples.

IMG_20190824_132315
Only took 10 years to get these apples

OK, not a ton, but a good basketful and more on the tree to harvest soon.

Joy at finally having my work pay off? Yes. Heartbreak that the apples are malformed, shot full of bugs and not that tasty? Again, yes.

Out of the whole basket, only these three apples look “good enough” to maybe pass for supermarket apples:

IMG_20190824_132942
Winner, runner-up and third place in my backyard-grown apple beauty contest

Who am I kidding? If most people saw these apples at the store, they’d pass them by. The next time you buy apples at the market, think of how much human intervention is required to get something picture-perfect.

If you have ever been apple-picking, you’ve noticed that commercial orchards keep their trees pruned to the point of being stunted, for easier harvests and bigger yields. My grandparents pruned their trees annually and still had to use a homemade apple-picker made out of an old broomstick and a twisted wire coat hanger to pick some fruit.

Because I have not pruned the tree in a few years, it’s even harder to harvest. I had to buy one of these telescoping fruit-picking gizmos.

IMG_20190824_131424
Long arm of the fruit tree cultivator

From the ground, looking up into the branches, lots of great fruit seems within reach. I finagle the fruit-picker under a tasty-looking apple, pluck it, and pop it into the basket. It looks pretty good:

IMG_20190824_131318
Right side

Then I flip it over:

IMG_20190824_131321
Wrong side

Yuck. Damn birds.

I mean, I love birds and I don’t mind sharing a few apples with them. But they prefer to peck at many apples instead of just eating one. Hey bird – if you’re going to start an apple, finish it before you go onto the next one!

Many pecked-up apples rot on the tree, Those that fall get a second life as a meal for raccoons and squirrels. This windfall encourages the raccoons and squirrels to visit again and again. I try to vigilantly pick up any fallen apples right away, but every morning some more lie on the grass, chewed and brown and yucky.

I took the basket of “good” apples inside, washed them, then got to work prepping them. These are Cortland apples, meant for cooking not eating. They’re good for pies, sauces and things like that. I figured I’d made an apple crisp. I mixed the apple pieces with the juice of a lemon, 1/4 cup of sugar, 1/2 teaspoons of nutmeg and cinnamon. The crisp topping is made from 1/4 cup each of butter, flour, brown sugar and chopped toasted pecans.

An hour of coring, peeling and slicing, and an hour of baking later:

IMG_20190825_194037
Apple crisp

It was pretty tasty – the apples are pretty tart, which I like. I feel a great sense of joy at this too. And then I think of all that work just for one apple crisp, to be enjoyed for a couple of meals when I could buy something similar for a few bucks. Heartbreak again!

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!

IMG_20190817_143602 (1)
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).

IMG_20190821_163139

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:

IMG_20190817_114720 (1)

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.

IMG_20190817_114421 (2)
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.

IMG_20190817_154642
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:

IMG_20190817_114636 (1)

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!