Poole’s phrases “recent nature writing” and “nature writers” amount to an indiscriminate homogenisation; current nature writing is the broadest of secular churches. Oliver Morton’s engaging personal saunter through the world of photosynthesis, Eating the Sun, for example, might be more properly labelled imaginative science writing, just as Robert Macfarlane‘s literal wanderings in his masterpiece The Old Ways is really imaginative travel literature.
Quite how well I fit there, though, I don’t know. I was thinking of exploring the matter in a blog post, but then realised that to quite a large extent I have already done so on this very blog, responding to a 2007 piece by MacFarlane that talks about the essence of nature writing.
Eating the Sun is definitely “in search of some version of ‘nature’”, and it is more of a first-person narrative than I necessarily expected it to be. But it does not share “a passionate engagement with ‘the land’”. Indeed rather the reverse. One of its original aims, which I think is probably fulfilled to some extent, but perhaps not as explicitly as it might have been, was to celebrate air as the basis of life — which it is for plants and thus, indirectly, for us. One aspect of this is to encourage an appreciation that the air is universal where the land is particular — the carbon taken in by trees in Brazil has come in part from your lungs and mine, the carbon taken in by the rose on my terrace has come from all the lungs of the world, not to mention coals that have sat buried for a million centuries.
One of my reasons for writing about photosyntheses was specifically this — that it was a way to talk about the living earth that did not have to be a way of talking about specific places (though there are specific places in the book, some of which I love deeply). I find ideologies of land and rootedness worrying intellectually and hard to partake in emotionally; I suspect them of being innately regressive and conservative. One of the great opportunities of the current carbon/climate crisis is to create what might be called an ideology of air — of valuing and caring for something common to all and intrinsically global, and of creating a passionate engagement with the open sky and the endless sun.
That still holds pretty true, and I am struck, re-reading it, by how well the ideology-of-air stuff at the end sits remarkably with my current conception of what the geoengineering book needs to do.
A passage from Eating the Sun takes on a similar set of distinctions:
I am not as sensitive as I might be to the subtleties of place. I lack a capacity for the sure recognition and the ready retention of names and distinctive detail. Learning to parse the shapes of leaves or the textures of rocks does not come easily to me, and I have never lived long enough in a non-urban landscape for such things to have seeped in through the capillaries of unattended observation. Given all this, the belief that life’s nature needs to be captured at the levels of the molecule and the planet—at levels perceived by the intellect and not the senses—provides me with some succour. It is far more abstracted than traditional ways of feeling close to nature; it is argued more than absorbed. Yet though it doesn’t grow out of the experience of life in the world, I find that it still serves to enrich that experience and to render it more profound. It ties the sky to the seed and the rain to the rock in a way the details of rustic experience cannot. I can see that there is something sad about a oneness with the world that can be felt as easily—sometimes more easily—from the window seat of an hermetically sealed and environmentally damaging passenger jet than when sitting on a riverbank and picking out the trout swimming upstream. But for all that this belief is a creature of the mind, rather than a sentiment grounded in birdsong and summer scents, it has meaning to me that I cannot reduce to analysis and it has the power to move me. And I think it can enhance more traditional forms of empathy with nature. It enriches the way I see trees on a scarp, or grass in the wind, or moss on a cliff, or a star in the sky, even though I can rarely recognise the species, rocks or constellations I may be looking at. A sense of planet can amplify a sense of place.
So I am not entirely sure I really belong there — but I am more than happy to be included in Mabey’s broad church, and flattered to be singled out. As long as no one minds that I don’t know the scriptures or when to genuflect.
I should have mentioned this before (self promotion FAIL) but in early August Eating the Sun finally became available in paperback (Amazon UK for £6.99, or any other vendor you choose). New cover goes for a slightly Richard-Mabey-ish vibe, which is probably a good idea; as I’ve said before, the book does have stuff to offer people in the nature writing tradition. That said, the way the word “Sun” ends up as subterranean in this cover treatment does seem a little odd to me. US paperback (with yet another cover) to follow later this fall.
This is a book about “the most important process on the planet”: photosynthesis. Plants grow by “eating the sun”, trapping its energy and using hydrogen from water and carbon from air to produce flowers, fruit and seeds. The “scrap of sunlight” converted into organic matter by the world’s plants each day is equivalent to the energy in the global arsenal of nuclear weapons. But, by releasing the energy locked away some 300m years ago in fossil fuels, we have upset the delicate balance of the carbon cycle and made “the atmosphere itself as artificial as a Capability Brown landscape”. From molecules to the planetary scale, Morton’s beautifully written book reveals how life is made from light. The living landscapes we inhabit are shaped by photosynthesis, and Morton’s sense of wonder at the pervasive influence of this process is nowhere stronger than while walking across the South Downs near his home: “It’s grassland like this, more than any other habitat, that gives us both homes and horizons.” A rich and wide-ranging study.
Having taken these words from The Guardian, I should point out as they would that you can buy the book through their bookshop at the RRP of £9.99, if you like.
Peter Smith, you should know, is among other things one of the best people to follow on twitter
A list on which I am delighted to feature…
Among current books about science, my favourite is Oliver Morton’s Eating the Sun (Fourth Estate), which makes a thriller out of photosynthesis. It hasn’t been as easy a read as, say, Andrew Smith’s Moondust, (Bloomsbury) but I already knew something about the Apollo programme. About photosynthesis I knew nothing, or thought I did: now I realize that I knew less than that. Figuring out how plants work isn’t rocket science – it’s a lot more complicated – but if you can do without the countdowns and the space suits, the biology laboratories are where the excitement is now.
Another US review for Eating the Sun: Kirkus (sub required). And delightfully, another star!
Meticulous but always engaging account of photosynthesis, the process that makes life possible.
Because most readers probably last encountered that word in high-school biology, science writer and Nature chief news editor Morton (Mapping Mars, 2002) faces a tough challenge in making the subject accessible, but he succeeds magnificently. The pace never flags in more than 400 pages recounting the history of life (essentially the history of photosynthesis) and of how plants convert sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into plant tissue, the source of animal flesh and food as well as oxygen and much of our landscape and weather. The author reminds us that the animal kingdom reverses photosynthesis. Animals consume oxygen, plants and each other to live, and then they die, decay and revert to inorganic matter, especially water and carbon dioxide. This cycle, stable for billions of years, is now out of whack, he notes. Humans are reversing photosynthesis on a massive scale by burning immense quantities of organic matter (coal, oil, wood), converting it back into carbon dioxide faster than plants can use it or the oceans and atmosphere can absorb it.
That unsurprising bad news comes late in the book. Until then readers will enjoy the author’s biographies of scientists and accounts of research that revealed the specifics of how plants make life happen. Photosynthesis didn’t exist when life appeared well over two billion years ago, but it came soon after; Morton tells us how life probably originated and then delivers a detailed history of plant evolution to the present day. Because he describes these events as well as his scientist subjects’ thoughts, quarrels and experiments in precise detail, this is not a book to skim, but readers willing to take time will not regret it.
Top-notch popular-science writing.
On the skimming point: please feel free to skim if you want to skim. In fact, the US edition includes a new glossary intended to help skimmers figure out what’s going on if they find that in their ecstasy of fumbling they have skimmed right past the introduction of some key concept or other. That said, obviously front-to-back readers are welcome too. Also back-to-front readers. Also people too busy to read at all; this book will give you a thrill of satisfaction through mere ownership. I promise…
US launch is now rescheduled for November 18th, due to a minor snafu. This should hold firm. I’ll try and mention any events associated with it here, and they will have a category all of their own. You can also check out the page at GoodReads, which should have a live calendar.
My excellent colleague Daniel, who blogs for us at Nature’s Great Beyond, has brought Wordle to my attention, and I now bring it to yours. It’s a tag cloud generator, and a very elegant one, I think, made by Jonathan Feinberg (who also, very coolly, used to drum for They Might Be Giants). I’ve used it on the three parts of Eating the Sun, in part to see if there are differences in the clouds that can have any meaning ascribed to them, in part because it is fun and pretty and easy.
The three parts, for those who have yet to buy or read the book, deal with the subject in three ways: the first looks at the recent scientific history of photosynthesis, the second looks at the impact of photosynthesis on the history of the earth, and the third looks at photosynthesis in the context of the current carbon/climate crisis. Some patterns are indeed there to see in the wordles: energy is an issue in the recent history and the implications, for example, but not so much in the section on the earth, where oxygen comes to the fore. Carbon becomes more and more dominant as the book goes on.
That aside, they are quite pretty, though not as good as Daniel’s wonderful “Origin of Species”, which has T-shirt written all over it, or vice versa, or whatever. You can click through for higher res. Wordle clouds aren’t automatically generated with a vaguely tree-ish shape, by the way: there’s been some unnatural selection in the process.
Images: generated by me using Wordle, and available under a creative commons license
Update: I’ve added another Wordle tag-cloud to the entry “What’s ‘Eating the Sun’ about?” that shows how reviewers have answered that question
For comparison: the opening of chapter 6 of Eating the Sun
The agency of animals is a visible thing. Their eyes blink, their gills flutter, their hackles rise, their pulses set the rhythm for their lives. They move back and forth, here and there, drawing their histories out behind them like the blur of a cheetah or the slime of a slug. The lines of their lives criss-cross the world, from the gyres of the ocean-circling albatross to the stochastic pinballing of a fly against a windowpane. The whole point of being an animal is trying to get somewhere else. Quite a few—let’s hear it for the oysters—have given up on this birthright, and rely on currents and providence to bring them their world. But most of us have not.
Plants, on the other hand, very rarely move themselves around; they just grow, and in almost every case they do so imperceptibly. By and large, the agency of plants is invisible. This is the simplest, and perhaps the most profound, of the differences between those that eat light and those that eat others. It is why plants have a relationship with their environment both more intimate and more abstract than that of any animal. It is why they have no faces and no hearts.
This great difference stems from the fact that sunlight is, at the efficiencies photosynthesis is capable of, a rather dilute source of energy….
…Trees are generally pleasing to look at, with the exception of the birch, which comes off as a bit “uppity”. But what’s below all the eye candy?
Well it turns out that trees make oxygen, which is important to many people worldwide. A tree can also be converted into wood, which has several uses, although once it becomes wood, the tree loses its oxygen-providing capability, so it’s a double-edged sword.
If that’s all there was to it, trees would be a no brainer. But as always, there are complications lurking below the surface.
First of all, trees take a long time to “grow”. You can start a tree now and possibly be dead by the time it starts to provide a significant benefit to you. This requires a degree of philanthropism on your part to even begin the process.
Additionally, leaf-bearing trees generate a huge mess every year, rudely dumping last season’s fashion everywhere with callous disregard to property values or the volume of work required to clean them up.
Trees also provide sanctuary to filthy birds who chirrup endlessly in the small hours of the morning, despite this author’s yells and throwing of little rocks. [Whole thing]
The cartoon’s by Rosemary Mosco, coloured by Stephanie Yue, all rights reserved, and will be taken down if she has a problem with it …[update: she didn't, except to point out that Stephanie deserved a shout out.] Thanks to Jenny for spotting it
Over the holiday I read Richard Mabey’s Beechcombings (Amazon UK), a fascinating and enjoyable book about which I may well have more to say, but which I currently wish simply to digest and to put into the context of some other current reading.
However, this passage from Edward Carpenter (mystical socialist and, wikilegedly, the man who introduced the sandal into Britain) that he quotes in a chapter called “Electric Beeches” struck such a chord of recognition with me that I thought I’d share it here, along with the passage in Eating the Sun it reminded me of:
It was a beech, standing somewhat isolated, and still leafless in quite early spring. Suddenly I was aware of its skyward-reaching arms and upturned fingertips, as if some vivid life (or electricity) was streaming through them into the spaces of heaven, and of its roots plunged into the earth and drawing the same energies from below. The day was quite still and there was no movement in the branches, but in that moment the tree was no longer a separate or separable organism, but a vast being ramifying far into space, sharing and uniting the life of earth and sky, and full of the most amazing activity.
– Pagan and Christian Creeds, 1904
Now reverse the polarity:
Think of a beech tree in winter, its leaves lost, its architecture revealed in dark lines against cold grey cloud. Do what Robin Hill used to urge his children to do to cultivate the artist’s eye—take away the tree’s established “common sense” context by turning round, bending over and looking at it upside down through your legs. Its growth looks less like something pushed from the earth than it does something drawn from the sky. Its limbs, branches and twigs spread into the air like ink into blotting paper or cracks spreading through glass, embodying something between desire and transubstantiation.
The tree’s form tells the truth. The tree grows into the air because it grows out of the air. The bulk of the tree is not made from the soil beneath it—indeed, the soil is in large part made by the tree. Both soil and tree are made from carbon drawn from the sky above. Trees are built from sun and wind and rain. The land is just a place to stand.– Eating the Sun, 2007
“No longer a separable organism” strikes a strong chord with me, and “ramifying into space” always seems like a good idea. Most crucially, “Sharing and uniting the life of earth and sky”, as Carpenter had it, is more or less what photosynthesis does, and as such what I set out to celebrate. But it does it by pumping celestial energies into the earth, not vice versa. As in electric circuits of a more mundane sort, the earth is the sink, not the source.
Filed under: By, with or from EtS
Chris Surridge knows a lot about plants and has been kind enough to instruct me now and then. He used to work at Nature (before I moved here) and now works for PLoS ONE up in Cambridge. He recently put these pictures up on Facebook and I thought I’d link to them because they recapitulate in part a little detail in Eating the Sun — the ride from the city centre to the village of Barton. This is the ride that Robin Hill used to take every day going home from the biochemistry department, though he would not have gone along Kings Parade, and I would imagine probably not down Newnham Avenue, either. Hill made a number of fundamental contributions to the science of photosynthesis, most notably the “Hill reaction” (which rather becomingly he did not refer to as such himself) in which isolated chloroplasts are induced to release oxygen and the Z-scheme, which explains how the two photosystems work together. Maybe some of the inspiration for one or other came from the cycle ride (which took him past the house of his friend and mentor David Keilin). Even if it didn’t, it’s a very nice ride to take on a dry afternoon at this time of year, and Hill’s destination, Vatches Farm, would be a lovely place to come home to:
Hill had admired, perhaps loved, Vatches for some time. As an undergraduate he had more than once cycled out to Barton to sketch it. Following in his bike-tracks on one of those perfect afternoons with which Cambridge so often and somewhat misleadingly sees in the new academic year, it was easy to understand the attraction. The main building is a long whitewashed farm-house just across the road from the duck pond on the village green. The south-facing garden—now divided between a few different properties, as the farm was broken up after Robin and Priscilla died in the early 1990s—is a lovely mixture of lawns, flowers and orchards, lit by warm, low sun. Under the old fruit trees he used to tend to the fallen apples perfume the air. Between two small lawns in the eastern part of the garden (for which its new owners have justly won awards) stands a striking, proud beech tree that Hill must have planted not that long after he and Priscilla bought the place. Nearby is what seems to be a relic from the trip to Singapore: an amelanchier of some sort, the current owner tells me, which in the spring fills the air with a scent of almonds and coconut. At the end of the main lawn a farm gate set in a line of trees opens on to farmland. A grassy track leads through a field already ploughed for winter wheat; a mile or so away, the dish of the university’s radio telescope at Lord’s Bridge Road slowly sweeps the skies.
I quite like commuting in over the Thames and past St Pauls, but those pictures do make me envy Chris a little.
Pictures courtesy of Chis Surridge and the Howe lab, University of Cambridge, rights reserved
People ask, occasionally, and so it seemed it would be nice to have something to point them at. “Eating the Sun: How plants power the planet” is a book about photosynthesis — about how it works, about how it came to be explained by science, about how it has shaped the planet and about the role it plays in the current carbon/climate crisis. Here’s a version of the copy that should be running on the cover flap of the UK hardback when it appears this summer.
Photosynthesis is the most mundane of miracles. It surrounds us in our gardens, parks and countryside; even our cityscapes are shot through with trees and windowboxes. Wherever nature offers us greenery, the molecular machinery of photosynthesis is making oxygen, energy and living matter from the raw material of sunlight, water and carbon dioxide.
We rarely give the green machinery that brings about this transformation much thought. Few of us understand its beautifully honed mechanisms, or the profound role that the carbon cycle it drives has played in the history of the earth. We are only dimly aware that it is the basis of our lives three times over: the ultimate source of all our food, of our every breath, and of the fossil fuels that drive our civilisation.
Eating the Sun will foster and enrich that awareness. It connects the inspiring stories of the scientists who fathomed the depths of photosynthesis with the crucial role the molecular mechanisms they discovered have played in more than two billion years of evolution. And it brings those tales to bear on the most vital challenge of the coming century – managing the new carbon cycle, and the new climate, that have come into being since the industrial revolution released millions of years of stored sunlight into the modern world, and billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere.
Eating the Sun will change the way you see the world.
At least that’s the idea.
Update: You can see what other people think about it under the Reviews received tag
There’s more about how I see the book elsewhere in the blog, for example in this post on the book’s relation to nature writing.
Further update: here’s a way of seeing how other people answered the question, in the form of a tag cloud generated by Wordle from the combined texts of all the reviews of the UK edition to which I can still get access (the one in the Sunday Times seems to have vanished. More Wordle fun in this post)