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