Electric Beeches
January 11, 2008, 6:56 pm
Filed under: Books, By, with or from EtS, Nature writing, Trees

Beech tree by TreehuggerOver 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.

Beech tree picture from Treehugger, under a creative commons license. And while we’re at it here are some more beeches from talented people on Flickr

The road to Barton
September 18, 2007, 5:37 pm
Filed under: By, with or from EtS

The road to BartonChris 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 Robin Hillwould 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

What’s “Eating the Sun” about?
June 10, 2007, 12:51 pm
Filed under: By, with or from EtS, Reviews received

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)

Eating the Sun reviews Wordled