A Bintel Brief and The Harlem Hellfighters are two New York Stories. That's why I'm combining them in this review; not because — as some purists still think — they're lesser works of literature because they're graphic novels. If Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Bayeux Tapestry, and Art Spiegelman's 1991 classic, Maus, haven't yet convinced the high-art holdouts of the value of stories told in visual sequence, nothing I say now about these two books is likely to. Which is a shame because A Bintel Brief by Liana Finck and The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks and illustrated by Caanan White are two of the most powerful books I've read so far this year.
A Bintel Brief takes its title from the column of the same name that first appeared in 1906 in the Yiddish language newspaper The Daily Forward. Literally translated as "a bundle of letters," the Bintel Brief was an advice column in which Jewish immigrants new to New York City could ask practical questions, as well as give voice to their loneliness, dreams and fears. The Forward's legendary editor, Abraham Cahan, answered the letters himself and the column made The Forward the most widely read Yiddish-language newspaper in the world.
Author and illustrator Liana Finck places herself in this story, as a young woman who opens a notebook of old clippings from The Forward and finds herself confronted with the cranky apparition of Cahan. Together they walk the streets of the Lower East Side, past abandoned synagogues and pickle factories, talking about the immigrants' letters. Finck has adapted 11 actual letters from The Forward; they range from the daffy (a barber obsessed by a nightmare in which he slits the throat of a customer) to the tormented: I'm thinking especially of the final letter in this collection, written by a desolate young woman whose fiance died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911.
Finck's illustrations intensify the emotional resonance of these letters, invoking the buoyant magic of Marc Chagall, but also sometimes descending into the cramped world of the tenements. One page here, for instance, shows a couple, despairing over their infertility, sinking and dissolving into their old sofa. Wisely, Finck appreciates that the power of the Bintel Brief stories derives from the fact that they're eternally open-ended. What happened to that "mad barber" or that young man in Brooklyn who didn't want to bring his father over from the Old Country? Or that baker cursed with a two-timing wife? Cahan gave them his best advice, but we'll never know if they took it.
The Harlem Hellfighters begins and ends in New York, but it spends years mired in the trenches and battlefields of France. That's because Max Brooks and Caanan White have dramatized the history of the 369th Infantry Regiment during World War I. This African-American regiment — called "The Men of Bronze" by their French allies and "The Harlem Hellfighters" by their German enemies — spent 191 days in combat, longer than any other American unit, white or black, and were one of the most decorated units in the entire American expeditionary force. They helped make "the world safe for democracy," even if, as one Hellfighter in this story ruefully says, "democracy wasn't exactly 'safe' back home."
As Brooks and White detail in panel after vivid panel, The Hellfighters fought a two-front war: against the enemy "over there" and racial prejudice everywhere, but particularly from their fellow Americans and their own government. The Hellfighters' story stretches from enlistment halls in Harlem to training camps in Spartanburg, S.C. — where these soldiers were handed broomsticks instead of rifles and were confronted with signs in local shops that read, "No dogs or coloreds." The Hellfighters were deployed to Europe quietly, while the rest of the New York National Guard — the so called Rainbow Division — were given a grand parade send-off by the city. The Hellfighters were told, "Black is not a color of the Rainbow."
This is a stunning work of historical recovery and a very graphic graphic novel: bodies explode, rats feed on corpses, men are strafed and gassed. It's not pretty, but the "in your face" style of The Harlem Hellfighters is suited to dramatizing a crucial part of American history that hasn't been thrust forcefully enough into our collective faces.
A German quartet calling themselves the Salut Salon is surging in social media right now with a bout of one-upwomanship that mixes together music, acrobatics and some good slapstick timing.
Classical comedy isn't new, of course. Just for starters, there's Igudesman and Joo (whom we've had perform in our Washington studio), Mnozil Brass, P.D.Q. Bach and, going back a few decades, Victor Borge.
But in this age of viral videos, Salut Salon's mash-up of Vivaldi, Mozart, Kurt Weill and the Mission Impossible theme is delighting global viewers — to the tune of more than 2 million YouTube hits so far. All we can say is: Keep up that flexibility, ladies, though the cellist may want to look into some Alexander technique. She looks like she's in a lot of pain much of the time. Yeowch.
Josh Gibbs normally wouldn't leave his apartment in Northeast Washington, D.C., pick up a loaded pizza from a restaurant in Chinatown, bike to a complete stranger's apartment, drop off the pizza and leave without any cash exchanging hands. But last week, he did just that. And truth be told, he kind of loved it.
"It's exciting. It's just fun," he says. "When the app goes off, when it beeps, I get this little adrenaline rush. I can make some money. It's like a game."
The app he's referring to is Postmates, a service that allows users in five cities — D.C., New York, San Francisco, Seattle and, as of last month, Chicago — to order any item, from any store or restaurant, any time of day, and receive it within an hour. The couriers are everyday people like Gibbs, who's a full-time teacher, and all the money is transferred through a smartphone app, no physical cash involved. Think of it as the Uber of home delivery.
Gibbs, 23, is an avid biker, and he had toyed with the idea of making some extra money as a courier before. But he didn't know where to start.
Along came Postmates, which made the job seem not only appealing but also accessible. Gibbs started working for the startup three days after he applied.
"It's something I can do on the side. I can work during the dinner rush; I can work after the school year," he says. "I'm on my bike anyway."
A Low Barrier To Entry
Postmates is part of a burgeoning cohort of tech-savvy on-demand delivery services. In D.C., there's Urban Delivery; in San Francisco, Shyp; in Chicago and Manhattan, eBay-owned Shutl; also in Manhattan, UberRUSH, which entered the game just last week.
It's also part of a larger phenomenon that MIT researcher Denise Cheng calls the peer economy — "platforms that allow people to monetize skills and assets that they already have," she says. This includes Uber, TaskRabbit, Airbnb and Etsy, among some of the larger players.
The biggest appeal of these platforms, she says, is the potential of making money with a low barrier to entry. Amateur crafters don't have to open a storefront to sell their wares on Etsy. Homeowners don't need to devote their career to hospitality to list their place on Airbnb. And most Postmates couriers don't have prior experience with that kind of job, says CEO and co-founder Bastian Lehmann. They're simply doing it for the money.
"Additional income is the No. 1 thing for most of the people," Lehmann says. A lot of Postmates' workers are artists or musicians, he says. "They like a secondary income. They have a lifestyle that's probably not supported by a 9-to-5 job."
That full-time work model is no longer automatically attainable, Cheng says, and the peer economy provides an appealing alternative.
"You're able to generate income without having to pile on skills," she says.
There is an immaterial appeal, too, to working in the peer economy. The companies often come with a promise of bonding with other people on the platform — Postmates organizes courier happy hours, for example — meeting interesting people in the community and minimizing environmental impact. It's a charismatic work model, Cheng says.
A Supplement, Not A Replacement
Despite its success so far, the peer economy likely won't replace the traditional model of gainful employment any time soon. Lehmann wouldn't say how much Postmates workers make in a week. Gibbs made about $50 in his first week on the job. It's nice pocket money, he says, but it won't pay his rent.
The low barrier to entry also means there's a low barrier to exit: People can stop working at any time with little or no consequence. So the success of the companies, Cheng says, depends on continuously recruiting new workers.
Then, there's the teensy problem of how these companies might not even be able to make money, as Kevin Roose recently wrote about for New York Magazine:
"Most of them provide cheap, convenient amenities at the tap of a smartphone app. Few of them are profitable on a corporate level. And together, they've formed the backbone of a strange urban economy: one in which massive venture-capital injections allow money-losing start-ups to flourish, while providing services that no traditional, unsubsidized business can match. It's an economy built on patience, and the hope that someday, after the land grab is over and the dust has settled, a better business model will emerge."
This patient economy has been waiting a long time already. During the dot-com era, a decade and a half ago, venture capitalists poured money into Kozmo.com, a startup that promised one-hour delivery service. Sound familiar? Though popular among customers, its high costs — warehouses to store the orders and health insurance for couriers, among others — resulted in a net loss of more than $25 million in 1999, according to the Wall Street Journal. The company collapsed in 2001.
Lehmann says Postmates is learning from Kozmo.com's failure: no warehouses, using better technology more efficiently. "We obviously try to think about that a lot," he says.
Eighteen years ago, scientists in Scotland took the nuclear DNA from the cell of an adult sheep and put it into another sheep's egg-cell that had been emptied of its own nucleus. The resulting egg was implanted in the womb of a third sheep, and the result was Dolly, the first clone of a mammal.
Dolly's birth set off a huge outpouring of ethical concern — along with hope that the same techniques, applied to human cells, could be used to treat myriad diseases.
But Dolly's birth also triggered years of frustration. It's proven very difficult to do that same sort of DNA transfer into a human egg.
Last year, scientists in Oregon said they'd finally done it, using DNA taken from infants. Robert Lanza chief scientific officer at Advanced Cell Technology, says that was an important step, but not ideal for medical purposes.
"There are many diseases, whether it's diabetes, Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease, that usually increase with age," Lanza says. So ideally scientists would like to be able to extract DNA from the cells of older people — not just cells from infants - to create therapies for adult diseases.
Lanza's colleagues, including Young Gie Chung at the CHA Stem Cell Institute in Seoul, Korea (with labs in Los Angeles as well), now report success.
Writing in the journal Cell Stem Cell, they say they started with nuclear DNA extracted from the skin cells of a middle-age man and injected it into human eggs donated by four women. As with Dolly, the women's nuclear DNA had been removed from these eggs before the man's DNA was injected. They repeated the process — this time starting with the genetic material extracted from the skin cells of a much older man.
"What we show for the first time that you can actually take skin cells, from a middle-aged 35-year-old male, but also from an elderly, 75-year-old male" and use the DNA from those cells in this cloning process, Lanza says.
They injected it into 77 human egg cells, and from all those attempts, managed to create two viable cells that contained DNA from one or the other man. Each of those two cells is able to divide indefinitely, "so from a small vial of those cells we could grow up as many cells as we would ever want," Lanza says.
They look like the cells in a human embryo — in fact, they're called embryonic stem cells. And with a bit of coaxing, these cells could, theoretically, be prodded to turn into any sort of human cell — nerve, heart, liver and pancreas, for example. That's what makes them potentially useful for treating all sorts of diseases.
In the 18 years since researchers cloned a sheep, scientists have found another way to produce cloned human cell lines. And the other technique, which produces "induced pluripotent stem cells," skips the step that requires a human egg cell, so some people find it less fraught, ethically.
It also means that finally getting the sheep technology to work with cells from adult humans may not turn out to be a turning point for this technology, after all.
"We now have two ways and we're not sure which of the two methods is likely to work best," Lanza says.
Ideally he would like to screen millions of adults and choose just a hundred or so whose genes would make them good DNA donors. He'd like to see a library of cells created with those carefully chosen genes.
In principle, scientists could produce a series of cell lines that would allow a close match for the majority of would-be cell recipients — just as transplant surgeons currently seek a close match for organ donors.
Physicians could also extract DNA from the person who is going to receive the cellular transplant — creating a patient-specific treatment — though that would end up being far more expensive than drawing from a library of ready-made cells.
Paul Knoepfler at the University of California, Davis School of Medicine is excited about this advance from a medical point of view. But he says this does mean we could be getting closer to being able to go beyond cloned cell lines, to cloning an entire human being.
"I don't think that's coming anytime soon, but certainly this kind of technology could be abused by some kind of rogue scientist," Knoepfler says.
And while many people consider that idea dangerous and repugnant, it is not broadly illegal.
Primatologist Jane Goodall is known for her groundbreaking work with the chimpanzees in Gombe National Park in Tanzania. But she also has a lifelong love of trees.
“To me, trees are living beings and they have their own sort of personalities,” she tells Here & Now’s Robin Young. “I’m not being scientific here, I’m just talking about the way it feels.”
With writer Gail Hudson, she’s now published “Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder From the World of Plants,” an exhaustive book which is part memoir, part history of the plant world (excerpt below).
The book actually had to be pulled from shelves last year, after it was pointed out that several passages plagiarized from websites. Goodall says she realized that in her notebooks filled with material, she’d often failed to distinguish between something she read and something she was told in interviews.
The treasure trove of stories, which now includes 57 pages of footnotes, has been re-released. Goodall discusses the book and the world of plants, as well as her Roots & Shoots organization, which helps kids worldwide find out more about nature.
Book Excerpt: ‘Seeds of Hope’
By Jane Goodall and Gail Hudson
Chapter 1: A Childhood Rooted in Nature
"Jane Goodall has written a book about plants? Surely not—isn't she the one who studied chimpanzees in Africa?" I can hear the comments. Indeed, I have been hearing them for the past couple of years as I collected information for this book. Of course I am best known—thanks especially to National Geographic's magazine articles and documentaries—for the study of the Gombe chimpanzees. In 2010 we celebrated fifty years of research there. But there would be no chimpanzees without plants—nor human beings either, for that matter. And the chimpanzee might never have materialized for me had I not been obsessed, as a child, with stories of the wilderness areas of the planet and, most especially, the forests of Africa.
From my window, as I write in my house in Bournemouth, England, I can see the trees that I used to climb as a child. Up in the branches of one of them, a beech tree, I would read about Doctor Dolittle and Tarzan, and dream about the time when I, too, would live in the forest.
When war broke out in Europe, my father went off to fight for his country against Hitler and the Nazi scourge. This is when I came with my sister and my mother to live with her two sisters, Olly and Audrey, and her mother—known by all as "Danny" (as I could not say "Granny" when I was small)—in this 1872 red-brick Victorian house, with huge sash windows and high ceilings. The Birches.
We had little money between us—and anyway, it was wartime rationing, tightened belts, and so on. But we had a big garden (or yard) with a lawn where moss insisted on growing, and a good many trees. There was my beech and three magnificent silver birch trees, with their smooth, silvery trunks and graceful branches. There was a mountain ash, or rowan, glorious with red berries in autumn, and two Spanish chestnut trees—one of which produced minute chestnuts each year, hardly worth the bother of opening the prickly cases, while the other—which we named "Nooky"—had been maimed. The upper half of his trunk and branches had been sawed off so that he was, in effect, little more than a twenty-foot-tall stump. A stump that sprouted prolific branches that reached up to the sky for another twenty feet or more, as though to compensate for the missing trunk. Nooky never produced a flower, let alone a chestnut.
All around the garden was a tall hedge of privet interspersed with the occasional trimmed holly tree. It was not a "bright" garden, because it was shaded by two big fir trees and five pines, and there were rhododendron bushes and ivy all over the place. And so, although Danny and Olly worked hard trying to grow vegetables for the war effort, what with the shade and the sandy soil (we are just a ten-minute walk from the ocean), and the acidity caused by the rhododendrons and pines, it was only runner beans and Danny's parsley and mint that really flourished.
But some things grew. All year-round, except in the very cold months, there were daisies all over the lawn. I wonder how many daisy chains we made each year. And dandelions appeared everywhere— almost impossible to dig up with their long, long roots. Every spring we watched for the first snowdrops pushing through soil still hard from winter frosts. They were followed by crocus and then, as the ground warmed, the primroses, foxgloves, bluebells, buttercups, and Wordsworth's "cloud of dancing daffodils." And all the time the buds on the trees were growing fat and bursting into tiny infant leaves. Then came the glorious awakening of the white blossom on the hawthorn, the rich pink red of the may, the bright yellow of the laburnum, and the purple of the lilac. And, best of all for me, lilies of the valley with their heady fragrance that, today, poignantly reminds me of those childhood days.
Later, as spring changed to summer, Olly's roses began to bloom, one after the other, as did her azalea that grew beside her beloved rhubarb plant, and Danny's special dark-red peonies surrounded by her precious runner beans. And the leaves on the trees, fed by the rising sap, reached their full maturity and worked each day to change sunlight into food for the tree or shrub that had nurtured their growing. My love of plants and trees was heightened by hours of roaming, together with my dog Rusty, the wild cliffs that drop down to the sandy beach below. They are intersected by a series of dry streambeds that are known, in these parts, by an archaic French word— chine. Our house stands on Durley Chine Road. Every spring, gorse bushes blossom into a blaze of yellow on the lower slopes of our chine, and tiny sweet-scented violets appear in one spot. I used to try to find the very first tiny purple flowers to take to Olly. Violets were her passion.
When the rhododendrons bloom in the summer, the steep sides of Middle Chine are glorious with the mauve color of their exotic flowers—they grew thickly in our school grounds as well. Danny had a favorite outside the kitchen window that had rich-red blooms.
Autumn was a time I loved. The verdant green of summer changed to soft yellows and gold, and here and there a splash of red leaves. Gradually the leaves fell and the ground was carpeted with their glowing colors until they rotted into rich loam or were swept from the lawn and burned on a bonfire at the bottom of the garden, where we baked potatoes in the hot ashes.
On the cliffs there were a few oak and beech trees, but mostly a host of pine trees that were planted on the original heath land in the massive landscaping project that started early in the nineteenth century. There were a couple of ancient Spanish chestnuts that, while they did not produce the large chestnuts sold commercially, were two or three times the size of those in our garden, and we loved to roast them around the grate of our small sitting-room fire.
During my childhood, Danny's one son, my uncle Eric, would bring us nuts from the huge and ancient walnut tree in his garden, and he brought apples too. We would pick blackberries on the cliff, and Danny would make blackberry-and-apple pies. She also made elderberry wine from the clusters of black fruits from our own elder. It was nonalcoholic, but the very fact that it was called "wine" gave us children a sense of being grown up when we drank it at Christmastime in grown-up wineglasses. I
have no doubt that growing up in this idyllic home and landscape of England was the foundation of my lifelong love of the plant kingdom and the natural world. The other day, when I was looking through a box of childhood treasures that had been lovingly preserved by my mother, I came across a "Nature Notebook" in which the twelve-year-old Jane, with great attention to detail, had sketched and painted a number of local plants and flowers. Beside each drawing or watercolor I had handwritten a detailed description of the plant, based on my careful observations and probably a bit of book research.
This was not a schoolbook. This wasn't done for an assignment. I just loved to draw and paint and write about the plant world. In a sense, I began writing Seeds of Hope over sixty years ago!
Of course, even as I was becoming increasingly aware of plants— well, trees really—as individual beings, I was, at the same time, learning ever more about the animals. I especially loved the barn owls that would punctuate the night with their eerie calls, the bullfinches with their glowing red-pink breast feathers, and the herring and blackheaded gulls who flew low over the garden, screaming and waiting for one of us to go out and throw them bread crusts. Blackbirds, song thrushes, robins, and many kinds of tits nested in our tall, tangled hedges and in the trees. There were still one or two red squirrels left on the cliff back then, but the gray invaders were rapidly taking over the real estate. Occasionally we took a bus to the New Forest, woods interspersed with moors covered in heather, where there were New Forest ponies and deer, and if we were lucky, we might glimpse a fox.
And let me not forget the insects. In those days there were buzzing and hummings and chirpings of bugs of all sorts. In the daytime there were the shimmering, fluttering wings of butterflies (surely they were originally "flutterbys" until some medieval scholar got his f 's and b's confused?). Then in the evening came the irritating high-pitched whine of the mosquitoes, and at night the moths arrived, attracted by the white blossoms and night fragrance of the syringa and white lilac—and, unfortunately, by our lights.
There were Olly and Danny's enemies, the slugs and snails. My sister, Judy, and I loved snails and often kept them so that we could race them. Years later I learned that snail racing was at one time a popular pastime among elderly gentlemen in France! Our garden had its full quota of those invaluable little helpers, the earthworms, eating their way through the soil, aerating it, an important part of the ecosystem. I once took a whole handful to bed with me when I was just eighteen months old. My wise mother, instead of scolding, told me they would die, for they needed the earth, and together we took them back to a flowerbed.
And then there were the bees, the pollinators so absolutely essential to the gardener. I watched them for hours—honeybees flying busily from flower to flower, the "breadbaskets" on their legs gradually filling with bright-yellow pollen as they performed that all-important task of pollination. The big, furry-coated bumblebees, jet black with one or two bright-yellow stripes on the abdomen— who really did "bumble" from flower to flower—seemed almost lazy by comparison with the honeybees. It was fascinating to see them push their way into the foxglove flowers and watch as the blooms trembled while the invisible visitor probed for nectar.
When I got my first job—as a secretary—in Oxford, I was able to explore a different part of England. Every weekend I set off on my bicycle into the surrounding countryside, exploring lanes and hedgerows, which, in those halcyon days of the mid-1950s, were a riot of wildflowers. I would leave my bike and wander through the fields, past grazing cows (keeping a wary eye out for the occasional bull), and getting familiar with cow parsley (or Queen Anne's lace), campion, speedwell, ragged robin, and the mauve sweet-scented clover that was so beloved by bees—and cattle and horses too.
Sometimes in the evening I would hire a little canoe for an hour and paddle, silently, past bulrushes and reed beds, nosing in toward the bank, where I could be hidden in a cave of green under the trailing branches of a huge weeping willow to watch the mallard ducks. I remember that a couple of verses of a very different sort of poem would sometimes repeat themselves in my mind in a somewhat annoying way—they came from one of my favorite childhood books, The Wind in the Willows.
All along the backwater,
Through the rushes tall,
Ducks are a-dabbling,
Up tails all!
Ducks' tails, drakes' tails,
Yellow feet a-quiver,
Yellow bills all out of sight
Busy in the river!
I could only paddle about a mile upriver—partly because I could only afford the canoe for an hour, but also because one then came to a stretch of river that was forbidden to women—named Parson's Pleasure, it was reserved for gentlemen who desired to disport themselves in their "birthday suits." I knew of girls who would hide for hours in thick undergrowth to get a glimpse of certain body parts, and I suspect the men were well aware of those immodest eyes!
Not only did my mother preserve my "Nature Notebooks," she also saved the only three copies ever produced of "The Alligator Magazine," written at about the same time as I was painting local wildflowers. They were put together for the benefit of the four members of "The Alligator Club"—me and Judy and the two friends who came to stay almost every holiday, Sally and Susie. I was the eldest, and bossed the others around and planned the games we would play and the things we would do.
Sally (a year my junior) and I were the real tomboys. Sue and Judy—the "Little Ones" (three and four years younger than me, respectively)—were not quite as keen on climbing trees and pretending to be Robin Hood and his men. But we got on well together— and, when I was about eleven, I started the Alligator Club. Why I picked the name alligator I have absolutely no idea!
It was a club for nature lovers. We watched the plants and animals and wrote little stories in our nature notebooks about them. Well, to be really truthful, I did those things and did my best to persuade the others to do the same. This was easier when we were together, but when Sally and Sue went home after the holidays, it was hard.
So I put together a magazine. I wrote—by hand as there was no other option at the time—articles about all sorts of things, and asked the others to make contributions. Of course, there was only one copy, so after they read it, Sally and Sue had to return it. In the next edition I asked questions about the articles I had written in the one before. The members were supposed to put their answers in the "letter box"—an envelope glued to the inside of the cardboard cover at the back. After four "editions" I tired of producing this magazine, since it was almost impossible to get the others to contribute, and only Judy answered the questions, and only because I bullied her into doing so! But it taught me a lot.
In fact it may well have been my experience with the Alligator Club that enabled me to persevere in developing what is, today, a movement for young people from kindergarten through university, now in over 130 countries—Jane Goodall's Roots & Shoots (R&S). The Alligator Club had only four members, including myself. Roots & Shoots is encouraging hundreds of thousands of young people to take action and try to make this a better world for all living things.
Looking at my nature notebook with the carefully drawn and painted flowers, and looking through those magazines, preserved from a time long gone, brought those magical days of childhood alive. I found myself thinking about cold, wet winter days when I used to read, curled up in front of the fire, on winter evenings. Then I traveled in my imagination to The Secret Garden with Mary and Colin and Dickon. I was entranced by C. S. Lewis's Voyage to Venus, in which he describes, so brilliantly, flowers and fruits, tastes and colors and scents, unknown on Planet Earth. I raced through the skies with little Diamond, who was curled up in the flowing hair of the Lady North Wind, as she showed him what was going on in the world, the beauty and the sadness and the joy (At the Back of the North Wind). And of course I was utterly in love with Mole and Ratty and Mr. Badger in The Wind in the Willows. If The Lord of the Rings had been written when I was a child, there is no doubt I would have been entranced by Treebeard and the ancient forest of Fangorn, and Lothlorien, the enchanted forest of the elves.
Of course, at the same time I was reading more and more about the animals who lived in the wild places of the world. I am so glad TV had not been invented then—it meant I had to, and most certainly did, exercise and develop my powers of imagination.
Those two worlds of my childhood—that of the imagination and that of nature—were, I think, equally important in shaping the person I have become. But although the memories are beautiful and precious, they are bittersweet. Today, most of the fields where I roamed have been sold to the developers, and those that remain have been destroyed by chemical pesticides and fertilizers and herbicides and fungicides and the hedges hacked down to provide more land for more farming. The wildflowers have disappeared from the fields, and many of the songbirds that sang to my young ears are in steep decline. Of course there was always war between the farmers and the animals that sought to share the bounty of their labors, the shooting of rabbits and pigeons, but the mass destruction of wildlife caused by the introduction of chemicals in agriculture did not happen until after World War II. Since then our wildflowers (along with so much wildlife) have been decreasing, becoming extinct in place after place.
And it is the same in so many parts of the world. The health of the soil has gradually been weakened, sometimes altogether destroyed. These days there are acres and acres of farmland where no crops will grow without massive doses of chemical fertilizer. And the chemical poison is contaminating the groundwater, the streams, and the rivers, bringing death to animals and plants alike. Tropical and oldgrowth forests, those magical places to which I had traveled in imagination, are disappearing at a terrifying rate. The same goes for other types of landscape—woodlands, wetlands, prairies and grasslands, moors and heaths. Indeed, the list is limited only by the types of environments found on Planet Earth.
Everywhere the natural world with its rich diversity of living things is under attack from human population growth, development, industrial agriculture, pollution, and shrinking supplies of freshwater. Habitat loss is a theme that comes up again and again, diminishing the biodiversity and causing local extinctions in place after place. And, over and above everything else, looms the reality of climate change. The ice is disappearing from the North and South Poles and from the mountaintops.
Yet here in Bournemouth some things have changed but little. The garden at The Birches has continued to provide a magical playground for children—first Judy and me, then our children, and now our grandchildren. Judy has taken on the role of gardener, helped by her daughter, Pip, and our good friend Wayne Caswell. More species of flowers and vegetables are growing—the answer was to acquire better soil and grow a lot of plants in tubs. So today we have sweet peas and morning glory, geraniums and pansies, and many more. And they grow in between peas, tomatoes, spinach, potatoes, and courgettes (zucchinis). The bright-red flowers of the runner beans still brighten the garden on a dull day, and now there are the glossy-black flowers of the broad bean, as exotic as the white fur that you find inside the seedpod when you open it. Danny's parsley still grows outside the kitchen window, and the little pink flowers on which she waged war have obstinately remained, though not in their original profusion. My precious lilies of the valley have all but gone—the hens we rescued from a battery farm, thrilled with their new freedom to forage in a garden, ate all but a few bulbs! Olly's greenhouse overflows with cucumbers and little seedlings of all sorts waiting to be planted outside. The pines and firs and Spanish chestnuts are still here, but our birch trees died in the 1975-76 drought, and only one of the three we planted to take their place survived a recent very dry summer. Nooky was trimmed by a tree surgeon—the branches from the old trunk were getting too big and heavy. And amazingly this produced, for the very first time, a massive crop of chestnuts—tiny ones of course.
The neighborhood—the streets, the cliffs, and the chines—is much as it was in my childhood. There has been some "manicuring"— the vegetation growing up the sides of the chines has been thinned out in some places, mainly because it provided an environment for winos and people doing drugs. Branches have been trimmed and some trees felled lest a passerby should be hurt by a falling limb and the city council sued. But the whole area is a conservation area. No one can cut down a tree without permission from the city council, and so the gardens are still green and leafy. When I am here, between my endless lecture tours around the world, there is always a dog to accompany me when, each day, I return to the haunts of my childhood. The current one is Charlie, a boxer cross— before her was Astro, who followed Whiskey, who was preceded by Cida—there have always been dogs at The Birches.
As I reflect on my early life and the experiences that shaped my thinking, I realize that it is not strange at all that I have written this book. What is strange is that this is not the book I first planned to write—that was to be simply a companion to Hope for Animals and Their World, for which I had written a whole section on the kingdom of the plants. But the manuscript for Hope for Animals was too long, and almost all of the plant section had to be cut. I was sad about that—many of those who had contributed their plant stories had been so generous and so pleased for me to write about their work. So I planned to write a short book, simply adding a little to that original plant section. It was to have been about plant species rescued from the brink of extinction. But it has not worked out that way.
It was as though the plants wanted me to write a different kind of book and sent gentle roots deep into my brain. They wanted me to fully acknowledge their importance in human history, their amazing powers of healing, the nourishment they provide, their ability to harm if we misused them, and, ultimately, our dependence on the plant kingdom. The plants seemed to want me to share with the world my own understanding of their beingness, so that people might better honor them as important partners in so many of our endeavors.
The more I followed these promptings, the more avenues of thought I pursued, the more I talked with botanists and horticulturists and conservationists, the more fascinated I became and the more horrified at all that we are harming and destroying.
At the same time I was learning so much about the efforts that are being made, all around the globe, to protect and restore the natural world. The plant species that have been saved, in the nick of time, from extinction and given another chance. The work of the botanical gardens, introducing millions of people to the wonder of the plant world while, at the same time, carrying out cutting-edge research on the best ways of propagating endangered species. The people who are growing native plants in their gardens, creating havens for wildlife and insects. The increasing number of those who are prepared to fight for the plants and the trees, the grasslands and the forests. That is the hope.
And so I have written a book to acknowledge the enormous debt we owe to the plants and to celebrate the beauty, mystery, and complexity of their world. That we may save this world before it is too late.
Excerpt from SEEDS OF HOPE by Jane Goodall. Copyright © 2014 by Soko Publications Limited with Gail Hudson. Used with permission by Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
- Jane Goodall, British primatologist. Her latest book is “Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants.”