A Passion for Green Things

Passion shapes our lives, especially when we pursue it.

I would have minored in botany, if I’d had the chance. Plants, especially strong ecosystems of them in a friendly climate, fascinate me.

The desert landscape (like the one I see every day in Arizona) does not. So, it’s probably a very good thing I didn’t join in on a program that would send students out into the Sonoran Desert to study scrub brush, cacti, thorny trees, and dry soil fungi.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren was actually on my reading list for March, and I’d set it aside when it was clear I was missing out by rushing through it. This is a book I happily recommended to anyone associated with laboratory sciences, academia, and teaching.

It showed up all over my social media feed there for a while, lauded by publishers, readers, awards committees, etc. I wasn’t sure what the fuss was about, but I read the blurb and was committed to giving this one not just a “fair shake”. I was ready to love it.

It did not disappoint.

Science demands much more than brains. Solid studies require social skills, frugality, flexibility, endless curiosity, patience, teamwork, passion, and a willingness to live at the edge of subsistence sometimes in order to pursue the question at hand. I do not have these things, but Dr. Jahren sure does. Reading her work made me wish I did too.

My favorite passages of the book were the descriptions of plant science. The role of roots; how trees and other plants breathe; the mystery motivations of fruiting and seeding; water retention in moss and ground plants. They’re written in such a way these passages breathe fascination off the page to the reader – even those who could care less about the plants.

This communication is successful because it parallels the crises Dr. Jahren shares soon after. The search for answers in a study subject is well-structured and relatively predictable, but not so much in her own life.


My second read was less of a headliner. Looking for Longleaf: The Fall and Rise of an American Forest, by Lawrence Earley, will likely only appear on recommended reading lists for people studying forestry or ecology.

I was looking for material on North American forests. While I loved The Hidden Life of Trees (from March’s list), I confess I was put-out to hear the glorious deciduous forests described by Peter Wohlleben are not the general rule for my own continent. His forest sounded a lot like fairy tale forests, but I know there are models for forest ecosystems that vary extensively around the world.

Longleaf pine is native to a large swath of the American Southeast. There was a time when stands of these massive, centuries old trees (with pine needles over a foot long!) stretched from southern Virginia south to Florida and west to cover portions of Texas. The home range for these magnificent trees is estimated at 90 million acres, though now their range has shrunk to less than 3% of that.

Earley’s book discusses how this happened, and what’s being done to restore the species and the ecosystem it supports.

Effective nonfiction addresses the full picture of the topic. In Looking for Longleaf, history, natural science, economics, and politics exert pressure on the issue of recovering a native ecosystem.

Earley records his experiences visiting heritage sites and private lands that preserve details from eras when people of the region worked the trees for pitch, resin, lumber, cattle, and quail. He describes management techniques, how they appeared, who used them, and how successful or unsuccessful they were for their time.

I do have to admit, this is not a fitting recreational read for everybody. This was just right for me, though.

If you have an interest in North American ecology, saving species, and/or American history, I would definitely recommend having a read of this one. Just settle in for a lot of learning!

For example, the longleaf pine forests were the largest source of international naval stores (boat building) for several decades, especially in the early 1800s. The sap they produce is more valuable than the wood of the trunks, as it was used to make pitch for sealing boat hulls, weather sealing rigging, and other maintenance tasks. The sap is used not just for pitch, but also raw resin and distilled to make turpentine, which has uses in dozens of different industries. (Here’s a video on the old method of gathering this valuable product.)


Gopher tortoises, native to the original longleaf pine range, are a keystone species for the area. They’re currently classified as “threatened” according to the Endangered Species Act, and are only one of several species of the area at risk. “Gophers”, as they’re colloquially called, create habitats for other species, and are the only tortoise species native to any region east of the Mississippi in the US. Their greatest threats are loss of habitat and humans that collect them for meat.



The photo featured comes from the gallery of The Longleaf Alliance: http://www.longleafalliance.org/what-is-longleaf/memoirs-of-a-forest/photo-gallary/historic_tall_pines.jpg/view


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