Book Review: The First Eden

I cannot stress enough how exciting and interesting this book is.

first eden

Written as a tie-in for the BBC’s First Eden TV series, everyone’s favourite nature commentator David Attenborough takes us on a journey through about 7 million years in the region that is the cradle of civilisation.

the book

The book is divided up into four parts that nicely describe the geography of the region. It’s just mindblowly amazing because it’s 200 pages of a well written discussion that explicitly states how the natural environment shaped the civilisations that occur(ed) there, and how they in turn shaped the natural environment. Nothing says geography is *awesome* like examining these relationships because as we know that is what geography is all about.

Typically of such books, it’s not a happy story and the four parts of it can be summed up thus: there is a beautiful, highly biodiverse place; people come along and live bountifully; people overstep the limits of the natural environment; the natural environment collapses.

There are lots of  photos, maps, and diagrams, which were very nice/helpful.

Although the book is a bit old (first published in 1987) it only feels old in the final few chapters, and it doesn’t detract significantly from the educational value or the pleasure of reading it.

I haven’t seen the TV series but I’d really, really love to because David Attenborough.

the book and geography

The first part is called The Making of the Garden and talks about the physical processes that formed the area and the biodiversity of it and how all that came about. It presents a different picture to what you might get when you hear ‘Mediterranean’ (olives, crowded Spanish beaches) and in doing so really gives the reader a feel for what the region was like before people came along and why it is called the Fertile Crescent and the Cradle of Civilisation.

“…at the (eastern) end of the Mediterranean, other human communities were developing a different way of life. They were building permanent homes and settling together in villages. And they were devising ways of exploiting the animals and plants around them that would eventually transform the whole world.” pg 53.

The Mediterranean. I didn't realise that there's such a big bight along the top of Libya!
The Mediterranean. I didn’t realise that there’s such a big bight along the top of Libya.

The second part, The Gods Enslaved, talks about how the old goddesses and gods could do things on their own, like a bull that is the font of fertility. By around the first century CE things changed from that old style animism to beliefs that placed humans at the centre; the bull was still the symbol of fertility but needed someone to stab it to release it’s power. This is a big change in the relationship between society and the environment and sort of spelled the beginning of the end for the Romans,  who as we know expanded their empire until they just ran out of food/farmland.

Classic mistake (pun!) and one we’re busily repeating today.

It used to be said that such cities collapse because nature fails to support man. The truth is the reverse. … The bull, the all-powerful god of fertility who had been worshipped since long before man began to build cities, was now dethroned. The last debased relics of his cult were the ritualized slaughter of the Spanish bull-ring.” pg 101

Yes, they are nice pants but truly the man is mad.
Yes, he has nice pants/socks, but truly the man is mad.

Things really start getting glum in part three, The Wastes of War, when it talks about how people’s strange need to attack each other really took it out of the Mediterranean. It goes from when the horse was domesticated in what is now Ukraine/Hungray/Poland (doesn’t say when) to the Crusades in the Middle Ages. In terms of geography, it again demonstrates that a bad relationship between a society and the environment it is in/relies on is only going to end in tears.

This really hits home in the final part, Strangers in the Garden, which discusses ‘modern’ times (i.e. up to the late 80s when the book was written.) I can’t say much, except this: can we try and get along with our environment please?

“The processes that started here ten thousand years ago and brought the Mediterranean to its present condition are now at work all over the earth. Now it is not just a small sea, and the lands that surround it, that nations must come together to save. It is the planet.” pg 207

bear
This picture is fantastic because not only does it scream ‘global warming!’, it also reminds us that we are poised on the brink of the sixth mass extinction. Hint: they’re both our fault.

metadata

Name: The First Eden: The Mediterranean World and Man

Authors: David Attenborough

Date: (first ed.) 1987

Publishers: William Collins Sons & Co Ltd.

Rating: I give it ten out of ten ancient civilisations

 

Book Review: On Guerrilla Gardening

For interesting and inspiring read, full of humorous anecdotes and useful information, I recommend Richard Reynolds’ On Guerrilla Gardening.

gardening
This is the edition I have. I initially picked it up because of it’s colorful hardcover; I love hardcovers! A positive case of judging a book by its cover?

the book

For a while I couldn’t shake the slightly weird feeling of reading a manual on an activity as whimisical and adventurous as guerrilla gardening, but the book is a useful guide. It has two parts, The Movement and The Manual which neatly divide up the high minded idealism and cold blooded pragmatism, which Reynolds is at pains to stress throughout:

You can dream of a grand transformation, but don’t rush to create it. … In their hearts most guerrilla gardeners are idealists, but we need the measured pulse of a pragmatist too if our gardens are to flourish. (pgs 159-160)

There are lots of quotes from Mao that need only a bit of tweaking to make them appropriate, and it’s strange to think what could be achieved if people used their passion and talents and time and resources to create beautiful things rather than to destroy and dominate.

It’s very inspiring and after finishing it I wanted to go out into the world, seeds in hand, and plant sunflowers absolutely everywhere.

sunflowers
The author himself and some sunflowers. Photo from theguardian.uk

He’s a good, funny writer and there are lots of amusing and relevant anecdotes, but I feel as if the book is slightly too long. It’s a bit like the third Lord of the Rings film; it’s beautiful and entertaining and a great, well told story but you can’t help checking your watch as yet another ‘ending’ plays out. Just chuck the ring in the volcano and be done with it already!

Another problem I have with the book is that the pages are glossy. This makes them hard to read under direct light, such as from a lamp and means that they lack that nice papery feel and smell. It also means that they’ve been treated with bucketloads of chemicals, which is kind of ironic.I dunno, maybe I just got a fail copy.

Lastly, all of the photos in the book are of beautiful, well tended gardens. I wanted some before and after photos to really get inspired, or some photos of a wilting plant to reassure me that not every plant is amazing, or some schematics of possible garden layouts because I freaking love diagrams.

plan
Isn’t that just the most satisfying thing? Image from seedandbean.com

the book and geography

He talks about the kind of problems guerrilla gardening battle – for example neglected land, vacant land, land scarcity – and about the things that it creates: beauty; community; food; shade.

Neglected, rubbish strewn, weedy or just plain ugly land (especially in cities) is such a shame.

Land is bloody scarce (especially in cities) and this utter waste is unfriendly to look at and makes people sad as they see their community and urban environment in disrepair. I don’t know about you, but things such as planter boxes that are filled with cigarette butts or bare dirt alongside foot paths make me sad.

doing it wrong
Planter boxes: you’re doing it wrong. Clearly, this society has failed to correctly utilise this resource and therefore geography is broken and people are sad.

This all displays a bad relationship between society and it’s immediate space; the built environment. It’s the kind of thing that makes we geographers sad, especially when people are crying out for healthy food and a place to build communities, as experienced by Ron Finley.

This book offers a lovely, fun idea to combat these problems and create better relationships, both between society and the urban environment* and between groups and individuals within society. (Any statisticians out there will be hearing ‘ANOVA’ at this stage.)

On Guerrilla Gardening offers many exciting and uplifting stories about little impulsive actions becoming community gardens, award winning spaces and beautiful environs.

ccg
The Clinton Community Gardens in New York tend to come up a fair bit. Photo: Anne Bremer

So read the book! It’s great.

metadata

Title: On Guerrilla Gardening: A Handbook For Gardening Without Boundaries

Author: Richard Reynolds

Date Published: 2008

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Rating: I give it seven out of ten sunflowers.

*Oh man, I love that phrase. It’s totally the nexus of all the interesting things.

Book Review: The Declaration of Interdependence

This tiny little ink-green and pastel-yellow book is one of the best things I have ever read in my life.

Image
Such book. Excite.

Written by Tara Cullis and David Suzuki, and with help from Raffi Cavoukian, Wade Davis and Guujaaw, it is yet another wonderful publication from the David Suzuki Foundation.

the book

Basically, in the lead up to the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992 Cullis and Suzuki et al. wrote the beautiful, poetic Declaration that espouses the need for creating “a new politics of hope” of interdependence between humans and our natural home, i.e. Earth and all her systems, including other species.

The Deceleration is set out in three parts that your high school English teacher would be proud of: it has a clear beginning which sets the context (This We Know), the middle which presents a problem (This We Believe), and an end which sets out a solution (This We Resolve). All in all, it’s less than three pages long but the complexity, subtlety and emotion set therein seems to extend not only to the time of “the firstborn cell” from which we are descended, but also reaches toward “all those who walk after us”.

The book also contains a short essay by Suzuki explaining the history and meaning of the Deceleration and another by Cullis which describes the David Suzuki Foundation and it’s inspiring history. It contains beautiful ink illustrations by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas which successfully represent the flowing yet solid tone of the text. It’s the kind of writing that catches in your throat, speaks to something in you that you’d forgotten, and Yahgulanaas’ Haida inspired drawings express this perfectly.

Image
“We are the breath of the forests of the land, and the plants of the sea.” One of the book’s illustrations.

the book and geography

So how does this wonderful little book relate to geography?

Well, in every way possible really. It discusses pretty much all of the themes most relevant to the study of geography. Remember that we take geography to be the study of how society (human geography) relates to the Earth system (natural geography). A traditional, cartographic understanding of geography is the ultimate expression of this as it literally is the study of how society sees the Earth’s landscape; the interface of the society/environment nexus.

The book’s central thesis is that we need to stop thinking of the environment as ‘the environment’; something that exists externally to us, that’s outside or in a National Park or is somehow apart from society. We need to stop thinking that we need to control, subdue, contain, dominate, economise, or stand apart from it. We need to stop thinking that we can extract and extract and extract in order to consume consume consume with no heed to the toxic and horrendous waste and destruction that that creates.

Image
We need to stop thinking that we can extract and extract and extract. A coalmine in the Latrobe Valley, Victoria in 2009. For a sense of scale, see the 4WD in the bottom left. Picture: Paul Crock.

Here’s an excerpt from Suzuki’s essay:

“There is no separation; there is no environment ‘out there’ that we have to regulate our interaction with. Air is in us and circulates throughout our bodies at all times, we are made up of more than 60 per cent water by weight, we are built of the molecules of food we consume – most of which has come from the earth – and every bit of the energy that we need to grow, move, and reproduce is the fire of the sun captured by plants through photosynthesis. We are the earth, and so whatever we do to it, we do directly to ourselves.”

Basically, it’s calling for a re-assessment of how we as a society relate to the Earth system and all her squirrels and sea cucumbers and trees and ice bergs and creeks and so on. That’s geography, dude.

As a student of geography at the Fenner School of Environment and Society reading this book I felt as if my entire university education had been summarised in three pages.

tldr: Very insight, such wonderful. Wow.

metadata*

Name: The Declaration of Interdependence: A Pledge to Planet Earth

Authors: Tara Cullis, David Suzuki, Raffi Cavoukian, Wade Davis and Guujaaw

Illustrations: Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

Date: (first ed.) 2010

Publishers: Greystone Books and the David Suzuki Foundation

Website: http://www.davidsuzuki.org/about/declaration/

Rating: I give it ten out of ten Earth systems

*I just love metadata! Even saying it is fun. Metadata. Meta. Data. Meh-tah. Dah-tah. Aw, yiss.