Dr. Tom A. Titus is author of the memoir Blackberries in July: A Forager’s Field Guide to Inner Peace, a year-long chronology of old orchards, bay clams, wild mushrooms, and spawning salmon, a hunting and gathering of his spirit that became a reunion with the land and the traditions of four generations. Tom is a research geneticist and instructor at the University of Oregon. He works, writes, and forages from a home that two cats share with him and his wife in Eugene, Oregon.
I am an insomniac.
One would think that in those hours without sleep the books by my bed would be consumed like dry kindling in a hot fire. But this is not my lot in literary life, because I can fall asleep in five breaths without reading a word. Yet I choose to read, even though this often requires an act of will that could entail five words or five paragraphs or on a big night five pages. Sleeplessness comes five hours later when I turn like a turkey on a slow rotisserie, sometimes writing poetry in my head, other times wrestling with the great questions of the universe such as whether to have a fried egg and toast or oatmeal before going to a job that I love but not as much as I love writing but I go to anyway because while writing covers my karmic debt to all things, being a research geneticist pays the mortgage. So be it.
Sharing these intimate details of my nightlife is a roundabout explanation for why books by my bed are more akin to damp logs on a cold fire. They have staying power. They pile up. While I’ve never before stepped back to examine the literary heap on my small white nightstand in toto, from a distance I see that the volumes accumulating there do have some things in common. They are nearly all poetry, essay collections, and other nonfiction that can be read in the short space of consciousness preceding that dark inexorable wave that sweeps it all away. My books are various explorations into the idea of Place, that little spot in the universe to which we have attached ourselves and connect with on all levels. I believe in Place and am committed to the idea that we become whole people when we are physically, emotionally, and spiritually connected to our world. I am fascinated by authors who effectively communicate this relationship through science or art or personal experience or some unified connection among all of these.
A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold. The Almanac is first on my list because of its broad importance to modern conservationists and its influence on my personal philosophy. I have read this book cover to cover at least twice, and it remains on my nightstand where I occasionally grab it for random explorations into Leopold’s thinking on connectedness. What do I love about Aldo Leopold? He engaged with the land on multiple levels; he was a forester, a hunter, a fisherman, a preservationist, and an academic, all encapsulated into an environmental philosopher who saw that humans become fully actualized when they are engaged with the land. Leopold put this ethic into practice by investing in the ecological recovery of a small run-down farm in Saulk County, Wisconsin. The Almanac is a seasonal chronology of essays around the farm followed by other writings that culminate in his essay “The Land Ethic,” in which he challenges us to extend our concept of morality beyond human-human interactions to human interactions with the land. What fascinates me as much as the conservationist philosophy embodied in Leopold’s writings is his transformation as a writer. There is little doubt that his philosophy evolved along with his voice, which speaks to the introspective nature of the art. I love this book.
The Tangled Bank, by Robert Michael Pyle. This collection of essays was written during Pyle’s ten-year tenure as a columnist for Orion magazine. His all-encompassing grasp of the natural world is nearly daunting, and the compact prose with which he communicates this knowledge is impressive. Pyle begins by proclaiming, “There’s barely a place, scarcely a square inch with any visible life or color to it that can’t catch and keep my interest, at least for a spell.” Fifty-two essays later I am convinced. My favorites are “Losers Keepers,” in which he confesses to being a loser of things (I have discovered a kindred spirit!), and “Hanky Panky: Notes on the Biology of Boogers,” a treatise on the finer points of snot written when he had a killer cold. One thousand words each; the perfect length for an unlikely insomniac-naturalist capable of falling asleep almost immediately.
Gathering Moss, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. These wonderful essays were written by a member of the Potawatomi Tribe who is a PhD bryologist (moss biologist) and Professor of Environmental Biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. In her exploration of the magical world of mosses, Dr. Kimmerer moves seamlessly between the perspectives of “western” scientific thinking and the spiritual/ecological traditions of her Native American heritage. Her book has given me new ways to view the land: how to really see the diminutive mosses and their impact on the landscape and a philosophy that integrates the findings of western biology with traditional ecological knowledge and spiritual connections to our Place. Robin’s new book, Braiding Sweetgrass, will be out in October 2013. Don’t miss it!
What the River Brings: Oregon River Poems, edited by Kathryn Ridall. At a recent William Stafford poetry reading I found myself deep in conversation with Kathryn about the meaning of place for a fourth generation Oregonian like myself compared with her two years of experience here. Kathryn anchored herself in Eugene by immediately developing an intimate connection with the Willamette River. She has written poetry around the river, gathered the poems of other western river poets, and produced this collection. These poems sing with the liquid voice of moving water, the rattle of sunlit riffles splashing into clear pools where salmon rest and water and time and thinking move deeply. This is music to fall asleep by.
Of Earth, by John Daniel. John Daniel knows the music of words and was a contributor to What the River Brings. Although he is renown for his prose, especially memoirs such as Rogue River Journal and Winter Creek, John was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry and has produced an impressive body of verse over his decades of writing in the West. His poems remind me that people are a part of nature, that we can go out, reach out, and draw ourselves into the living world. John’s poetry is fluid, unassuming, unpretentious, completely accessible, and at the end of the evening will draw you in without a struggle.
We Say Ourselves, by Tim Whitsel. When I was nineteen all I wanted in life was to play jazz trombone. I ended up a biologist. But Tim Whitsel’s poetry reminds me of that old dream; the sometimes syncopation, the ebb and flow and rise and fall of rhythm in his words, the interwoven images of my native McKenzie River Valley and people living their flawed meaningful lives. What I really love is watching and listening to Tim read his stuff; he loves jazz, too, and it shows. But on most evenings I’ll settle for “How I See You Canning Tomatoes” just before switching off the light. Magic.
What books have helped you return to or discover the natural world in a new way?