These books, along with my experiences with different people and places over the years, have helped to give me intellectual compass points. I am an evolutionary humanist, with a bioregional consciousness, a knowledge of history, and a belief in the importance of the arts. I find that this makes me different to most people I meet. The books that follow have helped to give me confidence in my view of the cosmos.
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden.
My secular Bible. (I hate to say this as it is against the spirit of Thoreau’s whole project, but if you don’t have time to read the whole book, then you can read the first few sections, then skip the sections ‘Brute Neighbours’ onwards, and read the ‘Conclusion’.)
- David Suzuki, The Sacred Balance.
Not the same quality as the previous work of prose, but important as a companion volume to Walden in that it adds the importance of love and community to Thoreau’s prescription for the good life.
- Clive Hamilton, (news from his site) Growth Fetish.
The modern science of life satisfaction, or happiness studies, confirms empirically that Thoreau was on the right path. This book shows that by fetishizing economic growth the media, the major parties and the majority of the Australian public have ensured an unhappy society. One of his more interesting observations: rich countries with greater inequality of income distribution report less life satisfaction than poorer countries with a more equal income distribution. Hamilton is one of the leading figures to animate and motivate social progress in Australia today.
- Richard Layard (website) Happiness: Essays from a New Science, published 2005.
Since the 1950s income has risen steadily to today, yet we haven’t been getting any happier, and reports of crime and suicide and depression have risen drastically. What is wrong? We make social comparisons, and feel bad when we aren’t as rich as the guy next door (Layard doesn’t venture there, but from an evolutionary perspective this is so because we are meant to live in groups of around 150 where dominance hierarchies can be avoided through social control and consensus decision making). We also end up on the hedonic treadmill when it comes to material possessions — that is, we get addicted to affluence. We also don’t manage the work-life balance well enough. What should we do? Personally: Don’t compare yourself with richer people, enjoy what you have and compare downwards. Politically: tax more, which discourages the zero-sum-game of trying to get ahead of others (and helps preserve the work-life balance in society). What makes us happy? Having a partner, having fulfilling work, belonging to a community and having friends, having our health, having personal freedom (on this point it is interesting that in the Swiss cantons where decisions are decided by referendum people are happier — yep, sounds to me like the evolutionarily seated virtue of consensus decision making again) and having a philosophy of life. What should we conclude from this? Again, tax more (this discourages Joe nextdoor from polluting society with his ‘I’m better than you’ status race, his bigger house and more expensive car). Start giving more status to people who contribute to the welfare of others. Get rid of performance related pay and rather stress the need for professional competence. Ban advertising for children and put limits on that for adults. Make parenting classes part of compulsory education. Discourage large-scale immigration and geographical mobility (both increase crime and unhappiness). Spend more on mental illness (the single greatest cause of misery in the West). Layard maps out recent developments in the science of happiness in this book. This little volume is a pocket-revolution it seems to me. Now we have evidence of what people need, could this spell the end of arguments across the traditional right-left spectrum? If science says X is what makes people happy, and then John Howard or George Bush does Y, surely the only explanation is that these politicians are just hired henchman, hired by some confused voters, and we shouldn’t take them seriously as intellectuals.
- Raj Persaud (website) The Motivated Mind As Bob Marley said “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery”. Part of doing this, I think, is getting a periodic synopsis of some of the latest research in psychiatry. Persaud is a British psychiatrist who gives us the latest scientific research on a variety of subjects around the question of motivation, aspiration and what targets one should have in life. His work occasionally becomes tendentiously right-wing, but there is much to be learnt in this book. He covers such topics as materialism as a specific personality type who has had difficult early life experiences of poverty and hardship. He summarizes research that has shown that people give more to charities when the request is contextualized by a death reminder (remember the tale of Scrooge? It’s accurate). He shows how future-orientated personalities need to add more present orientation to their lives, and how work-dependency can lead to a heart-attack. If you are working a lot more than eight hours a day then you really are addicted to work, an addiction which is as bad as addictions to drugs and food in some ways. When you, despite your hard work and intelligence, see people get jobs ahead of you, remind yourself that they may well be workaholics and will literally die younger than you because of their Type A personalities (yes, in spite of the current economic system rewarding their pathology).
- Edward. O. Wilson Consilience Meet the most well-mannered, honourable, purveyor of certain knowledge about life on planet earth! Here is provided an understanding of the meaning of dreams, and complexity theory, and universal genetic regularities in humans, and many other things. Really it is a lightning tour of the cutting edges of the most exciting modern sciences. Lots of hope, wonder, and clarity for our understanding of where we stand in the universe.
- Edward. O. Wilson The Diversity of Life The rains and the species of animal and the deaths and growths, across the globe, on every island and continent. To be aware of all life. Wilson here takes you through the evolution of species diversity, and in doing so deeply impresses on even the most insensitive observer the wonders of the greatest thing ever: the Physical Creation. Conclusion: saving the biological environment is the great cause of the moment. With this introduction to biology and ecology goes a Wilsonian ethic of sorts: scientific, amelioristic, optimistic, rational, autonomous, fascinated, knowledge-hungry.
The Future of Life (2002) is an updated, shortened version of The Diversity of Life. Both books are more than worth the price of admission. In both books Wilson also introduces the concept of biophilia. In the United States and Canada alone more people visit zoos and aquariums than attend all professional sports events combined. Just like koalas gravitate to Eucaplyptus forests, habitat selection is built into human brains by DNA, not in the sense of hard-wiring, but in the sense of pathways of pre-prepared learning. Simply put, we have an innate tendency to enjoy being in environments which mimic the ancestral, savanna home of Homo sapiens: large park-like grasslands dotted by groves and scattered trees. We also enjoy being high up (predators and prey could have been seen) and close to bodies of water (food source and protection from predators on the other side). Where is the most expensive residential real estate in Perth? High up along the Swan river. Each of these multi-million dollar properties have plenty of space and trees and raised views.
In 2006 Wilson published The Creation (don’t bother reading this book if you’ve already read his previous work as much of this is reiteration, with the difference that it is aimed at religious readers). Here he calls on religion to help protect the beauty of Earth and its prodigious variety of life forms. Wilson tells the story of a young man visiting the cathedral-like Atlantic forest of Brazil. The young man wrote in his notebook, ‘It is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, admiration and devotion which fill and elevate the mind.’ This was Charles Darwin in 1832, before he had given any thought to evolution. Wilson believes that we should aspire not to ascend from Nature, but to ascend to Nature.
“Only in what remains of Eden, teeming with life forms independent of us, is it possible to experience the kind of wonder that shaped the human psyche at its birth.
- David Abram The Spell of the Sensuous This is the book that convinced me that the highly anthropocentric mode of experience endemic to alphabetic cultures of European origin had epistemological problems. As Abram says on his website ‘We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.’
- David Suzuki Naked Ape to Super Species Most people will learn a number of important political and economic things by reading this. Such as the extent of the lies perpetuated by the commercial media and PR and advertising in their efforts at ‘informing’ society about the world (check out my news page for an alternative source of current affairs). About how corporate power needs to externalise its costs rather than internalising them, through depleting nature, abusing labour, and sucking our tax dollars through subsidies. And look Australia! We could tax energy consumption instead of labour, like Germany has started doing.
- Lester R. Brown Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (2008). Much of the world is neither the developed world or the developing world, but the deteriorating world. Many nations, such as Haiti, Somalia, and Nigeria, are places where soil is eroding, acquifers depleting, forests shrinking, HIV spreading, and government’s losing control. These are called failed states. The number of failed states increases each year. An increasing number of failed states each year is an early warning sign that human civilization as a whole is starting to collapse. Fortunately we have Lester R. Brown to the rescue. Brown has a synoptic reach of current affairs from a macro perspective that is very, very impressive. Do yourself a favour: don’t read the newspaper for a year, and instead just read this book. Brown knows exactly which measures are available to remedy social and environmental decline in the world, and he outlines them in the later part of the book. In the developed world it boils down to replacing income tax with taxes on environmentally harmful activities, and in the developing world it boils down to a suite of measures that would cost around $190 billion per year to implement, roughly one sixth of the global expenditure on military forces. While reading books like this one one looks at the average Joe walking down the street during the day blithley ignorant of all this stuff, and one scratches one head. Unaware that we are in a planetary emergency, one wonders what planet most supposedly educated Western folk live on?
- James Lovelock The Revenge of Gaia 2005. The most fundamental theory for understanding life on earth, I previously thought, was Darwinian evolution. Now I’ve had the chance to read this recent book by Lovelock and get to grips properly with the Gaia theory I see Earth System Science, or Gaia theory, as another candidate for ‘the big theory’ of the world. The world is four billion years old. Despite the fact that the sun has gotten twenty five per cent hotter since life kicked off three billion years ago, the global climate has stayed at a level suitable for life for much of that time. This is because life, coupled with the crust of the earth and the oceans and the atmosphere, has self-regulated. This self-regulating earth system we can call Gaia. One example most people know is that the forests of the world pump down C02 from the air, but another important system is the way in which the algae of the oceans pump-down C02 and create the nuclei from which clouds form and reflect solar radiation back into space. Understanding that Gaia prefers to be ten degrees or so cooler, we can see that at the present interglacial moment in Gaia’s life, she’s in a bit of a fever. Knowing this, and having this Lovelock created perspective, we come to the matter of human induced climate heating, and we have a fresh perspective on the gravity and enormity of the current climate crisis. We see that the releasing of CO2 into the atmosphere is releasing positive feedback systems, for example the melting of the ice at the poles which previously reflected more solar luminosity back into space, or the killing of the algae in the oceans, in ways which make Gaia even more feeble and unable to regulate the atmosphere for our enjoyment. There should be two words etched into the minds of all of us when we think about the world right now: ‘Positive Feedback’. These words are the brink of Niagra Falls that we don’t want to topple over. Knowing this one sees that it is time to do whatever it takes to stop runaway global heating. Lovelock calls on nuclear power as one measure in a suite of power sources that must be used at this late stage in the game. He sees nuclear fission only as an emergency measure to keep the lights burning until we have developed nuclear fusion and wind, tidal and solar power to a stage where they can take over completely. On the nuclear question Lovelock is, I believe, wrong. Nuclear power plants are too expensive when not subsidised, too slow to build and too dangerous in terms of waste being acquired by terrorists further down the line in an increasingly unstable world (this is the fear of the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and their purpose is to promote nuclear). How many environmental NGOs, full of scientists and experts, are we hearing cry out for nuclear energy? None. Also, Lovelock’s anti-Green tirades could have been phrased with more charity and sympathy (perhaps he’s getting a bit cranky now he’s in his eighties). All this said, I do think that as citizens in the twenty-first century, we must throw away anti-science prejudices, look at Earth Systems Science, understand energy production methods, and start demanding what is best for Gaia. As WWF has shown, in Australia that means lots of wind and solar and some gas-fired baseload supply of electricity, as well energy efficiency, and light rail and other options for transport.
- Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It.
Bloomsbury: 2006. The large colour photographs and clear and concise graphs and charts in this book should be seen and read by every human being on the planet. You may know many of the facts and ideas in the book already, but to see these things illustrated in this book cannot be beaten (even if you’ve seen the film of the same name). Al Gore also proves that climate change is a moral cause and that stewardship of nature can be taken to the heart of mainstream democracy. He is a global leader on the most important issue on the planet.
Any decent cosmology will include an understanding of who one is. In fact if you don’t have a detailed picture of human nature how are you going to work towards human flourishing, the ultimate target? I’m an organism whose emotional repertoire is that of a bipedal primate’s who lived in north-eastern Africa till around seventy thousand years ago.
- Frans de Waal (website) Our Inner Ape: The best and worst of human nature (Granta: 2005) de Waal is a Dutch primatologist based in the U.S. This excellent book gives numerous detailed examples of chimpanzee and bonobo groups interacting in ways which mirror human society, be it in terms of love, power, sex, kindness, fairness or empathy. One pertinent observation for Green politics is to do with a sense of fairness in chimps. When two chimps were present in a lab and repeatedly presented with bits of cucumber at the same time they happily at the food. Apes like sweet fruit. When one of the pair was given a grape and the other the normal cucumber, all of a sudden the one with the cucumber throw his food away in a violent show of protest. After I read this I realized how deeply the sense of fairness in humans runs, and was given more proof that a gross discrepancy between the richest and the poorest in any society is a bad thing, even if the poorest has enough to live on. The major insight in this book that emerges is a debunking of the idea of human civilization as a veneer on a brutish human nature. People have made this assertion with reference to chimpanzee society, which is very violent. However the more recently discovered species bonobo is just as close to us genetically, and is a peaceful, elegant and sensual society of beings. We are at base just as kind and empathetic as bonobos, and only sometimes as dominating and horrible as chimps.
- Robin Dunbar (website) The Human Story: A New History of Mankind’s Evolution (2004) Dunbar is a British evolutionary historian, and his prose is more articulate than some of the Americans. His approach is to show how old various properties of human nature are, and to show how we differ from the other great apes. The size our neocortex suggests we lived in groups of around 150, and that is too big to groom everybody. So we invented language, and laughter. These things allow us to bond in groups, without having physical contact. Laughter actually releases endorphins, like massage. But as Dunbar shows, even most everyday conversations are forms of ‘grooming’ in essence. An argument for the profound value of laughter in the well lived life. On the topic of meditation Dunbar shows how adepts can self-induce endorphin surges in their brains (sorry to employ such crassly reductive language!). Which makes me think … if all these people spend so much time going to the gym to get their body into shape why don’t they do some internal excercises too? The discussion of religion is illuminating in the current climate of media focus on terrorism. Because of our inbuilt evolutinary tendencies to both question the world (science), and acquiesce very easily to group norms of belief (religion), we are bound to oscillate between rationalism and religion. Rationalist’s don’t offer a good model for the cementing of collective identity. Religious people offer a world-view which acquieces to the bad things as well as the good in their reilgion’s world-view. I think the Jhad vs. McWorld scenario is intractable unless we rationalists start offering more meaty frameworks for collective norms of good behaviour. I personally think that reverence for Gaia, with an accompanying ensemble of cultural symbols and stories, shows us the path forward here.
- Ronald Wright‘s A Short History of Progress came as a slim paperback to my hands. How nice to find then, that it is a comprehensive history of human civilization. I’ve read a bit of history, and I would recommend this book over every other work of ‘big history’ out there. You’ve got to know history, otherwise you won’t understand who you yourself are. This Canadian historian knows exactly what humans are, and writes about it with memorable aplomb, for example: ‘a late-Palaeolithic child snatched from a campfire and raised among us now would have an even chance of earning a degree in astrophysics. To use a computer analogy, we are running twenty-first century software on hardware last upgraded 50,000 years ago or more. This may explain quite a lot of what we see in the news’ (p.35). In just a few lines this historian says something more valuable than other historians manage in a whole volume, for example: ‘We in the lucky countries of the West now regard our two-century bubble of freedom and affluence as normal and inevitable. Yet this new order is an anomaly: the opposite of what usually happens as civilizations grow. Our age was bankrolled by the seizing of half a planet, extended by taking over most of the remaining half, and has been sustained by spending-down new forms of natural capital, especially fossil fuels’ (117). Histories such as Wright’s really make mainstream history books that go on and on about Queen Victoria’s splendid funeral, or Winston Churchill’s late-night pronouncements on the eve of battle, look like light-weight wastes of paper.
- James S. Chisholm Death, Hope and Sex: Steps to an Evolutionary Ecology of Mind and Morality Jim Chisholm is, like me, an evolutionary humanist, which means that he thinks a knowledge of human nature based on science gives us the most secure guiding light for how we should improve the human condition. Jim shows how an early experience of environmental risk and uncertainty in childhood (for example a mother who consistently neglects her infant) creates adults who are chronically fearful, young women who are promiscuous and young men who are agressive and violent. Jim shows that it is actually rational for them to be so from the perspective of passing on their genes. Such people end up without developing their capacity for empathy as much as the rest of us (that is they can’t easily imagine the situation of another and have compassion for that situation). I think we have all encountered such people, and sometimes with white collars on (pychopaths are often at the top of corporations). It is also necessary to have had early experiences of security and reliable attachment figures to develop the capacity to play and explore, which makes one wonder about a correlation between right-wing voters and a dearth of creative and exploratory behavioural patterns. Of course the implications are that we should support young mothers (allocate resources particularly to those who are faced with a ‘fitness cliff’, that means get rid of the insecurities that surround the really poor!) in raising their kids if we want to live in a society that isn’t filled with violent and/or egotistical people. For the majority of Westerners this immediately means putting your kids into a day-care centre where the staff will treat the infants like kin, and that means that, as a society, we’ll need to start paying workers in day-care more money. Jim also shows how inequality in a society isn’t just bad in the traditional terms of lefty politics (the rich shouldn’t have all the resources while the poor scrape by on very little), but is actually evil at an emotional, social and psychological level, causing increased cortisol levels and reduced feelings of wellbeing. It isn’t just about absolute income, but about relative income: the human species evolved in egalitarian societies and we do not prosper when surrounded by gross disparities in income distribution. (By the way, Jim teaches at my old university, UWA: Chisholm)
- Joseph LeDoux (website) The Emotional Brain There is a revolution going on in science. It is called neuroscience. Reading this book it is interesting to see that emotions take place in part of our brain we have very little conscious control over, but which greatly controls the level of arousal in our pre-frontal cortex. It seems there are many emotional mysteries within us. Things can happen inside you and only after the fact (and not always even consciously) are we aware of what is going on. A warning: this book has lots of hard science and is the least easy reading of all the books I am recommending.
- John Ratey (website) A User’s Guide to the Brain Ratey’s book reminded of the importance of movement of any and every kind in keeping the brain in good, complex shape. As well as the importance of touch.
- Susan Greenfield (website) The Private Life of the Mind Greenfield enlightens us with the idea that pleasure corresponds with small fragile neural constellations and depression with large and persistent constellations. The first corresponds with the state where humans have their consciousness full of their senses; the second corresponds with the state we experience when we have our consciousness dominated by our inner resources, by our Self, by our mind. The first is often associated with pleasure (dancing, having sex, extreme sports, a baby gasping in delight when it is thrown up in the air, and so on); the second is often associated with depression. The evolutionary explanation is that it makes sense for us to be immersed in the here and now when we, being the big-brained smarties we are, are constantly retreating into an inner world created by our prefrontal cortex. This book was exciting to read. After reading it I realised that it inadvertently gives a kind of scientific support to D. H. Lawrence’s intuitive position, expressed in his late poems, that animals have not lost their grasp on the joys and revelations of present-tense, first-person existence, and that we should try to emulate their absorption in the sensual experience of the living present. Personally, I wouldn’t say that this book suggests a corollary that we should all go and run down the street naked, with the New Age Wind in our hair, but I do think it makes comprehensible the notion that a bit of transient animality, or experience of the sights or sounds of a wild biota, can be enjoyable.
- Daniel Goleman Emotional Intelligence Chiefly I refer you to the chapter on how we should think about grief, anger and anxiety. This chapter of the book showed me that worry is an evolutionary dead-end, that anger is a seductive but useless emotion, and that nostalgia must be corrected through cognitive re-framing. I can’t remember if it was this book that covered it, but on the subject of emotional intelligence: I don’t think anyone should be without the skills of effective communication, which can be boiled down to two points. If someone does something which impacts on you in a negative manner then go and talk to them, and practice appropriate assertion (don’t accuse them, rather use ‘I’ a lot, e.g. ‘I felt hurt’) and active listening (fully attend to their response). Approach conflict trying for a win/win outcome.
- Bruce McEwan (website) The End of Stress as We Know It is the latest on the psychiatry and neurophysiology of stress. Allostasis is health, allostatic load is stress. Positive health is social bonding (oxytocin), exercise, good diet, adequate sleep (as McEwan says, everything your grandma could have told you). These things stop one’s biochemistry being damaged by allostatic load. Lack of control makes stress worse.
- Michael Pollan In Defense of Food: The Myth of Nutrition and the Pleasures of Eating (2008). Like most left-leaning, intellectual types, I always thought it was better to shop at a farmer’s market than a supermarket, to eat lots of fresh fruit and vegetables including leafy greens, and to buy local and organic produce. So how has reading Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food: The Myth of Nutrition and the Pleasures of Eating (2008) changed any of that? Well I now have some serious proof that organic produce is full of lots more nutrients than conventional produce, and that eating organic food is truly the way to go if you want to be a healthy human being. I suppose recently I’ve become a bit of a tight-fist when it comes to spending lots more money on organic vegetables and fruit. However if you only buy conventional produce your diet may not be giving you all the nutrients you need (not to forget the benefits to the environment you could get from changing to organic, such as reduced pesticide run off into the waterways). Pollan councils not eating anything that your neolithic ancestors wouldn’t have recognised as food. That rules most of the shelfs at the supermarkets (the ‘stupidmarket’ as my friend Ben calls it) out. Unprocessed, seasonal, local foods are what we should be eating, so go to the farmer’s market instead. Ever since we started refining white flour in the 1870s (the first fast food) humanity has been getting it wrong. The author’s advice for escaping the modern Western diet is: 1. Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t have recognised as food. 2. Avoid products containing ingredients that are a). unfamiliar, b). unpronounceable, c). more than five in number. 3.shop at a farmers market whenever you can. 4. East mostly plants, especially leaves. 5. eat well grown food from healthy soils. 6. eat wild foods when you can. Simple but crucial advice if you care about yourself.
- Peter Singer (website) How Should We Live has shown me how altruistic work can give life meaning and satisfaction.
- Ellen Dissanayake (website) Homo Aestheticus and Art and Intimacy Both books demonstrate that a participation in the arts, from drawing a figure in the sand to staging a play, help to give order, meaning, pleasurable feelings of mastery and social cohesion, to human life. Dissanayake’s evolutionary perspective shows that the arts are as essential to humans are is warmth and shelter.
- Jane Goodall (website) and Marc Bekoff The Ten Trusts: What We Must Do to Care for the Animals We Love Gives some flesh to what altruism towards other living beings looks like. Jane Goodall is one of England’s most calm, grounded, loving and intelligent women.
- Mary Midgley Science and Poetry Myths are, as the British philosopher Mary Midgley says, imaginative patterns, networks of powerful symbols that suggest particular ways of interpreting the world. Myths are important in that: the way in which we imagine the world determines what we think important in it, what we select for attention among the welter of facts that constantly flood in upon us. Unfortunately the myths we carry around with us, our patterns of moral thinking, don’t adapt immediately to the world we live in. This world has recently changed radically. We now live on a global stage, our physical resource base is threatened for the first time, and we now know that we are animals in a profoundly biological sense. We need new myths in response to the never encountered before world we find ourselves in. The myth of social atomism – we are all primarily separate and autonomous individuals – is in need of replacement by a myth of Gaia. The British scientist James Lovelock viewed life on earth as an integrated and self-sustaining natural system, in which our planet’s atmosphere, an extraordinary and unstable mixture of gases, is kept constant in composition over long periods of time, at a level favourable for organisms, through the regulatory effect of life itself. Life on earth is, in other words, well thought of as a single entity. That entity we can call Gaia, the name of the earth goddess in ancient Greece. You and I are part of Gaia.
- Scott Russell Sanders (website) Writing from the Center Truly wise prose, describing what it is like to belong to community, and introducing the notion of bioregional consciousness. To find out where we actually live start answering questions such as: What soils surround our houses and apartments and what rocks underlie them? Where does the sun rise and set throughout the year, how does the light change, and how do the shadows play? What bushes and flowers and trees blossom in that place, and when? The areas defined by things like a watershed, food-chain, topography and climate constitute bioregions. Such bioregions ignore and undercut many man-made labels, social boundaries, that one might find on maps or in phonebooks. Living responsibly on earth means recognizing that our true address is the one defined by our bioregion as well as by our patterns of human occupation. In his essay ‘Staying Put’ Sanders writes: ‘It has taken me half a lifetime of searching to realize that the likeliest path to the ultimate ground leads through my local ground.’ As a writer Sanders is the closest thing American has to a contemporary Henry David Thoreau. Whenever I read his writings I feel like I’ve been drawn back on track, like I have done something worth doing, like cooking a meal, or drinking a glass of water, or giving someone a massage, or waking from restorative sleep.
- Digging in the Sand: An Environmental History of South-western Australia by me, Tom Wilson. Well this book is still being written, but I think it will be worth a read if you happen to live in this part of the world. Here are a couple of other books to read if you’d like to understand this part of Australia in the meantime: First, Between Wodjil and Tor by Barbara York Main. It was written in 1967 and observes, often in a present tense as it happens style, one year in a particular bit of wilderness in the Wheat Belt of W.A. As the seasons turn, she describes the movements and life-cylces of the different species of plant and lizard, and spider and bird, and so on. It has been a valuable read for me in that it has increased my ecological literacy about this place. The work is not of great value beyond its function in describing and explaining life in this place, but if you live here it is a valuable resource. Irene Cunningham’s Land of Flowers was published in 2005 and is again a description of a bit of land in the wheat belt. Closer to Perth this time. And Cunningham’s prose isn’t as eloquent as Main’s. Cunningham provides some environmental history of the area around Perth, often overly depressing in what the whites have done here. The virtue of this book is again as a tool for those who live here, in that it helps one increase one’s ecological literacy about this place. This time more from the direction of indigenous knowledge about native food sources, from both plants and animals. Cunningham bought a bit of land here in the early eighties and returned it all to wild life. Her affection and intimate knowledge of her sanctuary is touching, and infectious. George Seddon’s new book The Old Country (2005) is also of use in furthering one’s knowledge of the flora in and around Perth. Incidentally, Seddon lived just a few houses away from my current abode until he died in 2007, and I visited him now and again in his beautiful garden. Tim Flannery‘s Chasing Kangaroos is part memoir, part guide to one of the most amazing group of animals in the world. It is hard to find biological scientists who can write well and who merge personal recollections of the real world with their professional knowledge. Flannery is one such writer.
- Robert Hughes The Fatal Shore Hughes gives us a cinematic version of history, taking us back to the the colours of the oceanic waves that are plowed into by wooden sailing ships under the midday sun as the English come to colonize Terra Australis in 1788, with an artist’s relish for visual description. Whichever nation you live in your should know a bit of its history. This book gives Australians a readable account of their nation’s early European heritage. There are other good histories of Australia no doubt, but I just haven’t read many of them.
- Micheal Archer and Bob Beale Going Native We should be eating kangaroo, planting mallees and saltbush in the wheat belt, having quolls as pets, buying native flowers more, using urban forests as carbon sinks. Basically Archer shows that we should be harvesting native plants and animals and inviting them into our lives so that conservation is given an economic incentive. This may be the path around the dead-lock government has stalled progress in. Being inventive and innovative is the signature-mark of the book’s approach, and I think it is the way forward.
- If you live in Europe or North America then you might have a look at So Shall We Reap by Colin Tudge instead. This book shows, in succinct and entertaining language, that the model of the traditional mixed farm is the most appropriate one for solving the problems of world poverty, and providing food for us into the twenty-first century. This short piece by Colin Tudge is worth reading wherever you live.
- Tim M. Berra A Natural History of Australia
I know of no better well illustrated, one volume guide to the national heritage of the big island I live on. This book (1998) is written by an American, ironically, but perhaps it took an outsider’s perspective to not take the common for granted.
I need to feel at home in a landscape, with some people, and in my philosophy. The preceding list of titles have helped to give me an intellectual address (and interestingly enough there is no undergraduate university course available that would introduce you to all these titles). My philosophy doesn’t just entail a list of books: it is also embodied through my everyday actions, for example meditating on the interconnection of all living things (neuroscience tells us that something like this, practiced regularly will change your brain, but it is a use-dependent phenomena: if you don’t do it regularly you will lose the ability to do it well), exercise, helping other parts of the biosphere, eating well, feeling the sunlight on my skin, breathing fresh air, enjoying fresh experiences, laughing, resting, and experiencing love and community. One’s philosophy must be lived each and everyday if it is to be respected as a true love of wisdom. Then it becomes what the Japanese call a Dō or a Way.
This website isn’t all about reading books and believing things. Here is my challenge to you.