OK, it’s December. If you’re like me, you’re still either trying to decide what to get for Christmas for that special gardener in your life or you dutifully ordered something six months ago and it’s still sitting on a cargo ship off the coast of Los Angeles.
If you’re struggling to find the perfect gift, here’s a little hint. I never met a good gardener who didn’t love a great read. And since both my office and home are buckling under the collective weight of 40 years’ worth of collecting and reading nature, plant, garden and science books, I thought I’d share a few recommendations.
by Rebecca Scott
Any gardener or would-be gardener who has not read Darwin is missing the boat. Sorry, that’s just the way it is. His 1859 work, “The Origin of Species,” that turned the world on its collective ear is just one part of Darwin’s genius. His other works, while less well known, are equally insightful. And with even a superficial reading you can’t help but see the gardener’s soul behind his words and works.
But evolution didn’t start and end with Darwin. In fact, the basic concept now known as evolution has been around for almost 2,000 years. What author Rebecca Scott has done in “Darwin’s Ghosts” is to essentially trace the evolution of the theory of evolution — what Darwin read from past observers of nature and what he may have missed as well. Not that these oversights were born of incompetence or malice but rather, and most likely, a result of his conscious shouldering of the enormous social upheaval his work would cause.
We forget that his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who in so many ways sparked the younger Darwin’s interest in the field, actually held back the publication of his own writings on the subject until after his death. It’s hard for us to transport ourselves back to that social space but “Darwin’s Ghosts” does just that.
Scott fills in the gaps from the very first written inklings about evolutionary change and the bread crumbs left for later observers of nature to follow. The book does not at all take away from the genius and originality of Darwin’s work. Rather it places it all in a context that helps us understand what lead up to this groundbreaking book.
by Andrea Wulf
Part impeccably researched history lesson, part riveting adventure story, and part armchair travelogue, “The Invention of Nature” chronicles the life and work of someone many gardeners have never heard of but to whom we all owe a great debt of gratitude. In this remarkable book, Wulf chronicles the life of the Prussian natural science behemoth Alexander von Humboldt from his childhood roots to his explorations in North, Central, and South America and across northern Europe.
Today, we take for granted the concept that there are ecological zones across the globe that share common traits regardless of their global location — alpine forests in Switzerland share significant common traits with alpine forests in the Andes. But that is all vintage von Humboldt. Throughout the book, Wulf documents his incredible powers of observation and his ability to distill vast reams of data down to its essence.
As an added bonus, this is one of the best and most thoroughly researched books of its type. Through her preparation of the book, Wulf didn’t just read some Wikipedia posts and turn them into a compelling book. She read all von Humboldt’s writings in the original German and studied all the original editions of all others who wrote to and about von Humboldt. This is a monumental work that is also a first-class page-turner.
by Eric Rutkow
As a bit of a pathological plant person and plant/garden/science book hoarder of the first order, there aren’t many books I’ve received as gifts that weren’t already on some shelf at home or the office. But this one cracked the code. It’s a gem.
We can all still recite some bit of the American history learned and memorized back in grade school — back in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. And most of us learned the same basic bits of what events led up to the making of this nation. But in all that reading, memorizing and reciting, trees rarely entered the conversation.
In this original bit of history and writing, Rutkow takes us on that same journey, the journey made so many times and over so many years, but makes it entirely new again. Seeing the making of a nation through the eyes of its forest, trees, and woods, he helps us understand how the seemingly unending resource of the New World woods sat at the crux of so much of our history.
From raw material to geopolitical football, respite, escape, sustenance, and more, the American forest was not just some inanimate thing around which history happened. It was, and is, part of our Nation’s history. A worthy read for any tree hugger in your life.
Paul Cappiello is the executive director at Yew Dell Botanical Gardens, 6220 Old Lagrange Road, yewdellgardens.org.