Adventures of a Renegade Naturalist
By Daniel B. Botkin
In the stories of Strange Encounters, Botkin sits us down (imagine a pub, a roaring fire, and a couple of pints) and tells us all his best globe-trotting, rain-forest-exploring, bullet-dodging anecdotes — about whales, trees, elephants, radiation, old New England mills, space food, Thoreau, and other seemingly disparate, but ultimately connected, aspects of our natural world. The result is a fascinating look at how he (and we) think about nature and ourselves.
Where to buy:
How many leaves are on a tree?
Is it okay to let your dog drink from the toilet?
In the delightful book Strange Encounters: Adventures of a Renegade Naturalist, these seemingly simple, almost childlike questions lead to a series of rich meditations on science, nature, and human nature.
The most personal and accessible work in his long career as a writer, Botkin does for the natural world what Richard Feynman did for physics and Oliver Sacks for human behavior. Whether rebuilding an old mill in New Hampshire while ruminating on notions of "progress," researching the most weight-efficient high-protein food source for space travel, or working in a radioactive forest on an early Cold War research project, Botkin's adventures illuminate the complex and ever-changing relationship between human beings and their environment.
Stories from Strange Encounters include:
- Maggie's Bend: the tale of how the U.S. Forest Service came up with a way to compensate Whorehouse Jack, the owner of a brothel on Idaho's Clearwater River, so the land on which it was situated could become part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers system.
- The Ecology of Splitting Wood: what chopping wood can tell about life in a forest — and why, for insects, oaks are the Baskin-Robbins and Ben and Jerry's of trees.
- The Radioactive Forest: how the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, New York, irradiated an entire forest as an experiment, and what a hunter-gatherer might have thought about it.
- The Monkey's Dilemma: a story of bats, palm trees, risks, and uncertainties in the rain forest of Costa Rica, and its application to absolutely everything.
- Repairing the Mill: a return to a place of certainty, where energy is visible.
- How the Fox Caught the Squirrel and why the moose kicked at the shore: a tale of true wilderness.
"Chance is part of Mother Nature's kit of tools to make studying her difficult," Botkin writes. "It places a limit on what we can know. Life, it seems, is a series of events that are best thought of as, well, the monkey’s dilemma." With such observations, Botkin shares his hard-earned wisdom about people and nature and the strange things done in the name of science to “save” nature and ourselves. He shows us that our solutions to environmental problems are sometimes crystal-clear, sometimes contradictory, sometimes works-in-progress verging on the unanswerable.
For fans of the works of Feynman and Oliver Sacks, Strange Encounters will be a welcome addition to the immensely popular literature of "armchair science." For those who have yet to discover this intriguing genre, Strange Encounters is a compelling, imaginative, and thought-provoking book about issues central to our times.
Paperback, Tarcher/Penguin, $15.95 (September 15, 2003)
-- Publishers Weekly - August 18, 2003
Bob Nickel and Harry Chains were short of money. They were students at the Yale School of Forestry, and their courses had convinced them that they knew enough about this subject to act as professionals. They went into the business of tree-trimming. They were vigorous, outdoor young men, hardworking, earnest, and with good senses of humor. Bob was about six feet tall, with black hair and a thick black beard and pleasing manner. Harry was a wiry Australian, about 5' 10", with a narrow face and a determined manner.
Bob and Harry had worked for me on research projects in the forests of New Hampshire. By this time I had figured out, I thought, a way to combine the two worlds I had been living in, the nineteenth century self-contained world of Alstead, New Hampshire and the growing hi-tech world of modern science and its technology. The computer model that grew trees had to be compared with real data. I spent one summer getting some of that information and hired Bob and Harry to do the main field work. We worked in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where Tom Siccama had followed the cigarette-smoking woman botanist to the summit of Mount Washington.
I got U S geological survey maps of the mountains, making use of skills I had learned from Heman Chase about map reading as well as map making. And on these maps I selected points at random, so there could be no bias in what we chose. Bob, Harry and I then went to those plots and made measurements that I hoped we could use to test the forecasts of the computer program. We found our way with a map and compass, doing what later became known as “orienteering,” an enjoyable outdoor challenge. With this work I was able to hike through the forests and study them, follow the ideas that had developed when I had helped Heman Chase survey the old farms in southern New Hampshire.
During that summer, I came to know Bob and Harry well. Bob brought along his pet dog, a large retriever whom he named “Henri” and pronounced it in French, as a joke. Once we climbed Mount Moosilocki, and overnight trip, as we made measurements on the way up and the way down. Henri was impatient and always eager to go ahead of us, returning after a while as fast as he could run and dashing past us, then turning around, visiting with us for a short while as if to say, “what’s taking you so long” and then headed up the mountain again. By the end of the day when we reached the summit and cooked our dinner over a camping stove, Bob realized he had forgotten any food for his dog, who stood and watched us eat. Bob fed him some of the beef-stroganoff that came in a dried form and we had mixed with water, and he gave the dog water to drink. Most of the time Bob was completely competent and well-organized, but once he a while, as in this situation, he was like most of us, and would forget to bring something. We petted “Henri” and tried to make him as happy as possible on his limited food, and he did not seem to mind too much.
Bob and Harry had plenty of vigor and could out-hike me anytime. They were enthusiastic, full of good humor and fun to work with. I thought they could succeed at almost anything they wanted to do. But then their reach exceeded their abilities.
Their first job as tree-trimmers back in New Haven in the fall was to trim a big elm tree near the curb on a busy New Haven Street. The tree belonged to the owners of a gracious white-clapboarded home, a classic New England house, except that the front of the house was dominated by an ostentatious porch with Greek-style columns holding up the overhanging roof.
Bob and Harry arrived with a few saw and axes and some long ropes. The American elm was distinctively graceful and was once the dominant street tree in many towns and cities. Because of the Dutch Elm disease, an introduced fungal disease probably of Asian origin, few American elms remain today and their graceful shape is now unfamiliar. Typically, a elm’s main trunk split 20 or 30 feet above the ground into two to four arching limbs that spread out in what people referred to as a vase-like shape. The result was a beautiful tree whose leaves, hanging down from the high arched limbs, shaded the street below without limbs and branches sticking out into the traffic. These limbs were thick and strong, usually more than a foot in diameter. Elm wood is extremely tough, in part because the grain spirals upward, making the trees difficult to split with an ax and wedge and difficult to cut when the wood is green.
Bob and Hedley’s elm was probably beginning to suffer from Dutch elm disease. One of the limbs hanging out over the street was dying. It was this limb that posed a hazard and the home-owner had asked Bob and Harry to cut. They started in earnest, one of them climbing up the tree and the other putting ropes on the limb. They were trying to keep the limb from falling onto the street — possibly onto a passing car. Their plan was to tie the rope near to the end of the limb, loop the rope around the trunk of the tree, using the loop as a break. One of them would hold onto the end of the rope, pulling it against the loop. Friction would stop the limb from falling. Then they could ease the limb over to the lawn.
The limb was much heavier and stronger than they had guessed. As Bob sawed through the base on the limb, Harry held on to the end of the rope, standing near the porch to keep as far from the limb as he could. When the limb began to bend, Harry realized that the loop they had made around the tree trunk was not enough to hold back the weight. The rope began to pull him to the tree. Holding onto the rope, he rushed up on the porch and looped the end of the rope around one of the porch columns, expecting this to be made of solid wood and capable of holding the weight of the limb. But the column was a hollow facade. As Harry pulled on the end of the rope, now twisted around the column, the column groaned and started to rise into the air, the weight of the elm limb pulling it out of its base. Harry rushed closer to the column. He pulled with all his might, but the limb was stronger than he was and weighed a lot more. In a moment, Tim, watching from the tree, saw the column and Harry pulled up into the air, neither one grounded. Only the overhanging roof was preventing the limb from crashing into the street and yanking the column and Harry in a flying arch toward the street.
Bob wasn’t sure what to do first. If the limb fell, it was in danger of damaging a passing or parked car, possibly causing serious injury to passengers. The rope was threatening to destroy the column and possibly the entire porch, and perhaps injure Hedley.
A crowd gathered to watch Hedley’s acrobatics with wonder and amusement. For a few more moments, Harry and the column swung like pendulums, suspended from the air by a rope. Bob climbed down from the tree, joined Harry to help pull on the rope. Their combined weight was just enough to bring the column back down to the ground and keep the limb in the air. But what to do next? If Bob let go, Harry would spring back into the air. But Bob couldn’t stay on the porch forever.
Eventually, a few men in the crowd joined in to help. One took Tim’s place holding the rope and the other helped Bob finish cutting through the limb. As the crowd cheered, Bob pushed the cut limb, still suspended by the rope, over to the lawn. Harry and the helpful stranger slowly eased off the rope, lowering the limb to the lawn.
So ended Bob and Hedley’s career as tree experts. It was a lesson in homilies: the limits of academic education; the danger of a little knowledge; the limits of the enthusiasm of youth; the value of experience. They had plenty of experience out in the woods, studying forests, as when they helped me during the summer in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. When we seek to find practical solutions to the conservation of our forests, and when we do this from a distance, with little learning and less experience, we should remember Bob and Harry trimming the elm tree in New Haven. It’s not a bad thing to think about in confronting life in general.
Copyright © Daniel B. Botkin 2007 all rights reserved.