December 2017

The Hidden Life of Trees

Peter Wholleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel, How they Communicate; Discoveries from a Secret World (Vancouver: Greystone Books), 2015.

Our copy of this book came from a friend who had read it in a book club and the copy sat around our house for a long time before I even picked it up. Once I did, I almost put it down without having read very much of it because I was quite put off by the excessive anthropomorphism on nearly every page. To say that plants interact with the world in the ways of humans is a stretch. To interpret their reactions to their environment as feelings, or their interactions with each other as communication, it seems to me, is to miss what might be deeper understandings of the working of the wider ecology.

However, one night when I didn't have much else to read, I returned to the book and over the next few days completed reading it. It is clearly full of well-researched and insightful observations about trees and their role in complex ecological systems. There was plenty of new to me information about the interaction between trees and fungi, about connections between trees in close proximity to each other and about the effects of human activities upon the forest ecology.

I wouldn't use the same language to talk about what is going on, but it is clear that I learned quite a bit from reading the book and it is likely information that I would have missed had it been contained in an academic text book. I don't routinely read forestry texts. The popular format and the widespread reading of the book brought it to my attention and I did read it cover to cover.

There are definitely different perspectives, but Wohlleben's is worth consideration.

Beyond Tolerance

Gustav Niebuhr, Beyond Tolerance: How People Across America Are Building Bridges Between Faiths (New York: Penguin Group), 2008.

Even though this book has been out for nearly a decade and even though Gustav Niebuhr enjoys a family name that certainly gets my attention, I didn't get around to reading this book until a book club in which I participate decided to read it. It is fairly simple and fairly straight-forward in its approach. Despite his personal roots in liberal mainstream protestantism, Niebuhr doesn't spend much time with our particular corner of Christianity and chooses to focus on other denominations, including Roman Catholics and several fundamentalist groups. He seems to put our particular corner of the faith in the same category as the Episcopalians, but that is a small criticism, barely noticed by others, I suspect.

With a journalist's eye and interview skills, Niebuhr has done his homework, looking for examples of people in America who are engaged in building interfaith connections and conversations. Christians, Jews, Baptists, Muslims, Buddhists and Episcopalians are reaching out to one another and building bridges and Niebuhr has been diligent in documenting some of those connections.

Niebuhr stands in a long line of theologians and church leaders. His great grandfather and namesake was an immigrant minister, who had three children who distinguished themselves in theology. His grandfather, H. Richard Niebuhr and his great uncle, Reinhold Niebuhr, both were meticulous and productive in their theological publications and served on the faculty of theological seminaries. This book may not quite be up to the standards of his famous forebears. While it is interesting and a good piece of sociological observation, it is a bit less impressive as a book of theology. Still I recommend it to those interested in interfaith dialogue in our time.

The Clancys of Queens

Tara Clancy, the Clancys of Queens: A Memoir (New York: Crown Publishing Group), 2016

taraclancyof queens
Tara Clancy is a funny woman and her memoir certainly kept me laughing. My life experience is so different from hers. I grew up in a small town in Montana, imagining what New York City might be like. She grew up in the midst of working-class New York, and moved about between her father's home, which was a converted boat shed, here grandmother's home, which was a multiple family house in Brooklyn, and a sprawling Hamptons estate she visited every other weekend, where her mother lived with an amazingly generous man. Each house had a different set of rules and a different style of living. The ever-adaptable Tara learned to balance these really different environments and fashion her own lifestyle in the midst of all of that.

The book is part coming-of-age, part telling of good stories, and part a rowdy and funny commentary on the behavior of adults in a large and complex family. The book is a gem and a genuine light on a life that I'll never live, but can really appreciate.

Tightwads on the Loose

Wendy Hinman, Tightwads on the Loose: A Seven Year Pacific Odyssey (Seattle, WA: Salsa Press) 2012.

After Reading Windy Hinman's account of the adventures of her husband and his family from before she married him, I couldn't resist ordering a copy of her earlier book about the adventures she and her husband undertook in their 31 foot boat, that fit their budget better than it fit the size of their bodies and the needs of ocean cruising. Nonetheless, they learned to turn teamwork and resourcefulness into a lifestyle of adventure, sometimes stopping to work to earn enough money to keep their travels alive as they sailed around the Pacific Ocean. They even visited the island where her husband and his family shipwrecked when he was a teenager.

Hinman is an excellent storyteller and she certainly enables the reader to enter into the drama of their adventures without even getting our feet wet. The stories of a nearly 50-day open water crossing, of the storms they chased and missed, their adventures in trading for the necessities of life, and jobs that they did in order to keep things together and continue their adventure are all engaging and make it difficult to put the book down.

This is a great read for an armchair adventurer and someone who dreams of buying their own boat and heading off to the tropics. The doses of reality that the book offers keep one from quitting one's day job too soon, but the book is a joy to read full of humor and adventure.

A Man for All Oceans

Stan Grayson, A Man for All Oceans: Captain Joshua Slocum and the First Solo Voyage Around the World (Thomaston, ME: Tilbury House Publishers) 2017.

grayson man for all oceans
I'm a bit of a fan of the lore of the sea and I have already read a couple of different biographies of Joshua Slocum as well as Slocum's own account of his trip, "Sailing alone around the world: A voyage beyond imagination." Still, I found Grayson's account to sport not only a fresh approach with information that I had not yet discerned, but also insightful in bringing additional understanding to the man, his motivations, and how he pulled off the incredible feat of such a remarkable voyage. Grayson's careful and accurate analysis does not, however, decrease the mystery and romanticism of the sea for me. This is especially evident near the end of the book where he offers what information he has about Slocum's final voyage and what might have happened to the intrepid captain ion the end.

Lovers of sailing, lovers of adventure, lovers of history and lovers of the lore of the sea will all enjoy this book and its contributions to the field of literature that surrounds the first solo circumnavigation of the globe. The ship was relatively small, the distances were incredibly great, the odds were against a successful adventure, yet Slocum persisted and accomplished what had not before been done and earned his place in the history and the lore of sailing and the sea.

The Divine Dance

Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House) 2016.

richard rohr divine dance
Richard Rohr is a popular author, speaker, retreat leader and spiritual guide, who brings his invitation to deeper thinking to Roman Catholic and Protestant seekers alike. I've listened to recordings of his lectures and read some of his materials before. The Divine Dance is an invitation to many believers to think differently about the nature of God. I have to admit that I was already drawn to a theology that is similar to Rohr's and that reading the book as Trinity Sunday approached, I found many nuggets that probably showed up in some of my preaching.

When we think of God as individual, we are limited by all sorts of things that appear, on the surface, to be contradictions. How can God be the Creator and also be Jesus in Jesus' human form? How does the Holy Spirit fit into all of this? Have our images of God as an old man who presides over heaven like the patriarch of a dying clan render an image of God that is irrelevant in our time? How much of these old notions of God make God unbelievable to modern thinkers?

Rohr invites seekers to think of God primarily in terms of relationship. God as community, as friendship, as dance is a different image of the divine nature than is typically cited by modern thinkers who claim that they do not believe in God. As has often been said, "The god in which you do not believe is a god in which I also do not believe. The God in which I believe seems to be absent from your criticisms and from your thinking."

This is an easy book to read and an open invitation to think differently about the nature of God and how God participates in human life.


Jonathan White, Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean (San Antonio Texas: Trinity University Press) 2017.

Jonathan White Tides
Jonathan White has come up with a strikingly engaging book for those of us who have an interest in the ocean, but no real desire for in depth scientific analysis. He has not slighted scientific method, but rather taken his extensive knowledge and packaged it in a book that is engaging and delightful to read. Combining a bit of sea lore with the analysis of th amazingly complex patterns of water movement on the face of the earth, the book reminds readers of how incredibly difficult it is to fully understand the rise and fall of the oceans. I might have skipped over this volume save for its excellent reviews in several boat building magazines to which I subscribe. I'm certainly glad that I took the time to read it.

Like other topics that engage me, the movement of tides is incredibly complex. the motion of the earth, the gravitational pull of the Moon, Sun and other objects, the currents of rivers flowing into the sea, the shape of coasts and dozens of other factors influence the rise and fall of tides and the ocean currents that result from this movement.

Sprinkled in with the analysis are true stories of incredibly high tidal bores, first hand observations of areas of incredible tides, information on the threat posed by rising ocean levels and more. Yet White does not minimize the sheer mystery of the tides. The book is remarkably engaging and will continue to be a good reference for this mid-continent dweller who occasionally visits coasts.

Sea Trials

Wendy Hinman, Sea Trials: Around the World with Duct Tape and Bailing Wire - A True Story (Seattle: Salsa Press) 2017.

Wendy Hinman had already experienced the trials of ocean cruising in small craft with her husband and written up some of their adventures when she undertook the task of writing up the story of her husband's childhood adventures circumnavigating the globe with his family of origin. Theirs was a truly remarkable journey. They started out on their dream and made it from California to a remote Pacific island where they washed upon a reef and were shipwrecked. The damage was extensive and they almost judged the boat to be unrepairable, but somehow they managed to repair the boat and resume their journey. The rest of the trip around the world was a trip of constant innovation, makeshift repairs and learning to live with a lack of communication, poor boat performance, insect infestations, and struggle.

The book is a tribute to the relationship that Hinman has forged with her husband and her inlays. Her sensitivity to the emotions of the parents as they went through this journey is remarkable. At times the book reads as if it had been written by her mother in law.

For those of us who like sea adventures, this book is an adventure worth reading. And for those who enjoy loving families, here is an example of how relationships can be strained and strengthened through adversity. This is no idealized, model family. It is a real family in a set of incredible circumstances. The story is remarkable.


Sue Leaf, Portage: A Family, a Canoe, and the Search for the Good Life (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) 2015.

family canoe good life
This delightful collection of stories of canoe trips is remarkable in that it is not some grand adventure book about impossible trips. It is a book about what real people can do to enjoy the outdoors and to live the paddling life. There is a bit of ecology, a bit of natural history, a bit of travel guidebook, a bit of a bird guidebook, and a bit of camp cookbook. The various trips are the kind of trips that I could imagine myself taking with my family and others. Even the troubles that they find are manageable and the kind of things that people like me get into and get out of in the course of our camping and canoeing adventures.

Like all families, theirs has a few missed opportunities, a few mistakes, and a lot of good choices. The fact that the author waited to write until after a lifetime of adventures really adds to the value of the volume. It is essential a collection of good essays about canoe trips that have been taken and adventures that have been shared. The concluding remarks about the value of water and the dangers of development is especially poignant because of the lifetime of adventuring from which her perspective has grown.

This is a very easy read, a very fun book, and one to which I can imagine myself returning again and again.

One Thousand Miles Past the Last Gas Station

Vernon Huffman, One Thousand Miles Past the Last Gas Station: The Story of Bike4Peace (Amazon) 2016.

vernon's book
I suppose, if you were going to pick one of your siblings to write a memoir, you might not choose the one who has suffered multiple concussions and head injuries. You might not choose the one who experimented with Marijuana at the earliest age. But you don't get to choose what your brothers and sisters do. And I have to admit, my brother has put a lot of time and effort into this self-published book. So I had no doubts that I would buy a hard copy and read it cover to cover. Wanting to be a supportive brother, I should write a smashing review of the book, but it is about as disjointed as a conversation with its author is. Like many self-published books, it could have benefitted from an editor.

It did remind me of the compassion I have for the various women with whom my brother has hooked up over the years. Let's just say that he hasn't been much for long-term commitments and that a guy who has been married four times has a bit of explaining to do. That explaining, however, and the details of relationships included in the book, hardly contributes to the story of an excellent cause: Bike4Peace. His multiple cross-continent bicycle trips are an amazing feat. His commitment to living an environmentally sustainable lifestyle is commendable. And the story of those bike trips is worth telling. It is likely that someone who does not know him quite as well as I might enjoy the story a bit better.

Always an idealist, Vernon presents a bit of an idealistic view of his family as well. Our great grandfather Roy did do a lot of bicycle riding. He also was a dedicated and complete keeper of personal journals. He never mentioned the aversion to automobiles that Vernon imagines in his book. The story, however, does serve to bring together some desperate ideas in at least the mind of the author.

My dear brother has done a commendable thing by writing his story. It is convenient that he went through the process of publishing it so I can have an actual book. And he will get a few folks to read the story that they might not otherwise have known.

I wonder what story he might tell if he included in the book the fact that less than a year after it was published he has become the owner of an automobile.