May 26, 2011

Book Review: Seeds by Richard Horan

Horan’s new book Seeds: One Man’s Serendipitous Journey to Find the Trees That Inspired Famous American Writers from Faulkner to Kerouac, Welty to Wharton can be read as a collection of short stories. Pick your favorite literary figure and read about his or her tree(s). (I wish one could do the reverse: pick a tree and read about the writer(s) it inspired.)
Image: Cover of Seeds by Richard Horan (source)
By the way, Horan includes non-writers like Muhammad Ali. Growing in the yard of Ali’s childhood home in Louisville, Kentucky is a catalpa.
Ali’s childhood home was exactly halfway down, on the right. There was only one house on that side of the road with a big tree out front. Guess whose it was?....Catalpas have the largest leaves of any tree in North America—about the size of a standard sheet of paper and shaped exactly like a heart. The tree looked to be about seventy-five years old, more broad than tall, with hundreds of engine-oil-brown bean pods dangling from its branches like chocolate Christmas ornaments….I took a running start and jumped, trying to knock it [a seedpod] down. I wasn’t even close. I tried several times, and was so intent on my mission that I didn’t even consider the possibility that people in the surrounding houses might have been watching me. I finally took off my belt and hit the pod with it, like a piñata. It was full of seeds. (pages 177, 179)
These excerpts are exemplar of Horan’s storytelling throughout the book and one of the reasons I really enjoyed reading Seeds. His descriptions are lively and evocative. Here are 10 additional Reasons to Read Seeds:

• A happy coincidence: The book was published this year, 2011, which is the International Year of Forests declared so by the U.N. General Assembly.  If you’ve got a favorite tree, consider blogging about it through The Tree Year project.

• Well-done, realistic illustrations of seeds, seedpods, cones, samaras, acorns, nut cases, buds, and leaves grace the first page of each chapter.

• There are many plant physiology lessons. For example, Horan writes about the American beech at the house of Pulitzer Prize winner Esther Forbes this way:
The car came to rest directly below the most spectacular American beech tree I’d ever seen. Its silvery trunk was broad and gnarled, with Herculean musculature sufficient to support an extraordinary array of low-lying, long-distance branches. In fact, a few of its bow-shaped appendages reach all the way to the hood of the car, extending some thirty feet from the bole, the part of the trunk beneath the point where branching commences. (page 44)
• Horan is a landscape historian/archaeologist! Still at the former home of Esther Forbes, this time writing about the property:
Back on top of the property, I became dazzled by what I found. The land had two levels, and at the edge of the upper level was an old metal arbor that leaned well off kilter but still managed to form a square walk-through tunnel about forty feet long. Morning glory vines and other wind-abouts wove through the mesh along the sides and top. This was a remnant of Esther Forbes’s garden, no doubt. (pages 47-48)
• Always wondered about the meaning of meaning of the Latin names of trees? Horan provides explanatory translations. An example is that of the Latin name for the redwood Sequoia sempervirens which means “always alive.”
Redwood cones are a contradiction: they’re tiny. I’ve read that redwoods reproduce primarily through vegetative reproduction, a process by which a rhizome or stem on the root grows up to become a new tree. Lots of trees reproduce in this manner. What I live about the reproductive process is that the new tree is genetically the same old tree. (page 74)
• You can learn about birds, too.

• There are lots of little known (to me) facts about famous conservationists. John Muir was a fruit farmer even though “his true love [was] nature” (page 107). Hmm, are orchards not nature, too?

• There are many “I’ve thought that too” moments such as when a travelling companion of Horan’s says: “You know, when you initially arrive at a site, you think there’s nothing there, but after spending a little time looking around, trees begin to appear.” (page 141)

• This book will make you want to: read the classics, if you have not, or read them again if you have; visit California; and spend more time in the southern U.S.

• I leaned about a gap in my arboreal bookcase: A Natural History of Eastern and Central North American Trees by Donald Culross Peattie.

If you have read Seeds please let us know what you most enjoyed about the book. The book is available for purchase via Harper Collins Publishers and you can browse inside the book, too.

While reading the book I thought of a couple of websites that might be of interest to you tree folks: the Death of a Million Trees blog about "describ[ing] the projects in the San Francisco Bay Area that have destroyed or are planning to destroy over one million trees" and Bronwyn Chester’s chronicle of trees in Montreal at Les promenades dans la Forêt Montréal.

Thank you to Carl Lennertz at Harper Collins Publishers for a review copy of the book. Also, thanks to Richard Horan for setting up the website LiterarySeeds.com so that we can “keep the spirit of the book going online.”

Stay tuned for reviews of Public Produce by Darrin Nordahl and Under Cape Cod Waters by Ethan Daniels.  We have reviewed Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature into Urban Design and Planning by Timothy Beatley, Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities by Peter Harnik, and Flora Mirabilis by Catherine Herbert Howell.

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