Talking to Trees and Listening to Sheep

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A book about shamanic journeys in the backyard and another about the dietary wisdom of roaming herbivores.

Our favorite books these days have something in common—they all seem to find their inspiration and lessons for humans in nature. And as the days turn shorter and darker, time is supposed to slow down and we are meant to curl up next to the fire and read. Turn off your screen and enjoy these two books, as I did. 

The backyard utopia

Many people had ample opportunity to explore the great outdoors during COVID-19, but how many people wrote a book about it? And in doing so, how many created a whole new way of thinking about the future, living in balance with nature, and connecting with the Earth? 

Maria Rodale has. Her new book Love Nature Magic: Shamanic Journeys into the Heart of my Garden, which is available for preorder, takes the reader on an unusual autobiographical journey through her life. Wait—make that a very unusual autobiographical journey. The truth is, I’m not really sure I should call this an autobiography, but there’s no better way to describe it. 

Rodale is a CEO of a health and wellness publisher who sells her company, begins to practice shamanistic meditative “journeys,” hunkers down on her Pennsylvania property in the early days of COVID-19, goes into dream-like trances, talks to plants and animals, hugs a mosquito, learns to stop hating the weeds in her garden, and accepts trees as teachers.

Cue the eye rolling. But before you dismiss this book altogether, know that I too sometimes cringe at the mention of spirit animals and vague shamanic universalisms. I almost put down this book as soon as I started it, but I’m glad I didn’t. What Rodale offers is extremely well executed and well worth reading. 

Rodale is the scion of now defunct Rodale publishing, famous for magazine titles such as Men’s Health, Runner’s World, and Prevention, and also books including Al Gore’s blockbuster, An Inconvenient Truth. Her grandfather helped spearhead the organic food movement during the Great Depression and died during a taping of The Dick Cavett Show

That background is interesting, but her approach to storytelling is fascinating and unique. The book is less of a single narrative than a series of episodes. She slips from present-day Pennsylvania into a drug-free dream state and communes with companions like vulture, bat, mosquito, mugwort, aspen, dandelion, and milkweed. This allows her to transition easily from a mundane activity like weeding or shopping into a serious topic such as the genocide of American Indians.

She gives voice to some of nature’s most overlooked creatures with a wonderful imagination.

For a reader who doesn’t believe in astral projection, this will all come off as a convenient literary device, but it doesn’t really matter. In the deft hands of a seasoned writer and media professional, it works. She tells us at one point that her original intention was to write a straightforward book about plants and animals and insects, but somehow somewhere along the way she took a different path. And I’m glad she did. This is a beautiful book by a thoughtful author whose writing is funny, gorgeous, and uplifting.

But it can be uneven at times. Some of the animal voices are so preachy as to feel contrived—like the lightning bugs pleading against the use of pesticides and forever chemicals. At other times her thoughts flow so fast and free they are almost hard to follow, like where she jumps from feminism to overpopulation to mosquitoes laying eggs in car tires. But overall she beautifully weaves together snippets of science with thoughts of nature and human existence in the future and episodes of her own life. And she gives voice to some of nature’s most overlooked creatures with a wonderful imagination. 

“I now believe it’s possible to create a new Eden where knowledge is not a sin, desire is recognized as part of our human purpose, and love and understanding are the original blessings to be nourished and cultivated in the garden of our lives,” she concludes at the beginning of her book.

Eat, sheep, love

Early on in his remarkable book Nourishment, ecologist Fred Provenza describes a sunrise of pure hues—burnt oranges, luminous golds, brilliant silvers, subtle pinks, dull grays, and steely blues. Then he observes, “During the past 4.54 billion years, Earth has experienced nearly two trillion sunrises, no two alike.”

That thesis of individuality runs like a golden thread throughout his book, which first appeared four years ago and now arrives in paperback just in time for the holidays. It’s a great gift for anyone interested in humans’ place in nature and human health—especially the topics of diet and exercise.

Even though many of the conclusions Provenza comes to in his book will seem familiar, echoing some of the same anti-processed food arguments we have seen in many other books and articles, there is something uniquely comprehensive about his perspective. His long career in behavioral ecology saw to that.

Roaming herbivores have an innate dietary wisdom. They somehow know how to sort through thousands of different grasses and shrubs, both toxic and nutritious, as they move over unforgiving landscapes, through the seasons, surviving droughts, fires and floods, into adulthood and old age, while suffering injuries and predators. They eat the right combinations. When their diet is out of balance, they correct it. They avoid toxic foods. They self-medicate. 

Dairy cows given excess protein supplements will avoid high-protein plants in the pasture. But those same cows, when fed mainly corn, will seek out the high protein plants. Lambs do the same thing. Wild caribou and deer in the arctic will eat dead birds and rabbits, fish, tern eggs, and even antlers to supplement protein deficiencies. Bighorn sheep lick rodent turds to get minerals. Even lab rats fed diets deficient in essential amino acids will detect and correct those deficiencies.

“Diets don’t work. People are better off not dieting.”

Provenza spares no criticism of the modern human diet. We lose the ability to detect and correct nutritional deficiencies. We crave foods and drinks with high fat and sugar as opposed to the natural plant phytochemicals that signal proper nourishment to our bodies. We fixate on particular nutrients, minerals, vitamins, antioxidants—taking them as supplements as opposed to finding them in our diets. He decries the one-size-fits-all nature of modern dietary advice, pointing out that our stomach shapes vary in size and contour as much as our ears, noses, and mouths—and their contents are even more diverse. He is dismissive of the trendy paleo-type diets, which he points out are often oversimplified and ignore individual differences between people, parts of the world, and time of year that should be reflected in diet. 

In the end, Provenza seems to have little patience for dieting of any type. “Diets don’t work,” he declares. “People are better off not dieting.” 

Instead, people interested in losing weight or living longer may benefit from what he describes as “shepherding” practices for humans: Raising our awareness of lost knowledge and redesigning what he calls “grazing circuits” to enable us to thrive in our own landscape—uniquely of course. “Life flies in the face of our attempts to categorize and generalize based on assumptions about averages—nature fills vacuums with individuals, and no two are alike,” he writes.

Alternative medicine enthusiasts will love his exploration of the topics of traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, Japanese Kampo therapies, and Tibetan botanical drugs. Foodies will also be interested in what is one of the best expositions of terroir, the land-influenced flavoring of cheeses, wines, and other foods. 

But make no mistake: Weighing in at more than 400 pages, this book is a mighty tome. It covers just about every aspect of herbivore biology the reader could imagine—rumination, genetics, terpine aversion, taste receptors, gut-brain axis in sheep, etc. It gives an encyclopedic tour of plant biology as well as a deep dive into human nutrition and dietary research. 

It’s a dense read for long stretches even for a seasoned science writer, but then like the sunrise in his reminiscence, the author’s voice breaks through the ponderosa pines of his Colorado mountain landscape and draws you back like a new sunrise. Fresh rays of light. A great book.

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