‘The old trees were the mothers of the forest.’ – Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard.

August 29, 2021 at 11:23 pm (Book review, books, Nature)

I picked up this book expecting a lyrical hymn to the beauties of nature. It was indeed just that in certain places, but in others…well, here’s a not completely atypical sentence:

Cedar can’t form mycorrhizal fungal partnerships with the birth and fir for the simple reason that it forms arbuscular mycorrhizes, not ectomycorrhizas like the other two.

Well…gosh… Certainly gave the spell checker a vigorous workout – not to mention my brain.

So, yes, there’s a great deal of hard science in this book. Simard does her best to explain it, but it still left my head spinning.

Mycorrhizae: the association between roots and fungi. (For more on this subject, see the entry on the Univeristy of Nevada Extension site.    Here’s another site, Frontiers in Plant Science, that may prove useful.)

Suzanne Simard became interested in silviculture, aka forest ecology, because of her distress over the heedless clear cutting taking place in the forest of British Columbia, where she was born and grew up. Also, she’s a scientist by nature, and she developed a passionate need to understand what actually went on in forests – soil, shrubs, insects, birds, sunlight, rain, and above all, how all of this affected the trees, and by association, mushrooms. (Oh, and there was the time  the family dog fell into the outhouse….But that’s another story!)

She got her PhD in forest ecology and has conducted countless studies in various areas of the forest, all the while braving unforgiving weather, merciless insects, wolves, and bears.  She’s made precise measurements, returning again and again to see how her studies were progressing.

This video provides a good explanation of the some of the wonders she unearthed (literally);

Lest you think this volume is an impenetrable tome, I wish to assure you that some of Simard’s writing is quite accessible, even at times, poetic.

I loved the generous rhythm of the way the land and the forest and the river came together to refresh the winds at the close of each day. Helped settle us all down for the night. Air purified by the ancient forests hovered, and I let the downdraft cleanse me.

Contrasting with calm passage of prose is the sheer exhilaration Simard expresses as discovery follows discovery:

Pine got nitrogen from alder not through the soil at all but thanks to micorrhizal fungi!

At moments like this, her excitement communicates itself to the reader. I for one will never feel quite the same about micorrhizal fungi again!! (And no, I’d never heard of them before reading Finding the Mother Tree.) The discovery of the relationship between the various entities in the forest constitutes a revelation:

The cohesion of biodiversity in a forest, the musicians in an orchestra, the members of a family growing through conversation and feedback, through memories and learning from the past, even if chaotic and unpredictable, leveraging scarce resources to thrive. Through this cohesion, our systems develop into something whole and resilient. They are complex. Self-organizing. They have the  hallmarks of intelligence.

And finally, there’s the conclusion Suzanne Simard reaches, hugely satisfying, borne out by her meticulous research:

I imagined the flow of energy from the Mother Trees as powerful as the ocean tide, as strong as the sun’s rays, as irrepressible as the wind in the mountains, as unstoppable as a mother protecting her child.

Suzanne Simard in fact, as two daughters, so she knows whereof she speaks. She’s had an eventful life; a few of those events have been harrowing, but she’s come through heroically – at least, it seems  so to me..

A simplified version of what’s in the book can be heard in Suzanne’s TED talk:

At the end of this eighteen minute talk, she received a standing ovation. I wanted to join in!


Related to the above, there’s a wonderful documentary called Fantastic Fungi, available on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Here’s the trailer:

There’s also a lovely companion volume.


Suzanne Simard, where she longs to be




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‘….there must be no room for love in my heart now – I am quite alone, and I must stay quite alone.’ – The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake

August 27, 2021 at 4:09 pm (Book review, books, Film and television, Mystery fiction)

I am going to kill a man. I don’t know his name, I don’t know where he lives, I have no idea what he looks like. But I am going to find him and kill him …

Thus begins a strange and haunting narrative…

I’ve wanted to read this crime fiction classic for some time, so when I heard that it was being adapted for television, I decided  the time had come.

The novel is compelling, but drags in places. It begins with the diary of Felix Lane, the nom de plume of Frank Cairnes, and then about half way through switches to an omnipotent narrator. I found the abrupt change of tone somewhat jarring. Felix/Frank’s diary entries are weighted down with an almost unbearable grief; the second part of the book is given over to a detached, almost clinical recounting of the steps taken to solve the murder. (I’d rather not divulge who’s been murdered, at this point.)

This adaptation is strange in many ways. It retains some elements of the novel, but alters a number of them, most significantly, the gender of the main protagonist: Frank Cairnes becomes Frances Cairnes. And the North Devon setting is changed to the Isle of Wight. Also, Nigel Strangeways (played by Billy Howle), the methodical investigator coolly at work in the novel, is here portrayed as a barely functioning police detective, subject to panic attacks and all manner of other unexplained emotional difficulties and who, near the end of the series, lets loose with a blubbering mass of face-contorting weeping that I, for one, found nearly impossible to watch.

Nicholas Blake is the pseudonym of Cecil Day-Lewis, novelist and poet (Poet Laureate, in fact, from 1968 until his death in 1972), and yes, father of Daniel Day-Lewis. Sean Day-Lewis, Daniel’s much older half-brother, wrote a letter to the The Guardian about the TV adaptation:

….this version of the story is a bit of a travesty. I should know, as I was, in my father’s imagination, the six-year-old Martin or Martie… My father, the then-fashionable poet Cecil Day-Lewis, kept our family going with 20 detective novels written as Nicholas Blake. The father who saw the accident, and swore vengeance, was a detective story writer just like my dad.

In addition:

Considering the filmic attraction of Lyme Regis, it is hard to know why the TV version moves to the Isle of Wight as well as to an aggrieved mother. And by the way, Nigel Strangeways, originally a detective who looked and behaved just like WH Auden, was regularly on hand to achieve justice with mercy in all but one of the stories.

The TV version of The Beast Must Die possesses a bewildering number of characters, but one dark secret lies at the story’s heart. It is encapsulated in the chilling opening lines of the novel, quoted above.

The main reason to watch this series is to witness the performance of the lead actors. Cush Jumbo is a wonderful actress; those of us who followed her progress as the smart, irreverent attorney in The Good Fight already knew that. My husband objected to what might be termed Jumbo’s ‘uglification.’ It was hard to see what purpose was served by her painfully short gray hair and stark makeup. (Was she, in fact, wearing any makeup?) He says, and I agree with him, let’s allow beautiful people to remain beautiful, unless there’s a specific reason to degrade their appearance. Yes, she is grieving, but all the more reason to preserve her comeliness.

Cush Jumbo, as she appears in The Beast Must Die

Cush Jumbo in The Good Fight

A word also about Jared Harris, whose performance as the loathsome George Rattery is chilling and note perfect.He is, in fact, the best screen villain I’ve seen since Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn in Bleak House.

(The British seem to specialize in this species.)



I didn’t feel that the title of the novel needed explaining; nevertheless, Blake/Day-Lewis does explain it, at the very end:

In the first of Brahms’s four Serious Songs, he paraphrases Ecclesiastes 3, 19, as follows: ‘The beast must die, the man dieth also, yea both must die.’


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The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science, by John Tresch

August 21, 2021 at 1:07 pm (Book review, books)

   I don’t usually write about a book I’m still reading, but I’m going to now. Because I must.

As soon as I heard of it,  knew I wanted to read The Reason for the Darkness of the Night. Written by John Tresch, subtitled Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science, This book promised to reveal much about the life and work of one of America’s most celebrated authors. And of course, Poe is of special interest to me, as he should be to anyone interested in the birth of the American detective story.

This is all very well – what I wasn’t prepared for were the revelations concerning Poe’s life as a child and a young adult, particularly the latter. Poe was the foster son of Frances and John Allan. While Edgar and Frances had a close and loving bond, his relationship with John Allan was something else altogether.

You’ll notice that I used the word ‘foster,’ not ‘adopted.’ The reason is that  the Allans never took that further step toward securing Edgar’s status as a family member. This, despite the fact that the boy, newly orphaned, came to live with them when he was two years old.

I don’t want to say any more at this point, except that John Allan’s actions – or lack thereof – display a degree of callousness that I find difficult to fathom. In fact, he made me so angry that as I reached page 71, I had to lay the book aside for a time and calm myself down.

How dare he! That – that –

Okay. Enough. One slender light does, after all, shine in the darkness: Poe’s genius – his utter indisputable genius – is at last  being recognized. It starts to bring with it remuneration which is so desperately needed. As he is about to be undone by severe destitution, good people reach out to help him.

I think of Robert Schumann’s exclamation upon hearing a composition by Chopin: “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!”

And now I must read on…(to be continued)



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‘She seemed like every girl who at eighteen had to sort out alone how to behave in the world, how to both invite interest and fend it off, how to have fun without getting into trouble, how to direct attention between her body and her mind.’ – What Happened to Paula by Katherine Dykstra

August 6, 2021 at 5:52 pm (Book review, books, True crime)

  In July of 1970, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, nineteen-year-old Paula Oberbroeckling suddenly and inexplicably went missing. Her remains were found four months later in the vicinity of the Cedar River.

At this time in her life, Paula had been seeing two young men, Robert and Lonnie. Robert was Black. It appears that he was her true deep love. At this same time, Paula’s relationship with her mother had grown increasingly fraught. That Spring, as soon as she finished school, she’d moved out of the family home and into rented digs with a school friend.

The date 1970 is an important one to keep in mind regarding this case. Although things were beginning to change, attitudes about interracial dating and romance were still quite negative, more so in some places than in others. And it is also vital to remember that in 1970, Roe v. Wade was still three years in the future. An unwanted pregnancy placed a woman in dire straits, with few options.

Although Paula’s death was ruled a homicide, the investigation never turned up any conclusive evidence.

The case went cold.

Almost fifty years later, Katherine Dykstra, an author, writer, and teacher, is drawn into the search for Paula’s killer. This book is about that second more recent investigation – what it found, what it failed to find, and this author’s motive for involving herself in it to begin with.

In fact, Dykstra finds a number of elements in Paula’s life that run parallel with her own experiences. Possibly too many. I’ve noticed this characteristic becoming increasingly common in true crime narratives; namely, the author’s life becoming a more prominent feature in the narrative. In my view, a little of that goes a long way. Where books in this genre  are concerned, a prefer the light to shine, laser-like and unrelenting, on the subject at hand. (See I’ll Be Gone in the Dark for an excellent exemplar.)

There’s some awkward writing in What Happened to Paula – not much, but enough to jump out at the reader – at least, it jumped out at me. To wit: “Teenagers are meant to cleave from their parents.” A true enough statement, but “cleave from” seems an infelicitous locution. On the other hand, there’s this passage concerning the lack of disclosure by law enforcement to the affected families. Dykstra contends that the police were pretty sure who the culprit was, but lacking the proof of their suspicions, they felt duty-bound not to divulge them to the Oberbroeckling family.

The Oberbroecklings, the Farleys, the families of the estimated 200,000 homicides that have gone unsolved since the 1960s have no idea what happened to their loved ones. These people have been left to state into a gaping abyss where nothing is true and everything is possible. And so, by  considering a homicide internally solved but never informing the family or arresting the culprit or even closing the case, the powers that be have denied the Oberbroecklings and anyone else who cared about Paula closure.

One can understand the position of law enforcement in a situation like this, but one can also readily sympathize with the family and other loved ones of the victim.

Finally, I have to say I wonder why the decision was made to include to photographs in this book. When I Googled Paula Oberbroeckling, I was momentarily stunned:

Paula Jean Oberbrockling 1952-1970





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