Roots of Love

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Issue 313
March/April 2019
Regeneration

Reviews

Roots of Love
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issue cover 313

Cover: Microchip synapses 18 - Fusion chamber by Leonardo Ulian www.leonardoulian.com

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Lisa Schneidau gets under the bark of a mesquite tree. Mesquite: An Arboreal Love Affair by Gary Paul Nabhan. Chelsea Green, 2018. ISBN: 9781603588300

Nature writers often focus their observations on a particular species, researching its cultural and biological features, flirting with anthropomorphism, and including wry personal observations about the way this bird or that animal touches the soul or suggests a character.

This book is very different. Right from the first page, it is clear that the author is enthralled, even obsessed with the mesquite tree (Prosopis spp.). He writes with all the playful fascination of a fond lover, melding science with emotion, and physical experience with imagination, sometimes at breathtaking speed. It’s great fun to read.

But first and foremost this is a book about personal relationship. Gary Paul Nabhan sets out on a year-long journey to get as close as possible to actually BEING the tree. In experimenting with his wilder ideas in the time-honoured tradition of mad professors, he is not alone. There is Justin, who has been stung by over 150 different species of insect to compare the pain caused by them; Francis, son of Charles Darwin, who experimented with the movement of leaves in response to stimuli; Remedio, who holds the secret to coppicing mesquite trees the proper way; Paul, the prober of the inner world of sloth dung; and Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish explorer who ‘discovered’ mesquite pudding in 1535. All of these, believe it or not, have relevance to the experience of being a mesquite tree. The history and experimental science in this book are real and compelling.

Nabhan achieves a rare thing: his writing really does explore what it’s like to get under the bark of a tree, breathe and drink and stretch out your leaves in response to the sun, as much as any human probably ever could. The colours and sounds and actions of the dance of life – between the mesquite tree and all the other species it interacts with – are kicking and breathing in this book. Nabhan’s use of language is exquisite, sensual, and sometimes laugh-out-loud outrageous.

Along the way, he introduces the history, ecology and experience of this most exploitable of tree species. Mesquite is cut for timber, and its pods can be ground into flour; the wood is used for smoking food. It is employed widely in medicine. It clearly influences and engineers its own environment through fixing nitrogen, and in a harsh, arid climate it creates a habitat for other species.

Prosopis is also interesting because, although native where Nabhan lives on the Mexico–United States border, it is considered a tenacious grassland pest by ranchers, and it’s a problematic invasive tree in many other parts of the world. This struck a chord with me. On a much smaller and soggier scale, I have spent many hours and days trying to clear scrub from wild-flower grasslands in England, and the scrub often wins. Although mesquite is a difficult species for many people, its attraction is none the dimmer for the author; in fact, this might make it brighter still. Relentlessly positive, he preaches reconciliation with our landscapes, whatever state we inherit them in – as he puts it, a “politics of hope”.

As a newly converted mesquiteer, I now find myself in a strange land of the imagination. I know my own native British trees pretty well, but I am barely physically acquainted with the mesquite tree or the landscape it comes from, halfway around the world from where I live. However, even without direct experience of the plant, readers anywhere in the world will be pulled in by Gary Paul Nabhan’s infectious enthusiasm for the mesquite tree, and they will find themselves flowing through xylem and phloem before they know it.

If more people approached our trees and landscapes with this amount of curiosity and respect, the world would be a very different place. Read Mesquite, and be inspired to find emotional as well as factual inspiration about the Nature around us.

Lisa Schneidau is an ecologist working with Devon Wildlife Trust on landscape-scale conservation. She is a professional storyteller and author of Botanical Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland (History Press, 2018).

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