Tag Archives: science

Seeing Trees

Seeing Trees: Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday TreesSeeing Trees: Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees by Nancy Ross Hugo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thinking is more interesting than knowing, but not so interesting as looking.
-Goethe

What does it mean to see something, to learn to really look? I have colleagues who do this with stones, who can look at something that would be utterly overlooked by most people– a loose tumulus of rocks beside a road, say, or the exposed side of a hill– and name the minerals, put together the pieces of geological history on display, and tell the stories of the stones. Other people can do this with clouds, perhaps, or stars, with texts on a page or paintings or the way people speak or interact. Is this part of what education is, simply extending one’s knowledge so that new aspects of the world become interpretable? This is likely where the humility of education comes in: the realization that however much one knows or sees, it is only an incredibly small sliver of the overall picture, and sight can go so much deeper in so many different directions.

But there’s an art to simply looking and seeing as well, something that complements and yet remains distinct from simply having knowledge. Something that moves observation closer to aesthetics and philosophy than pure objectivity. The prose of Nancy Hugo and the photography of Robert Llewellyn combine in this book to do this with trees.

They succeed extraordinarily. This is quite simply a stunning book. It opens up a new world, but it does this for a world that we’ve lived alongside, without seeing, for our entire lives. Hugo and Llewellyn examine the properties of ten species of trees common to America: oak, maple, tulip popular, white pine, and others. Most people– myself included– know and love trees in a general way. But the images and text in this work reveal that even the most common trees are almost utterly unknown. On some level I’m sure I knew that any plant producing seeds must have flowers (or cones, on evergreens), but who has seen the flowers of a maple or an oak? But there they are, hidden in the upper branches or the unfolding leaves of spring, captured in this book and shown for the delicate and alien things they are, looking as though they belonged on the waving fronds of some undersea creatures rather than the limbs of trees along my street.

To read this book is to see trees for the first time. I am stunned and stirred awake. To see these forms that seem so staid and unmoving, the background to our daily lives and the shade to our fortunate streets, as dynamic, changing, sexual organisms. People who think Groot in the new Guardians of the Galaxy movie is cool have no idea how alive and alien these common trees really are, from the antenna-like flowers of the red maple to the dangling tendrils of the oak male catkins.

You think there are aspects of the world you have a pretty good handle on, things that you can identify and then safely ignore for most of your life. It’s terrifying and refreshing to realize how much life and newness there is in the world around you. And then you’re struck– how much else am I missing? Not simply in the living, green world around me or taking place under my nose in the garden, but what about in the faces of my family, or the unread texts on pages, or a thousand other everyday occurrences?

The greater part of the phenomena of Nature . . . are concealed from us all our lives. There is just as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate, and not a grain more. . . . A man sees only what concerns him.
-Thoreau

The Invention of Clouds

Invention of CloudsInvention of Clouds by Richard Hamblyn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I finished this book on an overcast evening. By the time I was done, the setting sun had broken through the clouds to reveal a strikingly three-dimensional panorama of torn vapor and gold. It was a cloudscape, the kind I try to capture in my stories “Unborn God” and “The Wizard’s House”—part of a series I’m calling Cartography of Clouds that will be published shortly in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It was also a fitting backdrop to the conclusion of this book on the history of attempts to name and categorize these most fleeting of natural phenomena.

The nineteenth century was a heyday of classification schemes in natural philosophy. If one could accurately name and organize objects, one could ensure that observations of them were uniform around the world. In astronomy this involved attempts to measure star positions as accurately as possible, but it also led to schemes for measuring double star positions and stellar brightness and developing a more rational way to divide up the heavens into constellations. (I discuss a lot of this in my dissertation, which I will be defending very shortly.)

In biology, a similar categorizing impetus gave rise to the Linnaean system of classifying organisms. Hamblyn’s The Invention of Clouds tells the story of doing the same thing for the changing skies. If weather observations were to develop into a uniform science of meteorology, there needed to be some way to accurately designate and compare cloud forms. But the clouds are by their very nature always changing and each one seems different. What sort of natural scheme of division could be devised for these objects?

The book focuses one individual, the Quaker merchant and natural philosopher Luke Howard, and how Howard devised, promoted, and propagated the cloud divisions (cumulus, stratus, cirrus, etc.) that have since passed into common and official usage. On one level, Hamblyn’s work is a fairly simple (though at times romanticized) tale: Howard developed his classification, presented it in a lecture, published it in a philosophical magazine, and ultimately found success. It is a straightforward story but one that illustrates what the scientific endeavor looked like in the early nineteenth century.

This is a popularization of the history of science. There’s no discussion of previous work done on Luke Howard (a figure I admit I had never heard of before this book) or discussion of the archives or source materials the author utilized. As a popularization though, it does a good job of using Howard’s life and work to illustrate how science worked during this period. The reader gets a sense of the popular interest in amateur science—in particular meteorology—and the world of scientific periodicals through which Howard rose to fame. More compellingly for me though was what it showed about the impetus for classification and categorizing during this period, the drive to obtain a uniformity of observations that could bring objectivity to nature.

Besides Howard’s cloud classification scheme, Hamblyn also touches on quantitative measurement for wind speed, though he does not discuss earlier attempts to gather worldwide temperature and barometric observations or the instrumentation that made this possible. These early attempts (partially coordinated by John Herschel during his time at the Cape of Good Hope) had much in common with contemporary attempts to gather global data on the Earth’s magnetic field and worldwide tidal levels. These were important aspects in the narrative toward uniformity and quantification that Hamblyn is constructing in this work, and I would have welcomed more discussion of how Howard’s own endeavors related to these activities of “big science”.

Hamblyn represents Luke Howard as a romantic hero of science, someone who brought scientific rigor the clouds without sacrificing their sublime aspects. This claim is buttressed by his discussion of the ways in which Howard’s work influenced the writings of such varied and prominent figures as Goethe in Germany and the English landscape painter John Constable. In parts of the work, however, this romanticization of Howard’s life and work is taken a bit far. In the sense of literary effect, this is not too much of a problem. It becomes more difficult, however, when Hamblyn takes liberties with his source materials to connect dots related to the influence or motivations of his characters. Phrases like “Howard surely thought” or “certainly felt” litter the narrative.

Whether you’re interested in the history of science or simply want to know more about how the clouds were brought within the remit of natural philosophy, this is an accessible and compelling work. If you’re hoping to learn more about the physical nature and structure of the clouds themselves though, this may not be the place to start. The focus is on Howard and the human aspect of science—showing how the scientific is often tied closely with the ascetic. It is a book about the naming of clouds, only secondarily about the physical understanding of clouds. As with so many things in science though, Hamblyn effectively shows how objects must be named before they can be understood.