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Of Rolling Stones and Women in Science

Joyce, Standley Lake Library

For years I have been trying to pawn off a favorite book on family, friends and unsuspecting library patrons. Some took the bait, but others looked at the title, raised an eyebrow and said, “Gosh.  I really have an awful lot on my plate right now.  Maybe next time.”

So, imagine my delight when I saw Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer, mentioned in the acknowledgements at the back of Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest novel, The Signature of All Things.  I couldn’t believe that anyone other than Kimmerer’s publisher, friends, family and me knew about this book.  (Okay, I’m exaggerating just a little – Gathering Moss won the John Burroughs Medal for an outstanding book of natural history writing in 2005.) Still, it felt as if Gilbert and I were part of some secret society, a clandestine clique complete with knowing winks and special handshakes.
Kimmerer’s book is a collection of essays about, as the title suggests, moss.  I know – it sounds like a real snoozer.  But, well-written essay collections are one of my favorite things to read and well-written essay collections about natural history topics are this girl’s idea of heaven on earth.   (A disclosure -- I majored in Biology in college, with an emphasis in Botany and a special interest in the bryophytes – those nonvascular oddities of the plant world that include the liverworts, hornworts, and mosses.)

Kimmerer’s book combines not only fascinating explanations of the ecology and lifecycles of various moss species, but weaves in her take on motherhood, the environment and Native American traditions (Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation), as well.  She expertly takes what, on the surface seems minute and mundane, and infuses it with universal meaning.
By the way, Gilbert’s book is a winner, too. It’s her first novel in 13 years and from the first page, I was hooked. It’s the story of Alma Whittaker, a fictional 19th century botanist and explorer who becomes an expert in moss taxonomy and biology.  (Another disclosure – while I’m not a big fan of Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert’s earlier work of nonfiction, The Last American Man about Eustace Conway, a self-proclaimed survival expert, is a personal favorite.  The book was a National Book Award finalist in 2002.)
While we’re on the subject of women in science, I must share a recent online discovery. Emily Graslie is the Chief Curiosity Correspondent for the Field Museum in Chicago and as such, hosts an absolutely delightful digital blog called The Brain Scoop. She was recently featured on NPR responding to the sexist comments she’s been receiving on her blog -- more specifically the comments posted by viewers who, shall we say, pay more attention to the messenger than the message.  (Honestly though, Emily is smart, perky and cute as a bug, and if I were a guy, I’d want to date her, too!)   For a good introduction to Emily and The Brain Scoop check out the video about her favorite science books.
And if you just can’t get enough science news and views, check out the Real Clear Science website and their list of the Top Ten Science Bloggers.  You’ll find more time-sucking blogs and websites than mosses have spores.