After finishing the monstrous Savage Detectives, I went to back to my favorite types of books – books on random things in nature. First I read Banana: The Fate Of The Fruit That Changed The World by Dan Koepple. Americans eat more bananas than any other fruit, including those that can be grown domestically, such as apples. We have the banana companies – Dole and Chiquita, and their exploitative neocolonialist business practices to thank for turning this tropical fruit into a cheap, readily available commodity food for American consumption. But we are able to enjoy bananas at a terrible price, and now the banana that we currently eat, plus plantain varieties that are a staple food crop for people in East Africa, are sort of going extinct.
Then I read The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures On The Edge Of A City by Robert Sullivan. Sullivan’s other books are about a cross country road trip, a whale hunt, and one about rats in New York City. I read the rat book last summer and fell completely head over heels for Sullivan’s writing. His doesn’t write with an agenda, he writes what he observes, he writes about natural history, about neighborhoods, about local history and local people. In Rats, Sullivan spends a few nights in a alley in lower Manhattan observing rats, talking with local homeless people who hang out there, people who work in the restaurants who dump their trash there, local residents, city rat trappers and exterminators. He digs into the seedy history of the alley and the seedy history of lower Manhattan. And that’s the book.
When I was a kid my mom would drive me and my siblings to visit my great grandmother who was in a nursing home in central New Jersey every weekend. Driving through the meadowlands was my favorite part of the trip, it is a very surreal place. If I were to write a book I would write something like the The Meadowlands. A book about a seemingly unimportant place, its people, its history, its ecology and its role in society. And through a combination of these things this unimportant place, in this case a 30 square mile trash filled polluted swamp, becomes something special. Sullivan canoes through the marshes and swamps, catches mosquitoes with government entomologists, tours active dumps with jaded dump owners, digs for ruins of New York’s old Penn Station, and chats with police officers, librarians, truckers, and eclectic local residents.
Sullivan’s has a blog called The Thoreau You Didn’t Know, which is named after his next book due out at the end of March. Sullivan is often likened to an urban Thoreau in reviews of his books, someone who finds beauty and wisdom in places you would otherwise think were ugly and a waste of space. This is why I love these kinds of books because they change the way I think. After reading Koepple’s banana book I will never look at bananas the same way. As cheesy as it sounds, these books make my life more interesting. They really give me a new-found appreciation for my surroundings and more people should read them. Or at least check out The Meadowlands Blog which is updated by the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. It is sort of my dream job to work there, but that’s a whole other blog post.