About the Books
Lately I seem to be concentrating on science books. Why am I doing this?
There are many reasons. Both my parents were scientists, and so I grew up bathed in biology. Yes, we did eat things that had dropped on the floor, “to build up our immunity,” and it seems to have worked. And yes, we did often talk about mucus (one of my Mom’s specialties) and worms and other parasites (my Dad’s main interest) during dinner. Or we three children listened as our parents talked about them.
My father worked in Public Health, which he felt was the medical equivalent of ecology. Both parents were fascinated by parasites and by the interaction of those parasites with their human hosts. How did people respond to infections — physically, emotionally and culturally? How did the parasites respond to the responses of the humans? What was the dance? I absorbed that fascination.
We had vials of liquid from the lab in the refrigerator, we visited their lab at Johns Hopkins and saw their various experiments, and we spent summers at Science School in Woods Hole catching butterflies and “darning needles” — huge dragonflies that swoop back and forth on summer evenings. We fed tree toads to leeches, identified constellations from the hill at the top of the golf course, found garter snakes, let them slide over our hands, and then smelled the stink they left behind.
So I felt at home with biology. But I felt so at home with it that I never studied for any of my science courses in college and flunked almost all of them, ending my plans for medical school. I did get a B in biology because my report on the starfish included many illustrations, including several of how it extrudes its stomach in order to digest its prey. But I was never really interested in doing science. It involved too much repetition, too much time in a lab, too much exquisite care in having to prove a hypothesis. I did not have the patience or single-mindedness. It was only individual people who drew me back to it.
My first science book was Chattanooga Sludge. John and Nancy Todd are friends and neighbors who began one of the nation’s first sustainable communities, New Alchemy. One of John’s most constant challenges has been his search for ways to turn our garbage and waste products into useful material so it becomes part of a sustainable, life-enhancing cycle. He was asked to do this for the poisonous sludge on the riverbed of Chattanooga Creek in Tennessee.
For me, writing a book about this experiment was a way to better understand what John was doing. It was also a way to help promote the Todds’ remarkably prescient ideas about sustainability and about the necessity of finding a place in Nature that enables us humans to continue thriving as a species. Their attitude was similar to that of my parents: explore and learn about your territory so you can preserve it and thrive in it.
As soon as I had finished Chattanooga Sludge, I began looking for another project about “somebody who is making a difference” when a friend suggested Diane Wilson. So my next book became Nobody Particular. Diane was a shrimper in the bays of East Texas where chemical plants line the coast. Nobody Particular is the story of Diane’s fight to save the bays from the pollution caused by the chemical plants.
In order to tell Diane’s story, I figured I had to find out as much as I could about the ecology of the bays so I could understand just what was being destroyed. What a rich, rich treasure that ecology is! And how dreadfully pollution is affecting it! Yet as her story shows, one lone voice can make a difference.
Common Ground was the result of several discussions over lunch with some scientists at The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. At some point in our conversations, I said it would be easy to make a good book about the science they were doing — and then I had to prove what I had said.
The idea I came up with originated in talks with Penny Chisholm, a close friend who is also a professor of ecology. Common Ground is based on Garrett Hardin’s famous paper, called “The Tragedy of the Commons” (Science, 1968). It describes one of the most difficult and unresolved challenges facing our nations and facing us as individuals: how do we share our limited and decreasing resources in an equitable way? I feel it is important to introduce the problem to children even when they are very young — as well as to older children — so they can grapple with the issue at any age. We adults have sure not resolved it.
At the moment, Penny and I are making a series of books about how sunlight affects the earth. So far, this includes My Light, about how (almost) all our electricity comes from the sun, and Living Sunlight: How Plants Bring the Earth to Life, about photosynthesis. The third book in the series, Ocean Sunlight: How Tiny Plants Feed the Seas was putblished in spring, 2012.
For now, though none of my science books has sold nearly as well as many of my fictional or bedtime stories, I seem to want to make only science books. I am not a scientist. I do not understand science even though my parents were scientists and I was bathed, basted, cooked in, and fed on it as I grew up. It is foreign territory to me in that I don’t understand how it “works” or how experiments are really invented and carried out, or how conclusions are really drawn. And so my challenge is to make science both as intriguing to the reader as it is to me, but also to actually understand it so I can translate my small focused view to the reader. And that is why I need Penny and my husband Jim to help me at every step. They are scientists; they demand proof for what they say. I translate and interpret… and we all three keep exploring.
(Click on a cover for more information about a book.)