Ithaca Blog

Monday, October 01, 2012

Book Review: "Walking Seasonal Roads" by Mary A. Hood

There's no reason why the recreational can't be educational, reckons Mary A. Hood, and that combination is what she provides in her book, "Walking Seasonal Roads."

The book is regional to Ithaca in scope and creation. The roads Ms. Hood walks are in Steuben County, less than 100 miles west of Ithaca. The book is published by Syracuse University Press.

Ms. Hood is a scientist and conservationist. At book's start, she notes that roads are apart from nature, often inimical to it, and an odd subject for a nature writer. But she lauds the seasonal road as "the good road."

"Seasonal roads, " Hood writes, "are defined as one-lane dirt roads not maintained during the winter." Dirt or gravel, not synthetic, they reflect rather than threaten their surroundings. They connect neighbors, and farmers to fields. They provide "contact with plants, wildlife, weather events, and people... They let us meet nature."

Like Thoreau, Hood sees a universe in a parcel. Each chapter in "Walking Seasonal Roads" is named for a particular road: Culver Creek Road, Hungry Hollow Road, Stone Schoolhouse Road, etc. Her readers might never walk them, but Hood is determined we will know them, and the wisdom and knowledge in their details.

At Van Amburg Road, Hood introduces Martha and William Treichler, who have lived and farmed there for 40 years, and have 4 grown children working with them, living in homes clustered round them. Hood also introduces the local bobolinks, declining in number but still returning each spring from winters in Brazil and beyond. She wonders, "Why...would a family live on this cold windy ridge road for forty years; why... would the bobolinks return year after year, traveling thousands and thousands of miles...?" The answer, she speculates, "has to do with the love of place" - a simple concept, but a powerful force.

Epiphanies abound for the author in her focused travels. She notes the roots and mosses - "the less conspicuous species" - and realizes that, in a 50-year career as an academic scientist,  "it was not until I walked these woods that I really understood biology." Not only that: "I began to understand Buddhists. I began to see that the earth and all its life forms make an essential reality that I accept as my reality."

Of course, on some level moss is moss, and Hood is not averse to staying earth-bound. She discusses stone fences, how they are so prevalent in the northeast because of its underlying geology, and the cycles of freezing and thawing that "heave up" rocks for such use. We learn (in passing) that a young turkey is called a "jake," and that shrews can die of fright.

Along the way, Hood bumps into politics: "In the spring of 2008, the first wind turbines rose along Lent, Pine, and Dutch hills." She notes, simply, "They are huge"  - 1,000 feet high, with blades 300 feet long. The corporate owners "are not local," and "are sometimes unethical and destructive to local communities."

Ms. Hood also writes about hydrofracking. Her misgivings are deep, though gently expressed:

"In January 2010, Chesapeake Energy proposed to use a nearly-abandoned gas well for disposal of their toxic brine wastewater from natural gas drilling. At a town meeting, residents, along with landowners and homeowners whose properties ring Keuka Lake, urged the board to tell Chesapeake to go away."

Ms. Hood's is the voice of a good soul. It is also one of a scholar. This does not intrude upon her style so much, although sometimes it bogs down the narrative, as Ms. Hood just can't help but instruct. The Reference section is fine (separate, at the end of the book, it is 20 pages long), but the footnote-style citations within the text itself can be distracting. (In one page of text, on beavers, there are ten references to newspaper and magazine articles, government and historical documents, and books.)

Similarly, Ms. Hood can't help but quote and excerpt other writers. This is generous, but dangerous, unless the quoter herself is very good, or very secure, and unconcerned about comparisons. For most writers, though, inserting passages by the likes of Adrienne Rich, Robert Frost, and Dylan Thomas is not going to make one's own work look stronger.

This all raises the question of what kind of book, exactly, Ms. Hood has written. Is it a reference book? A travelogue? A meditation?

The answer is, all three. It is a good, worthy book that will be appreciated by all nature-lovers, especially here near Mary Hood's home and paths.

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