The end of the year is a time for looking back and recapping the “year that was” — top movies released, best songs, favorite books. But I prefer to look forward (and, I never did get around to writing my “year that was” essay).
What books are on the horizon? The list truly is endless. Personally, I’m looking forward to 4 3 2 1: A Novel, by Paul Auster, to be released at the end of this month, and Less by Andrew Sean Greer in July. But the rest is a mystery, as well it should be. Reading isn’t a spreadsheet endeavor, it’s a journey without a map, one where we are enlightened and entertained and, if we’re lucky, surprised by what’s around the next corner.
Take last year, for instance (just a bit of recap). I am a reader of fiction, an eater of novels. But in 2016, sprinkled among those novels, were memoirs by Bruce Springsteen, Curtis Mayfield, and Lee Smith. I read a book on 1990s-era Rolling Stones, another that looked at the year 1971 in music, and a fictionalization of the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald. On my bedside table right now is an advanced copy of the forthcoming Jim Dickinson memoir, I’m Just Dead, I’m Not Gone.
And I closed out December with The Statue and the Fury: A Year of Art, Race, Music and Cocktails by Jim Dees, and Seeds on Ice: Svalbard and the Global Seed Vault by Dr. Cary Fowler. I feel more enlightened, more well-rounded, and, dare I say, a bit more intelligent for having read them. Nonfiction complements fiction and vice-versa; mixing a bit into the other is like a healthy snack of granola with a handful of M&Ms thrown in as a surprise. I’ll let you decide which is which.
The Statue and the Fury: A Year of Art, Race, Music and Cocktails
In 1997, Jim Dees, host of the Thacker Mountain Radio Hour, a music and literature program heard weekly on Mississippi Public Broadcasting, was a cub reporter for the Oxford Eagle. On-the-job-training had him learning the intricacies of handling breaking news, obit craftsmanship, and the all-important post-deadline drink (or two). He was 40 years old. It would go on to be an exciting and tumultuous year for Oxford, Mississippi, our neighbor to the south.
To celebrate the centennial of local hero William Faulkner’s birth, the town leadership had decided to erect a statue of the scribe on the town square just across from the courthouse. In the wake of what seems like a benign enough idea, the sleepy town erupted in conflict over where the statue would go, whether the figure would be standing or sitting, and just who would have ultimate control over such decisions. The mayor squared off against the Faulkner family with sculptor Bill Beckwith caught in the middle. And Jim Dees was there to record the circus atmosphere, and recounts it in detail and with humor in The Statue and the Fury.
Oxford has changed over the years with new real estate developments and a rise in retirees moving for the small-town feel and bucolic scenery of the countryside, though the increase in traffic, condos, and apartments to accommodate such an influx has taken an off-ramp into irony. The late 1990s seem to have been a harbinger of things to come. “Faulkner wouldn’t recognize much of his hometown these days,” Dees writes, “but he would recognize the awkward civic wrangling during his centennial year. He would recognize the petty squabbling, court injunctions, arrests, raucous board meetings, scathing letters to the editor, and all the sound and fury. What he might not understand is why his hometown was going to such lengths to honor him on his 100th birthday. After all, most of the town had pretty much disdained him while he was alive except for his last two decades when he won the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes, and even then, their admiration was tempered with bemusement.”
Other things happened in 1997, as well — the rap group 2Live Crew came to town for a show that raised some eyebrows and some ire; and, in a skirmish that will be familiar to our own Greensward fracas of 2016, a group of citizens took exception to the idea (and action on behalf) of trees being bulldozed. Sam Phillips showed up, as did Henry Kissinger, James Brown, Shelby Foote, the FBI, Willies Nelson and Morris, James Meredith, and ’90s-era celebrity attorney Johnnie Cochran.
In addition to being a radio host, Dees is also the author of Lies and Other Truths: Rants, Raves, Low-Lifes and Highballs, and the editor of They Write Among Us: New Stories and Essays From the Best of Oxford Writers.
Seeds on Ice: Svalbard and the Global Seed Vault
As a scientist, Dr. Cary Fowler’s job was to collect and catalogue seeds (nearly half a billion) in a “doomsday vault” to protect against natural disaster or some other apocalyptic event with an eye toward our future survival. As a writer, Fowler’s job is to describe the landscape and feel of a barren and inhospitable corner of the globe that the vast majority of us will never see. As evidenced by Seeds on Ice, the native Memphian and Rhodes College alum succeeds wildly at both tasks.
In his attention to detail, we learn that Svalbard, an archipelago lying to the north of mainland Norway, and the village of Longyearbyen, the home of the Global Seed Vault and the northernmost permanent settlement in the world, are actually quite quaint and even cozy.
“The seasonally changing light conditions this far north produce some of the most remarkable colors seen anywhere on earth especially when the sun is slightly below the horizon and the light is indirect,” Fowler writes. “Palettes of blues and pinks, sometimes vivid, sometimes pastel, dominate the skies settling upon an austere landscape. The most jaded professional photographers marvel at the light, saying it’s like nothing they have experienced.”
While reading about Svalbard, one is struck with the sensation of space; wide-open space with vistas stretching for miles framed only by distant mountains and glaciers. At night — and for months there is nothing but — the sky appears to go on forever, the light show afforded by the aurora borealis and stars undiluted by light pollution outshine even the most advanced planetariums.
But there is also an incredible sense of time: Svalbard sat on the equator 350 million years ago. Sixty million years ago it would’ve been even with Oslo today, 1,200 miles to the south. A photograph by Mari Tefre shows a chunk of blue ice detached from a glacier and places it at 5,000 years old. And Fowler’s seed vault is meant to last, well, forever.
The vault is a partnership between the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food, the Nordic Genetic Resource Center, and the Global Crop Diversity Trust. Its primary function is to keep safe an extra copy of seed samples that are already in genebanks around the world. Should those samples be lost, they can be resupplied from the Svalbard vault.
After Fowler’s detailed introduction to Svalbard and Longyearbyen, there are 34 pages of stunning photography. When we return to text, we’re in the Andean agriculture community of Pampallacta, near Pisac, Peru, a place as distant from the Norwegian archipelago as one might ever travel. But the seed vault is about agriculture, and it’s about diversity, and South America plays as much a part in its mission as North America and Nebraska, as Germany and France, and Syria in the Middle East.
Fowler states his case for diversity and the vault as only an expert can. We don’t need to be scientists to understand his concerns, and the beautifully illustrated book just makes the potential for disaster easier to digest. “Seeds on Ice is my plea for the conservation of crop diversity, the biological foundation of agriculture and arguably humankind’s most important natural resource,” writes Fowler. “It is also a tribute to our farming ancestors — yours and mine — as well as to today’s farmers, for it is farmers, past and present, who have developed and nurtured this diversity.”