“Soil and Spirit”
Milkweed Editions, $26
The poet-farmer Scott Chaskey has revisited prose with this, his third nonfiction book, a stunning publication mindfully accomplished by Milkweed Editions, an independent nonprofit publisher.
From the elegantly earthy cover design — a rose-mud background overlaid with the image of a humble but surely potent radish, enlivened leaves curling up and out — to the acid-free 100-percent postconsumer-waste paper, to the twinklingly soulful author photo by the Sag Harbor-based photographer Lindsay Morris, to expressive, helpful interior illustrations by Mr. Chaskey's son Liam Chaskey, the volume is a treasure to discover as an object and container for the rich, variegated prose within.
Librarians and other lovers of categories (including the dark side: limiters and pigeonholers) beware: This book is difficult to categorize. It has active ties to the worlds of literature, scholarship, science, activism, and more, and it does not exclude any friends. The book is memoir, it is poetry, it is nature and environment. It is travelogue, even, in the recounting of adventures in China, Cornwall, and New Mexico. "Soil and Spirit" would be comfortable on shelves meant for birds, words, seeds, trees.
Perhaps especially trees: Readers will encounter the Darley Oak; the "Bonsai Forest" of Dizzard; baobabs; the Folly Tree Arboretum in Springs, with its distinguished guest list of trees with stories; Sequoia sempervirens, known as hardy East Coast redwoods, and the American beech at Amagansett's Quail Hill Farm with which Mr. Chaskey became well acquainted, as well as other tree species and individual trees that make appearances throughout.
One thing the book is not, especially, is a volume of essays. No, it seems that the chapters are not being asked to stand alone, but are meant to group in progressive conversation with one another — this in spite of an acknowledgement to Wildsam and The East Hampton Star for the original publication of two of the chapters.
In conversational character, the book is like some priceless friendship where a number of essential discussions are occurring all at once; these discussions build, deepen, and inform one another over time. We return to the meaningful topics, we make fresh work of understanding interrelationship. In the work at hand, each chapter stems from a particular point of departure, then progresses in an associative manner. The meandering (but not desultory) flow of the prose carries a sense of discovery, a stream-of-consciousness-like progression where themes and threads of thought synthesize as the book unfolds.
Within the five-page prologue, which follows an opening poem, Mr. Chaskey refers to Shakespeare; the scholar Mary Evelyn Tucker; Ivan Aguirre, a rancher, via Gary Paul Nabhan, an ethnobotanist; the environmentalist Ralph Nader; the 20th-century writer and educator Rabindranath Tagore; the poets Basil Bunting and Matsuo Basho, and one Peter Parry, introduced as a "woodworking mate" and then a member of Men of the Trees (now the International Tree Foundation).
Thus, the precedent is set for a book full of the research, the observations, the poetry, and the life work of others. Mr. Chaskey's work is fueled by this diversity of reference, a gathering of experience in collaboration with others who are, notably, honored as much as credited. He communicates a sense of context and collaboration as a hearty, loving champion of others whose work overlaps, interlocks, and parallel-plays with his own.
The book hosts many references to volumes of special note for the author, works he has embraced as a poet, farmer, and student of life. At one point, apropos of a passage about the colors of lichen on rocks near his home, Mr. Chaskey mentions parenthetically that "my color guide is 'Werner's Nomenclature of Colors,' by Patrick Syme and Abraham Gottlob Werner, published in Edinburgh in 1821, the book used by Darwin to describe colors in nature on his HMS Beagle voyage."
How delightful to peek at the reference shelf of a writer who is warm with the books that populate his life. He refers to them in the familiar, unconsigned to the chilly structure of citation.
That said, make no mistake, the volume is also well referenced, with an absolutely scrupulous notes section detailing sources for each chapter. Readers are treated as well to an additional reading list, a.k.a. gold for fellow travelers.
Although it is common in shorter works to omit an index, inclusion of one would not be excessive here, given the richness of information on recurring subjects. It would be helpful to readers looping back to pinpoint, for example, appearances of certain beings (trees, poets, others) in the text, and useful to trace tributaries of content. One could imagine enjoying an index as a sort of poem, the very many wide-ranging topics of the book reduced to their plainest forms, living together in the flow of alphabetical order.
In any case, Mr. Chaskey connects his subject matter with a light touch and confidence in the serendipitous connections of things. He has the curiosity to pursue his interests and the rigor to share them cogently and invitingly with readers. His poet's voice is attuned to word choice and with language itself, especially word definition and derivation, frequent sources of interest, joy, and wonder that lead to suggestive conclusions.
"In 1866, the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel, following the route and footsteps of Humboldt and mesmerized by Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species,' set sail for the island of Tenerife. In that same year, Haeckel coined a word to describe a new discipline, building on the work of previous naturalists: oecologie, or ecology, derived from the Greek word oikos, 'household.' The earth is our home."
Readers will find a sense of ecology in "Soil and Spirit" that includes compassion and poetry, and a well-grounded feel for the collaborative nature of sustainably caring for earth. Some of the pursuits Mr. Chaskey describes could certainly be termed ecological activism (e.g., seed conservation, community tree planting). Doom-speak, however, is all but absent in favor of gentle notes of caution and frankly offered observations that land as wisdom:
"The trees are reaching for the light, searching for nutrients, like us, and the path is thick with last year's growth, the things that have fallen to feed the following spring. Another language to learn — it abides in the canopy and in the mycelium network, always available to us; though, in search of short-term profit, or in avoidance of relationships, we often exclude this natural music."
Evan Harris is the author of "The Quit." She lives in East Hampton.
Scott Chaskey lives in Sag Harbor.