It’s spring! Yes, even if a snow-bomb cyclone dumped a foot of white stuff in your yard last week, Passover, Easter, and Earth Day are all right around the corner, followed by maypole dances. So let’s savor this froth of cherry tree blossoms as we consider the best new and classic celebrations of the natural and spiritual worlds.
Barbara Brown Taylor’s Earphones Award performance of her celebrated essay collection, AN ALTAR IN THE WORLD, is a listening experience to treasure, preferably while enjoying spring flowers. The theology professor and former Episcopal priest has a pleasant voice with a slight southern lilt that welcomes listeners like the smile so audible in her tone. In essays both personal and universal, she writes about encountering the sacred while living every day—talking a walk, ironing a shirt, waiting in line at the grocery store. As a non-churchgoer, I appreciated her broad view of God and her embrace of the holiness to be found in a garden, as well as in a cathedral or temple.
Her newest book, HOLY ENVY, is both enriching and timely. While teaching comparative religion to her college students, Taylor finds herself examining how different faiths, including her own Christianity, define God and belief. So many of the world’s major faiths have common tenets, including welcoming the stranger who may have uncomfortable truths to share. When faiths differ, is one right and the other wrong? She, her students, and I as the listener came away changed and enlightened. The book, which is as engaging as Taylor’s other work, is read well by Hillary Huber, who slightly emphasizes Taylor’s southern accent.
Peter Wohlleben’s THE SECRET WISDOM OF NATURE is a feast for mind and ear. The author of the much loved THE HIDDEN LIFE OF TREES and THE INNER LIFE OF ANIMALS has synthesized the whole kit and caboodle into an examination of how all living things fit together. Two tidbits—reducing the wolf population in Yellowstone National Park caused erosion along the park’s riverbanks; feeding roe deer in Germany has led to smaller forests. Both poetic and full of amazing facts, it’s the perfect springtime listen, which is made even more perfect by Sean Barrett’s seductive Earphones Award performance. Captivated by that alluring voice, I would have followed him anywhere, including into the densest, darkest wood.
Let’s transition to another kind of forest for upcoming Earth Day. National Book Award winner Richard Powers’s twelfth novel, THE OVERSTORY, is a tale about the connection between humans and nature which focuses on four people trying to save an old-growth forest. Winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize, it’s as complex and multilayered as an ancient forest, and just as awe-inspiring. Narrator Suzanne Toren embraces the poetry of Powers’s writing and beautifully navigates the story’s many paths.
Botany, magic, and the divine, plus evolution and the changing role of women. It’s all there in Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling historical novel, THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS, which is set in the early 19th century and focuses on a young female botanist. She prizes rationality, while her suitor, a botanical painter, is captivated by nature’s mysticism. Juliet Stevenson narrates—oh, that glorious voice and incomparable phrasing—as the feast of a story travels the globe in search of plants and wonder. It’s full-on lushness as nature bursts out all over.
Finally, the moment when nature did not burst into song. Rachael Carson’s classic call to arms SILENT SPRING has received an excellent new narration by Susie Berneis which invites us to revisit the groundbreaking work. A brief reminder—after documenting the deleterious effects of DDT on birds, bees, farm animals, domestic pets, and humans, scientist and conservationist Rachel Carson wrote an instant bestseller in 1962 that described the damage being done. Resulting public outcry led to the U.S. banning DDT in 1972. Susie Berneis’s sweet and inviting voice welcomes listeners into Carson’s beautifully wrought presentation. And her attentive pacing and clarity help listeners smoothly navigate the science.
Rachel Carson called on us to become caring stewards of the earth’s intricate web of life. As we approach Earth Day, Easter’s celebration of Jesus’s resurrection, and Passover’s commemoration of the delivery of the Jewish people from slavery, let’s hold her vision close to our hearts. It is time to love our neighbors and the home we all share.