Mary Beth Writes

Go ahead, ask me what I’ve been doing lately…

The movie we watched is Nomadland directed by Chloe Zhao.

In 2018 I wrote this review of Nomadland by Jessica Bruder. (Read here) The book is nonfiction and was so powerful that two years later, it still affects how I think about being old in our nation.

Friday night Len and I streamed the new Nomadland movie. The movie is well done, most of the actors are actual folks who live the camper/van nomad life. The story respects Fern, the character played by Frances McDormand.

Nevertheless. Where the movie goes with Bruder’s book bothers me a lot. Zhao shapes the storyline to be about the personal evolution of Fern as she comes to value her own toughness and independence. But, this is weird, the second half of the movie is comprised mostly of scenes that don’t exist in the book.

Respecting the toughness of older women is powerful, yes, but is not what the book was about. The book was a researched examination of how fraught it is to be aging and financially broke in this society now.

I think the movie disarms the power of the book. In our tough and dangerous economic world, I find that dishonest.

I wrote a review of Overstory by Richard Powers a couple weeks ago. (Read here) I liked and didn’t like the novel.

In response to my somewhat cranky review of Overstory, my friend Michol lent me her copy of a beautiful book that I read in two afternoons; The Hidden Life of Trees / illustrated edition. The author, Peter Wohlleben is a botanist caretaker of a forest under restoration in Germany. His book is clearly written over-sized book about trees, plant life, and the ginormous understructure of fungi that scientists are just beginning to research. It has gorgeous photographs every few pages and would be an excellent present for anyone who loves nature and photography. (The photo that heads today’s post is one of the book’s photos.)

Apparently one can also obtain Wohlleben’s book in a more elongated version with no photographs.

After months of waiting, my copy of Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer arrived. It’s so popular it’s not renewable!

Let me just mention right here - I’m curious why the universe is giving me all these books about trees! I didn’t think I was this interested, but here I am.

The subtitle of Braiding Sweetgrass tells you the theme of Kimmerer’s book of essays. “Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.”

Kimmerer is an enrolled member of the Anishinaabe nation; she belongs to Potawatomi people. She also has a PhD in botany and has studied plants all her life. Her book is a connected compendium of essays describing her life interacting with plants as a scientist and as an indigenous person. Her essays are fascinating.

The essay that astonished me most is “Learning the Grammar of Animacy.” She describes the revelation it was to try to learn the native Ojibwe language her grandfather spoke before forced boarding schools stripped native kids of their mother language. Kimmerer has spent years trying to learn her own language.

There is this: We know ourselves via the language that we speak. English is mostly nouns, with about 30% verbs. Ojibwe is 70% verbs. Much of English is about delineating gender. Anishinaabe doesn’t divide the world into sex.

Anishinaabe DOES describe the world according to the nature and properties of how things are changing, moving, growing, or interconnecting to something else. The example she uses is that a bay of water is not a bay. The Ojibwe word for bay is translated to a VERB meaning “to be a bay.” As if it might be something else tomorrow, which since a bay is filled with water, it might be. The bay is not the static noun where three sides of land are filled with water. A bay is the moving interconnection of trees, water entering from streams and springs, water moving outward to the lake or river, the interconnected life that happens in and around a bay. The bay is animate.

What she learns is that her native language not about what things are now, but about how things are connected. One does not own things. One is in a relationship for a day or a lifetime and the language speaks to that.

Her scientific PhD is important to her and she values it. She explains that much of western science is about breaking entities down to see and understand the parts. Indigenous language is about seeing the connections. Both are needed to build a path for all of earth.

FYI because this has confused me for years: As clearly as I understand Native nations names, Anishinaabe is single umbrella name for the large and culturally interconnected nations that covered the massive woodlands that once covered most of Canada and the US from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic. Within that overarching interconnection were smaller (though still very sizeable) nations such as Ojibwe, Odawa, Saulteaux, Potawatomi, Oji-Cree, and Algonquin peoples. 

I am reading more widely than I have read in years. I’ve always read a lot, but within genres that made paths for me through my life; novels of girls and women and men.

I’m still mostly a novel reader, but this past year I’ve discovered National Book Awards winners and runners-up. Still tales about people, but incredibly well-written novels of characters whose lives and cultures are more consistently different than mine. 

Also, to give credit where credit is due, I read the website The Nonconsumer Advocate.  People who look for ways to live more frugally and lightly on the earth tend to be readers and thinkers. Nomadland, Overstory, and Braiding Sweetgrass all came to my attention via the NCA. I put notes of interesting sounding books in my phone’s note app and when I order books from the library, I order from that haphazard list.

And Bob’s your reading uncle.



Thank you, Mary Beth for the great book reviews and the website link to THe Nonconsumer Advocate. It's wonderful to explore and add to my lists these horizon expanders. I read a book a while ago - "Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife In Our Gardens" by Doug Tallamy. In addition to advocating for native plants in our yards, he explains some of the interactions between native plants, insects, and animals that is amazing and fascinating. He is Professor and Chair of the Departmant of Entomololgy and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware. He has written other books, which I haven't gotten to yet.
Mary Beth's picture

Thanks for responding. It's so cool to be reading about plants - and discover the world of plants and trees lives and breathes on the same growth of interconnections that we intuit and feel in so much of the best parts of our lives.

I’m listening to Braiding Sweetgrass! It is so interesting and also is really relaxing and helps me sleep. I might have to get it again, because I’m missing the second half of each chapter. I really enjoyed the chapter about Witch Hazel.
Mary Beth's picture

She is such a good writer. When she started describing witch hazel, I knew what she was talking about even though I had never known the name of those shrubs before. "Tattered yellow rag ribbons in November."

Prompting from NCA and your post I also read Nomadland 2 years ago, and was profoundly moved by the book ( it also cemented my anti Amazon stance). I found the movie good, but coming from the perspective of the book, I was disappointed. However, as a middle aged widow navigating life (different financial circumstances), I found a certain sisterhood, and kinship with Fern. Also, Frances McDormand... I want to be her friend. Thank you always for your posts. Patricia
Mary Beth's picture

I know! The movie was good! It just wasn't the point of the book... I've read that most of those people in the movie really are "nomads" ... and they didn't realize Frances McDormand is a movie star!

I have been reading more than ever, too (and I read a lot before!) AND I've branched out to other genres, along with making a point to read women of color authors more than I did (which was hardly ever). All that to say...yes, there are so many books. How does one read them all??? My list is always full but I can only place 20 holds at our library. So end up Thriftbooking because I can't stand waiting. :) Nothing to do with trees: but I just {re}read Hunger by Roxane Gay and cannot recommend it enough. It should be required reading for humans. Side note: we planed a witch hazel in the front garden last spring & I cannot WAIT to see how it grows.
Mary Beth's picture

I just saw on PBS Tonight that in March their featured readers' discussion book will be Nomadland. I'm glad. A lot of people will probably follow along, and that can only help the conversation. I've heard that Hunger is a good read. Will put it on the list...

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The Badlands


The Lakota call this land "mako sica" which translates into "badlands." They and many other wanderers and settlers named it this because it is so hard to travel through.

Wade in the Waters


This is a small announcement that could be a lot of fun for some of you.

For the past two years Len has been a volunteer Wisconsin stream monitor. Once per summer month Len and another guy (with whom he has become friends) check water quality and stream-bed life at a few local sites. Before they started, they received clear but uncomplicated training in order to understand what is being looked for and how the testing equipment works. And they received hip waders!

Who's in the Mirror? Representation Matters


Who’s in the Mirror? Representation Matters

Old story, I’ve probably mentioned it before: In 1977 I was visiting a friend in Ohio for a weekend. We went to her United Methodist Church on Sunday which is in itself amazing since we were two single 20-something women who had been out drinking the night before.

In just spring


We know what the “Signs of Spring” are, probably because we did so many "Signs of Spring" art projects in grammar school. We know what to notice. Green shoots. Birds singing. Kids playing outside with kites, jump ropes, and jacks.

Why do we celebrate Signs of Spring but not Signs of Winter? Hmmm? Maybe Winter ought to look into this and make a complaint?

Meantime, Karen K sent these photos. Look at these lovely pale-but-not-boring colors and hues.

The Day I Moved Into Chicago


Franc and I had a conversation about men who won’t or don’t explore their feelings over in yesterday’s comments section. If you want to chime in that topic is still wide open like a swanky whale swimming through swales and swells, swilling for krill. (I don’t know where that came from either. Follow the muse.)

Also, I suggested that if you have photos of Spring where you live to send them to me and I will post them. David sent this from Raleigh, NC. Drying puddle. Yellow aura of pollen. Yup, it’s Spring.

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