Transcript / SSoP Podcast Episode 31 — The Forest: Meet a Witch, Climb a Tree

Transcript / SSoP Podcast Episode 31 — The Forest: Meet a Witch, Climb a Tree

Monday, 29 November, 2021

This is a transcription of Episode 31 — Forest.

David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.

Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.

David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.

Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.

David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.

[cheerful theme music]

David: Welcome to season three, episode 31 of Strong Sense of Place. Today, we are getting curious about the forest.

Melissa: Are there going to be talking bunnies?

David: I can only hope. I really like the forest. When I was young, my grandmother and granddad had a cottage by a lake surrounded by a forest. And so whenever I’m sort of called on to think of a calm place, I frequently start there.

Melissa: Oh, that’s really nice. There was a little patch of woods behind my house, and I have memories of being like 10 years old and tromping around in the woods with the kids from down the street, hitting trees with branches and chasing each other. And the whole time I was preparing for this episode, I kept singing the first song from the musical Into the Woods in my head.

[audio clip of from the opening number of Into the Woods]

David: And I kept thinking of the Robert Frost poem.

[audio of Robert Frost reading his poem: The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep and Miles to go before I sleep and miles to go before I sleep.]

Melissa: Also, ‘The Road Not Taken’ goes through the woods. Which I’ve always loved. And then recently I learned that he sarcastically wrote that poem, which completely changes the feelings that it evokes now.

David: It really does.

Melissa: I kind of resent that that was taken away from me. Although I do have a weird soft spot additionally for that poem, because we’re going deep into my nerd-dom now. When I was in seventh grade, we did a choral version of The Road Not Taken.’

David: I did the same thing.

[audio of choir singing choral arrangement of ‘The Road Not Taken’]

Melissa: And I was the pianist, yeah, the accompanist for the chorus. And I can still play bits of that from memory, but that’s how I learned the poem. Set it to music; it sticks in there.

David: Your choral teacher, my choral teacher, must have been on the same subscription because I know we also did the Beach Boys medley.

[audio of chorus singing the Beach Boys’ ‘I Get Around’]

Melissa: Good times. It had choreography.

David: Yeah, I did, too. I had a solo. [laughter]

Melissa: I was at least safely stuck behind the piano.

David: But back to the woods, you want to start with the 101?

Melissa: Yes. Forest cover about one-third of the Earth’s land mass.

David: Really?

Melissa: Yeah, 80% of animal and plant species live in the forest. Very important plots of land. More than half of the world’s forests are found in just five countries. Do you wanna try to guess them?

David: Russia, Canada?

Melissa: Yes.

David: And then I’m then I’m done.

Melissa: Brazil, China, and the United States.

David: Really, I wouldn’t think the United States would rank with that.

Melissa: Well, I think it’s because Russia and Canada have so much. Yeah, and only one-third of existing forests are primary forests.

David: What’s a primary forest.

Melissa: Well, for starters, they can actually be called primeval forest, too. And that’s what I’m going to go with because that’s a lot more fun.

David: Yes, it is.

Melissa: So primeval forests are old-growth forests that haven’t been monkeyed with by humans. They’ve never been logged. The trees haven’t been cut down and replanted by humans. Their regeneration is natural. Which means that the trees live and die and then become topsoil for new trees all on their own. And this leads to a lot of diversity in the forest. There are canopies of different heights, there are different types of trees. There are varying heights and widths. It’s basically forest utopia. People who care about the planet are understandably very passionate about these forests.

David: Yeah, sure.

Melissa: But sadly, that hasn’t always been the case. It’s estimated that about half of western Europe’s forests were cut and cleared before the Middle Ages.

David: Wow. Really? Yes.

Melissa: And the Black Forest found on the border of Germany and France, which is the inspiration for so many fairy tales was almost completely deforested in the 19th century. It’s since been replanted, and it’s a very famous place to go for, like, hiking vacations. But all of those trees are primarily spruces. It used to be a mix of deciduous and fir trees, but when they replanted, they just planted spruce trees.

David: Yeah. But now it’s lovely, right?

Melissa: It’s beautiful, but it’s not the primeval forest that it once was. And in the United States, about 90% of the old growth forests were cleared by the sixteen hundreds. Wow. Yeah, Middle Ages.

David: That’s really amazing to me that that happened so young and the evolution of our technology.

Melissa: Well, they were clearing to build houses and cities.However, in happier news, the World Economic Forum launched an initiative recently to conserve, restore, and grow one trillion trees by 2030 to help with the global climate. So that’s your basic forest fun facts. But I really want to talk about is more relevant to our bookish interests: Forests play a massive role in symbolism and meaning in storytelling?

David: For some of the reasons that we touched on in in the intro, right? They’re both fantastic places to explore. You’re never sure what’s going to happen in the forest. So there’s mystery there. But the forest is also a place where you can go to hide a body or get away with some other, you know—

Melissa: Nefarious deeds. So can you name some famous forests from literature?

David: Most of the forests that I can think of are fantastical. There’s Sherwood Forest from Robin Hood — which is a real forest, which was news to me at some point. Long after I heard about Robin Hood. There’s the Hundred Acre Woods.

Melissa: Winnie the Pooh. And Tigger, too.

David: Such a great name, the Hundred Acre Woods. It sounds so nice. I think all of Narnia or most of Narnia was a woods. Hmm. There’s the ents from Lord of the Rings.

Melissa: I love the ents.

Yeah, they were from Fangorn Forest — or at least Treebeard was. Maybe the forest that the Lorax spoke for.

Melissa: Oh yeah, that’s a good one. And also the Forbidden Forest around Hogwarts.

David: Yes, of course.

Melissa: The forest is one of the most prevalent settings for fairy tales, and there is a lot of literary scholarship about that, about why forests have such deep meaning for humans. And if you’re at all interested in diving deeper into fairy tales and why they resonate with us so strongly, I recommend the book From The Forest: A Search for the Hidden Roots of Our Fairy Tales by Sarah Maitland. What it gets down to is that duality that you mentioned earlier, the contrast between the forests staggering beauty and the danger that it represents. On one hand, it’s like a cathedral. It’s got the soaring treetops and sun shining through the leaves, and it can be very peaceful. It’s ancient, it’s timeless, but it’s also a place of the unknown where it can feel like anything can happen. If the village or a castle represents safety and familiarity and order —

David: And togetherness —

Melissa: And togetherness, then the forest is danger and untamed wilderness. It’s potentially a magical realm, and the rules of society definitely do not apply. It’s home to wild creatures, fairies, and witches. It’s a hiding place for brigands and ogres and trolls. They’re travelers and knights, kings and princesses. Animals that talk. Things that slither through in the brush. So in the words ‘Once upon a time’ are spoken, all bets are off.

Melissa: If you get lost in the woods or if you embark on a quest that takes you to the forest, you will probably have unexpected encounters. There may be tests, but one thing is for sure: you won’t leave the forest to the same person you were when you entered it. In the Middle Ages, there was almost a moralistic distinction made between things that were tame and things that were wild. Tame was good. Wild was bad, and the forest was often called the wildwood because in the wildwood, anything might happen. The wildwood is where we find Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White and Rumpelstiltskin. It’s where Beauty finds her Beast. And although the forest can be dangerous, it’s also very seductive. There’s temptation to explore and to search, to go places you know you really shouldn’t go. So in Hansel and Gretel, the children can’t resist the witch’s house in the forest. It’s made of bread. It has cake for a roof. It has windows made of sugar.

David: Well, then they’re lost in the forest, right? They see this place of sanctuary, and it looks so good, so tempting that they approach it

Melissa: And they’re hungry —

David: Because you’re in the forest and it’s hard to find food.

Melissa: And then there’s little Red Riding Hood who knows she should be careful, but she falls prey to the sexy, dangerous wolf in the woods. But the forest can also offer protection and sustenance. There are nuts and berries and flowing streams. There are tree trunks you can hide in and tall branches that you can climb up if a bear is chasing you. Mother Nature is right there to feed you and protect you, but maybe only if you’re somehow deemed worthy, which we see in fairy tales over and over.

Melissa: In the book Letters to a Young Poet from the writer Rainer Maria Rilke, we get this and this is where I’m going to end my 101 today: Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act just once with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love, including the bears and the beasties, the fungi and fairies, the wolves and witches, hHidden in the deep forest, and the frightening, spellbinding, life changing stories to be found only in the dark of the woods.

David: That’s really nice. Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?

Melissa: I will do my best.

David: I’m about to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is not. Mel doesn’t know which one is true. Here are the three statements. First, there are hawks in Australia that start forest fires. There are trees that have been to Mars.

Melissa: Oh, astronaut trees.

David: And three, there are an estimated three trillion trees on Earth.

Melissa: Once again, they all sound plausible.

David: Let’s go through them in order. So there are hawks in Australia that start forest fires.

Melissa: True.

David: It is true. According to National Geographic, there are hawks in Australia that use fire to hunt.

Melissa: What?

David: Yeah, they’ll find a smoldering stick. Pick it up, travel up to a half mile away, drop it in some dry grass and wait for the rodents and reptiles to run.

Melissa: Avian arsonist.

David: Yeah. Even weirder for me, that behaviour has been tied to at least three different species of hawks.

Melissa: Wow. I mean, it’s pretty clever.

David: It is. We learned about this behaviour from Aboriginals, who told stories about fire hawks at first, of course, the white people were like, nah.

Melissa: Animals are dumb. They don’t use tools. [laughing]

David: Hawks using fire. That’s ridiculous. And then they saw one. There was at least one Aboriginal story about how fire hawks introduced fire to humans.

Melissa: Oh, that’s really cool.

David: Yeah, which doesn’t seem hard to imagine that it happened at least once, right? A hawk set something on fire and people were like, Oh, that’s good, we should do that, which later got told as the hawks taught us how to use fire. So second statement: There are trees that have been to Mars.

Melissa: False.

David: That is the lie. As far as we know, no trees have been to Mars, but some trees have been to the Moon.

Melissa: What?

David: And we don’t know which ones.

Melissa: Ok, wait a second. What’s going on?

David: So we take you back to the very groovy days of 1971. Astronaut Stuart Roosa is about to leave for space on Apollo 14. He’s approached by a man named Stan Krugman at the time. Krugman is the director for Forest Genetics Research at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In my imagination, Krugman walks up to Roosa and says, Here, put these in your pocket, and he gives Russia a bunch of seeds. And then Krugman says, I want to see if these will hold up to space travel. And Rossa looks at the seeds. There are hundreds of them. Roosa remembers his connection with the woods from when he was a smoke jumper, back when he fought wildfires in the time before he became an Air Force test pilot and then an astronaut.

Melissa: He was a thrill seeker.

David: Yes, I think that’s a common trait among astronauts. They like the adrenaline rush. And Roosa says, Sure. So he puts his seeds in his personal stuff and he gets in a rocket and he orbits the moon 34 times as the pilot of the command module. And he brings the seeds back and he gives them to Krugman. And Krugman does some experiments, and he realizes that the trees will still germinate. So victory, we did it. Trees are exposed to space and they’ll germinate. But now, he’s got a bunch of little tiny trees, little seedlings that have been to space.

Melissa: Do they have little helmets?

David: I can only assume, yeah —

Melissa: Little patches that say NASA. [laughing]

David: Uh-huh. So he starts giving them out.

Melissa: That made my eyes sting. I don’t know why.

David: One was sent to Washington Square in Philadelphia and planted as part of the bicentennial. Another one to the White House. And after that, yeah, we kind of lost track.

Melissa: So now they’re just out there like smoking a cigar, telling stories about the time they went to the Moon.

David: Yeah, that’s exactly it. In about 1996, a teacher sent in an email to NASA asking about a local tree that had a plaque that just said, Moon Tree.

Melissa: Oh, that’s awesome.

David: Yeah. And a guy named Dave Williams got the email and he got curious and started a website to locate all of the lost moon trees and their children, who are called half moon trees.

Melissa: Oh my gosh, this is amazing.

David: And there’s this site that we’ll point to. Its adorable. It’s very 1998. There are pictures and newspaper clippings from a simpler time. The astronaut Stuart Roosa. He died in 1994. To honor him, his family planted a half moon tree at the Infinity Space Center, which is a science center in Mississippi.

Melissa: I love everything about that. That was the best lie ever.

David: So the three trillion trees. So that’s true. So the first amazing thing about that statistic is how we know. Scientists got high resolution satellite images of the Earth and then programmed computers to count trees.

Melissa: What?

David: Yeah. And they ended up counting 400,000 discrete areas in the world. And you can see the results of their study. A laboratory at the University of Maryland made a map of tree density. You can zoom into any part of the Earth and see where the trees are. Whoa, yeah. And we’ll link to that. The second amazing thing is that’s about half the number they think there were when civilization started. Even now, we cut down about 15 billion trees a year. But third thing, we’re replacing them now, so we have a net gain in trees happening right now. People are bad at big numbers. So for scale right now we have 420 trees for every human on Earth.

Melissa: That’s nice.

David: There are more trees on Earth than there are stars in the Milky Way.

Melissa: What?

David: Yeah,there are an estimated 100 to 400 billion stars in our galaxy. And this number is way bigger than that. Every star you’ve ever seen, plus a whole bunch more. That’s Two Truths and a Lie. Do you want to talk about books?

Melissa: I do. My first pick is Falling from Grace by Anne Ericksson. I’m not quite sure what label to put on this book. It’s sort of a family saga mashed together with an ecological drama, and it kind of has a whisper of coming-of-age. But can you say coming-of-age about an adult character?

David: Oh, I definitely think you can say coming-of-age about an adult character, but maybe that’s because I’m old.

Melissa: This book is almost kind of a thriller because it has a lot of suspense, but it’s a lot of good things.

David: So that’s like three different kinds of books you just described. It’s a thriller coming of age with an ecological —

Melissa: And family saga.

David: Wow.

Melissa: It’s a rich story. Let’s just say that.

David: Is it lik 1200 pages long?

Melissa: It is not. It’s, I don’t know, 300-something totally normal. It’s set in the old growth forest on Vancouver Island, Canada. Our heroine is Faye, and she has dwarfism, so she’s three and a half feet tall.

David: Oh yeah, OK.

Melissa: And she’s an entomologist, a bug specialist, who’s devoted her life to studying the mites that live at the top of the tallest trees in the world.

David: Wow.

Melissa: So let’s unpack that a little bit. Mites are the tiniest arachnids imaginable. They’re just one millimeter in length. So a tiny woman is studying the power of these itty-bitty mites on the top of the tallest tree she can find. So there’s a lot of playing around with the themes associated with size and power. But it never felt clunky. I never felt like I was getting hit over the head with it. But that’s kind of what’s going on in the background. Faye loves trees. Faye loves trees more than people. Trees mean everything to her. So there’s a reverence and a playfulness. And like this deep affection for trees and what they represent, and the story is told through her first-person narration. So when she talks about the trees, like, I was just infused with this feeling of love for trees, too, it’s so good.

Melissa: The very first paragraph of the book, she says, ‘I climb trees for a living. If I could fly, I might never touch the Earth, setting my feet only on the highest branches of the tallest trees. What I seek most is solitude in the company of trees. Connection with another being.’ And that last little bit about connecting with another being is key because she does not get along with people at all. Trees and mites? 100 percent, yes.

David: Yeah, that’s her place.

Melissa: People is a lot harder.

David: People are a lot harder.

Melissa: People are a lot harder. So her mother’s name is Grace, the Grace of the title. And Faye describes her mother as ‘a woman of great compassion, but little tact.’ [laughter] And Fayes’s relationship with her father is very strained. When she has an interview with a possible assistant, she just eviscerates them. Faye is prickly and intelligent and very driven and completely unsentimental. This is not a soft woman, and she is very impatient with the world, particularly people who are ignorant about dwarfism and their stupid prejudice about her size. And she really can’t tolerate people who don’t have an appreciation for science and nature. So you can imagine her making through her way through the world is challenging.

Melissa: She eventually finds an appropriate assistant. His name is Paul, and they form a really solid professional partnership, and they go out into the forest and they work and camp and climb to the top of these enormous trees. But one day their peaceful campsite is invaded by this motley crew of protesters. There is a strip of forest that’s supposed to be protected, and it seems like a multinational is cutting down trees in the protected part of the forest. And as a scientist, Faye feels like she is not supposed to get pulled into activism, and she finds herself in the middle of the conflict because she has a working relationship with the logging boss.

Melissa: But now she’s essentially living with these protesters, and she does not know them. She is not necessarily emotionally in their camp. She has a job to do as a scientist. She does not perceive herself as an activist. So there is a lot of drama between the protesters and Faye. But there’s also a lot going on within the protest group itself, because they’re not all upstanding citizens, and some of them have really shady motives for being there. As you might expect, it finally all boils over and there is a tragic, violent crime and that drops a bomb in Faye’s life and creates one of those rifts where there’s the Before with a Capital B and the After with a capital A. And that’s what the majority of this story is really about. The author Ann Ericksson is a biologist and an ecologist. She was born and raised in Canada, and she now lives on a small island tucked between Vancouver Island and the Canadian mainland.

David: She’s deep into the story.

Melissa: Yes, she and Faye both know what they’re talking about. What that means is that this book is just rich with fascinating scientific detail. And instead of shying away from the technical stuff, she has found a way to weave it into the story in a way that makes it really compelling and makes us understand why Faye is so passionate about her work. There’s a really interesting passage about why mites are so integral to the food chain, because you think this thing is like 1 mm long living so far above the ground, you can’t even see the tops of the trees. How does that have a relationship to what’s happening in the soil? But it does. It’s amazing. But this can also be pretty funny because Faye is so prickly. When she’s describing her work, she says, ‘At parties, the conversation crashed when I mentioned mites. People excused themselves to get another drink or asked if mites really live on eyelids and cleaned crap from the eyeballs. Yes, I would explain, barely hiding my annoyance. Mites do live on eyelids and in dust bunnies. I didn’t go to many parties.’

David: Oh yeah.

Melissa: So she is just a wonderful narrator, and there’s some really sad stuff that happens in this book.

David: She just sounds like the king of all introverts, too. You know, just ‘no’ to all people everywhere.

Melissa: It made her a heroine I really enjoyed spending time with. I was attracted to this book particularly because she’s such an unusual heroine. I have not read a book with a woman with dwarfism in the lead role before. And it really delivered on love of trees and on character development and page-turning suspense. And the suspense is great because some of it is plot-driven, but some of it is people-driven, too — you’re eager to find out what’s going to happen to this character. What is she going to do next? What are the other people going to do next? And not for nothing, it has an awesome ending. That is Falling from Grace by Anne Ericksson.

David: My first book is The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben. And it was translated by Jane Billinghurst. So I read this book and it’s a good book, and I’ll talk about why in a second. And then I started doing the research to talk about this book, and it turns out there is a whole other story there, and how this book came to be and what’s happened since. So I’m going to try to tell you both stories in a relatively modest amount of time.

David: The first story starts in 1987, when Peter Wohlleben, the author, graduates from Forestry School and gets a job with the government near his hometown in Hummel on the west side of Germany. He thinks he’s going to be a forest caretaker. He thinks he’s going to speak for the trees. And it turns out that job is more like being an industrial farmer and a little bit of a butcher. In forestry school, he was taught that trees needed to be thinned and that we use helicopters to spray pesticides and herbicides. And that’s essential, and that heavy machinery was the best logging equipment, even though it tears up the soil and destroys the underground root system. But that’s what the experts say, so he does that. It leaves him with a really bad taste in his mouth, but that’s how he goes, right?

Melissa: That made my heart feel heavy.

David: Yeah, but he keeps his eyes open. He reads current science about trees. There’s research about tree communication and how they use an underground network of fungus to talk to each other. Scientists call it the wood wide web.

Melissa: Science, humor.

David: Yeah, dad joke. And he visits a few privately managed forests in Germany. These forests weren’t thinned or sprayed or logged by machines. As a result, the trees were bigger and there were more of them, and they didn’t need to cut so many to make a profit. And when they did, they used horses to minimize the impact on the Earth.

Melissa: Oh, that’s nice.

David: So one day his village asks him to clear cut a forest, and he procrastinates… for years. He puts them off, but they keep asking him about it. And then one day in 2002, he goes to the villagers and he in my imagination, he says, We can do better, and he makes his pitch about how this beautiful forest should be managed and how they could turn the forest into a nature reserve. And they could log it with horses and run tours and classes through the old beautiful woods and still make money.

Melissa: That sounds amazing.

David: Yes, and the village says, OK, but you’re going to have to manage it. So he quits his day job with the government, and he becomes the manager of an old beech forest. And part of that job is giving those tours, and he’s lively and he’s vivid, and he’s emotional about it and he cares about it, and he’s speaking for the trees. He does it and his wife says, you should write a book. So he writes a book, and nothing happens. And he writes another. And again, nothing happens. He gets frustrated and he gets depressed, and he’s not sure what he’s doing and he’s overworked. And then one day again, in my imagination, he thinks. Maybe it’s my tone, and he looks at the spine of his first book and it says Forest Without Guardians: In the Stranglehold of Hunting Interests and Forestry. And then he looks at the spine of his second book, and it says, The Forest: An Obituary.

Melissa: Oh my goodness. [laughter]

David: And he thinks maybe it is my tone. So he sits down and he thinks and then he types ‘the hidden life of trees, what they feel, how they communicate discoveries from a secret world.’ And he takes that manuscript to his publisher and his publisher says, Sure, good fine. We’ll print 2700 copies. And those sell and they print some more. And those sell and they think, maybe we should get a translator. Three million copies later —

Melissa: Amazing.

David: The book goes on to become a New York Times bestseller.

Melissa: Good for him.

David: Now the heart of this book is trying to convince people to see trees as a living, breathing, collaborative community of organisms that help each other and all of us. And he is trying with everything he can to raise the empathy of humans to trees. He’s a populist. He’s trying to put science, modern science into lay terms, and he does that in part by anthropomorphizing the things trees do. Trees have intelligence and memory and are conscious of their environment. He talks about how trees can smell and how they register pain and how they raise their young and how they can scream. It’s a good popular book, however, there’s been pushback. Unsurprisingly, some scientists reject the ideas that trees are like humans. In Germany, two scientists launched an online petition to challenge his claims. The name of the petition translates to ‘Even in the forest, we want facts instead of fairy tales.’ The petition calls the book a ‘conglomeration of half truths, biased judgment and wishful thinking.’ It goes on to say that the oversimplified and emotional writing will help neither the environment nor the forests. So there’s that. Has this hurt Wohlleben? No, strong no. So he’s got several books out now, including one for children that came out in the last year or two. All of this started at 2016, so all of this is new for him. Yeah, he’s got a documentary out now called The Hidden Life of Trees, which he wrote. He currently has his own magazine called Wohllebens Welt, which has its face on every cover.

Melissa: Like Oprah.

David: Yeah, he’s got at least one TV show where he takes German celebrities out on overnight survival trips. His IMDb listing is long and mostly German, so I’m not entirely sure what’s going on there. But he is huge in Germany.

Melissa: Like David Hasselhoff.

David: Yeah. And, you know, good on Germany for making the tree guy famous, right? But to get back to the book, it is a compelling, fast read. I flew through it. If you’re headed to a forest and you want to appreciate it more, this is an engaging book that’ll change how you look at trees. It’s called The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel, How they Communicate — Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben.

Melissa: My second pick is Burning Bright by Nick Petri, and this is a straight-up thriller, no equivocation needed, no mashing-up happening, thriller. The hero’s name is Peter Ash, and it’s the second book in a series.

David: Do you have to read them in order?

Melissa: You don’t. This one works great as a standalone. I’ve read the first one and the second one. It works fine on its own. I was introduced to these books because I’m a longtime fan of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, and Lee Child gave this series his endorsement. He said, ‘Lots of characters get compared to my own Jack Reacher, but Peter Ash is the real deal.’

David: Wow.

Melissa: Yeah. And I was like, OK, let me meet Peter Ash. And I agree completely for action. Suspense can’t-turn-the-pages-fast-enough momentum. These books rival Jack Reacher. However, I might find Peter Ash even more compelling.

David: What?!

Melissa: I know! Because we get more insight into his motivations and limitations than we do with Jack Reacher. Peter Ash is a former Marine Lieutenant. He’s a veteran of the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and he suffers from PTSD, and it manifests as extreme claustrophobia that he calls white static. So he physically can’t be indoors without suffering from just awful anxiety, and it adds a real poignancy to his character. But it also kind of gives him a dangerous edge because people who are in his vicinity when he starts freaking out are not necessarily safe. And in this book, his PTSD is also the driver for the plot, which I found really interesting. So when the story opens, Peter is hiking and camping in the redwoods of Mendocino National Forest in Northern California. He’s just accepted that it’s impossible for him to be inside, and he has gone to the woods.

David: Boy, that’s really sad. Obviously there’s a fictional character, but there are, yes, people who that’s not a fiction for.

Melissa: Yeah, it’s these books are really moving, and it’s worth noting that the Mendocino National Forest is a real place, and it’s the only forest in California without a major paved road. So Peter has gotten himself about as far away from civilization as he can, and he’s having a really good time. He loves being outside. One day he’s just walking along, minding his own business, enjoying the earthy aroma and the solitude of the trees. And he sees a grizzly bear, and he tries to quietly back away. But the wind shifts and blows his scent straight at the bear and the bear chases him. And Peter climbs up a tree and he watches as the bear just destroys his pack and all of his supplies. The bear eats his food. Yeah, so he’s literally up a tree with nothing. And the bear is still kind of padding around down below. And while he’s trying to figure out what he’s going to do next, right, he’s he’s very tactical in his thinking from his military training. So he’s like, I have no supplies. The bear is still down there. I’m up this tree. He discovers that there is an elaborate set up of ropes — he sees this rope hanging in the tree. So he shimmies up one of the ropes. Now, keep in mind, he doesn’t know where the rope came from, who put it there, how safe it is. But this is the kind of risk that Peter takes regularly.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: So he climbs up the rope and then there’s another one, and he just follows these ropes climbing higher and higher in the trees like 300 feet up. And he sees a platform, so he gets onto the platform and he takes a little breath because now he’s not hanging by his arms anymore, and he hears a noise and he turns around and there is a woman holding a gun on him. What her name is June.

David: What?

Melissa: She’s a journalist. She’s very good at climbing trees, and she’s hiding out because there are bad guys circling the tree below.

David: Ok.

Melissa: Yeah. So the next little bit of the story is a thrilling chase scene set in the tree tops. The two of them take off. They’re zip lining. There’s fog, there’s sunlight coming through the leaves. There’s a part where Peter’s just dangling from the rope, holding on by his hands because his clip didn’t work. There’s a white-knuckle car chase and a shootout when they get to the end.

David: Oh my goodness.

Melissa: And all of this happens in like the first three chapters like this is just the beginning.

David: All of this is Act one and then —

Melissa: And then when they’ve kind of gotten out of the immediate danger. Peter describes all of that as, ‘a pretty interesting day.’ Yeah, which tells you his comfort level with adrenaline. Ok, so when he and June can finally catch their breath, we learned that she was almost kidnapped, but she doesn’t know why, she doesn’t know who the bad guys are, and she doesn’t know what they’re going to do with her, and she and Peter team up to figure out just what is going on. Solving this mystery involves a lot of dangerous action and smart conversations between these two because they’re both super smart and a little bit of tasteful, sexy times.

David: Oh, nice.

Melissa: It has the feel of a spy novel like there are a lot of double crosses and secret identities and a really dastardly villain. But instead of traipsing across Europe, our heroes are in the redwood forests of Northern California and Seattle, Washington. There are a lot of bullets flying at various times in this story, so if you know you are sensitive to that, this isn’t the book for you. There’s lots of people getting shot.

Melissa: One of the things that makes Peter a really great hero is that he is not invincible, and he’s a little bit reckless. Every time he has to go inside of a building, he suffers. And we feel that, and we’re also taken into his thinking because the author, Nick Petrie, is just really scrupulous about showing us how Peter thinks through a problem: how he’s going to approach a physical fight, why a gun pointed at this particular angle is going to do the thing he thinks it’s going to do. We get deep into that kind of tactical thinking. He’s not a superhero; he gets hurt, he gets really beat up, but he is a very intelligent, fit guy who takes advantage of this experience that was so hard-won through his military training and his deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Melissa: Here’s my final sales pitch on this book because it has a lot of action, but it also explores love in a way that is not mushy, but I found really interesting. It looks at love between family members and found family and romantic love and self-love. So it really is kind of a love story hidden inside this big old action-adventure novel.

David: That sounds great.

Melissa: Yeah, there Nick Petrie’s books are really good. This is a great series if you like to get invested in a character. One of the other books in the series is set in Iceland, and he’s so good at setting, I’m really excited to read that one. This one is Burning Bright by Nick Petrie.

David: My next book is The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. So I accidentally found myself on a reading adventure this year. I read three books that were all historical fantasies about brave girls who wound up meeting the mythological creatures of their culture.

Melissa: I mean, that’s a pretty great theme.

David: It was pretty great. And I was kind of surprised to find myself there, and all three of those books were written by non-native women who just loved the culture they were writing about. The first was The Wolf in the Whale by Jordana Max Brodsky about the Inuit girl a thousand years ago. I talked about that for our Arctic episode. The second was The City of Brass by S.R. Chakraborty about the Egyptian girl in 18th century Cairo, which we talked about in our last episode. And this one is The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. It’s about a medieval Russian girl. It would have easily worked for a Russia episode. There’s a lot of Russia in here, and it might be my favorite, but they’re all lovely. All three of these books have a lot to say about gender and role and what it means to be a woman with power in a society that doesn’t really accept women with power. If you’re looking for books for a book club, particularly for young people, this could be really interesting to you. It’s also lovely to see that women are getting more space in genre fiction, particularly fantasy. That was not the case when I was younger, but this book. So this book starts with an old woman sitting in a kitchen telling children the story of Morozko, the winter king. It’s a very promising opening. And the first part of this book reads a bit like a Russian novel. There’s a lot happening. Characters are introduced at a rapid pace, and most of them have two or three names. Nikolai is also Kolya, and he’s the brother. Like that. So for me, this requires an index card. In the middle of this, there’s a woman who might be a witch and she’s definitely royalty, but she lives in the middle of the forest.

Melissa: Wait a second. She’s a royal witch.

David: Yeah, she’s married to a man who’s the lord of a huge forested area in Russia. The forest is its own character in this book. The forest is big and dark and deep. The forest gives and the forest takes away. All of the things that we said in the intro about forest seem to be at play here. People get lost in the forest and are never seen again. It’s not hard to see when you’re reading this. How and why the myths. Of medieval Russia came to be. So the Maeby, which has a daughter, a baby girl who some people seem to think is beautiful and others think she’s a little hard to look at.

Melissa: Rude?

David: Yeah. Her name is Vasya, also Vasilia. Shortly after her birth, the maybe-witch dies. Vasya grows up. It turns out she can see things that other people cannot. Odd things happen to her. She encounters creatures that would completely freak an adult out, but to a child, she’s more open to them and she kind of negotiates with them. She befriends a possibly untrustworthy tree nymph. She meets the river king. He likes to eat children. She avoids that fate. Her father remarries her new stepmother, also has the second sight, but she has a much different relationship with those things. For her, it’s sort of demons everywhere. I also will say that this is the first story I’ve read where the father marrying a potentially evil stepmother is actually motivated. You’re like, Oh, I understand why that would happen. Eventually, because of some machinations in Moscow, a monk is sent to the village.

David: The monk is charismatic and determined and also self-loathing, and he wants to bring Christianity to Vasya’s village. This book is divided into three books. I’m reading the first book and I’m thinking, Oh, OK, we’re it’s a Russian family saga with some mythology mixed in. And then the second book starts, and we walk into just a horror story — just as straight up straight up creepy. There are ghosts and vampires and spirits in the night. And they are unhappy, these spirits. But most of all, there’s an increasingly hostile forest which threatens to wipe out the entire area.

David: The Christianity versus Russian folklore theme really starts to get going when the recent dead start to walk through the woods and bang on windows and say things. But the book is not one-sided on that issue. They don’t want you to get the wrong impression. Ultimately, this is a hopeful fairy tale about how easy it is to use fear to divide a community, which is a theme that might be resonant. This was the author’s first book. Amazon selected as the best science fiction and fantasy book of 2017. Katherine Arden has since finished the trilogy that the book began, so you can marathon the series if you’d like. I’d also like to mention that the audiobook for The Bear and the Nightingale is lovely. You can drop that on, and it sounds like somebody who’s reading you a folk story as you walk along. It is a great story for a cold night. It’s The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden.

Melissa: That sounds really good. I understand why people keep recommending that book to me. My final pick is also a fairy tale. It’s The True story of Hansel and Gretel by Louise Murphy, and as you probably guessed, it’s a retelling —

David: Of Little Red Riding Hood —

Melissa: Here’s the cool thing yeah, it takes place in the forests of Poland during the last days of World War II.

David: Oh oh, I see where we’re going now.

Melissa: This one starts out right in the middle of the action. A man is on a motorcycle barreling along a road through the forest. His wife is sitting behind him, clinging to his waist with all her might. His two small children are in a sidecar, anxiously looking behind them. They’re being chased by three Nazis on motorcycles. They are Jewish, and they are running for their lives.

David: So if you needed a motivation to put your children into the woods —

Melissa: That’s a pretty good one. The man is known as The Mechanic, and he realizes that they’re not going to be able to get away from the Nazis. And if they get caught, they’re all definitely dead. So he speeds ahead as fast as he can around a curve, and he pulls over, and he sends the children into the woods to hide. He and his wife make them promise to never, ever say their real names. From this moment on, they will take on good German names: Hansel and Gretel. The kids are terrified. They run into the woods and their father is completely heartbroken. And he and his wife ride away on the motorcycle, drawing the Nazis away down the road in the hopes that it will give the children the chance to survive.

David: Oh, that’s a horrible setup.

Melissa: It really is, and it’s so well told. Gretel is 11 and Hansel is just seven. They wander into the woods until they’re found by Magda, an old woman who lives in a cottage. The people of the nearby village call her Witch, but unlike the fairy tale, she’s very kind to the children and she takes them in, even though she’s poor and she doesn’t have much to offer. That is the setup of this story.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: So you can see where the parallels might be drawn between the original fairy tale and World War II. The scaffolding of the story is basically the nuts and bolts of the original fairy tale, but it’s fleshed out with some additional characters. There are resistance fighters and Russian soldiers who are hiding out in the woods. The witch has a brother who’s a priest. He plays a big role in this story, and there are, of course, a handful of really evil Nazis. There’s also a really, really sweet love story between two of the villagers. I found it really poignant because I mean, wartime romance always kind of stabs you right in the heart. They know it’s absolutely foolish to fall in love at this terrible time, but they really can’t help themselves. And when they finally kiss, the narrator says, ‘It was done. They had leaped into love, and the whole world, the dark trees and the fields, shimmered with bright light. They saw this and smiled at the same time.’

David: Aw, that’s nice.

Melissa: So that kind of sweetness is also threaded throughout the book as obviously really terrible things are happening. And then there’s the forest. The forest is one hundred percent a character in this story. The author, Louise Murphy, does just a bang up job of showing how the forest is both a place of safety and a place of danger. The children and the resistance fighters can hide in the forest, so they’re protected by the trees and the shadows. But it’s also very cold and very dangerous, there are roots and fallen trees and animals and snow. And then there are some pretty terrible people, and the depth of the woods is a great place to attack someone because who’s going to hear them? Who’s going to be able to help them? Yeah, the story is set in a real forest. It’s called the Bialowieza Forest, and it’s on the border between Poland and Belarus. It’s one of the last and largest parts of the primeval forest that I talked about earlier.

David: That used to cover all of Europe and is now just a corner of what it was.

Melissa: Yes. And during World War Two, Polish and Soviet partisans really did use the woods as a base for their operations, and Hermann Goering ordered the execution of Polish and German people there. So there are a lot of unmarked graves. In July 1944, as depicted in this story, the Red Army was able to take control of the forest. I’ll put links in show notes. This forest is a remarkable place and played a pretty big role in World War II. As you might expect, this book can be a little bit brutal. There are vivid descriptions of the biting cold and the just gnawing hunger. They have really heartbreaking tricks for trying to trick their body into not being hungry, and they’re bitten by lice just constantly. Gretel is old enough to remember her life before the war. So she’s haunted by memories of her mother and her grandfather, and when she had nice clothes and she was warm and they had food, and it’s almost more torturous that she can remember that. Hansel doesn’t remember any of that, and he’s in some ways, a little bit better off. And of course, because this is a World War II story, there are some terrible Nazi scenes.

Melissa: They’re handled really well. But if this, if you know you’re sensitive to that kind of thing, you probably don’t want to read this. But there are some very sweet moments, too. Magda, the witch, is just a great character. She’s really gruff and stigmatic, but she can be really warm, and she’s got that kind of old lady resigned sense of humor. She’s seen it all, and she’s just not going to be fazed by it anymore. And the devotion that Hansel and Gretel have to each other is kind of the bedrock of the whole story. They fight sometimes. They definitely have the older sister-little brother dynamic going on, but they never give up on each other, even when it seems like there’s no way out of their terrible situation. I will say it had a very life-affirming ending, which is not always the case with a World War II story. I did not end this story feeling bad. I ended this story. feeling good.

David: That’s nice.

Melissa: Yes, that. Is The True Story of Hansel and Gretel by Louise Murphy.

David: Those are five books we love set in the woods. We exit pursued by a bear. Visit our show notes at for links and details, and lots of cool stuff. Mel, can you tell us about the blog post you wrote for this episode

Melissa: For food and fiction, we’ve got amazing homemade granola recipe. It’s a super simple recipe that looks like magic. I’m sharing some images and the story of an exhibition called ‘The Tree Show’ by contemporary artist Mark Ryden, and I’m going to share some awesome poems about trees.

David: That sounds lovely. We are coming into the holidays right now, a very happy holiday to you and your family. I wanted to mention that because we have a whole bunch of stuff on the site that you can cook, which would be perfect for the holidays.

Melissa: Yeah, our food and fiction series, I was flipping through the recipes in there, and so many of those recipes would be great for either a holiday celebration or just some really delicious comfort food for days that are not holidays when you’re tired of cooking, but you want something delicious. And they kind of take you on a mini trip to places all over the world.

David: So, for example, we’ve got a recipe for shortbread on the site, which is delicious. We’ve got a seed cake inspired by Jane Eyre. Also fantastic. And Mel’s favorite Christmas cookie is a Russian teacake —

Melissa: Which would be great to eat while you’re reading The Bear and the Nightingale.

David: Absolutely would.

Melissa: I also want to put in a plug for the super comforting, very easy to make carrot soup that was inspired by Where the Wild Things Are. And honestly, what better evening is there than eating some yummy warm soup and reading Where the Wild Things Are?

David: Fact! Mel, can you tell us where we’re going in our next show?

Melissa: Our next episode is the finale of our season, and we are going to golden, beautiful, blue and white Greece.

David: We’ll talk to you then.

[cheerful music]

Top image courtesy of kazuend/Unsplash.

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Oh! A walk in the woods! There are berries to eat and trees to climb. You could catch a glimpse of a fuzzy rabbit or a majestic stag. You might also run afoul of a witch, be chased by a bear, or get lost forever.
Yes, you could forage for nuts and berries in the woods. Or, instead, you might whip up a batch of this homemade granola and take that on your next hike. It's sweet, salty, crunchy, chewy, and eminently shareable.
You don't have to be tucked inside a fairy tale house in a dark forest to enjoy this hearty, garlicky mushroom soup — but it's fun to pretend. Let the snow fall. Let the ghosts romp. Just sip your soup and enjoy.
In this short but powerful poem from 1910, Rudyard Kipling takes us on a walk through a forest populated with badgers and otters and doves. There is misty solitude and cool night air. Go, take a walk in the woods.
In this free verse poem from 1914, Robert Frost takes us into the birch forests of New England — to marvel at the way the branches bend but don't break, to appreciate climbing and swinging free above the Earth.
We cannot resist a sun-dappled path that winds among tall tree trunks, then seems to disappear around a curve just up ahead. What lies beyond: Danger? Treasure? Adventure? There's only one way to find out: Walk on.

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