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Review: Jane Goodall's 'Seeds of Hope' charming, alarming

Jane Goodall's world-famous research on chimpanzees inevitably involved observing the plant life around them, from the seeds and fruits they ate to the towering trees they slept in.

But Goodall's abiding interest in plants goes all the way back to her childhood, as she relates in the opening chapters of her latest book, Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder From the World of Plants.

Growing up in her family's home, called the Birches, in Bournemouth, England, she helped with gardening, dug potatoes, made botanical drawings and whiled away hours in the branches of a beech tree, where, she writes, "I would read about Doctor Doolittle and Tarzan, and dream about the time when I, too, would live in the forest."

She has achieved that dream and then some, and it has made her a leader in environmental activism around the world. Seeds of Hope combines Goodall's personal stories with natural history, a survey of urgent threats to the environment and possible solutions to them. It's a book that ranges from charming reminiscence to amazing factoids, alarming statistics and sometimes controversial territory.

(The book itself became controversial when it was originally published in 2013. Reviewers noted that it had numerous passages taken from unattributed sources, as well as errors — enough of them that publisher Grand Central pulled the book from sale. Goodall acknowledged in a statement that she was "not methodical enough" in her note-taking. This new edition, published in April, corrects errors, removes some passages and includes 57 pages of endnotes to identify sources.)

The book's first section offers an overview of our planet's more than 298,000 plant species. Goodall writes engagingly about "plant hunters" such as Carl Linnaeus and John Bartram, who traveled the world, often at considerable risk, to gather and identify (and in Linnaeus' case, definitively classify) all manner of plants. She covers the history of agriculture and some of the uses and abuses of plants as medicine and mind-altering substances.

She recounts plant crazes, including a bizarre story about the Empress Josephine and dahlias, and, in a section about the value of botanical gardens and seed banks, tells the story of a 2,000-year-old date palm seed found at the fortress of Masada on the Dead Sea that, several years ago, sprouted and grew into a tree dubbed Methuselah. Goodall devotes an entire chapter to orchids — which make up 8 to 10 percent of all plants and thrive above the Arctic Circle as well as in the tropics — and includes a shoutout to Times staffer Craig Pittman's The Scent of Scandal, a nonfiction book about the $44 billion-a-year business of orchid smuggling.

When Goodall moves on to environmental crises, there are so many she must sketch them rather than fill in the details: habitat loss, industrial agriculture, toxic pesticides and herbicides, monoculture farming, the unknown consequences of genetic modification and, of course, global climate change.

Such a grim litany, she admits, could lead the best-intentioned person to give up. But she counters with stories of individuals who make a difference, small or large, with everything from community gardens in ravaged Detroit neighborhoods to international reforestation projects.

She closes with some of the most touching stories, of trees that have survived the nuclear blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the disaster at Fukushima. And then there is the Survivor, a pear tree at the foot of the World Trade Center, buried when the towers fell on 9/11 but dug out, revived and now growing at the memorial site. Its tiny flowers, Goodall writes, are "a message symbolizing, for me, the power of the life force that had enabled Survivor to be brought back into the world."

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder From the World of Plants

By Jane Goodall with Gail Hudson, foreword by Michael Pollan

Grand Central, 420 pages, $30

Review: Jane Goodall's 'Seeds of Hope' charming, alarming 08/25/14 [Last modified: Monday, August 25, 2014 3:56pm]

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