Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Little, Brown Spark: 2021
I discovered Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s book, Rooted, in a new releases list somewhere. Being in a rooted mode these days, I immediately put this book at the top of the reading list. I dove into it a couple days ago, while taking yet another break from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future (which is really taking a long time to get through), and found it an excellent and engaging summer read.
Rooted is another attempt to answer the essential question of religion and philosophy: How then shall we live? And perhaps, Haupt does not contribute much beyond Aristotle’s eudaimonia. (Has anyone, though?) But rather than looking to mankind (with the usual stress on the first syllable), Haupt looks to our more-than-human elders, which seems to me the more natural choice. If one wants an answer to a question about this world, the best place to search is in the real, physical world, not in the evanescent and muzzy mind that asked the question.
Haupt’s writing style is lilting and breezy. She weaves words with deft strokes. She takes inspiration from literature of all sorts, quoting poets and philosophers, science fiction and popular science, folklore and fairy tales. She is wry without descending into sarcasm, funny without finger-pointing cruelty. She captured my heart from the first chapter, a reminiscence on her childhood conversion to “Frog Church”. Well, of course she did, because I was a mossy-haired parishioner myself, though my cathedral was the Putah Creek and my liturgy was written in river stones. Yes, that insidious confirmation bias just set my heart happily humming.
There is a catchy marketing line printed on the book’s cover: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spirit. I’m not sure if this is a subtitle because it is not used as such wherever the book is listed for sale, including on the publisher website. However, it is the crux of their marketing message. This is how they are selling this book, and this is partly how this title caught my attention. However, after consideration, I have to say it’s false advertising. It took most of the chapters for me to realize just what was bothering me about an otherwise delightful book. But here it is: this is not science, not even science at the crossroads.
Haupt is a philosopher, or perhaps a theologian. She is a naturalist and a talented writer. She notices the world, walking through life with heart and eyes wide open. She bears witness. What she is not is a scientist. Science places different demands on a writer than philosophy. Philosophy, by definition (“friend of wisdom”), centers the self. Science generally seeks to remove the self from observation, with varying degrees of success (and hence the hard science snobbery toward soft science). Anecdote is fine for introduction and illustration; it is not explanatory or defining. Personal experience does not give generalized answers in science, but it is a large part of the answers obtained through poetry and theology. Science is about the world; philosophy is about a specific relationship to the world.
As a scientist coming into this book expecting to find science at the crossroads (or at least somewhere), I found Haupt’s reliance on poetic personal narrative a bit jarring. I have since discovered that this is a common reaction to her writing, most of which is also marketed as “science”. I’ve read many reviews of her earlier books, and there is a clear pattern. Those people who are most like Haupt — that is, nature lovers living a life of rather unquestioned privilege — adore her writing, find inspiration in it, give glowing reviews. I want to be in this group. Except I’m just not. Those people who’ve been sensitized to subjectivity through the rigors of the scientific process or who simply do not share Haupt’s background and lifestyle are mingy with the ratings stars. I don’t want to be in this group; they’re not nice. But I think they’re right. This is not a verifiable and reproducible view of the world nor a prescription for right relationship that others can follow. It is a lovely story about one American woman. A great summer read, not a Great Book.
To be sure, there are many reasons to read Rooted. There are great ideas presented in great writing. This is deeply inspirited book, a work that delves into the essential relatedness and interpenetration in all beings. Haupt validates a view of the world in which there are no autonomous individuals, all is connection, all is kin. I do recommend reading Rooted for this reason alone.
But if you are like me, you might find yourself irritated without being able to place your finger on any given irritant. She captured my heart with Frog Church, as I said, and I passed over what I might have questioned without that emotional connection. But then she lost me when she flippantly stated that nothing she could do would make up for her air travel — as though that insurmountable debt was vindicated by its very insurmountable-ness. If there is nothing that can erase the ecological debt, then should you be incurring it? If something can’t be reconciled to a right relationship, then surely it is wrong. Surely a philosopher can do that accounting. More essentially, this book is called “rooted” and delves into deep connection to the soil beneath bare feet. Should air travel even be a part of that life? Haupt does not ask this question, and that she does not seems to invalidate a good deal of what she has to say about how to live. A truly rooted life is radically place-based, not merely dirt-covered, and Rooted fails to convey this essential message.
©Elizabeth Anker 2021