Reading the environment

Marilyn Miller, Ron Zentner, Mat Bose, Danguele Budris, Bob Ford, and Rick Whitten-Stovall
Book club participants enjoyed an informal discussion at the Oak Bluffs library. Shown (left to right) Marilyn Miller, Ron Zentner, Oak Bluffs research librarian Mat Bose, who led the discussion, library director Danguele Budris, Bob Ford, and Rick Whitten-Stovall. Photos by Susan Safford

By Pat Waring - November 1, 2007

Ideas and inspirations filled the Oak Bluffs Public Library conference room on Oct. 23 as members of the Sustainable Book Club shared their reactions to Mark Kurlansky's "Cod." The book charts the cod fishery over centuries, drawing connections with history and culture, and reflecting on the demise of the once abundant stocks. It was the most recent on the group's varied reading list.

Begun last winter by Suzan Bellincampi, director of Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, and Chilmark library director Ebba Hierta, the club focuses on books that "examine our relationship to the natural world."

"It's really been a lot of fun," said Ms. Hierta. "It's working out like Suzan and I had hoped. We're meeting new people and expanding the dialogue. That was our goal, to raise the level of dialogue on the Island and do it through literature and books and discussion, and start talking about the really important issues that are facing us."

Research librarian Mat Bose conducted the meeting with library director Danguele Budris joining in the discussion. After readers introduced themselves around the table, all had the opportunity to offer their own impressions of the book.

Ebba Hierta
Ebba Hierta, Chilmark library director and co-founder of the Sustainable Book Club, made insightful comments on the book "Cod."

"It seemed like in every sentence there was something to learn," said one woman.

"It made me realize I should go back and read the American and European history I slept through in college," said another.

"It made me appreciate cod," one member declared, and some said they delighted with the book's traditional cod recipes.

Readers cited the fascinating description of how the cod fishery was involved in the political and economic development of this country. Ms. Hierta said that cod are a critical part of the food chain, and that their absence has caused dramatic changes in the ecosystem.

"We're fishing down the food chain," she said.

"Some fishermen say the cod are coming back," said one man. "But the scientists are not so sure."

Often the conversation turned to the demise of the cod fishery, and many drew parallels with the depletion or destruction of other aspects of the environment.

One reader called for stricter regulations, saying that the responsibility lies with the government. Another said it might be necessary to realize that there must be fewer fishermen, just as in the past the rural economy changed and could no longer support so many farmers.

People spoke of the need for conservation, in fishery and elsewhere. One said that this book made her intensely aware of the interconnection between our food and the environment, and the far-reaching impacts that harvesting food can have.

Books read by the group can be discouraging, several members said. But they agreed that the writings deliver a cautionary message, telling people to slow down and stop wasting natural resources.


"I will keep taking hope that that's what's happening," one member said, "that more people will become aware of what we are doing to ourselves."

The easy give-and-take continued for almost an hour, with readers offering ideas and information. Some were knowledgeable about fishing, others about general conservation matters, and others had simply found the book fascinating and thought-provoking, an excellent read.

Meetings are held at Island libraries and at various conservation organizations, including Felix Neck, Polly Hill Arboretum, and the Vineyard Conservation Society. Membership is informal: a core group of readers attends most meetings, but others come when the subject intrigues them or when the meeting is at their town's library. Drop-ins are always welcome.

Titles so far have ranged from scientific to lyrical, from memoir to novel, and plans show more of the same to come. Ms. Hierta gave a glowing recommendation for the November selection, "The Rural Life" by Verlyn Klinkenborg, described in the brochure as "a heady meditation on our relationship with nature, echoing the works of the transcendentalists Thoreau and Emerson...closer to poetry than essay." There will be no meeting in December. In January readers can start looking forward to springtime with West Tisbury writer Shirley Mayhew's "Seasons of a Vineyard Pond." February's selection is "The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth" by Edward O. Wilson.

The schedule for the rest of 2008 is still open. Ms. Hierta said she already has a list of possibilities and would appreciate getting more suggestions from Island readers.

For information visit To make suggestions for future selections call Ms. Bellincampi, 508-627-4850, Ms. Hierta, 508-645-3360, or e-mail