Newswise — Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer was relaxing at home one weekend when her phone rang.
"It was a woman in France," she said. "She said, 'I just finished your book and I had to call you and tell you how much I enjoyed it.' She said she liked it because it had soul. And she didn't want to read a book without soul."
The "soulful" book that prompted a trans-Atlantic phone call from an American beekeeper in Paris is a 168-page paperback called Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. The book, published by Oregon State University Press, is part science, part personal reflection and part lyrical look at the world that is sometimes literally beneath our toes.
The book received this year's John Burroughs Medal Award for outstanding natural history writing. The award, given by the John Burroughs Association at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, is based on literary quality, firsthand fieldwork, originality and scientific accuracy.
The association described Kimmerer's book as "a beautifully written mix of science and personal reflection inviting the reader to explore the elegantly simple lives of mosses." The book, a series of linked personal essays, describes how mosses live and how their lives are intertwined with the lives of countless other organisms.
Kimmerer, a botanist at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, N.Y., is a passionate advocate of her "miniature forests." She's also passionate about her Native American heritage, and she weaves her culture's indigenous knowledge with her scientific expertise when she describes the life cycle of her favorite plants.
Kimmerer is part Potawatomi, the granddaughter of a man whose tribe had been relocated from its native Wisconsin to a reservation in Oklahoma. At age 9, Kimmerer's grandfather was sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, where he was taught a trade and encouraged to forsake his culture.
"He was shipped East to be assimilated. It's really quite remarkable given those engines of assimilation that the culture survived at all," she said. "That's a big part of what I try to do: Bring that culture back. I'm trying to reclaim some of what was stolen."
Toward that end, Kimmerer teaches a class in ethnobotany at ESF's main campus in Syracuse and a seminar in traditional ecological knowledge. She has also taught Land and Culture: Native American Perspectives on the Environment, which examines the management of natural resources and environmental problem-solving from a Native American perspective.
Kimmerer has written her share of scientific papers but she felt compelled to take a different approach in dealing with mosses. "Writing in scientific journals reaches a very small audience and I wanted to share the moss stories with a broader public," she said.
"Mosses are so easily overlooked, yet accessible," she said. "They make up these little worlds that are right at the limits of our perception. All you have to do is look. You don't need an electron microscope to see them.
"They act like trees but they're one centimeter tall. You can look at the overall forest ecology and try to determine if the same process works for moss, on a different scale."
"Gathering Moss" makes it clear that anyone who wants to really look at mosses has to stop for a minute. And that's part of Kimmerer's point.
"I like to think that the book will help people slow down and look more carefully at the world," she said "Looking at mosses makes you love the world a little more. And we tend to protect only the things we love."
Winning the Burroughs Medal puts Kimmerer in the company of previous winners such as John McPhee for The Control of Nature in 1990, Aldo Leopold for A Sand County Almanac in 1977, and Rachel L. Carson for The Sea Around Us in 1952.
The John Burroughs Medal has been given annually since 1926. The award is bestowed at the annual meeting of the Burroughs Association at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. This year's event is scheduled for April 4.
The John Burroughs Association, an organization of conservation and environmental literary professionals and stewards dedicated to preserving the environment, awards to medal to encourage writing in the tradition of famed naturalist John Burroughs. The association was founded at the American Museum of Natural History.