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Scientists' Nightstand: Julianne Lutz Newton

Anna Lena Phillips, Julianne Lutz Warren

Julianne Lutz Newton is a visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and president of The John Burroughs Institute at Woodchuck Lodge in Roxbury, New York. She is the author of Aldo Leopold's Odyssey: Rediscovering the Author of A Sand County Almanac (Island Press, 2006). A Sand County Almanac (Oxford University Press, 1949), Leopold's classic work, combined vivid natural history and accurate science with an explication of his land ethic. Its publication helped to popularize the field of ecology and strengthened the growing American conservation movement.

 Julianne Lutz NewtonClick to Enlarge ImageCould you tell us a bit about yourself?

I grew up feeling rooted in the Catskill Mountain region of New York State. My favorite activities have always included reading, sometimes in a closet or under a table; rambling around outside—particularly climbing rock to rock along winding creek beds or up into high-elevation spruce-fir forests; and hanging out with my family or a few friends, hoping to raise discussions about that profoundest of questions, as Walt Whitman put it: What is the relation between the "Me" and the "Not Me"?

I attended Ithaca College, where I began as a trumpet major but ended up receiving my B.S. in biology. I have three graduate degrees from the University of Illinois—an M.A. in linguistics, an M.S. in wildlife ecology and a Ph.D. in natural resource ecology and conservation biology. My work on the life and thought of Aldo Leopold began as my dissertation project. I see myself academically now as an "environmental studies" person.

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure? Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

I most recently finished reading Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice (1930) and Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel (Grove Press, 1988), and have just reread Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (Knopf, 1980). I also recently read James Perrin Warren's John Burroughs and the Place of Nature (University of Georgia Press, 2006), Cormac McCarthy's The Road (Knopf, 2006), David Quammen's The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions (Scribner, 1996) and Rian Malan's My Traitor's Heart: A South African Exile Returns to Face His Country, His Tribe, and His Conscience (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990). I am in the midst of Visions of Utopia (Oxford University Press, 2003), a volume of three essays by Edward Rothstein, Herbert Muschamp and Martin E. Marty. Bill McKibben's Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (Times Books, 2007), Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Karl Popper's Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (Basic Books, 1962) are at the top of my stack of what comes next.

I've heard people talk about creating a healthy diet by intuitive eating—listening to what your body needs. I guess that is how I approach reading, too. I try to practice intuitive reading—listening to what my mind needs. Recently, I think that I am reading not only to explore ideas and for company, but also to learn more about the various creative ways authors tell their stories.

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?

I always have a book with me. I will read just about anywhere—cars, planes, buses, concert halls, parks, mountaintops, sidewalks . . . and in my favorite place—a big, overstuffed living room chair with my husband and a glass of red wine nearby.

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?

Leo Tolstoy, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Willa Cather, Milan Kundera and Wendell Berry immediately leap to mind. Why? They deal with profound subjects and at the same time create beauty.

What are the three best books you've ever read? Explain.

Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure (1896). Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1878). Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow (Counterpoint, 2000). There are multiple layers, or facets, in these works, including visions of people in relation with each other and with the rest of nature. They are alive, and each time I come back to reread them they speak to me in fresh ways. They also do what only the greatest novels can: As Milan Kundera puts it, they express the "wisdom of uncertainty"—that is, they face a "welter of contradictory truths" without requiring that someone be right—and they protect us from "the forgetting of being" by helping us get a view of the world as a whole and ourselves in relation with it. The scientific method is practiced within the context of this world.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

The Bible. I grew up learning it. I have found it to be alive and beautiful, and if one reads it with an open mind, it balances within it the wisdom of uncertainty and the wisdom of certainty and helps protect from the forgetting of being.

Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.

There are more like 3,000—at least. But here are three: Dante's The Divine Comedy (1321), Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle (1839) and Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain (1927).

What books would you recommend to young readers?

Anything and everything they feel interested in. I particularly loved E. B. White's Trumpet of the Swan (Harper & Row, 1970). I remember that Sam Beaver explored outside all the time, kept a diary, tried to walk ever so quietly in the woods—and that before he went to sleep he would ponder a probably unanswerable question, like "Why does a fox bark?" I wanted to be like him.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Song of the Dodo is a good one. Books by E. O. Wilson. Darwin's works. And of course, A Sand County Almanac.

Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.

A Sand County Almanac. One thing about this book that maybe has been underappreciated is how well Leopold as a scientist brought together ideas based on scientific evidence, many of which still hold true in ecology today. He also connected evidence about how nature is put together with the need he found for cultural reform aimed at promoting both a prosperous civilization and healthy land. The definition and social roles of science—what it is and isn't, can and can't do, should and shouldn't do—is a subject of urgent public discourse today, as are these key questions: What kind of world do we want to live in, and how might we get there? Leopold grapples with them articulately while leaving us much to think about and much more to do.

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