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Four Takes: Every book is arguably a journey; those explicitly about journeys hold special appeal


January 30, 2021

The other day, a bank officer told me she is dying to travel. Imagine: She has always hated travel. I resisted saying that my trip to the bank may as well have been the journey of a lifetime, given how few places I now go.

More than ever, readers are turning to books to carry them elsewhere. Every book is arguably a journey, but as the pandemic grinds on, those that are explicitly about journeys hold special appeal.

In “American Harvest: God, Country, and Farming in the Heartland,” Marie Mutsuki Mockett describes the summer she followed a crew of itinerant wheat cutters from Texas to Idaho. Her readers will encounter spacious landscapes, ravishing sunsets, wild pigs, balky machinery, marshmallow salads, powwows, rodeos, and out-of-the-way museums. Along the way, questions spill out of Mockett like grain from overloaded trucks.

Mockett is the kind of bicoastal urbanite who embraces pluralism and the gospel according to Whole Foods. During childhood summers, however, she formed an attachment to family farmland in Nebraska.

At the heart of her story is Eric Wolgemuth, who for years handled the Mocketts’ harvest. Wolgemuth is an earnest follower of Jesus, and Mockett’s respect for him carries her into a deep encounter with evangelical Christianity. Joining his Mennonite crew members, she samples multiple forms of worship.

By turns receptive and resistant, Mockett finds a sympathetic companion in Eric’s son Juston, who confides his doubts as the crew makes its way north. As she seeks to understand rural America, Mockett considers issues ranging from agriculture policy and race to the mythology of westward expansion.

Her depiction of the ripening grain, and the exquisite timing with which the harvesters must move, finds an echo in Zach St. George’s “The Journeys of Trees.” It turns out that forests migrate in response to conditions, essentially by collectively sprouting in the same direction.

Fascinated by the idea that, because of climate change, certain trees might now be living in the wrong place, St. George embeds himself with assorted scientists to ponder the evidence. (Rest assured, someone, somewhere is labeling bog samples right now.)

St. George focuses on five species, among them the giant sequoia. The sequoia is snobbish about real estate, and thrives pretty much exclusively on the western slope of the Sierra Nevadas. Imperiled by drought, it faces a murky future.

“The Journeys of Trees” tracks but does not settle the argument between those who urge moving species to save them, and those who fear that intervening could harm delicately balanced ecosystems.

St. George leavens his study with plenty of tree lore. A mid-1800s craze for preserving rare species led to botanical gardens such as the Arnold Arboretum. New Englanders traumatized by periodic gypsy moth invasions will learn which Medford hobbyist they have to thank.

Numerous animal species, of course, share trees’ uncertain fate, few more urgently than the tiger. A few years ago, the writer Mary Morris became obsessed with the desire to see one in the wild. “All the Way to the Tigers” chronicles a determined baby boomer’s effort to reach India while simultaneously confronting her past.

For two years while recovering from a devastating ankle injury, Morris went almost nowhere. Her despair at being housebound, and her rising “travel envy,” will probably hold particular resonance these days.

In diary-like entries, Morris contemplates her impairment, her childhood, the nature of tigers, and the chaotic reality of India. Ill during much of her time there, she stubbornly presses on. If the deeper significance of her journey proves elusive, other elements fall clearly into place. Human encroachment has driven tigers toward extinction. Morris has beheld encroaching mortality, and elected to exchange fire.

Hisham Matar pursues a different type of quest in “A Month in Siena.” He has just finished a memoir about his kidnapped father’s disappearance in Libya. Drained by his fruitless effort to find out what happened, he decides to seek restoration in Italy.

“A Month in Siena” is brief, loosely organized and quietly seductive. Matar’s object is to study examples of the Sienese art he fell for as a college student. Among the most rewarding is Duccio’s “Madonna dei Francescani,” a painting he feels invited to enter less as a believer than as a human being.

Matar is as attuned to the city as to its art, taking readers with him on contemplative rambles. He concludes that art, along with humanity, changed profoundly after the Black Death arrived, in 1348. Lorenzetti, one of Siena’s greatest painters, was among the first to fall victim. The plague wiped out artistic expertise as it cut national populations nearly in half.

Perhaps uncannily, Matar was taking all this in just before the novel coronavirus came calling. “A Month in Siena” is one man’s timely notes on managing the unbearable.

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