Weeds and deeds 

Ideas for fixing the messes we ourselves made

When was the last time you went caroling? I went last Christmas, partly to be in my friend Bob’s movie and the rest of the way just to horse around (our group was called the “Gay Apparels”), and talk about having a blast! I can’t sing for sour apples, but I loved the fellowship and the random-act-of-kindness aspect of caroling, ambushing people with song and dance when they might have been bracing themselves for some kind of sales pitch or door-to-door evangelism.

I’m hoping for a Gay Apparels comeback this December. Call it an incrementalist approach to community-building, this yearly dragooning of a latent exhibitionist urge in service of amusing and reassuring old people and little kids. Caroling doesn’t require any extraordinary dedication to a cause, and it’s not going to stop a war or keep people from starving—but then again, neither is a T-shirt or a bumper sticker.

The World’s Greatest Ideas could be described as a caroler’s handbook for social change, an incrementalist approach to changing the world by reorganizing society in inventive and possibly painless ways and harnessing the innate creativity of citizens to make their communities better places to live. It’s edited by members of the Institute for Social Inventions, a London-based progressive think tank whose main business seems to be sitting around thinking up cool stuff. They also act as an International Suggestions Box for a worldwide network of correspondents, many of whom gather ideas from obscure sources and far-flung places where similarly unorthodox problem-solving strategies have successfully been employed.

What kind of ideas are included here? Some of them are as simple as creating a book for friends and family to leave messages to hospital patients who might not be awake during visiting hours. A few pages away, there’s an extract of a story that originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal, recounting how the son of an 87-year-old Alzheimer’s patient discovered he could communicate with her by singing.

Consider this charming and simple approach to making new friends through books: “Selected library books could have a contact sheet pasted in the back,” writes Stephen Rowles. “People wanting to meet those drawn to the same work could enter their names and contact information (phone number, e-mail).”

An interesting variation on the book-club theme appears in the “M” section in the form of a Marcel Proust Support Group, a hardy collection of masochists devoted to a group reading of Proust’s seven-volume, 3,500-plus-page novel Remembrance of Things Past. “When the going got rough,” writes contributor and group member P. Segal,” Like the fortnight when a particular dinner party had been going on for 140 pages, we had each other—co-conspirators forced, as we had often been in real life, to attend a dull party.”

Even the most far-out flights of fancy still provided wonderful food for thought. Nicholas Albery, a co-editor of the volume who died in a car crash shortly after the book’s completion, reflects constructively on Columbus’ grave errors in the New World in his “Ten Commandments for Extra-Planetary Travelers.” There’s also a very interesting section on “Gurus—How to Rate Them,” and Albery’s own “Hippocratic Oath for Scientists” is solemn and wise.

Of course, not all of the bigger ideas in this book are of the kind you can charge right out and put into practice overnight. Nor, at first consideration, do altogether too many of them seem feasible at all—unless somebody starts somewhere. This week, as the Independent addresses things we think Missoula could do better, we as individuals should also be thinking about what we could be doing better ourselves. The World’s Greatest Ideas is a bible of possibilities. Highly recommended.

A Plague of Rats and Rubber-vines, by Yvonne Baskin
Those of you who have seen pictures of—and possibly even remember—Missoula’s surrounding hillsides before they were overrun with noxious weeds can appreciate how quickly aggressive invaders can turn an ecosystem on its head. The economic price tag is still being calculated. In the meantime, however, surely we can all agree that the hazes of chartreuse and light purple on Sentinel and Jumbo threaten our sense of place and well-being in Missoula.

Or maybe you’ve been living under a rock for the past five years and have managed to successfully avoid dealing with the grim consequences posed by these strangers in our midst. In that respect, it’s time for Missoula to get with the program. Species invasions are happening everywhere at an unprecedented rate. In western Montana, spotted knapweed, leafy spurge and Dalmatian toadflax are just three of the worst plant aggressors. Southern parts of the country have kudzu and fire ants and Africanized bees to contend with. The Great Lakes have the zebra mussels, which encrust inflow pipes and leave beaches scattered with razor-sharp shells. The Pacific Northwest has spiny, yellow-flowered gorse and the Himalayan blackberry, again to name just two of the biggies.

Similar ecological Anschlusses by invasive species have afflicted virtually every corner of the world. For the purposes of Yvonne Baskin’s book, swamped ecosystems and ruined economies could easily have made for a doleful and depressing litany of our intentional and unintentional sins. And, well, it is kind of depressing.

Nonetheless, A Plague of Rats and Rubbervines performs an invaluable service to the cause of stanching the tide of species invasion by making the problem superbly readable for the general public.

Montana author Baskin knows her stuff. The first five chapters of this stimulating book deal with the extent and consequences of the “biological Cuisinart” human economic activity has made of the world’s biota, and the last six deal with the search for solutions. It reads like Pringles eat, which is to say almost effortlessly, except it’s nutritious, too. And, not least for Montana, very timely and relevant.

Author Yvonne Baskin will be reading Tuesday, Aug. 27, at 7 PM at Fact & Fiction.

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