Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
Backyard Carolina: Two Decades of Public Radio Commentary
by Andy Wood
The Publishing Laboratory, UNCW, 2006, pgs. 171
Like a lot of book people, I have a home library that runs the gamut from the well-thumbed and dog-eared, to the point of falling apart, to the pristine (possibly never even opened) books. Some I hold on to because of memories attached to them or their procurement. They remind me of a time, place or person I cannot ever get back to. Others, of course, are books I go back to over and over again. Some novels are old friends I can go visit whenever I want; then there are the nonfiction books I still reference decades after reading them.
Andy Wood’s book, “Backyard Carolina: Two Decades of Public Radio Commentary,” is sort of a hybrid mix. Wood is a local treasure; the naturalist opened our doors to the world outside for generations of North Carolinians. First, he worked with the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, then with the National Audubon Society. Beforehand, he was my science teacher for kindergarten, first and second grades at Helen Alice Higgins Montessori School. Science class with Mr. Wood included an amazing outdoor classroom tailor made for him: a receding wetland in the woods behind the school, which we observed for three years and learned every inch of as only small children can.
Perhaps this is why I loved his commentaries on WHQR so much (Ed. note: he also wrote for encore). For three minutes once a month, it was like being back in Mr. Wood’s “classroom,” while he talked about a specific aspect of life in the backyard. From “Mosquitos: What Are They Good For?” to “The Joy of Clamming,” which actually teaches readers/listeners the finer points of clamming, the commentaries really spanned the common, to the practical, to the unexpected.
Commentaries were genius short essays that made the life of frogs in summer or the efforts of a spider spinning a web come alive. For years he wrote compelling commentaries for WHQR, which shed light on what was happening around us, things many of us didn’t know to look for—or if we did see them, had little to no context. But he could make all the drama and majesty happening around us in the natural world feel like something we understood and could connect to rather than walk over.
“Backyard Carolina: Two Decades of Public Radio Commentary” was one of the first books produced by UNCW’s publishing lab, and it is now available through Blair distribution. It collects wonderful insights into the world around us in bite-sized portions. Sitting in a parking lot waiting to pick your kid up from dance lessons? These are quick reads. A few minutes early for a doctor’s appointment? Time to grab a quick insight into the life of the mole in your yard. Or the Yucca Moths.
The book is arranged in three sections: “In the Back Yard,” “Just Down the Road” and “Beyond All That.” It denotes the geographical effort required to interact with the star of each of Andy’s commentaries. The section titles also make the point that much of what Wood writes about is indeed in our own backyards and in our neighborhoods. We are surrounded by treasures people travel across the country to see and experience. Few people can make it as accessible or come alive as tangibly as Andy Wood. His gift as an environmental educator is singular and stunning.
Maybe I’ve gone back to his book because of Earth Day. Andy sites the 1970 Earth Day celebration as the engagement point for him with the environmental movement. Almost half a century later, he still lives this engagement everyday through his work with the Coastal Plain Conservation Group and Habitats Environmental Services. The first includes his work with the magnificent ramshorn snail—a freshwater snail which has suffered extensive habitat loss. Wood has provided care to the dwindling population since 1992. If anyone ever meets him, just ask. They are one of his life’s grand passions.
The only thing missing when reading the book is the amazing voice and charisma Wood has in real life. For me “Backyard Carolina: Two Decades of Radio Commentaries” is a book I come back to over and over again—partly because the writing is compelling, partly because it connects me to an amazing chapter in my life. Also it reconnects me to the world. I so easily get caught up in overwork and commitments on my to-do list that I have a hard time looking around me at the endless beauty surrounding us. Of all the gifts he has shared with others, Andy’s ability to make all of it comprehensible is perhaps one of his most lasting legacies.