Book City: Publisher Tim Colman's poetic must-reads

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Poetry-loving publisher Timothy Colman has been turning his passion for the environment into educative art ever since he founded Good Nature Publishing Company in 1995. Colman works with artists to create media for schools and public agencies that illustrate the ecology of hedgerows, native flora and fauna and the benefits of rain gardens, among other environmental topics. An avid outdoorsman, Colman hikes, climbs and swims the Northwest.

You publish pocket notebooks with a 'Read' graphic on the cover. What are you reading yourself at the moment?

Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees after just rereading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  And The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, a book born of her influential writing in the New Yorker on the confluence of climate impacts and the great extinction we’re living through right now. I prefer Kolbert laced with New Yorker cartoons; the subject is dismal, but her great writing makes it lively reading. I love Lemony Snicket and have been reading 13 Words illustrated by the marvelous Maira Kalman.

Do you make notes as you read? Is that the intent of the little notebooks? 

I make notes around poems, not so much when I’m reading books. But I write letters about them or little rants just to synthesize what I’m reading.  Susan Sontag wrote something like, “I write to discover what I think about the world.”  I think of the loop of writing and reading as feeding all creativity.  Reading, writing and conversation are prayer practices, a secular sanctuary for our society.  So my notebooks are born partly out of a desire to name a space where people can dream positive visions about the future.

Favorite poets?

Washington state poet laureate Elizabeth Austen is on fire in my book. Marge Piercy, who was born in Detroit during the depression, writes with my home town’s bluntness. She’s a strong feminist, a sensualist with a deft sense of justice and a passionate humor about sex and desire.

Jane Hirshfield, because she understands me. I read her and my mind just opens and the words flow to my heart. I’m fond of Carolyn Forsche for her witness poetry that speaks up in solidarity for diversity. Amiri Baraka has been an up front voice of outrage since his days as a beat poet. The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish has a lyrical voice, and W.S. Merwin has a zen mind, compassionate and cool language. I read Mary Oliver and Terry Tempest Williams for their evocation of nature, and Wendell Berry for his shrewd political sense and love for the land. Seamus Heaney makes me so happy the way he paints pictures. Naomi Shihab Nye offers up poems with her Arab American lens on the world. And if I can add one more it would be Gary Snyder for precisely locating the way cedar, rivers and mountains flow through our soul. I keep a collection of Pablo Neruda’s on my desk, and a book of William Stafford’s poetry.

The Poetry Foundation has a wonderful app for phones where you can search for poems by spinning for subjects like “gratitude,” spirituality” or “humor” – it’s like a wheel of good fortune because you never know what will show up. I have found some wonderful poems with it.

Have you read a truly great book lately? One you’d unhesitatingly recommend to friends and colleagues?   

I don’t know, “great” is pretty subjective. But Animal Liberation by Peter Singer changed the way I think about suffering. On Writing by Stephen King was a great book at a certain time when I was reaching up from the bottom of the well.

Is there a natural history book or two that have influenced you?

Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance, most of Paul Hawken’s writings, Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind, works by Rachel Carson and Henry David Thoreau.

Have any of your ideas for Good Nature posters come directly from your reading? From poetry?

The hedgerows poster field guide is in response to a lot of great writing by Terry Tempest Williams and other greens about bringing the wild into our settlements. We sent the poem “Mad Farmer Manifesto” by Wendell Berry to a client in the Forest Service and out of that came a Giant Sequoia poster with a wonderful design by artist John Pitcher.

Do you use the library, read on paper or iPad, Kindle? Do you frequent bookshops, buy new or used books, order from Amazon? 

I am a big fan of public libraries. They’re essential for democracy. I sell my products through the larger indie bookstores and love visiting them. We are rich with Third Place, Elliott Bay Books, University Bookstore, Powell’s in Portland, Village Books in Bellingham, Orca Books in Olympia, lots of other independent bookstores. I try not to use Amazon — especially for book purchases.

What were your most cherished childhood books?

I loved Charlotte’s Web and Misty of Chincoteague. I read the Hardy Boys, Sherlock Holmes, and all of Dr. Seuss. As a teenager I was influenced by the Lord of the Rings, and read Mark Twain and William Faulkner. And when our daughter Katie was little, we loved to read the works of Roald Dahl.

Can you think of a particularly powerful passage from a book that’s stuck with you? That you return to?

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.” These are the final passages from A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean.

Do you have a book or two that you’ve re-read over the years and will no doubt read again? 

I grew up Presbyterian in a family of teachers and preachers, became an agnostic and now am a humanist. I’ve been reading scripture for the poetry in it and finding myself drawn to the wisdom found there.

Any book you’ve read lately that really caught your imagination, inspired you, or changed how you look at the world? 

Reading Cultivating the Mind of Love by Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart helps to reduce the suffering between me and people I love.

What do you plan to read next? 

I’ve just started Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, which I’ve been wanting to read since it won a Pulitzer. Menand argues that after the civil war, America became a different country, and points to Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Dewey, Charles Pierce and William James as seminal to our transformation.  Their ideas about education, democracy, liberty, justice and tolerance are alive to this day.  The book is a cheat in a way, since I will never read original texts of Dewey or James or Pierce in this life. And I plan to catch up on a month of The New York Review of Books.

What Val’s Reading This Week: Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience, is a beautifully designed book, with photos of the correspondents and copies of the original letters. The variety of authors is mindboggling, from Mick Jagger to Hunter S. Thompson and Queen Elizabeth, who in 1960 sent a handwritten note to President Eisenhower that includes her drop scone recipe he enjoyed when he visited her at Balmoral.

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About the Authors & Contributors

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Valerie Easton

Valerie Easton started her career as a librarian shelving books at Lake City Library when she was in high school. Now she writes full time, and has authored five books, includingThe New Low Maintenance Garden and her newest title Petal & Twig. She writes a weekly column and feature stories for Pacific Northwest magazine in the Seattle Times.