BOOK REVIEW: The Star in the Sycamore

(Deborah Haak-Frost|Watershed Voice)

If you’re seeking a calm reprieve from the turbulence of this year, Tom Springer’s The Star in the Sycamore is a balm. If you’re looking for wry, thoughtful nature writing in the spirit of Wendell Berry or Mary Oliver, nestle into these pages. If you’re feeling a bit adrift, the writings will deeply ground you in the forests and rivers of southwest Michigan. 

Published in the summer of 2020, The Star in the Sycamore: Discovering Nature’s Hidden Virtues in the Wild Nearby is a collection of essays organized by seasons-within-the-seasons and accompanied by beautiful illustrations by Patrick Dengate. With the clear-eyed observation of a scientist, a dry, self-deprecating wit, and an approachable tone, Springer plumbs the depths of the seemingly small or mundane things going on around us all the time in daily life and in the natural world. He writes in the introduction: 

“As much as anything, this book is about those rare times when a ray of the luminous penetrates the foggy ground clutter of everyday life. These are mountain top experiences, absent the mountains. I’ve found them in the crook of a broken tree on a starry night; in a divine mess of fish caught from a little river gone wild in the city.”

Two of my favorite essays demonstrate this wonderfully. With Springer’s skill, a story about a serviceberry tree (side note: “if you’ve never heard of serviceberries, that’s understandable”) turns into a reflection on generosity, abundance, and humility. The transformation of a local gravel pit into a fitness campus sparks a deep dive into his own familial and occupational history with that parcel of land, replete with boom and bust, growth and decline. 

I wondered why I was so drawn to that particular essay, “A New Life for an Old Pit.” It struck me that, since I am not native to Three Rivers, nor is my family to my hometown, I haven’t known the roots that he describes. The generations of stories originating from one rural plot fascinate me. 

Yet, in his praise of the beloved land, waters, and woods of southwest Michigan that have formed the backdrop of most of his life and weave through the entire book, Springer still wrestles with the distinction between being rooted in a place versus being root-bound by a place in “For Maples and Men, Big Moves to Ponder”:

“I’ve seen it with the perennial plants we buy on sale at garden stores in late fall. Pull off the plastic sarcophagus of a pot and you’ll find a circular glob of unhealthy roots coiled tight as an angry rattler. Living things are programmed to grow and will half-strangle themselves in pursuit of the freedom to do so.”

When I arrived in Three Rivers, I set about sending down roots, soaking in the nutrients, and acclimating to my new environment. While I have no plans to relocate, he offers a good reminder, as someone who has lived here with intention for much longer, to take stock periodically of the health of my own roots and connections. And as changes in life do arise, he point out that maple saplings transplanted to a new location will indeed adapt, take hold, and “get back to the business of living.”

This measured and earnest treatise on rootedness shows that Springer’s love for his place and its people runs deep and wide: from the “amber jewel of an urban stream” to the rural neighbors, solid as windfirm oaks; from the earthy forest floor to the sycamore branches glowing in starlight.

The Star in the Sycamore, as well as Looking for Hickories: The Forgotten Wildness of the Rural Midwest by Tom Springer, can be found at Lowry’s Books and More in Three Rivers. 

Deborah Haak-Frost is grateful for every ray of sunshine that reaches her skin. She is the Caretaker for Community Engagement at GilChrist Retreat Center in Three Rivers, and volunteers with *culture is not optional, a Three Rivers-based community development organization.

Sow Good Seeds is a column devoted to environmental issues, gardening, cooking, and anything else connected to the natural world that has so graciously hosted us on this earth. My hope is that it will encourage you to see the world around you in a different way, to make incremental changes in your daily living, and to treat our planetary home such that we honor the generations of life that will follow.


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