drawing of Sarah Hake by Vanessa Waring
A Monthly Interview with Bolinas Library Readers
Sarah Hake has lived in Bolinas since 1980. She commuted to the East Bay as a professor of Plant Biology at UC Berkeley, opens a new window for 38 years and now enjoys being in Bolinas full time living on the Gospel Flat Farm, opens a new window, with her husband, Don Murch and extended family. “I spend my days biking or taking hikes in beautiful West Marin, substitute teaching at the school, and helping on the farm. The farm work involves planting the seeds in trays to make starts which will become the broccoli, lettuce, squash, artichokes, onions we all like to buy at the farmstand. I love watching how each species has its own way of emerging from the soil. I also make bouquets once the summer flowers are ready. I would pay for that privilege.” In addition to her farm duties, she also teaches an ESL class to the farm workers.
What are you reading now? What’s in your pile of books? Do you read one book at a time or several?
Before I retired my reading consisted of manuscript and grant drafts, papers to review, science articles. I never read books. Now I love curling up with a book in my favorite chair after dinner. I mostly read nonfiction, one book at a time.
I recently finished A (very) Short History of Life on Earth: 4.6 Billion Years in 12 Pithy Chapters, opens a new window, by Henry Gee and thought it was awesome. I read a part aloud to my parents and they are listening to it through an audio-book. I also bought copies for friends. I found it in the Seattle bookstore in the airport.
My husband, Don Murch bought Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder , opens a new windowby David Grann in the same airport bookstore. Grann also wrote Killers of the Flower Moon, opens a new window, which I read and enjoyed. I don’t always read books Don likes, but I enjoyed Wager, having recently read another Don suggestion about Magellan’s journey in 1519, Over the Edge of the World , opens a new windowby Laurence Bergreen.
I am always reading something in Spanish (4-5 pages a day), usually a novel by Isabel Allende , opens a new windowabout Chile. Interestingly, Wager, Over the Edge of the World, and my Allende novel all revolve around the conquest of South America.
Do you like to read paper or ebooks? Audio books? Dvds?
Almost always paper. I did check out a book on tape by TaNahisi Coates, The Water Dancer, opens a new window, for a 12 hour drive. I was spell bound by the book and had to exit each time the CD ended to put in a new one. It probably made it a 13 hour drive with my stops. Don and I also listened to Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, opens a new window, by Isabel Wilkerson on CDs driving to and from Ohio in fall 2020. With days of driving, it was perfect – we would listen and re-listen and then discuss before putting in another CD. That led to reading The 1619 Project , opens a new windowby Nikole Hannah-Jones, then The Bluest Eye, opens a new window, by Toni Morrison, Americanah , opens a new windowby Chimanda Ngozi Adichie and Homegoing , opens a new windowby Yaa Gyasi. All these powerful books have helped educate me on racism, a subject that was never mentioned in my growing up.
Are you a browser in the library or do you know in advance what you are looking for? Do you browse the library catalog or pick specific books? If so, how do you find out about them?
I have only browsed airport bookstores, where I am desperate to find a book. The library for me is a place to pick up the book I already know exists. Whenever anyone mentions a book they enjoyed I whip out my phone and take a note. I deleted my list once and I was heart-broken. I also get suggestions from my mother, Carol Hake who is in a book group and passes their picks along.
Do you have a favorite genre? Any genres that you never read? Have your preferences changed throughout the years.
As I have said, I like non-fiction with a focus on biology (yah), racism, maybe geography? I don’t think I would ever read science fiction, though I did read Bewilderment , opens a new windowby Richard Powers who wrote The Overstory, opens a new window, one of my most favorite books. I hope Bewilderment is science fiction as it is really scary. I said I mostly read non-fiction, but I loved the novels by Louise Erdrich, The Night Watchman , opens a new windowand The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, opens a new window. That second book haunts me. Also I loved Peace Like a River , opens a new windowby Leif Enger.
What was your reading experience as a child? Did you grow up with a lot of books? A favorite book?
One grandmother only gave us books for Christmas and birthdays. I still have many of them, always signed and dated by her. She adjusted the content as we grew up. Imagine what a great world it would be if books were the only Christmas gift. None of those materialistic consumer items that end up in the landfill.
I lived in Iowa until 10 years old and I would go to the small town library. After my grandchildren were born here in Bolinas I would bring them to the library, but the books would often get lost, so that effort dwindled.
Do you recommend books to Friends?
One of the books I recommended was The Signature of All Things, opens a new window, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Although it was fiction, the story is based in science. The main character is a botanist that studied lichens.
Were there any books that made a big impression on you in your life? Perhaps a book that has impacted your consciousness a bit? (Maybe something you read at an impressionable age, 20s?)
In my early 20s, I read Three Marias: A Sicilian Story, opens a new window, written by Robert Armbruster. If I remember correctly, one of the women encourages her husband’s drinking every night so she won’t get pregnant. That lack of birth control really shook me.
Is there a famous author that you ever wanted to meet? Maybe back in time?
Well, not back in time but when I finished Omnivore’s Dilemma, opens a new window, I wrote Michael Pollan (it was near midnight). I am/was a maize geneticist and so felt I needed to apologize for my career. He was kind enough to write back.
I also wanted to reach out to Robin Wall Kimmerer, the author of Braiding Sweetgrass, opens a new window. As a plant scientist like myself, I thought it would be fun to connect. I listened to a speech she gave in which she starts by saying we are in a crisis and need a leader. Then she pauses before saying that we have a leader, it is the plants. We just have to listen to them. I loved it.
Do you have a collection of books at home. If so, where do you keep them and do you re-read?
We don’t have endless space, so it is a decision what to keep. One entire wall is informational books, mostly about Alaska, but also mushrooms, birds, flowers, travel. The section for novels is tiny and I usually give away any book I enjoy. I also check most of my books out of the library. So, my bookshelf does not represent what I read. Up and down California in 1860-1864: The Journal of William H. Brewe, opens a new windowr has been on my shelf for 40 years and I finally picked it up. Being a diary, it is sometimes dry, but at times humorous and incredibly informative. So amazing to read about California 160 years ago from a scientist’s perspective; the botany, geology, water and lack thereof. Indeed, much of California was a desert and the mountains were without roads. Brewer loved sleeping under the stars and hikes many thousand miles each year. It is also informative to see his perspective on non-whites. A man of his time.
When and where do you like to read? Describe your ideal reading experience.
I like to read in my special chair with a flexible lamp. It’s important to have the right lamp and the right chair. I can put my legs up and relax. The chair belonged to my husband’s mother and made its way out here from the east coast.
It takes you away from your life into another one. I never read books when I was working, because there was never enough time. Now it is an amazing luxury that I look forward to each night.