Seeking Utopia

Jan 2, 2003
Outside Magazine
From Our Pages

Then Some Other Weird Sports

(Arrowgraphics, $20)

IN HIS "ULTIMATE instructional manual for anyone who's sick and tired of trying to do the right thing," contributing editor Vaughn holds forth on sabotaging Survivor, food suits, and golfing the Lewis and Clark Trail.

(Viking, $26)

IN T. C. BOYLE'S LATEST affectionate satire, it's the summer of 1970 and the vibe at the hitherto idyllic Sonoma commune of Drop City is getting heavy. LATWIDNO—"Land Access to Which Is Denied No One, dig?"—has attracted a host of slobs and sponges, and county "fascists" are revving their bulldozers. The solution is obvious, at least to the communards: Move to the Alaskan bush. "You want to know what we're going to eat?" asks their unleader, Norm, conjuring banquets of salmon and blueberries. "We're going to eat the land because it's one big smorgasbord." On one level, Drop City is an elaborate send-up of "To Build a Fire," with cotton-clad hippies standing in for Jack London's dour musher. But by adding another narrative—that of a lonely Alaskan trapper looking for a wife—and by charting the commune's rejection of LATWIDNO for PYWOB (Pull Your Weight Or Bail), Boyle raises meaty questions about that oldest of American dreams: building a utopia in the wild. —Rob Buchanan WHEN SMOKE RAN LIKE WATER
Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution

(Basic Books, $26)

DEVRA DAVIS was born in Pollutionville, Pennsylvania—a.k.a. Donora, a Monongahela River town that suffered one of America's most horrific industrial health disasters. On October 26, 1948, a weather inversion trapped smoke from Donora's steel and zinc mills, shrouding the town in a thick black fog that killed 20 residents. Local girl Davis went on to become a noted epidemiologist at the World Health Organization, studying the links between pollution and disease. In this, her National Book AwardÐnominated debut, she makes a compelling and disturbing argument: Pollution is still killing us; we just don't see it. More than 40,000 Americans die each year from heart disease largely brought on by airborne contaminants like auto exhaust and smog. "To each of these people, this is a tragedy," Davis writes. "I believe it is a preventable one." Too often, she argues, we dismiss such rising ailments as breast and testicular cancer as mysteries. Look to the environment, she says—to industrial chemicals and pesticides. When Smoke isn't filled with witty bromides, but it may be just what the environmental movement needs: a battle cry to rouse those who think the pollution wars are over. —Bruce Barcott

The Ingenuity of Animal Survival

(Ecco Press, $25)

MOST OF US HAVE a vague notion of how animals survive the freezing season, but hazy ideas aren't good enough for Bernd Heinrich. This time the University of Vermont biologist has set aside his acclaimed raven studies to investigate how other creatures make it to spring. "What would we know of -50° F?" he asks. "By the time the winter world descends, most of us have surrounded ourselves in an artificial tropics." Heinrich finds a variety of strategies on display near his Maine cabin: meadow voles thriving in the subnivian zone (under the snow), weasels hunting ten meals a day, and tree frogs whose body fluids freeze. Though he teaches a class in this stuff at Vermont, Winter World never reads like a lecture. It's more like snowshoeing with Gary Snyder, tromping through the forest as someone points out a golden-crowned kinglet and explains how the tiny birds "defy the odds and the laws of physics, and prove that the fabulous is possible." —B.B.

(Pantheon, $22)

A FEW YEARS AGO, British novelist Dyer set out to write a definitive study of D. H. Lawrence. He never did, but his mercilessly self-mocking tale of writer's block, Out of Sheer Rage, became a cult classic. Dyer's latest effort sprang from another failed undertaking, a doomed treatise on antiquity. Happily, the result is a very good book on something else: "the roller-coaster emotions of travel, its surges of exaltation, its troughs of despondency, its huge stretches of boredom and inconvenience." Though Dyer is in his forties—"the time of falling fruit and the long journey to oblivion"—and putatively in search of ruins, his stoneresque stumblings land him with the backpacker set (a full-moon party on Thailand's Ko Pha-Ngan; the Burning Man festival in Nevada). Yoga establishes him as that tribe's poet laureate, ironic and alienated yet soulfully seeking that place he calls the Zone. —R.B.

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