Books and Media

Apr 1, 2005
Outside Magazine
By Our Contributors

Talk about an extended commute: In 2004, Outside contributing editor Bill McKibben walked more than 200 miles from his home in Ripton, Vermont, to his cabin near Crane Mountain, New York. On the three-week journey, chronicled in Wandering Home (Crown Journeys, $16), he encountered characters as rugged as the land around them: a former Earth Firster working to preserve wildlands along Lake Champlain; a vintner who discovered his calling on an Internet site called Wandering Home is a reflection on the rewards that come with inhabiting any land responsibly—and an ode to the Champlain Valley and the Adirondack wilderness, a region, McKibben writes, "in whose largeness I can sense the wh...


Suburban Safari
A Year on the Lawn
By Hannah Holmes
(Bloomsbury, $25)
You might think that a book about naturalist Hannah Holmes's scruffy backyard—a small patch of grass in South Portland, Maine—would focus on little crawlies like grubs and root weevils. Her last book, after all, was The Secret Life of Dust. But Suburban Safari is surprisingly cosmic. America's lawns cover more acreage than any other crop, "rolling out over the U.S. at a rate of one million [new] acres a year," writes Holmes; she lays the mowed turfs bare, introducing us to their sometimes odd, always varied tenants and providing a larger context of history, ecology, and environmental woes. (Many birds like suburbs better than woods, she explains—although domestic cats kill millions, many of which are protected species, each year.) As engaging a guide as you'd find in a much more exotic locale, Holmes is "obsessed" with her crows, somewhat embarrassingly enamored of a chipmunk, and steaming with geek love for an energy guru who measures her homestead's contribution to global warming. "I didn't foresee how seriously I'd take my stewardship of this rectangle on the planet's surface," she writes. "Knowing that my forsythia bushes take up space that could support a native shrub, whose blossoms could feed a native insect, which might sustain a struggling songbird, this gives me pause." Suburban Safari should come shrink-wrapped with every bag of Miracle-Gro.—Florence Williams

Nature Noir
A Park Ranger's Patrol in the Sierra
By Jordan Fisher Smith
(Houghton Mifflin, $24)
Don't let the title fool you. Jordan Fisher Smith's extraordinary memoir isn't some dark, one-note, wilderness-cops-and-robbers story. Sure, Smith recounts juicy details of the fistfights, suicides, and murder he investigated during his 14 years as a park ranger on California's American River. But more than that, Nature Noir marks the debut of a terrific new nature writer, one whose penetrating, ranger's-eye view of the Sierra Nevada recalls the plainspoken timbre of Edward Abbey and David James Duncan. From 1986 to '99, Smith protected the Auburn State Recreation Area, 42,000 acres slated to be flooded by the Auburn Dam. He and his colleagues, he writes, were "permanent rangers on a temporary river," stuck on land wanted by nobody but the gun-toting drifters and weekend drunkards who squatted in the forest. Yet despite years of abuse by gold miners and dam engineers, the site began to recover, all on its own. Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir reestablished themselves; once-rare black bear and cougar sightings became common. "After a century and a half of condemnation to usefulness," Smith writes, "there was a great longing back toward wildness in these canyons, and they had begun to go that way with an energy like continental drift, like roots heaving pavement." The good news: Thanks to local environmental groups, the Auburn Dam wasn't built—and likely never will be. The better news: 50-year-old Smith, now retired from rangering, has plenty of time to keep writing.—Bruce Barcott

Bloody Falls of the Coppermine Madness, Murder, and the Collision of Cultures in the Arctic, 1913
By McKay Jenkins
(Random House, $26)
In 1913, two catholic missionaries set out for the far Canadian north to Christianize the Copper Inuit, a band of caribou hunters on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Less than a year later the men were dead, stabbed by the natives they'd come to convert. In Bloody Falls of the Coppermine, McKay Jenkins, author of the 2003 10th Mountain Division history The Last Ridge, vividly re-creates the murders and the sensational trial that followed, wrapping questions of justice and cultural conflict in the cloth of wilderness adventure and courtroom drama. The Inuit considered the French priests, Jean-Baptiste Rouviere and Guillaume LeRoux, curiosities, grown men who lacked basic wilderness skills. "With so little food around," Jenkins writes, "the addition of two more mouths to feed could not have been a welcome fact." To lessen tensions, the priests left the camp, encountering two Inuit hunters, Sinnisiak and Uluksuk, as they trekked south. Sinnisiak asked one of the priests if he intended to kill them. It's impossible to know if the priest understood, but he sealed his doom by nodding his head. While the Inuit confessed to the crime, their claim of self-defense turned their trials, in Alberta and Edmonton, into heated forums on fear, survival, and cultural arrogance. "The [magnifying] glass that colonial powers hold up to native people," writes Jenkins, "always turns out to be more mirror than lens."—B. B.

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