Fifty years after Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher traveled 30,000 miles to inventory the wildlife of North America in their 1955 classic Wild America, naturalist Scott Weidensaul has repeated the trip. How are things? Better and worse, he reports in his eloquent travelogue Return to Wild America: A Yearlong Search for the Continent's Natural Soul (North Point Press, $25). Pollution has spoiled views in the Great Smoky Mountains; rising sea levels threaten coastal Alaska. Yet thanks to environmental laws nonexistent in Peterson's day, he also finds pockets that have grown more feral—snowy owls wintering at Boston's Logan Airport, jaguars popping up in Arizona—and areas that remain wondrously pristine. "This is... what I hold in trust for the future," he w...
(OUTSIDE BOOK OF THE YEAR)
The Last Place on Earth
Photographs by Michael Nichols, Megatransect Journals by J. Michael Fay
(National Geographic, $150)
Introduction by David Quammen
THEY SET OFF ON FOOT from the town of Bomassa, in the northern Congo, on September 20, 1999, and came to the end of their walk 456 days and some 2,000 miles later, on a wild beach on Gabon's Atlantic coast, where hippos surfed and whales breached. Ecologist Mike Fay called his journey the Megatransect, and photographer Michael "Nick" Nichols came along to document their visionary pilgrimage across the primeval forests and swamps of Central Africa.
Now, at last, we have the book to match the achievement. Think the journals of Lewis and Clark. Think Walden. Or Silent Spring. The Last Place on Earth—which comes as a boxed, two-volume set whose proceeds will benefit conservation in Africa—is a haunting, spectacularly beautiful record of a vast but quickly fragmenting Eden where gorillas, elephants, chimpanzees, leopards, bongos, and mandrills live and die in something akin to pure wilderness. The larger, 352-page volume features Nichols's color images from the Megatransect and additional trips to the region—159 heartbreakingly gorgeous shots in all. The smaller companion volume (144 pages) includes more than 100 black-and-white images along with facsimiles of Fay's journals. Last Place is as powerful a plea for the preservation of wildlife and habitat as anything ever published.
Tales, heroic and otherwise, from the red zone of Iraq
AS WE APPROACH the third anniversary of the Iraq invasion, the most media-saturated war in history seems on its way to becoming among the most book-chronicled as well. Taken together, five new titlesby a heroic officer, a jerk-off grunt, a trembling journalist, an idealistic doctor, and a seasoned political reporteroffer a panoptic view of the conflict. First, the political reporter.
George Packer's THE ASSASSINS' GATE: AMERICA IN IRAQ (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26) follows America's campaign against Saddam from its preGulf War beginnings through the January 2005 Iraqi national elections. Packer, a New Yorker staff writer, raises questions about the Bush administration's run-up to war without turning away from the atrocities of Saddam's regime. The Assassins' Gate does for Iraq what David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest did for Vietnam: It wraps all the hope and hubris into one riveting volume.
"Best and brightest" are apt words to describe Nathaniel Fick, a Dartmouth graduate who joined the Marines in 1999 and by the end of 2001 was leading jarheads into Afghanistan and Iraq. His memoir ONE BULLET AWAY: THE MAKING OF A MARINE OFFICER (Houghton Mifflin, $25) captures life as a Marine in scenes and words so heroic they'd make John Wayne blush. On the eve of their entry into Afghanistan, Fick's chief worry is missing out on the action. "Our generation had been reared on the hundred-hour war," he writes, referring to the 1991 Gulf War, "and we feared this one would end without us." As his grunts hump 200-pound loads through rough Afghan terrain, Fick senses "an outpouring of grit, pride, and raw desire" to live up to the tradition of the Corps. His zeal can be tiresome, but his writing is so good that you never feel like he's glossing the story. Fick and his men come across as America's dream fighting force: hypercapable, ever vigilant, wire-tough, and loyal to the end.
But as Donald Rumsfeld knows all too well, we went to war with the soldiers we had. One of those was Colby Buzzell, a twenty-something layabout from the Bay Area suburbs who joined the Army after 9/11 (the Marines wanted nothing to do with him) and soon got his ass shipped off to the Sunni Triangle. Private Buzzell's reaction? "I was like, Holy Shit, this is it, I'm entering a combat zone. Cool!" If Fick is a one-man recruiting poster, Buzzell is his own "Goof Troop"—the name one of his units actually adopts on his suggestion. Buzzell's MY WAR: KILLING TIME IN IRAQ (Putnam, $26) grew out of his wartime blog, which means some of the writing has a fresh immediacy and some has the moldiness of a year-old sandwich. Norman Mailer he ain't, but Buzzell offers a knucklehead's view of war that's as hilarious as it is sad.
British journalist Chris Ayres is a similar species of wartime fool. A Hollywood correspondent for The Times of London, Ayres gets embedded with an American unit headed into the fray and spends much of his time confused, fearful, and dry-heaving. "I come from a long and proud line of cowards," he states up front. WAR REPORTING FOR COWARDS (Atlantic Monthly Press, $23), his account of nine harrowing days in Iraq (and the poor choices that got him there) is well written and funny, but it's a light aperitif after the meals served up by Fick and Buzzell.
War, of course, is more often ugly than funny, and no one knows that better than those who perform the triage. "Learning to be a war surgeon is a process of stalking and studying the enemy, death, in order that it may be combated," South African doctor Jonathan Kaplan writes in CONTACT WOUNDS: A WAR SURGEON'S EDUCATION (Grove Press, $24). In this follow-up to 2001's The Dressing Station, Kaplan describes his work in Burma, Angola, and Iraq—places where the casualties could come so fast his amputation saw grew blunt. In 2003, after American troops took Baghdad, Kaplan saw clinics where only gun-wielding relatives stopped looters from stealing patients' beds out from under them. "It was in the precariousness of situations like Iraq that [my life] acquired definition, became real," he writes. A disjointed memoir jumping from conflict to conflict, Contact Wounds is haunted by what Kaplan leaves out: his heart and soul. One gets the sense he offered those to the needy clinging to life on a blood-soaked gurney long ago.