Books: The Urban Wild Thing

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside Magazine, February 1995

Books: The Urban Wild Thing
By Miles Harvey

Snowshoeing Through Sewers: Adventures in New York City, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, by Michael Aaron Rockland (Rutgers University Press, $21.95). A few years back it occurred to Rockland, an American Studies scholar, that "in the late twentieth century, a weed- and trash-filled city...may be a better place than the wilderness to contemplate one's relationship to nature." Thus he embarked on a series of outdoor adventures in the densely populated New York - Philadelphia corridor. The resulting tales are a joy. The best of them involve Rockland's sidekick, Phil Herbert, a bookworm fireman with a garage filled with outdoor gear and a mouth full of wry one-liners. Together, they camp overnight in the middle of Manhattan, land their canoe on Ellis Island, and get attacked by teenage Trentonians on the banks of the inner-city Assunpink River. In the midst of one of these marvelous misadventures, Phil declares, "This sure isn't like Huck and Jim." No, but with Rockland as river guide, it's almost as much fun.

A Beginner's Faith in Things Unseen, by John Hay (Beacon Press, $22). Nearing 80 years of age, the acclaimed environmental writer uses his latest collection to look at a natural world on the verge of "apparent oblivion" through the filter of his own childhood memories. While observing pilot whales stranded on a Cape Cod beach, for example, he is reminded of a "feeling of removal and dislocation" that he associates with the city life of his youth, connecting the whales' physical separation from their native habitat with humankind's spiritual seclusion from its own. Throughout these uncluttered essays on topics from heavenly constellations to native American grasses, Hay argues that this sense of detachment now threatens the earth: "Our modern, owned world is going deaf from listening to its own answers." As an antidote, he believes that we must return to the kind of direct, open, and intuitive relationship with nature that children have. "I am now to where I was as a boy," he writes. "It was a time when I wanted to know so much more than I had been told." In his best moments here, Hay infects his readers with this same sense of wonder and grace.

The Economy of Nature: Rethinking Connections Between Ecology and Economics, by William Ashworth (Houghton Mifflin, $22.95). In Ashworth's opinion, "the invisible hand" of the market would better protect the environment than the current raft of rules and regulations. Thus, companies should pay for the right to dump waste in our rivers and earth while user fees should be charged not only to loggers and ranchers, but to campers, climbers, fishermen, and hikers. While undoubtedly controversial, such ideas, as shaped by Ashworth, are engaging, well reasoned, and best of all surprising, given that they come from a longtime environmentalist. Yet even he concedes that "for the process to stand any chance of success, everyone -- every industry, every industrial supplier, and every consumer -- would have to be completely on board." Don't hold your breath.

Two Eagles: The Natural World of the United States - Mexico Borderlands, photographs by Tupper Ansel Blake, text by Peter Steinhart (University of California Press, $55). Stereotyped as a wasteland, the arid U.S. - Mexico border region "gives us the impression that there is little or nothing worth noting out there," writes Steinhart. "But that impression is drastically wrong." No one who picks up this huge and hugely satisfying book will doubt him. Steinhart's text ably underscores both the poetry and problems of a region that has one of the highest rates of biodiversity in the United States -- and, according to Steinhart, its top rate of species endangerment. But what make Two Eagles exceptional are Tupper Ansel Blake's 146 color photographs, which capture both the richness of borderland life and the stunning geometry of the place.

Raven's Exile: A Season on the Green River, by Ellen Meloy (Henry Holt, $22.50). "This is not a randomly vicious vacation," Meloy writes of six difficult but rewarding months spent floating through Utah's Desolation Canyon with her husband, a federal river manager. "This is how we run a home." Meloy, a contributor to Outside, has a hip sense of humor, which is only one of the things that sets her debut book apart from the stodgy work of so many nature writers. Still, she can also wax poetic with the best of them. Raven's Exile, which tackles everything from the sex lives of cottonwood trees to the hairstyles of river guides, is a pure delight.

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