Books: Dances with Bigfoot

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, August 1995

Books: Dances with Bigfoot
By Miles Harvey

The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing and the Formation of American Culture, by Lawrence Buell (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, $35), and Walden: An Annotated Edition, edited by Walter Harding (Houghton Mifflin, $30). It was 150 years ago this summer that Henry David Thoreau went to live in a tiny cabin on Walden Pond--an act of quiet simplicity that has had thunderous and complex consequences. In The Environmental Imagination, Buell uses Walden as a starting point for an ambitious, if often arcane, look at "the place of nature in the history of Western thought."

By studying the various drafts of Walden and other works of Thoreau's, Buell shows how Thoreau's own perceptions of the environment evolved from an "egocentric" view, in which humans stand above and apart from the natural world, to an "ecocentric" one. "Nature was initially more of a pastime for him, a place of recreational resort," writes Buell. Ultimately, however, Thoreau made "a spiritual commitment to a politics of preservationism"--a shift that inspired generations of nature writers and laid the philosophical groundwork for today's environmental movement. Buell's sprawling treatise may be too esoteric for some readers, but it is nonetheless rewarding, full of keen observations and fascinating details.

Buell, incidentally, details the ways in which the publishing house of Houghton Mifflin was able to resurrect Walden as a best seller after it flopped in its initial printing. One hundred and fifty years later, Houghton has released a new annotated edition of Walden, just in time for the sesquicentennial. Thoreau scholar Walter Harding's perfunctory forward and extensive footnotes don't contain anything earth-shattering, but if you've never had the pleasure of joining Thoreau on his amazing journey to the woods, this handsome volume is a worthy investment.

Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide, by Robert Michael Pyle (Houghton Mifflin, $21.95). Pyle, a noted naturalist, usually writes about butterflies, not primates--and especially not primates that have never been proved to exist. Nonetheless, a long-held "emotional attachment" to the infamous (if illusory) beast known as Sasquatch prompts Pyle to begin "looking into Bigfoot but not looking for Bigfoot." His delightful quest, which manages to be both high-spirited and high-minded, takes us to Sasquatch's reputed stomping grounds in northern California and southern Washington. There, in a futile but funny effort "to enter the mind of the monster," the author hikes through the wilderness, eating berries and occasionally discarding his clothes. He also probes Bigfoot mythology, from the Kwakiutl legends about Bukwus the Wild Man to tabloid fictions with headlines like "Proof in the Bible: Bigfoot Exists." And, of course, he examines an array of evidence, including plaster casts of footprints, a blurry 1967 film clip, and dozens of first-person accounts--some kooky (an old-timer who says his friend was raped by a "big, snaggle-toothed, breath-reeking female") and some credible (a respected biology teacher who spots the beast in the middle of a highway). Pyle himself does have a brush with Bigfoot near the end of the book, but his real triumph here comes in exploring the complicated fact that Bigfoot is a "monster made after our own image" in the shadowy forests of our collective imagination. In tracking down our untamed alter ego, Pyle's powerful book helps us to recognize ourselves as animals that are very much a part of nature.

Slide Mountain, or the Folly of Owning Nature, by Theodore Steinberg (University of California Press, $24). Steinberg, an eloquent nature historian, explores some of the stranger-than-fiction dramas that have resulted from the American compulsion to own all aspects of nature, from the soil to the weather. His tragicomic romp takes us from the backwoods of Louisiana, where a long-running and expensive court battle erupted over whether a lake was indeed a stream, to the streets of Manhattan, where players like Donald Trump regularly buy, sell, and trade rights to the air above the city. Steinberg's intelligent essays argue convincingly that "the impulse to turn everything into property has not just confused but impoverished our relationship to the natural world," but he offers few substantive remedies. While Slide Mountain leaves us chuckling at the absurd economic contortions our fellow capitalists assume in order to commodify the natural world, the Trumps of America continue to laugh all the way to the bank.

Wild Planet! 1,001 Extraordinary Events for the Inspired Traveler, by Tom Clynes (Visible Ink Press, $18.95). A self-confessed "glutton for spectacle," Clynes has put together an extensive and exhilarating guide to the world's festivals, celebrations, and other "amazing moments." From a Ghanaian stool festival to a Colombian beauty contest for burros, from a vegetarian banquet for 600 monkeys in Thailand to a decidedly unvegetarian Montanan feast called the Testicle Festival, there's plenty here to turn any traveler into a planetary party-hopper. And a first-rate index--which includes, for example, no less than seven entries under the heading "Burning of Effigies"--makes the fun easy to find.

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