Books: Postcards from the front

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Review: Hardware and Software, November 1996

Books: Postcards from the front
By Miles Harvey

Aftermath: The Remnants of War, by Donovan Webster (Pantheon Books, $23). "All around us, human bones poke from the ground," writes Webster. He is looking out over a frozen Russian steppe where the remains of some 150,000 troops were buried in mass graves during World War II and now surface each year when the snow melts, clogging farmers' plows and leaving fields of "endless skulls." It's just one of the landscapes described with chilling eloquence by the former Outside senior editor, who visited the oft-forgotten places where twentieth-century warfare has had its most lasting environmental impact. His strange and distressing journey takes us from the Nevada Test Site, where nuclear blasts have rendered 1,350 square miles of American desert uninhabitable for the next 5,000 years, to the land-mine-laden sands of Kuwait, where three years after the Persian Gulf War, Webster observed, "in every direction, dead Iraqi soldiers lie scattered across the sand." By far the most riveting of the essays is set in an off-limits forest near Verdun, France, where more than 12 million unexploded shells from World War I litter the landscape 75 years after the fighting ended. As Webster walks with a demining crew through rusted, toxic-gas-spewing ordnance, he reflects that "World War I seems more recent--and far more real--than Neil Armstrong's stroll across the moon." His book has a similar effect, serving as a horrifying reminder that wars continue long after the treaties are signed--and that human beings are never the only casualties.

One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest, by Wade Davis (Simon & Schuster, $27.50). The heroes of this chronicle of Latin American adventure are no ordinary explorers, but eccentric ethnobotanists who search out remote regions to study the coca plant, the peyote cactus, psilocybin mushrooms, and other psychoactive substances that have been central to native cultures for centuries. Fittingly, One River itself has a hallucinogenic feel, in which science overlaps with myth, memory mingles with illusion, and time shifts unpredictably. At the center of this maelstrom are two remarkable men: Richard Evans Schultes, a Harvard professor whose groundbreaking research into the drugs of indigenous peoples, beginning in the 1930s, made him the godfather of the psychedelic era, and Timothy Plowman, a Schultes prot‹g‹ with "a fascination with anything that stretched the limits of normalcy." Wade Davis, author of The Serpent and the Rainbow and one of Schultes's students, accompanied Plowman on several grueling Amazon research trips-- not to mention weird, mind-altering excursions brought on by sampling various native plants--during the 1970s. One River is packed with nearly five decades of bizarre expeditions, such as Schultes's 1,350-mile trip down a rapid-lined Colombian river to map the area's rubber-gathering sites. There is also a marvelous cast of supporting characters, including William S. Burroughs, who travels with Schultes to a Colombian witch doctor's hut to research a new species of wild cocoa. In recounting such stories, Davis often recreates long conversations to which he was not privy, a fiction-driven device that in lesser hands would have jeopardized the book's credibility. But Davis's outrageous brand of storytelling is well suited to his larger-than-life subjects, fusing traditional biography with one of Latin America's most potent legacies, magic realism.

Dinner with Persephone, by Patricia Storace (Pantheon Books, $25). "Your Greek is better than your English," a disgusted Bulgarian tells Alabama-born Storace as she travels through Greece in 1994. "I love the language of Eddie Murphy. I hope someday to hear it spoken." Dinner with Persephone is packed with such marvelously absurd moments, brought to life by a worldly writer whose eye for detail is as sharp as her wit. Over the course of a year, Storace goes from urban centers such as Athens, where friends throw an impromptu "obscenity party" to teach her the fine art of Greek cursing, to remote backwater hamlets, where houses were lit by kerosene lamps until 1991 and where whole communities still share a single flush toilet. But Dinner with Persephone is as much a journey through time as through space. In a land where every event is colored by "the unseen world of the past," Storace--a prizewinning poet making her nonfiction debut--employs a formidable knowledge of history and literature to show how the classical, medieval, and Ottoman eras still affect the everyday lives of modern Greeks, from their dreams of reclaiming Alexander the Great's vast empire right down to the "fiddly snacks" they eat, such as chickpeas, pumpkin seeds, and pistachios, "the edible equivalents of worry beads." Storace concludes that Greece "is, like the human body, made up mostly of water, and like the body of someone you love, is finite, but inexhaustible." Her book inspires just such a passion for this voluptuous old place.

In the Zone: Epic Survival Stories from the Mountaineering World, by Peter Potterfield (The Mountaineers, $22.95). Ever since Potterfield fell 150 feet off Chimney Rock in the Cascades in 1988, he has been fascinated by the stories of those who have survived the "pain, grief, and world of trouble" of a good climb gone terribly wrong. In his new book, Potterfield--a journalist who is an able storyteller despite a bothersome penchant for clich‹--recounts three of those harrowing tales: his own fall and the nail-biting rescue that followed, McKinley guide Colby Coombs's struggle to live after a deadly avalanche on Alaska's Mount Foraker in 1992, and Scott Fischer's near-death experience in a whiteout on K2 that same year. Fischer's story is arguably the least dramatic of the three, but circumstances make it the most compelling: Fischer, leader of one of the teams involved in May's Mount Everest disaster, is dead, and the climbing world wants to understand why (see "Into Thin Air," September). And while it's dangerous to read too much into Potterfield's account of how Fischer made it through an earlier ascent under similar circumstances, it's hard not to find poignancy in his observations that Fischer had an "almost irrational drive to get to the top of the mountains he climbed, which is why he was successful," and that when it came to disasters, "he believed that what had happened to others would not happen to him." One thing, however, is horrifyingly certain. As Fischer told Potterfield, "If you don't get down, it doesn't mean a thing."

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