Books: Season's Gleanings

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, November 1997

Books: Season's Gleanings

Ready for the annual fall book blitz? You are now.
By Miles Harvey

The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier, by Bruce Barcott (Sasquatch Books, $24). Barcott grew up seeing the 14,410-foot-high snow-mantled peak of Mount Rainier loom on clear days "like a misshapen moon over downtown Seattle," but until the year before last he had never set foot on its flanks. Having decided to write a book about the omnipresent Rainier, the author began to haunt its lower elevations, to obsess about its enormity and its menace, and to school himself in its ecology and history. Barcott also explores the often grim annals of human experience on Rainier, including a 1981 avalanche that killed 11 people (still the deadliest accident in the history of American climbing). By book's end, the acrophobic Barcott reluctantly decides that there is "only one thing left to do" — join the 10,000 climbers who attempt Rainier each year. After summiting, the neophyte alpinist blurts out that "this is the stupidest thing I've ever done," a nicely downbeat coda to a book that argues there is much more to knowing a mountain than risking life and limb on its wind-scoured peak.

Lost Man's River, by Peter Matthiessen (Random House, $27). The second installment in a projected trilogy of novels inspired by historical events, Lost Man's River continues the story Matthiessen told in his celebrated 1990 book Killing Mister Watson, which revolved around the violent life and death of Edgar J. Watson — a sugarcane farmer, rapacious taskmaster, and reputed murderer who was killed by his neighbors in the wilderness keys of southwest Florida in 1910. A half-century later, Watson's son Lucius travels to the still-remote margins of the Everglades, struggling to comprehend the circumstances of his father's murder and to come to terms with his ugly legacy. A chorus of witnesses — all "related to each other, back door, front, and every whichy-way" — tell conflicting versions of a tale as dense and snarled as the Everglades itself, and at times the reader is liable to feel as lost as Lucius. Nevertheless, Matthiessen is two-thirds of the way toward realizing a monumental portrait of a ruinous time and a nearly ruined place.

Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America, by Richard Nelson (Knopf, $28). There may be as many as 25 million deer in the United States today, far more than were here when the first Europeans arrived five centuries ago — a fact that scientists attribute not only to the decline of predators and the deer's ability to "eat and digest nearly anything that grows," but also, ironically, to the creation of open, deer-friendly habitat through development and suburban sprawl. Anthropologist-turned-nature-writer Richard Nelson, in a departure from the personal, meditative mode of his widely admired 1991 book The Island Within, has produced a wide-ranging investigation into the fraught relationship between humans and deer, an interaction strained by "the simultaneous population explosions of two species: theirs and ours." Nelson travels from Angel Island, in San Francisco Bay, where overabundant deer have ravaged the native vegetation; to rural Wisconsin, where farmers wage a battle against the crop-razing "corn rats"; and to Alaska, where these four-legged wizards of survival thrive against all odds. A subsistence hunter himself, Nelson makes an appealing argument for hunting as the most efficient and humane means of controlling deer populations. Heart and Blood is a well-researched, provocative study of one of America's thorniest wildlife dilemmas.

The Trees in My Forest, by Bernd Heinrich (HarperCollins $24). Twenty-two years ago, Heinrich — a biologist and author of such natural-history classics as Bumblebee Economics and Ravens in Winter — paid a bargain price for 300 acres of hilly, logged-over land in western Maine. He planned to build a cabin in a pristine corner of the property and then parcel out the rest. "But I got to know the land, and I became attached to it," he writes. "Parts that had once been pasture gradually became forest. I decided not to sell." This book is what he calls the "biography" of those woods, the tale of a slowly intensifying love affair between a proprietor and his land. Rambling through his domain, Heinrich composes a series of precisely observed essays about the strange lives of trees and animals. Written with a haunting spareness and illustrated with the author's evocative sketches, Heinrich's work shimmers with the same vitality he discerns in his rejuvenated woods.

In Brief

Atlas of the New West: Portrait of a Changing Region (W. W. Norton, $35). This illuminating volume attempts to explore the American West's "new reality," in which ranching and mining industries are ceding ground to tourist economies and a real-estate boom. But don't expect a staid policy briefing. Along with computer-generated illustrations and analytical essays addressing subjects such as dwindling water supplies, you'll find edifying and eye-opening maps and charts that show the distribution of public radio stations, microbreweries, and gold-medal trout streams.

Crossing Paths: Uncommon Encounters with Animals in the Wild, by Craig Childs (Sasquatch Books, $15). River guide-cum- ecologist Childs has compiled a vivid first-person compendium of his run-ins with all manner of wild creatures. Drawing on numerous solo wilderness treks, he provides both adrenaline and facts about the minutiae of wildlife biology — from the bizarre mating habits of oversexed smelts to the 15,000 sensory neurons packed into a single mosquito's antennae.

Going to Ground: Simple Life on a Georgia Pond, by Amy Blackmarr (Viking, $22). Blackmarr's memoir tells the story of coming home to live in her grandmother's rustic cabin in southern Georgia. Although her account includes motifs that have become commonplace in this overcrowded genre — she experiences, for example, epiphanies such as watching the morning mist "gliding in like herons over the pond" and two-stepping at a local saloon — Blackmarr is otherwise uncommonly successful in capturing the rhythms of the quiet life.

Act Now, Apologize Later, by Adam Werbach (HarperCollins, $25). Hoping to inspire a new generation of environmentalists, the 24-year-old president of the Sierra Club recounts his own experiences as an activist, beginning as a second-grader petitioning against James Watt, continuing as a college student mobilizing his peers, and winding up in White House confabs. His book reads at times like an earnest term paper, but the author's unassuming style has its moments: "Out of a haze, I heard the Vice-President say, 'Adam, am I boring you?'"

The Lost Tribe: A Harrowing Passage into New Guinea's Heart of Darkness, by Edward Marriott (Henry Holt, $23). Get past the melodramatic subtitle and the author's tendency to strain for profundity ("Our two worlds had met...none of us would be the same again") and you'll find a gripping account of Marriott's journey to meet the Liawep, an indigenous tribe living in "Stone Age conditions" in the mountainous jungle of Papua New Guinea. The Lost Tribe reads like a suspenseful novel; it is also a sobering indictment of colonialism and its lingering legacy of cultural annihilation.

Cultures of Habitat: On Nature, Culture, and Story, by Gary Paul Nabhan (Counterpoint, $25). Nabhan is one of the most skilled of the new breed of naturalist-essayists, and his latest book is an engrossing and remarkably multifarious consideration of biodiversity and of "human communities that have a long history of interaction with one particular kind of terrain and its wildlife."

A Most Hostile Mountain: Re-Creating the Duke of Abruzzi's Historic Expedition on Alaska's Mount St. Elias, by Jonathan Waterman (Henry Holt, $25). In this chronicle of his 1995 attempt to reenact the first ascent of North America's second-highest peak, Waterman combines entries from the 1897 journal of Abruzzi — the famed Italian mountaineer — with a gritty account of his own climb. Faced with devastating avalanches and a grave shortage of food, Waterman turns back below the summit, but his book's palimpsest of history and contemporary adventure teaches much about the enduring allure of altitude.

In the Dust of Kilimanjaro, by David Western (Island Press, $25). Born in Britain but raised in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Western has lived life as a never-ending East African safari. He has returned the favor by devoting his life to conservation (he was named director of the Kenya Wildlife Service in 1994) and to preserving the traditional cultures of the Masai and other peoples. His book is both an eventful autobiography and an insightful account of the rise of Africa's wildlife conservation movement through the eyes of one of its most integral players.

The Elements of Effort: Reflections on the Art and Science of Running, by John Jerome (Breakaway Books, $20). This physiological philosopher's latest book offers readers a bundle of fad-deflating riffs and provocative essays on "running's essential simplicity." Jerome, one of the inaugural contributors to Outside's own fitness pages, is a fount of sports witticisms and disarming prescriptions.

The Last Barbarians: The Discovery of the Source of the Mekong in Tibet, by Michel Peissel (Henry Holt, $28). "There was little or nothing to see," writes French ethnologist Peissel of the moment he discovered the elusive source of Southeast Asia's Mekong River in 1994. The drama and spectacle came earlier. Forced to haggle with Chinese officials over travel permits, to struggle by jeep and horseback through the rugged homeland of fiercely independent Tibetan nomads, and to negotiate a splintered maze of poorly mapped tributaries before he found the crucial rivulet in the T'ang-kula mountains, Peissel learned firsthand the exhausting demands of geographical discovery.

Snow in America, by Bernard Mergen (Smithsonian Institution Press, $25). Historian Mergen has composed an erudite and virtually encyclopedic work on the cold white stuff we hate to shovel and love to glide upon. "My argument is that neither the environmental nor the symbolic importance of snow is fully appreciated," Mergen writes, but by the time you finish this book you'll know as much about the subject as the Eskimos — who, it turns out, don't really have innumerable words to describe snow.

Bright Paradise: Victorian Scientific Travellers, by Peter Raby (Princeton University Press, $15). "They were scientific entrepreneurs, trading in beetles and birds and monkeys and dried plants," Raby writes about the nineteenth-century adventurers — among them Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Thomas Henry Huxley — who traipsed off to the Andes, the Amazon, and beyond in a quest to acquire scientific knowledge. While the theory of evolution was their "ultimate triumph," Raby argues convincingly that they also fostered a new openness to foreign cultures and a greater sympathy for the natural world.

Open Lands: Travels Through Russia's Once Forbidden Places, by Mark Taplin (Steerforth Press, $30). "I first came to Russia at a bad time," writes former American diplomatic aide Mark Taplin of his 1984 posting to the Cold War-torn Soviet Union. The boondocks beckoned, but vast stretches of territory were off-limits.By 1992, Russia had become, if not more welcoming, at least more accessible, and Taplin took the opportunity to explore and document his impressions of its far-flung peripheries, from the coal mines of Vorkuta to the icy flanks of the Caucasus Mountains.

Photographs by Clay Ellis

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