Books: Vengeance and Cactus

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1995

Books: Vengeance and Cactus
By Miles Harvey

Painted Desert, by Frederick Barthelme (Viking, $22.95). This vibrant novel has fascinating parallels with nature essayist Bill McKibben's acclaimed 1992 nonfiction work, The Age of Missing Information. In that book, McKibben watched a single day's worth of programming on 93 cable stations and then spent 24 hours alone on a mountain. He concluded that while "we use TV as we use tranquilizers," contact with the natural world offers us the sense of a "daily, ordinary life filled with meaning." The characters in Painted Desert have a similar epiphany during a strange and wonderful road trip that begins on the desolate byways of the information superhighway and ends in the swirling dust of the Arizona desert. As the novel opens, Del, a jaded 47-year-old junior college professor and TV junkie, and Jen, his 27-year-old Net-surfing girlfriend, are so lost in cyberspace that they no longer feel they "participate in the world." Obsessed with "stepping out of the shadows"--perhaps through an act of vigilante violence--they take off from Biloxi, Mississippi, and head for the troubled streets of Los Angeles. But a funny thing happens on the way to the war zone: The farther they get from the postmodern trappings of humanity, the more human they feel. Amid their visits to White Sands, Canyon de Chelly, and the Grand Canyon, they discover that, as Jen puts it, "the world is so gorgeous that we can't stop ourselves from going around and looking at it.... [P]utting one foot in the Painted Desert is more satisfying...than all the vengeance in the world." Barthelme's novel, dark and funny, horrifying and hopeful, is testimony to the palliative powers of both the natural landscape and good literature.

Grassland, by Richard Manning (Viking, $23.95), and The Prairie Keepers: Secrets of the Grasslands, by Marcy Houle (Addison Wesley, $20). In this ambitious new work, Manning turns to the "great empty middle of our continent," the grassland that "covers about 40 percent of the United States, making it the nation's largest biome, but also our most degraded and misunderstood." Manning's sweeping analysis takes us from prehistoric times, when animals lived in harmony with native grasses, to the present day, when ranching and farming have all but decimated the ecosystem. "A wheat field," he writes, "is nothing more than a clear-cut of the grass forest." Like others before him, Manning lobbies for a "pulling back" of current agriculture and an opening of huge tracts of land for the reintroduction of prairie grasses and bison. It's a lofty proposal--but, thanks to this fiery and smartly argued book, one sure to win converts.

Marcy Houle's The Prairie Keepers is a less impressive if equally relevant book, focusing on the privately owned Zumwalt Prairie in remote northeastern Oregon. Houle, a wildlife biologist who spent a summer studying the prairie's native buteo hawks, makes a convincing case that, under the right circumstances, tightly managed cattle populations can actually enhance a grassland ecosystem. Too bad she spends so much space analyzing her own rivalries and flirtations with various ranchers and naturalists. The grass is a lot more interesting.

A Boat in Our Baggage: Around the World in a Kayak, by Maria Coffey (Ragged Mountain Press, $13.95). In this thoughtful, hilarious, and often suspenseful tale, Coffey and her husband, Dag, take a yearlong globe-hopping adventure in a folding kayak. They start in the western Pacific's Solomon Islands, where they camp on black-sand beaches, do their best to avoid crocodiles and evil spirits, and visit an island populated by the skulls of headhunters' victims. Next they float down India's Ganges, where they navigate among dozens of floating corpses and take a 111-year-old guru out for a joyride. Then they paddle Africa's Lake Malawi, where they eat pastries made of flies and run into hippos, drug dealers, and witch doctors. Finally, they travel the somewhat calmer waters of the Danube, where they find themselves under the wing of an elderly baroness who is in the habit of wearing army fatigues. It's a marvelous book that flows with the grace and swiftness of the boat it chronicles.

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