Virtual Wilderness

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Out Front, Fall 1998

Virtual Wilderness

What outdoor aficionados will be reading, viewing, and downloading this season
By Laura Miller and Sarah Horowitz

The Road Home, by Jim Harrison, (Atlantic Monthly Press, $25)
Old myths of the west claimed that white Americans shaped the land, but Jim Harrison shows the reverse to be true in this, his first novel in 10 years. Told through the journals of the Northridge family, The Road Home traces the way the Nebraska landscape remakes each clan member, most notably the aging matriarch, Dalva (the beloved heroine of Harrison's eponymous 1988 novel), who faces the fiercest challenge: learning to fully love the world just as she must let it go. This moving book is epic in length and themes but intimate in its devotion to the slow, grand rhythms and daily comedies of the natural world. "Even the simplest of us could raise the quality of our lives by vastly increasing our level of attention," says Dalva's son, Nelse. Indeed, this novel is a testimony to the power of finding, in nature and in the people close to us, a soothing antidote to a jangled modern world.

Brokedown Palace, directed by Jonathan Kaplan, (20th Century Fox)
Each year, thousands of brash young budget travelers opt for trips to Asia and Africa rather than the safe tour of Europe. Occasionally, their vacations offer more adventure than they bargained for, which is the case with Alice and Darlene (played by Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale) in Brokedown Palace, due out this winter. The best friends take a pre-college jaunt to Thailand, where they meet an Australian globetrotter — a dreamboat who promises the perfect summer fling but winds up using the two as decoys in a drug-smuggling operation. They get caught, and their nightmarish journey through the Thai legal system results in a 33-year sentence. The film is based on the true stories of 15 young American women (interviewed by producer Adam Fields and screenwriter David Arata) who are currently serving long terms in Thai prisons, where their chances for release are dim.

A Civil Action, directed by Steven Zaillian, (Touchstone Pictures)
When Jonathan Harr devoted eight years to tracking the tortuous evolution of a lawsuit in Woburn, Massachusetts, he had no idea he was working on a best-selling book, let alone a major-studio film. Yet Harr's description of how attorney Jan Schlichtmann doggedly pursued several large corporations, demanding that they compensate eight Woburn families whose water had been poisoned by chemical contaminants leaked into two of the town's wells, turned out to be an enthralling read on the intrigue of legal maneuvering.

John Travolta plays the crusading litigator, once so broke he had to beg a dry cleaner to return his only suit so he could wear it to court. Directed by Zaillian (screenwriter for Schindler's List), the film is slated for Christmas release. "The fidelity to detail is extraordinary," says Harr, "and Travolta really captures the desperation of certain moments."

Earthwatch Institute (
Along with the usual background information, Earthwatch's elaborate Web site details the nonprofit group's expeditions, which hook up volunteers with researchers who need help collecting data. You can browse projects in spots as remote as Easter Island and as popular as Hawaii, organized by cost, region, time of year, and area of interest (biodiversity, oceans, etc.). Veterans can check on results — last year, an Earthwatch-assisted team recovered what appears to be one of the largest dinosaur pubic bones ever found — and novices can review testimonials by past volunteers. But beware: Some expeditions are short on Indiana Jones excitement ("[the trip] will entail walking slowly over exposed sediments"). And heavy graphics make for some slow-loading pages that can be as tedious as, well, walking slowly over exposed sediments.

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, by Philip Gourevitch (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25). Gourevitch reports on the Rwandan civil war in literary and heartbreaking detail, beginning with a physician who has run a successful practice among Hutus despite her Tutsi heritage, and ending with the murders of 17 schoolgirls who refused to divide their group along tribal lines.

What Remains to Be Discovered: Mapping the Secrets of the Universe, the Origins of Life, and the Future of the Human Race, by Sir John Maddox (The Free Press, $25). Highly informed speculation about which loose ends of scientific inquiry might yet yield the biggest discoveries, delivered with authority and clarity. Even after a knighting and 23 years as editor of the erudite journal Nature, Maddox can use words like "bug-bear" and "signal transduction" with equal aplomb.

No Man's Land, directed by Christian Bëgin (Radical Films, $20). An all-female action video (45 minutes long) from the world's best skiers and snowboarders, including Wendy Fisher, Morgan LaFonte, Victoria Jealouse, and a bra-flashing Kristen Ulmer. Watch it, and try not to go play in the powder.

Lost Warriors of the Clouds, Discovery Channel, October 19. This hourlong feature follows bioarchaeologist Sonia Guillen as she recovers 219 mummies from Peru's cloud forest. The 500-year-old preserved people help illuminate an ancient civilization overshadowed by their Inca conquerors.

South Africa, 1936-1949: Photographs by Constance Stuart Larrabee, National Museum of African Art, The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., September 20, 1998 — February 28, 1999. In 79 dignified portraits, South Africa's first female war correspondent turns her lens predominantly on female members of the country's Ndebele, Zulu, Sotho, and Lovedu tribes, and on inhabitants of the Transkei.

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