Books: Lunar Landscapes

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1994

Books: Lunar Landscapes
By Miles Harvey

Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry, edited by Bill Devall (Sierra Club Books/ Earth Island Press, $50). For years, the timber industry has been skilled at concealing the horrific effects of clear-cut logging on the American landscape. Sometimes the carnage takes place miles from the nearest highway; other times loggers leave thin "beauty strips" of trees in order to hide the devastation from public view.

Even as America's virgin forests are leveled at an alarming rate, chances are you don't know what the destruction looks like. To document the problem, Clearcut presents 176 graphic photos of despoiled forests, as well as a host of essays on topics ranging from the sociology of timberdependent communities to the myths of industrial clearcutting. The coalition of environmental groups behind the book--including the Sierra Club, the Rainforest Action Network, and Canada's Future Forest Alliance--hope that the disturbing images here will not only shock us, but compel us to take some form of political action. In fact, project organizers, led by Douglas Tompkins, founder of the Foundation for Deep Ecology, are coordinating a grassroots campaign around Clearcut's publication. Thousands of copies are being made available at no charge to activists who'll use the book to pressure policy makers for a moratorium on logging of ancient forests and a new emphasis on forestry techniques that do not alter the forest's canopy structure or mix of species.

As a political event, Clearcut may prove to be brilliant. As a book, however, it has faults. The essays are full of broad generalizations about our need to adopt "a different set of ethics" that stresses "holistic use of the forest," but too few of the contributors bother with nitty-gritty issues such as unemployment and potential lumber shortages.

In the end, Clearcut's images are what leave us haunted: Mount Rainier's majesty sullied by a barren foreground; a mini-desert where a forest once stood in Saskatchewan's Cree country; a denuded Montana hillside, tearstained with erosion gullies. Clearcut is sure to break hearts and turn stomachs; whether it changes votes remains to be seen.

Conversations with the Cannibals: The End of the Old South Pacific, by Michael Krieger (Ecco, $23). The title is somewhat misleading--cannibals play a fairly minor role in the odyssey that the author makes through the Cook Islands, Vanuatu, Tuvalu, and the Solomon Islands in hopes of noting the region's vanishing traditional ways. But of the many fascinating characters he meets, man-eaters, long since forced into retirement due to the triumph of Western values, are the most memorable. Krieger tracks down elderly gents in both Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands who nostalgically reminisce about culinary pleasures of the flesh. (The Vanuatuans claim steamed buttocks are "the best part," while the Solomon Islanders prefer barbecued breast.) Their accounts are not mere curiosities, but cast serious doubt on recent academic claims that cannibalism never existed.

While there has been a recent spate of books about aboriginal cultures of the Pacific--reflecting, no doubt, a postindustrial society's nostalgia for the primitive paradise of Gauguin's Tahiti--Krieger's quirky and fascinating travelogue demonstrates that if such a world ever existed outside our imaginations, it is gone now.

American Nature Writing: 1994, edited by John A. Murray (Sierra Club Books, $12). An annual anthology of this kind is long overdue, but in the inaugural edition Murray has not yet hit on the proper format or balance. His preface boasts that the collection contains "a variety of genres," but in fact there's only a smattering of poetry and one piece of fiction. Despite such oversights, the collection is full of knockout essays. The best of these, such as Sherry Simpson's "Where Bears Walk" and William Kittredge's "Lost Cowboys (But Not Forgotten)," ask all the right questions. For answers, we can look forward to future editions of American Nature Writing. Once Murray smooths the rough edges, upcoming volumes should be even more rewarding.

An Unsettled Country: Changing Landscapes of the American West, by Donald Worster (University of New Mexico Press, $32.50). Central to American mythology is the notion that the West was "won." Worster, an environmental historian and graceful prose stylist, isn't so sure about the victory. Picking up where John McPhee's 1989 collection The Control of Nature left off, he looks at human attempts to "win" the West through the partition of its land, the logging of its forests, the damming of its rivers, and the seeding of its soil. Despite it all, we "still have not really figured out how to meet the basic challenge of the land," he argues; not only is the region threatened by shortages of water and energy, but global warming could turn large sections of it into another Dust Bowl. "We have not mastered the place nor built a secure civilization with its raw materials," Worster concludes. "We have not even understood it very well." True--but we will understand it better thanks to this superb little book.

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