Books: In Search of the Monster Slayer

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1995

Books: In Search of the Monster Slayer
By Andrea Barrett

Talking to the Ground: One Family's Journey on Horseback Across the Sacred Land of the Navajo, by Douglas Preston (Simon & Schuster, $24). Preston's long-standing interest in the Dine bahane'--the Navajo myth about the origin of the universe--became something closer to an obsession when he discovered that "the world of the Navajo creation story was no mythological landscape.... The Four Corners area of the United States was, literally, a dense and intricate atlas of creation, with almost every rock, hill, and river marked by some mythological event." In 1992, after mapping the myth onto actual sites, he hit the trail with his fiancée and her nine-year-old daughter. Tracing the route of the Navajo god Monster Slayer, he thought, would "be a way for us to step outside the prison of our culture and, perhaps, find a new way of looking at the world. It would be an intriguing way to begin a family." They took five horses, their dog, and a good dose of naïveté about the rugged land and its inhabitants.

From Navajo Mountain, just north of the Arizona-Utah state line, they rode the ancient Navajo Trail across harsh desert and mesas to the Lost City of the Lukachukais, where a vast civilization crumbled. Their monthlong expedition might have crumbled as well, were it not for the contemporary Navajos who gave them food, shelter, and advice. Into the often humorous tale of this budding family's trials and perils, Preston weaves portions of the creation myth and quick glimpses of Navajo history, along with expressions of outrage at continuing insults to the land, such as a huge strip mine scarring a sacred mesa. Despite the familiar sanctification of American Indian ways, Preston's book is as fresh and charming as it is originally conceived and smartly executed.

Landscape and Memory, by Simon Schama (Knopf, $40). "Landscape is the work of the mind," historian Schama contends in this vast, profusely illustrated study of Western culture's relationship to nature. "Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.... Even the landscapes that we suppose to be most free of our culture may turn out, on closer inspection, to be its product." To prove his premise, Schama ranges across space and time to uncover the myths that shape our perceptions of "wilderness." Although the resulting book is both long and dense, Schama's writing style is so clear, and his knowledge of history and art so deep, that we follow his trail with pleasure. Signposts along the way include the bitter history of Poland's most ancient forest, the role of Teutonic woodland myths in the Third Reich, and the impact of the discovery of Yosemite's sequoias on the American psyche. As Schama explores "the little fertile space...where the wildest of myths have insinuated themselves into the lie of our land," he reveals the rich complexity of our feelings about landscape and wilderness, and demonstrates how much we have to lose by the continued destruction of nature. Reflective rather than polemical, Landscape and Memory may require patience, but it's nothing less than a polymathic delight.

Giant Bluefin, by Douglas Whynott (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $21). In Japan, red tuna meat--maguro--from the giant bluefin tuna of New England is the most prized of all sushi or sashimi. With a single serving costing as much as $75 in Tokyo, a whole fish, weighing from 300 to over 1,000 pounds, may bring more than $40,000 at auction in Tokyo's Tsukiji market. Not surprisingly, this demand has completely altered the lives of the Cape Cod fishermen Whynott examines in his evenhanded, incisive book. Only two decades ago, they sold giant bluefin for cat food, at five cents per pound. Now, paired with pilots in spotter planes, the fishermen race the waters in expensive, high-tech boats, competing to harpoon the fish with electrified darts. As Whynott follows a handful of these fisherman throughout the 1992 and 1993 seasons, he smoothly details their grueling days, the complex economic pressures they face, and the bewildering blur of fishery legislation constraining their actions. An 11th-generation Cape Codder himself, Whynott portrays these "true sons of the whalers of old" with sympathy and understanding in a book filled with depth and drama.

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