Winging It

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, August 1999

Winging It

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Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, by Scott Weidensaul (North Point Press, $26).

What Rachel Carson did for the seaùopening the public's eyes to the fragile richness of whole ecosystemsùScott Weidensaul has now done for bird migration, a phenomenon he calls "the most compelling drama in all of natural history." A nature columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and a federally licensed bander of hawks and owls, Weidensaul spent six years traveling the Western Hemisphere, "logging nearly seventy thousand miles by jet, car, bush plane, sailing ketch, tundra buggy, dugout canoe, horseback and on foot," yet covering "fewer miles than a single small sandpiper would in its short lifetime." The elegant and lyrically written result, Living on the Wind, is packed with astonishing facts: Tiny blackpoll warblers cruise at 5,000 feet over the Atlantic, wings beating 20 times a secondùthree million times in allùon their 2,000-mile journey from Alaska to South America, never once resting, eating, or drinking; the bar-tailed godwit's organs atrophy to make room for "thick rolls" of fat for its 6,800-mile nonstop flight from Alaska to New Zealand; most species migrate at night, when cooler air helps regulate high in-flight body temperatures. "Every rainless autumn night, half an hour after sunset," Weidensaul writes, "the land sighs a great, upward breath of birds." But the shadow of Silent Spring darkens this celebration. Birds are so threatened by agrochemicals, habitat fragmentation, and global warming that some biologists believe the ageless pageant of migration itself may collapse during our lifetimes. Weidensaul is not so pessimistic, but, he admits, "I'm not sure why." Perhaps it is because his book, like Carson's works before it, is good enough to make a difference.

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Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America, by Jennifer Price (Basic Books, $24). "Thoreau of the mall" is how Price describes her exploration of America's fickle relationship with nature, which has veered from a 1950s affection for plastic lawn flamingos (and, decades earlier, for birds on women's hats) to our current appetite for wilderness images in ads for sport utility vehicles and stores like The Nature Company. Flight Maps began as the author's Yale Ph.D. dissertation and still smells of critical theory, with too much musing about "meanings," but her historical analyses can be vividly persuasive, as in her discussion of the passenger pigeon, a species that was loved to death by 1914, first filling the plates of the poor (who baked them with their feet sticking out of the crust) and then the rich, who dined on "ballotines of squab € la Madison" at Delmonico's in New York, a dish of such artifice that it bore no resemblance to the bird that inspired it. Despite occasionally pedestrian prose, Price connects such innocent transformationùwhether of pigeons or of Nature retailed in CDs and videosùto inevitable annihilation: "This, as much as the avarice of man, is the moral of the pigeon's story: the specific, modern constellation of intensive overuses of nature."

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When We Were Wolves: Stories, by Jon Billman (Random House, $22). The folks in Billman's subversive tales, many of them residents of Hams Fork, Wyoming, are engaged in perfecting a pure Western-style aimlessness: throwing rocks into Utah, selling illicit fermented honey to Mormons, painting rainbow trout mermaids with "traffic-pylon nipples" on the town water towerùthings like that. In the title story, the Wolves, a 1950s prison hockey team made up of Wyoming State Pen inmates who pretend to be Christians for the perks (free subscriptions to National Geographic, "Sunday oysters in our gravy") and who bodycheck at 35 miles an hour, take on the Cheyenne Buffalo, an amateur team that nonetheless consists of guys so rough they're "actually banned from Canada." The Wolves manage to genially murder Cheyenne's 500-pound star player, after which, in a neat revision of manifest destiny, the first-person narrator defines frontier justice: "No one wants to be here," he says. "Permanence isn't Western in nature. You take what you can get, or get what you have to take, and then move on, get the hell out. Vamoose." The natural heir to flinty-eyed writers like Larry McMurtry, Billman is lethally witty and wonderfully perverse.

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Hemingway: The Final Years, by Michael Reynolds (W. W. Norton, $30). The sad concluding volume of Michael Reynolds's five-part biography dispels the last hoary myths of machismo that the Hairy-Chested One wove about himself, replacing them with a more complex truth. Working from recently declassified documents and newly available letters, Reynolds first gives us the Hemingway who embodied his own ideal, displaying manly calm in his World War II exploits: patrolling for German subs in his Cuban fishing boat; flying with the RAF, observing the Omaha Beach landing; and dodging German shells with the 22d Infantry. But with sensitivity, in clear prose that his subject himself could not fault, Reynolds also delves into what Hemingway called his "black ass" moods, depressions exacerbated by enormous quantities of alcohol, a pharmacopoeia of prescription drugs, and the lingering effects of concussions sustained during the war and in frequent car and plane crashes. The moods inspired Hemingway's cruel abuse of his fourth wife and of long-suffering editors and friends but seemed always to elude the insight of the Nobel Prize¡winner himself, who eventually succumbed to suicidal cycles of grandiosity and paranoia. In his last two decades, Hemingway manically produced hundreds of thousands of words but only two books, the critically panned Across the River and into the Trees and the hugely successful The Old Man and the Sea. He was unable to finish the manuscripts that would appear posthumously (including A Moveable Feast and this summer's True at First Light). The tale Reynolds relates may be a dark one, but he tells it with impeccable brio. The result is an utterly convincing portrait of the writer who did so much to shape our ideas about heroism and adventure.ùCAROLINE FRASER

PHOTOS: Clay Ellis

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