Books: The Spirits of Science

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, January 1996

Books: The Spirits of Science
By Miles Harvey

Ship Fever and Other Stories, by Andrea Barrett (W. W. Norton, $21). Barrett, an Outside contributor and noted novelist, has put together a soaring collection of stories about characters, some based on historical figures, who ponder the mysteries of the natural world. These are people obsessed with discovery, but their revelations here are spiritual as well as scientific. In "The English Pupil," Carolus Linnaeus, the eighteenth-century Swedish botanist who invented the system by which living things get their scientific names, suffers from senility that leaves him unable to identify even his own daughter. He concludes that all he has gained for his efforts are "a few dried plants, accompanied by great anxiety, unrest, and care." And in the eco-allegory "Birds with No Feet," a nineteenth-century naturalist who has traveled the world to kill plants and animals for museums realizes that "all the animals he's collected, sure that more would spring forth from the earth, are gone and will not rise." Barrett's beautifully conceived and crafted stories prove that successful literature, like successful science, opens our eyes anew to the world around us-and to ourselves. In marrying the movements of history, science, and love, the author has created a remarkable collection.

A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds, by Gary Snyder (Counterpoint, $25). "One must be tuned to hints and nuances," writes Snyder, summing up an approach to life, nature, and literature that has made him both a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and a leading environmental writer. A Place in Space breaks considerably less new ground than Snyder's highly acclaimed 1990 work The Practice of the Wild. Indeed, of the 29 essays in the collection, only 13 are new or previously unpublished; five appeared in earlier forms in a 1977 work, The Old Ways. What makes this collection valuable, however, is the overview it provides of Snyder's intellectual and artistic development, from his days as a pioneer Beat poet in the early 1950s, to his 12 years in Japan as a student of Zen Buddhism, to his return to the United States in the late 1960s and his subsequent growth as a writer whose unique fusion of Western science with Eastern and American Indian worldviews has made him one of the most eloquent environmental voices on the planet. Now 65 years old, Snyder is "outrageously optimistic" that it is possible to save the natural world from ourselves. His essays-simple yet resonant, like the Zen koans he adores-fill the reader with something of the same hope.

Marching Through Georgia: My Walk with Sherman, by Jerry Ellis (Delacorte Press, $22.95). In his 1991 book Walking the Trail,Ellis told the story of his 900-mile hike along the Cherokee Trail of Tears. Here he's out for another narrative stroll, this time along the route of General William Tecumseh Sherman's incendiary 1864 journey from Atlanta to Savannah. Ellis is an enthusiastic storyteller, and he has some delightful adventures-including encounters with a legendary drifter-evangelist named The Goat Man and an elderly eccentric known as Wizard, who rows a boat from Savannah to Florida each year. But his literary hiking boots get stuck in the mire of his own hokey prose style, full of consciously quaint southernisms such as "leastways" and "helluva" and "yep," and his me-and-you-and-a-dog-named-Boo romanticism, which mistakes irritating 1960s cliches for wisdom. Too bad the energetic Ellis can't quite talk it like he walks it. Downcanyon: A Naturalist Explores the Colorado River Through the Grand Canyon, by Ann Haymond Zwinger (University of Arizona Press, $35). When Zwinger emerges from the depths of the Grand Canyon one cold November day, a tourist gives her a funny look. "Excuse me," says the woman, "is there anything down there?" In this graceful work, Zwinger offers a detailed portrait of what's "down there"-namely, the Colorado River. Traveling this great waterway in every kind of weather and in almost anything that floats, she mixes tales of her own adventures with expert descriptions of the canyon's ecology, geology, and history both natural and human. But Zwinger's most gripping prose is about the river itself. "The endless, shifting fascination of the water surface," she writes, "is as hypnotic as watching flames in a fire." At its best, Downcanyon has a similar allure.

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