Books: Our Just Deserts

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1995

Books: Our Just Deserts
By Miles Harvey

Our Just Deserts
Blood Orchid: An Unnatural History of America, by Charles Bowden (Random House, $23). "We may be the real endangered species," declares Bowden, the megavolt social critic and nature writer. In this new book--a spiraling rant about everything from the extermination of the buffalo to the torture of South American political dissidents--he ponders the forces that have put humankind on the verge of environmental and ethical collapse. Bowden's anger is delicious. His manic spiritual safari makes stops at the trial of S&L bandit Charles Keating, the wedding of a Mexican drug lord, and the funeral of a Lakota man named Robert Sundance, whom Bowden revered for his simple will to survive. "I seek persistence, struggle and a refusal to surrender," Bowden writes. In a post-Cold War world dominated by fear, however, he finds precious few people who still possess these qualities. Some of his most biting criticism is aimed at smug environmentalists, whom he compares to pornographers: "Both hate the human body..., hate their own appetites, hate the animal lurking within them that threatens to save their souls." Indeed, Bowden believes that the environmental crisis is not fundamentally physical, a matter of pollution, the destruction of wilderness, and so on, but rather is caused by the fact that "we have lost the fire and belief and courage to act." His book is ironic proof that the embers of that fire still glow.

Among Whales, by Roger Payne (Scribner, $27.50), and The Presence of Whales: Contemporary Writings on the Whale, edited by Frank Stewart (Alaska Northwest Books, $15.95). Payne is a real Renaissance man--the world's leading expert on whales as well as an avid musician who has made major contributions to the understanding of cetacean songs. And now, in this impassioned book, he proves himself to be an important environmental writer as well. Rather than offer a compendium of whale facts, Payne opts to delve only into "the things I know about whales that intrigue me most." The reader will be intrigued too, whether the subject is the blue whale, the biggest animal in history, whose heart alone weighs six tons and whose voice carries underwater for over 1,000 miles; the right whale, which may swim up to 175,000 miles, the equivalent of seven times around the world, in its lifetime; or the humpback whale, in whose songs Payne finds the same principles of composition as in human songs. Observing that the cetacean brain may be as complex as our own, Payne notes that "the most obvious difference seems to be that we have a lethal component in the way we use our brains that is missing in whales. They haven't threatened their own survival."

That theme is echoed by several authors in The Presence of Whales, a well-organized if somewhat spotty anthology that includes the work of Diane Ackerman, Charles Bergman, Barry Lopez, W. S. Merwyn, and Farley Mowat. It contains some brilliant writing, such as Lopez's startling look at the grounding of 41 sperm whales on the central Oregon coast in 1979, but it also has some dry journalism that doesn't belong in the literary genre of the nature essay. Nonetheless, the variety and breadth here make The Presence of Whales worthwhile reading.

Wolf Wars: The Remarkable Inside Story of the Restoration of Wolves to Yellowstone, by Hank Fischer (Falcon Press, $19.95). Back in 1984, an Idaho rancher greeted the author with these words: "Hank Fischer! You mean no one's kill't you yet?" He was only half joking. Fischer, a regional representative for Defenders of Wildlife, was a leader in the effort to restore wolves to Yellowstone National Park, an effort that western ranchers--and politicians--found "akin to re-establishing smallpox." Yet Fischer triumphed, and now he offers a gripping behind-the-scenes study of one of the biggest ecological stories of the decade. Unlike too many in-your-face environmentalists, Fischer and his allies worked to understand and win over their opponents and, when necessary, compromise with them. In the end, Wolf Wars stands as a practical guide to winning the often uphill battles of protecting the environment.

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