Review: Books

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1998

Review: Books

Lost Horizons
By Hal Espen


Where the Sea Used to Be, by Rick Bass (Houghton Mifflin, $25). Nature writer Rick Bass is nothing if not prolific. This new title, his first full-length novel, is his 12th book in 13 years. Such loquaciousness reflects not only Bass's ambition, but also the urgency that fuels his one-man literary crusade in defense of America's threatened wilderness; it's almost as though he believes he can out-talk the tireless enemies of pristine land and wildlife. The implacable villain in this engrossing, dreamlike fable is Old Dudley, an oil magnate who's convinced that vast reserves lie beneath the valley where most of this novel is set — an isolated, roadless Brigadoon that's clearly based on the author's beloved Yaak Valley in northwestern Montana. Dudley has been dispatching his minions to the valley for decades, but not until he sends a Texas geologist named Wallis to look for the oil does success (and the chance to despoil the valley) come within his grasp. By the time Wallis falls in love with the place, and with Dudley's wolf-biologist daughter Mel, however, the bulldozers and oil rigs may be on their way. The plot is not much more than an amalgam of melodrama and fairy tale, but Bass brings tremendous conviction and storytelling prowess to his magical-realist portrayal of an intact ecosystem as enchanted kingdom. While the fate of the valley hangs in the balance, the reader is carried along by bravura sequences of hunting, tracking, cross-country skiing across mountains of snow, gardening and fishing to celebrate spring, and fleeing a fateful summer fire — all knit together with richly observant transcriptions of "the sentences that the plants and animals wrote upon the land, and their invisible script in the sky." Virtually everything Rick Bass writes starts with a predictable purpose (the values of wilderness must be shown to represent pure good, development pure evil), but this rowdy novel confirms that he is much more than the sum of his didactic impulses — that he can cut loose with his own unbridled, imaginative wildness.

Imagining Atlantis, by Richard Ellis (Alfred A. Knopf, $28). Ever since the fourth century B.C., when Plato became the first to tell the tale of "the island of Atlantis that was swallowed up by the sea and vanished," the idea of this drowned civilization has teased, seduced, and provoked an amazing cast of obsessives — from Plutarch and Francis Bacon to Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the psychic Edgar Cayce, whose prediction that Atlantis would rise again in the Caribbean in 1968 did not come to pass. In his new book, Ellis, a renowned artist and popular author on marine subjects, shows how "the story of Atlantis has passed through time as bright and it was when Plato wrote it," standing apart from any religious cosmology yet continually inspiring fervent speculation, along with crackpot theories and endless quests for the "real" Atlantis. The Greek islands of Crete and Santorini have been leading candidates in the past, but few Atlantis sleuths have been restrained by actual geography. And while the author convinces us that Atlantis never existed, he nonetheless acts as a patient guide through the thickets of controversy that surround the subject. In tracing both the scientific pursuit of this probably fictional place and numerous unscientific flights of fancy, Ellis gracefully imparts much about the history of archaeology and cartography, and the perennial yearning for lost worlds and romantic adventure.

Calendar: Humanity's Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year, by David Ewing Duncan (Bard, $23). As we approach the great millennial transition, it's a propitious moment to consider how far we've come in measuring our passage across the firmament of time. To aid that cause, veteran science and travel writer Duncan has assembled a lively history — dating back 13,000 years to the first known timetable, a crosshatched eagle bone — of the attempt to follow our exact place in the whirl of days, lunar cycles, seasons, and years. Central to his story is the ongoing struggle with one small complication: A solar year is some five hours and 48 minutes longer than the 365-day calendar that's been widely used since it was introduced by the Egyptians 6,234 years ago. The ensuing discrepancies tend to get people riled up: Londoners rioted in 1752 when a royal edict, designed to calibrate the out-of-whack British calendar, expunged 11 days from the month of September. Duncan also explains how our grasp of time has given us a better handle on space. These days, everyone from hikers using GPS locators to sailors rely on atomic clocks; precise time is of the essence, since "a billionth of a second translates into the space of about one foot for navigation." Alas, not even atomic clocks are completely correct, because "the earth wobbles and wiggles, causing random fluctuations in the earth's rotation." It's a nice escape clause that reminds us that the calendar — "a cage of finite moments" — will never quite nail down reality.

An Affair with Africa: Expeditions and Adventures Across a Continent, by Alzada Carlisle Kistner (Island Press, $25). Between 1960 and 1973, Kistner accompanied her entomologist husband on five expeditions in Africa, including stays in the Congo, Kenya, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, South Africa, Namibia, and Angola. Thankfully, she had a sharp naturalist's eye, took detailed notes, and was eventually talked into writing this modest, eminently readable book about her adventures amid the seemingly inexhaustible plenitude of Africa's wildlife in the waning days of colonialism. Flush with scientific zeal and protected by youthful enthusiasm, the Kistners enjoyed enviable encounters and not a few close calls with deadly mamba snakes, charging black rhinos, bull elephants, and lions (one of which used Kistner's daughter as a pillow throughout a very long night in Botswana). A lovely memoir, and a memorable exercise in nostalgia.

Photographs by Clay Ellis

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