Wild Ideas

Feb 1, 2002
Outside Magazine

The Future of Life, by Edward O. Wilson (Knopf, $22). In volume after volume (Biophilia, The Diversity of Life, Consilience), the unrepentant father of sociobiology and Harvard's septuagenarian ant man—"old enough," he says, "to have had tea with Darwin's last surviving granddaughter"—has been riding among us, the biosphere's Paul Revere, crying out that disaster is coming. In his first book to focus exclusively on a blueprint for global conservation, E. O. Wilson defines in less than 200 pages the incalculable value and fragility of "the totality of life...a membrane of thin it cannot be seen edgewise from a space shuttle, yet so internally complex that most species composing it remain undiscovered." He introduces us to Emi, a Sumatran rhino at the Cincinnati Zoo, one of only a few hundred left of her kind, to remind us that our species is "the planetary killer," consuming our way down the food chain. "First to go among animal species are the big, the slow, and the tasty," he writes, and, of course, anything with tusks or horns. But solutions, he argues—stopping old-growth logging, saving ecological hot spots, raising Third World living standards through ecotourism and bioprospecting—are within our grasp. Oddly enough, it has fallen to an entomologist, and one of the finest science writers this country has ever produced, to insist that we make an ethical decision to preserve what's left. Otherwise, he says, our descendants will want to know "why, by needlessly extinguishing the lives of other species, did we permanently impoverish our own?"
—Caroline Fraser

Servants of the Map, by Andrea Barrett (W.W. Norton, $25).
Such passion, such longing, such hot-blooded lust—if Andrea Barrett were writing about sex she'd rival Jackie Collins. But Barrett's new story collection is about 19th-century science, which inspires emotions in her characters usually reserved for more animate objects of desire. In the title story, a toiler on England's Grand Trigonometrical Survey of India, the project that mapped the Himalayas in the 1860s, leaves his wife for the tarty pleasures of botany. "Two Rivers" follows a pioneering paleontologist into the Dakota Badlands in 1853, and "Theories of Rain" describes a young woman's longing to study Descartes and Urbano d'Aviso. Barrett's previous fiction—Ship Fever and The Voyage of the Narwhal—established her brilliance at capturing the interaction of human and landscape, and it is on fine display here. In one scene, a crevasse swallows a Survey worker as a snake swallows its prey: "The ice inside the crevasse, warmed by the heat it stole from Bancroft's body, would have melted and pulled him inch by inch farther down, chilling him and slowing his blood, stealing his breath as fluid pooled in his feet and legs and his heart struggled to push it back up. By nightfall, with the cold pouring down from the stars, the cold wind pouring down from the peaks, the slit which had parted and shaped itself to Bancroft's body would have frozen solid around him." (Shiver.) Barrett could well be describing her own prose: meticulous, inexorable, and deep. —Bruce Barcott

The Shell Collector, by Anthony Doerr (Scribner, $23).
With this debut collection, 28-year-old Anthony Doerr invades the fictional territory of Rick Bass and brightens the place up with touches of Borgesian fable. Like Bass, he centers his stories on taciturn hunters and fishers with deep reservoirs of emotion—inept conversationalists and husbands whose senses only come alive in the woods. They know where the local bear hibernates and how trout overwinter, and can feel the minute changes in stream flow: "The tea-colored river purls around his waders, thick and clingy, the way river water gets when it is cold." Doerr's wilderness contains a touch of the magical, too: A blind shell collector on the coast of Kenya discovers a miracle cure in a snail's toxic sting. Tourists land a carp so huge it can't be photographed. A woman finds she can divine the dreams of animals by feeling them. "Want to know what he dreams?" she asks her husband after touching a grizzly's fur. "Blackberries. Trout. Dredging his flanks across river pebbles." These are tales that capture both the wonder and the icy indifference of nature, and Doerr tells them exceedingly well. —B.B.
The Dressing Station: A Surgeon's Chronicle of War and Medicine, by Jonathan Kaplan (Grove Press, $25).
"Surgeons," writes this South African field doctor, "are permitted to be sometimes wrong but never in doubt." If so, Kaplan is an extraordinary exception, for in this memoir of his peripatetic career as a war-zone trauma surgeon, he admits to being "part butcher, part priest" and wonders despairingly if "there were more effective ways to stop people dying than by being a surgeon." That kind of insight, and a gift for grisly description, elevates Kaplan's narrative beyond adventure and medical soap opera—this is the real thing. Working in Kurdistan after the Gulf War, when Kurds were being slaughtered by Iraqi Republican Guards, he performs "a lot of little amputations: the removal of small, black, frostbitten toes from the feet of children who had come over the mountains of Iraq in pathetic patent-leather loafers, bought in quieter times by proud town-dwelling Kurdish parents." Later, operating on Kurdish fighters inside Iraq, he must dispose of amputated flesh by throwing it over a barbed-wire fence, to be devoured by feral dogs. "I was just a doctor," Kaplan writes, "with uncertain clinical detachment, the vice of restlessness and some tarnished shreds of idealism," but his book illuminates the consequences of war and the ambiguities of relief work at a time when these issues couldn't matter more. —C.F.

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