Tough Old Birds

Jan 1, 2002
Outside Magazine

The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes, by Peter Matthiessen, paintings and drawings by Robert Bateman (North Point Press, $27). Bard of the world's rarest creatures, from the snow leopard to the Siberian tiger, Matthiessen here spans the globe tracking several species of enormous, high-flying cranes and the "craniacs" who follow them. Setting out in 1992, he crosses Mongolian marshes and steppes—dining on "cold and fatty marmot"—and joins ornithologists in helicopters to spot Grus vipio, the white-naped crane. But for Matthiessen, understanding wildlife has never been simply a matter of adventure; it's a holistic effort to inhabit the human ecosystem—history, culture, geopolitics—invariably interwoven with the natural one. Thus, his observations of the "tenuous" relations between Russian, Chinese, and Japanese scientists are as freighted as those of cranes, both species "sharp-eyed and wary." The final chapter, which opens with a passage on whooping cranes from the author's classic 1959 book Wildlife in America, is particularly poignant, updating that earlier lament with a report of "the first wild whooping crane born in the United States in sixty years." Torn, as always, between despair and tentative hope, Matthiessen is our finest chronicler of "the lengths to which man is driven to salvage the last wild survivors of his own heedless course on earth." A portion of this book appeared in Outside in 1994. —Caroline Fraser

Edward Abbey: A Life,, by James M. Cahalan (University of Arizona Press, $28). Adventures with Ed: A Portrait of Abbey, by Jack Loeffler (University of New Mexico Press, $25).
Late in life, Ed Abbey called himself "just one more cranky, cantankerous, dyspeptic, choleric, poker-playing, whiskey-drinking, cigar-smoking evil old man." This crank, of course, produced two classics—Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang—that inflamed a generation of environmentalists. Now two new biographies—the first a meticulous study by a university professor who never met Abbey, the second by his best friend, Jack Loeffler—help fans sort out the myths surrounding Cactus Ed and celebrate a life lived by Whitman's credo: "Resist much, obey little." From the Pennsylvania teenager seeing the Southwest from a boxcar in 1944 to the young anarchist at the University of New Mexico, Abbey chafed against traditional constraints. Spending summers as a fire lookout and ranger, he stalked the American desert in solo stints that led to his 1968 breakthrough, Desert Solitaire—a book that inspired fire lookout Loeffler to drive to Arizona to meet the man who'd become his closest compañero. While Cahalan uncovers fascinating evidence of how Abbey fictionalized his nonfiction, look to Loeffler to see why this serial husband, womanizer, and heavy drinker was beloved, even worshiped, by a wide circle of admirers. After Abbey's death in 1989, his friends buried him in the Arizona desert under a rock bearing the words NO COMMENT. But the eternally irreverent Abbey still has plenty to say —C.F.

The Last Cowboys at the End of the World: The Story of the Gauchos of Patagonia, by Nick Reding (Crown, $24).
Sure, this book is full of crazy Patagonian cowboys who parade around in sheepskin chaps and call each other Loco and Pork Rind, but at its heart this is the story of a road and the havoc it wreaked. In the early 1990s, a 900-mile highway pushed through to Chile's Cisnes Valley, a secluded area cordoned off by 6,000-foot Andean peaks. Soon after came Reding, a fly-fishing guide and aspiring novelist wondering, "What was it like for a man and woman suddenly to wake up one day and have an entirely different idea about the size of the world and their changing place within it?" It wasn't pleasant. Reding bunks with Duck and Edith, who run cattle for an absentee patrón and raise three kids in lodgings so sketchy that Reding worries about hanta-virus. The road brings talk of boom boxes and monster trucks, but fails to deliver prosperity. Gauchos like Duck always knew they led hard lives; now they know they're poor as well. A year after Reding's arrival, the lure of the outside world proves too much, and the family rents a row house in a faraway slum town. A sobering and often entertaining look at the dissipation of a way of life, The Last Cowboys marks the debut of a strong new voice. —Bruce Barcott

Loaded: A Misadventure on the Marijuana Trail, by Robert Sabbag (Little, Brown, $25).
Cocaine chronicler Robert Sabbag (Snowblind) returns to the smuggler's trade with this brass-balls story of the pot dealer who brought Colombian gold to a nation of grateful stoners. Allen Long began the seventies as a 22-year-old weed connoisseur and filmmaker, and ended them as one of the world's biggest herb peddlers. No mere narco-capitalist, Long played the game for the adrenaline pump of lifting a loaded DC-3 out of the South American jungle—and scoring the finest weed known to man. "Drinking Heineken, sucking oxygen, snorting coke and smoking pot, and flying back to the USA with some two and a half tons of blond—this for Allen Long was perhaps the finest moment of the trip," Sabbag writes in this rollicking, over-the-top road-tripper's saga. Alas, gringos in DC-3s gave way to drug lords and gangland executions—and even Long eventually served his time. —B.B.

Last Flight Out: True Tales of Adventure, Travel, and Fishing, by Randy Wayne White (The Lyons Press, $25).
In this new collection, Outside's own Florida wild man finds himself up to his ears in orangutans and bar stools.

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