Outside magazine, September 1997
Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, by Linda Lear (Henry Holt, $35). Thirty-five years ago this month, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring appeared in bookstores, and the landscape of environmental politics was changed forever. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas called it "the most important chronicle of this century for the human race," while former Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson declared that the author must be a Communist. Carson's many detractors had good reason to be worried. Lyrically written and laboriously researched, Silent Spring was not only an unprecedented exposë of the dangers of DDT and other industrial chemicals to animal life, but a revolutionary critique of our culture's "announced goal of the conquest of nature," one species at a time. The book led to the passage of a sweeping series of environmental laws and ignited a debate that rages to this day, yet surprisingly little attention has been paid to the author herself. Linda Lear, in the first substantial Carson biography in a quarter-century, details her subject's story with painstaking research and lucidly maps her emergence as a preeminent popular science writer and environmentalist. Carson was intensely private, and Lear concentrates on the writer's rich lifework rather than her personal relationships. (The biography offers little new information, for example, about what appears to have been a long-term love affair with another woman.) Beginning with Carson's impoverished childhood in Pittsburgh, chronicling her career as an editor for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and as the best-selling author of such nature classics as The Sea Around Us, and concluding with an account of her race to finish Silent Spring while dying of cancer, Lear has captured the full sweep of Carson's lifelong quest for environmental justice.
It's a Slippery Slope, by Spalding Gray (Noonday Press, $11). Self-obsessed jerks may abound on the nation's ski slopes, but few of them can measure up to Spalding Gray, the writer and actor who has transformed being a self-obsessed jerk into high art. In one-man shows such as Swimming to Cambodia and Gray's Anatomy, Gray has crafted brilliant theater by exploring his own manias, phobias, and mean streaks, and It's a Slippery Slope, the book version of his latest monologue, is no exception. In the opening pages, the urbane, unathletic, 56-year-old Gray recounts the sudden onset of his intense longing to learn how to ski. The revelation comes midway through a slushy spring hike into the Grand Canyon: "The Grand Canyon is really an upside-down mountain!" he exclaims in the oddly frenzied yet deliberate tone that is his trademark. So inspired, Gray shells out $40 for his first lesson, awaits the arrival of the ski instructor, and soon thereafter finds himself "doing the old cave man crunch," snowplowing with moderate success across the barely noticeable fall line. For Gray, there's a lot more going on than learning to schuss, for he is poised on the brink of midlife mayhem involving both "wild sexual encounters with strange women" and "strange sexual encounters with wild women," as well as the arrival of an unplanned-for newborn son and the breakup of his relationship with his long-suffering live-in companion. As he copes with personal Armageddon, Gray's alpine obsession seems at first the perfect distraction. "I don't want to live anymore, I want to ski," he vows after floundering through Sierra Nevada powder. "I don't want to come down off this mountain." But, as it turns out, skiing is just what he needs to reconnect with life and with "non-ironic" enthusiasm. "Where did that wholesome cheerleader voice come from?" he asks himself after shouting encouragement to his fellow skiers. "What a foreign voice, and there it was, along with a burst of sun that shone like an amber floodlight etched against a gray sky to illuminate our last run."
Amazon Journal: Dispatches from a Vanishing Frontier, by Geoffrey O'Connor (Dutton, $25). Many books — sometimes it seems like too many books — have been written about the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and the persecution of the estimated 160 indigenous societies that live beneath its shrinking canopy. But Geoffrey O'Connor, a reporter and documentary filmmaker who began covering the Amazon crisis before it became the cause cëlêbre of the late eighties and early nineties, offers more than another earnest plea on behalf of doomed wilderness. At the height of the media frenzy, O'Connor found himself "increasingly drawn to documenting images of my fellow photographers and filmmakers who in turn are grappling with their perceptions of the Indians." The result is a backstage glimpse of the Western world's bizarre cultural collision with the Amazon and an encounter with a vivid gallery of characters from this drama of mutual incomprehension. O'Connor sees Hollywood production assistants armed with Ray-Bans and walkie-talkies rubbing shoulders with tribesmen in traditional headdresses; tells us about rock star Sting, who after a mere 24 hours in the rainforest proclaimed it "the Garden of Eden"; watches the journalists who hyped a Kayapo leader as "the man who could save the world" and then disparaged him when he proved fallible; and portrays the beleaguered Indians as complex human beings capable of graft, deceit, and environmental destruction as well as nobility and resourcefulness in their struggle to hold onto their land. With its surrealistic images of bare-chested Yanomami women wearing men's underwear backward and of white eco-tourists with painted faces who "have decided to cross over into the world of the indigenous people," O'Connor's book makes our own rituals seem every bit as strange and foreign as those of the Amazon.
Photographs by Clay Ellis