Outside magazine, March 1998
Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica, by Sara Wheeler (Random House, $24). In the midst of a frenetic reporting trip through Chile in 1991, journalist Sara Wheeler paused on a snow hill overlooking the spindly tip of the Antarctic Peninsula just long enough to see into her future. She was mysteriously stirred by her glimpse of the "misshapen white pancake" at the bottom of the earth: "I knew immediately that I had to return." Thus inspired, the 32-year-old Briton embarked on a journey to trace the footsteps of Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott, and other Antarctic explorers — traipsing about the frozen continent via propeller planes, helicopters, icebreakers, and a snowmobile named Trigger. As her entertaining account reveals, however, the landscape is one that Shackleton and Scott could never have imagined — a place where health risks include the explosion of high-tech, propane-fueled toilets known as rocket shitters and where a South Pole Christmas tradition features a two-mile "Race Around the World" astride a hobbyhorse. Earlier adventurers complained of "polar madness," but Wheeler, who endured seven months of darkness by merrily bouncing from one research station to the next, found her Antarctic tenure surprisingly liberating. Having experienced everything from the isolation of Fossil Bluff (a nearly deserted British camp on remote Alexander Island) to the hubbub of McMurdo Station (aka Mactown, summer population 1,100), Wheeler's conclusions center on the alluring splendor and unknowability of this terra incognita. "To me, in the stillness of the evening," she writes, "it was like a reprieve."
Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park, by Marie Winn (Pantheon, $24). The fauna of Central Park, Manhattan's 843-acre artificial wilderness, includes an exotic array of human beings, rodents, and some 275 species of birds — not only hordes of sooty pigeons, but also ruby-crowned kinglets, green herons, and snowy egrets. Hence its appeal to a small, somewhat mad contingent of birders — among them Winn, a nature columnist for the Wall Street Journal — who flock to the Ramble and the so-called Muggers Woods to spy on the resident and migratory winged wildlife. When two red-tailed hawks, ordinarily found in more rural areas, built a nest atop one of Fifth Avenue's most exclusive apartment houses, on the park's eastern border, the binocular-toting crowd was electrified. Five years of dawn-to-dusk vigils ensued. "It [is] hard to recapture the crazy excitement, the anxiety, the obsessive interest we had all felt," Winn marvels in this lively saga of sex, death, hawk abduction, litigious Fish and Wildlife agents, and unashamed voyeurism. ("Nobody meant to spy on him," the author says of Woody Allen, who lived next door to the red-tails, "but in the course of hawkwatching, binoculars inevitably passed by his huge penthouse windows.") For Winn, it was nothing short of a "grand spectacle." And thanks to her infectious passion for her subject, Red-Tails in Love becomes one, too.
Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, by Tony Horwitz (Pantheon, $28). "The cleaning bills will kill you," declares a cheerful Ku Klux Klanswoman named Velma, explaining the proper upkeep of satin hoods and robes. Velma is one of a slew of history-haunted characters that Horwitz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of Baghdad Without a Map, meets during his tragicomic trek across the contemporary landscape of the Old South. When he moves to Virginia after nine years abroad, Horwitz — whose great-grandfather, a late-nineteenth-century Russian immigrant, was the family's first Civil War buff — decides "to spend a year at war, searching out the places and people who keep memory of the conflict alive." He tramps from backwoods towns and historic battlefields to modern-day encampments where reenactment fanatics are so devoted to getting a "period rush" that they starve themselves to achieve "the gaunt, hollow-eyed look of underfed Confederates." (Every bit as zealous are "Windies," the cultish fans of Gone with the Wind.) To Horwitz's dismay,however, "modern crud" has overtaken much of the historic landscape: "Jackson and Lee and Longstreet [are] now names of shopping malls and streets built on the ground over which they'd once fought." As Horwitz discovers, however, the most disturbing crud of all is not tacky commercialism, but a xenophobic and often racist neo-Confederate sentiment that thrives in pockets of the South. In the end, his fascination with the persistence of the past — and the ongoing debate about how to memorialize battle lands — is almost enough to convince readers that, as one of Horwitz's newfound acquaintances puts it, the Civil War is not over, but simply at "half-time."
Photograph by Clay Ellis