Books: Fire and Brimstone

Outside magazine, March 1996

Books: Fire and Brimstone
Reviews by Miles Harvey

Archangel, by Paul Watkins (Random House, $24), and Earth First!: Environmental Apocalypse, by Martha F. Lee (Syracuse University Press, $34.95). Edward Abbey's 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang inspired the founding of Earth First!, the notorious radical environmental group. So it's only fitting that another work of fiction, Paul Watkins's satisfying and complex new novel Archangel, is a eulogy for the now demoralized and splintered movement.

Watkins, a much-raved-about young novelist, paints a considerably less pretty picture of environmental vigilantism than did Abbey. Gone are the merry monkeywrenchers; in their place is a lone eco-desperado, the last active member of an Earth First!type organization, who is obsessed with saving a Maine forest from a clear-cut-crazed logging mogul. Unlike Abbey, Watkins draws no big distinctions between good guys and bad guys. For both the environmentalist and the logger, ends justify means, with destructive and unpredictable results.

Watkins seems to have patterned this tale of monomania after Moby-Dick. Indeed, Archangel even has a woodsy stand-in for the white whale in the form of a mythic and indestructible bear. And like Melville's book, Archangel is fraught with Christian allegory and populated by characters with names such as Abraham and Lazarus. Then there are the logging company exec, Jonah, who like his biblical forebear travels away from God, bringing bad luck to all those around him, and the eco-warrior, Gabriel, a tree-spiking trumpeter of the apocalypse.

Interestingly, the doomsday themes of Watkins's novel have their roots in real life, as Martha F. Lee's compelling new history of Earth First! aptly demonstrates. Academic but readable, it shows that members of Earth First! believed from the start in an imminent "biological meltdown." Many even hoped for such a disaster, reasoning that it would make room for a green world order. But Lee offers strong evidence that this obsession eventually helped trigger a political meltdown within the group.

Earth First! founder Dave Foreman once proclaimed that "Mother Nature is coming, and is she pissed!"--a warning that is dangerous to ignore. But as both of these books indicate, it is equally perilous to wish too hard for her wrath.

A Handmade Wilderness, by Don Schueler (Houghton Mifflin Company, $21.95). Don Schueler and Willie Brown were the most unlikely of back-to-the-land pioneers. In the year Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, this interracial gay couple--neither member of which "had ever attempted to put together anything more ambitious than a bookcase"--decided to move to the backwoods of the Deep South, build a home, and revitalize an environmentally troubled piece of land.

Nearly three decades later, after winning battles with moonshiners, poachers, racists, tempests, and armadillos--and losing one to AIDS, which killed Brown in 1987--their accomplishments are spectacular: 240 acres of lush land encompassing every ecosystem found in the region. Schueler is a gifted storyteller, and despite a few too many moments of syrupy nostalgia, his is a moving tale of restoration, environmental and spiritual.

Who Owns the West? by William Kittredge (Mercury House, $14.95). From Ruby Ridge, Idaho, to Catron County, New Mexico, it's no news that the rural American West is in revolt. In this superb collection of essays, however, one of the country's most gifted writers tries to make sense of the rising tide of antigovernment and antienvironmentalist feeling.

Kittredge grew up on an Oregon ranch where, he concedes, his family did "enormous damage" to the local ecology. He has since become a committed environmentalist but retains a deep sympathy for the long-held mores of his fellow westerners.

Kittredge stubbornly straddles the fence, which is precisely why Who Owns the West? has so much power. In a bitterly polarized debate, the author serves as a kind of cultural go-between, offering his readers new insight into the complex concerns of people who are often dismissed as redneck extremists. "The old economic order in the West is right to fear environmentalists and others who understand the West as a place to be preserved, not used; the newcomers are going to prevail in the long run," he writes, adding that "a lot of locals, former loggers and miners and such, are likely to end up in the servant business, employed as motel clerks and hunting guides, and they know it."

Kittredge shows equal empathy for the urban émigrés who are now flooding the West. Yet he wonders, "Is that all we have left of the [American] dream, a hideout in the Rockies, the last safe place?" He doesn't hope to provide all the answers; he succeeds marvelously in reframing the controversy's most difficult questions.

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