Books: The Archdruid's Happy Screed

Outside magazine, May 1995

Books: The Archdruid's Happy Screed
By Andrea Barrett

Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run: A Call to Those Who Would Save the Earth, by David Brower with Steve Chapple (HarperCollins West, $20). With the 25th anniversary of Earth Day upon us, David Brower celebrates the occasion with a good-natured environmental pep talk. Now 82, Brower--the Sierra Club's first executive director and the founder of Friends of the Earth--has seen and done it all. Here he happily reminisces about everything from his successful blockade of a dam in Dinosaur National Monument, in 1956, to his first ascent of New Mexico's Shiprock, in 1939. He also casts into the future, exhorting the rest of us to take action. "We must do our best to restore the natural world to something like it was 200 years ago, before we monkeywrenched nature," he writes. Brower touches on such familiar ideas as the need for wildlife havens, ultralight cars, and forest preservation. (The book, by the way, is printed on paper manufactured from kenaf, a flowering annual that serves as a timber-pulp substitute.) Although Let the Mountains Talk is more an inspirational address than a close analysis of the doomsday implications of industrialism, and more a casual summary of current thinking on ecological matters than a detailed prescription for the future, Brower--with an articulate helping hand from Steve Chapple, author of Kayaking the Full Moon--proves himself to be energetic and extremely delightful company. "Get out," he says. "Find your hope. Read the Earth. It is an extraordinary book: full color, stereo sound, wonderful aromas, the wind.... And have a good time saving the world, or you're just going to depress yourself."

Moo, by Jane Smiley (Alfred A. Knopf, $24). A huge cast populates this satirical novel about life in a midwestern agricultural university that seems less interested in the ecological health of our planet than how it might bleed the earth for money during the last gasp of 1980s greed. Among the denizens of Moo U are a former Pork Queen turned student, a dean and a provost nicknamed the Albino Nordic Twins, an administrator who refers to students as "our customers," a destructive economics professor committed to a belief in humanity's "insatiable desire for consumer goods," and a befuddled but ultimately heroic horticulturalist known as Chairman X. Smiley's loose plot turns on a crippling budget crunch, possible salvation by devious, rapacious plans to mine the gold underneath the world's largest virgin cloud-forest, an oversize and sentient hog, and a jug-eared Texas billionaire dangling money with many strings attached. The result, both disturbing and amusing, resembles one of David Lodge's witty novels about British academic life, translated to America, on an all-steroid diet. But Smiley, who won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Thousand Acres, is at her best here sending up the absurdities of Moo U as a "triumph of consumerism, selfishness, technology, leisure, meat eating, localism, competitiveness, and appetite" over the "blue and sunlit globe." In the vernacular of Smiley's wildly imagined world here, that fragile planet is fast disappearing down the maw of Hogs-R-Us.

Homestead, by Annick Smith (Milkweed, $19.95). In place of the "mythological Montana many Americans know," Smith's gorgeously written memoir explores a woman's hard-won intimacy with her adopted state. Smith, an Outside correspondent who was born in Paris and raised in Chicago, moved to western Montana in 1964 with her husband and their four boys. On a 163-acre homestead 20 miles from Missoula and within sight of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the family began its new life. But even as they were building their log cabin, Smith's husband was suffering from the disease that would kill him in 1974. "I married David Smith when I was 19," she writes. "My trajectory from that time to now has been westward and upward, toward the last wild places, toward those who would share with me the ecstatic pull of landscape and sky." A student of western history and folk culture, Smith illuminates not only her own journey, but also the lives of Montana's cattlemen, American Indian inhabitants, range detectives, country-and-western bands, and the disheartening "new economy of tourism, golf courses, and condos." Bracing as a mountain stream, Homestead is saturated with an acute feeling for place, the values of community, and the power of wilderness to sustain and transform our lives.

Something Hidden Behind the Ranges: A Himalayan Quest, by Daniel Taylor-Ide (Mercury House, $14.95). Taylor-Ide has been searching for the abominable snowman--more respectfully known as the yeti--since his unusual childhood in a family of medical missionaries living 6,000 feet up in the Himalayas of India. First captivated by the famous giant-footprint photograph taken on an Everest reconnaissance expedition in 1951, Taylor-Ide continued tracking the elusive yeti during extensive travels in the Himalayas and repeated stays in Nepal. He approaches his subject with an eccentric, open mind and a willingness to reveal his own misperceptions and to acknowledge how his obsession has bent his life.

Did he find the yeti? Certainly he found something, and as the nature of his quest changed from the physical to the symbolic, he became the driving force in the establishment of wilderness preserves in both Nepal and Tibet. "The yeti is more than a physical mystery," he writes. "Over the years the yeti has come to symbolize the unknowns of this planet.... The yeti is not an unknown but rather a string that ties together realities we know and realities we sense." His curious, ultimately delightful book merges personal memoir, history, travel writing, a study of Himalayan ecosystems, and an insightful look at Nepalese folklore and customs--all to wonderful effect.

Peaks: Seeking High Ground Across the Continents, by Richard Bangs, with photographs by Pamela Roberson (Taylor Publishing, $35). If you fantasize about trekking in high mountains, this oversize and handsome book will help spark your dreams. Bangs, river explorer, nature writer, and founder of one of the adventure-travel companies that merged to form Mountain Travel-Sobek, circled the globe with his wife, photographer Roberson, touching down in some of the world's highest and most beautiful regions. Inexperienced mountaineers, the couple put themselves in the hands of guides on ten spectacular peaks, from Mont Blanc to Kilimanjaro. If heavily traveled Mount Rainier offers few surprises, the vertical spires of Patagonia's Torres del Paine are a revelation. Bangs's chatty, gossipy account of their travails forms a pleasant background for Roberson's stunning photographs. They are themselves the stuff of dreams.

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