A Whale Hunt: Two Years on the Olympic Peninsula with the Makah and Their Canoe
by Robert Sullivan (Scribner, $25)
In 1997, when he heard that Washington’s Makah Indians had received permission from the International Whaling Commission to go after a gray whale, Sullivan filled a thermos with coffee, grabbed a copy of Moby-Dick, and drove to the northwestern tip of America to see how one went about harpooning a barnacle-encrusted 30-ton leviathan. That was months before the protesters arrived, before CNN and The Today Show pitched their satellite dishes, before the tribe even had a whaling crew. If he had known then, he writes, that he’d spend two years chronicling the battle of tiny Neah Bay, that he’d live for months in a leaky moss-covered shack, that he’d go nearly hypothermic in the waters off Cape Flattery, be chased by animal-rights zealots, and fall into an unhealthy infatuation with Herman Melville—”if I had known any of that before I took off that drizzly fall morning, I might have stayed in bed.” Thank God he isn’t clairvoyant. A Whale Hunt delivers on the title, of course—the tribe’s revival of its ancient tradition resulted in the killing of a three-year-old female gray—but Sullivan goes beyond the fray to craft a hilarious, bone-true portrait of Makah life. Some days the crew hunts whales; some days they don’t because the van’s broken, or a guy’s got a court date; some days they just drive around. The endlessly dripping skies, the blind forest roads, the quality of grayness in the hunted whale—rarely has this lonely geography been drawn so well. But Sullivan also knows when to take his foot off the gas and let the Makah speak for themselves: One woman said that hearing the waves off Flattery was like “listening to the earth’s vital sounds, as though the earth is sighing and breathing.” Here Sullivan captures, with curiosity and empathy, the sighing and breathing of a culture fighting to stay alive.
Noodling for Flatheads: Moonshine, Monster Catfish, and Other Southern Comforts
by Burkhard Bilger (Scribner, $24)
Science writer Bilger grew up in Oklahoma “terrified of the outdoors”: His German mother told him that “the bones of drowned boys lie at the bottom of every farm pond.” But as an adult on the East Coast, he grew so homesick for the wavin’ wheat that he set out to find “a lazy coonhound” like those of his youth. Bilger’s journey started with American Cooner magazine (“the strangest publication I had ever seen”) and led to a redbone runt named Hattie and deep into the weird cultural byways—from frog breeding to “noodling” by hand for catfish—of the American South, as much a state of mind (or palate) for him as a region. As if to make up for his sheltered childhood, Bilger spares himself nothing in his survey of “other southern comforts,” gamely dining on Kentucky-fried squirrel (“seen in profile, it looks like the head of a monstrous ant”) and stumbling through dark Okie woods behind a famed woman coon hunter. Bilger never condescends to his subjects, even when he struggles to understand their enthusiasms, and the result is a minor masterpiece of popular anthropo-logy, a fascinating look into rural America’s intimate, uneasy relationship with the animal life that surrounds it—both wild and domesticated.
To the Elephant Graveyard
by Tarquin Hall (Atlantic Monthly Press, $24)
An Associated Press reporter in India, Hall is lured to its chaotic northeastern frontier by a newspaper article on the search for an elephant hunter to dispatch a “tusker male, responsible for 38 deaths of humans.” According to terrified eyewitnesses, the beast has been stampeding into villages, sniffing out and crushing huts containing bootleg liquor, and mangling inhabitants. The young reporter, bristling with suspicion, travels to Assam to meet the callous hunter. Instead he discovers in Dinesh Choudhury, the legendary marksman picked for the job, a man with such deep reverence for elephants that he’s loath to pull the trig.ger. Meanwhile, Hall is taken in hand by a mahout named Churchill, with toes like “bits of gnarled ginger,” who teaches him the arts of washing, feeding, and talking to an elephant and impresses him with both the animals’ cunning and the mahouts’ affection for them. There are many farcical moments, including Hall’s first as.cent of an elephant and encounters with his Calcutta photographer, a fan of “maximum fun,” but the hunt ends poignantly. The doomed rogue turns out to be a domesticated beast, abused by an alcoholic mahout and crippled by a leg iron; his burial, with incense and garlands of marigolds, is a true Dickensian weeper. No less affecting is the conclusion to Hall’s search for a mythical elephant graveyard: Gesturing out at the environmental dev.astation of the Brahmaputra River valley, a local elephant catcher tells him, “This, my friend, is the elephant graveyard.”
Full Creel: A Nick Lyons Reader
(Atlantic Monthly Press, $25)
Refreshingly, fly-fishing isn’t a religion for Nick Lyons. “It is merely,” he writes, “a lovely, useless activity that, somehow, has become an axial line in my life.” Founder of the Lyons Press, he’s spent 30 years fleeing Manhattan in search of strikes. With patched waders and smoldering stogie—”I fish better with a lit cigar; some people fish better with talent”—he lands a 75-pound tarpon off Key West and finds divine congress with a brown trout on Montana’s Big Hole River. As a midstream philosopher, Lyons has few peers, but he never loses sight of the prime directive: “I don’t really go to rivers to ‘connect’ with the natural world,” he admits. “I go to catch fish.”