Books: Eyewitnesses

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Outside magazine, April 1999

Books: Eyewitnesses
By James Zug


Tigers & Ice: Reflections on Nature and Life, by Edward Hoagland (The Lyons Press, $22). In his introduction to this remarkable collection, novelist and essayist Edward Hoagland reminds us that American frontiersmen, when they emerged from the unmapped interior, summed up the wondrous and inexplicable spectacles they’d encountered with
the phrase, “I have seen the elephant.” In his first volume of new writings in six years, Hoagland, a longtime contributor to Outside, recounts his own recent forays into the unknown. More than a decade ago, the author, then in his midfifties, lost most of his eyesight; two operations restored it. In these 11 essays, all written in the
aftermath of that experience, Hoagland travels to India and Antarctica, illuminates aspects of his Thoreauvian life in Vermont, and revisits long-ago summers spent working with circus tigers. With each description ù the “elemental pleasures” of a leopard’s rough tongue and the “romancing scrawl” of bobcat tracks through snow ù Hoagland’s renewed
appreciation for the physical world is palpable. His keenest observations are an opportunity for him to reflect on wider matters of work, friendship, aging, and the accelerating extinction of other species. Who else can write so well about animals and at the same time delight us with so many surprising, epigrammatic glimpses into the heart of the human experience? (“At
the dentist, how like two monkeys we are: One with his mouth wide open, the other helpfully picking inside.”) Probably ù almost certainly ù no one.
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Shadow Cat: Encountering the American Mountain Lion, edited by Susan Ewing and Elizabeth Grossman (Sasquatch Books, $16). “Hey, asshole, leave my dog alone!” writer Rick Bass recalls shouting at a mountain lion tracking his yearling hound on a Montana logging road. But Bass’s outrage quickly turned to awe as the cat raced by, a
250-pound tawny mass of muscle churning up mileage like a locomotive. Bass had never seen a mountain lion ù nor, for that matter, have most people, a fact that is at the heart of this new anthology about that least understood of North American mammals, Felis concolor. Since time immemorial, we learn in the book’s introduction, mountain lions lived on both coasts
and most places in between; only humans had a wider range in the Americas. But bounty hunting and development pushed the cat into the narrow margin between civilization and wilderness, reducing it to the status of a shadowy, oft-maligned pest. Though still extremely rare in the East, the puma has made a comeback out West, where some 50,000 of the big cats now roam.
This tribute to the mountain lion assembles new and previously published essays from 20 notable writers ù among them, Outside contributors David Quammen and Annick Smith ù that shed light on the lore and natural history of the puma. Some offer tales of thrilling, and occasionally fatal, human-mountain lion encounters, while
others grapple with the science and politics of cougar preservation. As the territory of the cat increasingly overlaps with ours, this is a propitious moment for such a trenchant, compulsively readable anthology.
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Crazy for Rivers, by Bill Barich (The Lyons Press, $17). The arrival of spring brings a fresh hatch of fly-fishing books, and this season one floats to the surface with an airy enchantment: a slim memoir by Bill Barich. The son of an avid angler, Barich was a late convert to the sport, but since his twenties he has cast his line in many
of the West’s most highly prized streams, usually in the company of a similarly obsessed pal named Bob. “For many years, it was a point of pride with us that even as we were dragged kicking and screaming toward our inescapable fate as responsible adults, we always managed to block out a few days to spend on a river,” he writes, “and those days are all linked in my mind
now, joined in the way of postcards in a fanfold pack.” Concluding with a wry, stirring tale of a particularly frenzied and fishing-mad autumn, Barich gives us one of those rare angling books that can be relished even by those of us who’ve never rigged up a rod.
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Bone by Bone, by Peter Matthiessen (Random House, $27). Census and marriage records, scattered sightings and sketchy anecdotes, a bloody death at the hands of shotgun-wielding neighbors on a wilderness stretch of Florida coast, and “1910” carved on a gravestone. These constitute the known record of the life of sugarcane farmer and
reputed mass murderer E. J. Watson, whose history was given novelistic voice by a variety of narrators in Matthiessen’s Killing Mister Watson (1990) and Lost Man’s River (1997). In this final installment of the trilogy, Edgar Watson tells the tale himself, beginning with his earliest memory ù witnessing
the killing of a runaway slave ù and ending with the last defiant moments of his life. In between, a strange dynamism drives Watson through three marriages, a string of homicides, countless escapes from lawmen and lynching parties, and a series of business triumphs and failures. “On the best days I still had faith that Edgar Watson would succeed at some great
enterprise,” he declares, “not merely success with his plantation … but as the creator of a grand domain.” Though to this reader the Watson saga doesn’t quite have the scope and drama to sustain a vast trilogy, Bone by Bone is a grand achievement on its own: Matthiessen has created an all-too-human character who struggles mightily with evil, redemption, and haunted
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Photographs by Clay Ellis

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