Books: Field Tripping

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Outside Magazine, October 1998

Books: Field Tripping
By James Zug


Shadows in the Sun: Travels to Landscapes of Spirit and Desire, by Wade Davis (Island Press/Shearwater Books, $23). If there’s one thing that can be said with certainty about Wade Davis, it’s that he’s a wonderfully hard-to-pin-down writer: a biologist- turned-anthropologist-turned-travel essayist. His greatest assets are
his openness to all things bizarre and his ability to write about them in vivid detail. Trained in ethnobotany at Harvard, Davis has spent more than a decade and a half studying the plants, psychotropic drugs, and ceremonial rituals of indigenous cultures around the world. Shadows in the Sun, his seventh book, is the culmination of this fieldwork
— a kind of greatest hits of past and present writings, featuring 14 essays (two of which first appeared in Outside) spanning such far-flung locales as a Buddhist monastery in Tibet and a Malaysian rubber plantation. In the delightful “Smoking Toad,” one of six previously unpublished essays in this collection, Davis travels to the Sonoran desert
of Arizona and gamely samples dried toad venom, the hallucinogenic effects of which one fellow toad smoker likens to “being shot out of a rifle barrel lined with baroque paintings and landing on a sea of electricity.” Despite his try-anything approach to mind-altering natural substances, Davis is at heart an assiduous researcher. The result is an educational, entertaining
miscellany of hard science and weird science.
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The Fisherman’s Son, by Michael K÷epf (Broadway Books, $24). In a publishing season overflowing with nautically themed books, this novel by a 57-year-old former commercial fisherman is distinctive for what it
lacks: angst-ridden ocean dramatics and overblown man-versus-sea metaphors. K÷epf’s tale of middle-aged Neil Kruger, the lone survivor of a fishing boat accident who is adrift on a life raft off the northern California coast, focuses not on the storm that sank the craft, but on Neil’s disjointed recollections of life as the son of a salmon fisherman in Half Moon Bay. Each
chapter opens with the dehydrated and increasingly anxious present-day narrator, and then slides into memories of a harsh life of subsistence fishing and financial worries and the desperate, sometimes violent risks taken in the face of these circumstances. Of the time 13-year-old Neil watched his father shoot a marauding sea lion, K÷epf writes, “The beast thrashed, spinning
off across the surface of the sea like a torpedo streaming blood, up and over swells until it slowed beyond the stern, where it eventually changed to a lifeless thing, rising and falling in a circle of blood.” Though the novel’s narrative structure is strikingly lopsided — the abbreviated life raft sections function primarily as prelude to the past — the memories
coalesce into a compelling tale of a hardscrabble fishing community and the knotty ties between father and son.
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How the Canyon Became Grand: A Short History, by Stephen J. Pyne (Viking, $25). Until a century and a half ago, no one much cared about the Grand Canyon. Native Americans avoided it. Spanish conquistadors who “discovered” it in 1540 were indifferent. And in 1858, an Army Corps of Engineers expedition reported that “the
region is, of course, altogether valueless. It can be approached only from the south, and after entering it there is nothing to do but leave. Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality.” But by 1900, the profitless locality had evolved into a burgeoning tourist destination and a powerful symbol of American wilderness.
How that attitude changed is the crux of a new book by noted environmental historian Stephen J. Pyne. Though he occasionally lapses into academic language, Pyne’s thoughtfully conceived thesis is clear: Context is everything. Before geologists such as Clarence Dutton surveyed the Canyon in the 1880s, Pyne argues, there was no scientific apparatus for understanding this unusual
landscape. Nor was there a cultural apparatus, at least not until painter Thomas Moran and explorer John Wesley Powell — who in 1869 became the first to raft the Colorado — publicly lauded the Canyon’s beauty. And it wasn’t until twentieth-century writers such as Wallace Stegner and Joseph Wood Krutch bemoaned the river’s proposed damming that we began to view the
Canyon as a priceless resource that could be thoughtlessly ruined. Thus art, science, and advocacy made the spectacle fathomable and, ultimately, grand. “A Canyon panorama was not a confusion of lithic shapes and an empty sky,” writes Pyne. “It told a story; it had a structure by which the mind could organize the eye.”
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Seeing and Believing: How the Telescope Opened Our Eyes and Minds to the Heavens, by Richard Panek (Viking, $22). In November 1609, in a garden in Padua, Italy, a mathematics professor turned a spyglass to the night sky. Using two disks of glass and a crudely fashioned lead tube, Galileo Galilei peered at mountains on
the Moon — and in that instant, our universe expanded. The telescope, claims Richard Panek in this engaging new book, was the first instrument to extend the human senses, and in doing so it challenged our religious beliefs and the scope of our imaginations. Focusing on the celestial uses of Galileo’s invention, Panek (who writes about Hawaii’s Mauna Kea observatories in this
issue) offers short biographies of crucial figures in its development. We learn of Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius, who built an observation room on the roof of his house and in 1647 published the first atlas of the Moon’s surface. Then there was Depression-era astrophysicist George Ellery Hale, so intent on unraveling the mysteries of the heavens that he suffered from
periodic “nervous breaks” and spent much of his later life in sanatoriums. Today’s astronomers, it seems, are better off — comfortably ensconced at computer terminals while data is beamed in from the giant Hubble telescope. Nonetheless, even with the most complex and modern of scopes, there are still obstacles that restrict our view. “It turned out,” concludes Panek, “that
the instrument came with its own inherent set of limitations, not on what to expect or where to look, but on how to look.”
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Photograph by Clay Ellis