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DOWN TO EARTH
MUSIC: IT'S A HIGH, LONESOME WORLDCOMPILED FOR the International Year of the Mountains, the ROUGH GUIDE TO THE MUSIC OF THE ALPS, together with companion CDs from the Himalayas and the Appalachians (World Music Network, each), are the first to finally unite Krishna Das and Ralph Stanley on one label.
Nature’s Role in American History
BY TED STEINBERG
(Oxford University Press, $30)
IN THIS SWEEPING chronicle of the American landscape, Case Western Reserve professor Ted Steinberg considers not only how we have reshaped our forests and prairies, but how the natural world has shaped us. “Nature,” he writes, “was not nearly as passive and unchanging as historians may have led us to believe.” Steinberg looks at changes in the land from 9,000 b.c. to Earth Day 1998, a subject that in less talented hands could have bloated into a mind-numbing textbook. Instead he keeps the writing sharp and his eye on the bigger picture. Describing the haplessness of European colonists, who died in huge numbers from famine and drought, he depicts them as “congregating like sitting ducks in Jamestown—victimized by their failure to understand their surroundings in anything approaching the detail of their Indian neighbors.” By looking at our modern patchwork of lawns, pavements, and parks and asking a simple question—How did this come about?—Steinberg produces one of the best environmental histories ever written, a naturalist’s version of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. Like Richard White and William Cronon, who worked this ground before him, he insists that our interaction with the land is a complex give-and-take that still leaves room for surprises. “When it comes to the human control of nature, beware: Things rarely turn out the way they are supposed to. The wind shifts, the earth moves, and, now and again, when you least expect it, a flock of birds swoops in for a meal.”
A Memoir of Wolves, a Woman, and the Wild
BY RENEE ASKINS
THE WOLVES OF North America have their Jane Goodall, and her name is Renee Askins. In this eloquent plea for nature unrestrained, the Michigan-raised, Yale-educated researcher recounts her journey from penniless biologist to the driving leader behind the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone. Her campaign began as an undergraduate project in 1979, a wild pipe dream to bring back the West’s wildest canid. Aided by conservationists, Askins pressed her cause for years—and finally succeeded after reaching out to her adversaries, the ranchers whose forefathers had snuffed out the wolves in the 1920s. “What is it in ourselves that we had to kill in the wolf?” Askins asks. “The answer is, of course, wildness.” Now some of it has returned: In March 1995, wolves were released in the Yellowstone backcountry, and by late 2001, at least 220 wolves roamed the park’s greater ecosystem. “Bringing wolves back to Yellowstone was an act of raw faith, of abandon, of hope,” Askins writes. “It was an act that was intended to set free more than wolves.”
Three Ordinary Guys, One Rubber Raft, and the Most Dangerous River on Earth
BY COLIN ANGUS
(Broadway Books, $23)
8 MEN AND A DUCK
An Improbable Voyage by Reed Boat to Easter Island
BY NICK THORPE
(The Free Press, $24)
AT FIRST GLANCE, the lunatic adventures chronicled in these two books seem strangely alike: long-distance South American voyages undertaken by bumbling crews in dubious boats. Amazon Extreme recounts the travails of Colin Angus, a 27-year-old Canadian adventurer, and two friends as they hike from Peru’s Pacific coast to the source of the Amazon, inflate a 13-foot raft, and hang on for a 4,007-mile paddle to the Atlantic. In 8 Men and a Duck, 30-year-old British newspaper writer Nick Thorpe boards a 64-foot totora reed boat for a 2,500-mile sail from Chile to Easter Island. Yet a deeper theme runs through these books, too—the thin line that every well-intentioned expedition walks between epic adventure and cultural insensitivity. Amazon Extreme is by turns audacious and humble—and shockingly naive (“I wished I had taken more time in preparing for the trip to understand the history,” admits Angus, after a Peruvian clues him in to the country’s brutal colonial past). Still, the feat itself is remarkable: Three young gringos with no sponsors, limited linguistic skills, and inadequate maps survive everything from no-exit gorges and fusillades from Shining Path holdouts to an ill-fated attempt to ferry two local men and an eight-year-old girl across thundering rapids—an episode that Angus uses to exquisitely capture the vanity and cultural dissonance inherent in contemporary expeditioning. “Adrenaline sports and extreme rafting were as foreign to them as English,” he writes. “Our strange gear and foolhardy confidence led them to believe they would be safe… They were wrong.” (The raft flipped, and the Peruvians nearly drowned.) Thorpe takes a lighter tone in 8 Men and a Duck. Captain Phil Buck is a lifelong Thor Heyerdahl fan who hopes that his “floating haystack” can improve on the 1947 voyage of Kon-Tiki by actually making it to Easter Island. Thorpe is a witty writer—squid “squirted themselves out of the slanting sides of waves like gymnastic snot”—and he thoroughly exploits the comic potential of a slowly sinking boat. The jolly band gets a cool reception on Easter Island, however, where the residents are sick of theories about tall, fair-skinned ancestors from the east. “It could be argued that our expedition was about as politically correct as driving into a Native American reservation in a reproduction Wells Fargo coach claiming to represent the ‘original’ cowboy settlers,” Thorpe notes. Indeed, though their crossing was over, a different sort of adventure was about to begin.