Book Review – Walden

800px-walden_thoreau3.5 stars. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden recounts his time living on the shore of Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts. For two years, he lived in a small cottage, eschewing society and excess for simple fulfillment of the necessities of life.

The first chapter, “Economy”, outlines what he saw as the bare essentials for his life, and how he met those needs by living off the land. I found this chapter to be the most meaningful, especially how his life was richer, and he was happier, for living sparsely. Later chapters evaluate what humans should aspire to be, namely living a clean, disciplined life. He stresses the need for ongoing evaluation of one’s moral standards as the tool for progress as a society. I was also struck by his emphasis on living deliberately–consciously deciding one’s actions, as well as being present in the moment (what you kids these days would term “mindfulness”)–and its role in self-determination and happiness.

I’ll let some quotes from Thoreau speak for themselves:

In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely…

A simple and independent mind does not toil at the bidding of any prince.

Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.

…the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.

We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the seacoast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thundercloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.

While I enjoyed and appreciated Thoreau the philosopher and Thoreau the naturalist, I’m not particularly sure I care for Thoreau the person or Thoreau the writer. There’s a certain snobbery to his ersatz self-reliance; he conveys the idea that his idyllic condition is the natural state of mankind, and to deviate from his philosophy is to deviate from this One True Path. And while he makes a great deal of his situation, the reality is that he lived on a friend’s property that was a 40 minute walk from Concord, sheltered from extra cold nights at the Emerson’s house, and took his laundry home to his mom–hardly the life of a rugged individualist solely responsible for his own survival!

I’m certainly aware that I’m judging 150 year old writing standards, but Thoreau seems to prefer unnecessarily complex sentence structures and long, rambling passages:

In the meanwhile all the shore rang with the trump of bullfrogs, the sturdy spirits of ancient wine-bibbers and wassailers, still unrepentant, trying to sing a catch in their Stygian lake—if the Walden nymphs will pardon the comparison, for though there are almost no weeds, there are frogs there—who would fain keep up the hilarious rules of their old festal tables, though their voices have waxed hoarse and solemnly grave, mocking at mirth, and the wine has lost its flavor, and become only liquor to distend their paunches, and sweet intoxication never comes to drown the memory of the past, but mere saturation and waterloggedness and distention.

(And that’s just a sentence I picked at random.) It’s fairly easy to zone out on page after page of raising beans or measuring the depth of Walden Pond anyway, and when combined with convoluted prose, it gets pretty darn near unreadable.

If Thoreau would only have applied his philosophy of economy to words–most of the passages I wound up highlighting were sparsely worded and the richer for it:

Man is an animal who more than any other can adapt himself to all climates and circumstances.

The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour.

It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable experience, to be lost in the woods any time.

A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself.

The nature lover in me enjoyed his lush descriptions of Walden Pond. He definitely has an eye not only for the details of nature but for the responses and feelings that nature imparted to him. The chapter “Sounds” particularly struck me as an excellent example of naturalist writing as he describes the noises both natural and man-made that punctuated his days.

I regret that I did not visit Walden Pond on either of my recent trips to the Boston area (a business trip in 2015 and a vacation in 2016), and I will remedy that exclusion the next time my travels take me to New England.

Walden deserves its place of importance in the canon of literature. I feel wholesomely enriched by reading it. Even though the writing was not always to my taste, I am appreciative of Thoreau’s work and philosophy. While I may not read it in its entirety again, I’m sure I will revisit parts–perhaps even those I didn’t care for the first time–and continue to evaluate my own principles against those set forth here.

Book Review – Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout

93419094 stars. Philip Connors details one year of his eight spent as a fire lookout in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico in Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout, penning a literate and enjoyable volume on nature, life, history, and philosophy that could only come from someone with a love for solitude and lots of time for reflection. Hiking 8 miles each way to his tower, Connors was stationed from April to August to watch for puffs of smoke. Once smoke was spotted, he coordinated with other lookouts and fire response crews as the fire was suppressed, contained, or allowed to burn.

The main focus of the book is solitude–its effect on him and how he dealt with it. His pleasure at simply enjoying his environment and the companionship of his dog Alice is obvious. His descriptions of the sights that he sees–trees, rivers, mountain ranges, animals–are all evocative without being overly flowery. If you get the idea that there’s not a lot of action in this book, you’re right; read it for the author’s eye and command of phrasing rather than expecting a thrill-a-minute pageturner.

Central to Connors’ writing is an exploration of man’s relationship to land. He gives a good account of how our understanding of nature has evolved from a policy of total suppression of fire to realization that fire is part of the natural course of renewal.

The weakest parts of the book for me were several long passages discussing other writers who have been fire lookouts such as Norman Maclean and Edward Abbey. There’s a lot of hero worship for Jack Kerouac that I found a bit tedious. I wanted to hear Connors’ voice, not the lengthy quotes from other authors!

I particularly enjoyed his recounting of the history of the area, especially that of Apache chief Victorio and his 1879-80 campaign to keep freedom for his people. That story is equal parts noble and heartbreaking.

It’s rare that I enjoy a book about not much happening as much as I did with Philip Connors’ Fire Season. A thoughtful, enjoyable read that I recommend for lovers of mountains and nature.

Book Review – Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West

175716464 stars. Bryce Andrews spent a year as a ranch hand on a massive Montana ranch, penning this eloquent, beautiful volume to celebrate the landscape and wildness of the region, and the character of those who work it. With a deft eye for detail and keen sense of language, Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West is much like the mountain land itself: gritty and lyric, harsh and appealing.

“The real work of ranching isn’t riding horses, moving cattle, shoveling shit, fixing fence, digging holes, or any other specific task. It is instead the process of toughening the body into something worn, weathered, scarred, and strong enough to do everything asked of it, and honing the mind until it knows precisely what it can and should ask of the body.”

Andrews chronicles his daily life on the ranch (hint: 20,000 acres represents a lot of fence keep repaired), conveying the drudgery of his workload in very readable prose. There is no glamorizing the life of a cowboy here; it sounds like backbreaking, demanding work. His writing keeps it interesting, in part because of the richness of his account. How many other authors can make a passage on building H-braces for fences interesting? Not many, I fear!

His story gains power as a pack of wolves, recently reintroduced into the area, begin to take their grisly toll on the cattle of the ranch. With a mix of fascination and dread, Andrews and his fellow ranch hands begin a hunt for the carnivores, culminating in an emotional encounter between predator and defender of the herd.

Throughout the story is his love of the land. His descriptions of mountains, gullies, and meadows are powerful and evocative. I feel that I saw the ranch through his eyes. His admiration for the wolves is palpable, and his heart-felt anguish of the plight of the wolves seeking to find equilibrium with ranchers is moving.

Those who love mountains and the wolves who roam it will appreciate this book, as well as anyone seeking to learn about the uneasy relations between ranchers, land managers, and predators in the area. Badluck Way is a beautiful book about grim places, work, and topics.

Book Review – The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado

Eliot Porter - Pools in Aztec Creek, Glen Canyon, Utah 1962-09-055 stars. The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado is a book that is intellectually stimulating, visually stunning, utterly peaceful, and entirely maddening. The lush photography of Eliot Porter illustrates so much beauty in the interplay of water, light, rock, and plants. And to think that all this is inundated under Lake Powell by the Glen Canyon Dam–a sickening loss of a natural wonder.

Porter’s photography is noteworthy for its use of color, texture, and reflection. Glen Canyon was a perfect playground for his lenses, with high, narrow slots tightly channeling the light against the vivid stone of the southwestern US. Few of the photographs show wide landscape views; many find grandeur in the small details of the canyon and its life. Water is often absent, though its role in carving the canyon is always palpable.

The beautifully-reproduced full color plates are paired with quotes from naturalists, thinkers, and notes from John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition through the canyon. The edition I have is the 1988 reissue, featuring expanded photographs from Porter’s collection.

The Place No One Knew stands as a testament both to Porter’s talents and a beautiful place that we chose to destroy. It is a shame that Glen Canyon may only be experienced through 50 year old photographs.

Book Review – Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America’s Most Select Airborne Firefighters

3.5 stars. Parachuting into a forest fire, controlling its furious and unpredictable flames, and packing out of rugged terrain carrying well in excess of 100 pounds pretty much fulfills the definition of “badass” in anyone’s book. Jason Ramos recounts his 20+ year career as a smokejumper, combining his memoirs with a concise history of firefighting and lucid discussions of the problems facing wilderness firefighters today.

As with many memoirs by the elites of dangerous professions, there’s a humility and “all in a day’s work” understatement of risk to Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America’s Most Select Airborne Firefighters. The smokejumpers are men who have no need to brag; their accomplishments stand on their own merits with no embellishment necessary. I can’t imagine anyone who would read this book and not feel a sense of awe at these brave firefighters.

Smokejumper is easily readable, with direct prose. While the narrative tends to be pretty jumpy–moving from Ramos’ part in a fire to discussions of firefighting equipment to the history of the deadliest fires–it maintains a natural feel, like a long chat over some beers (and don’t even think of not picking up the tab, he deserves a beer and then some!). I would have liked a little more personal stories of Mr. Ramos; he almost casually mentions his role in fighting fires as an afterthought when I get the feeling he could have written much more about his role, and I did not feel as emotionally bound to the story as its contents would have allowed.

I also appreciated his reflection on the firefighting profession and man’s role with nature. Esoteric details of forest management, firefighting tactics, and the behavior of fires are presented very clearly; Ramos is a natural explainer.

As man encroaches more upon wilderness, the topic of forest fires becomes more and more relevant. Smokejumper is a readable, enjoyable look at the problems posed by wildfires, and the brave men and women who risk their lives to control them.

Book Review – Visit Sunny Chernobyl

4 stars. As its title implies, Visit Sunny Chernobyl is a book of complete contradictions. Andrew Blackwell travels for the purpose of seeking the most polluted spots in the world, visiting the radioactive ruins of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the oil sand fields of Canada, the Amazon, and more.

His findings were quite interesting, and possibly a letdown for a pollution tourist: Chernobyl had become overgrown, a haven for wildlife and vegetation. Deforestation is heavily regulated in Brazil, with environmental regulations working to preserve the rainforest. A floating mass of plastic garbage supposedly twice the size of Texas is rather elusive to track down. Electronics recycling is a home-based (though somewhat toxic) cottage industry in China.

What I found most interesting in this book was the contrast between the preservationist view of nature found in the West and the stewardship feelings in the East. Westerners tended to regard nature as a separate entity to be set aside from the use of man, kept in a “pristine” state and visited to satisfy a connection with the environment. Easterners viewed nature as part of their daily lives, to be lived with rather than visited.

Blackwell is an engaging writer, though better at capturing people than environment. His dry sense of humor and almost zest for garbage sets the perfect tone for a book about pollution. He gives a few details of a personal crisis that happened during his travels, though not enough information to really engage an emotional response.

While the pollution that Blackwell finds is depressing, Visit Sunny Chernobyl is ultimately a hopeful book. Nature seems to do a pretty good job of healing considering what we throw at it, and what we risk through our exploitation of the planet isn’t so much the end of the planet as the end of its suitability for human habitation. Maybe we’ll learn something… ?

Book Review – Desert Solitaire

5 stars. Irascible crank Edward Abbey wrote Desert Solitaire as a description of his first season as a park ranger in Arches National Park (then Arches National Monument), painting a vivid picture of the stark and beautiful landscape and the life it supports. Right from the beginning his prose had my attention:

This is the most beautiful place on earth.

There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.

Through his eyes, we see the beauty of Arches: Balanced Rock, Delicate Arch, and the desert itself. Abbey tells of his day-to-day job duties, and how he lived in the harsh environment. A mournful tour of Glen Canyon, now condemned to Lake Powell by the Glen Canyon Dam, is one of the highlights of the book–and sadly the best tour available of that spot. A jaunt into The Maze (some of the most remote and unforgiving terrain in America) is powerful and immersive.

What I most appreciate about Abbey is that, in opposition to those who idealized and romanticized nature, he loved it for all its grit and gore, the struggle for life. His writing shows a conception of the larger sense, the cycles of biology, geology, and astronomy. Survival is ultimately measured on a species level rather than an individual level. Take this passage about locating and removing the body of a tourist who died in the park:

Each man’s death diminishes me? Not necessarily. Given this man’s age, the inevitability and suitability of his death, and the essential nature of life on earth, there is in each of us the unspeakable conviction that we are well rid of him. His departure makes room for the living. Away with the old, in with the new. He is gone–we remain, others come.

Yet, he is not without capacity for finding the beautiful as well:

Has joy any survival value in the operations of evolution? I suspect that it does; I suspect that the morose and fearful are doomed to quick extinction. Where there is no joy there can be no courage; and without courage all other virtues are useless.

As to his views on politics and society, I can only charitably call them curmudgeonly. He’s not a big fan of politics:

“Modern politics is expensive–power follows money.”

Or modern lifestyle:

“We are preoccupied with time. If we could learn to love space as deeply as we are now obsessed with time, we might discover a new meaning in the phrase to live like men.”

Or tourists:

In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe.

Don’t worry, there’s something here to offend anyone. (Abbey would not deign to notice our outrage.)

While Desert Solitaire is certainly one of the seminal works of environmentalism, some of Abbey’s outdoor manners were a product of the era and shocking to those of us who learned and practice Leave No Trace ethics. Carving his initials in an aspen tree? Killing wildlife? Lighting a campfire in delicate backcountry? It’s enough to give his successor park rangers apoplexy–but very interesting as an illustration of how we learn to do better.

This is a book that I need to own, and reread. I suspect each time I open Desert Solitaire, I’ll find something new to make me long for harsh landscapes, or laugh out loud, or shake my head with a low “Abbey, you old coot,” or value the moments I have all the more.

Book Review – The Wild Muir: Twenty-Two of John Muir’s Greatest Adventures

4 stars. John Muir was a monumental figure to anyone who loves the outdoors: naturalist, adventurer, preservationist, and skilled mountaineer. Muir re-enactor Lee Stetson compiled some of his most hair-raising tales in The Wild Muir: Twenty-Two of John Muir’s Greatest Adventures. Stetson introduces each story with a paragraph that places it within the context of Muir’s life.

The stories follow Muir from his childhood in Scotland, through the hardscrabble family farming in Wisconsin, then to Florida, then California and Alaska. Most of the prose is from his books and letters, with occasional contrasting voices from his travel companions. The passages by others show that, if anything, Muir tended to understate the danger and adventure of his undertakings!

Muir’s love for nature comes through very clearly, and he had a gift for evocative phrasing. Stetson edited the text to remove some of the more lengthy descriptions in favor of the adventure theme, making this volume less contemplative than Muir sometimes is. I’m glad that I read some of this book by headlamp in a tent; it just seems made for that setting.

Illustrator Fiona King contributed gorgeous woodcut-style illustrations that are perfect for this volume.

Book Review – The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring

3.5 stars. The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring is a narrative nonfiction account of researchers who climb to the tops of the largest living organisms on the planet, the giant redwoods. Or perhaps it’s the tale of people so obsessed with climbing these trees that they became researchers; I’m not quite certain which it is. Richard Preston starts with an electric account of a first climb up one of these giant trees, replete with white-knuckled fear, a foolhardy leap of faith, and an encounter with hornets.

Had the whole book kept pace with that searing opening, this would have been a fantastic read. As it was, the book soon went off on the tawdry doings of its cast, who were largely so blinded by their obsession with trees that everything else was discarded in their lives. Their exploits, successes, and failures at climbing would have been much better than the neglects of their social lives.

I also would have enjoyed this book much more had it focused on the trees, especially what they found in them and what it felt like to climb up one. Too much of the text was taken up with the quest for the tallest redwood, seemingly replacing knowledge and science with a world record quest. Some pictures would have been a valuable addition as well!

I certainly enjoyed and learned from The Wild Trees, but it could have been so much more.

Book Review – The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival

4 stars. The story of one of the most fearsome predators on earth turned mankiller and the hunt to stop him is deftly interwoven with the wild history and hardscrabble denizens of the Siberian frontier in The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. John Vaillant skilfully sets the scene of December 1997 in the Bikin River area of Siberian taiga, gives an ecological history of the tiger, and highlights the personalities of the main players of his narrative nonfiction recounting.

If there’s one big takeaway from this book, here it is: tigers are ferocious beasts, capable of survival in an unforgiving environment, possessed of claws, fangs, and strength to inflict grievous harm, and the intelligence to be a formidable hunter. These frightening predators are truly marvels. I truly enjoyed Vaillant’s description of their potency–much as I’d hate to meet a hungry one in the wilds of the Amur River valley! He discusses their psychological and cultural impact, from the anthropomorphism and reverence of natives of the area to the demand on the Chinese black market as a potency treatment.

The hunt itself–which really only comprises a quarter or so of the text–is gripping, with a final showdown worthy of a survival movie. The lead hunter, Inspection Tiger conservationist/poaching enforcer Yuri Trush, is the central figure of the hunt. One of the most fascinating things in the book is that after the hunt was over, he is considered as “marked” by the tiger to the point that many denizens of Sobolonye will not sleep in the same house with him.

The Tiger is a book that is a true pleasure to read, with a dramatic central narrative and fascinating, educational asides about environment, man and nature, Soviet and Russian history, and predator/prey relations.