Red Mars deserves a place in the American literary canon, and not as an exemplar of "hard SF," scifi's most pocket-protected sub-genre, but as a compe...moreRed Mars deserves a place in the American literary canon, and not as an exemplar of "hard SF," scifi's most pocket-protected sub-genre, but as a compelling, substantive text that has something distinctive to say about life in the present and, perhaps, about being American. Let me fail to explain:
Much as I detest "X is the new Y" comparisons and describing anything as "like Yelp for dogs" etc, Kim Stanley Robinson might be science fiction's George Elliot. Minute in attention, broad in scope, sunny in outlook, Robinson is trying to tell you about how a particular slice of society actually lives in changing times, what their day-to-day lives are like, their aspirations and failings, without resorting to implausible or even supernatural plot twists. He thinks the specific reality of life is meaningful. It's just that the specific reality he's trying to document happens to be the first human colony on Mars, which, if you haven't been keeping up, does not actually exist.
"Hard SF" is usually how people categorize this book, a term with no particularly "hard" definition itself, but which generally describes scifi with a commitment to plausibility given current knowledge: no faster-than-light travel, no time warping, and dear lord no mystical "forces" that let you choke enemies from across tables and convince storm troopers that the droids in your speeder, the droids that match the description the storm troopers were given with remarkable exactitude, are not, in fact, the droids for which they are looking. Minus the spaceships and droids, though, plausibility seems like the rubric by which realism as a genre is defined, so why aren't we calling this "realist SF" or "speculative realism"? The fact that it's set in the future doesn't seem adequate to me given the pains to which Robinson goes to keep things grounded in science.
And it's interesting for the same reasons realist fiction can be interesting! What do they eat? What occupies their time? What do they believe and why did they choose this life? How do people respond to a completely untouched landscape, individually and collectively? How do people construct meaning between the crushing rock of history and the hard infinitude of the future? Small-scale interpersonal relationships, modern conventional realism's monotonic obsession, get their say, but only as one of many aspects of humanity's reaction to a new world, i.e. people hook up and break up, but there's more to their lives than just that.
Sax Russell, the book's most prominent scientist and, one suspects, the author's avatar, specifically espouses a sort of religion of realism, which he refers to as his fascination with the "thisness" of things, the unique nature of everything real, and its particular history and explanation. "Haecceity" is the word he uses, apparently a philosophical term describing this very concept, which is kind of wonderful. Robinson throws this in there somewhat nonchalantly as one offshoot of John Boone's rambling monologue, but it comes up again and again in the series and clearly underpins Sax's worldview, and most likely that of Robinson as well. If that's not realism I don't know what is.
I feel like I'm describing this book as some kind of excruciatingly tedious litany of what the first Martians had for breakfast every day, like "Instagram: the Novel" or something, but it's not! Ok it is a bit, but I think Robinson succeeds in moving beyond breakfast (which, let's face it, was pretty awesome in Patrick O'Brien's novels) to weaving a rich sense of mystery and what I can only describe as secular spirituality into the book. Sure, you need to learn what the word "aphelion" means and endure stretches of several pages that essentially amount to the description of subsequent craters and their tiny variations in color, but you also get to wonder about why John died, WTF happened to Hiroko, and whether or not she's insane or a visionary and whether or not those are mutually exclusive.
Hiroko is Robinson's mystic archetype. She alone sees the need for new ritual and ceremony on Mars, and to infuse them not with awe for the supernatural but with awe for the abundant miracles of reality. Plus, she's kind of nuts, she barely speaks, her followers all eat dirt, and she disappears. She's magic! You could argue that's she's a bit of a stereotype (mysterious Asian teaching white folk about life force and free love), but I love that a geek like Robinson puts someone like Hiroko into a book like this, because I feel like that love of mystery and wonder at reality that infuses Hiroko's religion is the kernel of spirituality that remains in those of us who've given up religion, and that in fact drives many of us intent on exploration and learning.
TECHNOLOGICAL OPTIMISM AND THE PHILOSOPHY OF ENGINEERING
Technological optimism hasn't really been in style since the atomic bomb, and the wonders of science and technology have since been repeatedly mired in themes of hubris. With that kind of literary background, Robinson's can-do optimism about planetary exploration and terraforming can seem naive, even idiotic at times, but it's also refreshing, and, at least to me, reminiscent of the attitude many of us in software engineering have toward our work. I feel like the kind of technological optimism critiqued for being hubristic generally views science and technology as an external force that will solve your problems for you, that if you must ask, is self-evidently superior to however you've been dealing with your problems until now, but seriously don't worry about it, this science shit is going to take care of things and you can finally get down to that totally sweet life of leisure you've always dreamed of. Robinson's optimism is different. In Red Mars, science and technology haven't solved the characters' problems, and no one assumes they will. Rather they're tools the characters use to try and solve problems themselves. Science is not a religion you subscribe to blindly in this book, but a mindset you have in learning about the world. Technology is not here to save you from reality but a tool you use to change it. I feel like this is how most scientists and engineers think, and it is rarely depicted in fiction with any accuracy (am I wrong?), and almost never as the a priori mentality of an entire society.
There's something American in this attitude as well, not in the secular humanism but in the tempered optimism so many of the characters have (even though they're not all American). I'm not trying to say that Americans have a lock on sunny outlooks, but it is a deeply-rooted part of our self image, probably linked to Turner and the Frontier Thesis. Actually, reading that Wikipedia article makes me wonder if Robinson explicitly modeled these books on Turner's work, because the availability of land and the battle with the elements certainly play a role in the formation of a new society and human identity, but instead of overthrowing monarchy and aristocracy, the Martians seek to overthrow patriarchy and plutocracy (again, it's cooler than it sounds!), among other things. Now I want to read Turner, and all the Turner haters. Oi.
As a sort of aside, I also just think it's fascinating that almost all the characters get most of their on-page rewards through work. They have relationships and get drunk and party and whatever, but their victories, epiphanies, and moments of satisfaction always seem to come about during work, or at least as the result of labor. Again, I feel like this is rare in fiction, but I also suspect this might be one of the things that makes this book seem current to me. I'd like to believe that as people sour on their disappointment with mass media mediocrity and internet ephemera, they are starting to refocus their professional lives on personally relevant subjects and their unprofessional lives on pastimes that aren't easy to master (sports, photography, playing music, knitting, etc.). I see this happening in my admittedly bubble-ish circle of acquaintances, but I guess that's not evidence. Anyway, it seemed relevant to me.
One of the core dilemmas of environmental ethics is whether things only have value because humanity values them (they're pretty, delicious, filter our water, protect us from tsunamis, etc) or because they have intrinsic value and would be worth something even if there were no sentient observers to say so. Robinson adopts this as a fundamental current throughout the book and the series in the form of Ann and Sax's arguments over whether Mars should be terraformed at all. Ann believe Mars is a pristine wilderness and that the intact, inorganic world has beauty and integrity that should be protected from the wrenching process of terraforming and the introduction of life. Sax is initially an anthropocentrist, arguing that life has a duty to propagate, that disseminating our biological heritage is both sensible and right.
This is pretty important stuff if you give a toss about nature, and I LOVED seeing it explored in a novel. Ann's dogged, bitter idealism is so compelling to me, even though I'm really more of an anthropocentrist. I suspect Robinson feels the same, because Sax wins all the rational arguments and Mars gets terraformed, but Ann's righteousness and conservationist zeal leaves its mark on everyone, and becomes a founding tenet of Martian culture, so I think he sees a role for both mindsets.
Christ that was long! And not entirely coherent, but whatever. I'll be much more brief for the sequels. I think this book is the awesome, obviously, and while I hesitate to recommend it to everyone, if you *think* you might like it you should give it a try, even if the cover is dumb.(less)
Here we go, first time reviewing a book written by someone I know. Feeling the pressure a) not to be mean, but b) not to pull any punches. Onward.
This...moreHere we go, first time reviewing a book written by someone I know. Feeling the pressure a) not to be mean, but b) not to pull any punches. Onward.
This book describe a current effort to link open space for the entire stretch of the Rocky Mountains, from the Yukon to the Yucatan. From beaver to bear to pronghorn to jaguar, wildlife of all stripes have historically used this enormous corridor as their home and their highway, some of them migrating thousands of miles to breed or simply find new territory. But the encroachment of human settlement has cut this area to pieces, stranding wildlife in virtual islands of open space surrounded by impassable cities, suburbs, and interstates. The effects of such isolation on wildlife range from genetic stagnation to an inability to find more appropriate homes as humanity changes the climate, but generally spell doom for many of our continent's most awe-inspiring and ecologically important creatures.
Enter the Spine of the Continent, a massive collaboration between scientists, government agencies, NGOs, and private land-owners to reconnect the continent's severed vertebrae and ensure our land's spectacular ecological legacy. Hannibal's mission is to persuade you of this project's importance, introduce its charismatic cast of key players, and describe the many ecological processes humanity has diminished and that this project seeks to restore.
On the whole I think she succeeds. A great deal of this book concerns laying some biological groundwork: if you don't know what biogeography, island biogeography, and wildlife corridors are or don't really know why they're important, this is enormously valuable and Hannibal is a great guide, writing highly approachable prose and ensuring all lessons include a healthy dose of personality, whether the scientists' or her own. If you already know this stuff, these sections are kind of a drag, and maybe it's the stuck-up East Coast snoot in me, but words like "bass-ackward" and "ginormous" don't have a place in non-fiction outside of quotation marks. I can't even imagine Edward Abbey using "ginormous," though bass-ackwards would have suited him. End tangent.
I found the portrait of Michael Soulé to be very interesting, and I was frankly glad that long portions of the book's first third are straight biography of this fascinating man: an academic who left academia, a Buddhist who hunts, a conservationist hero who invented conservation biology and yet still summons tears when making his plea for nature. I knew embarrassingly little about him aside from his famous paper on mesopredator release (remove coyotes form suburban SoCal and birds decline, b/c the cats the coyotes terrorized eat all the birds). Now my embarrassment is lessened.
The biological portraits constituting the latter two thirds are fun and interesting, but somewhat tangential. Few of them include the critical refrain of "and here's why this animal depends on the connectivity the Spine will provide." If this book is a rhetorical device to communicate the vital importance of this project, each creature feature needs to be included in the argument. It's often implied, but I think it needs to be stated outright.
Regardless of my qualms, though, I was convinced that the project is important, and this books makes for a compelling introduction. Trying to find information about it online convinced me all the more, because http://wildlandsnetwork.org doesn't even begin to communicate the sweep and complexity of this vision (as of October 2012), and some simple searches don't lead to much. Clearly it needs more articulate, impassioned advocates like Mary Ellen Hannibal.
If anyone from the Spine is reading this, here's what a want: a simple page that shows up as the top hit when I search for "Spine of the Continent" that shows a map of the project highlighting where the current gaps in connectivity are and what you're doing to close them. The current map looks like you've already succeeded! Show maps from past years so we can see progress as gaps are closed. Include the identities of the many partners to show us how epic this collaboration really is, but have your own logo, your own name, your own branding to convince us that it's a unified effort (I mean Spine branding, not Wildlands Network branding).(less)
Some required retroactive expectation management: Marc Reisner was a journalist, writing for a general audience. Much like Charles Mann and Pollan and...moreSome required retroactive expectation management: Marc Reisner was a journalist, writing for a general audience. Much like Charles Mann and Pollan and other pop-non-fiction writers from the journalistic world, he was less concerned with thorough documentation than he was with persuasion and exposition (even though few things are more persuasive than accurate documentation and logical analysis). With that in mind, I should not have been so utterly enraged by the nearly complete absence of direct citations in this book, despite numerous facts, figures, and yea, quoted dialogue included. Reisner was writing without the benefit of Endnote, after all, and he was a well-respected, tweedy-looking academic, so I should just trust him, right?
Some intriguing propositions:
Teddy Roosevelt personally colluded with the city of Los Angles, the Reclamation Service, and the Forest Service to destroy the irrigated communities in Owens Valley for the sake of LA.
I guess the fact that TR's brand of environmentalism was way more utilitarian than most people think isn't exactly news, but the fact that his utilitarianism extended to provisioning a metropolis like LA was a bit surprising.
Irrigated agriculture in the American West was (is?) supported by a welfare state.
Apparently it's ok for the state to pay farmers in Ohio not to farm while practically giving away subsidized water to giant agribusiness conglomerates owned by oil companies in California, but universal healthcare is a waste of money and would never work. At least I know I'm free! Just not free to eat wild salmon.
Damming and hydropower in the Pacific NW was instrumental in WWII b/c electricity (and lots of it) are required to produce aluminum for planes and plutonium for A-bombs.
Reisner basically asserts that the US might not have defeated the Axis if it weren't for northwestern hydropower, which is a pretty amazing idea that would have been even more amazing with some supporting evidence showing increasing electricity generation and aluminum production in the US, Germany, and Japan during the war years. Should I read Richard Rhodes?
In addition to the citation thing, there were also these surreal moments of anti-Irish racism, like this description of William Mullholand: "[His] face is supremely Irish: belligerence in repose, a seductive churlish charm" (p. 58). Seriously, find a Japanese farmer who's "cunning and inscrutable" and you'll just about have me pegged, Marc! I might have to slam some Jameson and karate chop you to death! Maybe it's petty of me to go all ad hominem on a dead environmentalist who clearly, despite lack of citation, knew more about the history of water in the West than I ever will, and yes, the stereotypical Irish American is himself racist and perhaps anti-Irish bigotry is so outdated and comical that the Simpsons were able to repeatedly employ it to great comedic effect over a decade ago, *breathes* but c'mon, this kind of crap isn't appropriate in a respected work of non-fiction. Even from the 80s.
Overall, if I swallowed my aforementioned misgivings, this was a fascinating and engaging history of water in the West. I was both intrigued and impressed by Reisner's unwillingness to impose some kind of grand theory on it all. The events he depicts seem mostly driven by greed, incompetence, petty competition, and simple climactic contingency. I never got the sense that he was driving toward some absurdly reductive single flaw in our culture. Water use in the West is messed up, and this book is mostly about how it got that way, not why. For all its reputation as an environmentalist fire-starter (to mix metaphors quite horrifically), though, I was surprised at how little doomsaying Reisner indulged in. Not until the very end does he start talking about silting reservoirs and salting the earth. I should also say that despite the lack of citation, the bibliography looks great! I wonder if the interviews he conducted have been archived anywhere.
I think this is one of those graphic novels I lent out once and never got back, which is a shame, because it's awesome. Wrong! I still have it, and it...moreI think this is one of those graphic novels I lent out once and never got back, which is a shame, because it's awesome. Wrong! I still have it, and it is still awesome. Concrete is sort of eco-realist-fantasy. There's this guy, whose body becomes huge and rocky, and he's very strong and durable, but that's where the craziness ends. From there out its politics, environmentalism, relationships, and basically dealing with the real world. Highly recommended.
On re-reading in 2010
Holds up quite well. Definitely has the hokey show-and-tell quality of older adventure comics, especially toward the beginning, but that's a minor qualm. The only fanciful tale in the collection is the origin story, which involves alien abduction and brain transplantation. Other stories concern matters like saving a farm, or building a bridge. I guess the characters aren't quite as fleshed out as they could be, but the stories are more about the real world around us than the world within, which frankly is unusual subject matter for a superhero(ish) comic.(less)
All Pollan's books explore the ways people relate to the world around them, from plants to food in general to space itself. This one's about gardens a...moreAll Pollan's books explore the ways people relate to the world around them, from plants to food in general to space itself. This one's about gardens and gardening, and is probably the book in which he most explicitly addresses man's relationship to nature.
The oft-repeated thesis of this book is that all American concepts of the physical world and our place in it stress a division between nature and culture, and that while this notion has been useful in its various forms (Puritan establishment to the Wilderness Act), the present demands a more holistic metaphor to guide us. Pollan proposes the garden as this metaphor, a place where humanity must both acknowledge impotence in the face of white flies and early frosts, while at the same time assert its own history, culture, and opinion in order to harvest tomatoes, appreciate a dahlia, or feel fully at peace. He explores this idea by examining various aspects of the conceptual garden and his own real, cultivated corner of Connecticut, dealing variously with vegetables, lawns, seed catalogs, weeds, etc.
My reactions to Pollan's work are remarkably consistent: fascination; admiration for the quantity and diversity of historical, literary, and scientific references he can apply in his analysis of almost anything; simultaneous frustration with his dogged refusal to cite these references in a regular fashion; and dissatisfaction with his failure to distinguish the personal shortcomings of scientists from the legitimacy of science itself (i.e. science as a good, if not the best, way of learning about the world). This book was Pollan's first, published almost 20 years ago, and it pretty much hits all these points.
That said, I also almost always come away from his books feeling enlightened, and more importantly, convinced. Honestly, he didn't really have to twist my arm to persuade me that romantic and/or radically preservationist environmentalism isn't a particularly useful philosophy if we want to survive the next 1000 years with both our world and our culture relatively intact, but I hadn't thought very much about gardening as a way toward a better mindset. Sentences like, "What we need is to confound our metaphors, and the rose can help us do this better than the swamp can" (p. 97) intrigued me, because I'm definitely more of a swamp kind of guy.
My main critique of this book is really more of a question: if the garden is the metaphor that best embodies our relationship with nature, what does it tell us about right and wrong? The garden teaches us to engage the world instead of dominating or kowtowing to it, but it doesn't seem to tell us why we should engage, and to what end. For instance, in his discussion of a local stand of old-growth pine that was blown down in a storm, Pollan describes the conflicting views of the Nature Conservancy land owners (leave it alone, let nature take its course), utilitarians (harvest and sell the wood), and romantics (restore the grove), and then offers some of his own motives for various plans of action (restore the grove to perpetuate the locals' relationship with the land, restore to our best guess at what the pre-Colonial state might have been so people can feel connected to the pre-Colonial experience). Pollan's garden ethic might encourage us to consider a more diverse array of options beyond entrenched commercial interest or the equally inflexible (and somewhat irrational) position of the Nature Conservancy, but it doesn't actually help us choose one path. There is no one true reason to garden, so garden ethics are not particularly helpful in decision-making. I guess Pollan might argue that his garden ethic isn't meant to be proscriptive so much as informative: the absolutism of our country's childhood and adolescence needs to give way to a harder, more self-conscious way of life, one that acknowledges that the most important decisions often must declare a new righteousness rather than adhere to an existing code.
Maginot Line: France's fortified border with Germany in WW2, the implication here being that it was ineffectual. (p. 53)
antinomian (adj): Christian (Protestant) belief that faith alone is sufficient to achieve salvation. (p. 60)
Anyone who thinks about nature will find things to love and despise about Desert Solitaire. One moment he's waxing on about the beauty of the cliffros...moreAnyone who thinks about nature will find things to love and despise about Desert Solitaire. One moment he's waxing on about the beauty of the cliffrose or the injustice of Navajo disenfranchisement and the next he's throwing rocks at bunnies and recommending that all dogs be ground up for coyote food. He says "the personification of the natural is exactly the tendency I wish to suppress in myself" (p. 6) and then proceeds to personify every rock, bird, bush, and mountain. He's loving, salty, petulant, awed, enraptured, cantankerous, ponderous, erudite, bigoted and just way too inconsistent to figure out what he's really trying to say.
Which, clearly, is the wrong question all together. This book is about the desert and it is about Abbey and I don't think judging either of them is a particularly fruitful line of inquiry. Instead, think of Abbey as the naturalist's Id, the unfiltered conservationist urge, and the desert as the distilled un-human world where that beast rages and sleeps. If you love nature and you're appreciating an amazing view, you probably feel a very basic, child-like wonder. And if you then see some idiot drive by and throw an empty bottle out of his Hummer, I bet that at least for a moment, there is an Abbey-esque part of you that wishes the humans were dead. Well, most of the humans. Except for the ones that you like. And the ones that they like. And you know, the Hummer guy probably isn't all bad, just ignorant. But that first set of emotions, that, to me, seems to be the human half of this book, and in that sense, Abbey does a wonderful job exploring a wide range of emotional, personal reactions to the outdoors. And in the end, I think he provides so many contradictory personifications of the desert that they get all get stuck in the door Three Stooges style, and you're left with fairly dehumanized sense of the desert itself.
I've never been to Utah myself, so I put together this gallery of some of the scenes and things in the book.
Words & Notes
demesne (n): a feudal lord's land, where the serfs labored. (p. 5)
usufructuary (n): the holder of an usufruct, which is the right to use or benefit from property that you do not own. (p. 5) "Loveliness and exultation." This line made me consider the possibility that my favorite nature writers tend to spend as much time describing discomfort and horror at the hands of nature as they do adulating it. Abbey definitely gets at the former later in the book. I wonder if part of the reason some people find this kind of writing boring is a surfeit of ecstasy most readers don't share.
gelid (adj): icy, cold. (p. 16)
"Don't really care for ants." He also apparently doesn't like tarantulas. Sad. (p. 26)
pismire (n): an ant, apparently because formic acid smells like piss. (p. 26)
"There is no beauty in nature, said Baudelaire." Would love a citation. (p. 36)
sinecure (n): an office without power or responsibility. (p. 41)
"To refute the solipsist or the metaphysical idealist all that you have to do is take him out and throw a rock at his head: if he ducks he's a liar." (p. 97)
"Fear betrays the rabbit to the great horned owl. Fear does the hard work, making the owl's job easy. After a lifetime of dread it is more than likely that the rabbit yields to the owl during that last moment with a sense of gratitude, as pleased to be eaten—finally!—as the owl is to eat." This is the kind of anthropomorphism I'm talking about (p. 98)
"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." (p. 125)
"'In the desert', wrote Balzac, somewhere, .there is all and there is nothing. God is there and man is not.'" I would love to source this quote but I just can't find it. Was Abbey's recollection faulty? (p. 184)
He occasionally makes the point that the most horrifying thing about nature is not its capacity to mame, murder, and eat us, but its "implacable indifference." We don't fear the world because it's out to get us, we fear it because it doesn't even notice us, it doesn't even care enough to despise us. I like this idea. Oceans crush us, storms flatten us, lions eat us, viruses subvert us, not because we deserve it, but just because we happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They're scary because they don't acknowledge us, and make us doubt our own reality. This is why Alien will always be scarier than the Predator. (p. 191)
"Gaze not too long into the abyss..." Apparently this is Nietzsche. Reminds me of Neal's paraphrasing, "If you look too long at a makefile, the abyss looks back at you." (p. 210)
I had no idea delphinium was toxic enough to kill cows. Go delphinium! (p. 222)
In possibly his only citation, Abbey notes (I think) 2 Kings 3, which describes how the armies of Israel, Judah, and Edom lay waste to the Jordanian land of Moab. Not sure what he was getting at. That Moab, UT also suffers at human hands? Incidentally, the Moabites were founded when Lot's own daughters seduced him and got preggers. Scandalous! (p. 227)(less)
Took me over a year, but I finally finished reading this tome, squeezing in a few pages here and there between other books, and it was well, well wort...moreTook me over a year, but I finally finished reading this tome, squeezing in a few pages here and there between other books, and it was well, well worth it. McKibben has assembled a fantastic list of writers, from those I'd read (Thoreau, Muir, Carson, Dillard, Pollan) to those I've been meaning to read (Aldo Leopold, Jane Jacobs, Edward Abbey) to those I'd never heard of (Barry Lopez, David Abram) and all the way to the completely unexpected (P.T. Barnum, R. Crumb, Philip K Dick). There were so many voices and ideas that despite a bunch of notes, I'm having trouble extracting singular strands of meaning aside from the very basic pleasure of reading the words of generations of Americans who thought and continue to think about the natural world in the same terms that I do (not surprising, of course: they helped create the culture in which I was raised). I'll just try and pick a couple things from my notes:
I noticed a handful of significant connections in the pieces McKibben chose. For instance, in the essay "Huckleberries" Thoreau writes, "[...:] for at the same time that we exclude mankind from gathering berries in our field, we exclude them from gathering health and happiness and inspiration, and a hundred other far finer and nobler fruits than berries" (p. 29). McKibben describes this piece as the "modern nature essay being born," referring to its formal qualities, but its literal focus on the link between food and our relationship with nature draws a clear connection to Michael Pollan and today's nexus of food, health, hedonism, and the environment.
Another fairly literal connection is the choice of John Muir's "A Wind-Storm in the Forests" and an excerpt from Julia Butterfly Hill's The Legacy of Luna. Muir, the legendary Californian rambler and conservationist, found himself in the woods in 1878 with a storm coming, and figured he'd weather it at the top of a 100 ft spruce, just for kicks. His prose is exultant, joyous, and slightly mad: pure Muir. Hill, an Earth First protester, climbed a redwood twice as high in 1997 and stayed there for 2 years to prevent loggers from chopping it down. She has her Muir-ish flights of fancy too (though she's no poet), but far from howling with mad joy, she feels her sanity slipping and her life ebbing as storms repeatedly batter her. The two selections are such great contrasts: Muir's elegance vs. Hill's plain speech, his romantic motives and her practical ones, his joy and her suffering. They make good bookends, even if they're not actually at the ends.
A third interesting parallel I noticed was between Calvin B. Dewitt's choice of "fruitfulness" as a Biblical value Christians should apply to the land (keep life abundant and diverse) and Annie Dillard's completely secular fascination and horror with the teeming, breeding, writhing, eating fecundity of life. Contrasts like this reminded me how differently we all see nature, and how it so often confounds us with simultaneous comfort and revulsion. Actually, pieces like Dillard's made me wish for some colonial pieces in this collection, or anything from pre-Romantic Americans, when horror was the predominant response to the wild.
Alright, enough blabbing. There are a million veins to trace through the decades in this collection, and that's partially what made it such a pleasure to read. I'd say if you're the kind of person who's already read pieces by at least 5 of the authors collected here, you should pick it up to peruse now and then. I would certainly *not* recommend it to those who like keeping a nicely pruned to-read list, because boy, this is just a smorgasbord of tiny, tantalizing tidbits for the bookavore. Now I have to read William Cronon, Terry Tempest Williams, Jane Jacobs and Wendell Berry at the same time, The End of Nature and Second Nature at the same time! Agh!
(just a few) WORDS
weal (n): well-being, happiness. p. 44
tophetization (n): I'm assuming Muir (who had memorized the Bible) was referring to Tophet, legendary (mythical?) site of child sacrifice and carcass disposal, and apparently synonymous with Hell, so I guess "tophetiziation" is synonymous with "damnation." p. 89
logcock (n): after a cursory bit of searching, it's unclear as to whether this is a synonym for the Pileated Woodpecker or the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Here's a reference suggesting the former (http://www.jstor.org/pss/4154522), and here's one for the latter (http://www.ubio.org/browser/details.p...). Roosevelt writes, "How immensely it would add to our forests if only the great logcock were still found among them!" which certainly suggests the (probably) extinct Ivory-billed. p. 130(less)
This is pretty much an issue-by-issue history of environmentalism in the Bay Area, starting with John Muir and Olmsted. If you're like me and you find...moreThis is pretty much an issue-by-issue history of environmentalism in the Bay Area, starting with John Muir and Olmsted. If you're like me and you find the amazing abundance of nearby open space one of the many blessings of living here, this is an interesting read. Pretty much every park, every hillside, every tree not growing in someone's yard that you enjoy around here exists because someone decided it should. And not only that, but they decided it should be open to everyone, which is a pretty amazing thing.
My main caveat with the book is that Walker is unable to repress his political leanings (way left), and often makes incredibly charged claims without presenting evidence. He does, of course, cite thoroughly, but if this is a book for laypeople, I think he should back such claims up with evidence in the text. For example, on p. 240 he writes, "The richer and whiter people are, the better able they are to insulate themselves from factories, pollution, and toxics." Few would dispute the correlation, but the implied causation between race and geographic power demands proof, at least for people like me who aren't social geographers or political economists.
That said, I found many of his comments about class to be enlightening. I hadn't realized that much of the open space preservation in the Bay Area begins with the wealthy, who like their views and have the political might to preserve them AND keep them open for the general public. The differences between wealthy and working class uses of open space is also interesting, and the conflicts between wealthy and working class environmental movements.
I was also really intrigued by his early point that simply the topography of the Bay Area does not explain the widespread conservation that has happened here. I have always wondered whether being able to actually see mountains and forests in the distance influences the local land ethic, but Walker rightly points out that LA has, if anything, more natural beauty, and yet it doesn't have nearly the same kind of open space. I wish he'd gone into that more. A historical comparison of environmentalism in the two regions would be fascinating.(less)
I picked this up because it's a a classic of American nature and environmental writing, and ostensibly marks the beginning of American environmental a...moreI picked this up because it's a a classic of American nature and environmental writing, and ostensibly marks the beginning of American environmental activism in the modern sense (i.e. more "we deserve not to be poisoned" than "leisure grounds for posterity"). I found the rhetorical style interesting. She breaks the book up into chapters on where toxins come from, how they accumulate and spread, and what effects they have on wildlife, food, and human health. In each, she offloads tale after tale of dead birds, poisoned farm workers, and nearly inhuman acts of government negligence and the corporations that facilitate them. I found this droning repetition of evidence boring, a dull and depressing tirade, but I suppose that kind of argumentative overload has power, if not appeal.
I felt some of her language and opinions were surprisingly dated. She often referred to insects using words like "horde" and militaristic symbols of weaponry and defense. Here’s an example from p. 246: "the broader problem [...:] is the fact that our chemical attack is weakening the defenses inherent in the environment itself, defenses designed to keep the various species in check. Each time we breach these defenses a horde of insects pours through." There are a couple odd implications here, like nature being a "designed" clockwork system of checks and balances, and insects as a kind of evil constantly trying to overthrow it. Of course, further down the page she writes, "The balance of nature is not a status quo; it is fluid, ever shifting, in a constant state of adjustment." The two statements seem at odds, and the bulk of the book effuses the latter sentiment, but I found it strange that she would occasionally be so careless with her language. I pick nits, of course, but perhaps it demonstrates that this book lies at a transition between American attitudes toward nature.
I was also intrigued by her almost unconditional support of biological control techniques over pesticides (generally, the use of cultivated predators to control a pest population), readily advocating the importation of effective predators with (I think) no examples of the kinds of ecological disaster that can ensue when such tactics are pursued without very careful consideration (cane toads, anyone?). Again, perhaps a sign of the times.
All in all, certainly worth my time. I'd like to read some more analysis on the book and on Carson herself (the preface to this editions is great), and I'm very keen to read her natural history writing, esp. on marine life.(less)
For my own reference, I want to read this (or at least skim it) b/c of the quote cited here suggesting the author thinks we are actually *more* in tun...moreFor my own reference, I want to read this (or at least skim it) b/c of the quote cited here suggesting the author thinks we are actually *more* in tune with the natural world now than we've ever been, which is pretty much the opposite of what most environmentalists claim, including myself, though that claim is based entirely on anecdotal evidence on my part and is probably bunk, or at least worth investigating. It could be that we know less about nature than hunter-gatherers, but you could also argue that the average person today knows more about nature than an agrarian from 1000 years ago, and is more self-consciously aware of how it reacts to human activity. To flip it again, you could argue that said agrarian knows what he knows through direct experience, and thus has a much richer understanding than most of us do about how plants react to water and sun light.(less)