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A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (audio)

In A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson describes his experience on the Appalachian Trail. He and his family had just moved to New Hampshire and he discovered the trail almost literally in his back yard, and decided, what the heck? he’d try walking it. At the last minute, an old friend agrees to join him, to his relief (now he won’t be alone out there with the bears); this old friend turns out to be overweight, a smoker, recently sober, and in no shape for such a lengthy walk in the woods, but they set off nevertheless, beginning to walk the AT in Georgia and headed for Maine.

a walk in the woodsOh, Bill Bryson, you funny, infuriating man. I have had a love-hate relationship, as they say, with this book. Bryson is very amusing, and this is his strongest suit; at his best, he had me giggling aloud on the train during my commute, which I try not to do because that’s weird, right? But he can be downright annoying as well. I’m not sure what he conceives this book actually is; amusing memoir? (For which, grade B+, at least.) Nature tale? (C-, on which more in a moment.) Camping satire? (Please stop.) His ineptitude at the outdoorsiness might be funny to somebody, but I just find it obnoxious and …well, kind of stupid. On the other hand, he hiked the Appalachian Trail for months, you guys, completing nearly 900 miles of it, and I have to respect that, as I’ve never done any such thing. But with such an opportunity to tell us about the AT, he spends a great deal of time telling us what poorly prepared rookie campers he and his friend Katz are; the trail itself is often just background, if even that. The book was 1/3 through before he even mentions a view, let alone describes one; and precious few times from then on. In fact, I think I’ve answered my question: Bryson conceives of this book as an amusing memoir, and the fact that it takes place on the AT is mere coincidence and in no way important to the story he has to tell.

When he rails against our destruction of natural areas and our Park Service’s poor management of those lands, he does a fine job, and I both learned something and enjoyed the polemic; but then he pulls punches, as when writing about tree diseases:

A great tragedy, of course. But how lucky, when you think about it, that these diseases are are least species-specific. Instead of a chestnut blight, or Dutch elm disease, or dogwood anthracnose, what if there was just a tree blight? Something indiscriminate and unstoppable, that swept through whole forests? In fact, there is. It’s called… acid rain.

No, Bryson, it’s called people! Call a spade a spade! Sigh.

Later in the book, when Bryson and Katz (the brunt of all the best jokes) part company temporarily, Bryson shifts focus a bit toward the history of the AT and gets less jokey. I appreciate this content, but it lacks the sparkle of his more humorous writing. In other words, I felt that A Walk in the Woods struggled throughout with an identity crisis.

The audio edition is good, I’ll say that without qualification. William Roberts’s reading is hilarious, and suits Bryson’s writing voice well. The book is absolutely at its best when describing Bryson & Katz’s mishaps on the trail, and only mildly interesting (for those interested in such things) when it leaves their narrative to wander the AT on a more intellectual level. One final pet peeve: as far as I can understand, Katz and Bryson do a lot of littering. Katz repeatedly handles the frustration of his heavy pack by dumping gear, and I don’t think there are garbage cans out in the woods. (I hope not.) There are a cigarette pack and three butts discarded by Katz at an important point. This makes me ANGRY. Littering on the AT?!

Representative quotation:

I had come to realize that I didn’t have any feelings towards the AT that weren’t confused and contradictory.

Me too, Bryson.

Rating: 5 cream sodas.

I wasn’t sure whether to go with 4 or 5; but I did finish the book, so there’s that.

book beginnings on Friday: Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild by Novella Carpenter

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

gone feral

Novella Carpenter’s Gone Feral tells the story of seeking a relationship with her mostly-estranged father, who prefers the outdoors to the city. It begins:

My dad officially went missing on October 17, 2009.

The morning I found out, I woke up to the hum of traffic from Interstate 980 harmonizing with the nickering of milk goats at my back stairs.

She managed to sneak right in there her own preferred ratio of city-to-outdoors: she has an “urban farm” in Oakland. Not a bad beginning, I think.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Teaser Tuesdays: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

a walk in the woods

My limited experience with Bill Bryson has been positive; he’s a funny man. And a story of hiking the Appalachian Trail sounds appealing. So here we are with Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. I must say, though, he does go out unprepared! For example, on waking up his first morning out on the trail:

It seemed very strange, very novel, to be standing outdoors in long johns.

Please tell me he had CAMPED before setting out on this adventure?! He did an awful lot of reading & purchasing, both of which are fine things to do in preparation for a new adventure, but I would also have advised some hiking and camping beforehand as well… we shall see.

“The Etiquette of Freedom” by Gary Snyder

wildThis is the first essay in Gary Snyder’s collection, The Practice of the Wild. I’m going to post my thoughts on these essays one by one, as they fit into my reading schedule.

“The Etiquette of Freedom” begins by establishing the vocabulary for a discussion of “practicing” the wild. I think it’s useful for Snyder to explain this use of “practice”: he means it in the way we practice a religion (Zen Buddhism) or we practice yoga. Thus by “practicing” the wild, he tell us (in this book’s new preface), he means “a deliberate sustained and conscious effort to be more finely tuned to ourselves and to the way the actual existing world is.” As my yoga instructor likes to emphasize, this is not about achievement – that’s why we say that we practice. It’s a journey, not a destination.

The central work of this essay is for Snyder to define nature, wild, wildness and wilderness. While it was an interesting exercise, and I learned some history and some Buddhist principles and some biology (I had to look up ‘serows’)… I definitely look forward to some more concrete, applicable, how-to-live advice; or at least some more direct criticisms of our world. Every reader is seeking something different in every reading experiences, of course. In my reading at this time, I’d like something a little closer to our earth than this academic exercise.

However, I am always open to philosophies cleverly expressed: “if the lad or lass is among us who knows where the secret heart of this Growth-Monster is hidden, let them please tell us where to shoot the arrow that will slow it down.” Possibly I’m also partial to criticisms of growth in particular. I also like what Abbey wrote, that “growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” Our societal confusion of growth with progress is a pet peeve of mine.

It also occurred to me that this more theoretical and linguistic approach might appeal to my mother the linguist. For example, “language is like some kind of infinitely inter-fertile family of species spreading or mysteriously declining over time, shamelessly and endlessly hybridizing, changing its own rules as it goes.” This is a favorite feature of language, I think, for her and me both.

I found myself seeking a definition of “etiquette” that fits here; he doesn’t mean good manners, does he? I need to find a decent dictionary; mostly the online ones give me just the standard definition, but I’m sure he’s using a more obscure secondary one. Funny, that an essay concerned with definitions would leave this one unanswered. I will use Merriam-Webster’s, “the conduct or procedure required by good breeding or prescribed by authority to be observed in social or official life”, and extrapolate: I think Snyder means that he is seeking the conduct prescribed for practicing a free and wild life, or life in a free and wild world. Not in terms of table manners, then, but in terms of how to live.

What do you think, Pops?

book beginnings on Friday: The Reef: A Passionate History: The Great Barrier Reef from Captain Cook to Climate Change by Iain McCalman

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.


A passionate history of explorers and climate change (and thus, one expects, necessarily of climate politics as well)? You have me sold, sir. Here is the opening paragraph of chapter 1:

James Cook did not know, on Sunday May 20, 1770, two weeks after leaving Botany Bay on the east coast of New Holland, the western portion of the continent, named by the Dutch captain Abel Tasman in 1644, that the HMS Endeavor was sailing into the southwest entrance of a vast lagoon where reef-growing corals began their work. It was a channel that later navigators would call the Great Barrier Reef inner passage. Cook didn’t realize that then, and he never would.

I am going to pick these first sentences apart a little here; bear with me. The concept McCalman opens with is a compelling one, and one he’ll return to: Cook was ignorant of what he discovered, and history in hindsight often makes the mistake of giving to discoverers credit for intention that they never had. Also, I think it’s a powerful image, this captain’s ship entering a dangerous and unknown area, and not even realizing it. In other words, I think McCalman chose a good opening subject; but golly, look at that first sentence! All the clauses: “he didn’t know, on the day, in the place, which was such a place, where this happened… that he didn’t know.” I dare McCalman to diagram that sentence; it might lead him to reconsider. And please do note that this is a pre-publication galley copy; he may still change it (or his editor might), so give the published look a glance and see when it comes out in late May. I am recommending the book despite a clause-heavy opener. Stay tuned.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Ogallala Road by Julene Bair

An environmentalist revisits the family farm with mixed feelings about water shortages, and finds a love story along the way.


Julene Bair left the family farm in the high plains of Kansas for the bigger world of San Francisco, then the solitude of a rock house in the Mojave Desert. She returned pregnant, worked with her father on the farm for as long as she could stand it, then found security in a cowboy town in Wyoming, where she raised her son alone. She returned again to tour the ever-diminishing creeks and springs on foot and to study the Ogallala Aquifer, which the United States relies upon for 30% of its irrigated crops. Next to a big cottonwood, she meets a cowboy who admires Cormac McCarthy–and falls in love.

For most of The Ogallala Road, this cowboy, Wade, accompanies Bair as she struggles to reconcile the wilderness-loving, liberal-minded, Subaru-driving writer she’s become with her roots as a farmer’s daughter of Kansas’s conservative rural plains. The memoir clearly began as the story of a shrinking aquifer and a nation’s (or a world’s) self-destructive hubris, and one suspects Bair is as surprised as readers will be that romance takes so much of the spotlight. Wade embodies everything that both nourishes and infuriates her about Kansas, which is a challenge to their love story.

The farm that has sustained generations of her forebears retains a strong hold on Bair’s heart, and her family’s–and her own–role in depleting the aquifer becomes a central source of conflict. The Ogallala Road meanders through the history of the Cheyenne Indians’ longtime residence in the region, seeking insight into a more balanced relationship with earth and water. “Hang on to your land!” Bair’s father exhorted his children, but under the pressures of a changing world, they’ll consider selling. Bair comments on the difference between growth and progress, and a feeling of connection to the land that she suspects her father would have snorted at, while wrestling with her own guilt. In the end, it is the water, not Wade, that causes her the most pain–but the memoir closes with a tentative note of hope.

In its combination of nature writing, environmental concern and love story, The Ogallala Road is unusual. Bair’s contemplative praise of the high plains and the western deserts, her yearning for a father for her son and her lament for a dying way of life will strike chords for diverse readers.

This review originally ran in the March 7, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 8 million gallons.

Teaser Tuesdays: John Muir and the Ice that Started a Fire by Kim Heacox

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

muir ice

You know I couldn’t pass up a history of John Muir and his role in creating the American conservation movement! I am learning a lot, and not only about Muir and glaciers.

Today’s demographers have estimated that of the roughly 110 billion people who have lived on earth the last 50,000 years, only a small fraction have achieved age fifty and beyond; of those, half are alive today. In other words, Muir was already the beneficiary of a relatively long life.

…although of course, being Muir, he did not go gently into that good night. I am not surprised at these numbers but had never considered such a thing; it’s a little boggling, isn’t it?

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

book beginnings on Friday: Turtle Island by Gary Snyder

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

turtle island

I’m a little out of order, as I’ve reviewed this book already. But for further musing and perspective, I want to share with you a piece of the “Introductory Note” that explains its title.

Turtle Island–the old/new name for the continent, based on many creation myths of the people who have been living here for millenia, and reapplied by some of them to “North America” in recent years. Also, an idea found world-wide, of the earth, or cosmos even, sustained by a great turtle or serpent-of-eternity.

…Anglos, Black people, Chicanos, and others beached up on these shores all share such views at the deepest levels of their old cultural traditions–African, Asian, or European. Hark again to those roots, to see our ancient solidarity, and then to the work of being together on Turtle Island.

I collected turtles in high school. Stuffed, carved, as pendants and pillows. It’s the animal I chose as my own somehow. They still resonate; I don’t have all those turtles any more, but I’ve kept a small group of small ones, which turn out to be (by coincidence? I doubt it; but not on purpose) to be crafted from natural materials: stone, wood, shell. I feel at home here.

Turtle Island by Gary Snyder

turtle island

You all may recall that I am NOT a poetry person. I may be a tad too literal; I loved Shel Silverstein but never graduated from there. Clearly it didn’t help that I attempted Gertrude Stein later in life; her poetry is analogous in my mind to modern abstract art. Either I am a hopeless moronic philistine, or these people are making fun of us to our faces with some of this stuff.

So how did I end up here? I didn’t do my homework. I had heard enough good about Gary Snyder from people I respect for long enough that I finally jumped on a title somebody referenced: Turtle Island. I requested it from my local library. (I LOVE this service.) I went to pick it up when they told me to; and sure enough, on the cover, “Pulitzer Prize for Poetry 1975.” Well, heck, I’ll give it a whirl. (Pops and I are planning a readalong of a Snyder essay collection, Practice of the Wild, coming up, so I’ll get the prose, too.)

Snyder’s poems are short – rarely over one page (in a small format book), and often shorter. They tend towards the natural world and our relationship with it, and these of course were the subjects I was looking for. He’s really pretty accessible – for a poet. I don’t follow the stream-of-consciousness sort of thing very well, but I tried to just let his words float over me when I lost the thread. To mix a metaphor.

I liked several quite well. “Control Burn” (not “controlled”) has a clear message, and one I can get behind; and it read fairly straightforwardly. [Actually, as I look again, it would make for a very coherent sentence if you just took out all the line breaks and added a little punctuation. Look at that. I like poetry when it most resembles prose. sigh] I liked “The Call of the Wild” for its message as well; I appreciated a list of “Facts” (including “General Motors is bigger than Holland.”) but again that’s cheating: it is not a poem. Is it? Hm. If a list of facts can be a poem, maybe I’m a little better off than I thought. “The Wild Mushroom” is a more traditional poem with a recognizable meter, and it rhymes! (I am a philistymes.) It could also serve you as an abridged guide to which wild mushrooms are edible, which poisonous and which might “bring you close to God”; utility in poetry is always welcome, yes please.

“Mother Earth: Her Whales” is a lovely ode to all the earth’s inhabitants and indictment of what we’re doing here. And I love the tale of an ancient turquoise ring from Jemez discovered under the ruins of an apartment complex in Kyoto: “The Jemez Pueblo Ring.” I also like when he writes about his family, mostly his young sons; his tenderness shows clearly through.

But naturally, for me, things really get good when he switches to “Plain Talk” (the final one of the book’s four main sections), which is also known as “prose.” Here Snyder identifies problems with our world – we’re talking about the big problems, like population, pollution, and consumption – and recommends big fixes – with actions organized by social/political, community, and “our own heads.” He is concerned with the relationship of humans to the rest of the world: water, earth, dirt, plants, animals, mountains, air. His prose arguments are beautiful, well thought out, well informed (although brief), and resonate with me perfectly. I suspect that they assume certain things (bison on the plains are a good thing. our kids should play in the dirt) that not everyone agrees with; but I’m on his frequency. The people who think the big car, the big house in the big city, kids who wear designer sneakers, and the fancy career are important goals may not follow along here.

Snyder’s philosophies strike me as abundantly obviously correct, but also (sadly) far too simple and hopeful to work in our complex and stubbornly wrong world. He has all the problems described correctly, except that everything is far worse now than it was when this book was published in 1974. In that respect, it’s not good news, but Snyder shows great foresight in predicting the ways in which we’re doing even more poorly now; and further, I think it’s remarkable how relevant and right he still is in 2014. If you read this book today with no knowledge of its publication date, I think you’d find it intelligent, only understated or optimistic.

This prose conclusion to Turtle Island is absolutely the perfect conclusion to the poetry that precedes it. I confess that if I had to rate the poetry sections, I would probably end up giving this book a bemused 5 feathers or some such, with the qualification that I’m pretty sure there’s more here that I missed. But with this conclusion in “plain talk” to tie it all up for me, Turtle Island becomes a philosophical achievement along the lines of Thoreau, Abbey, Jensen, Dillard, and the like. In fact, I was often reminded of Abbey (as when Snyder refers to growth as a cancer); Jensen (as when he refers to a need for total change and starting over), some thoughts I’ve come up with (“on my own,” in theory, but clearly informed by my reading & discussions), and also with Ken Kesey’s band of Merry Pranksters.

This conclusion to the book bodes extraordinarily well for my shared reading with Pops of Snyder’s essay collection. Stay tuned.

Rating: 9 Ponderosa pines.

Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe by Charlotte Gill

eating dirtDoubly recommended by the authors of Fire Season and Dirt Work, this one moved to the top of the list.

Eating Dirt is the memoir of a tree planter. Charlotte Gill works seasonally planting trees in the Canadian west. She is employed by a company of tree planters, who contract in turn with big business – mostly logging – to replant sections of clear-cut land, usually. The daily job is to travel out to the plot in question (via beat-up truck, or boat, or by foot), load up one’s bags – a belted & suspendered piece involving two side saddle-bags and one at the rear, at hip height – with seedlings, stomp around on varying surfaces, and use a shovel and one’s hands to repeatedly insert seedlings in soil (clay, gravel, duff). It involves much bending, and the loss of fingernails. They encounter cougars, bears, muck, dirt, rain, bugs, rocks, and unspeakably sore muscles.

Gill has quite a bit in common with Christine Byl of Dirt Work: the dirty, male-dominated outdoor environment, the satisfaction of a job well done in a world populated by trees, twigs, green and brown and wild things. Not to overemphasize these two books’ similarities – because each is unique and lovely on its own and neither is derivative – but they both caused the same combined reaction in me, of yearning jealousy and thankfulness that I don’t do that for a living. What can I say. I love to be outside and wish I spent more days and nights there, but I also fret enough over my bad knees with my office job, and I like taking a shower and feeling clean after being dirty. In fact, the question at the front of my mind as I’ve finished this book is: what did clean mean in those years that make up the majority of human history, in which we didn’t have seemingly endless showers at our command?

Dirtiness aside, Gill writes with humor and wisdom and the kind of occasionally zoomed-out perspective that I like in a nature-based memoir. A little research into the history of earth, trees, and people – and the relationships between them – brings her perspective, that of just one person, into focus within a larger picture. And as a bonus, she’s based in the same general region that my parents recently moved to. We have all been learning about the Pacific Northwest – including the trees of the area – and this book offered some welcome insights to that end.

One of the more surprising subjects of Eating Dirt, for me, was the ambiguous or controversial nature of the work. I read “tree-planting tribe” and expected that it would be all green-ness and good; but as I said in my opening synopsis, Gill’s employers are most often logging companies, banking on the profitability of trees, not their inherent worth as trees themselves.

And we got paid… by the very same business that cut the trees down, which canceled the altruism right out of the equation.

Any good they provide, then, is already offset by those who paid for their planting. It’s not as simple as it seems at first glance, and Gill wastes no time in making that point.

Her voice is gritty, and her perspective not so much unapologetic in general as clear-eyed about its dual nature. She’s funny and clearly likeable – like Byl, someone I’d like to know, although I’d be intimidated by both women’s toughness. I enjoyed what I learned about the world from Gill, but also very much value what she’s encouraged me to think about.

Nature has done its big job. Like a ball thrown up in the air, all has risen, crested, and begun its arc back down into earth. After many years spent outside we come to see this – the parabola – as the contour of life itself. It’s the path the sun takes across the sky. The shape of a story. Ours included. Beginning, middle, and end.

Right up there with some of my favorites of the past few years. Recommended.

Rating: 7 red tree voles.

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