Wintergreen: Rambles in a Ravaged Land by Robert Michael Pyle

wintergreenAs I mentioned last week, I read Wintergreen in preparation for a class I am taking this very weekend from the author, Robert Michael Pyle. It was an intriguing read, and I’m looking forward to learning from the man himself.

The copy I read, borrowed from Pops, is a Pharos Edition, meaning that “one of today’s most exciting authors” hand-picked and introduced it in a reprint. Wintergreen was originally published in 1986 by Scriber; this 2015 edition is being called a 30-year anniversary, and David Guterson (The Other, Snow Falling on Cedars) brought it to Pharos.

In a word, Wintergreen is a book in defense of the ravaged land of the subtitle. That land is the Willapa Hills of southwest Washington (near where the Oregon line meets the coast), where Pyle settled after growing up in Colorado and studying in Seattle and at Yale, and some other stops along the way including Great Britain. This land is ravaged, of course, by logging; but Pyle argues that it is still beautiful, still deeply rich in natural wonders, and worth saving. Pyle is a biologist and a writer, and his style is both reverent and carefully descriptive and detailed. His tone can be occasionally irreverent and jokey; he is conversational, humble, and disarming, absolutely likable. I intend to like him, when I meet him.

In his own words,

This is the plan of the book: to describe the Willapa Hills and the wildlife they support, both native and alien; to examine the impact of intensive forestry upon the land and its life; and finally, to assay the ability of organisms (including ourselves) to survive in the aftermath of massive resource extraction. Throughout, questions of biogeography, ecology, and evolution in the wet, wintergreen world find their way into the text.

And four sections of four essays each do this work, as promised. It is kept from being overly square, in that structure, by Guterson’s intro, a Prologue, and an updated Afterword written for this 2015 edition.

I felt a great affinity for the sense of place that is so central to this work, especially because the place Pyle loves is an underdog, a humble and much-derided place. He writes,

In attending to these neglected hills I try to appreciate them for what they still are, without holding against them what they once were.

He takes his reader leisurely through what this place once was – the hugest of the huge old-growth Douglas firs et al, the ones whose stumps were repurposed as roomy homes for families – and what it is now – second-, third- and fourth-growth, and stump fields that however hold their own beauty, and remarkably biodiversity. He writes beautifully. There is undeniable poetry in the line,

The backs of old barns break and ancient boats and Studebakers deliquesce into the fundament.

Or, when introduced (and little-loved) nutria are quirkily described:

Wombatlike but generally black, they add a definite presence to an already-altered ecosystem, and they are somewhat more interesting than cows.

His audience is understood to be somewhat sympathetic to his feelings and beliefs: that the natural world deserves our protecting even while that is a rather arrogant concept; that old growth forests are special; that green is good. He takes some background knowledge for granted (first approaching the question, “what is old growth?” on page 198), but this is not much of a risk. He is right about the background his readers come to him with.

As he acknowledges in the newly-added Afterword, some of the specific details of politics, policy, and specific local conditions in the 1986 edition are a little dated now. But none are incorrect; and he brings us up to date in this Afterword. The questions I noted during my reading were well answered. Any period-specific feeling to the whole is enriching, if slightly distracting: it makes this text feel grounded in time as well as literal ground.

The pace of these 369 pages is not rushed, but indeed rambling. Patient readers, however, who love a certain level of detail and a good, rain-soaked, mature story, will be well rewarded.


Rating: 8 individually loved stumps.

book beginnings on Friday: Wintergreen: Rambles in a Ravaged Land by Robert Michael Pyle

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.

wintergreen

I am reading this in preparation for the upcoming Chuckanut Writers Conference and a class I will be taking from Robert Michael Pyle himself. An introduction from David Guterson is intriguing, as is the Pharos Edition (same folks who brought Still Life With Insects back into print). It begins:

At any time of the year and in any weather, my bedroom window frames a green and pleasant country scene. Halfway open, it makes a Kodachrome slide of the bucolic valley below, bordered by white sashes and molding.

Lovely. And this setting is just a few hours south of where I live.

Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History by Dan Flores

This biography of the coyote in biological, political and historical terms illuminates a much-maligned North American original.

coyote america

Dan Flores (The Natural West) examines an iconic North American original in Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History. This small, clever, charismatic predator originally roamed the interior West, enjoying a mutual tolerance with the people who lived there. Some Native American tribes built creation myths around the coyote, “America’s universal deity.” After European colonization, coyotes became the enemy of ranchers and herders–undeservedly, as scientists would eventually show, as their prey is more bite-sized. Decades of extermination efforts only encouraged the diminutive canine, however, whose range now extends from Alaska and Canada into Central America, from coast to coast. Coyotes now live in every major city in the United States, which surprises many but, Flores argues, shouldn’t: they were there first.

Styled as a biography, Coyote America follows its protagonist through history, geography, human perceptions and millions of years of American canid evolution, with detailed accounts of governmental policies regarding predators. Flores sees the coyote as an avatar for humankind. Like us, the coyote is highly flexible, can be social or solitary, and adapts well to changing environments. Coyote mythology, well documented in other books, plays a minor role here, although Wile E. makes an appearance.

Flores has a tendency to use nine words where two would do, but his slight long-windedness is well offset by the endless fascinations of his subject. Nature lovers, students of U.S. natural resource policy and those charmed by the native American “song-dog” will be engrossed.


This review originally ran in the June 7, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 words.

guest review: Salmon in the Trees by Amy Gulick, from Pops

salmon in the trees

I just finished reading Salmon in the Trees, recommended by a friend in response to my Edfro Creek “Fish in the Forest” essay, and this one belongs right up there with the other fish/forest books. Beginning with her own wonderful introductory essay, photographer Amy Gulick assembled a crew of nine contributors to help narrate the photo-format (with maps!) and it’s a masterful and lyrical collaboration, from writers Carl Safina and Richard Nelson to Alaska “writer laureate” John Straley, a couple of biologists and others. Its narrative focus: “Southeast” (Alaska), 80% of which is Tongass National Forest (largest in the US, 3 times the size of the next largest, 1/3 of Earth’s temperate rainforest but only 1/2 forest, 85% intact, more shoreline than 48 states, more than 5000 islands, more than 10,000 tribal population out of 70,000, approx. 1/2 of its old growth remaining); and the many ways it is special, yet largely overlooked by a US public that should champion its preservation in the face of continued threats. Along the way it depicts a world in itself, including three Salish tribes (Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshian) and their resilient white neighbors who together comprise

a vibrant, sensual brew… a place assembled of mystery & mistakes… wild & also messy… a place where people live with salmon in their streets and bears in their backyards… the big old trees still standing, the bugs, the fish, the bears, and the flawed & saintly people… the modern world has arrived and hasn’t yet broken the circle of life… [but] it may just be a matter of time.

I learned of the ANCSA (Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act) that partly restores land rights, including Sealaska, a tribal land corporation; the Haida tale that explains their recurring recessive gene for red hair; the special role of pockmarked sandstone karst in forest ecology; that alder as a nitrogen-fixer rivals salmon for forest nutrients; and yet more about bears & fish in the forest. Gulick does for this region what McAllister does in Great Bear Wild.

The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams

In this phenomenal exploration of U.S. National Parks, Terry Tempest Williams turns her smart, poetic eye to place, history, ecology, the future and how we relate to one another.

hour of land

Celebrated conservationist Terry Tempest Williams (Refuge; When Women Were Birds) commemorates the centennial of the U.S. National Park Service with The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks. In 12 chapters, she explores 12 parks, their histories and futures. Ecology forms a natural overarching theme, but Williams’s topics are variously personal, global and political. The places she visits range from Alaska to Maine to south Texas, while her subjects span still broader ground: biodiversity and water shortages; suicide and hopelessness; continuing unrest in U.S. relations with Native Americans; climate change; political prisoners from around the globe; and the legacy of the Civil War. Her writing is poetic, passionate and unexpected.

In each chapter, Williams describes a visit to a specific national park, and then investigates the place and her experience there, sometimes directly through narrative storytelling and sometimes metaphorically. She begins with Grand Teton National Park, where her family has often returned over the decades and generations. The history of that park’s founding and the establishment of the Parks system melds with her family story: “Our national parks are memory palaces where our personal histories reside.” With her father, who spent his career laying pipe for industry and development, and a park superintendent, she tours Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. Together they birdwatch and debate the balance between fossil fuel extraction and conservation. In Acadia National Park, Williams muses that parks may be “breathing spaces for a society that increasingly holds its breath.” She finds Gettysburg National Battlefield representative of sustained resentments, pain and violence, and at Effigy Mounds National Monument, she encounters cultural heritage and controversy. To escape the pain of Gettysburg and Effigy Mounds, she heads into the desert, to Big Bend National Park.

Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska offers escape from a personal tragedy; Gulf Islands National Seashore, in Florida and Mississippi, reveals that the consequences of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill remain, stinking and stinging. Williams visits the exhibit by artist Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz Island in Golden Gate National Recreation Area; the recently established Cesar E. Chavez National Monument; and, of course, her home landscape of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. In Glacier National Park, where the Tempest family tries to celebrate a birthday by retracing old steps, they are instead nearly killed by in a forest fire that sweeps over the chalet where they lodge. In these travels, Williams finds beauty and distress over the future, and opines, “We continue to evolve and transform who we are in relationship to where we are.”

By turns sad, despairing, and hopeful, even thrilled in the presence of natural beauty, The Hour of Land is emotive, intelligent and well traveled. It is only right that Williams should celebrate the Park Service’s centennial with such a remarkable collection of wisdom and scintillating lines.


This review originally ran in the May 13, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 long views.

guest review: Great Bear Wild by Ian McAllister, from Pops

I reviewed this book very briefly, for a gift review several years back. Now, here’s Pops.

great bearMcAllister writes eloquently & sincerely about this amazing place, with confident familiarity from living there for decades; he was a wonderful guide & companion for the all-too-brief time of reading.

The region he describes is also subject of several other books worth mentioning – and reading.

The Fish in the Forest, with its detailed explication of salmon + forest ecosystem interdependence, is significantly based on the research of Tom Reimchen, which documented bears’ role in spreading nutrients from salmon into temperate rainforest. Reimchen’s extensive observation and data collection was based in the Great Bear wilderness.

The Last Great Sea by Terry Glavin (2000) is an exceptional survey of the geologic and human history of the North Pacific basin, from Japan to Bering Sea to California’s Bay Area. Learning of North America’s temperate rainforest in this context illuminates how literally unmatched it is on earth; Great Bear represents the best surviving enclave of this precious treasure.

The Golden Spruce includes both factual narrative and cultural backstory revolving around McAllister’s Great Bear region, with a stunning impact that lays bare the tragic contradictions implicit in human impacts and threats in such a place.

Threats to coastal waters from increased fossil fuel tanker traffic are a prominent theme in McAllister’s telling; beyond that, there were persistent threats from continued logging, hunting and general human expansion in the region.

However, there have been significant developments on these fronts even since the 2014 publication.

The Enbridge tar sands pipeline project was at first permitted by the conservative Harper government. Then in 2015 Justin Trudeau was elected PM, and this year his government quickly denied the permit. Such battles are never “won”; but depressed crude prices are driving tar sands closures, global pressures against further oil extraction are growing and Trudeau faces constant scrutiny to transition Canada away from Harper’s legacy to become an international clean energy leader.

At nearly the same time this year, the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement was finally signed after decades of maneuvering & negotiation between BC, Tribes, logging companies and non-profits like Sierra Club, Greenpeace & ForestEthics. The Agreement is broadly depicted as welcome preservation for the region.

Yet, even with that consensus some regrets are inevitably emerging, and McAllister is among those voices. Although the agreement protects 85% of the rainforest from logging, the 15% remaining is in coastal lowlands with remaining old-growth forest – the largest trees; these should be preserved. And although the Agreement “ends all bear hunting”, what it really does is grandfather bear hunting licenses so that hunts will continue at existing levels, at even greater value now, for the foreseeable future.

As with most such efforts since John Muir arrived in California in 1868, conservation has meant compromise; and when humans make concessions on behalf of natural resources, some of those resources are lost. After more than 150 years of this well-intentioned horse-trading, there is little left to bargain away.

Agreed; this is at least a 9.

(Susan Vreeland’s The Forest Lover is set in BC, as well.)

A different perspective, with background on the political situation. Let me just weigh in to say PICTURES! This is a collection of deeply gorgeous photographs, as well, and for that reason as well is not to be missed.

Thanks, Pops.

Teaser Tuesdays: Coyote America: A Natural & Supernatural History by Dan Flores

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

Coyotes seem to make consistently interesting reading – for me at least – whether Native American mythology or the natural history that is handled here.

coyote america

I thought I’d share one of the fascinating tidbits I learned. Coyotes interbreed quite avidly with red wolves in the southern U.S.; not so the gray wolves of the West.

Mech also points out that killing coyotes, not mating with them, is intrinsic to gray wolf behavior. Julie Young of the Predator Research Facility even told me that in experiments there, coyotes inseminated with gray wolf sperm actually killed the puppies they bore.

They are quite clear on their preferences, it seems. That makes sense to me, considering the Trickster Coyote I knew as a child from books like Coyote &. Stay tuned…

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

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