Bay Weekly’s 2011 Summer Reading Guide: Reading the Great Outdoors
Nature Books for All Ages
It’s official: On June 21 — three weeks into the month proclaimed by Gov. Martin O’Malley as Great Outdoors Month — the solstice turned spring into summer. To seize the summer season, Bay Weekly peers into books about the great outdoors.
Beyond the Hundredth Meridian
read by Steve Carr
John Wesley Powell was one of the most important Americans who ever lived, yet most folks have never heard of him, writes Bay Weekly columnist, outdoorsman and novelist Steve Carr.
Powell lost most of his right arm commanding a Union artillery battery at the Battle of Shiloh yet continued fighting until the war’s end. In 1865, he did a brief stint teaching geology at Illinois Wesleyan University, helping found the Illinois Museum of Natural History. By 1867, Powell was leading death-defying scientific expeditions into the unexplored canyons of the Southwest, running the treacherous river canyons of the Rocky Mountains and the Green River in homemade wooden boats as a warmup for his first ascent of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.
His journals and subsequent books made him the most celebrated explorer of his time, and his exploits captivated the nation. While mapping the blank zones of the Colorado Plateau, Powell also catalogued the vanishing culture of the Indian tribes of the region and the plants and animals of the canyonlands. Powell returned east in 1874 to found the Cosmos Club, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian and what would become the Bureau of Reclamation. In Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (1954), Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Wallace Stegner uses Powell’s harrowing adventures to open a colorful window into a time when a big part of America was unknown. He brings the gruff and uncompromising, one-armed American hero to life in a way that will leave you breathless as you turn the pages.
Big Muddy Blues: True Tales and Twisted Politics Along Lewis and Clark’s Missouri River
read and written by Bill Lambrecht
Were it not for the example of Click and Clack’s Shameless Commerce Department on NPR’s Car Talk, I would not be hyping my own book, writes Bill Lambrecht, Bay Weekly co-founder and editorial advisor and Washington Bureau chief of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Nor would I be suggesting this read if the river I know intimately wasn’t on the verge of becoming national news.
But as you read this, the Army Corps of Engineers is struggling to keep control of America’s longest river (2,341 miles). The engineers are losing, as freakish rains and snowmelt from the eastern Rockies fill the river and force dam releases twice the volume of any in history.
A few years back, I spent a lot of time on the Missouri River from its sources in Montana to the confluence with the Mississippi at St. Louis. It was the route that Lewis and Clark traveled — going the other way — in a journey that forever changed America.
In Big Muddy Blues (2005), I hark back to their Corps of Discovery trek to describe how the river known as Big Muddy has changed. I do so largely by telling stories, about giant fish and rowdy characters, many from Indian Country in the Dakotas, where the exploitation of Native Americans continues to this day.
As a political writer by trade, I focus heavily on the river’s Byzantine politics over decades and how the Army Corps of Engineers came to dam and channelize America’s great highway to the west. This was a classic Washington tale of unbridled lobbying, clashes of giant egos and a so-called compromise that most benefited government agencies’ hunger for power and taxpayer cash.
The Corps of Engineers won the battle to take control over the mighty Missouri. But with reservoirs bulging, levees breaching and tsunami-like walls of water rushing down the river through untested dam machinery, it’s quite possible that Army engineers are wishing now they’d lost the Washington fight.
What the Corps doesn’t want to lose now, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, is control of the Big Muddy, which is threatening to bust loose from its straightjacket and run crazy across America’s middle.
Birds in the Hand: Fiction and Poetry about Birds
read by Dotty Holcomb Doherty
Last year, when my husband gave me Birds in the Hand: Fiction and Poetry about Birds (2005), I read one story then tucked the book away, like the song of the wood thrush that had migrated south. With the thrushes’ summer return, I’ve opened the book again. What a gift, writes Bay Weekly contributor, poet and birder Dotty Holcomb Doherty.
Edited by the father-daughter team of Kent and Dylan Nelson, this compilation of 70 stories and poems features birds, from raucous grackles that enter an open window to jewel-toned hummingbirds caught in the cobwebs of a dusty barn. But the birds are not the story; they are the wings.
In David Wagoner’s “The Bird Watcher,” a man finds solace in the whisper song of a winter wren moments before he holds a stranger’s life in his hands. A blackbird embodies sin for a Jesuit priest in John L’Heureux’s “Flight.” Excerpts from Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer and Howard Norman’s The Bird Artist remind me to re-read these soul-stirring novels. Li-Young Lee’s poem, “Praise Them,” captures the mood of this collection: “The birds don’t alter space. They revel in it.”
Like a nest, these stories and poems cradle our hearts, taking us into lives both determined and fragile in a world where, thankfully, birds still sing.
The Canyon Chronicles
read by Margaret Tearman
Soaring red cliffs. Boiling whitewater. Secret slot canyons. Poisonous snakes. Native American rituals. Killer heat. Raging blizzards … writes contributing editor Margaret Tearman, herself a frequenter of such places.
This is the setting for The Canyon Chronicles (2011), Bay Weekly columnist Steve Carr’s memoir of living on the edge in some of America’s wildest acres during the era when Ronald Reagan’s administration was commercializing our national parks.
The edge comes from copious amounts of hallucinogenic drugs, unabashed amorous couplings and a devil-may-care, shrug-of-the shoulders attitude.
Reading Carr’s book is akin to eavesdropping on men reliving their glory days. On occasion, the tales got tall enough that I was tempted to say enough. But instead I leaned in even closer, not wanting to miss any colorful detail of Carr’s testosterone-fueled remember when’s.
Like the afternoon he and his hiking companions found themselves clawing their way up a cliff of a Colorado River side canyon, desperately trying to escape a deadly flash flood raging just inches below them. Or a dream date gone bad when Carr carelessly underestimated the frigid air and water temperatures deep in a slot canyon, and he and his trusting date were lucky to avoid death by hypothermia. Or the solitary hike in the desert backcountry when Carr was bitten by a rattlesnake — yet managed to trot 13 miles back to his pickup truck, where he quenched his thirst with a few cold beers, then drove through the night to the Buckskin Bar … instead of visiting the local ER.
The book is not all Indiana Jones swagger. It is also the story of irresponsible federal forestry management and corporate greed run amok.
While working as a timber surveyor in the Kaibab National Forest from 1983 to ’86, Carr stumbled upon illegal timber harvesting on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. He handed over evidence of Kaibab Industry’s illegal cutting to a sympathetic game and fish warden, hoping heads would roll when the news got out. His actions helped fuel a lawsuit that eventually shut down illegal logging in the Kaibab.
A regular columnist for the Bay Weekly, Carr is a rollicking storyteller who takes the armchair adventurer along for his crazy ride against a backdrop of the stunningly beautiful American Southwest. He entertains with his misadventures and makes no apologies for his recklessness, writing with his characteristic what the hell, I did it attitude. Carr is no naturalist and doesn’t make that promise. This is a book about human foibles against the backdrop of a harsh and often unforgiving environment. But you will pick up some geography, history and geology.
The Canyon Chronicles is an off-the-wall trip of a book, a ticket to a land — and state of mind — far, far away from Bay Country.
The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love and the History of the World
read by Dick Wilson
Never, ever did I think I would read a book about physics, writes Bay Weekly proofreader and sometime drama critic Dick Wilson, also a devoted scuba diver.
But I was captivated from the first moment I opened Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon just to browse the contents and find out what it was about. I was intrigued by the title, which alludes to the many strange events and strange people that have appeared on the world stage as science has slowly deciphered nature’s clues to the elements.
It’s not a book designed for the mathematically gifted or those with scientific inclinations. Rather, it’s put together for us common folk who don’t know from nothin’ about science. And it’s fascinating throughout, from the Introduction, when the author describes how as a child he intentionally broke thermometers so he could watch his mother gather up the mercury using a toothpick. She never left even a tiny speck on the floor.
Just about every one of the 118 elements has a story, and the story isn’t always pretty. For example, a mine in Japan for centuries yielded a rich lode of gold, silver, lead and copper. Unfortunately, miners also dug up a byproduct element, cadmium, which they dumped into streams, poisoning large numbers of people.
The Disappearing Spoon is a rousing good story and well worth your time.
read by Sara Ebenreck Leeland
Attention to the natural world can open up revelations. No contemporary American poet can speak of such attention better than Mary Oliver, writes Sara Ebenreck Leeland, the Chesapeake writer whose book, Gather ’round Chesapeake: The Vision of Tom Wisner, will soon be in print.
Here’s proof from Oliver’s 2009 book, Evidence:
I don’t know who God is exactly.
But I’ll tell you this.
I was sitting in the river named Clarion,
on a water-splashed stone … and
Whenever the water struck the stone
it had something to say.
It could be the Severn, the Patuxent or the Chesapeake waters themselves. Read Mary Oliver while sitting at the beach and you’ll want to make friends with the water.
Oliver can be read in mourning as well as at the beach. I’ve read her poems aloud at birthday parties, at peace-group meetings and quoted lines in a lecture on Chesapeake waters.
Oliver is popular so you’ll find her at Barnes & Noble as well as small book stores and even among used books (mine count as treasures to pass on in other ways). She even has two CDs for listening in a car.
She was born in Ohio, but most of her decades have been lived in Massachusetts. It’s about a Northeast pond that she wrote of cupping her hands and drinking from the water:
It tastes like stone, leaves, fire.
It falls cold into my body, waking my bones.
I hear them deep inside me, whispering
oh what is that beautiful thing
that just happened?
Mary Oliver is a rare case where popular is also significant.
read by Mick Blackistone
My nature book for summer reading is a bit more serious than my normal summer reading of John Sanford or Robert Parker novels, writes Mick Blackistone, editor of the Watermen’s Gazette and author of eight books for children and adults on Chesapeake Bay, commercial watermen and the environment.
I’m recommending Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food (2010) by Paul Greenberg. The award-winning writer takes us on a journey throughout history to the present day of salmon, sea bass, cod and tuna. Fish are truly the last wild food, for now. By examining how fish get to our tables, Greenberg shows us how we can start to heal the oceans and fight for a world where healthy and sustainable seafood is the rule rather than the exception.
He visits Norwegian megafarms that use genetic techniques once pioneered on sheep to grow millions of pounds of salmon a year. He travels to the ancestral river of the Yupik Eskimos to see the only Fair Trade-certified fishing company in the world. Then he makes clear how PCBs and mercury find their way into our seafood; discovers how Mediterranean sea bass went global; challenges the author of Cod to taste the difference between a farmed and wild cod; and goes to the South Pacific to chase down the endangered bluefin tuna.
Greenberg says “in telling the story of four fish, for which the collision of wildness and domestication is particularly relevant, I shall attempt to separate human wants from global needs and propose the terms for an equitable and long-lasting peace between man and fish.”
Four Fish is an interesting, informative and well-written read for anyone interested in our oceans and our seafood.
Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman
read by Chris Trumbauer
Let My People Go Surfing is a fun book and an easy read by Yvon Chouinard, the founder and owner of Patagonia, says Chris Trumbauer, a lifelong Marylander who has been the West/Rhode Riverkeeper since 2008. Trumbauer, who was also elected to the Anne Arundel County Council (Sixth District) in 2010, says he owes his love of the natural world to a childhood spent in and around the Chester River on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
This is a book for all who have found themselves struggling to balance time between family, job and their love of the outdoors. Half biography and half philosophy, it details the history of Chouinard’s founding of the outdoors outfitter, weaving in adventures that shaped how he wanted his company to be run. The title refers to Chouinard’s beliefs about how a corporation can be socially responsible to its employees and environmentally responsible to the planet. Two big things: He encourages his employees to take time off to pursue outdoor interests. In another form of environmental stewardship, Patagonia provides support in grant funding to environmental organizations.
Chouinard asks some important questions, too, like whether it makes sense to pay people halfway across the world to manufacture shirts so we can sell them more cheaply. That’s a relevant discussion in the new economy and part of the context of the increasingly powerful buy-local movement, which is extending beyond food.
In a world that so often views environmental and corporate goals at odds, this inspiring book lays out a vision of how they can live in accord.
read by Jane Elkin
For all the seafarers, military and Man vs. Wild fans in our midst, I recommend Motoo Eetee (2002) by Irv C. Rogers, writes Jane Elkin, Bay Weekly theater critic and award-winning fiction writer, who hopes her novel-in-progress will one day appear on Bay Weekly’s summer reading list.
When a sealing barque sinks off the southern coast of New Zealand, four shipmates are marooned on a deserted island: the captain, first mate and two sailors. It is a rugged land, but one blessed with so many natural resources the men want only for rescue. Such survival stories are legion, with classic lessons to teach: ingenuity and composure can work wonders (Robinson Crusoe); solitude is dangerous (Cast Away); but safety in numbers is a myth (Lord of the Flies).
Unfortunately for this group, the commanding officer is a bumbling fool who insists on maintaining authoritarian rule even as his ignorance, cowardice and short-sightedness invite disaster for the entire party and the island that nourishes them. This is a primitive page-turner steeped in the social consciousness of the all-too-civilized 19th century. The situation would be laughable were the subjugated not so competent and the stakes so high.
River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey
read by Fred Tutman
Candice Millard’s River of Doubt (2005) tells an amazing story made even more so in that I had never before heard of it until I stumbled across this book, writes Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman, family farmer, former media producer and mid-life law student who became the world’s 165th riverkeeper in June of 2004.
Theodore Roosevelt, three-term former president, was at the end of his political career after a crushing loss to Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 presidential election. At the hearty age of 54, he set out to explore and chart the path and the source of a Brazilian River known at that time as the Rio da Divide, a 400-mile-long river that we now know flows into a tributary of the Amazon. The trip was launched in 1913, only months after Roosevelt survived an assassination attempt during his failed presidential campaign. The bullet wound in his chest left him weakened, but Roosevelt, a man legendary for his energy and hearty constitution, embarked on a perilous journey up an unknown river that would stretch his physical endurance to the limits.
There are few places on our planet out of reach of satellite mapping or more than a few hours flight time from a café latte. Cable TV has taken us vicariously to tropical jungles, distant mountain peaks and to the ends of the earth.
For most of us, a walk in the woods or a wade in the water are light-hearted things. But about a century ago, Roosevelt and his fellow travelers risked poisonous plants, carnivorous fish, sucking parasites, hostile Indians and many other dangers just to be the first so-called civilized men to do so. It is an ecosystem vividly portrayed against a backdrop of real danger and adventure. It is the world as another planet.
This book helped me appreciate that many of us struggle to find our balance with Mother Earth in highly personal and individual ways. Nature, being the ultimate setting, brings out who we really are, both our best and our worst.
Incidentally, the Rio da Divide was eventually renamed the Roosevelt River.
read by Diana Muller
When I think of fun summer environmental nature reading books, I want something that excites my passion and interest, writes South Riverkeeper Diana Muller, an environmental activist since her childhood on Washington state’s lower Puget Sound, who has been to and sampled most of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, from the Susquehanna River to the mouth of the Bay.
One of my favorite quick-to-read books is The Riverkeepers (1997), by John Cronin and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. It’s the real-life account of blue-collar commercial and recreational fishermen vs. large corporate energy enterprise and government. The fishermen were disgusted by the destruction of New York’s Hudson River and fisheries due to pollution, politics and corporate dollars. Cronin and Kennedy describe how a group of hard-working fishermen and volunteers took the Hudson back and made its water quality healthy again. This is a story that shows that Chesapeake Bay can really be saved.
South County Library Suggests More Nature Books
For Younger Readers:
Time of Wonder by Rober McCloskey
Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
Flotsam by David Wiesner
The Curious Garden by Peter Brown
The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
Squirrel and John Muir by Emily Arnold McCully
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgsen Burnett
For Older Readers:
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
Hoot by Carl Hiaasen
Sticky Burr: Adventures in Burrwood Forest, a graphic novel by John Lechner
Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman