Upstream by Mary Oliver

Yea or nay: Humans, with all their mighty know-how, should alter the world and fix all that ails it. Yea or nay: Humans should sit back, only observe, and do their best to not interfere with natural processes, like National Geographic wildlife photographers.

Oliver, Mary. Upstream: Selected Essays. New York: Penguin, 2016. Print.

Summary: In a series of essays, Mary Oliver traces the riparian zone of our role in this monstrous, miraculous, moiling and mending world. Although some of the works were previously published, here they are recombined, juxtaposed with newer works to provoke fresh questions, perspectives, and mystification.

Critique: Whether through poetry or prose, Mary Oliver opens your eyes. Nay, she uses her arresting imagery and metaphors to perform an ocular transplant, bequeathing unto you eyes which will never see the world in the same  way. Ever. Again.

Take for instance that pendulous clock in the hall, with its white spider belly. As soon as you notice it, you realize you are and have always been stuck on time’s web, your flesh a feast in slow mastication. Or, what about that time of year when the world “smells like water in an iron cup”? Or the way egrets drink the light rays off the tops of pond water?

The world is full of splendors to be seen and felt and known. But that is not the only point Oliver is out to make. We are not just observers. We are animals, too. We hunger. We create. We destroy. In other words, we exist. But how are we to exist when all the actions centipeding in the shady soil beneath that concept threaten to sink this planet deeper into its naturally cataclysmic cycles?

I do not mean to say this collection is an open diatribe on global climate change. It isn’t. In her usual way, with her characteristic poise and grace, Oliver comes like a sunset shadow, her questions traveling a slender, irregular, delicate path over some very solid ground.

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

abbey_desertsolitaireThe perfect book for anyone feeling, of late, as though the barbarian hordes are besieging all that is sacred and precious.

Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire. New York: Ballantine, 1968. Print.

Genre: nonfiction (nature/politics…enviropolitico?)

Summary: Edward Abbey, a rebel-rousing UNM graduate, goes to work for the National Parks Service. He endures a year in Arches, Utah, where he struggles with the merciless scrape of desert heat, as well as his swelling misanthropy for tourists and park administrators who seem to nimbly defile the sensuous landscape at every turn.

Critique: Like Abbey himself, the writing and narrative within this text are wayward, willful, fluid, stubborn, and unconventional. First and foremost, the book is an ode to the outdoors. A long, luxurious love poem honoring geology, praising desolation, and admiring stark vistas.

Second, the book may also serve as one of the most engrossing horticultural guides you’ll ever read.

Finally, Solitaire may be one of the timeliest treatises you could read this year, as the NPS picks up up the diapers and debris following the massive, record-busting influx of visitors during its 2016 centennial celebration, despite the endemic budgetary strangleholds imposed by Congress which have produced massive infrastructural failures. But will there be National Parks to flock to in the coming years? There is plenty of reason to worry and doubt, given the most recent White House Administration appointments, which have included powerful figures who oppose the fundamental premise of “public lands in public hands,” who ignore the studies linking spiritual and psychological healing with regular exposure to wild lands, who instead subscribe piously to a religion of nature as a source of untapped economic pulp.

Have we been through territory like this before? Yes, says Abbey. And we survived with our Parks–a unique notion in the world when they were first protected for the enjoyment of all people now and in the future, regardless of income, gender, religion, political leaning. Will we, and our Parks, survive this unfolding predicament? On that, Abbey cannot rightly say (and not just because he died in 1989). Since Abbey’s time, the Parks have come to face a truly dire duo of fresh challenges: appealing to minorities and Generation App.

What Edward Abbey might say is that the disconnects these populations experience when they visit a National Park links to the very infrastructure designed to attract them–an infrastructure he vehemently opposed and actively obstructed. Roads. Scenic pull-overs. Clean, running water. Flushing toilets. In Abbey’s view, these conveniences prevent people from breaking past the surface of what it is to be in the wild and witness its jaw-dropping miracles and horrors. Our predilection with comfort inhibits our chance to be and feel exposed…at risk…immersed…swallowed…challenged…basically, alive.

Read this book and take from Abbey a view of what the Parks are and were; what they’ve lost and what they could be. Glean from his feral trompings through the needling canyons what it is to be an animal outdoors, your civilized skin eroding like the stone arches, your spirit expanding, fed fat on the eternal nutrients of sun and space. Read this book and take heart; the revolution will, at least, have campfires!

(Photo credit for the teetering rock: NPS/Neal Herbert.)

The Animal Dialogues by Craig Childs

childs_animaldialoguesChilds, Craig. The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild. New York: Little, Brown, and Young, 2007. Print.

Genre: narrative nonfiction

Summary: Craig Childs is a naturalist and award-winning writer. He has spent his entire life prodding the invisible tissues that connect man, animal, earth, time, life, and death. This brings together a collection of striking essays, musings, and mementos describing his encounters with all kinds of creatures and beasts. Cougars, bears, jaguars, elk, ravens, fish, sharks, owls, even the common cat and domestic dog.

Critique: Rather than a critique of this book, I offer would-be readers a warning. Do not read this book if you are neither ready nor willing to see the world in a whole new way. Do not glance at a single page or paragraph unless you can accept that the universe does not operate in the way you have always presumed. Through Childs’ eyes you will experience a world were waterfalls in the distance are loose strings and threads. Shorelines are the haggling grounds between oceans and mountains. Time is simultaneously vast and puny.

Language is different with Childs, too. He admits early on he has to use a sort of different language to convey what it is like to come into contact with animals the way he has. The experience is a lot like trying to build the sky out of sticks, he says. But you have been warned: Childs is incredibly skilled with his sticks!

Be careful, else you’ll start to speak, think, and feel differently. You too may realize dawn is not a time, but a color you can feel on your face. You may notice how “blood jacks into muscles” when you stand toe-to-claw with a hungry predator. Perhaps a growl or roar will feel like an animals voice breaking the air on your back. Or how your body transforms into “a single muscle sliding like pure light between the trees” as you run with, or maybe away from, an animal.

What’s that? You’re going to nab this book and start reading it? Even though nature is savage and full of frightening beasts — the most horrifying beast of all being the one you keep locked inside your own skin, denied the feral pleasures of sun, air, chase, and dark??? Don’t say I didn’t warn you…