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.)

Wild by Cheryl Strayed (with a look at structure)

wild-cheryl-strayedStrayed, Cheryl. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. New York: Vintage Books, 2013. Print.

Genre: memoir (specifically, one of those young-woman-in-crisis-goes-a’-traveling memoirs)

Summary: This book is Eat, Pray, Love meets A Walk in the Woods.

Despite a mostly impoverished, sometimes rough childhood, Cheryl grew up generally loved by everyone but herself. Soon after her mother dies suddenly from aggressive cancer, Cheryl’s life falls apart. She grows estranged from her siblings and stepfather, she cheats repeatedly on her beloved husband, and she slides into a corrosive affair with drugs. A chance purchase in a hardware store leads her to the Pacific Crest Trail, which she decides to hike from summer to fall. Never mind she has zero experience hiking or backpacking. Never mind that her pack weighs more than several NFL linebackers. Never mind that her boots are too small. Never mind she has no knowledge of wilderness survival — hell, she can barely survive everyday life. Cheryl becomes obsessed with the trail and her conviction that it will lead her back to the pure soul she used to be.

Critique: Readers who enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s riveting spiritual-emotional rise from a suicidal life-crisis into a Zen Master Cinderella will derive similar inspiration from Strayed’s memoir. And what Strayed lacks in Bill Bryson’s rib-tickling wit, she makes up for in devil-may-care hubris for the potential dangers of a hike that challenges even the most poised outdoorsmen. And unlike Gilbert or Bryson, the final third of Strayed’s memoir deserves oodles of praise simply because it holds true to its promise. That is, she sticks to the appointed finish line.

Readers will find Strayed’s writing at its best when delving into the grimiest, dirtiest, most loathsome moments of a life gone wrong. She accurately maps out the seemingly innocuous events that contribute to disastrous decisions, but her tender perspective is likely to invoke empathy from the most judgmental cynics.

Writers and writing students will find much to harvest from the cunning structure of the memoir, which follows the “lowercase e” format. Rather than start at some chronological beginning and work a linear path forward, Strayed opens her narrative roughly near the middle, when a minor freak accident — a prank played by the gods — causes her to lose her hiking boots in the middle of nowhere. Strayed ushers the reader a tad forward, giving the overall context of her situation (the fact that she has set out to hike hundreds of miles of high mountain terrain alone, as well as her desired destination) before wrapping backwards into the past, just like the little e.

Strayed is certainly not unique among memoir and travel writers when it comes to deploying the little e thanks, in large part, to all the how-to-nonfiction craft books pointing at John McPhee’s famous little e essay, “Travels in Georgia.” Where Strayed stands out is in her ability to construct the swelling arc of that little e. Like the ancient winds that carved out Moab’s stone bone bridges, Strayed crafts a breathtaking climax whose singular wonderment hinges not on the escalation, but on the inevitable collapse, the inescapable catastrophe.

By the time readers sense the narrative bending back around to the “all is lost” beat of the beginning, they are all but foaming for the descent into disaster. They’re hankering for calamity is practically manic. This is not to say readers are heartless and cruel — far from it. Readers clamor for the this down-dog roller coaster moment because the arc of the little e has provided sufficient evidence to suggest the hapless narrator might just survive the very worst of hiking nightmares. They cannot wait to see the worst bring out the best.

In short, the structure forms an architectural framework for hope.

landscapearchpano

Striking a Balance by Yours Truly

cobblestone_article

I’m going Old Faithful and spewin’ some really exciting news here:

In honor of the National Parks Service Centennial, my latest article, “Striking a Balance,” appears in the May/June issue of Cobblestone magazine! For a century, the Parks have teetered on a tightrope slung between the demands of sharing their natural splendors with millions of visitors and protecting those treasures from the daily wear and tear.

To root out potential solutions and a path to the NPS’s bicentennial celebration, readers get to know Valerie Gohlke, a long-time Park Ranger, who has faced the geyser towers of Yellowstone and the cyclone of bats Carlsbad Caverns!

Check with your local library for the latest issue of Cobblestone, or go online to order: http://shop.cricketmedia.com/Cobblestone-Magazine-May-June-2016.html.

The Goshawk by T. H. White

goshawkWhite, T. H. The Goshawk. 1951. Ashland, OR: Blackstone Audio, 2015. CD.

Genre: nonfiction/nature memoir

Summary: White chronicles his misadventures and many mishaps in an attempt to tame a goshawk. He knows only what he has learned from old books. Nonetheless, he is driven by his love of the medieval and ancient cultures who reserved the designation of “gentleman” for the men who mastered the mighty raptors. Using only kindness and persistence, White proceeds to deprive the bird of sleep for up to nine days. But whatever the bird endures, so too must the falconer, or ostringer. Man and bird wear each other down, but in their delirium, they might just learn to communicate, confess, and conspire as equals–or die trying!

Critique: White is best known for his Arthurian sequence, The Once and Future King. His finesse as a craftsman of lush worlds and compelling characters shines in this work of nonfiction. Structurally, White divvies the tale by days of the week, as if falconry was one of the most mundane weekly activities. Something you or I might pencil into our day runners or tap into our Google calendars. The result is a successful dismantling of the wall that might otherwise divide the modern reader from the ancient sport.

The accounts of man and bird are a mix of funny, insightful, tragic, and absurd. The willful, fierce, and stubborn hawk, lovingly named Gos, quickly intoxicates White. He alternately admires and pities the feral freedom embodied in this creature’s every behavior, expression, and gesture. But something tantalizingly vibrant and ultimately doomed lurks within the potential partnership between man and bird of prey.

On its surface, this text of reluctant animal/man friendship reads much like the classic boy/beast stories such as White Fang and Old Yeller. But, deep in its subaceous layers resides the ultimate writer’s craft book. Move over, Anne Lamott! White has a literal bird-by-bird approach that is just the theriac a writer needs to undertake the dangerous task that is writing.

Like falconry, writing bids us to tame a wild thing: the imagination! It is risky and you can bet on many sleepless nights, plenty of repeated failures, and some bloodshed. Sometimes, a partnership emerges and the writer yawps with success. Other times, the jesses break and the beast flaps away into the dark forest, leaving the writer crouched and weeping. Either way, the writer–like the falconer–must choose to respond with genteel kindness, compassion, and tenacity. Or else forever earn the impermeable hatred of the mythical creature uniquely capable of plucking out the stories hiding in the tall grasses.

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…