Wicked River Read

For my birthday, Shannon gave me Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild, by the late Chicago writer Lee Sandlin. The book is best described as a history of the Lower Mississippi, focusing on the chaos and violence of the first century of white efforts to settle the river. As a Minnesotan, I was a little disappointed that the book didn’t include anything substantial on the river north of St. Louis – our own saint-named river town has a crazy history that’s worth knowing, as does its bigger, more serious sibling. (Sandlin does mention that the river, like its source state, gets its name from its native denizens – in this case, an Ojibwe term – Mizu-ziipi – for “very big river.”)

But man, does Sandlin make the most of his focus on the lower Mississippi, telling no end of amazing stories about the river as a highway, as a border, as a battlefield, and as a natural wonder. In a set piece early in the book (pp. 12-16), he sails with the reader from the evergreen forests around Lake Itasca down the infamously winding river to the trackless swamps near the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a wonderful passage, as evocative and mournful of the best John McPhee. What a journey that would have been in 1800 or 1700. To have seen the bison herds right up along the river!

In describing the river’s many faces and uses, Sandlin focuses – as the title suggests – on the untamed nature and people that, he says, characterized the Mississippi before the Civil War. Among others, he discusses pirates, traders, gamblers, soldiers, settlers, missionaries, sinners, and both the slaveowners and the enslaved – most of whom encountered or caused trouble, if not disaster, on the river. A long section on lower-river slaveowners’ terror about slave rebellions rings some familiarly contemporary notes of violence and paranoia.

The chapter on the 1863 siege of Vicksburg could have served as the emblem of human experience on the river – a horrific battle that ended in a Union victory, splitting the Confederacy and contributing to the Union’s victory two years later – but instead Sandlin provides an even more awful climax. Just a day after Lincoln’s assassination, a horrifically overloaded river steamboat, the Sultana, suffered a boiler explosion near Memphis and sank. Thrown into the river, 1,700 passengers died, including hundreds of Union troops traveling north from prison camps in the Confederacy.

The Mississippi did not need to sink steamboats to do damage to the people living on and around it, though. In some of my favorite parts of the book, though, Sandlin describes some of the jawdropping natural disasters on and around the river, like a massive tornado that struck Natchez, Mississippi, 1840. He has a great chapter on the amazing New Madrid earthquakes, which were probably the largest earthquakes in U.S. history – so big that they created temporary waterfalls on the river.

The Mississippi’s quintessential natural disaster, though, was flooding – a calamity that recurs throughout the book. The federal government’s post-Civil War efforts to control the floods led, Sandlin says, to the end of the river’s “wild” age. The Sultana‘s death toll in 1865 was so high, in fact, because the river was running high and cold with spring meltwater. Even more cinematically, Sandlin describes a bizarre episode in February 1856, when a brief thaw interrupted an unusually cold winter. At St. Louis, the melt freed a giant ice floe, which then smashed along the city’s famous levee, crushing forty steamboats and countless smaller vessels:

“The day was bitterly cold, and the pieces soon froze into place. By evening the levee had been covered over by ice; by morning there was a mountain range of ice twenty feet high. People peering into it could see the wreckage of the steamboats–the railings and chandeliers, the gambling tables and the wine goblets–preserved within the gleaming shadows of the ice mountains, where it would remain until the spring thaw came.”

Unbelievable, and yet completely in keeping with the character of wild river that Sandlin describes.


Postscript: I noted that Sandlin wrote several other books focused on the Midwest, and thought immediately that they’d be good to read. Then I saw online that he died unexpectedly in 2014. Why does this make me so sad?

The Big Burn

Last week I finally finished Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, a history of a massive 1910 wildfire in the northern Rockies. As I read the book, I realized that it fits into a wider set of recently-read books on the west and wildfires, including Philip Connors’ Fire Season (about time spent as a fire lookout in New Mexico), Norman Maclean’s short story/memoir “USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky,” Rick Bass’s Winter (about his first winter in northern Montana), or a lot of the John McPhee I’ve been devouring.

Egan’s book is a little frustrating, though. As his (or his publisher’s) subtitle suggests, the book can’t decide if it’s the story of how Theodore Roosevelt and his forester Gifford Pinchot started the American system of forest reserves (and its guardian agency, the U.S. Forest Service) or the story of the Big Burn in and around the Bitterroot Mountains along the Idaho-Montana state line.

The former story (split across the book’s long and somewhat meandering first section and a shorter, quicker ending section) is interesting, and resonates now, at a moment when misguided public servants in Washington and throughout the West think it’s high time to sell off public lands to private interests – and not to the homesteaders who tried to colonize the Bitterroot forests at the turn of the last century. Roosevelt, typically, comes off as a heroic figure, right up to the point that he loses the three-way 1912 election. Pinchot is more complex – a visionary, a conservationist, a millionaire, a jerk – and more interesting for that complexity.
Neither Teddy nor G.P. figures in the story of the Big Burn, though, and it’s the fire itself – a natural disaster of Biblical proportions – that stars in the book, especially in the middle section, when Egan grippingly describes the origins and spread of the conflagration. Thanks to an unusually dry summer, some bad weather, and the inadvertent creation of an infinite amount of tinder by the Forest Service’s policy of fighting all fires, the Big Burn ironically defied the Forest Service’s efforts to fight it. Over the two days it raged, the fire laid waste to millions of acres of backcountry forest, destroyed several towns (not all of which were rebuilt), and killed 80-some people – not as many as might have been expected given the fire’s scale and scope.

All that is to say that the fire restored a massive swath of the American West. Its elemental power could not be resisted, only accepted or escaped. Some who accepted the fire did so against their will and tragically, dying in a variety of horrifying ways that Egan outlines in some of the book’s more compelling and terrifying passages. And some who accepted the fire survived, though often after suffering permanent injuries. Egan movingly describes several survivors’ unsuccessful attempts to obtain aid from the federal government. He does not, though, describe the forest’s own rejuvenation, which left me hanging. I wanted to read more about how the Bitterroot forests grew back, what they looked like ten, twenty, fifty, or a hundred years after the fire – a period when the USFS managed or mis-managed them for the benefit, offer, or big lumber companies whose effects on the land were apparently as bad or worse than the fire. 

That the Western forests (and those in the South and East as well as in Alaska) were preserved or at least managed for the good of the country is what, I guess, the subtitle means, and so I guess that Egan does achieve that goal: showing how the calamity of the Big Burn focused conservationists’ energies on arguing, more or less successfully, that at least some of America’s lands needed to be held in common for the nation’s good. That’s a battle that we’re still fighting. 

Coyote Nation

When I was growing up in the U.P. in the ’70s and ’80s, coyotes were considered the menace to farm animals. Back then, wolves were (temporarily, as nature assured) absent from the Yoop, so coyotes – kai-ohts – assumed the apex predator spot that Canis lupus should have held, and in fact resumed sometime in the ’90s.

I have no idea if any Yooper farmers lost any livestock bigger than a chicken to Canis latrans, but my male relatives were unanimous in their hatred of coyotes, and were eager to kill them all. I never understood why this was, but then I ever understood why it was fun to sit in a tree for hours in the hopes of shooting a deer either. 

I did understand that the coyotes’ howls were thrillingly wild. When we stayed at our family’s hunting camp – a one-room shack in the northwestern corner of the Ottawa National Forest (almost a million acres of woods that covers almost all of the Wisconsin end of the U.P.) – we often heard coyotes singing at night. I lay there in my keeping bag in the bunk bed and imagined the coyotes sniffing around the building, drawn by scraps of food and our weird smells.

I don’t recall ever seeing any coyotes, but I must have, for as Dan Flores shows in his superlative Coyote America, coyotes are now America’s most ubiquitous big predator, despite continuing to be killed in the thousands every year. Some of the only actual coyotes I’ve ever seen – on a years’-ago bike ride – were three dead ones, dumped in a ditch not a mile outside of town. More recently I saw two skinny specimens patrolling a river near Island Park in eastern Idaho. They watched me and a friend bike along the opposite bank, then effortlessly scaled a sheer snowbank to get up off the river and onto the flat plain. 


Notwithstanding this pair in the underpopulated West, Americans now live among more of these scrawny, intelligent, shy beasts than ever before – a story that Flores tells with care, detail, a bit on anger, and a lot of humor in his book and with indignation in this New York Times op-ed. After a century of incessant, brutal biocide against the coyote, we should admit defeat and admire the victor. 

By rights, in fact, we Americans should do as generations of a Native Americans – from the Aztecs to the Apache – did, and worship the coyote as a nature god. Like God, Coyote is everywhere. As my friend Charlotte pointed out the other day, they’ve surely watched me on a bike ride. They’ve probably watched my girls playing in our backyard. A family of them might be right now in the field to the south, perhaps looking warily between the light spilling from my picture window and the harvester that’s growling along the rows of soybeans. Maybe they made a meal of one of the hundreds of Canada geese that gleaned in the field all afternoon. Regardless I’m pleased to know that they’re out there, outlasting and outsmarting us. 

Custer the Bastard

On our family trip to the Black Hills in South Dakota, I was – but should not have been – surprised by the volume of stuff related to George Armstrong Custer, famous for getting killed with all his men at the Battle of Little Bighorn by a massive Native American army that was, among other goals, fighting the encroachment of white settlers in places like the Black Hills – Ȟe Sápa in Lakota

As it happens, I’d seen T.J. Stiles’ new biography of Custer at the bookstore back home in Northfield, so I picked it up, eager to learn more about this famous figure, whom I only knew as a Civil War officer and an Indian fighter. Understanding Custer as more than those two roles is Stiles’s task and accomplishment. 

Stiles expertly structures the book around a series of “trials” (including several actual trials: courts martial for various offenses) that Custer precipitated and endured over the course of his full but short life. (Custer was only 36 when he was killed and mutilated at what the Indians called “Greasy Grass.”) Beyond Custer’s undeniable skill as a battlefield commander in both the Civil War and in various theaters of the Indian Wars, the man was, in brief, a bastard: a vicious disciplinarian, a philandering husband, an inveterate gambler, a preening dandy, a failed stock speculator, a Confederate sympathizer, an scheming careerist, an out-and-out racist… 

Stiles makes clear that in all these things, Custer was both a product of his times and a producer of them – as everyone is, though not usually to such an extreme and often appalling degree. Custer shaped and was shaped by a rapidly-changing America where what we might call a rugged individual (at least if he was white and male) was being submerged in an increasingly sophisticated, urban, and anonymous society, one more familiar to us, 150 years after Custer’s ignominious death, than the one into which the man had been born.

By the end of the book, I at least was eager to see Custer get what he had coming. And there Stiles dodges, holding Little Bighorn at arm’s length by examining the disaster through an official inquiry into its cause. Fittingly, part of that cause was Custer’s impetuosity and bloodlust: he wanted to exterminate the Indians whom he saw impeding the rightful expansion of the United States. Instead, the Indians forestalled that expansion, at least a little, by exterminating Custer’s force – and in a neat trick of history, assuring that he would never be forgotten.

Octopus Life

A while ago I asked for recommendations of natural-history and science books to read.
The Soul of an Octopus
Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus was heartily recommended by several people, and very much worth my time. The book is so beautifully and transparently written that it can be read quickly, which for me heightened its effect. Like an octopus using all eight arms to take in everything it can all at once, I wanted to gorge on everything the book has to offer: wonderful science writing on these utterly bizarre creatures; learned considerations of how humans can connect to wild creatures and, especially, what forms animal consciousness might take; and wonderful stories about her own relationships with several octopuses in a Boston aquarium.

The book contains too much of all that and more to summarize, so let me just say that anyone interested in animals or a nature beyond humans should read it. The closing passages were as moving as anything I’ve read this year, but every other page contained astounding stuff like this litany of octopus mythology:
Octopus Religion

The Pitchy Blackness

I’m finally reading *Danny the Champion of the World* by Roald Dahl, which both family and friends have said is great. It is, not least because the book includes paragraphs like this one, which stopped me as cold as an unrideable hill in the middle of a fatbike race.

The Pitchy Blackness
The Pitchy Blackness

Scareading

For several months now, the girls have been encouraging me to read some Neil Gaiman books. Okay, maybe *luring* me into etc. etc.
Creepy Tomes

Earlier this week I finally picked up *Coraline*, expecting to read a few chapters before bed. Three hours later I finished it, thoroughly creeped out.

After giving myself a few days to recover, I started *The Graveyard Book* on Friday evening. I was able to stop reading at midnight, which gave me the pleasures of some creepy dreams that night and of enjoying a little whiskey while finishing it tonight. If anything, Bod’s ordeals were even scarier than Coraline’s, though nothing can top this exchange between Coraline and her eye-buttoned other mother:
I Put Her Back

*Shudder*.

More Maclean…

Friday night – after stopping several times to put off the ending as long as possible – I finally finished Norman Maclean’s "USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky," the third story in the collection that my friend Julia bestowed on me a couple weeks ago.

"USFS 1919" is shorter than but at least as good as the collection’s lead piece, "A River Runs through It," Maclean’s most famous story (which I blogged about when I finished it a few days ago). Where "River" was a meditation on familial bonds and loss, "USFS" is a funny slow-motion adventure story about the young Maclean’s service on a U.S. Forest Service crew in the high Rockies near Hamilton, Montana, in summer 1919. Like "River," this story includes some wonderful sketches by R. Williams:
Bill Bell Heads Back Out

I wish the book had more of this visual art, but I am glad that "USFS" is full of literary art, especially beautiful passages of writing in which Maclean vividly describes the mountains and the woods and makes me wish I could there right now:

To a boy, it is something new and beautiful to piss among the stars. Not under the starts but among them. Even at night great winds seem always to blow on great mountains, and tops of trees bend, but, as the boy stands there with nothing to do but to watch, seemingly the sky itself bends and the stars blow down through the trees until the Milky Way becomes lost in some distant forest.

After a surprising August (!) snowstorm during a short stint as a fire watcher:

When I looked, I knew I might never again see so much of the earth so beautiful, the beautiful being something you know added to something you see, in a whole that is different from the sum of its parts. What I saw might have been just another winter scene, though an impressive one. But what I knew was that the earth underneath was alive and that by tomorrow, certainly by the day after, it would be all green again. so what I saw because of what I knew was a kind of death with the marvelous promise of less than a three-day resurrection.

Even before I got back to camp it had begun to melt. Hundreds of shrubs had been bent over like set snares, and now they spring up in the air throwing small puffs of white as if hundreds of snowshoe rabbits were being caught at the same instant.

As he rests during a long walk back from camp to Hamilton, he muses in a way that I recognize from racing in the winter:

When you look back at where you have been, it often seems as if you have never been there or even as if there were no such place.

(Two things about these passages: Maclean writes a great deal about pissing in the woods, an activity to which I can personally relate, and he is a masterful user – or non-user – of commas. He saves his commas like scarce nails and pounds them into his sentences only where truly needed.)

Into these passages of superlative nature writing, Maclean offers some glimpses of how he came to understand his mountain adventures as key phases of life and, eventually, as the raw material for literature:

I had as yet no notion that life every now and then becomes literature—not for long, of course, but long enough to be what we best remember, and often enough so that what we eventually come to mean by life are those moments when life, instead of going sideways, backwards, forward, or nowhere at all, lines out straight, tense and inevitable, with a complication, climax, and, given some luck, a purgation, as if life had been made and not happened.

Unlike "River," this piece has a big cast of more and less crazy characters, including Maclean himself – a 17-year-old kid with far more responsibility than he needs or merits but an excellent ability to make very poor decisions, like the choice to walk straight through from camp to town. The central characters though are the titular ranger and cook. Much of the story concerns how these two guys conceive of a scheme to end their season of work with a hell of a night on the town in Hamilton. I won’t ruin the story’s ending, which like the story’s landscape has several peaks (Maclean early on says he’s serving in an "ocean of mountains") but it’s amazing as prose, as story, and as life.

The only bad part about the ending of the story was that it came at the end. The good thing is that Julia has also sent me Maclean’s Young Men and Fire, his longest book and one that – she says – is as good as "River" and "USFS."

Rivers Run through It

At my friend Julia’s recommendation, I read Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs through It” today – a gorgeously warm fall day that seemed perfectly suited to the action of that incredible, indelible, devastating story.

I made sure to finish the “novella” with the girls in the room so that the ending – stupidly given away by my edition’s foreword – didn’t make me cry. I won’t spoil that ending here, except to say that MacLean knows exactly what he’s doing with and to his reader.

Even without knowing much about the story, I knew that fly fishing featured prominently in it. I’m no fisherman, with flies or live bait, but while reading the book, I had fixed in my head two scenes from my trips out west to race in the Fat Pursuit this and last winters. Rivers run through my experiences with those races.

Looking north up the Henry’s Fork in Island Park, ID. Supposedly the best fly-fishing river in the world.
Henry's Fork in Island Park, ID (March 2014)

Looking north up the Gallatin River from Greek Creek Campground along US 191, south of Bozeman, MT. If you had the full file you could see bighorn sheep on the left and fly fishermen downstream.
The Gallatin River south of Bozeman, MT

I’ve only been to these rivers a couple times, but I love them. If or when I see them again I’ll think of Maclean.

Misbehaving Thinking

A year or two ago, I read and loved Thinking, Fast and Slow, the huge but ceaselessly fascinating book by psychologist Daniel Kahneman in which he explains how and why humans think – and mis-think – the way we do. Though thoroughly theoretical and empirical, Kahneman’s book is also a deep fund of ideas for thinking better – for instance, how to make better decisions by defying the natural (or seemingly natural) human penchant toward loss aversion.

Having really enjoyed the survey of behavioral sciences in Thinking, I have been eager to read Robert Thaler’s Misbehaving, a much less formal but no less interesting book in which Thaler applies behavioral-science ideas to his home discipline, economics.
Misbehaving

Structured chronologically as a sort of history of behavioral economics, the field invented by Thaler and others like Kahneman and their mutual collaborator, the late Amos Tversky, the book explores the failings of standard economic theory to explain how actual people make actual economic decisions, from buying blankets to saving for retirement.

Far from being dry, the book is often hilarious, with Thaler telling funny stories from his (and his innumerable collaborators’) experiments, from history and current events, and especially from academic battles with traditional economists, especially in and around the University of Chicago, who adhere to the idea that people are (or can be) fully and inerrantly rational economic actors. Thaler calls these mythical figures "Econs," to distinguish them from the "Humans" who are intermittently rational but who are also subject to all kinds of cognitive and behavioral errors, flaws that are seemingly grounded in "human nature" – though Thaler thankfully doesn’t delve into that notion.

What sets this book apart from Thinking, and from the few other behavioral-econ books I’ve read, is the breadth and depth of the examples that Thaler uses to substantiate his arguments that humans ("Humans") are flawed thinkers and that standard economic theory often does a poor job of explaining what really happens in the economy and in society. Thaler predictably includes many examples of experimental contrivances like the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Ultimatum Game, but he also illustrates his theorizing with analyses of game shows, ski-hill season ticketing, and the Uber car service; critiques of the NFL draft, car-manufacturers’ rebate programs, and American retirement-saving policies; explanations of financial crises like Long Term Capital Management and the 2008-2009 housing bubble; and – most amusingly – a look at how the hard-core rationalists of the U of Chicago’s business school ignored economic theory in choosing offices in their new building. As an observer of (much tamer) faculty politics at Carleton College, I thought this chapter was worth the price of admission by itself.

Considered as a whole, Thaler’s book finally offers a subtle but powerful indictment of the idea that markets are the best way to organize economies and societies. Leaving aside the question of whether any market is really "free" (given the reciprocal habits of governments to encourage certain kinds of economic activities and of economic actors to seek governmental aid), Thaler shows that even the economy in which Americans live is riddled with flaws that impede everything from the "correct" pricing of stocks and effective saving for retirement to the structure of mass-merchandiser’ sales. Don’t trust the market, he seems to be saying, and don’t even trust others’ or your own thinking – at least not until you learn more about why and how you think the way you do, and try to misbehave better.

Book review: Philip Connors, All the Wrong Places

Thanks to my friend Julia, who has the enviable (if Sisphyean) job of being a free-lance professional book reviewer, I recently had the opportunity to read an amazing new memoir, All the Wrong Places, the second book by Philip Connors.

Last year, Julia had recommended that I read Connors’ first book, Fire Season, a long essay on his work at a lookout in a fire tower in a huge wilderness area in New Mexico. Both a reflection on a solitary endeavor and a historical and philosophical examination of the nature of wildness, Fire Season is exceptionally good, and well worth the time of anyone who enjoys memoir or nature writing.

All the Wrong Places is a kind of prequel to Fire Season, a partial explanation of why Connors abandoned a good life and career in New York City for the isolation and inwardness of the fire tower. In brief, the second book is the story of Connors’ efforts to understand how his older brother, Dan, came to commit suicide, more or less out of the blue. Connors tells this story in masterful style. As much as I loved his prose in Fire Season – which is studded with glowing passages on wildness, on the history of wilderness preservation in the U.S., on the difficulties and pleasures of living utterly alone for weeks at a time – I thought that Connors made huge steps forward as a stylist in Places.

He uses that gorgeous writing to advance a story whose climax we seemingly know almost from the start of the book, when he relates, with exquisite care and equal measures of pain and anger, the details of Dan’s suicide. In the rest of the book, Connors examines this act – selfish, pained, mysterious – from every angle he can, seeking to understand why Dan blew his head off. In making this investigation, Connors exhibits a good sense of his own selfishness, of his narcissistic desire to relieve his guilt at having somehow maybe contributed to Dan’s decision to kill himself. Connors weaves together many moving and often hilarious stories about the classic methods he uses to try to lift his sense of responsibility – talking incessantly with his parents and sister about Dan, drinking a lot, fucking whenever and whomever he can, working too hard. (His insider view of his journalizing at the Wall Street Journal is especially hilarious.)

In his effort to understand, Connors takes his forensic efforts further than most of us would; he interviews the coroner and others who examined Dan’s body and even obtains pictures of Dan’s corpse. But toward the end of the book, these increasingly morbid inquiries are overshadowed by a family secret that immediately seems both necessary and sufficient as an explanation of Dan’s decision to kill himself. A reviewer can’t of course reveal that secret or what Connors does with his discovery, but he can say that getting to that point is well worth a reader’s time, and that the real climax of this self-murder mystery is as gripping a moment as anything he’s read.

Great Plains: Americas Lingering Wild

I just finished reading this amazing book – Great Plains: Americas Lingering Wild.
Forsberg, Great Plans

The Nebraska-based photographer Michael Forsberg thought up the idea for the book and filled it with dozens and dozens of exceptional shots of prairies from Minnesota to Montana, North Dakota to New Mexico – plants, animals, people, and especially the land itself.

Buffalo at the Buffalo Gap

Forsberg’s photographs are complemented by short essays by geographer Davis Wishart and natural historian Dan O’Brien, whose eloquence and erudition complement Forsberg’s artistry. Loss is an explicit theme in O’Brien’s writing, an implicit one in Wishart’s – the decline and death of countless plant and animal species, the near-extermination of the grassland’s original Native inhabitants, the continuing erosion (literal and figurative) of all three kinds of prairie…

Yet as O’Brien comes to realize through his work with Forsberg, denizens of the plains do have some reasons for optimism. Arguably, we are now experiencing a moment when more people than ever before are interested in "saving" the prairies as ecosystems, as homes for myriad living creatures, and as colossally beautiful places. Reading this book makes me – an immigrant to the prairie – want to do more to save it and expand it and love it.

Rinella, American Buffalo

Tetons Bison
Tetons Bison

Steven Rinella’s American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon is excellent look at the natural history of the North American bison, framed by the author’s hunt of a buffalo in Alaska in 2006. As his trek illustrates in gripping, gory detail, the connection between humans and bison has always been complicated. Bison are the oldest kind of meat on the continent, but they have also carried a heavy symbolic weight for centuries, if not millennia – as food, as collections of usable flesh and bone, as holy creatures, as emblems of the West and of America itself. Rinella does a superb job examining all these aspects of the buffalo, and telling a great adventure story, too.

This passage on the buffalo’s extraordinary ability to withstand the cold is maybe my favorite bit in the book:

Rinella p. 66

Rinella p. 67

 

Going West like Lewis and Clark

I finished Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage today, after years of meaning to read the book and months of work at actually reading it. The book is now a classic piece of American history, the best popular look at the Lewis & Clark expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific Coast in 1803-1806.

Though I could quibble with various aspects of Ambrose’s treatment of the history of the expedition*, overall I found the book to be a superb piece of history. Ambrose’s writing is clear and occasionally beautiful, he does a great job of mining the explorers’ journals and other primary sources, and above all he effectively conveys the terror and wonder of the expedition into lands that were unknown to Americans.

A few aspects of the expedition really stood out to me:
+ The colossal scale and reach of the Missouri River, which dwarfs the Mississippi in every way. (Why do we even care about the Mississippi again?)
+ The variety and number of the Natives along the expedition’s route. "Tribes" is such a misnomer. If the Native peoples were not nation states, they were at least nations.
+ The incredible, already diminishing complexity of natural life on the plains and in the mountains.
+ The difficulty of getting anywhere when the fastest mode of transportation was a horse or a sailing boat.
+ The naïveté of Americans’ views about their influence on the European colonial powers and Native nations. The reach of American foreign policy has exceeded its grasp at least since Jefferson.
+ The majesty and obduracy of the western mountains.

I pushed to finish the book now because some of my drive later this week will follow the explorers’ route west and see some of the mountains they saw. It’ll be cool to see things they saw, more than 200 years ago.

Book Report: Philip Connors, Fire Season

My ridiculously well-read friend Julia recommended that I read Fire Season, a book-length essay by Philip Connors on his work as a fire-tower lookout in the mountain forests of New Mexico. Connors’ writing is amazing, evoking both the wildness of his setting (which I now have a deep desire to see firsthand) and the civilized nature of his work, which aims, at its base, to preserve what man values in nature. I loved lines like

Time spent being a lookout isn’t spent at all. Every day in a lookout is a day not subtracted from the sum of one’s life.

which seems as true for my favorite outdoor activity (riding bikes!) as it does for being a lookout.

Connors’ skills at crafting prose are matched by his skills at explaining the American perspectives on fire and on wilderness. Much of the book concerns how the U.S. Forest Service – Connors’ employer – has understood the primordial force of wildfire, and how it has reacted to it. The historical material is fascinating on its own (someone seriously proposed clear cutting the Rockies to prevent fires!) and as context for Connors’ own stints in the watchtower. Not all of the fires he spots garner a response from the Forest Service: some are left to burn acres and miles of forest, contributing to the endless natural cycle of burning and growth.

But Connors also adds his voice to the conversation about what wilderness is, and what it’s for. He comes down in favor of preserving wilderness for its own sake: not as a place for humans to “recharge” but as a place apart from humans and, I thought by the end of the book, better than we are.