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Explore the natural world with Snowy Egret, the oldest independent U.S. journal of nature writing.
Snowy Egret, Vol. 65, #1
Snowy Egret, Vol. 65, #1


Past installments of Book NotesWild:
Fall 2002
Spring 2004
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BOOK NOTES WILD
Tales of a River Rat

"Now I'm in the Big Woods, sitting in the shade of the old basswoods. How they whisper in the breeze! The water in the log pool is dark and foreboding. A fine scum rests against the upstream edge of the logs. How long have they lain in their watery grave? Two red-tail hawks soar on silent wings; around and around they go. Are they related to the hawk we watched on my first trip here more than forty years ago? I'd like to think so. A splash in the scum breaks the spell. I look down to see ripples where a trout took a fly."

from "The Spring That Runs
Forever
"

The Natural Navigator

Prior to the compass, winds and their different characteristics were used to understand direction itself. The ancient Greeks noted that the south wind was dry and hot when it came from the direction of the winter sunrise (a little north of southeast) and moist and hot when it came from the direction of the winter sunset (a little north of southwest). The direction the wind had come from and the wind itself were one and the same, so that the cold northerly wind was called Boreas, a word also used to mean north.

Governing the Wild

What if rather than watcher and watched - subject and object - the intersection of hunan and nonhuman was reframed as an encounter? This is not to suggest that there wouldn't be power relations laden in such a meeting, but rather that there would be recognition of both the human and the nonhuman as participants in this dance... Understanding the meeting as an encounter would not deny all the practices that have shaped the lives of both nonhumans and humans alke, such that we arrive at this place and this moment. It wouldn't separate us from them.

The Nature Principle

As a species, we are most animated when
our days and nights on Earth are touched by the natural world. We can find immeasurable joy in the birth of a child, a great work of art, or falling in love. But all of life is rooted in nature, and a separation from that wider world desensitizes us and diminishes our bodies and spirits.

Hunter's Log

Suddenly we heard the sound of barking -

the snuffling nose that pheasant hunters prize -

the labrador, quartering, flushing, marking.

I glimpsed the wolfish hunger in your eyes

as Feeney zigzagged through the rows of trees,

kicking out flustered hens on either side.

From the dry switchgrass whispering at my knees

two roosters vaulted skyward, and they died.

Canyon Crossing

Night is erased from the edges of the sky on a May morning. The sun prepares to transform the canyon. The bluer tones of dawn will soon lift and reveal the earthy colors soaked into the rocks. Into the soft morning light, six friends set off on
the South Kaibab Trail.
Tales of a River Rat: Adventures Along the Wild Mississippi, by  Kenny Salwey. 256 pp. Fulcrum, 2012.

The "Wild Mississippi" in this collection of essays is the backwaters of the Upper Mississippi River in Minnesota and Wisconsin, some six thousand acres of seasonally flooded hardwood swamps and heavily forested uplands. Though wild and undeveloped and largely unspoiled, this land is in constant earshot of one of North America's noisiest river channels.

This has been the domain of  nature writer, storyteller, river guide and environmental educator Kenny Salwey for more than three decades. He describes it in first person prose, as if dictating en plein air:

The subject of a 2004 BBC documentary in its Natural World Collection, Salwey is often referred to as the "last of the river rats," a rare breed of people who pretty much live off the land in this harsh territory.

Salwey's essays  are predominantly autobiographical present tense stories of his life in the wild - running a trapline, training a hunting dog, studying wildlife, guiding birders, fishing for trout, encountering bears and muskrats, and getting lost in a blizzard. There's also a handful of his poems in the book and even a recipe for cowboy cookies.

The Natural Navigator: The Rediscovered Art of Letting Nature Be Your Guide, by Tristan Gooley. 320 pp. Linden Publishing, 2012.

British expeditionist Tristan Gooley has sailed across oceans, flown  between continents, and climbed many of the world's tallest mountains using the natural navigation skills described in this book.

While humans have been making their way from place to place for a millennium, there is no record of how the earliest travelers navigated, or how often they got lost. Accounts of navigation methods don't show up in any culutre's literature until about a thousand years ago.

Gooley's obsession with the art of navigation began as an empowered 10-year-old sailing a dinghy. "I had garnered the skills to go wherever I wanted. Not where my teachers told me to go, not where my parents wanted me to go, but where I wanted to go."

This book explains how to find your way without GPS or even compasses, but with shadows, stars, tides, plants, clouds, the moon, the sun and wild animals. Also known as ‘wayfinding,’ natural navigation techniques can be used on land, sea or in mid-air. 

Governing the Wild: Ecotours of Power, by Stephanie Rutherford. 288 pp. University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

National parks, natural history museums, nature-based theme parks and nature documentaries not only share information about the environment but also define and regulate our understanding of the natural world. The essays in this volume demonstrate how these cultural institutions tell stories of "nature threatened, managed, and recuperated" to the exclusion of other kinds of tales so that "other ways of encountering nature are rendered unthinkable, other stories unsayable."

Stephanie Rutherford, editor of the volume, suggests an alternative perspective:

“What if rather than watcher and watched - subject and object - the intersection of human and nonhuman was reframed as an encounter? This is not to suggest that there wouldn't be power relations laden in such a meeting, but rather that there would be recognition of both the human and the nonhuman as participants in this dance. Of course, the animals that the ecotourists travel to Yellowstone to see are unfree in some sense, rooted as they are in place by not only the boundaries of the national park but also the human practices that have destroyed their habitats. However, understanding the meeting as an encounter would not deny all the practices that have shaped the lives of both nonhumans and humans alike, such that we arrive at this place and this moment. It wouldn't separate us from them.”

The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age, by Richard Louv. 352 pp. Algonquin Books, 2012.

“As a species, we are most animated when our days and nights on Earth are touched by the natural world. We can find immeasurable joy in the birth of a child, a great work of art, or falling in love. But all of life is rooted in nature, and a separation from that wider world desensitizes us and diminishes our bodies and spirits.”

In 2005, Richard Louv identified a widespread ailment in American children that he called "nature-deficit disorder." In this book, he describes the same deficiency in adults and suggests some cures.

"In recent years an emerging body of research has begun to describe the restorative power of time spent in the natural world," he explains. "Even in small doses, we are learning, exposure to nature can measurably improve our psychological and physical health."

Finding our way back to nature is the problem. Today, for the first time in history, more than half the world's population lives in towns and cities and traditional ways of experiencing nature through work and daily living are vanishing along with hundreds of animal species. Where do we find nature amidst the sea of circuitry in which we are immersed? Louv has some suggestions:

Begin by embracing with joy the sanguine mystery and beauty of life. Get outside. Experience the natural world and therein find hope in its restorative powers and imagine a better future.

Hunter's Log, by Timothy Murphy. 100 pp. The Dakota Institute, 2011.

The essence of autumn on the northern plains of America, and North Dakota in particular, is bagged and brought home in this collection of hunting poetry.

In a preface to his work, the poet explains that hunting has taught him accuracy of observation and, as a writer, accuracy of expression. Both skills are effectively employed in poems like "Missouri Breaks":

A blooded dog quarters the feral rye,
and my body's long quarrel with my mind
is silenced by a landscape and a sky
legible as a Bible for the blind.

Inspired by Ortega y Gassett's "Meditations on Hunting," gifted to him by his father, Timothy Murphy feels "the killing of the game is a ritual preparation for our own mortality." In "The Blind," the poet describes an outing with an aging father:

By some ancestral code
fathers and sons don't break,
we each carry a load
of which we cannot speak.

Here we commit our dead
to the unyielding land
where broken windmills creak
and stricken ganders cry.

Father, the dog, and I
are learning how to die
with our feet stuck in the muck
and our eyes trained on the sky.

Canyon Crossing: Experiencing Grand Canyon from Rim to Rim, by Seth Muller. 272 pp. Grand Canyon Association, 2011.

A narrative about the author's exploration of the corridor trails of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, this book introduces the inner recesses of the national park with a mixture of storytelling, interviews and descriptive prose.

The National Park Service defines "corridor trails" as those receiving regular maintenance and patrols by park rangers. At the Grand Canyon, there are three such trails. On the South Rim, there are the Bright Angel Trail, the River Trail and the South Kaibab Trail; on the North Rim, visitors hike the North Kaibab Trail.

"People travel from all over the country and the world for the chance to walk or run from one side of the canyon to the other - or from either rim to the very bottom on foot or mule," Seth Muller explains. "The journey etches itself into the memory of its travelers, to radiate for years. Grand Canyon guides speak of clients contacting them five, ten, and fifteen years after a trip to reconnect with their fond memories of the grandest of chasms."

Muller similarly revisits fond memories and favorite treks accumulated during a decade of Grand Canyon journalism in this volume, recounting his journeys along these trails and the rangers, muleskinners, artists, ultra-marathoners and fellow hikers encountered along the way.

"The canyon challenges us to stare at it and think about it. To contemplate our own tiny lives."

Indeed.

The Audubon Backyard Birdwatcher Field Guides

The majority of birdwatchers are the backyard variety who put out a feeder or two and maybe a bird bath of sorts. Unlike serious birders who may travel long distances to add some rare birds to their life lists, home-based birdwatchers take enjoyment from watching the species that come to visit and return year after year. The Audubon Backyard Birdwatcher,by Robert Burton and Stephen Kress (Thunder Bay Press, 2012) serves the backyard variety with sharp photos and descriptions of the 100 most common birds found in home gardens of North America. Field guides to the other 8,900 species of birds worldwide are available elsewhere, but this one provides detailed instructions for setting up backyard feeding stations, building ponds and windbreaks, and choosing plants for the landscape that will attract birds to the yard.










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