I'm getting closer and closer to seeing my first book published, which is really the realization of a fantasy I've had since I was a little itty bitty bookworm. At the same time, I'm in the midst of one of those uncanny, serendipitous spates that can occur as a reader when every book you buy or randomly discover is just amazing. So for these reasons and in the spirit of celebrating and appreciating the written word, I decided to start a gallery here of the books I've recently read or am reading now (to be found to your right). Jeff Vandermeer's trilogy, of which this book Acceptance is a part, not only has the best designed covers of 2014 but are among the weirdest, most provocative things I've ever read: a sci-fi/natural history genre mash up.
"The finality of extinction is awesome, and not unrelated to the finality of eternity. Man, striving to imagine what might lie beyond the long light years of stars, beyond the universe, beyond the void, feels lost in space; confronted with the death of species, enacted on earth so many times before he came, and certain to continue when his own breed is gone, he is forced to face another void, and feels alone in time. Species appear and, left behind by a changing earth, they disappear forever, and there is a certain solace in the inexorable." –Wildlife in America, 1959
"Once in a very great while, a species that is thought extinct is rediscovered, long before another heaven and another earth have passed. Sometimes it is utter serendipity..." --The Ghost With Trembling Wings
Back in Albuquerque, I finally found a 1st edition of a book I've been searching for the last year, River of Traps by writer William deBuys and photographer Alex Harris. When it came out in 1990, the book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize but both author and photographer weren't very well-known. deBuys had written one other New Mexico-centric book, Enchantment and Exploitation, and Harris had just founded the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University after years of photographing native Alaskans and living in New Mexico. Today, deBuys has published widely on the topic of desertification and conservation and Harris' work is in collections like MOMA and the Getty.
River of Traps has become something of a quiet cult classic (it was reissued in 2008) because it is so unusual: loosely-connected observations about a New Mexico farmer, Jacobo Romero, who was a neighbor to deBuys and and Harris on their own farm in northern New Mexico, accompanied by black and white photographs. Much of the book follows Romero through his fields and village as he cryptically explains the complexities of irrigation or fence-making. He didn't necessarily have revolutionary ideas or major accomplishments to his name. He wasn't even well-known during his lifetime beyond his small village. It's just that over time, he has become a representation of a way of life and a kind of deeply-indigenous knowledge--the product of generations of stewardship of the land--that has become so rare it is nearly extinct, even in New Mexico. His significance has become clearer and more urgent over the years. .
I think some of the best passages from River of Traps are descriptions of Romero's brutally pragmatic relationship to death, an attitude born of survival and utilitarianism, even when it was the passing of a horse that had carried and toiled for him for over 30 years only to die in a fairly tragic fashion during a flood.
"Alex never photographed the red horse, and the red horse never had a name. Like much else in the history of small places, the horse epitomized something basic about the land that nourished it. It was an embodiment, literally, of the valley's grass and water, and a relic of its weather. LIving, it had been a definition of local horsiness, ridden by an old man and plodding as slowly as the change of seasons down the dusty village road. The red horse passed its years, stalwart and unique, then dropped from sight, and eventually will drop from memory too, as slowly, without it, the place changes... The virtue of namelessness was that it made the unforgettable easier to avoid. Jacobo never mentioned the red horse. Nor did anyone. As the dead had no name, no one spoke of the dead, and its presence could not intrude, unwanted in conversation. Memories were locked away. Jacbobo's sense of loss--and everyone's--became as personal as fingerprints."
One more on the subject of death:
"In the mountains the touch of death was never far away. An animal died or was killed somewhere in the valley nearly every day. You shot the cow, or in the old-fashioned way, clubbed it with an ax or a maul, you did it with dispatch. But never with grace. No cow or hog ever fell in the right position, and the aftermath of its death, the turning and bleeding and lugging around, was invariably messy and difficult. Killing a sheep was different. A sheep does not struggle or even protest its own death and accordingly does not merit a bullet. YOu straddle its back, grasp it by the lower jaw, pull back the head and slice the throat deeply with a knife, cutting to the spine if you can to be sure of severing the arteries. A chicken's death, meanwhile, was scarcely noticed; you simply swung it round by the head, casually, like a toy."
Between Aurora and Phinney Avenues just southwest of Green Lake in the heart of Seattle is the Woodland Park Zoo where from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. any day of the week you can pay $18.75 for the privilege of seeing one of the most enigmatic animals on the planet, Pantheria uncia, the snow leopard.
The Seattle zoo has had snow leopards since 1972 when a pair arrived from the Soviet Union and today it has two cats, Helen and Tom, as well as their one-year-old brood of three cubs. Over the last 12 months, these cubs have gone from frisky kittens to lackadaisical felines. When they aren’t pacing the confines of their fenced-in enclosure, they are sleeping with their charred-gray noses resting atop limp paws, majestic yet docile-looking as house cats.
The same year that the zoo in Seattle got its first snow leopards, 45-year-old Peter Matthiessen, writer and co-founder of The Paris Review, met zoologist George Schaller in Kathmandu to begin a 250 mile journey into the Himalayas that resulted in Matthiessen's famous natural history book, The Snow Leopard. At their first introduction in 1969, Schaller had told the writer that he knew of only two Westerners in 25 years who had spotted the Himalayan snow leopard. Schaller, in fact, was the first person to film the leopard in the wild.
“Not only is it rare…but it is wary and elusive to a magical degree, and so well camouflaged in the places it chooses to lie that one can stare straight at it from yards away and fail to see it. Even those who know the mountains rarely take it by surprise: most sightings have been made by hunters lying still near a wild herd when a snow leopard happened to be stalking.”
For Matthiessen, a student of Buddhism, the opportunity to track the leopards and venture near the frontier of Tibet to where the “Crystal Monastery” is located was “a true pilgrimage, a journey of the heart.” When The Snow Leopard was published in 1979 it was not so much a plea for conservation of the cat as it is a rumination on the author’s physical and spiritual journey into the wild animal’s habitat and the nature of mind.
The worldwide population of snow leopards today is somewhere between four and seven thousand but since Matthiessen journeyed to the Himalayas, the captive population has increased significantly from perhaps less than one hundred to over 600, about 10 percent of the world’s population. The contrast between 1972 and today in this regard is remarkable: back then leopards were rare and enigmatic in the wild and virtually unseen by visitors to zoos. Today, the species is common to over 70 zoos in North America. It’s impossible to say that this genetically and demographically stable captive population—accessible to over 100 million visitors each year–is somehow not good. But I am also reminded while reading Matthiessen’s journey into snow leopard country by something that Holmes Rolston, the grandfather of the field of environmental ethics, recently said to me in an interview.
"You’re talking with someone who likes to see animals wild. I’m not keen on tigers in zoos. I was in India in March and saw tigers in the wild. That sends chills up and down my spine. If I go down to the Denver Zoo, I kind of pity the thing. Maybe it has got habitat enrichment but it can’t roam around or hunt. A tiger in a zoo isn’t really a tiger anymore. It’s not doing its thing.”
"A pleasure it is to listen to the cheerful musing Beduin talk, a lesson in the travellers' school of mere humanity,--and there is no land so perilous which by humanity he may not pass, for man is of one mind everywhere, ay, and in their kind, even the brute animals of the same foster earth--a timely vacancy of the busy-idle cares which cloud upon us that would live peaceably in the moral desolation of the world." -Travels in Arabia Deserta, 1888