Notes On Nature

I bumped into Katie Blount last week, and we started talking about a couple of previous outdoor columns, including a recent one on mountain biking. Katie doesn't mountain bike, or paddle whitewater rivers or thru-hike cross-continent trails. But she likes reading about it all.

If I could take on just 10 percent of the treks I've read about, I'd be in great shape, if still alive. I'd also be broke and lonely. Our discussion got me thinking about the outdoors books and authors that have stuck with me over the years, and about how the outdoors speaks to us through the written word.

My bookshelves are stocked with guidebooks on everything from wildflowers to rivers to biking trails, but as I began thinking about it, my outdoors favorites range from bestsellers to classics to the Bible.

One of the first books of any genre I really fell in love with was the children's classic "The Island of the Blue Dolphins" by Scott O'Dell (Yearling, $6.50). Until I wrote this column, I would not have thought of it as an "outdoors" book. It's a fictional account of a pre-teen girl's solo survival on an island off the coast of California, but it was inspired by real events. Something about her determination and ingenuity to feed, cloth and shelter herself really connected with me. Of course, Jack London's "Call of the Wild" (Aladdin, $4.99) and "White Fang" (Puffin, $4.99) are great, rugged classics of youth as well.

In more recent years, Jon Krakauer injected a dose of adrenaline into the genre with his 1997 bestseller "Into Thin Air" (Anchor $13.95). It is his personal account of one of the most deadly Mount Everest summit attempts in climbing history—a single day that cost eight people their lives. Krakauer's earlier work, "Into the Wild" (Anchor, $12.95), though, is an equally compelling look at the folly of a single man. Krakauer retraces the young man's errant, idealistic and ultimately fatal steps into the Alaskan wilderness.

Living in Jackson, it is fun to read Rick Bass' short-story collection, "Oil Notes" (Southern Methodist University Press, $10.95). Bass—who now lives and writes in Montana—worked in Jackson as an oil-and-gas man. He chronicles his everyday life here, his backpacking and paddling trips nearby and even a weekend run to the Rocky Mountains. You may recognize some of the characters.

But back to Katie Blount. It was several years ago at Katie and David Blount's home, while scanning their bookshelves, that I came across what would become one of my favorites: "Encounters With The Archdruid," by John McPhee (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $15.00). McPhee, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for The New Yorker, brings a journalistic approach to outdoors writing, pairing a militant leader of the Sierra Club with a developer, a miner and a builder of dams. One of the most enjoyable—and now classic pieces—in this work is his description of a trip through the Grand Canyon. It's an interesting dialogue—not a shouting match—between spokesmen for competing interests, interlaced with the drama of rafting down a raging whitewater river. As the trek proceeds, the stereotypes dissolve and the arguments for both sides become more legitimate.

My favorite McPhee work is "The Survival of the Bark Canoe," (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $12.00) about a New Hampshire boat builder and his passion for building birch-bark canoes with the same methods and tools used by Native Americans of the region. The second half of the book includes a trip with McPhee in one of these hand-made boats into the wilds of Maine.

Listening to a reading of the Psalm 104 at a funeral not so long ago, I was struck by the verses: "He sendeth the springs into the valleys which run among the hills. They give drink to every beast of the field: the wild asses quench their thirst." I smiled, thinking of my wild kayaking buddies.

Perhaps it's the Presbyterian in me that finds Norman Maclean's "A River Runs Through It" (University of Chicago Press, $12.00) so moving. At its core, it is the story of a Presbyterian minister's family in western Montana. Streams—and specifically fly fishing for trout—serve as a descriptive backdrop to the story, and Maclean's word craft is powerful, as this oft-quoted passage illustrates:

"On the Big Blackfoot River above the mouth of Belmont Creek the banks are fringed by large Ponderosa pines. In the slanting sun of late afternoon the shadows of great branches reached from across the river, and the trees took the river in their arms. The shadows continued up the bank, until they included us," he writes.

Ultimately, Maclean confesses that rivers haunt him. This work speaks as well as any I've found of the invisible tether that pulls us all to the raw splendor of creation.


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