All Creatures Great and Small
The Environment, in Fiction and Non
Tinkering With Eden: A Natural History of Exotics in Americaby Kim Todd
Norton, 288 pp., $26.95
Powder Burn: Arson, Money, and Mystery on Vail Mountainby Daniel Glick
Public Affairs, 288 pp., $25
Death of a River Guide: A Novelby Richard Flanagan
Grove, 336 pp., $24
Field Guide: A Novelby Gwendolen Gross
Holt, 275 pp., $23
About a decade ago, sitting on the porch of a lodge on the edge of Glacier National Park, a mountain ecosystem that contains a full complement of pre-colonial American species, including fearsome grizzly bears, cunning gray wolves, daring whitewater harlequin ducks, bugling elk, and ghostly mountain goats, writer Rick Bass told me that he thought fiction and poetry concerning the natural world could ultimately provide the impetus for its preservation. By contrast, he said, journalism and nonfiction might help waken our environmental sympathies but were unlikely vehicles for the deep commitment that preservation requires. As an environmental journalist with literary pretensions, I have long held this conversation in a virtual lockbox, noting the irony that Bass' own prodigious output -- ranging from short stories to impassioned essays, including one heartbreaking-if-mediocre novel Where the Sea Used to Be -- tends to run equal parts fiction and non.
With the current state of the environment, long belabored by activists and scientists who point to any number of warning signs of planetary collapse -- widespread extinction, exotic species invasions, global warming, rainforest destruction, oceanic pollution -- it makes sense that writers with deep green inclinations would juggle literary aesthetics and scientific data in their efforts to jar us from the stupefying impact of too much information and too much bad news. With the current political climate both in Texas and in the country as a whole, there's little question that raising hue and cry over the loss of breathable air, drinkable water, and the impact of pollution and development on various communities, including the human kind, is an endeavor worth evaluating as well as undertaking.
Kim Todd's Tinkering With Eden provides a clear, objective harbinger of how much the introduction of exotic species in America has changed the landscape since Christopher Columbus first set foot this side of the Atlantic. Todd fills her book with odd tales of biotic aliens released both intentionally and inadvertently into America, focusing on not just vile creatures such as the vampire-like sea lamprey, which has used the man-made canals of the Northeast as a conduit to the Great Lakes where it consumes native fish from the inside out. She also looks at critters intended to beautify the landscape or create hunting and fishing opportunities, such as the German brown trout, an angler's favorite, which was transported to this country late last century, and the well-known green monk parakeet, which can be found in ballparks in Austin and other cities across the country, where it has crowded out native species.
Remarkably, Todd resists the impulse to scold, even as she recounts the various incidents that have lead to the takeover of many ecosystems by unwanted foreigners -- not all that dissimilar from the early European settlers, she notes, who generally make easy targets in our efforts to assuage all manner of social and environmental guilt. Instead, she seeks to determine the individual impulses behind the release of birds, mammals, plants, and bugs that have gradually replaced native species, some of which are now extinct, endangered or threatened, and in many cases protected under federal law. So despite the fact that she tells us, "Exotics may have contributed to the decline of 49% of threatened and endangered species," she finds a way to admire the industry and ingenuity of such characters as Leopold Trouvelot, a scientist trying to breed better silkworms who was largely responsible for the release of gypsy moths that now plague forests and parklands across the country.
The author's straightforward prose renders complex scientific material intelligible, and Todd's use of what might be termed a postmodern narrative trick, whereby she relies on imagined events as opposed to documented history, assists her careful contemplation of the subjects at hand. For instance, of Eugene Schieffelin, the man who introduced "Shakespeare's starlings" to Central Park in New York City, she writes: "I imagine Schieffelin, carrying one cage in each hand, each bout of squawking threatening to knock him off balance. ... Finally, under a tree that looked as if it might be hospitable, when the ice melted off its branches and was replaced by leaves and buds, Schieffelin stopped and set the cages on the ground. ... Then one by one, he opened the latches, and the birds stepped out into the snow-covered grass." A few paragraphs later, Todd states simply: "Conservation biologists now view Schieffelin as an eccentric at best, a lunatic at worst."
If Todd is spare in her verdicts and comprehensive in her approach to the American landscape, Daniel Glick, author of Powder Burn about the 1998 arson at Vail ski resort that resulted in nearly $12 million in damage, is pretty much the opposite. A veteran Newsweek correspondent, Glick hands out judgments like a traffic cop at a speed trap and focuses pretty much on one mountain range -- call it his billboard -- although he does take time to map out the economic web that surrounds the ski industry. The endangered and seldom-seen lynx may have galvanized resistance to Vail's expansion, but in this true-life crime story, the natural world and its non-human inhabitants take a back seat to the human drama that unfolds in Glick's account.
In turn, Glick offers up a compelling, fast-moving, and eminently readable account of the most notorious act of eco-terrorism this country has ever known -- if, in fact, environmental activists were actually the ones who set the fires. The story goes that Vail Resorts Inc., which has long been one of the nation's premier ski and snowboard destinations, wanted to expand into a backside bowl called "Cat III," where lifts could carry skiers to a remote area thought by some to harbor an elusive wildcat protected under the Endangered Species Act. Having been victorious in the courts and scrupulous in preparing the environmental assessments for the expansion, Vail Resorts was preparing to begin construction when under the cover of darkness in October 1998 somebody -- a culprit has never been determined and to this day no arrests have been made -- set fire to several lifts and buildings along the ridge at the top of the Vail resort.
The Earth Liberation Front eventually claimed credit for the fire, but persistent doubts over whether it was perhaps simply seeking to cash in on the event's notoriety have helped to keep the case unsolved. Meanwhile, Glick finds his most vicious villain in the company that owns Vail, one of the biggest ski resort operators in the country. He accuses the company officers of corporate avarice on par with the rape-and-pillage mentality of loggers and miners who had settled Colorado nearly a century before, noting their connections to unsavory junk bond schemes as well as heads of state -- all of whom, in this telling, help conspire to form an indomitable alliance bent on "biggering and biggering and biggering and biggering" as Glick puts it, quoting Dr. Seuss' eco-minded Lorax, a favorite of environmentalists. "In many ways, Vail was ready to combust spontaneously before somebody literally poured gas on the place and lit a match in the early hours of another fall day," he writes.
Fortunately, Glick is too smart to paint the mystery in simple shades of black and white, and so he trots out a cast of characters that range from pudgy corporate spokesmen to feisty cafe owners as well as pierced, dreadlocked ski bums and lift operators who populate the town of Vail and nearby communities. He explores the list of suspects, from elk hunters to Vail Resorts itself, and looks at the law-enforcement procedures in some detail, allowing the reader to see not just the competence of the cops but the elaborate planning that allowed the arsonists to do major damage and get away with it. Beyond the economic and ecological issues at hand, the author also looks back at the region's history and the common myths of discovery and settlement shared by those who enjoy Vail's mountain amenities, no matter on which side of the cultural divide they fall.
It's too bad that Glick couldn't spend more time talking to the average skiers who have helped sustain the market for the continued expansion of Vail and similar ski areas throughout the Rocky Mountain West. That might have helped offset the fact that the author appears to be a little over his head when it comes to his analysis and understanding of the environmental trends that should be studied closely as part of any discussion of conservation in the region. Ultimately, it's hard to imagine that this volume will dissuade anybody from heading to Vail, and in a way that's a shame, although it should provide food for thought for those intent on hitting the slopes next winter no matter their destination.
Aljaz Cosini, the protagonist in Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan's knockout novel Death of a River Guide, has a name for the tourists who join him on one last romp down the Franklin River: "Punters." As we first meet Aljaz at the novel's outset, we discover that he is the river guide referenced in the book's title, but what at first looks like a introspective, life-flashing-before-the-eyes number turns out to be a fascinating and truly complex tale of near Faulknerian-depth, a book informed by As I Lay Dying and Gabriel García Márquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold. By putting his man in the river from the very beginning, Flanagan, a former river guide and already an award-winning novelist in his homeland, suffuses his second novel with the weight of the unreliable, surreal perceptions of a drowning man.
Aljaz can't stand the punters because they don't understand the nature of the river (I can't imagine what he would have to say about American ski resorts -- it would not be generous or kind) but what Aljaz eventually finds is that he is the one who has been misreading life's waters. By putting this writer in the company of Faulkner and Márquez, I may be overstating the point, but Flanagan writes without flash, using a colloquial Tasmanian narrative to tell the tale of Aljaz, who recounts most of the story in the first person. The book tackles topics of race, imperialism, class, and aboriginal rights while serving up compelling characters not just in Aljaz, a misfit since birth, but his fellow guide Cockroach and a couple of generations of direct ancestors, going beyond the arrival of British convicts to Tasmania, including his Aboriginal, Irish, and Chinese forebears.
Yes, Death of a River Guide is also an informal treatise on the environment, although the reader and not the reviewer should deconstruct all of these elements. Suffice it to say that Flanagan knows his material well enough to write seamlessly as Aljaz swings around and views life through the eyes of his fathers, mothers, aunts, and uncles through the ages near and far, and then discusses in detail the history of the land and its inhabitants. And he knows his rafting lore, too.
"Once, not so long ago, none of the river's features had names," he writes, "and Aljaz could not help but remember his early trips down the Franklin as a youth in the 1970s, when they experienced each day as a surprise, when people remembered the river as a whole, not as a collection of sites that could be reduced to a series of photographs. But that was when the river was unknown, when it was the province of only a handful who were interested in it in for its own sake. Then the developers came to dam it and then the conservationists came to save it and word of this strange and beautiful river spread throughout the country. A great battle arose, and ultimately the conservationists won. Part of their winning had been to name all the river's features, to render them citable and documentable by those who would never know them, and in that process of splitting the whole into little bits with silly names, Aljaz felt something of the river's soul had been stolen away."
I have a strong feeling that when Rick Bass told me 10 years ago that fiction would make a stronger impression with regard to conservation than nonfiction, this is just the sort of book he had in mind. It's tough to determine how closely the country Flanagan describes in Death of a River Guide is to the real thing (of course, the talking animals and other magical-realist elements aren't actual) but the geography he describes and its inhabitants have a specific density that prods us into believing it all possible. The history of Tasmania, like that of Australia, is similar enough to America's that the author's literary and ethical concerns echo on our shores. We sympathize with the people and the beasties, the hillside, forests, and rivers, and as the water rises on the Franklin, provoking predicaments for our doomed guide, the ensuing anxiety and Aljaz's well-drawn visions will sweep you to the book's conclusion and its many moments of redemption. If Flanagan never writes another book, he should be remembered for this one.
If that were the case for Field Guide by first-time novelist Gwendolen Gross, this young American writer would be all set. Unfortunately, Gross has used the trappings of environmental fiction to craft a tale that I would rate as a likely entry in the Oprah Book Club derby with little to recommend it for those seeking to expand their notions about the natural world. From the book jacket, we learn that as a college student, Gross spent a semester studying fruit bats in Australia, where this novel takes place as the heroine biologist Annabel Mendelssohn, an American graduate student, heads into the rainforest to observe ... you guessed it, fruit bats.
But instead of mining this rich loam for models of life's synchronicity and interconnectedness, the author provides us with an interior monologue that evinces Annabel's more domestic concerns. "Mating was more embarrassing that she'd imagined," Gross writes in a scene where Annabel is watching her subjects. "She was a scientist, this was science, but still she felt like a voyeur: it seemed so private. Sometimes they mated back to front, sometimes front to front, which she started to interpret as a sign of affection, since she'd read that back to front was a more successful posture for conception in bats. So there must by pleasure or affection involved, unless this was an evolutionary appendix." Whatever.
At the book's outset we learn that intimacy is Annabel's main concern, and the bats stay relegated as a flimsy plot device. In the meantime, Annabel recounts trying to not imagine kissing her professor, and turns green with envy when her classmates hook up on a field trip. But Annabel can't let go of her brother's death, a stumbling block when it comes to finding true happiness, which we learn about primarily through e-mails to her stateside sister -- unnecessary mini-synopsis -- that in turn confirm the fact that this is a tale where self-examination trumps the lessons of the outside world. Before the book is over, Annabel finds her match in Leon Goode, the son of her favorite professor who has disappeared into the bush, and along the way we are treated to both characters' quasi-philosophical ramblings about love and sex.
In what appears to be the author's slapdash effort at filling in some of the novel's obvious blanks, Annabel winds up the target of some nasty logger types, who barely rise above movie-villain stereotyping, all macho swagger and handguns. They find her bat-watching camp and destroy it, scaring the bats away and leaving behind a sign painted "GREENYS OUT." In her fear and anger, Annabel resists crying and instead makes fun of the perpetrators' spelling. But given that this political violence barely rates exploration and the lack of discussion of habitat destruction, endangered species (these bats are interesting to Annabel because nobody has studied their daytime behaviors), I found myself hoping that the brutes might hijack the novel. That would have been unexpected, and perhaps inspirational.
Authors Flanagan, Todd, and even Glick manage to hold our attention despite disparate subject matter and approaches by taking a hard look at what we've lost and what we stand to lose on a variety of scales, using literary, historic, and economic tools to highlight what's at stake and who's at fault. In this way, they inspire reflection and introspection, as well as the potential for action -- even if it's only hand wringing in the face of what appear to be insurmountable odds. Like going into the world itself, we find ourselves changed after encountering these books, Flanagan's in particular. The others provide intellectual stimulus and may prompt outrage, but likely will not linger too long in the mind.