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The Green Life: Book Review Wednesday: Sojourns into Nature and Self

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June 08, 2011

Book Review Wednesday: Sojourns into Nature and Self

Book review wed Every Wednesday, we review a selection of new and upcoming books addressing a specific aspect of environmentalism. Today we're recommending memoirs of personal and natural discovery.

Cabin: Two Brothers, A Dream, and Five Acres in Maine (by Lou Ureneck, $26, Viking, 2011): Lou Ureneck grappled with his midlife crisis in the romantic way that most only dream of: He moved to Maine and built a log cabin with his brother and nephews. Cabin is an earnest, personal account of the building process, both of literal wood and of familial bonds, from someone who'd "built an awful lot of his life out of books." His memoir will resonate with the WWOOF generation, the citybound kids who feel stagnant where they are and drawn to nature, but who maybe aren't sure what it means to "be one" with it.

River House: A Memoir (by Sarahlee Lawrence, $17, Tin House Books, 2010): If Lou Ureneck was a late adopter of the wilderness mentality, Sarahlee Lawrence has been striving frantically toward it since birth. She'd trekked across America and the far reaches of the globe at an age younger than most of us had finished college. But her exploits lead her back to her birthplace in the Oregon desert, to build a cabin with her semi-estranged father. How do wanderers come back to their roots, the book asks, and what can you learn from where you were raised? The memoir is honest, unflinching, and its words transform an idealized vision of life in nature into something gritty, challenging, and meaningful.

The Ragged Edge of the World: Encounters at the Frontier Where Modernity, Wildlands, and Indigenous Peoples Meet (by Eugene Linden, $27, Viking, 2011): Environmental reporter Eugene Linden has spent his life in the places the Western world had yet to dominate, watching each of those places transform. This book recounts his travels, making no qualms about his role as an outsider and a voyeur. The sites he explored drew him because they were pristine, foreign, novel — he chases birds through the Cuban wilderness, wanders through New Guinea listening to its dying indigenous languages. But instead of depicting these lands only in terms of human impact, Linden explains them through history and science, using humans as one chapter of an expansive natural history. With prose that's both scientific and personal, Linden turns the abstract concept of globalization (and its effects) into tangible examples we want to feel, touch, lament or celebrate.

The Tree Where Man Was Born (by Peter Matthiessen, $17, Penguin Classics, 2010): Originally published in 1972, Penguin has rereleased this seminal account of the East African wilderness with a new introduction by Jane Goodall; the book remains poignant as ever. Through his recollections, Matthiessen blurs the distinction between anthropologist and artist, wandering through Africa with what can only be described as reverence. He is a methodical, logical observer, a product of the West. He spends a career exploring what we know as humanity's scientific and symbolic birthplace. But for all Matthiessen's rigor and precise thinking, he finds himself in dumbfounded awe of the life and landscape surrounding him, and his wonder resonates deeply with the reader.

Sex and The River Styx (by Edward Hoagland, $28, Chelsea Green, 2011): In these 13 essays, Hoagland meditates on the places he inhabits and the passing of his own life with pulsating language that feels more of nature than about it. We follow him through a childhood in Connecticut to ranches in Wyoming to the far reaches of Uganda, by way of passages that are in turn celebratory and elegiac. Hoagland is a man who revels in the earth, but in these essays, he realizes he must return to it. He recounts experiences readers know firsthand and ones they can hardly imagine — and breathes in tandem with it all, with an ease and incisiveness resonant of Annie Dillard. "If heaven is on Earth," he writes,"it's hardly contradictory to love sunshine chevroned with tree shadows in the woods." 

--Mimi Dwyer 

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