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The Green Life: Book Review Wednesday: Sense of Place

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July 27, 2011

Book Review Wednesday: Sense of Place

Books about environmentalism Every Wednesday, we review a selection of new and upcoming books addressing a specific aspect of environmentalism. Today we're recommending books that tell the complex story of the land in a multitude of ways. 

Geology Underfoot in Yellowstone Country (by Marc S. Hendrix, $24, Mountain Press, 2011): The geologic manifesto of Yellowstone’s features should be dust-painted, wrinkled, and worn at the seams, backpacked in for reading with the hot springs and old sea floor literally under your feet. Geology comprehensively explains both the formation of specific sites and the entire region's natural history. Its gems are the extensive illustrative graphics and glossy photos. It's the only hiking guide that could sate the visitor who wants to hug rocks, touch and understand this place.

Like No Other Place: The Sandhills of Nebraska (by David A. Owen, $58, The Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago, 2010): The wide arms of Owen’s silver-tinted photographs stretch along the hills and ranches where he briefly lived (Ellsworth, Nebraska, population: 13). Every speck, cow, reservoir, and wheel track fascinates. His accompanying vignettes of the people and their history are largely undistilled from their first voices. This is a land you want to see through a lens, an experience you wouldn't understand looking out a window at 60 mph, or even standing next to a single shrub for a week.

Sissinghurst: an Unfinished History: The Quest to Restore a Working Farm at Vita Sackville-West's Legendary Garden (by Adam Nicolson, $28, Viking, 2010): Nicolson has been making a map, through time and all senses, of place. “Nowhere felt deeper or more like a vein under the skin than down in the bed of the Hammer Brook,” he writes, speaking to the blood of a child whose friendship with his grandparents’ estate compelled him to work with the National Trust to turn its touring lawns back into a multi-crop working farm. And, without exaggeration, gently, candidly, and with respect for human complexity, to relate family pains and excavate the millenniums of Sissinghurst’s own history. Tourism, Nicolson explains, rubbed out the living, organismal quality of the forests and glens, and Sissinghurst pulls it back with clear eyes, like a brief Celtic poem filled into a master’s etching.

Fur, Fortune, and Empire: the Epic History of the Fur Trade in America (by Eric Jay Dolin, $19, W.W. Norton, 2010): From Plymouth to Oregon, with tales of treachery and common capitalism, Fur explains the settlement of a North America in which land equaled wealth. Dolin stocks Fur with anecdotes of grisly competition and hundreds of characters, from Native Americans to mountain men. In the midst of his translation of trade and consumption from the old world to the new, the character of America slips by like the Hudson underlying the Dutch ships bearing thousands of pelts eastward.

We Were an Island: The Maine Life of Art and Nan Kellam (by Peter Blanchard, $28, University Press of New England, 2010): Facing everything new, and everything that lived before, Art and Nan were hardly the first to seclude themselves on a pine-stricken granite of an island. Yet they recorded their thoughts over their 36 years in residence on Placentia Island, Maine, with such simplicity and complete engagement that their story, that of “the Kingdom of the Bears” breathes with the whimsy, dignity, and pangs of a committed life. Island narrates with Blanchard’s clear, rythmic prose, Nan’s restrained but deeply personal journal entries, and the bears’ own manuscript. Extensive photographs illustrate. As Blanchard put it, Placentia is really more of a boat, they sailors at sea — and Island, a love story of three.

--Juliana Hanle

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