As summer fades, we cling to the illusion of leisure by pulling out a book and reading -- all day of a Saturday, all night long on Friday, during an extended lunch hour on a bench outdoors, whenever and wherever we can. Here's what we've been reading -- some new releases, some new in paperback, some rediscovered gems -- over the long, hot summer of 2000. Kick your shoes off, sit a spell and lean back. Sip quietly the intoxicating brew that is end-of-summer reading. You'll be glad you did.
Fiction: Body of evidence
This first novel, a psychological thriller by 26-year-old Leah Stewart, formerly an editor for Double Take, is a deft, smart page-turner set on the sweltering banks of the Mississippi River in Memphis. It is summer -- hot, stifling summer -- and already 100 murders have occurred in the city since January 1.
The 100th, the brutal rape and killing of Allison Avery, a seemingly average all-American girl in her early 20s (read: white, prominent family, suburban upbringing) becomes the central focus of police beat reporter Olivia Dale, already hardened at a young age to the ins-and-outs of crime reporting. Keep it on the front page is Olivia's mantra, and though many other murders occur in the meantime -- a black prostitute is decapitated by her drug dealer and her disembodied head shows up on a housing project playground -- Olivia knows that Allison's murder and the secrets that Olivia suspects she harbored are rich fodder for the demographic the paper likes to court, white and upwardly mobile.
Body of a Girl is notable on many counts -- the plotting is intricate and steadily paced. The setting resonates with the story -- Memphis' underground music scene plays prominently, and racial politics backlight much of the story as they do all aspects of life in Memphis. And the writing is strong -- Body succeeds as a solid piece of literary fiction as well as a thriller.
Most notable is Stewart's unraveling of the psyche of Olivia -- a loner who feels a strong connection to Allison, especially to the secrets she has kept from her closest friend and her adoring family. Body of a Girl raises the question of truth and appearances time and again -- what do we really know about a person? What is hidden, intentionally or not?
As Olivia probes the murder, the reader is drawn into her compulsive search for facts and her growing emotional dependence on the life of Allison Avery -- bold, charismatic, affectionate and unafraid -- a life on the edge that Olivia eventually begins to emulate.
The conclusion, though startling, is satisfying and comforting -- like the mighty Mississippi, new crimes roll on, the front page byline passes to another reporter, new stories surface. Olivia Dale is changed forever and we feel a little bit wiser for knowing her and joining her journey to the dark side.
-- Kathryn Eastburn
Body of a Girl
By Leah Stewart
(Viking: New York)
Layers of experience
About a third of the way through Vertigo, I turned to the copyright page to find the Library of Congress cataloging information. I wanted to know how the experts defined this book -- was it fiction? biography? memoir? travelogue? It seemed to me that the luminous prose of author W.G. Sebald concealed more than one of these categories, and I wanted to know what the experts said.
No luck. All I learned was that this ... book ... was first published in German under the title Schwindel. Gefhle. in 1990 and was not translated and brought to this country until this year. I had snapped it up in hardcover after reading Sebald's later work (published in the United States in 1999) The Emigrants, last month. I have one more volume to read, The Rings of Saturn, and I will be finished with Sebald's entire body of book-length work.
Never until this day have I wanted to learn German. Even with the gorgeous translation by Michael Hulse, I can only imagine the beauty of the original.
Vertigo is (I'll take a stand) fiction in the first person, a kind of travelogue told by a narrator also known as Sebald, who undertakes a journey across Europe in order to recover from a particularly difficult time. The first chapter, entitled "Beyle," or "Love is a Madness Most Discreet," follows the footsteps of Marie Henri Beyle, a young syphilitic soldier in the Napoleonic wars who went on to become famous under his pen name of Stendhal.
Beyle sets the tone for the book, alternately nostalgic, historic, tragic and illuminating. The following sections, "All'estero," where the narrator describes a near nervous breakdown, "Dr. K. Takes the Waters at Riva," following in the footsteps of Franz Kafka, and "Il Ritorno in Patria," where the narrator returns to his home town, extend the author's reach across the centuries into history, and deeper into memoir, history, and fiction.
Each one of these sojourns is a delicate examination of the power of memory, the construction of history, and the echo of centuries of European wars. Scattered throughout the text are facsimiles of documents that call attention to a narrator choosing these particular pieces of historic flotsam to illustrate his points. A two-page spread of an old atlas illustrating the rivers of the world, a very grainy photograph of a black-sailed ship, a newspaper advertisement for a dentist in 1913, a postcard of a smiling gypsy woman and her babe-in-arms behind the barbed wire of a concentration camp, all alight upon the page to mysteriously reinforce the narrator's experience.
In hopes of captivating you further with Sebald's prose, I searched throughout the book for a passage suitable for a short review such as this, a tidbit that might briefly illustrate the seduction wrought by this beautiful new literature. I could find none. This failure, I think, is due to the type of magic that Sebald produces, a slow, seductive, selective accretion of images, an intensity of vision through juxtaposition, a far-reaching insight into the demands and failures of history, memory, love, loneliness and war. There is so much to contemplate, so many layers that cannot be untangled. This is a literature that's uncapturable in sound bites, a type of writing that I have hungered for without even knowing it.
Find Vertigo and read it. Then find The Emigrants. Then Rings of Saturn. Then sit and wait and pray that Sebald will continue his remarkable literary journey and will allow you to accompany him wherever he goes.
-- Andrea Lucard
By W.G. Sebald
Translated by Michael Hulse
German title: Schwindel. Gefhle.
(New Directions Books: New York, 2000)
Evil genius on the loose
Thomas Harris writes with the deliberate pace of a literary artiste, producing suspense thrillers at a rate more like J.D. Salinger or Joseph Heller than Stephen King. Harris has published just four novels in 25 years, with an 11-year span elapsing between the last two. But what thrillers these are -- each in its own way an outstanding example of effective genre writing.
Hannibal, his latest (released in 1999 in hardcover; now in paperback), carries on with characters from The Red Dragon, characters now famous through the good offices of the movies. In spite of our familiarity with "fava beans and a nice Chianti", and the predilections of Hannibal Lector, you would, I promise, be surprised by Hannibal the book.
This novel is a microcosm of the decline and decadence of our culture -- that which the Christian right tends to blame largely on Hollywood. It is written in flawlessly stylish, measured, and effective prose. Anyone susceptible at all to the magic of words creating a story could not fail to become caught up in Harris's words and the story they shape. To borrow some moviespeak, the "production values" of Hannibal as a thriller are above reproach: the pace, the plotting, the story values, and the tight, beautiful language is all there -- all the right stuff is in all the right places. And, as so often seems to be the case with effective popular art today, all these elements go to create an effect, which from a moral standpoint, is ugly and perhaps evil. Hannibal the cannibal, murderous monster and sadistic genius renaissance man, not only gets away, he gets the girl. Clarice Starling, symbol of civilization's bright hope for justice and truth, not only fails to vanquish Hannibal, she becomes his apparently willing companion and mistress.
Thomas Harris has crossed the line into fantasy and pornography of violence. There is no moral ambiguity here. Hannibal is unambiguously a celebration of the antitheses of American moral values; it is a pustular bequest of the Beast, made manifest in the magic of effective language and storytelling -- which is the most powerful actual magic I know of. Indeed, with technocracy exploding and mankind's total knowledge doubling every five years, stories and language may be the only magic left to us.
As a person who is basically as decadent as the culture I inhabit, I find it impossible not to be captivated by Hannibal. Harris does what he does so very, very well. As a believer in the power of effective art, as a parent, and someone with a stake in the future of our culture, I find it impossible to condone Hannibal or to laugh it off as a harmless diversion for those too jaded for anything less lurid.
The real evil genius at loose on a helpless world is not Hannibal the cannibal, but rather the Thomas Harrises, the Stephen Kings, and Jonathan Demmes. They are rich and powerful and at the top of their form. God help us all.
-- David Carew
By Thomas Harris
(Dell/Random House: New York)
In the tent with Dinah
"If you want to understand any woman, you must first ask about her mother and then listen carefully," Dinah advises us early in her story. She is speaking from a time of oral histories, when familial stories were passed along while baking bread, tending babies or at bedtime. But we listeners, as modern-day readers, have the luxury of devoting our imaginations to the one task at hand -- absorbing a story we seemed to have been denied all these years.
With The Red Tent, a masterful and rich work by Anita Diamant, we are treated to the tale of Dinah, who, though a mere "footnote" in the Bible, rumbles to life in these pages. Through Dinah's voice, we are treated to the stories of her mothers and grandmothers, and to her own story -- all exquisitely imagined by Diamant, and yet genuine in their telling. It takes no time to forget that, to the rest of the world, Dinah is known only as the ravaged daughter of Jacob and sister of Joseph, with no identity of her own.
It is in the red tent, the menstrual tent, that Dinah comes of age. There, she is a vessel for the stories of her four mothers: Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah, the four wives of Jacob. For three days beginning on every new moon -- as well as at every childbirth -- the women congregate in the red tent, celebrating each other and their rites of passage. Generations of rituals are passed down, and secrets are revealed. Dinah, as the beloved only daughter among the women, is privy to it all:
"They traded secrets like bracelets, and these were handed down to me, the only surviving girl. They told me things I was too young to hear. They held my face between their hands and made me swear to remember."
The most absorbing aspect of The Red Tent is the way Diamant gives form, context and a new perspective to important incidents in the Bible (though don't think you need to be a biblical scholar to enjoy the references!). From Jacob's first encounter with Rachel at the well to the severing of Dinah's relationship with Shechem by her brothers, The Red Tent offers up an engaging interpretation of biblical events that are utterly believable and, at times, questionable as mythology.
For example, Laban, father to Rachel and Leah (and in The Red Tent, Zilpah and Bilhah as well), isn't nearly as welcoming to Jacob as it's written in the Good Book. In fact, Diamant portrays him as a cheap bastard who feels up the maidservants and finds pleasure with the ewes in the pasture. Dinah grows up poking fun at the man, for in the red tent "raking Laban over the coals was great sport among his daughters."
Jacob is also portrayed as more cunning and more human than one might gather from the Bible. In Diamant's version, Jacob laughs at the idea of seven years' service for young Rachel. "I will give you seven months," Jacob says to Laban. "And for the dowry, I'll take half your miserable herd." We see Jacob as a savvy herdsman, a powerful father and gentle lover, one who has respect for the women in his life.
The Red Tent loses some of its hold, after the slaying at Shechem, when Diamant's Dinah renounces her family. For her own safety, and for the safety of those who help her escape, she embarks upon a life in which she can't have a past. After being in the exquisite company of Rachel, Leah, Zilpah and Bilhah, the separation is as hard on the reader as it is on Dinah.
Nonetheless, Dinah's experiences as a midwife in the second half pull us along, until finally, through some not-so-unexpected twists and turns, Dinah's path crosses with Joseph's. Loose ends are finally tied up, and we are allowed peace of mind, though some questions linger on.
Diamant's version of Dinah's life is poetic and powerful, well worth reading. Let it wash over you like a mother's kisses.
-- Tess Powers
The Red Tent
By Anita Diamant
(Picador USA: New York)
Biography: Getting real
There are only a few times I remember hearing a particular piece of music for the first time.
Here are two:
The first was in 1978. Stoned as cavemen, we were lying on the floor of my friend's bedroom listening to Jimmy Hendrix's Voodoo Chile with the lights out. I was a pimple-faced dirtbag in high school, but in my mind that summer afternoon, I was chopping down mountains with the side of my hand, and talking to a gypsy woman under Arizona's blood red sky.
A little older and somewhat less impaired, I was lying in bed in my NYC apartment with headphones, and I had a close encounter with someone who, until then, I had only known by his reputation and the Klingon-sounding ring of his two-syllable last name: Mingus.
The tune was "Better Get Hit in Yo' Soul," from Mingus, Mingus, Mingus (Impulse/MCA 1963). Inside my mind, I was sitting in a space-aged bar on an asteroid out near Andromeda listening to a bunch of aliens, Gods or angels making a joyous noise unto the void on instruments yet to be discovered or imported to our little blue marble.
It hit me in my soul all right; it was no sound made by mortals. A kind of Dixieland Bach on speed; it was intellectual, complex, and avant garde, yet straight out of the soul.
Reading Gene Santoro's recent biography of the late jazz bassist, Myself When I Am Real, I have a whole new take on this experience, and the subsequent draw I always felt toward Mingus -- one of thousands of jazz bassists who for a variety of reasons stands out as one of the 20th Century's most intriguing composers and band leaders.
The music, it turns out, didn't come from gods or aliens, but from an extremely unique, ambitious and hardworking kid who came of age in Watts in the 1930s. Through sheer force of will, rigorous practice and intellectual ambition, this pudgy, light-skinned, classically trained black kid from L.A. went on to play with some of 20th century's other great musicians: Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, John Coltrane, etc, etc.
Throughout all that, Mingus was always expanding his mind via philosophy, poetry, biography and literature, and he was always expanding his own experiences via his larger-than-life, romantic vision of himself as artist and musician.
What comes through clearly in Santoro's account is Mingus' ferocious independence, passion and curiosity, qualities that seem somehow innately instilled rather than easily explained by environmental factors.
Not that Santoro doesn't meticulously trace those influences. Myself When I Am Real chronicles Mingus' multiracial background, the vibrant musical and community life of post-Depression Watts, the stern father who treated his son as chosen favorite, the early classical and jazz training, his attraction to intellectuals and artists, and the influence of bassists such as Jimmy Blanton and genius-scale talents like Tatum and Ellington.
All these contribute to the picture we have of Mingus: His violent temper, his flamboyant and passionate urge to create, his expansive interest in philosophy and literature, his almost martyr-like dedication to his craft, the breadth of his musical mind.
Santoro leaves no strings untied. He's very thorough and, in fact, one very nice technique he uses is to quote substantially from Mingus' family and friends, pulling those quotes out of the narrative so that the reader can hear extensively from those sources.
At times, though, his writing style is a little overcooked, as if he's been stewing in the life of his musical hero for so long he can't help reminding you of things he's already told you, rephrasing his observation in grander terms at each utterance to make sure you really get it.
This tendency is at times annoying. The mere facts of Mingus' life story, and his larger-than-life personality, both of which Santoro dissects with admirable completeness, is all the hyperbole one needs.
The author can be forgiven enthusiasm, however, because all his sweeping statements are backed up by meticulous research and vivid detail. Santoro's own analysis, meanwhile, provides a helpful context that explains the tenor of each era, social milieu, or musical landscape the artist was living through.
In the end, Myself When I Am Real, is a very honest portrait from an author who isn't afraid to debunk even his hero's own overblown or misguided notions of himself.
And if you're anything like me, Mingus' life as told by Santoro will also inspire you to "get real" with that double bass, guitar, piano or whatever passion it is that makes you unique, and start practicing.
-- Malcolm Howard
Myself When I Am Real: The life and music of Charles Mingus
By Gene Santoro
(Oxford University Press:London, 2000)
Vladimir and Vera: The art of codependence
"Vera was a pale blonde when I met her, but it didn't take me long to turn her hair white."
-- Journal entry, Vladimir Nabakov
As a feminist, I've wondered why lesbians want to marry in light of that institution's sorry history. Marriage was created as a communal recognition of a man's possessions (woman and children), ensuring the purity of genetic legacy. With time, it evolved into a convenient construct in which women, limited in economic power, could trade childbearing and housekeeping for physical security and comfort. As women's material security grows more independent of male benevolence, it will be interesting to see how marriage evolves -- or dissolves.
Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabakov) reveals a couple whose apple does not fall far from that traditional tree. Even the title suggests Vera is not someone capable of being known outside of her relationship to the famed author. Described as Vladimir's "disciple, bodyguard, secretary, protector, handmaiden, buffer, quotation-finder, groupie, advance man, nursemaid and courtier," Vera is celebrated for being the Invisible Woman Behind the Man.
Although she graduated from Sorbonne as a master of modern languages, Vera did not keep copies of her own work as she did her husband's. In addition to transcribing, typing and smoothing Vladimir's prose while it was still "warm and wet," Vera cut book pages, played chauffeur, translated, negotiated contracts and did the many practical things her famous husband disdained. She even made sure that the butterflies he collected died with the least amount of suffering. A woman's work is never done.
Born at the beginning of the 20th century in czarist St. Petersburg, Vera was a promising child who read her first newspaper at age three. With the advance of communism in Russia, her middle-class Jewish family settled in Berlin in 1921. From the half million immigrants in the city she met dapper Vladimir, "non-Jewish and five years her junior," and began an intensely symbiotic coupling that would last 52 years. Biographer Stacey Schiff asks the question we're all musing: "How many women would allow someone else's obsession to dominate their lives?"
While Vera struggled to raise their son amidst the festering Nazism of Berlin, Vladimir traveled and conducted what appears to be one of several affairs. Blaming herself, Vera rallied the marriage. The couple moved again -- this time from Europe to New York to escape fascism. Vera typed Vladimir's manuscripts in bed while recuperating from pneumonia. When debt threatened to overwhelm them, Vera steadfastly stood by his art. Forever protecting his creative instincts, however misunderstood by others, she intervened on several occasions when he attempted to burn his manuscript for Lolita.
Vladimir Nabakov knew the debt he owed the woman described as "Wife, Muse and Agent" on her tombstone. In late life, encountering a rare butterfly on a mountain path, he refused to capture it without his champion at his side. He lovingly noted the "tender telepathy" he shared with a woman who, like himself, enjoyed highly developed aesthetic tastes. Described as "synesthetes," the two would have interesting debates about "the color of Monday, the taste of E-flat." No wonder Nabakov could write to her without exaggeration:
I need you, my fairy tale. For you are the only person I can talk to about the hue of a cloud, about the singing of a thought, and about the fact that when I went out to work today and looked at each sunflower in the face, they all smiled back at me with their seeds.
Too bad that this man who loved her so dearly did not also encourage her to develop her own gifts of self-expression, allowing or needing her to become the Silent Partner in the Nabakov Corporation. It answers the age-old question about marriage: If two are to become one, then which one? There in no question who that one was in this merger, and although Vera chose that role freely, there is no indication of argument from her beneficiary and spouse.
As a biography, Vera is rich in detail, skilled in analysis and robust in affection and yet -- oddly hollow. The talent of the biographer is not to blame for my unsatiated hunger to know the Woman Inside the Woman. However elaborate the frame of this book, it cannot hide the fact that it presents the portrait of an empty chair, a potential not exhausted, a ghost whose movements can only be guessed by the rustling of her husband's pages, haunted by a hand that wrote itself into that book as an unobtrusive footnote.
-- Rebekah Shardy
Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabakov)
By Stacy Schiff
(Random House: New York, 1999)
Poetry: Juicy fruit
Pamela Uschuk's poetry is sensual, luscious and tasty. You can sink your teeth into the beginning of any poem and finish satisfied. After reading the title poem "Finding Peaches in the Desert," I felt much like the I from that same poem:
You can never eat too many, I say and
another ripe peach from the desert
It fills my palm, my mouth as I suck
the unhusbanded nectar.
It is delicious as stealing light,
such innocent grace, a holiday
from history and eternity.
This book is a peach you can't put down. From the first poem, I slowly devoured each following page until my mind was sticky with the vivid fruits of Uschuk's labor.
A farmgirl from the Midwest, Uschuk received her MFA from the University of Montana and currently resides in Arizona. Living in the desert has given her a plethora of passionate subject matter to address, such as discovering and understanding the deadly scorpion in "Scorpion Season:"
The scorpion and I are not so
carrying poison to protect us,
plagued by our common baggage
of action and consequence.
I freed him, knowing such
defenses are necessity
for those who live by thun-
derlight and moon.
In "Calendar of Thirst, Uschuk explores the hot, dry desert weather:
It's the rainy season and it's raining
Across the valley, dust devils sway
Fahrenheit breaks a hundred and ten.
I feel that Uschuk is speaking my thoughts -- vast, arid, Colorado thoughts. She is earthy, honest, no-nonsense and possesses the amazing ability to work everyday language into surprising twists.
In "Late Winter Storm" she says:
No one bets on the cockfight
of wind and snow.
Immediately, I picture the violent wind whipping sharp snow flakes into funnels and spinning them through the streets, skies and deserts and realize that neither force will win, but will just wear each other down.
One of the most touching poems in this collection is "Parole." It is an elegy for Andres Herendez, a maximum security prisoner who was in a writing class Uschuk taught at the prison. She takes the reader on a heart-wrenching, raw journey through her knowledge of Herendez -- from his history as a poor Puerto Rican boy who went to jail at 16 after being abandoned by his father, to his lonely death from AIDS.
As you lay dying, the warden
my every request,
denied all visitors
but the distant rags of your fam-
too destitute to make such a
denied even get well cards.
After all, you were maximum
After reading this book, you will not be left bereft of images. Each line of poetry builds to the next, breaking in unexpectedly perfect places only to climax in a scent, sound or visual that takes you to the exact place Uschuk wants you to be. She is passionate and political, spirited and thoughtful, accessible and alive. She is the voice of everyone, using a language truly her own, to paint pictures of a world full of horror and promise.
-- Carrie Simison
Finding Peaches in the Desert
by Pamela Uschuk
(Wings Press: San Antonio, 2000)
Ahab on estrogen -- not!
"Time and tides wait for no man ... and damn few women."
I liked The Hungry Ocean by Linda Greenlaw for the very fact it didn't contain windy philosophical soliloquies on the briny struggle for life perched at the gaping maw of death. Rather than serving readers a dollop of brooding self-importance, it shares the intimate and pragmatic minutiae of "the world's only woman swordboat captain" -- her precious diet cola, a fondness for Bonnie Raitt and lip balm, and the protected luxury of daily teeth-brushing, her sole personal ritual while at sea for 30 days in the North Atlantic.
Elegant language occasionally slips out like a blue shark sliding onto a scrubbed deck. Her ship, the Hannah Boden, is "like a well-endowed woman" who "inspires wolf whistles from those who truly appreciate fine marine architecture." The squid bait is "the color of ripened eggplant," and when Greenlaw is tired it is a fatigue that "goes to the bitter end of each and every hair."
Thankfully, her prose never approaches even a pale violet. She is never far from quoting a sailor's colorful colloquialism such as "He couldn't catch a turd in a septic tank" or the nasty epithet thrown at her of "Moby Dickless." The Hungry Ocean is, after all, a candid confession by a woman unafraid to reveal herself to be delightfully earthy, stubborn, prone to hold a grudge and competitive: "The meek may inherit the earth, but they'll never get my piece of the ocean."
Instead of obsessing about an elusive freakish whale, this 20th century Ahab is tormented by turbulent weather and drug-addled or squabbling crew, revealing an understanding of relationships that is no doubt a large factor in her sailing success as much as it is a common characteristic of savvy women. Apart from her keen observations about the positive correlation between crew harmony and plentiful food and cigarettes, she eschews stereotypical feminine sensitivities. You can nearly smell the smoke of her ire in the starchy demand to be called a "fisherman" and she has no sentimental empathy for her finned prey ("I'm not the Free Willy type.")
Those like me who read to know worlds of experience inaccessible to their daily lives will not be disappointed. The Hungry Ocean provides many interesting tidbits of seafaring life: a fixation with superstition (blue paint, eating bananas or pork, and sailing on a Friday all being unlucky), and the arcane science of fishing by the moon's cycles (the three days either side of the full moon being most fruitful).
My only regret as a reader is that Greenlaw could have spent a little more ink describing the unique landscape of the sea and its siren seduction of the spirit and senses. I am a landlocked Coloradoan thirsty for just a bit of that lip-licking brine, after all.
-- Rebekah Shardy
The Hungry Ocean
By Linda Greenlaw
(Hyperion: New York, 1999)
An art of looking, a zen of seeing
Peter Friederici comes out of the transcendentalist tradition of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Frost and William Carlos Williams: the urbane, highly educated naturalist anxious to rediscover the "experience of wildness" and the essential glory -- and utter mystery and strangeness -- of life around us if we only look.
We'd be consumed with wonder if the stars came out only once a year. Because they come out every night, we barely take notice.
Friederici, though, takes notice -- of competition between varieties of clams, of spirogyra algae blooms in Lake Michigan, of the 17-year life cycle of cicadas, of the textures of a clay bluff deposited by the last ice age. His point is the significance inherent in the very act of taking notice. It's a habit of seeing that spills over into a way of being.
Like , Edward Abbey, John McPhee and Peter Matthieson, Friederici's schtick is keeping a naturalist journal that combines factual detail with lyrical flight, close observation with spiritual meditation. Keeping such a journal, he says, forces him to "look" more closely.
In looking, Friederici searches out the utter strangeness of nature -- in his case, the increasingly urban and "intensely civilized" landscapes of Chicago's North Shore -- that is embedded in the seemingly ordinary.
The "experience of wildness," however, is increasingly hard to come by for us city dwellers. Thoreau reported in "Walking" -- the essay containing his seminal line, "In wildness is the preservation of the world" -- that he could "easily walk ten, fifteen, twenty, any number of miles ... without going by any house, without crossing a road."
That's no more possible in Concord today than it is in any part of the country people live in, Friederici notes. "If we wish to learn how our lives are mirrored in the natural world -- and I would argue that our future well-being, physical and psychological, depends on such learning -- we are going to have to do it in landscapes like the suburbs."
What most interests Friederici about "the suburban wild" are places where "various types of woodland meet various types of open ground." Known in naturalist lingo as "edges," these areas -- used by Friederici to signify both physical locales and states of mind -- are "transition zones that combine many of the benefits of what lies on either side."
He deliberately attempts in his excursions to ferret out "edges" where the unpredictability and strangeness of wildness intersect with the predictability of the safely tamed. It is the experience of such intersections, he believes, that triggers the generative interplay of fact with possibility, of the practiced familiar with the risky unknown, that is essential for physical, spiritual and mental vitality.
It is "a practically universal trait," he says, to seek out such "edges," and we try to do so in both literal and figurative ways. It is in the literal quest for "edges" that we "chainsaw clearings in woods, plant woodlots on grassy plains, group the most prestigious addresses around urban parks and oak-shaded suburban lawns."
Friederici, meanwhile, is continually sensitive to diverse ways of "seeing." There are aspects of deer, cicada or clam "reality" unavailable to humans, and vice versa. A bald eagle can spot prey up to three miles away. An owl can spot a mouse six feet away in light equivalent to a single candle 390 yards off. Neither eagle nor owl, though, can "see" that mouse unless it is moving.
But Friederici also explores "seeing" in the metaphysical sense. How we see (our style of perception) in large part determines what we see, which in turn shapes our experience of the world.
Whether animal, plant or human, it is our experience of the world that constitutes our individual reality. German physicist Werner Heisenberg puts it this way: "What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning."
Friederici's point is that the style of perception we bring to nature is crucial to our long-term survival on this planet. The value we place on nature, for example, is a function of our style of perception.
It is "one of our deepest natural myths," he muses, that mountains, open space, meadows, animals, rivers, lakes and oceans are "there for the taking if only you want them badly enough. We have to use them now, before they're gone, because otherwise someone else will."
It is this tendency to view nature as a commodity, Friederici believes, that blinds us to the interdependency of the world's ecosystem. It is a way of seeing that, oblivious to or unconcerned about the necessity of "wildness," is reducing biodiversity and leading to a homogenization of world ecology and human culture.
"Diversity -- natural and cultural -- is a gift of life that should not be carelessly discarded," he observes, and "the more we learn about ecology" -- the closer we look -- "the more we realize that we are adrift in a sea of organisms that coexist in patterns of almost unbelievable complexity."
-- Bob Campbell
The Suburban Wild
by Peter Friederici
(The University of Georgia Press: Athens, GA, 2000)
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