Review: On the Trail: A History of American Hiking

On the Trail: A History of American HikingOn the Trail: A History of American Hiking by Silas Chamberlin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I first started hiking as a kid with my family and later as a boy scout, I never gave much thought to how trails were made or who made them. Even as a teenager and then as a young adult, I had some vague sense that these trails were probably created by the CCC half a century ago. It wasn’t until I joined a local trail organization myself and started working to maintain and build new trails that I began to understand the sheer amount of man-hours (person-hours?) that go into keeping the trails open and enjoyable.

“On the Trail” describes the evolution of trail walking and hiking, from its inception of nature and rural graveyard strolls to organized clubs to the current incarnation of largely solo and ad hoc group hiking. Chamberlin’s history focuses on a few key groups and areas, such as the Dartmouth Outing Club, the Sierra Club, the Appalachian Trail, and (briefly) the Pacific Crest Trail, though many other organizations and trails get some coverage. His work nicely bridges the gap that seems to exist in outdoors-nature writing, which often goes “Thoreau > present.”

If you’re a hiker, backpacker, or outdoors enthusiast, this is a book I’ll happily recommend. It’ll give you something interesting to contemplate or discuss while you’re out on the trail yourself and make you wonder: “who built the trail I’m on now? Who takes care of it?” It might even make you feel inspired to get involved in a local trail organization of your own; always a good thing! Certainly, I felt a sense of vindication and pleasure knowing that I’ve shifted my hiking style from “net consumer” of trails to “net producer” (terms that Chamberlin uses to describe the shift).

If you don’t see what all the fuss is about when it comes to the outdoors or if your sense of what hiking should be is largely associated with forced family gatherings that are to be endured rather than enjoyed, there’s nothing here that’s going to make you want to strap on a pair of boots. But that’s okay, because this book is really aimed at the crowd of hikers who like to go out, enjoy the woods, but maybe haven’t thought too much more about how they can give back to their hobby. If nothing else, it’ll make you appreciate how much work went into, and still goes into, created all the paths we enjoy.

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Review: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not all three star reviews are the same. Most of the time, 3 stars means “yeah, it was good. I liked it.” The PB&J experience in book form, if you will. Enjoyable, satisfying, but not something you’re going to recommend to someone to impress them (“oh man, let me make lunch for you, I’ll put together this amazing sandwich!”)

However, every once in a while, you’ll get a book that clocks in at three stars that manages to be full of amazing moments, but is tied up with such tangled problems that the three stars is really more of an average between two metrics: 5 stars for content, 1 star for readability.

I started this book on December 22. Completely coincidentally, I finished it on April 22. It . . . is not a long book.

Science books always have to balance two categories: the level of scientific content and the level of their readability to the layperson (someone like me). In the case of “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are” (henceforth referred to as AWSETKHSAA), the science is good, and interesting, and fun . . . but the readability factor is all over the map.

It’s not that this is a difficult book, either. I’ve tried to read books that are basically trying to explain the physics of black holes to PhD students. AWSETKHSAA is . . . I guess the word I would use is “slippery.” Or “wandering.” I would start in on it, read ten or twenty pages, then my attention would meander off.

The author moves from one experiment to another, talking about this or that, various animals and experiments and results and discussions — and it’s interesting, it really is! — but it’s hard to follow him. If you asked me to briefly summarize each chapter of the book I just finished, I’d have a hard time doing it.

And that’s a shame, because there are great moments throughout. I read several sections aloud, both because they were interesting and fun! “In a recognition test, an octopus was exposed to two different persons, one of whom consistently fed it, whereas the other mildly poked it with a bristle on a stick.” How can you not love the mental image of a scientist poking an octopus with a stick FOR SCIENCE!

Ultimately, the question of recommendation comes down to how curious you are about the premise. There is a lot (a lot!) of great work being done in the field of animal cognition. It’s more complex than I personally had imagined and AWSETKHSAA will give you a great crash course in the work that’s being done across a variety of animal species. That said, this is the kind of book you’d seek out if you’re already interested in the topic. If you’re more of a dilettante with your reading habits (as I tend to be), this one might be too unwieldy.

On the other hand, a scientist does poke an octopus with a stick. So, there’s that.

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Review: Encounters with the Archdruid

Encounters with the ArchdruidEncounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is a time capsule for the environmentalist. It’s a fossil. It’s a treasure.

“Encounters with the Archdruid” takes us back to 1970. The Environmental Protection Agency will be born this year. Climate change isn’t yet in the environmentalist’s lexicon; even its forerunner, “the greenhouse effect” is still a decade away from being a talking point. The greatest scourges are hydroelectric dams, mining, and housing developments. You can drink from the Colorado River, untreated, without worrying about giardia. The American southwest is still largely a remote backwater, with none of the explosive growth that it will see in the 80s and 90s.

It’s an entirely different world.

John McPhee writes about three different narratives with David Brower, the famous conservationist and former Sierra Club director. Part travelogue, part dialogue, McPhee captures the experiences and conversations as Brower explores different wilderness areas with men who are, quite possibly, his archenemies: a mineral engineer advocating for a copper mine, a developer who purchased a mostly pristine Atlantic island, and the Director of the Bureau of Reclamation who wants to build dams where ever dams can be built.

The discussions themselves are interesting and thought-provoking; should we aspire to be conservationists, who manage land wisely and responsibly, or preservationists, who leave the land alone entirely? Brower is firmly the latter, the other men the former, and in a supreme display of narrator neutrality, we never find out which camp McPhee falls into.

The fact that they’re able to go on these trips at all and argue while hiking or rafting before throwing back a beer shows that it was a different time. The things that Brower rails against, hydroelectric dams being his biggest bugbear, now seem quaint when we face the threat of global climate change and dams represent a cleaner, carbon neutral power source compared to fossil fuels.

And yet, though the book shows its age, it’s a marvelous look back, a tantalizing reminder of what was. It’s fascinating to look back on the thoughts, hopes, and fears from those in 1970 from my moment of time, here and now in 2017. Even if 2017 and the near future look horrifically bleak for the environment, far more grim than anything Brower could have imaginaged in 1970.

Regardless, this book is a gem. As a way of looking back at where we’ve come in the hopes of understand where we’re going, I would consider this book a must-read for anyone interested in the natural world and the environment.

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