Douglas Fischer

Summer reading for the enviro science crowd.

For the long holiday weekend let's get far from Brexit analysis and presidential politics. Here's our annual list of books to read for fun—and to stay sharp—this summer.

Summertime in the mother of all election years, and the reading needs to be easy. No political tomes from us this year. The front pages and websites in our noisy media world have more than enough.


So let's get far from Brexit analysis and presidential politics. Head west. Start your environmentally themed summer reading this year with a Western. 

Crazy Mountain Kiss, by Keith McCafferty

 

Bozeman, Mont., writer Keith McCafferty has published five who-dunnits set in Big Sky Country, with the fifth out just this week. All feature the adventures of private eye Sean Stranahan and Sheriff Martha Ettinger. And in all, the environmental setting and details are just as important as the plot and characters.

McCafferty, long-time editor at Field and Stream, has spent a lot of time outdoors. He has an easy familiarity with the bristling beauty that is Montana.

McCafferty has written the series to be read in any order. "The last thing I want is one huge novel broken up into books," he told me when I caught up with him at Wild Crumb, a Bozeman bakery and regular haunt for writers and telecommuters. 

"One, that's boring. And it's more interesting if people can read them in any order they want."

So start with the fourth book, Crazy Mountain Kiss.

The book won the Western Writers of America Spur Award for best contemporary novel. It starts with a gruesome discovery in a U.S. Forest Service cabin tucked up on the western flank of Montana's Crazy Mountains. 

"You go to other ranges, the Madison, the Absaroka, they have a soft side, meadows, flowers, they show you their beauty," McCafferty writes. "You can feel the breeze, hear them breathe. But the Crazies are just a jumble of peaks. They're nothing but hard edges and cold winds."

Paper, by Mark Kurlansky

 

Mark Kurlansky has found his niche, no question, writing insightful histories about simple, commodities that have shaped our world. First came Cod, a 1997 history of the world filtered, as the New York Times observed, "through the gills of the fish trade." Then came Salt (2002) and The Big Oyster (2007). 

This year he shows how paper holds our world together. Paper mills have produced any amount of filth over the generations (a story this week out of Ontario being the latest example). But cheap paper led to the creation of enormous libraries. And from there the rest is, well, history. 

Now, maybe you're reading this on a mobile device, far from the clutter and papers of your office. Worry not, Kurlansky concludes: Paper—transmitter of cultures, foundation of revolutions, bearer of news good and bad—is very much here to stay.

 The Sound of Mountain Water, by Wallace Stegner

 

A walk in Canada's Banff National Park into the cataract that is Johnston Canyon brought to mind this slim collection of essays, letters and speeches. 

The canyon is an astonishing gash in limestone and dolomite, loved to death by more than 1 million visitors a year. "Go late in the day," guidebooks recommend. So we did—and our troupe of kids and adults raced up the cantilevered pathway last week as a light evening rain sent the crowds scurrying down seeking shelter in cars and the cafe. 

Stegner penned the essays in Sound of Mountain Water from the 1930s to the late 1960s, as the West underwent astonishing transformation. The book offers hymn and hope and warning.

"Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed ... We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in."

Immoderate Greatness, by William Ophuls

 

Pause for a caveat: Nothing is uplifting about Ophuls' thin assessment of modern civilization. We are doomed, short and simple—fated for collapse as sure as the second law of thermodynamics pulls the universe toward entropy and chaos. 

So why read this? Perspective. And because Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is too much to lug to the beach. 

The best part of Ophuls' slim volume is the footnotes. Reading Immoderate Greatness (the title comes from Gibbon's famous line in Decline—"The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay...") you realize an entire oeuvre exists to explain the evolution of civilization. And all these books, or at least all the books Ophuls quotes, conclude that civilizations follow a lifecycle as constrained and unavoidable as any living critter.

Follow Ophuls' effort to put Western civilization into that framework, and you'll want to reach for a good, stiff drink. It's a sobering assessment of today's society.

Mr. Green Jeans, by Chris McGee

 

Or rather than drink, maybe reach for a chain saw. 

Jack Lake hits midlife in McGee's debut novel, sees the world going to Hell around him, and decides he has to do something. And so he strikes his blow against American consumerism by taking down a box store's billboard on the highway outside of town. 

What follows is an adventuresome romp as Jack and his wife, Lake, wage a guerilla campaign urging action on climate change and better care for Mother Earth. This is writer Chris McGee's first eco-novel, and the writing can clunk. But the earnestness and emotion carries through.

If you’re stuck in a mid-life slump, this, well, maybe won’t solve everything. But it will get you thinking.

Goodbye, Darkness, by William Manchester

 

As might be clear by now, we can't completely escape the darker political currents rippling across the globe. In such times, it's helpful to reach back and pull a war history off the shelf. If you do, reach for Goodbye, Darkness.

The title alone makes it apt for our time. 

Marcus Engler in Bozeman, Mont., recommended this one. Some war books are just chronicles—dry if assiduous accountings of gripping events. Goodbye, Darkness is the other kind—where events and characters are part of a larger, gripping story.

The book is an embellished memoir of William Manchester's life with the Marines Sixth Division during World War II in the Pacific Theater: Okinawa, Tarawa, Guam. He revisits those battle scenes 35 years later and reflects on changes in both the landscape and society. 

The book, published in 1980, doesn't capture any of today's tech-fueled growth. But it gives historical grounding for events shaping our world now—perspective woefully lacking in so much of our public discourse today. And Manchester talks vividly of the remarkable transformation, apparent even in the early '80s, of the industrialization marking these formerly remote, tropical islands.

Engler's dad served in the Sixth Division, same as Manchester. Goodbye, Darkness is really a look back in time and at sacrifices made in an effort to change the course of history, Engler noted. "I don't know where that puts us now. But you look at how war has displaced people... and we still haven't resolved this." 

Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature, by Kathleen Dean Moore 

 

Reader Richard Pauli of Seattle recommended this compact collection of experiences from Oregon State philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore. Writing about tracking otters, cooking breakfast, canoeing in a snow squall, Moore reminds us of the interconnectedness of our world—and of what we risk by living beyond this planet's means.

"The single-minded focus on accommodation to climate change," Moore writes, "is a moral failure." It ignores the introspection, revelation and, yes, comfort, nature affords.

Here are a couple of book suggestions from our weekend editor, Peter Dykstra.

The Sea Around Us, by Rachel Carson 

Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us was published 65 years ago this June. Those who know Carson only for her brave and pioneering reporting on pesticides may want to check this one and her other ocean books, Under the Sea Wind and The Edge of the Sea. The Sea Around Us contains a prescient chapter called “The Global Thermostat,” in which her curiously passionate style of science writing describes how the oceans hold sway over the global climate.

Should you need more visionary reading on science, health and the environment, such books have had a remarkable run over the past 30 years in capturing the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction. Twelve of the 30 winning titles — 40 percent!!— of the nonfiction Pulitzers have gone to books on these topics since 1977. Among them, Dan Fagin’s Toms River (2014), which combined a narrative on the development of industrial chemicals with their deep impacts on a New Jersey town; Annals of the Former World, a gripping book despite its immense length and literally dense subject matter (rocks); and Beautiful Swimmers (1977), William Warner’s ode to blue crabs, watermen, and the Chesapeake Bay.

Wilted Green 

Let's end with a bit of fun. Take a rainy day, put down the books, extract the kids from their iPhones, and pull out a game.

You might try "Wilted Green," an eco-take on the popular "Cards against Humanity."

Like "Cards," each round starts when one person draws a prompt card—dark green in this case. The rest of the group looks through their hand of light green cards to find the best response possible. The person that drew the dark green prompt card then chooses the winning response.

Sample prompt: "The key to a low-carbon lifestyle is ...."

Possible (somewhat snarky) responses: "Vegan pizza" or "Emails from the Sierra Club" or "Al Gore's permanent look of disapproval."

Game creator Josh Lasky writes that the game is "obviously meant to be lighthearted (and played while drinking organic, craft beer, of course)."

"I’m also hoping that, in a way, this little card game might provide a reminder to our community that a healthy sense of humor and an occasional dose of self-awareness are required in order for us to move toward a more sustainable future."

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