This is the serendipitously color-coordinated stack of books I took to read up north between Christmas and the new year. I set my sights high.
I’m not ready to round up the best books I read in all of 2016, so I guess I never will be. I know in my last post I said that I’d been writing, that I’d be here soon, that I had a web of thoughts about the past ten years and my next few years, about ways of living and where it all comes from. If I didn’t quite say all that, it’s still what I meant.
I’m still tangled up in that web, and in a web of articles left open to read later, emails to myself of things to think about. I think the only way forward is to snip my way out of the web for a few moments and write about these few books, separate from all the rest. Plus, the books accidentally match so well. I had to share.
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In keeping with my recent overarching over-ambition for words and ideas and open browser tabs outlined above, I packed 987 pages of reading for our last trip to Manistee. We drove up on a Wednesday and home again to Ann Arbor that Saturday, New Year’s Eve. So that was two full days, plus one evening. Not much time at all. Here are all the books I tried to read:
Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Hidden Wars of the American West, by Rebecca Solnit
Savage Dreams has been near the top of my reading list since Cooper gave it to me for my birthday in June, an absolutely perfect and compelling birthday present, but somehow other books kept sneaking in ahead of it. I didn’t actually get past the introduction until we were back home in Ann Arbor, where I fell asleep with it open waiting for the new year to begin, but it was the first book I packed for Manistee. (In 2017 I became devoted to it: two days later I was two hundred pages in.)
I would like to be Rebecca Solnit. She’s an excellent writer, an explorer and researcher of many different topics, an impassioned and informed citizen. This book is about the Nevada Test Site, where the U.S. government detonated nuclear bombs in the desert until the 1990s, and about Yosemite National Park, America’s idealized Garden of Eden. She writes about the history of these places, about how the very different landscapes were appreciated, devalued, exploited—about the crimes of the U.S. government against the land and against people who have made their lives there (for generations and for centuries), about wins and losses of Native Americans, peace protesters, ranchers, and environmentalists. She also writes about her personal experiences as an activist at the Test Site and a researcher at Yosemite.
I’m sure I’ll write about it more; first place on the packing list was very much deserved. But like I said, I didn’t really read this one during those not-quite-three days up north.
Queen’s Play by Dorothy Dunnett
After packing Savage Dreams, I grabbed book two in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, because vacation is really meant for reading fiction, right? Plus I’d been reading it since the train home from Ottawa (a tiny peek at Ali’s and my tiny trip can be found at #marisainottawa), and I didn’t want to lose my momentum—there are a lot of details to keep track of when protecting the child Mary, Queen of Scots in the 16th-century French court. I finished Part 1 (of 4) before I let myself start on Savage Dreams.
Nowhere: Travel Stories (First Edition Print 2017) edited by Porter Fox
Nowhere is an online travel journal, now supplemented with an annual print edition. Cooper found it after sharing one of Porter Fox’s articles with me, a piece from Fox’s forthcoming book on the US-Canada border (right up my alley!). That article is about the author’s freighter voyage from Montreal’s port on the Saint Lawrence River, through four Great Lakes and the locks that make them passable for such large ships, all the way to Thunder Bay, Ontario, north of Minnesota. Even better was Fox’s article published in October about canoeing the wild Boundary Waters between Minnesota and Ontario, Canada. As a teenager I would have never expected to romanticize Ontario to the extent I do today, but I do: while Ontario is just across the Detroit River from our metropolitan sprawl and also holds the largest population of all Canadian provinces, by area it’s mostly northern wildlands. And it’s right there, across the rivers and lakes from us!
Porter Fox (along with his talented photographer wife) also wrote about their dreamy honeymoon through Italy for the New York Times. I still haven’t really checked out Nowhere‘s website, but I expect good things.
Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto, by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine
Somehow the smallest book gets the longest explanation.
This is the manifesto of the Dark Mountain Project, another Christmas gift from Cooper. I was wary about it, since he introduced it as something of a hopeless reaction to the knowledge that humankind has irrevocably altered the climate: that we have doomed most of the planet, and must move forward into the dangerous future without pretending we can fix it.
Without reading it, I already knew I preferred the messages of George Monbiot’s Feral, E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth. (In an oversimplified nutshell: we are not yet totally screwed, so we must protect, ideally, half the planet, reintroduce native species where they are missing, and let nature, surprisingly and impressively, rebuild the complex and much more resilient and adaptable ecosystems that can protect the planet we have so destructively exploited.) These books cultivate hope, and hope empowers action.
But I was interested in whatever weirdness it had to say, and so I packed the little thirty-page book, too, and pulled it out to read on the sunny car ride north.
The manifesto does not simply say that we are fucked, that we should run to the hills and build an isolated, self-sufficient life for when human cities flood and collapse, when mass agriculture and production burn. In fact, this manifesto doesn’t tell you anything particular to do for the planet or the environment at all. Instead, it asks us to confront our fears and communicate honestly.
It reminds us that the stories we tell ourselves as a society are central to how we live and build our world. It says that the old myths we grasp so tightly—the myth of an ever-ascending ladder of progress and the myth of civilization, which claims that humankind is separate from and master of other life on earth—are detrimental to our future. And so, the manifesto calls for new stories, what they call “Uncivilised” writing and art, which is “rooted in place, time and nature.”
They say, “We see that the world is entering an age of ecological collapse, material contraction and social and political unravelling, and we want our cultural responses to reflect this reality rather than denying it.” The Dark Mountain project says we need to have space to grieve all we may lose, be they species or ecosystems, cities or our entire way of life. Starting from a place of honesty and acceptance, we can start to see a different path.
I haven’t read the many volumes of “Uncivilised” writing the Dark Mountain Project has published, nor have I had a chance to read their blog, so I don’t know the broader work. I’ve read the manifesto a few times, now, and I will say that it is thought-provoking, and eloquent, and I don’t entirely disagree. I realize now that many of the books I’ve sought over the past few years are similar to what they call for: writing rooted in place, authors honing in on the fabric of their surroundings (see above: Savage Dreams). So I’m super interested in what it is that they’ve published.