Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters
Rampant wildfires across the West, venomous sea snakes on California beaches—sound familiar? Rarely does a day pass without a headline focused on climate-related news. Every time I read one of these stories, my mind goes to the people living amidst it: exhausted hotshot crews in Twisp, WA, barefoot beachcombers in Oxnard, CA. Though national in distribution, every story begins in its own neighborhood.
About a year ago, the National Park Service invited me to write an essay for a web-based literary anthology focused on climate-triggered ecological changes in my own backyard: Denali National Park. Denali's sub-Arctic location means that taiga (the boreal forest) and tundra (a treeless region often with permafrost present) overlap, making it an ideal place to track changes. The Park Service supports critical scientific research in Denali all year round, noting and recording everything from sound pollution to glacier profiles. But the NPS also knows that one of the best ways to invest visitors in climate research is not through power points and charts, but through narrative. Hence, the call for essays by writers from the region. Here's how Denali introduces the anthology project on its website:
I've lived in Interior Alaska for the past eleven years, about 100 miles, as the raven flies, from the highest mountain in North America. I have always called this formidable and beautiful summit "Denali," as do a majority of Alaska residents, including our three Republicans in Congress. Since President Obama just empowered Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to change the official name from Mt. McKinley to Denali, soon you'll be calling it Denali, too.
For the past few days, I've been glued to the national media coverage centered on my home, and I'm thrilled that the rest of the world will finally call the mountain Denali. Unfortunately, in the rush to cover the big news, the media has been getting small but important details wrong, especially those related to the rights and identities of Alaska Native people. So instead of retelling the strange story of an obsequious explorer, a presidential hopeful, and the gold standard, I want to dig deeper, finding a route through the context surrounding Alaska's iconic peak.
Christine Byl reading from Dirt Work late last year, photo courtesy Mollie Foster
Near top the list of my greatest riches is the gang of artists I call friends: poets and painters, musicians and quilters, collagists and photographers. Our conversations, across medium and genre, stimulate me to consider the world at angles skew to my default impulses, and push my work to places I would not know how to take it on my own. We talk about books we’ve read—the new or the old, the overrated, the flat-out brilliant—and music we’ve rediscovered (’80s REM, anyone?) We talk about art that makes us wince, shiver, flounce or rage. We talk about the process of making, and our tools (words, paint, sound) and the tasks the tools are applied to—elegy, play, witness, and praise.
Over the past year or so, one conversational theme has recurred among us more than any other, rivaling even the old standbys, “Balancing Procrastination and Discipline” & “Does Art Really Matter?” Over beers, walking the dog and in stolen asides at conferences, we return again and again to this: How to negotiate the terrain that up-thrusts when art abuts commerce? We vent and bemoan how it seems you can’t be a writer any more without also being a spokesperson. We worry that we spend too much or not enough time shepherding work through the world. Even as we celebrate each other’s external triumphs—this prize, that grant, a fundraiser goal met, a book contract signed—we admit, in bit-off sentences, to a vague internal shame that underlies moments when a thing we make becomes a thing to buy. Because a thing to buy is necessarily a thing someone must sell. And more and more, we’re told, that someone is us.
Summer is a time for getting outdoors, listening to the birds, taking long walks in the woods or long naps on the beach. And there’s nothing quite like reading a book outside, or after a day spent basking in the splendor of the natural world. With that in mind, here are five titles to accompany your summer adventures, or inspire your next trip outdoors:
“For a housing market, it’s always healthy to have a range of housing so that people can move up the ladder,” she says. “I grew up in New Hampshire and I remember when the small towns did have the bank president living the same place where the farm laborers did. We have lost a lot of that through suburbanization and as we see the deepening inequities between incomes, I think that’s reinforced by some of this zoning.” [Listen]
In four of the six New England states (excluding Maine and New Hampshire), the recent national "housing bust" hasn't reduced home prices enough to make the median-priced home affordable for the average household. According to the National Association of Realtors, only 25 percent of Americans want a home on an oversized lot, yet that type of housing accounts for 43 percent of the supply in New England. [Read the rest]
The Point, on Cape Cod’s NPR station, did a segment on narrative non-fiction with their host, a local librarian, and the Cape Cod Times book editor. They mention both Snob Zones and Dirt Work starting around the 24 minute mark. [Listen] Which leads us to...
In her book, Ms. Byl recalls long days of clearing brush, digging ditches, building bridges, cleaning up after forest fires, and blasting snow. She learned how to use such unfamiliar tools as crosscut saws, pulaskis, and chainsaws. She grew accustomed to dealing with the harsh living conditions and injuries that are part of the job.
And, frankly, she learned how to cope in the backcountry, miles from the nearest restroom. Yes, Ms. Byl is not afraid to talk about "dropping her pants in the woods."
Listen to Christine Byl on Alaska
Public Radio’s Talk of Alaska talking about her tools, her life in the woods, wildlife, and more. Especially great to hear her reading her meditation on the lynx.
"An account that is as unflinching as it is
important. Both an incisive reconstruction of a heartbreaking murder and
an unsparing diagnosis of a national malady . . . with HUNTING SEASON
Ojito has done truth an invaluable service. Extraordinary." —Junot Díaz, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Brief
Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith
Family by Susan Katz Miller (October)
A moving, personal story that
opens new dimensions of life in general and religious life in particular that
rise out of an interfaith family. Susan Katz Miller writes with the
passion of experience and with the integrity of being authentic. Its insights
moved me deeply.”—John Shelby Spong, author of The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a
An interview with authors DeWolf and Morgan on NPR’s Tell Me Moreaired Christmas Day.
The authors begin the West Coast leg of their tour this
weekend. The entire month of January, they’ll be making appearances in
Washington, Oregon, California, and Colorado. Check out their website for more info.
Booklist review, Jan
01: “Saulitis’ stunning and sorrowful ‘book of contemplation’ elucidates the
discipline, tedium, danger, and bliss of whale studies… Candid, transfixing,
and cautionary, Saulitis celebrates and mourns for a wondrous and imperiled
Intensive Care: A Doctor’s Journey by Danielle
Ofri (March 05)
Kirkus Reviews in print (Jan. 15) and online
(Jan. 01): “in sharp, take-no-prisoners prose, Khalidi maintains that the U.S.
and Israel… have conspired to deny Palestinians any semblance of
self-determination. A stinging indictment of one-sided policymaking
destined, if undisturbed, to result in even greater violence.”
“Drawing on his own experience as
a Palestinian negotiator and recently released documents, Rashid Khalidi mounts
a frontal attack on the myths and misconceptions that have come to surround
America’s role in the so-called “peace process” which is all process and no
peace. The title is not too strong: the book demonstrates conclusively
that far from serving as an honest broker, the US continues to act as Israel’s lawyer
– with dire consequences for its own interests, for the Palestinians, and for
the entire region. Professor Khalidi deserves much credit for his superb
exposition of the fatal gap between the rhetoric and reality of American
diplomacy on this critically important issue.” —Avi Shlaim, Emeritus Professor of International
Relations at Oxford and author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.
"Every denizen of wild places
from Laotse to St. Francis to Rachel Carson to black bears to field mice has
depended upon trails. But rarely have we considered the people, tools, or toil
that lay our favorite trails down. Dirt Work is a spectacular correction of
this omission. Imbued with a tough-minded, ribald reverence for honest labor
that brings to mind a female Gary Snyder or Wendell Berry (if you can imagine
that!), Christine Byl does epic justice to the whole-bodied satisfactions that
come of staying out in the weather, staying alert, and working one’s ass off
for others with love, tenacity and skill." --David James Duncan,
author of The River Why and Sun House.
“Christine Byl has been summering
on trail crews for more than a decade and a half. A first-rate storyteller, she
details the techniques and tools, and the spirit of fellowship and feel of the
woods. If you love getting into the back country, or even if you're an armchair
backpacker as I am now at age eighty, you'll love Dirt Work.”
--William Kittredge, author of Hole in the Sky and The
Nature of Generosity
“Byl’s is not a world of groomed
nature, inert tools, or nostalgic rituals, but a vibrant landscape inhabited by
people and animals and layered by idea and history. She means this book as a
love song, she writes, and it is, not only from her to her fellow laborers, but
from the mind to the body, the hand to the tool, the human to the wild.” —Sherry
Simpson, author of The Accidental Explorer: Wayfinding in Alaska