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The Green Life: Book Review Wednesday: The Great American West

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September 29, 2010

Book Review Wednesday: The Great American West

Books about environmentalism Every Wednesday, we review a selection of new and upcoming books addressing a specific aspect of environmentalism. This week we're alerting you to reality so that your dreams may be reignited; taking you on a journey through the Western U.S.

Rewilding the West: Restoration in a Prairie Landscape (by Richard Manning, $25, University of California Press, June 2009) From its opening line, the reader can tell that Manning's story of the West's transformation will be a sobering one. This book is at times whimsical, but more often brutally honest about the condition of the Great Plains, having been changed by Europeans from wild nature to lifeless and empty farmland; from vast land of motion to expanses of stagnation. Not to be completely downbeat, Manning's book leaves us inspired to change the agricultural and political policies that have held back nature's real wonder: its, and our own, self-continuation. This book is compelling, inclusive, and, in the end, hopeful.

Of Rocks and Rivers: Seeking a Sense of Place in the American West (by Ellen Wohl, $25, University of California Press, June 2009) This thoughtful collection of nature essays from geomorphologist Ellen Wohl sheds light on her lifelong love affair with the American West. The essays are wide-ranging, covering topics as diverse as wildfire suppression to what defines "natural." All, however, paint a portrait of landscapes and describe an affinity for place. Wohl doesn't reveal to you what lessons the American West can teach, but does point you in the right direction.

Yellowstone and the Snowmobile: Locking Horns Over National Park Use (by Michael J. Yochim, $35, University Press of Kansas, Feb. 2009) This book examines a specific debate to illuminate the greater questions of the place of America's national parks, and in turn the limits of personal liberty in relation to nature. In Yosemite, snowmobiles are used for recreation; this has caused noise pollution, released fumes, and disturbed wildlife. The author details issues of accessibility versus preservation; how does one enjoy the beauties of Yellowstone while protecting its "wildness"? Diligently researched and critical of all sides, this book can have wide-reaching consequences.

The Illuminated Landscape: A Sierra Nevada Anthology (Edited by Gary Noy and Rick Heide, $20, Sierra College Press, May 2010) These excerpts and essays by authors both world-famous and local, from the Yokut Native Americans to Mark Twain to Jack Kerouac, all relate to the Sierra Nevada mountains. The pieces reflect the tradition of John Muir, who dearly loved the Sierra Nevada, encapsulating his ideas and, for some authors, even predating them. But his tradition is richly alive in this book, which offers an array of perspectives on the beauty and mystery, past and future, of the Sierra Nevada by authors who, like Muir, were transfixed by the "Range of Light." The local authors also offer an environmental perspective, helping to show what must be done to preserve the Sierra Nevada for future generations.

Alaska's Place in the West: From the Last Frontier to the Last Great Wilderness (by Roxanne Willis, $35, University Press of Kansas, Sept. 2010) It was once thought that John McPhee's Coming Into the Country was the definitive book on Alaska. But Alaska has changed a great deal since McPhee's 1976 writings, what with the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Sarah Palin. Willis attempts to trace Alaska's modern history, from the Yukon Gold Rush to the present day, firmly outlining the origins of the 49th state's most pressing environmental and political issues. At the book's heart is a central question: Is Alaska the "last frontier" to exploit and develop, or is it the "last wilderness" to preserve and protect? Or is there a middle ground?

--Ronny Smith

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