I haven’t read much good (life-changing, mind-blowing) fiction lately, so I’ve reverted back to what I love best: nonfiction, on topics related to nature, outdoors, place, adventure, travel, etc. A few weeks ago, I was browsing the used book shelves at the Boulder Bookstore and saw a copy of an essay collection edited by Bernadette McDonald titled Extreme Landscape: The Lure of Mountain Spaces (2002). This book had been previously recommended to me, and it proved to be a good find. Terry Tempest Williams writes the book’s introduction, and essays written by Barry Lopez, George Schaller, Gretel Ehrlich, and Yvon Chouinard are included, among other writers who do great justice to the places that inspire them. As McDonald explains in the foreword, “Each of the authors in this collection is a specialist: a scientist, ethnobotanist, mountaineer, philosopher, or photographer. Each has focused on particular mysteries and issues of extreme landscapes and each of them draws creative inspiration from the high peaks and icy expanses of some of the wildest terrain possible.”
A few of the standout essays include Wade Davis’s “Culture at the Edge,” which involves the author’s experience as a park ranger in Canada’s Spatsizi Wilderness, where he learned the stories of its native people. “Dumbstruck,” by Dermot Somers, is a beautiful meditation of the loss of language and Anglo-Americanization in Ireland and Nepal. Others are more academic in tone, and some—such as Yvon Chouinard’s final essay—are all over the place and back, but they all pay homage to mountain spaces. I recommend this book for any lover of the great outdoors, so if you run across it in a local bookstore or spy it on a friend’s bookshelf, snatch it straightaway.
A few gems:
“When we encounter mountains in wild places, we experience the peak of our own humility.” —Terry Tempest Williams
“The truth lies in the telling of the stories, not in the stories themselves.” —Ed Douglas, on being told stories by those he met in the Himalaya
“For [Alex], the sweeping flight of a hawk was the cursive hand of nature, a script written on the wind.” —Wade Davis, on Alex, a man who tells him stories of Gitksan lore
“To reach back through language, looking for our origins, is to cup the hands in a funnel and shout, and when the shout returns, distorted, a conversation with our earlier selves goes on.” —Dermot Somers
“When we reshape an extreme environment to suit our needs, we lose the ability to experience it on its own terms.” —Bernadette McDonald
Photo: The Royal Societies, part of Antarctica’s Transantarctic Range, on a summer night.