Monthly Archives: February 2009

Literature: Best Science and Nature 2008

2008-best-science-natureTitle: The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008 // Editor: Jerome Groopman //Publisher: Houghton Mifflin // Date: October 2008 // p. 352

Nature and science buffs, I promise you’ll find something you love about this essay collection. The best of the best, The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008 lives up to the promise of its title while entertaining readers and posing important questions about the environment, technology, and the future of the planet (in a nutshell, that’s basically it).

The essay I keep thinking about is the book’s final essay, Florence Williams’ “A Mighty Wind.” Originally published in Outside magazine, the essay focuses on the “eco-wonderland” of Samsø, Denmark. This tiny island is the most carbon negative settlement on earth, and Williams’ essay about it read like a celebration of all that is beautiful when communities are united by a common goal. The people of Samsø use enough wind, solar, biofuel and other renewable technologies to sustain themselves completely—and they generate enough excess to share with others. I’ve been thinking about ways to have a more eco-friendly home and office, and this essay expanded my ideas immensely by exposing a future possibility that is also present right here, right now, somewhere on the globe. To read the entire essay, as it appeared in Outside, click here.

And…if you’d like to read my longer, more formal-type review of The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008, here you go:

The Best American Series is known to corral some of the year’s most exciting writing into a single volume full of rich voices and unique style. The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008 lives up to this standard with innovative reportage that spans the subjects of biotechnology, linguistics, zoology, and cosmology, among othersclick here to continue reading


Landscape: The Minturn Mile

traci-mileBig smiles here from Vail, Colorado. I’ve recently participated in a local tradition that involves skiing off of Vail Mountain and into the nearby town of Minturn. The Minturn Mile, or simply “The Mile” as locals call it, conveniently ends a short walk from the Minturn Saloon, the perfect spot for an après-ski beverage. Last weekend, it snowed eight inches on Saturday, so my new ski buddy Betsy (below) and I had a great time dropping into the first bowl of fresh powder. There is no official start to The Mile, as it’s technically “out of bounds,” but if you’re on Vail Mountain and you ski in the direction of a run called Lost Boy, you can just keep going straight, and you’ll hit a roped gate. Slide right on through. I’ve also entered The Mile by going towards Vail’s Sun Down Bowl and hiking a bit up a ridge to start by cutting under a rope and dropping down into some nice, steep trees.


After getting through the first steep bowl, The Mile meanders through a gully interspersed with some friendly trees. Aspens flank one side of the mountain, evergreens the other. I’ve started loving the glades around here, and the trees add variety to this route that is at times tight and at others wide-open.


Great views such as this one are the reward for taking the road less traveled:


How to know if you’re ready to ski The Mile? I’d say if you can comfortably ski any of Vail’s in-bounds bowls and a tight, bumpy gully (such as Cady’s Café), you’ll probably do all right. The Mile is more enjoyable for skiers, I think, because it flattens out for stretches, and it can be pretty bumpy in spots.


The Mile ends in a neighborhood on the town’s north end, and the Minturn Saloon is about a ten minute walk away. It’s probably a good idea to go with someone who knows the way for the first time, but it’s pretty much a no-brainer once you’re in the right gully. The only way to get out is to hike up the side…or make it all the way to the saloon.

Literature: The Thing Itself

“Las Vegas provides one of the pleasuers that more elevated travel sometimes fails to provide: it asks for a response.”
-Richard Todd, in The Thing Itself

Title: The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity // Publisher: Riverhead Books // Author: Richard Todd // 2008 // 272 p.

ireland-roadsignI started reading Richard Todd’s The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity shortly after I returned from a recent weekend trip to Las Vegas. The book helped me process the experience in one of its sections titled “There, There.” While Todd rates the palpability of Vegas slightly better than that of Disney World, he still says Vegas is “…a giant piece of installation art, a gloss on the country, it is not a place at all.” Ouch.

I didn’t quite know what to expect from this book but read it simply because I know and respect its author. Richard “Dick” Todd was one of my mentors through the Goucher Collete MFA program; he’s a grandfatherly kind of guy you’d like to talk books with over a pint of beer. And the conversational tone I’d imagine in that kind of setting is the one that makes this book so accessible to readers.


While exploring the topic of “authenticity,” Todd takes a lighthearted approach to some deeply important questions. He starts out saying “This book began with a simple feeling, the sense that my life, and much of the life about me, was not ‘real.’” In a series of delightful essays, Todd talks his way through this problem. I’d say the genre here is cultural criticism, and, as Todd says “…the quest for authenticity is the essential subject of these pages.” This book turns out to be a beautiful collection of thoughts on important (and trivial) subjects such as politics, place, travel, restoration, and The Self.


I’d recommend this book for: readers currently annoyed with fluffy novels.

A note on the photos: I took these photos while driving around Ireland with my parents and uncle. We were looking for the “real” Macnamara family home. We had an old black-and-white photo of our great-grandparents’ house, supposedly located somewhere in County Cork. Of course, we never found it.

Life: Vegas Nights

venetianYou can’t take Las Vegas seriously. Isn’t that the point? The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that more that 552,000 people live in Vegas, and surely they’re more in tune with reality, but the rest of us visitors who go there for a weekend don’t expect it. Down a small stretch of paved road, a person can “travel” from Paris to New York to Venice. No kidding though, you know you’re not really anywhere besides the United States, and with just a quick look around, it’s easy to see that this place is American as America gets: people with bad legs wearing shorts, McDonalds lit up with neon lights, waiting in line for shows. The Venetian, with its painted sky and perfumed air, provides perhaps one of the best viewing decks. You can stand up there and people watch. And when the evening light starts to cast long shadows, things start to get kind of beautiful, sparkly.


I get repulsed and awed by Las Vegas. I find the chatter of slot machines annoying, but I love the look of the strip at night…


And I like Cirque du Soleil. Where else can see so many Cirque shows (I think there are five or six currently playing). I recommend LOVE, the Cirque version of a Beatles tribute.

Landscape: Vegas, Naturally

vegas-planeYou’re flying into Las Vegas, and you can’t help but wonder: what’s happening here? The plane tilts, rolls. You’re floating over some beautiful open land, and the mellow browns and blues of a desert landscape calm your nerves. Impressive peaks ripple across the dusty earth. Mount Charleston is sprinkled with snow. You’re thinking you didn’t expect the area surrounding Las Vegas to be so impressive, so natural, and then a strange body of turquoise water comes into view: Lake Mead. Its edges have taken the shape of finger-like tentacles digging into its surroundings. Without this water, you know that Vegas—as it is today—couldn’t exist. And knowing this makes you feel kind of creeped out.


Lake Mead is the largest man-made lake and water reservoir in the United States. It extends 110 miles beyond the Hoover Dam, but it is currently way below capacity and has been shrinking alarmingly for the past decade. Come on—Vegas is in the middle of the desert, so the water that supplies it has to come from somewhere. vegas-above I’m sure there is a lot of debate going on about what will happen to Vegas when the water runs out, but with less snowfall (less snowmelt) and higher temperatures, it’s bound to run dry. Soon.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Las Vegas crops up on the horizon, and if you’ve ever seen it from a plane—or even from some distance on the road—it seems kind of strange how it does that. Like this fantastic, energy abundant place just grows from the ground, out of nothing. And once you deplane, it starts to feel even freakier. Take the Venetian, for instance. An unnaturally clear and blue waterway weaves its way around the outside of this monstrous hotel. This fabricated waterway carries gondola riders from outside directly into a high-end shopping mall, which has a ceiling painted with a scene of the sky.


I know I’m sounding really curmudgeonly here. I mean, how many people go to Las Vegas for the purpose of enjoying its natural elements? I know…nature’s not the point of this place. But as I sat out on a patio overlooking the fountain at the Bellagio (spurting off every half hour, synchronized to the sounds of classical music), I couldn’t help thinking about how we people relate to the natural world.


Even in the most inhospitable places, we still want a bit of natural beauty. And Las Vegas seemed to be saying that we’ll harness it, fabricate it, just to keep it—even if it’s contrived.