Daniel Duane does for the nature of California what John Muir did, no question. He captures the thrill and the enzymatic connection between our evolution (physical, conscious, you name it) and our environment. He makes a reader feel the majesty of California, no less so than on the face of El Capitan. As he did with surfing, Duane captures the aesthetic of climbing as well as its unique spiritual challenge. He distinguishes between routes: "The Salathe Wall ... meanders all over El Capitan's southwest face because [previous climbers] were determined to reduce the use of bolts ....[T]heir route, as a result, really does express a belief about an ideal way of being in the world."
And then there are the men who have climbed El Capitan: Royal Robbins, Warren Harding, Yvon Chouinard, Tom Frost to name a few. Duane captures these men at the point when their souls intersect with the rock, even in his description of a handshake: "His fingers," he writes of Jim Bridwell, "claw-like forms that grip yours with an odd kind of passivity, as if this spring-loaded steel trap just can't bring itself to engage for anything short of a hammer."
Finally, there's Duane himself on El Cap, describing his third failure: "My partner at that time, Russ McBride, was so unafraid at belays that even as we dangled in theStoveleg Cracks, he kept right on reading 'One Hundred and One No Down Payment Formulas: How to Get Rich Quick in the Real Estate Market.' I was, however, utterly and desperately terrified once again. (I actually wept with fear, babbling incoherently about how I loved my mother and wanted to live to get married and have babies of my own someday.)" All the greatest adventure writers must describe their fears to us, and Duane is generous, funny and honest about his fear and his awe.
AN INTIMATE LOOK AT THE NIGHT SKY By Chet Raymo Walker & Co.: 242 pp., $26
The purpose of this book, Chet Raymo writes, is to "reestablish intimacy with the night." He quotes Thoreau, "[T]he outdoors at night is as unknown to us as Central Africa." Like Carl Sagan, Raymo walks us through star maps (all at 40 degrees north in each season), the planets, comets and meteors, how stars are born and how they die; but unlike Sagan, Raymo brings them down to us. He gets cozy with the firmaments. Get a CD of Joseph Haydn's "The Creation Oratorio," he advises, sit outside on a deck chair under the stars far from city light pollution, and play it. "Can we ever feel at home in a universe of 100 billion galaxies?" he asks. The answer is yes. "We carry the universe in our heads .... [T]he discovery of galaxies is a human story." It is an open-armed guide to the stars.
Each section begins with a map, a section called "What to See," followed by a section called "What to Imagine." Between these are chapters on darkness, the moon and eclipses, et cetera, building to a crescendo of mystery. Raymo re-creates the alignment of the stars on the night Van Gogh committed suicide. Raymo blows the top off the world. "This vortex of stars," he writes, describing the Milky Way, "with the monstrous core and the hidden halo."
WALKING ON THE LAND By Farley Mowat Steerforth Press: 208 pp., $14
Walking the land, we learn at book's end, is what Inuit people do when they believe they are no longer useful. In this book, Farley Mowat almost reluctantly revisits the subject of his 1952 book, "People of the Deer," the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic, "an account of their ancestral way of life and, especially, of their neglect and abuse by northern agents of government ... commercial interests and missionaries."
Mowat goes back to visit the Ihalmiut on hearing about a particularly grisly murder in the late 1950s--the death of a husband at the hand of his wife and then death of two of their children by starvation, against a backdrop of abusive resettlement and starvation by neglect of the authorities. He likens his interest to people who continue to tell the stories of the Holocaust. The story Mowat tells--of igloos bulldozed in front of their inhabitants, of children starving, of police shooting dogs because they are not tied up, of medicine for three sent to an entire village with an epidemic of hepatitis--is shocking.
Mowat doesn't even bother here to contrast the present with the dignity of these people in the past, dependent as they were on caribou and deer, before whites came with the guns that wiped out caribou. No, he just describes the dirty tents, the split families, the listlessness. Perhaps he is discouraged, this time, to find that the change his previous books helped bring about (if only by embarrassing the Ottowan government) was so very inadequate.