Monday, November 30, 2009

What We're Reading - Hot/Cold

I did not intend to focus my reading on the two extremes of nature, but it is rather serendipitous, no?

Even though I have yet to read his award winning book about the Dust Bowl, The Worst Hard Time, I was still excited for Timothy Egan's next to come out: The Big Burn. It is easily my favorite book of 2009. Egan discusses the birth of the Forest Service under the loving eye of Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. Not everyone was pleased with the idea of public land when money could be made from lumber, and some in Congress kept the rangers or "foresters" underpaid and underfunded. Egan's prose is as lovely as a novelist's, adorned with descriptions of "waters choked with icebergs" and "huge cones popping into fireballs" that would get any naturalist in the mood (to read). He devotes a lot of time to the Roosevelt and Taft presidencies, particularly in regard to conservation. While Taft is portrayed as something of a traitor to the cause, there are many instances where you can't help but feel a little sorry for him.

The narrative really takes off at the first hint of fire, which explodes into absolute chaos in the bone dry forests of Montana, Idaho, and Washington. He introduces you to many people who attempted to subdue the fire and also those who were trapped as it closed in on their small towns. You will come to worry over these colorful characters and their fates. I think most Angelenos can appreciate the horror of watching as flames rush down mountainsides and smoke settles in the valleys. This is a must read for any such person who lives in a place that has an actual fire season.

From the burning to the freezing is Bill Streever's Cold. He spends most of his time in Alaska and discusses everything you might want to know about the cold, and other cool things you didn't know you wanted to know about the cold. Through incredibly descriptive writing you feel as if you are there alongside him; you can almost hear the crunch of the ice, feel the pain that comes from inhaling cold air. He weaves together fascinating anecdotes throughout his year long journey. Among them is the School Children's Blizzard of 1888, when temperatures plummeted drastically within hours and literally caught people where they stood. Many of the deaths were children. There are tales of animals, like caterpillars that spend the winter completely frozen before thawing and resuming their life in the spring. This is a delightful and informative read that will help set the mood for the upcoming winter. (If we So Cal residents can call it that...)

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