Outdoor Discoveries

What originally was a news section for the rest of the website soon became a place for me to write about human-powered wanderings in the countryside. Photography inspires me to get out there, mostly on foot these days, though cycling got me started. Musings on the wider context of outdoor activity complete the picture, so I hope that there is something of interest in all that you find here. Thank you for coming!

American authors

27th July 2020

On the day that I am writing this, it has been raining much of the time. It is a day for indoor activities like reading and two large volumes have dominated mine over the last few weeks. One has been started, John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World, while another was finished yesterday: Barry Lopez’s Horizon.

Neither was the first occasion that I read works from either of these authors. McPhee’s Coming into the Country came first. While I might have expected much on the nature of Alaskan wilderness, that also ventured into the human side of the place with its realists and its dreamers. It was the former with whom McPhee sided and I was left feeling concerned for a Caterpillar bulldozer outwintering in wilderness awaiting retrieval though its fate surely was known decades before.

It was Lopez’s Arctic Dreams that I enjoyed during the past few months. Its prose evokes the sparse atmosphere of a variety of arctic locations in North America, a soothing escape for a frantic world in the midst of a global pandemic. Horizon remains the authors latest work even though it was published last year. Though there are reminders of its 1986 predecessor in chapters describing journeys around Skraeling Island in the Canadian Arctic and Antarctica, this is a very different work.

There are preoccupations with the state of our planet and its future that only fade slightly at the end. These percolate thinking at Cape Foulweather in Oregon and in Tasmania. Otherwise, hominid remnants in Kenya and present day life in the Galapagos Islands dominate the chapters devoted to them. At times, the journey reflects how our world is as well as how it is in places that are not so troubled. There might be an autobiographical element to the text but there are so many undercurrents that it is impossible to state that any dominates the whole work. Maybe, it reflects how lives are lived in a more serendipitous manner that we might admit and mine probably would fit this mould.

It is early days for Annals of the Former World with its healthy helping of geological narrative but it already is reading well for me. It is made of four preceding books (Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, Rising from the Plains, Assembling California) with an added fifth, Crossing the Craton. In its own way, this is building up my knowledge of North American geological history after Tim Flannery’s Europe: The First 100 Million Years added similar insights with regard to that for my home continent.

Given I am attracted by hill and mountain country, an interest in how landscapes came to be formed should not be such a surprise. Not all areas appeal to me but there is little harm in knowing how they came to be as well. Nevada and Utah are such places given how desert-like they are and how hot they become. McPhee’s writing centres around what nature does rather than what man alters as you will find in Nicholas Crane’s The Making of the British Landscape. That we can also do damage cannot be avoided in Barry Lopez’s Horizon and this even pervades nature writings from the likes of Jim Crumley, whose The Nature of Summer was among my reading during the last few weeks. After all, we are said to be living in the Anthropocene era of earth’s history with all the responsibilities that it brings.

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