Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Scottish Desert

There is great beauty in the wild, solitary Highlands, but it can be a haunting sort of beauty. You could walk for miles and never see anything move, except maybe the ripple of a stream and the swaying of grass in the wind.

On my recent hike from the town of Inverie to Fort William, I didn’t see any cattle or sheep. No bugs, no birds, no rabbits, no squirrels. Nothing. Entering the Highlands feels as if you’re entering a deep and otherworldly past. You time-travel well beyond the Neolithic, when humans domesticated animals, and enter the Cambrian, when life hasn’t yet slithered from the sea onto land to breathe air and colonize firm ground.

I’ve now visited several islands of the Hebrides, walked a good hundred miles of the Highlands, and, according to my Scottish family, traveled more of Scotland than many Scots. There’s much I love about the country, but I’d like to discuss one thing that’s disturbed me on each of my hikes.

There just isn’t any biodiversity in Scotland.  

The Highlands seem fertile for expansion. They beg to be explored. This sounds romantic, and the empty, grand Highlands make for a pretty picture, I know. But seclusion from all animal species leaves you feeling a bit lost. Imagine walking into a New York City that has no people. That’s how it feels entering a Highlands without any animals.  

In his fabulous book Feral, George Monbiot calls for rewilding Britain by reintroducing the species that humans hunted into oblivion thousands of years ago. These species include beaver, bison, elk, wolves, boars, lynx. Some of these are “keystone species,” which are species whose existence enables other species to exist. For example, beavers create ponds, which create habitat for frogs, birds, and insects, which create micro-habitats for other species to thrive.

Monbiot, who lived in Wales, said he became “ecologically bored.” In Wales, like in other parts of Britain, intensive sheep grazing (an animal brought over from Mesopotamia) has completely transformed the British landscape. Sheep chew on and destroy young tree shoots, turning what was lush forestland into a shrubby, grassy, monotonous landscape.  

I wasn’t ecologically bored. (I likely would get bored if I lived in such a landscape for years.) Rather, on my hikes, I just felt as if something was oddly, perhaps sadly, amiss. The Scottish Highlands just don’t feel right. And this feeling, at first, was not at all informed by Monbiot’s research or any educational grounding in Britain’s natural history. It’s simply something you feel.

Perhaps this feeling was informed by my own wilderness experiences in Alaska. I’ve lived in Alaska’s Brooks Range for a number of summers. The Brooks are, in many ways, like the Highlands. The Brooks are an unpopulated, shrubby, mossy, grassy expanse of mountains that are only slightly taller than the Scottish hills. 

There are two big differences, though: 1. The Brooks, have a much shorter growing season. Alaska gets far less sun, far less rain, and its far colder. This should make the Brooks one of the least habitable places on earth. BUT… 2. The biodiversity of the Brooks Range seems far more lively, diverse, exciting, and plentiful than the biodiversity of the warm and wet Highlands. On a patrol across the Brooks, I’d be sure to see countless migratory birds, millions of mosquitoes, the tracks of wolves, the droppings of moose, a family of white Dall Sheep atop flint-grey mountaintops, a bear and her cubs in the distance, and perhaps a field of lichen chewed down to the nub by a herd of caribou.  

On my five-day trip across Scotland, I saw one mouse, one frog, a few raptors flying high in the sky, and a lot of deer. (The deer are part of managed herds, which have no predators except for the gamekeepers and rich clients who pay to hunt them.) That’s it. That may sound like a fair bit, but spread those few animals out of over several days, and over a landscape where I could usually see for miles, and the place just ends up seeming absurdly, tragically, consistently empty.

I walked over mountain passes and looked down at bare valleys that ought to have been covered by forest and alive with boars, wolves, bears, and birds of all colors and sizes. There are indeed a few forests (though in Britain the forests are only 1% of their full range), several of which I walked through. But most of these forests are meticulously planned and hardly wild. The trees have been planted in neat rows, usually a monoculture of sitka spruce, lodgepole pine, Douglas fir, and western hemlock. There is essentially no understory to these forests. They’re bare and clear, with no rotting wood (which creates habitats for birds and insects) or just the general thick shrubbery of a normal forest floor. 

Yet the ghosts of Scotland’s bygone animal kingdom somehow remain. The Highlands, I thought, call for a lynx, a beaver, bison, and wolves to be introduced. As a foreigner, it may not be my place to meddle in another country’s affairs, but I do think it's important for we sightseers to help dispel the myth that Scotland is one of the most beautiful countries on earth, when its lands, when looked upon with a little perspective, are in fact diseased, barren, and ugly. And I’ll also say that I believe there’s nothing wrong in speaking up for a foreign ecosystem suffering from mismanagement the same way there's nothing wrong in speaking up for a foreign people suffering from Apartheid.

In the U.S., we can claim that we still have plenty of our wild animals. But that’s only because our country is so big. Wolves live in Yellowstone, but not South Carolina. Grizzly bears are in Alaska, but not the Great Plains. We have moose in Maine, but in my lifetime they’ve never been to Western New York. Many of our lands are just as depleted of life as the Highlands.  

Rewilding is of course important for ecosystems and the animals themselves, but as Monbiot argues, it could enrich our lives with wildness, wonder, enchantment. In Alaska, I have been haunted by the wolf’s howl, terrified by the stare of a grizzly bear, awestruck by a passing herd of caribou. These are moments that stir the soul, pump the blood, and makes us feel alive. To speak from a purely human point of view, they make our lives better. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Value of the National Petroleum Reserve

From Gates of the Arctic National Park, just south of the National Petroleum Reserve
Christopher Solomon has a lovely piece in NYT's Sunday Review. 

I have lived near the National Petroleum Reserve (a cold and undignified name, sadly, for this beautiful place) in Alaska, on and off, for years. I have never stepped foot in it, but I know the reserve by reputation and I am familiar with the Alaskan Arctic’s surrounding lands, which are breathtakingly wild and inspiring and full of life. It’s likely that I will never step foot in the reserve, yet I am grateful that it exists. It brings me comfort to know that, although we are altering the climate, removing forests, and losing other species, there is at least one place on earth where ecosystems are strong and intact, or, at the very least, where nature gets to exist, change, and evolve without our meddling.

A few nodding donkeys in an empty land may seem harmless, but when we drill for oil we do more than just drill for oil: We build a network of sprawling roads. Other extractive industries move in and plunder the land. Businesses spring up, buildings are erected, tourists flood in, hunters exploit fragile animal populations, and the tentacles of civilization creep up and around and strangle yet another wilderness. You can talk me into agreeing that, some of the time, this pattern is good and okay. But to let this happen everywhere, all of the time 
 from the East Coast to the West, and finally the Great Alaskan North  will always seem to me shortsighted and uncivilized.

When we think of the best of civilization we appropriately think of our cathedrals, our cities, our cars, our beautiful art, our music, our films. It’s stuff we’ve built. It’s stuff we’ve made. I admire these things too, yet I think sometimes the most civilized thing a civilized people can do is to leave an already-perfect piece of artwork untouched, to let alone one great big expanse of land. Not only so that we have something to revere, imagine, dream about, and enjoy, but so that we can, in our most enlightened, our most civilized state of mind, refrain from thinking purely of ourselves when we can do something bigger: give space for a healthy ecosystem, an animal kingdom, and the whims of nature to exist and thrive. I wish we’d think of our wild lands less as random areas we’ll never photograph or hike in, and more as astounding human accomplishments than can imbue national pride in us all. The deliberate protection of a great, wild land ought to be thought of the way we think of national independence, the moon landing, the abolishment of slavery
grand feats of ingenuity, passion, and sacrifice. Protected land, when you think about it this way, is also something we've built. It's something we've made. Wild land is not something we've merely refrained from developing; it was built by philosophizing, planning, conserving, and protecting, and thus should be admired not just as pretty scenery, but as a product of our ingenuity, enlightenment, and labor.

I understand that oil is valuable, and that we are dependent on fossil fuels. I understand sacrifices and compromises need to be made until better answers are found. I understand people need jobs. But I can only hope that wants are not confused for needs, and that we will recognize that places we value as profitable “commodities” can actually achieve a greater value if we embrace them for what they can be—sacred places, reminders of our humanity, examples of our enlightenment, landscapes of our dreams.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The making of "This Land Is Our Land"

So I recently finished my third book, This Land Is Our Land, to be published in the spring of 2018 by Dutton, a Penguin Random House imprint.

The book proposes something many will consider radical: opening up private land for public recreation. I have much to say about the “right to roam,” but I’d like to use this space to talk about how the book came to be.

The idea for the book came about during a dinner table conversation at my friend David’s home in North Carolina. I was living elsewhere at the time, but I was driving through North Carolina on my Trespassing across America book tour.

Either I was talking about the recent Scottish law that opened up private land, or I was moaning about all the No Trespassing signs in North Carolina. I don’t know how it started, but I’m sure I at one point said something like, “Roaming ought to be considered a natural right!” David, seeing that I had more than a bit of passion for and knowledge of the subject, suggested I write a book about it.

Recognizing that I had this topic more or less to myself (in the U.S., at least) and reminding myself that I’d already done a great deal of research, I figured I could pump out a 20,000-word treatise that could be an e-book accompaniment to the paperback version of Trespassing across America. It would ultimately be an extension of my New York Times Op-Ed, “This Is Our Country. Let’s Walk It.” That one NYT article gave me the standing to write the book, and the reaction it got (many hundreds of reader comments) made me think this subject needed expanding.

Once my book tour was over, I went to work, crafting up a book proposal and planning chapters. Soon, I got the okay from my agent, my editor, and my publisher, and I had my third book contract and a $20,000 book advance.

Over the next few months, though, I began to see that the topic was too big for a 20,000-word book. I felt like the book should not just propose a radical idea, but that it should describe how land is being seized from the public, and how we’ve for decades been losing our green spaces to either development or private landowners. The book should go deep into American history: It should chart how our present understanding of private property came to be. Moreover, the book should go deep into human history: It should describe how different cultures and different peoples understood property differently, from our hunter-gatherer past to urban-suburban present.

In time, 20,000 words would grow to 70,000. Six months turned to twelve. An e-book accompaniment turned into a legitimate paperback book. And, finally, I’d have to deal with the mess of 575 footnotes.   

I often asked myself, “Why am I writing the book?” I have little hope that Americans will gain a “right to roam” anytime soon. I may very well be the only American, out of the 324 million of us, overtly calling for it. There are no groups or politicians calling for a right to roam. There are no magazine articles advocating it, nor organizations. Nothing and nobody. [There are about half a dozen law scholars in favor of a right to roam, but their works usually deal with the issue obliquely, often (and very helpfully) describing other countries’ systems.]

This was exciting: I had the subject all to myself. But it was also discouraging: I wasn’t sure if there would be an audience for the book. Being the author of a book that proposes something nobody else is advocating can be lonely, even a little scary. Will I be ridiculed by critics? Will I be attacked by the Twitterverse? Or, worst of all, will I be completely written off and ignored--an author’s worst fear? But one ought not write a book that has nothing new to say, and mine certainly has plenty to say. And as scary as the book was, it was exciting: I’d get to be a sort of “thought pioneer,” even if a lot of my thinking draws from current countries and centuries-old history.

My work, though, began to feel particularly pointless when, halfway through, Trump got elected. The whole country seemed to be sliding into the Dark Ages and here I was, talking about something as terribly important as… walking rights?

The election took the wind out of my sails, but I sailed on when I began to think about the book not as a book for the twenty-first century, but as a book for the twenty-second. It’s critical we work to fix the concerns of the present (no one would argue that), but I also think it’s necessary for a few of us to set aside the immediate now to think about the possibilities of the deep future.

I’ll be the first to admit that we have graver problems than our problems of nature-deficit disorders and recreational access. Racial inequality, environmental justice, prison reform, climate change, a broken political system are issues more serious and more pressing. So, at times, I’d feel guilty for focusing on something so un-immediate and faraway. It was like I was planning for a far-fetched future while the rest of the country was hard at work, focused on fixing the difficult problems of today.

But the truth is that the difficult problems of the present already have their champions--champions with greater expertise and greater passion for their subjects. The right to roam, though, was practically my own. That’s not to say that I care about the right to roam more than anything else. That’s not the case at all. I care about climate change, wealth inequality, and a number of subjects more. But those subjects have their share of experts, whereas the subject of roaming only had me.

I remember listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast interview with co-founder of Wired, Kevin Kelly. Kelly said that he has had tons of ideas for books, but that he tries to give those ideas away. He only writes a book when he knows he’s the only person who can write it. And I suppose I felt this way about This Land Is Our Land, that I was the only person who could write it.

Why? Firstly, it’s emotional: I have always been unusually irked by unnecessary "No Trespassing" signs. The idea that someone could selfishly close off access to land for one’s exclusive use has always seemed plainly unjust. Let’s say I’ve always been predisposed to an open roaming culture. Secondly, I literally trespassed across America when following the Keystone XL, an experience that gave me a one-of-a-kind perspective on private land and what natural glories lie behind all our fences and barbed wires. Thirdly, from my research, I'd been acquainted with the roaming laws of Scotland, Sweden, and England. Knowing that these systems not only existed, but worked, made the idea seem less fantastical and more possible. It made me think that it’s something we should discuss, whether in this century or the next.

There are a few property law scholars who could write this book, and who could have written the legal parts of it with much more ease, but I felt that the subject wouldn’t gain a proper audience if written purely from a legal point of view. I thought that my voice, which combines interests in land use, philosophy, pop culture, history, and nature writing (plus a memoirish touch here and there), might do a better job helping the idea spread than that of a more restrained legal voice. (Legal scholars tend to be dispassionate in their prose and conservative in their ideas, always judging what can or cannot be done based on a few Supreme Court cases. My healthy distance from the law gave me a bit more room to be bold.)

Looking back, I see a book crammed with research and interviews and I ask myself how I did it in the space of a year. But this is how it works: one question leads to another question, which leads to another and another. Once you’ve answered all your questions with research, you’re done. This book was propelled by curiosity. Every enthusiastic researcher, I think, has a bit of the explorer in him, because to him the uncovering of a long-hidden fact, or quote, or idea may be just as exhilarating as cracking open a chest of buried treasure.

But it was also propelled by something else, something close to heresy. There is something exciting (dangerous, even) about saying what has yet to be said, about trying to make a country think critically about itself, about being the first to stick your neck out there. In ways, I welcome (even desire) the criticism, the malice, the ire, as any true heretic might. 

I mentioned before how I thought the right to roam was somehow irrelevant to our present times, but after researching the subject I began to see that many of our present-day issues are tied to how we use and own land. We see the same sort of inequality in land ownership that we see in wealth. We see racial groups underrepresented in their ownership of land and their access to green spaces. We see an isolated Bowling Alone society, cut off from one another and scared of everything. We see growing obesity in adults and kids. We see an America that is blind to the ecological atrocities committed on private farm land. We see forces that want to privatize the public, exploit the sacred, and favor individual liberty over the common good. And so my book went from the twenty-first century, to the twenty-second, and came back again to the twenty-first, oddly relevant in the age of Trump.

It remains to be seen how the book will land when it comes out in 2018, when our backwards-looking president and Republican-led Congress will likely still be in power. Readers may very well be too fixated on the slow-motion train wreck we all can’t look away from, or just maybe we’ll all be itching for something new.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Best books I read in 2016

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (2014)
Perhaps my favorite sci-fi book of all time. It’s about a man who gets to relive his life over and over and retain the memories of each of his prior lives. Tense, engaging, fun, with the occasional profound insight and quotable moment.

“The secret to being unafraid of the darkness is to challenge the darkness to fear you, to raise your eyes sharp to those few souls who stagger by, daring them to believe that you are not, in fact, more frightening than they are.”

But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking about the Present as if It Were the Past by Chuck Klosterman (2016)

Chuck Klosterman is our best writer on contemporary culture. The premise of the book is to think about today's culture — our TV shows, music, and movies — from someone's point of view hundreds of years in the future. Who will be the one rock band future students study? What '90s TV sitcom will have best represented ordinary American culture? And plenty of stuff on science and politics, too. It’s just such a pleasure listening to Klosterman think, following him in whatever direction his seemingly-boundless curiosity takes him. 

“The ultimate failure of the United States will probably not derive from the problems we see or the conflicts we wage. It will more likely derive from our uncompromising belief in the things we consider unimpeachable and idealized and beautiful. Because every strength is a weakness, if given enough time.”

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (2012)

This book tells a very research- and statistic-based story about black men afflicted by structural racism. I will never look at policies like “Stop and Frisk” and the “Drug War” the same way. The book can be a bit redundant at times, but it should be assigned skimming for every American.

“The deeply flawed nature of colorblindness, as a governing principle, is evidenced by the fact that the public consensus supporting mass incarceration is officially colorblind. It purports to see black and brown men not as black and brown, but simply as men — raceless men — who have failed miserably to play by the rules that the rest of us follow quite naturally. The fact that so many black and brown men are rounded up for drug crimes that go largely ignored when committed by whites is unseen. Our collective colorblindness prevents us from seeing this basic fact. Our blindness also prevents us from seeing the racial and structural divisions that persist in society: the segregated, unequal schools, the segregated jobless ghettos, and the segregated public discourse—a public conversation that excludes the current pariah case.”

Demelza by Winston Graham (1946)

I’m currently on the seventh of twelve books in the Poldark series. Each has been fantastic, but to simplify things I’m only listing the second in the series. I can’t get enough of Graham: the high dramas, the minor tensions, the lovable characters, the mixing of the classes, and the unfairly skillful way he captures each class’s sayings, dialects, and cultures. It’s written with the elegance and interpersonal brilliance of a Jane Austen novel, but with the somewhat darker and more contemporary attitudes of a modern-day author.

“And although he was a great worker and a craftsman, he hadn’t the learning or the initiative to be able to rise even in the mine. She saw it all clear enough. He was a goat tethered to the peg of his own character and could only consume the riches of the earth that came within his range. And she had bound herself to stay in his circle for the rest of her life.”

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (2015)

It's exactly what the title suggests: 200,000 years of history crammed into one book. (And, amazingly, it doesn't feel rushed.) Harari does a particularly marvelous job making the point that to develop civilizations and unite disparate peoples, national myths are just as important as our great technological breakthroughs. And his final chapter on the future of mankind is provocative: Harari suggests we won't be human much longer, as biotechnology and genetic modifications will allow us to become an altogether different species. His sequel on this subject, Homo Deus, just came out and looks just as fun.

“Fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.”

Game of Thrones series (Books 1-3) by George R.R. Martin (1996)

In fifty years, if not now already, I think George R.R. Martin will be considered the greatest fantasy writer of all time. Tolkien may have a mastery over the English language that Martin (and perhaps any writer) will ever surpass, but Martin, in this series, I’ll argue, is doing something that I consider superhuman. To craft a story with so many threads, to have them all heading in some preconceived direction that we will not get to for thousands of pages, to create a world inhabited by knight-errants, teenage queens, barbaric horsemen, brazen girls, thoughtful boys, and a hundred other full-fleshed characters is to me an astounding, stupendous, and unequaled literary triumph. But it’s not just the scope and the number of characters. This is an author who exhibits genius in describing the breadth and complexity of his characters’ emotions. There are countless subtle and small moments of human insight, which make the read not only wickedly entertaining but unexpectedly edifying. And then there’s just a simple down to earthness to his prose and a real and hearty sense of humor. How Martin is able to dwell in the minds of all these characters, organize and plan out an epic that is unrivaled in scope, and still be emotionally intelligent as well as down to earth and funny seems simply impossible for a thousand writers
 —  let alone one —  to achieve.  I haven’t started Book Four, when the series allegedly begins to go downhill, but so far through Book Three I’m willing to call the series an unparalleled achievement. 

“What is honor compared to a woman's love? What is duty against the feel of a newborn son in your arms . . . or the memory of a brother's smile? Wind and words. Wind and words. We are only human, and the gods have fashioned us for love. That is our great glory, and our great tragedy.”

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger (2016)

In one evening I watched Captain Fantastic and finished Tribe, leaving me with the feeling that our society is fundamentally flawed. Captain Fantastic is a lovely little movie about a family growing up in the woods, which pokes a playful finger in the soft gut of suburban America. Tribe points to how people are often happier in war and after environmental catastrophes because society, in the worst of times, reverts to a sort of tight-knit, egalitarian tribal society in which individuals suddenly get to feel like they're truly necessary. Junger points out how American colonists often fled to join Native American tribes, but Native Americans almost never fled their tribes to join the colonists. He also points to how military veterans often suffer upon returning from war because their tribal bonds have suddenly been severed, leaving them adrift in a society where, at best, only a couple of people care about you.

“Whatever the technological advances of modern society—and they’re nearly miraculous—the individualized lifestyles that those technologies spawn seem to be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit... [Sharon Abramowitz:] ‘We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is to an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents. Our society is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.’”

Best friends’ books

Oratorio in Ursa Major by David Dalton (2016)

This is my pal David’s book—a sci-fi fantasy in which an apocalypse has wiped our modern institutions off the face of the planet. A group of modern-day survivors use alien technology to travel back in time to 48 B.C. Scotland to retrieve the superior culture of the ancient Celts. Plenty of wild ideas, pretty prose, and shining moments of superlative literary excellence.

“And thus in unexpected moments, thought Jake, do abstractions — beautiful abstractions but elusive — suddenly take form, like spirit entering a body. Just for a moment, thought Jake, I do believe that I actually saw it, heard it, touched it, felt it. There is only one moral universe, and as it bends toward justice it might brush against us. My great shame is that I saw it in a moment of joy that I don’t deserve. Others have seen it from the blackness of despair.”

Best books read in 2015 
Best books read in 2014