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There’s no denying that Nick Offerman is one of America’s more intriguing celebrities. The man who made Ron Swanson famous in “Parks and Recreation” is also a touring comedian, saxophonist, professional woodworker and author of books like Paddle Your Own Canoe and Good Clean Fun. His latest is Where the Deer and the Antelope Play, which Offerman has subtitled in his frequently reflective, self-deprecating style: The Pastoral Observations of One Ignorant American Who Loves to Walk Outside. And boy does he.

Offerman divides his observations among three very different adventures, all devoted to exploring his relationship with America’s landscapes and past. He’s an entertaining raconteur and prone to digressions (Sirius Radio commercials that annoy him, for example, or his irritation with people who don’t make eye contact as he jogs past). The result is an undeniable immediacy, as though readers are spending the day hiking right beside him.

Offerman’s first quest is a culture lover’s dream: He spent a week in 2019 hiking in Glacier National Park with his “bromance partners,” author George Saunders and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. The pals have great discussions about nature, America’s deplorable treatment of Indigenous and Black people, and the writers Wendell Berry and Aldo Leopold, two of Offerman’s heroes. There are humorous missteps as well, bringing to mind Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, although Offerman’s descriptions of the glorious trails will leave readers ready to make a beeline to Glacier.

The second section examines farming and land use, framed by repeated visits to Offerman’s friend James Rebanks, an English sheep farmer in Cumbria, England, and author of the ecological books The Shepherd’s Life and Pastoral Song. Rebanks embraces a robust, self-sufficient agrarian lifestyle that Midwestern-born Offerman admires and is thrilled to jump into. As always, his enthusiasm is contagious. 

Finally, Offerman and his wife, actress Megan Mullally (whom he clearly worships), set off in the fall of 2020 in their newly acquired Airstream trailer on a COVID-19 road trip to explore places like Sedona, Arizona, and the banks of the Rio Grande. It’s fun reading about these two actors on the road, facing everyday issues and sometimes-humorous misfortunes. Offerman’s frequent solo hikes during this trip offer him a chance to ramble (and rant) on a variety of subjects, many of them political.

Laced with humor, intellect and fierce passion, Where the Deer and the Antelope Play is an entertaining getaway to a variety of unexpected American vistas.

Readers of Nick Offerman’s latest work of comedic, ecological greatness will feel as though they’re spending the day hiking right beside him.

The books in this month’s lifestyles column will deepen your understanding of the world and broaden your compassion for the humans you share it with. 

How to Suffer Outside

“If you can walk, put stuff in a bag, and remember to eat, you can backpack,” declares Diana Helmuth in the perfectly titled How to Suffer Outside: A Beginner’s Guide to Hiking and Backpacking. I’m not entirely sure I buy this statement, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the heck out of Helmuth’s funny, frank writing. Her perspective is a breath of fresh air on the whole fresh-air-and-nature thing. While she claims to be no expert backpacker herself, she drops all kinds of useful, earned wisdom in these pages, spinning tales from her own hiking adventures along the way. A random sample: “One of the saddest things about backpacking is that no matter how clean the water looks, you probably can’t drink it. Even deep in the wilderness, tiny dregs of civilization are there to ruin your good time.” Were I a bookseller, I would press this book on customers regardless of their interest in backpacking. I would recommend it for the voice and storytelling: Here, stay inside if you want. Turn off Netflix, and read this.

Demystifying Disability

The disabled community is vast and diverse, and society is due for a paradigm shift in thinking and talking about its members. With Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to Be an Ally, activist and writer Emily Ladau is a responsible guide and advocate for change, and her book is one that everyone could benefit from reading. Ladau recognizes that just as there are multitudes of disabilities, there is room for all of us to learn more about disabled people’s varied experiences and make our world more inclusive and accessible. Changes in vocabulary—like opting for disabled instead of euphemistic words like handi-capable (a particular peeve of Ladau’s), or avoiding words like lame and idiot as common pejoratives—help shift mindsets one word at a time. Changes in media norms are necessary as well. Landau explains how feel-good stories about disabled people “overcoming” their disabilities actually reinforce the bias toward able-bodied people. Right now, ableist beliefs and behaviors still fly under the radar, and Ladau’s careful treatment of this subject is a corrective that can help us all be better humans.

Forget Prayers, Bring Cake

While the title is pleasingly cheeky, Forget Prayers, Bring Cake: A Single Woman’s Guide to Grieving never loses sight of the fact that there’s nothing funny about the death of a loved one. Grieving is always difficult, but it can be immeasurably more painful if you’re a single woman, argues Merissa Nathan Gerson—on top of all the ways our culture is ill-suited, period, for allowing us the time and space and voice that grief demands. After learning that in other cultures there’s an individual known as a moirologist—“a non-married woman hired . . . to strike the earth, tear at her hair, scream and wail and provoke others to grieve for the dead”—Gerson offers herself, with this book, as a compassionate, experienced voice for those who have suffered a loss. Her advice and personal stories offer solace and insight for any mourner but are shared with a keen eye toward the unique experience of losing a loved one when you are young and single. 

The books in this month’s lifestyles column will deepen your understanding of the world and broaden your compassion for the humans you share it with.

These four provocative nonfiction books offer fresh perspectives on our nation.

A first-rate collection of essays gathered from Southern Living and Garden & Gun magazines, Where I Come From: Stories From the Deep South by beloved memoirist Rick Bragg provides unique insights into the author’s corner of America. In these brief but powerful pieces, Bragg’s curiosity ranges far and wide as he reflects upon personal interests (pickup trucks, Southern cuisine, country music) and more universal matters (race and religion). Offering a kaleidoscopic look at the contemporary South, this colorful compilation is sure to inspire rousing discussions. 

David Gessner takes readers on an unforgettable tour of the nation’s monuments and parks in Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness. Gessner gives an overview of the life and conservation work of Theodore Roosevelt and also shows how that work remains significant today as he visits Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon and other sites. Subjects such as environmentalism and the future of public lands will get book clubs talking, and Gessner’s humor and incisive observations make him a wonderful traveling companion.

In Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood, Margot Mifflin delivers a fascinating historical survey of the Miss America pageant. Using the contest as a gauge of the advancement of women in America, Mifflin traces its evolution from a tourist attraction in Atlantic City in 1921 to a scholarship contest 100 years later. Her brisk, spirited narrative will entertain readers even as it presents fruitful material for discussion, with topics as wide-ranging as the #MeToo movement and the role of pageants in society.

Ojibwe author David Treuer gives a fresh account of Native American history in The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present. Blending history and reportage with personal narrative, Treuer sets out to show that, contrary to the story told in books such as Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Indigenous culture was not destroyed in the late 19th century. Rather, it is still alive and vibrant today. Authoritative yet accessible, his book is rich in talking points, including contemporary depictions of Native Americans in popular culture and the impact of the American Indian Movement.

These four provocative nonfiction books offer fresh perspectives on our nation.

Poet, essayist and cultural commentator Lisa Wells takes on the complexities of our relationship to the climate crisis in Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World, a thought-provoking and heady mix of memoir, journalism and philosophy. Wells isn’t writing as a scientist or futurist here but as a former teenage idealist—someone who, as she puts it, “drifted into adulthood” after dropping out of high school and spending months in a wilderness survival program to gain the knowledge and skills needed to “form egalitarian villages on the post-apocalyptic frontier.”

Wells grew up in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s and threads her personal journey throughout the book. “When we were kids, my friends and I went looking for a unified and stable theory of how to live—propping up idols and knocking them off their pedestals,” she writes. Eventually Wells realizes, “There is no solution to the problems we face, but there are solutions.”

Exploring those solutions drives the narrative of Believers. Wells seeks out a variety of people whose radical responses to the climate crisis challenge and defy the norm. The characters she profiles are varied and fascinating, and their stories may resonate with older readers who remember their own idealism during the 1960s counterculture movement.

One particularly strong presence in the book is the late Finisia Medrano, whom Wells met while Medrano was leading a group of ecological activists in the dry desert landscape of eastern Oregon. Wells dubs her “an itinerant outlaw,” dedicated to rewilding the American desert with foragable food so people can survive the eventual collapse of society.

Wells also explores the growing severity of wildfires in the West. One section details the work of Indigenous Americans such as Ron Goode, the Tribal Chairman of the North Fork Mono in California, to revitalize the landscape by reintroducing traditional practices like controlled burns and to shift our cultural understanding of the West’s fire-adapted landscapes.

While Wells is adept at communicating her own coming-of-age story and life journey, Believers is most compelling when the author allows the fascinating people she meets to speak for themselves, providing a rich mosaic of perspectives on life in the 21st century. Believers is a reckoning with climate change and a testimony about how to live on our threatened planet that will engage thoughtful citizens everywhere.

Poet and cultural commentator Lisa Wells profiles a variety of people whose radical responses to the climate crisis defy the norm.

Although oceans cover over two-thirds of our planet’s surface, we’ve spent more time and money probing the deep blue of the stratosphere than we have diving into the waters that lap at our shores, to our detriment. With a passionate love for and fervent desire to educate us about the depth of the ocean’s resources, as well as about our lack of understanding and mismanagement of them, Frauke Bagusche’s captivating The Blue Wonder: Why the Sea Glows, Fish Sing, and Other Astonishing Insights From the Ocean plunges us into the mysteries of the ocean. Along the way, Bagusche shares stories of the fascinating creatures that dwell there, as well as the increasing dangers the oceans face from human misuse.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Summer reading 2021: 9 books to soak in this season

As Bagusche points out, many of us only see the ocean from the sands of a beach and therefore never discover the teeming life and unbelievable animals that swim beneath that surface. Guiding readers below the waves, Bagusche introduces them to the microplankton that move, often in phosphorescent schools, throughout the waters, providing food for animals from shrimp to blue whales. She takes us on a journey to the coral reefs, the nurseries of the sea, where we meet clown mantis shrimp and learn about the appendages they develop to help them adapt to the reefs. We also learn why some seas taste saltier than others and about the difficult but wondrous journey of sea turtles, the singing of whales and the giant squids and isopods that are the denizens of the bathysphere, the ocean’s deepest and darkest waters.

The Blue Wonder takes its place alongside Carl Safina’s Song for the Blue Ocean in revealing the marvelous marine world and the urgent need to preserve a dazzling ecosystem we too often neglect.

With a passionate love for the ocean, Frauke Bagusche plunges readers into the dazzling mysteries of the sea.

To whom does a garden belong? In his work as a gardener, Marc Hamer (How to Catch a Mole) has heard tales of property owners who take offense when landscapers feel some sense of ownership over their work. Hamer’s employer, whom he has dubbed Miss Cashmere, isn’t so territorial.

But Hamer doesn’t crave ownership. He believes a garden belongs to all who see it. “This is not my garden, but it’s not hers, either,” he writes. “Just paying for something doesn’t make it yours. Nothing is ever yours. People who work with the earth and the people who think they own bits of it see the world in totally different ways.”

In Seed to Dust: Life, Nature, and a Country Garden, Hamer showcases his intimate knowledge of the natural world. The book is organized by season, resembling a diary of a year in the garden. It’s a lyrical reflection on days spent with hands in dirt and decisions based on close observation of the weather.

As he tends to Miss Cashmere’s land, Hamer also meditates on each plant’s history and place in the world. But his approach is never showy; in fact, Hamer often contemplates his own status with humility. His introspective ways led his father to devalue and dismiss him as a boy. Hamer later spent two years living without a home, and that experience colored his life, including how he approached parenting his own children, now grown.

As the year unfolds, Hamer reflects on the cycles to which all living things are bound. Little happens in the narrative, save for the dramatic living and dying of all things, but Hamer’s careful eye for detail and deep knowledge of the garden’s dozens upon dozens of plants are used to great effect, creating a lush landscape into which a reader can disappear. In Seed to Dust, Hamer invites readers to join him in quiet meditation on the earth.

Hamer uses his deep knowledge of gardens to great effect, creating a lush landscape into which a reader can disappear.

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