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Much of Kim Stanley Robinson’s prodigious science fiction has ecological underpinnings—so it comes as no surprise that the oft-decorated writer has a real-life passion for wilderness. More specifically, Robinson loves the Sierra Nevada, the geological backbone of California, where he has lived most of his life. In The High Sierra, a capacious and truly original work of nonfiction, Robinson expresses his enduring appreciation for these mountains and the time he has spent there. A mashup of travelogue, geology lesson, hiking guide, history and meditation, all wrapped in a revealing and personal memoir (and illustrated with scores of gorgeous color photographs and illustrations), the book is, in essence, an exuberant celebration of finding purpose in nature.

The Hugo, Nebula and Locus Award-winning writer first visited the Sierra as a college student almost 50 years ago, and since then he has made more than a hundred return visits, spending untold hours in its eternal landscape. There have been group excursions and solo treks in every season. In his hippie days, he even enhanced the mountain high by dropping acid. Accounts of these experiences, sometimes risky, sometimes funny, but always deeply meaningful, give shape to Robinson’s larger narrative. The memories are intercut and augmented by chapters delineated by categories such as geology, Sierra people, routes and moments of being. These disparate chapters coalesce into a surprisingly seamless narrative that conveys the full measure of Robinson’s deep affection for the place and its past, as well as its significance to him personally.

Robinson’s writing is companionable and welcoming, never dry or preachy, as any field guide worth its salt should be. There is unconventional humor—he classifies place names as the good, the bad and the ugly, for instance, and his chapters on fish, frogs and bighorn sheep are all grouped under “Sierra People”—but cases of appalling human behaviors, past and present, are never glossed over.

Robinson introduces the usual suspects in the history of the Sierra—John Muir, Clarence King—but devotes equal attention to less familiar faces. He taps into the work of other Sierra-loving writers, too, including early feminist Mary Austin and the poet Gary Snyder, who is Robinson’s friend and mentor. He even shares some of his own youthful, heartfelt poetry, composed amid the elation of the mountain terrain.

Although Robinson’s mountaineering focus is the Sierra, he does take readers on brief forays into the Swiss Alps (including an account of his ascent of the Matterhorn). But The High Sierra should not be narrowly viewed as a book only for the die-hard outdoorsperson. Robinson’s greater project, at which he succeeds splendidly, is to share the magic of his personal happy place, to promote not only its admiration but also its preservation. When asked why this is a lifelong project of his, Robinson says there is no satisfactory answer, except to pose a question of his own: Why live?

The venerable sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson shares his lifelong devotion to hiking the high Sierra in a kaleidoscopic love letter to a majestic landscape.

In her brilliant study of the relatively little-known lives of jellyfish, Spineless, science writer Juli Berwald traveled the world to explore the intimate connections between the health of our oceans and the ways that these luminescent creatures adapt to rapidly changing marine conditions. Berwald’s dazzling Life on the Rocks: Building a Future for Coral Reefs now does for coral reefs what Spineless did for jellyfish: offers a love letter to their resplendent beauty, issues a warning about their dire future and holds out cautious hope that they can flourish once again.

Berwald first entered the fairyland of the coral reef when she was contemplating a career in marine biology and snorkeling in the Red Sea. “It was love at first sight,” she writes, “for my part anyway. I’m pretty confident the corals felt nothing more than the waft of a current rolling off my flapping fins as I struggled to control my movements.” The beauty and intricate ecology of that reef stayed with her, and a decade later—as a science writer rather than a marine biologist—Berwald took a cruise to the Bahamas in hopes of seeing the splendor of a coral reef again. To her chagrin, she only found “broken and displaced piles of rubble.”

In her quest to find out what is killing the world’s coral reefs and what, if anything, can be done to mitigate the damage, Berwald met with scientists in Florida, California and Bali, among other destinations. In Florida, for example, she learned that stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD) is eating up to 2 inches of coral tissue per day. Other factors contributing to the loss of coral reefs include “overfishing, sedimentation from coastal erosion, ship anchors leaving scars, pollution from pesticide runoff and untreated sewage, unrelenting oil spills, and ever larger hurricanes.” The world’s great coral reefs, she learned, may cease to exist by 2050.

Despite such a dire prognosis, Berwald also learned that the public and private sectors are developing strategies—such as growing coral in nurseries and placing coral larvae on substrates designed to give them a head start—for restoring coral reefs. Along the way, she intersperses fiercely tender stories of her daughter’s struggle to receive treatment for her mental illness with these discoveries about coral reefs, offering thoughtful reflections about what can and can’t be known about the problems we face.

Life on the Rocks shimmers with radiant prose, sending out rays of hope for the future of coral reefs. As Berwald immerses readers in a glimmering undersea world, she also encourages them to discover ways they can support efforts to preserve the reefs, which play a key role in maintaining the fragile ecological balance of our oceans.

Juli Berwald’s dazzling Life on the Rocks does for coral reefs what her first book, Spineless, did for jellyfish.

In Sounds Wild and Broken: Sonic Marvels, Evolution’s Creativity, and the Crisis of Sensory Extinction, David George Haskell admits that, in all his formal training as a biologist, he was rarely asked to use his ears as an evaluative tool. This may come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with Haskell’s work, which often focuses on the sonic offerings of the natural world. Visit the website of this Pulitzer Prize-nominated author and scientist, for example, and you’ll find links to symphonic soundscapes recorded from each of the sylvan subjects of his 2017 book, The Songs of Trees.

In his latest book, Haskell continues to delve into aural worlds that often go unnoticed, beginning with the breathtaking story of the evolution of sound. Haskell describes the complex apparatus of hearing in all its minute, sensitive brilliance. From vibrations picked up by single-celled organisms, to the childlike babbling of newly hatched birds, to the astounding invention of the first human instruments, played in cave chambers selected for their resonance, this tale brims with enchanting facts you won’t believe you never knew. 

Haskell’s prose is suffused with enthusiasm and poetic in form. The way in which he loads each sentence with information is so animated, it’s fair to say this is a book that would talk with its hands if it could. Even so, his descriptions of bacteria that “murmur” and “purr,” or the “voices of tree elders” heard in the polished wood of a symphony, are lilting, spellbinding and songlike in themselves.

Where Sounds Wild and Broken truly glows, however, is in the way it invites readers to imagine the listening experiences of others, breaking down the assumption that we all hear alike. With the long history of sound in his grip, Haskell’s definitions of hearing, communication and song become expansive and inclusive. A favorite moment is when he addresses a high-handed philosopher of music who said that animal noise is but a “yowling of cats” and only humans create music. Haskell mounts a graceful and entirely sound argument that the yowling of cats may be music if the felines who are listening experience it as such.

Haskell also examines the ways Indigenous peoples, often experts in the soundscapes of their ancestral lands, are pushed out of the business of forest management and land stewardship. He does not shy away from indicting a certain colonial and corporate refusal to hear. His examination of sound, after all, is grounded in the seriousness of what it means when things go quiet. Thankfully, scientists are leveraging soundscapes in new ways to more responsibly manage these forested and oceanic philharmonics. Haskell’s warning is cradled in awe as he holds up for us the magic and delight we stand to lose.

Throughout Haskell’s body of work, his invitation has always been, “Pay attention! Isn’t it amazing?” Sounds Wild and Broken expands this invitation: Listen carefully. Listen to others. 

Sounds Wild and Broken offers an invitation: Listen to nature carefully. Consider all sounds and all songs. What you will hear is astonishing.

Mountaineering is healing. This is a secret climbers know—that despite the risks of injury, frostbite or even death, climbing high mountains is a peculiar balm for the soul. There’s something about being forced into the present moment, step by step, that helps ease the mind of its burdens.

Silvia Vasquez-Lavado, the first Peruvian woman to summit Mt. Everest, understands this truth. Her memoir, In the Shadow of the Mountain: A Memoir of Courage, is a brilliant assessment of the power of high altitudes to heal trauma. Beautifully structured in back-and-forth chapters, the memoir travels between Vasquez-Lavado’s childhood in the civil strife of 1970s Peru to her ultimately successful attempt to complete the Seven Summits, the Earth’s highest mountains.

Unlike mountaineering memoirs that celebrate the ego of the individual, usually male, climber, Vasquez-Lavado’s story is intimately collaborative and feminist. This is most true when she brings a group of young women from Nepal and America who have survived sex trafficking and other sexual violence to Everest’s base camp. Their travels as a group, and their individual stories, are the emotional heart of this memoir. When Vasquez-Lavado continues without them to Everest’s summit—Chomolungma, or the Great Mother—her triumph at the mountain’s peak is merely a bonus. The real journey is these women’s path toward healing. 

Vasquez-Lavado’s own journey from horrific childhood sexual abuse through immigration to the U.S. and professional success in San Francisco’s first (and second) dot-com booms mirrors her trip up the mountain. In both worlds, the body holds trauma and has the power to release it, but the process is arduous and filled with potential setbacks. But as Vasquez-Lavado learns, the reward for persistence is the unimaginable beauty of dawn lighting up the roof of the world, and the exhilaration of releasing shame.

Read more: Silvia Vasquez-Lavado narrates the audiobook for ‘In the Shadow of the Mountain.’

Unlike mountaineering memoirs that celebrate the ego of the individual climber, Silvia Vasquez-Lavado’s story is intimately collaborative.

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.

Nick Offerman narrates the audiobook for ‘Where the Deer and the Antelope Play.’ Read our review.

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.

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