Don Rogers: ‘Eden,” a critic’s choice
From my first read, I thought “Engineering Eden” belonged on the shelf with the classics.
No, I’m not the harshest critic, but I think I’m clear eyed. I did fire my best friend in another newsroom when his efforts took a dive and stayed there, as I’d fire my son, my own mother if necessary. My blood does run just that cold, sadly enough. The calling is that sacred.
Besides, I was dazzled before I ever met Jordan Fisher Smith, the author. Just the way the story comes together, intricate as nature herself. The research, the message, the questions about what we consider wilderness. The page-turning quality to it.
Outside Magazine agreed, including it among their list of the top 10 outdoor books of the past decade. How cool is that? One thing for a fan to declare. Quite another for an authority in such measures. I want to shout: I told you, I did. And there it is in Outside, proof! Among the top 10 of the decade, at least.
The Nevada City author’s work joins some heady company here. I’ve read “Wild,” by Cheryl Strayed; “The Sixth Extinction,” by Elizabeth Kolbert; “Born to Run,” by Christopher McDougall.
These are great books, too. One became a well received movie; another a Pulitzer winner; another practically required reading for any distance runner or armchair distance runner, like me.
Outside’s list rounds out with “The Forest Unseen,” “The Adventure Gap,” “Tom’s River,” “Wave,” “The Nature Principle,” and “This Changes Everything.”
“Engineering Eden: A Violent Death, a Federal Trial, and the Struggle to Restore Nature in Our National Parks” blends the wild history primarily of Yellowstone with a rather incredible trial over a fatal grizzly mauling that had some of the foremost ecological thinkers and their theories about wilderness preservation pitted against one another.
Smith, even more a storyteller than obsessive researcher and reporter — and he’s plainly all that — manages a page-turner and further proof that history and such should not be left to the academics.
If you haven’t read this book yet, you should. I believe it’s important, and right there for different reasons with Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire,” Craig Child’s “The Secret Knowledge of Water,” “Mark Reisner’s “Cadillac Desert,” Gary Snyder’s “The Practice of the Wild,” Peter Matthiessen’s “The Snow Leopard,” Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac.” There are others, but these are my most holy nature tomes, against which I measure all others.
The way I learned about Outside’s list was classic mountain town, whether foothills or higher upslope. Smith didn’t have a correct email address and so asked if I might forward his thanks and a minor correction to Jeff Pelline, who had posted the good news in his blog Foothills Report.
I like Outside and once loved the magazine, back when David Quammen and Tim Cahill wrote essays for each issue. But as it became more gear-guidey and adrenalized and commercial, at least to me, I confess I lost touch, though I’ve read many terrific pieces in it since.
One in particular was by Tahoe City’s Megan Michelson in 2011 about the death of her stepfather, “In a House by the River,” a stunning piece of writing in the magazine where she worked for a time before returning home.
I was tickled Smith would think of me as a conduit to Pelline, among the sharpest critics of The Union since what I understand was a nasty divorce with the paper several publishers before me. Old wounds from the CNET founding editor’s stint as editor of the community daily have not fully healed, perhaps, but we’ve traded generally cordial if pointed, often friendly, emails.
I do the same with others, including Todd Juvinall, the former county supervisor whose views run at the polar opposite of Pelline’s. Juvinall frequently is frustrated with my wrong political views, but he remains just patient enough with this dunderhead to explain his positions succinctly.
Weirdly, perhaps, I value criticism, recognizing the term covers everything from the most tribal trolling to praise for the finest of work, including Smith’s in “Engineering Eden.”
Either way, there’s always something to learn as long as you don’t take it personally. It’s never personal, even if the critic means it that way. Critics ultimately can only reveal themselves, after all.
This might be the first, most important lesson, especially if your job includes being one yourself.
Don Rogers is the publisher of The Union, Lake Wildwood Independent, and Sierra Sun. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.