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  March/April 2001 Articles:
Readers' Favorite Books: Only on the web!
The Lion and the Lamb
Bug Walk
Sea of Uncertainty
Inside Sierra
Ways & Means
Lay of the Land
Food for Thought
Bulletin: News for Members
Mixed Media
Sierra Magazine


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Many thanks for the fine articles on youth and environment in the November/December issue . Of special interest to me was " Generation Green." I spent the summer working alongside the young canvassers in the Bellevue, Washington, office of the Fund for Public Interest Research and shared the triumph and heartbreak associated with that particular form of activism. At 61, I was by far the oldest member of the team. Physically and emotionally, it was the most rewarding and demanding work I have ever undertaken. I marveled at the energy and dedication of the young staff; they were able to motivate the group with the techniques described in the article. It fell to me to recount the history and noble purpose of the Sierra Club and before long, much to my delight, I was blessed with the moniker "Sierra Mike."

Missing from the article is a description of the real dangers faced by these brave young warriors every day "on turf." From irate loggers to mean dogs and the possibility of cougar attacks in the outlying areas, every five-hour shift was a real adventure. My amazing summer was topped off with the WTO demonstrations. My daughter Anne and I, along with three of her fellow students from Whatcom Community College in Bellingham, carried signs and got a snootful of gas in the name of environmental freedom. Any concerns I had for the so-called X Generation have vanished. They have what it takes.
Mike Beegle
East Bremerton, Washington

I was glad to see Constantine von Hoffman's article, "Branding Baby's Brain," in the November/December Sierra. Ultimately we cannot protect the environment without addressing the ever-increasing onslaught of advertising that causes overconsumption. That is what led me to leave my job at the Sierra Club to work for TV-Turnoff Network. We encourage children and adults to watch less TV to promote healthier lives and communities. In addition to helping people unplug, we have a wealth of information on TV's effect on the environment and consumption. For instance, the average American spends an additional $208 annually for every hour of television he or she watches per week. Jennifer Kurz, Communications Associate
TV-Turnoff Network
Washington, D.C.

I was incensed when I read "Branding Baby's Brain," in the November/December issue. Are today's parents spineless jellyfish? Don't they realize they are in a battle against a ruthless horde of money-hungry corporations that wish to train their babies to become mindless sources of revenue? This fight requires parents to use "tough love." To block TV ads (and shows) corrupting their children, parents must rent and/or buy wholesome videos without ads. They must join or organize parent-teacher associations at schools and insist that gross commercialization of every kind be banned. Gifts of Trojan horses such as computers and magazines carrying advertising must be barred. We must do what is good for the children instead of what is popular.
Milton Shapiro
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

I read with interest the article "No Place to Call Home" in your November/December issue. Mary Jo McConahay described well the devastating effect the Chixoy Dam had on the Achi Maya residents of Rio Negro. When I visited there in 1995, the family I stayed with could no longer get their child, who needed treatment to avoid going blind, to his doctor in Coban. The overland access was gone and the boat trip was too expensive.

The point the author did not make sufficiently clear is that the Chixoy Dam was an engineering and economic failure. Due to either corruption or incompetence, the conduits to take the water from the reservoir formed by the dam to the power- generating station were so leaky and badly constructed that the dam never provided more than 40 percent of the projected electricity. One wonders what motivates the World Bank to continue funding and promoting such inefficient and counterproductive projects.
Dorothy Kelleher
Aspen, Colorado

In our November/December issue we called the California Conservation Corps "the oldest and largest of the dozens of youth corps in the nation." In fact, the venerable Student Conservation Association, founded in 1957, deserves that description. Each year the SCA dispatches thousands of student volunteers to do vital conservation work in hundreds of natural and cultural resource sites across the country. More information about the SCA is available at or P.O. Box 550, Charlestown, NH 03603 or (603) 543-1700. Also noteworthy is the Sierra Institute, a University of California-affiliated program that combines wilderness backpacking and college-accredited academics. For more information write Walker Abel at University of California Extension, 740 Front Street, Suite 155, Santa Cruz, CA 95060 or check out

Alongside "Nature 101" in our November/December issue, we listed 12 books recommended by the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE). At the end of the list, we asked a simple question-"What is your favorite environmental book?"-and got a bushelful of complex, articulate answers. Readers cheered their favorites and howled at the omissions. All told, they endorsed 215 different books, disagreeing with the Association on 5 of the top 12. On this page we present a new and improved list of nature's finest, according to Sierra readers.

Below is a sampling of your comments, starting with the most popular authors left out of the original list. For the deeply curious, we're reproducing on our Web site all 215 recommendations as well as a list compiled by the Bluegrass Chapter of the Sierra Club in Lexington, Kentucky. Thanks to all who cared enough to divulge and describe their best-loved books.

This magazine may never have done anything more controversial than printing a list of the "best" environmental books that did not include Sierra Club founder John Muir. "Did they really mean to leave out John Muir?" asked Phila Rogers of Berkeley, California. "Fie on them-may they be sentenced to carry only a bed roll, a packet of tea, and a bit of bread while hiking the length of this revered man's Range of Light."

Sue Smith of San Francisco called the omission "extraordinary! No one else captures the beauty and scientific interest of nature as well as he does. He was a conservationist and conversationalist beyond compare."

The title most frequently recommended by Muir fans was My First Summer in the Sierra. ("The greatest lover of nature meets his greatest love for the first time," said Mike Ward of Reno, Nevada.) Also nominated were The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, Travels in Alaska, and The Range of Light. Reader adoration moved Muir to the number two place, right after Aldo Leopold, who was tops with both the ASLE literati and our readers.

The ASLE list also failed to include John McPhee, who has long been a favorite of Sierra editors. Allan Burns, who teaches a nature-writing course at Southern Illinois University, echoed many other readers when he said, "I nominate McPhee as our finest and most versatile writer of nonfiction." Burns described both Encounters With the Archdruid and The Pine Barrens as "a delight-one a triptych of voyages undertaken by a great conservationist [David Brower] and his natural enemies, the other a masterful, multifaceted evocation of a largely unknown wilderness in New Jersey."

Carol Bowles-Tyndale of Colorado Springs, Colorado, and others also heartily endorsed McPhee's 20-years-in-the-making masterwork on geology, Annals of the Former World. As an example of the insights offered in this 696-page tome, Bowles-Tyndale quoted the author himself: "If by some fiat I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence, this is the one I would choose, 'The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone.' "

Midwestern readers enthusiastically recommended the works of wilderness guide Sigurd F. Olson. Of the many books Olson authored, the most popular was The Singing Wilderness, an exploration of the wild lake country northwest of Lake Superior, but Listening Point also had its adherents. Kal Larson, who teaches environmental science and outdoor education at Nathan Hale High School in West Allis, Wisconsin, explained: "Through Olson's writings you can almost see and feel the wilderness with its cleansing and soothing effects. Reading Sig might be better than actually going there yourself since you will benefit from his insights. Better yet, take Sig with you the next time you go canoeing." Larson also praised David Backes's biography, A Wilderness Within: The Life of Sigurd F. Olson, as "a testament to maintaining your effort and convictions over the long haul."

"A poet and a farmer, Wendell Berry spelled out the tragedy of industrial agriculture over two decades ago," wrote Loni Kemp of Canton, Minnesota, in nominating The Unsettling of America. "He helps us see that the essence of human culture is intertwined with how we grow our food." Laurie Williams of San Diego, California, recommended "just about anything" by Berry: "He writes wonderful essays that challenge our accustomed patterns. I always feel inspired to be a better person after reading Berry, but expect to be kicked, not coddled by this author."

"If you link literature and nature, or mind and spirit, or eloquence, intelligence, and superior writing craft, no list of 5, 10, or 12 top picks can merit publication if it does not include The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen," said Irving Shapiro of Riparius, New York. Many other readers agreed. "It's a book to make you weep," said Diane Coogle of Applegate, Oregon. "It has adventure in foreign places, vividly descriptive writing about people, places, animals, and plants, and hard-hitting unquestionable science. Quammen makes an eloquent and passionate plea for saving the great diversity of the planet, but in the end he makes even more of a deep, sorrowful lament for the inevitable passing of all this beauty."

"What fun, a list of favorites," wrote Barbara Currier Bell of Milford, Connecticut. "But oops, a large problem. You have no international books. Yes, we Americans do have a special appreciation for nature writing, and special qualifications for responding to it, but those skills do not necessarily give us dominion over the subject."

Beverly Dandurand of Boulder City, Nevada, suggested that "the last four lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins's sonnet 'Inversnaid' could well be the anthem of environmental lit": What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

"Wallace Stegner has to be included on any list of authors on conservation in the West," said Wally Burton of Lacey, Washington. "In The Sound of Mountain Water [a collection of essays, memoirs, letters, and speeches], Stegner reprints his coda on wilderness, famously calling the West 'the geography of hope.' " Laurie Williams of San Diego, California, urged that we not overlook two riveting Stegner novels, Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety. "Stegner's books feature the struggle of humans interacting with their environments. Many take on the myths of life in the American West."

Read The Immense Journey by anthropologist and naturalist Loren Eiseley, advised Allan Burns of St. Louis, Missouri: "Eiseley provides an essential evolutionary perspective and reconciles the two cultures of science and the humanities. He deserves mention just for the sentence 'Meteors whisper greenly overhead.'" Another Burns favorite was a tale set in Cape Cod, The Outermost House by Henry Beston, "a romance of isolation in the Walden tradition with lyrical, evocative writing that constantly calls to mind the rhythms of the natural world."

For heart-warming tales of Alaska, our readers singled out the work of legendary conservationist Margaret Murie. "Two in the Far North chronicles the work of [biologist] Olaus and Margaret Murie and urges us to leave nature alone for its own sake," said Angela Zbornik of Wasilla, Alaska.

Geologist-turned-author Rick Bass was also among our readers' favorites. Bass's nonfiction Book of Yaak was mentioned most often, but Kevin Breen of Grand Rapids, Michigan, also recommended Bass's short stories in The Watch, "which captures the spirit of adventure and love of wilderness perhaps better than his nonfiction nature books."

"There are many, many wonderful books about people who stop their lives and just go somewhere to explore it," wrote Sharon Adesman Furlong of Feasterville, Pennsylvania. "Either by foot or bicycle or caravan. The Man Who Walked Through Time by Colin Fletcher stands out because it also speaks of the discovery of something important in the land and the self, and does so without get-ting maudlin or self-important." Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf, a semi-fictional account of the escapades of a Canadian biologist, also won Furlong's praise as "a testimony to doing science in a way that does not demean what is being observed. (The mice recipes are a trip.)" And don't miss naturalist and artist Ann Zwinger's Wind in the Rock: The Canyonlands of Southeastern Utah. "Zwinger teaches in such a beautiful way that the learning is effortless," Furlong said. "She captures the canyonlands of Utah completely."

Kids' books might seem out of place here, but Joe Taylor of Hampton, Illinois, and others made a convincing case for The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. "The Lorax is an essential environmental message disguised as a children's book," Taylor wrote.

Required reading for all students and prospective parents is The Sense of Wonder by Rachel Carson, said Vicki Mastaitis of Albany, New York. "The book got into my hands somehow when I was 11 or 12," she said. "I remember sitting on my front porch looking at all the beautiful pictures and reading the words." Some of the words she liked best are these: "A child's world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength. If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in."


A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
The Singing Wilderness by Sigurd F. Olson
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry
Encounters With the Archdruid by John McPhee
Of Wolves and Men by Barry Lopez
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen
Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams

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Sierra welcomes letters from readers in response to recently published articles. Letters may be edited for length and clarity. Write to us at 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105-3441; fax (415) 977-5794; e-mail

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