Blue Mountains Far Away: Journeys into the American Wilderness, by Gregory McNamee. The Lyons Press, $22.95.
LAST TIME I flew into Tucson from Mexico City, I had a pocketful of contraband: eight dead hummingbirds from Mercado Sonora, the city's shopping headquarters for live animals and voodoo medicine. Many Mexicans, not just brujas and curanderas, believe chuparosas bring good luck. And if the eight I smuggled in haven't kept me out of trouble, they still look good.
I suspect Greg McNamee would disapprove of my collection. McNamee--writer, editor, teacher--is one tree-hugging son of a gun. And his new book has plenty of loving references to hummingbirds.
Blue Mountains Far Away collects 13 McNamee essays on such subjects as animals and rivers, wind and walking, language, lightning and Las Vegas. Throughout, McNamee argues eloquently for the environment, and most specifically for the protection of wilderness.
In the opener, "Growing Up Nuclear" (republished in the Weekly July 27), McNamee writes about weapons testing in the American Southwest, and how it affected the land, the people and the author himself. The son of a military man, McNamee recalls his childhood Cold War experiences (wartime maneuvers in Europe forced him to miss his much-anticipated Boy Scout jamboree) and recounts a later visit to the Titan Missile Museum south of Tucson. The author concludes that the "Cold War endures." True or not, the fact that McNamee believes this is chilling in itself. Early on in "Growing Up Nuclear," McNamee lets us know that he takes things personally (that missed jamboree really sticks in his craw), and that personal interest sets the tone for the rest of the collection's first-person narrative structure.
"Fire in the Sky" is McNamee's investigation into the origins and consequences of lightning. It's an informative and entertaining essay, with lots of what McNamee's best at: providing facts with plenty of colorful imagery, and without sounding too dry: "At any given moment, some two thousand thunderstorms are raging across the earth, sending off a hundred flashes of lightning per second, 8.6 million a day, so that the earth from space resembles the paparazzi's gallery at a movie premiere."
In "The Unknowable Wild," McNamee contends that wilderness is intrinsically valuable and thus should exist for its own sake. This is the collection's most stridently political essay, so it's an appropriate place for McNamee to bring up his friend and fellow writer, Rick Bass. Bass, who writes wonderful essays and fiction, is, like McNamee, an outspoken defender of wilderness. In "The Unknowable Wild," McNamee and Bass track a grizzly in northwest Montana's Yaak Valley, Bass's home turf. (At his most recent Tucson reading, Bass delivered a podium-pounding call for government protection of what he calls "my valley.") Later, in language not inappropriate for an essay of this sort, McNamee manages to make shopworn environmental shibboleths, the value of wilderness to medical research, for example, sound fresh.
Bass should thank McNamee for the latter's "Finding the Garden," which helps to soften Bass's annoyingly oft-used references to the Yaak as "my valley" in his own writing. In "Finding the Garden," McNamee argues, reasonably, that respect for the environment starts with knowledge of one's own back yard: the water sources, plants, animals, soil, and air of one's home turf, real or adopted. In this context, Bass's possessive references to the Yaak sound less unreasonable, more an expression of care and stewardship than literal ownership.
Part paean, part polemic, this is a fine collection, every selection worthwhile. In "How Baldy Tried to Kill Me" McNamee recounts his ill-fated attempts to climb the deceptively innocuous Arizona mountain. In "The Language of Hawks," he explores animal communication.
In the title essay, he refers to Meriwether Lewis, Indian storytellers, anthropologists, Saint Patrick, Saint Paul, Saint Theodoros, John Muir, an environmental psychologist, Buddhist monks, alpinists, Catholic mystics, a Zen master and a Silver City waitress (!) to defend and honor mountains.
In the poetic and structurally different "Four Rivers," he writes about the rarest and most valuable desert commodity. In "American Byzantium" (first published in the Weekly September 30, 1999), he critiques Las Vegas as city and symbol. In "An Imaginary Atlas," he conjures a geographic guide to not just place, but also to time and language and imagination. In "Desert Winds," he investigates desert winds, and in "Walking," he goes walking.
The best piece in the book is also the shortest. "Oasis" is a lovely little essay about a desert sanctuary on the Gila River. The place teems with wildlife: "At that narrow bend of the river lived an old Mexican American woman, whose small frame house lay perhaps fifteen yards from the stream, surrounded by mesquite trees in whose branches she had hung dozens of hummingbird feeders. Those feeders drew hundreds of hummingbirds from the surrounding desert, so many of them that approaching her house you would swear you were entering a great beehive filled with flashing creatures ..." "Oasis" is simple and sweet, a compact charmer.
And that's coming from a guy who likes his chuparosas best when they're hanging from the rear-view.