Altitude Adjustment: A Quest for Love, Home, and Meaning in the Tetons

AltitudeAdjustment_frontCoverI was asked to read this book for the purpose of supplying a jacket endorsement. While that task can sometimes be a chore, in this case it proved to be an honor and a joy. Here is my “blurb”:

“Altitude Adjustment gives honest, inspiring testimony to the inexorable power of the human will when seized by a grand dream. We cannot help but root for Mary Beth Baptiste as she risks all to live more freely and meaningfully. With her combined skills as both poet and naturalist, she brings every character she encounters on her journey-whether surly moose cow, grizzly bear, or surly, grizzled ranger-to exuberant life.”

To “risk all” in this case meant leaving a comfortable if boring marriage and life among extended family in Massachusetts,a life everyone else around Mary Beth accepted without question, to pursue her dream of becoming a wildlife biologist at Grand Teton National Park.

I was impressed by Baptiste’s considerable descriptive powers. Take, for instance, New Year’s eve among her Teton Park friends: “We’re one ragtag group, standing in our skis by the Chapel of the Transfiguration, taking turns pulling on the bell rope. As we count to ninety-five, cold-metal clangs jar the snow-muffled night. All that’s visible lies in the thin columns of light from our headlamps; they tangle through the darkness in complex webs, illuminating falling medallions of snow and shafts of body parts. There’s a black ponytail polka-dotted with snowflakes, blue parka arms holding the rope, a glint off someone’s glasses.”

You can advance order this book now. Read it for the writing or for the inspiration. But regardless of why you read it, beware: you will feel the stirrings of your own dreams, and they will be hard to ignore. 

Rick Bass and Writing About Places Where “Possibility Still Exists”

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Rick Bass Hermit's StoryRick Bass’s characters often find themselves…. I was going to finish that thought, but then realized I already had. They find themselves, in a place, with a problem. They are self-aware and honest about their predicaments. But it’s hard to generalize about Bass’s characters, because, in his story “The Prisoners,” for instance, he gives us those three “prisoners” going down the highway oblivious to their own hurts and needs. So much is wrong with their lives that catching a few fish cannot fix. That’s true for most of us. Yet wilderness and big land can help a lot. It is the way he brings all that is above, below, and on the earth to magical, mysterious life that keeps me turning the pages of his books well into the night.

Western writers do not “elevate” setting to the level of character the way literary scholars like to say we do. We simply recognize that the world we live in is all-encompassing. It is not a stage or backdrop for human interactions with one another. The places we inhabit influence everything about us. Maybe because we come from places where, as Bass says, “possibility still exists” we are less prone to disregarding so obvious a fact. Maybe if we didn’t come from such places, it would be too depressing to acknowledge that we can’t leave our prisons behind and head off to the wilderness to fish, or hunt, or camp. Or maybe we write in defense of those places, to stave off their gradual imprisonment, industrialization, and ruin.

Brenda Peterson’s Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals

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nmmlweb-humpbackwhale-9Author Brenda Peterson has led a charmed life among animals. But her book Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals, makes clear that her life is charmed only because she has always gone out of her way to meet the animals more than halfway. The experiences she comes back to report–among dolphins, whales, dogs, cats, bears–startled and often moved me to tears. Who knew that a whale in deep mourning over the loss of her calf would take a woman’s arm in her mouth and gently “sound” the woman? Who knew that dolphins are so emotionally telepathic that they will hone in on a woman in constant pain or choose to dance her through the water in the grip of their fins and their deep wells of compassion? I put this book down thinking, I must pay more attention. I must be present and notice the incredible intelligence that shares this planet with me and open my heart wide to its messages and its plight, which is my own. (Who knew that a dolphin’s or whale’s milk is often so laden with heavy metals and other toxins that it can and often does kill nursing young–or that the same is true of Inuit women who depend on a diet of whale blubber?) Peterson demonstrates again and again that we share a soul with animals and that their future and ours are inextricably linked.

Kristen Iverson’s Full Body Burden

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Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge

Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge

For an amazingly-well researched and galvanizing example of the environmental memoir genre look no farther than Kristen Iverson‘s Full Body Burden: Growing up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats. I’ve lived in Colorado for about eight years, but even though I’d heard people question the sanity of turning the former nuclear weapons facility at Rocky Flats into a wildlife refuge, I had no idea how extensive the radioactive pollution was.

Iverson grew up in Arvada just east of the plant in an era when few people questioned big business or the government’s practices. They rested assured that “they would tell us” if it wasn’t safe. Not only did “they” not tell anyone then, the truth about the nuclear waste still in the soil and water at and around Rocky Flats continues to be suppressed. I will no longer breathe nearly so freely as I once did when the wind comes out of the south.

Iverson has won many awards for her book, most recently, and well-deserved, the Colorado Book Award.