Book Reviews: February 2006

Being Caribou
Karsten Heuer
Mountaineers Books, 2005, 237 pages. Winner 2005 Banff Mountain Book Festival Grand Prize.

Imagine yourself embarking on a five-month, 1000-mile skiing/backpacking trek across the wilds of Canada’s Yukon and Alaska’s North Slope following a herd of caribou from their wintering grounds to their summer calving grounds and back. Do this knowing that, “Being caribou means not having fixed goals, objectives, or destinations.” Your only link to the 13 two-week bundles of food that will sustain you is a satellite phone and the pilots who will fly in the food drops. Finally, plan your departure only months after your wedding. Thus, the stage is set for Karsten Heuer and Leanne Allison’s epic journey with the Porcupine Caribou herd to their calving ground on the North Slope of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.

Ultimately the book is about the demerits of oil drilling on the Refuge. The first being how the best estimates see less than a year’s supply of oil for the United States under the Refuge, and another, how a small increase in vehicle efficiency or alternative energy sources could reduce petroleum dependency. But Heuer’s story is not about numbers. It’s about developing a connection with the animals. As Heuer and Allison move with the caribou, “… the thrill matures into a deep honor.” Then, after bonding with the herd on the calving grounds, knowing they “… had become part of something immense and immensely fragile.” While camped among the caribou on the calving grounds discussing oil companies’ position that they could develop the area without affecting the animals, Leanne laments, “… but I can’t even step outside this tent [without the animals freaking out]?”

While reading Being Caribou you will feel the fear of icy river crossings and bear encounters; you will understand death as part of the cycle of life. You will laugh, you will cry, and if you care at all for the natural world you will be angry-angry at yourself for wasting energy and angry at your government for endorsing waste.

Stan Miller


The Villain: The Life Of Don Whillans
Jim Perrin
Mountaineers Books, 2005, 354 pages. Winner 2005 Banff Mountain Book Festival for Best Book: Mountain History & Winnner 2005 Bordman-Tasker Award for Mountain Literature.

Jim Perrin’s biography The Villain: The Life of Don Whillans, provides an easily read account of the life of one of Britain’s best climbers of the 1960s and 70s. The book describes Whillans’ life prior to his untimely death from a heart attack in 1985, his rise to the apex of British climbing then fall into near obscurity.

Perrin carefully explores the complex and dynamic relationship between Don Whillans and Joe Brown. Brown was Whillans equally talented climbing partner during the early rock climbing days. Brown and Whillans fronted a shift in the British climbing community as the most successful working-class challengers to the upper-class climbing establishment. Brown’s successes on alpine expeditions, in addition to other factors, led to friction between the two in the middle of their careers.

Perrin often tries to parse the philosophy of climbing to understand Whillans’ attitudes and behaviors. Perrin describes climbing as, “…a form of play, and a public that views it ignorantly as heroism is palpably placing upon it false values.” Whillans, who often referred to climbs as “jobs” betrayed his working class background, thus upping his conflict with the climbing establishment. Regardless of his view of climbing, Whillans began his career during an age in which climbers, especially in Europe, rose to near celebrity status. In Perrin’s eye Whillans’ avoiding the limelight of his celebrity likely cost him climbing opportunities.

Perrin’s title for the book, The Villain …, recalls one of the Whillans’ myths that Perrin discusses and to some extent dismisses. Focusing on Whillans’ climbing, Perrin places the seedier aspects of his reputation into proper context. The context of a somewhat wild, working-class youth with an innate talent for climbing who used that talent to pursue a career on the rock and in the hills.

Stan Miller


Ecotopia: 30th Anniversary Edition
Ernest Callenbach
Heyday Books, 2005, 176 Pages (with a new Afterword by the author).

Secession-it’s not as farfetched as it sounds. Just this past year citizens in the state of Vermont organized the Second Vermont Republic committed to, “the return of Vermont to its rightful status as an independent republic as it once was between 1777 and 1791.” Ecotopia, Ernest Callenbach’s book of “political fiction” explores these potentials when the Pacific Northwest and northern California secede from the United States.

Most of us like to simply complain about the problems of society. By contrast, Callenbach offers us his vision of the Garden of Eden and the ideal society. Ecotopia follows the travels of international reporter, William Weston, sent from the United States to investigate the goings-on in the isolationist country. The initially skeptical Weston is gradually shaken to the core. His preconceptions of what life is and should be are turned on their side.

The book’s structure consists of a contrasting set of entries by Weston; the first, a series of reports sent back to the fictional Times-Post in the United States for publication, and the other a set of private journals entries. The public reports detail Ecotopia’s transition from an economy based on continual growth and production to a stable-state system, a 20-hour work week and a nationalized organic farming program. Weston describes Ecotopian mini-cities, their car-free zones and quiet streets where pedestrians are the priority.

Far more unsettling to Weston are the social and pyschological undercurrents running through Ecotopian interpersonal relationships. Prolonged eye contact among strangers, the public support and encouragement of the expression of all emotions, and their collective enjoyment of the physical, leave the staid Weston confused and uncomfortable. His romantic relationship with a vibrant, earthy Ecotopian woman allows him to begin to question his life back the United States.

At its core Ecotopia is a homecoming. The novel touches on our collective struggle to readapt to a completely new way of life and our continued attachments to what is comfortable or known-even if it is no longer sustainable. Weston’s final struggle to come to terms with his own attachments to the people and place of Ecotopia in the end, allows him to move into and accept a deeper, more meaningful life.

Juliet Sinisterra

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