Books: September 2012

by macksemil

1491 : NEW REVELATIONS OF THE AMERICAS BEFORE COLUMBUS – CHARLES MANN

It is always easy for those living in the present to feel superior to those who lived in the past.” – Charles Mann, 1491

I found 1491 when perusing at the Book Bin in Salem. I found it on the featured books shelf and decided to give it a shot after thumbing through it for a few minutes. It took me a while to get through this book, as you may have noticed from the lack of book reviews for the last few months. This is mostly because I was tromping around in the woods for most of the summer and was having too much fun to read.

1491 was more than worth the time. In this book Mann is a globe trotting archaeological journalist. He looks at recent archaeological research and how it has changed what we know about populations in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus.  Visiting the exotic locations that he writes about and offering his own impressions of the landscapes and people, the book is personal but vast in scope.

Mann begins the book by exploring population estimates in the Americas before contact. He points out the faults with the scant records we have historically relied on for population estimates and how they have skewed our understanding of native societies. Mann explores the debate between the “high counters” and the “low counters” of the population debate, exploring as well the implications of each argument. A growing body of researchers now estimates the population of native Americans before contact much higher than most textbooks report. Not only do we now believe that these societies supported a greater number of people, but that they were much more complex than previously imagined.

The second main point in the book is that the Americas were not a vast untouched wilderness but much of the landscape had been managed by native cultures by fire and agro-forestry. Accounts of unoccupied coastlines are shown to be questionable as they conflict with other accounts and archaeological evidence pointing to large population centers in the Americas at the time of contact. What emerges from this narrative is an account of groups of people who developed and practiced novel forms of living on the planet which provided a good standard of living. Although Mann avoids politicizing in 1491, I think the information presented in his book are a good jumping off point from which we can launch a discussion on how we relate to the landscapes we inhabit.

It takes a special writer to make a riveting page turner out of a history book. Mann has accomplished the feat with soaring success, being awarded the National Academy of Sciences award for the best book of the year when it was published in 2006. Mann is balanced in his approach to presenting both sides of hotly contested issues in the emerging archaeological evidence of the pre-Columbian Americas. This book is a sweeping review of American anthropology, including the clashes of differing opinion, pitfalls of past institutionalized research, and a full disclosure of the implications of new evidence in the field. A must read for anyone interested in the subject.

BOOK-O-METER: 10/10

PLEXUS – HENRY MILLER

There are only two classes in this world — and in every world– the quick and the dead. For those who cultivate the spirit nothing is impossible. For the others, everything is impossible, or incredible, or futile.” – Henry Miller, Plexus

I picked up this copy of Plexus in a second hand store in North Bend, Oregon back in the spring. This is the second book from Miller’s Rosy Crucifixion series about Miller’s life as a struggling/lazy writer in New York City before his escape to France. It picks up where Sexus left off following Miller’s haphazard marriage to Mona and his trademark philosophical meanderings. Plexus is in a different vein from Sexus however, focusing less on raunchy sex stories and more on Miller’s ridiculous lifestyle.

I found this book to be somewhat less exciting to read than Sexus, for obvious reasons, but toward the second half of the book Miller picks up his feet and scurries off to the South on a series of misguided hitch-hiking adventures chasing some mysterious boom economy that never materializes. Instead Miller and his ill-advised friends find themselves among masses of fellow starving would-be entrepreneurs. Being somewhat of a bum traveler at times, this part of the book was the most fun to read for me. Another notable section was when Miller and Mona were the proprietors of a speakeasy, with Mona’s numerous admirers and Miller’s crazy friends making up the clientele.

Miller continues on his ramblings, taking the reader along for the ride. At times he relives the glory days of his youth by walking the streets of his old neighborhood. Intermittently lost in fits of desperation, sometimes lifted to planes of euphoric utopian proselytizing, often simply trying to find a friendly face to secure a few dollars “loan” from, Miller fumbles through what seems to be a confusing and uncertain time in his life. Compared to some of my other favorite Miller books, the moments of profundity seemed fewer and further between. Toward the end of the book Mona becomes infatuated with a friend named Anastasia and Miller’s jealousy begins to put the marriage into a tailspin.

Overall, I wouldn’t recommend this series to anyone wanting to sample Miller’s writing. (For this I offer The Colossus of Moroussi) In fact, I wouldn’t really recommend it to anyone not afflicted with a strange commitment to reading the entire works of an enigmatic, starry eyed, manic, good-for-nothing bum. If you do posses said requirements Plexus is another piece of the Henry Miller puzzle, offering insight into the formation of his character and philosophy. Miller responded to criticism from his close friend and fellow author Lawrence Durell by saying  “I can never go back on what I’ve written. If it was not good, it was true; if it was not artistic, it was sincere; if it was in bad taste, it was on the side of life.

BOOK-O-METER: 5/10

OLD GROWTH IN A NEW WORLD : A PACIFIC NORTHWEST ICON REEXAMINED – THOMAS A. SPIES AND SALLY L. DUNCAN

It is clear that the old-growth icon was a powerful force behind sweeping changes in management policy, but it also is clear that deep complexity underlies the icon, and if solutions are not based on a rich understanding of forests and how people relate to them, unintended consequences can generate ongoing social ferment.” – Thomas Spies & Sally Duncan, Old Growth in a New World

I saw this book on my friend Tate’s shelf when I arrived in Boise. Priced at 35 dollars originally (a total rip off), I’m glad someone else bought it and lent it to me.  It looked like a good pile of knowledge about forests in the Pacific Northwest, and I started leafing through it. Eventually I stopped leafing through it when I ran into the back cover. It was a slow process. Spies, a forest ecologist, and Duncan, a policy researcher, have teamed up to put together this compendium of the debate about old-growth forests in the Northwest. It features articles from ecologists, foresters, mill owners, managers, environmentalists, hippies and industry talking heads. It’s not literature, or even easy reading, and some of the background information on the topic is stated in the introduction of every article. Even considering its downsides I found Old Growth in a New World instructive and worth my time.

The debate about cutting large trees in Oregon has been raging for a long time now. The crucial moment in what some refer to as the “old growth wars” was the listing of the Northern Spotted Owl on the Endangered Species Act, prompting lawsuits aplenty and the drafting of the Northwest Forest Plan. The plan put conservation of animals before timber harvest goals. As with any natural resource there are parties chomping at the bit to be able to make money by exploiting it. There are also parties in the area who value forests for other reasons, or disagree with forestry management practices for any number of reasons. In the ensuing friction there has risen an icon of the old growth forest. While the definitions of this term may change depending on who you are talking to, it is sure that you know an old growth forest when you see one. This book is about the differing opinions on the formation and fate of this icon and the forest it represents.

There are a few general themes throughout the nearly thirty articles. One of them being that focusing on conserving exclusively old growth forest is a short sighted approach that could use revision. Over the past twenty years more people have come to see the forest as a dynamic system and should be managed as such. Old growth stands come and go and may only contribute to a fraction of total forest area in an untouched forest. Various methods are proposed to tackle this challenge. Another main theme is that restricting active management on once logged forest could be a severe mistake. Some of these forests have been overloaded with fuels through past logging and replanting practices, making thinning necessary to avoid uncharacteristically intense forest fires which can decimate entire stands.

It was encouraging to read that people are recognizing natural fire regimes of landscapes and that merely putting these fires out when they happen is a misguided management scheme. There is a case made for controlled burning and fuels reduction logging as alternate and supplementary strategies. Another interesting point that a few authors mentioned was not restricting forest policy to federal and state lands. Most of the time these debates completely write off private forestry practices. Unfortunately, landslides and fires do not stop at property boundaries and private forestry practices need to be in the public mind as well.

This book offers a pretty wide swath of debate on modern forestry practices in the Pacific Northwest. It’s encouraging to see foresters talk about ecosystem based management and harvesting timber within natural disturbance cycles. It’s also encouraging to see industry professionals talk about fire’s role in a forest system without using it primarily as an excuse to log, although the book does feature an article from an industry lobbyist who seems to be stuck in the 1960s. If you’re interested in public forest policy in the Northwest, why it is the way it is and how the people involved in shaping it are talking about the future, this is a good read. Be advised that you will probably be cursing yourself for taking the time to read some of the articles, but I found that forging through was worth the hassle, there are some real gems in here.

BOOK-O-METER: 5/10

THE ELITE CONSENSUS: WHEN CORPORATIONS WIELD THE CONSTITUTION – GEORGE DRAFFAN

When society’s economic, political, and social structures become institutionalized, power tends to flow from people into institutions, but not back again. Power becomes concentrated.” -George Draffan, The Elite Consensus

I ordered The Elite Consensusto read before going to work with the Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project on the eastern side of the Cascades this summer. The idea for the book was conceived by Karen Coulter who founded the project. I didn’t actually get to reading the book until after I had left for Boise because I was too busy tromping around in the woods while volunteering. The writing was a little dry, it kind of reads like a reference book at times. Draffan has pulled off an admirable work here though, not only examining the avenues by which corporations leverage power in the world but also providing profiles of the people and organizations that serve corporate expansion.

Draffan educates us on the different ways in which our economy is not driven by a free market but one very much skewed in favor of large multinational corporations who focus on profit above all else. Through international trade policies, subsidies, confusing smoke screen publicity tactics and ambiguously worded legislature. In the first section Draffan presents the tenants of corporate strategy to gain and maintain power; privatize profits, externalize costs, control information, centralize political authority, centralize economic authority and remove all barriers to trade.

The second section of book is a collection of two to four page profiles of corporations, think tanks, foundations and organizations which influence politics and public opinion in favor of corporate power. A sampling of the profiles reveals organizations such as the Wold Trade Organization, the Business Roundtable, Bilderberg, Heritage Foundation, Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, NATO and the Wold Bank. Complete with addresses and phone numbers of office locations and the names of chief actors, the book is an invitation for social action against corporate dominance.

And it’s about time. Through movements such as the 1999 Seattle WTO demonstrations and Occupy Wall Street which swept the country last year, it is clear that there is a growing number of people concerned about the amount of corporate domination in the world today. Not only are they concerned about it, they are furious enough to camp in city parks and hold signs with catchy slogans. While what these groups of people want is sometimes nebulous, it is apparent what they don’t : corporate handouts, corporate personhood and corporate America as it stands. The Elite Consensus offers the next step by offering venues for protests which direct public attention to those responsible for the situation. The last thing that the purveyors of global exploitation want is to be put in the spotlight.

When all is said and done, The Elite Consensus is a crash course in the dynamics of corporate power. The first section is less than forty pages long, in my opinion far too slim to offer a complete picture. In this way it seems the book is geared toward those with some base knowledge and a desire to do something about it. While I hope that this audience exists and gets their hands on this book, it may not be exciting to the general public as a primer.

BOOK-O-METER: 5/10

Advertisements