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Culture, Identity, and the Natural World
Edited by Alison H. Deming and Lauret E. Savoy
Milkweed Editions, 210 pp., $18.95

The Colors of Nature

What most Americans call wilderness -- those unspoiled areas hemmed in by invisible boundaries, those moss-green patches on road maps -- is, according to many of the writers in this book, a dangerous fabrication. It divides humans from nature; the environment becomes, like a museum, a thing to visit while being ever mindful not to touch. It is easy to forget, in such a neatly constructed setting, that we were ever more intimately connected.

But the contributors to The Colors of Nature refuse to forget. The book is a deliberate effort on the part of the editors to add diversity to the "overwhelmingly white" world of nature writing. These seventeen writers -- of Japanese-American, Latino, African-American, and other backgrounds (with nary a white European among them) -- see the cordoning off and subjugation of nature as part of a larger historical pattern of racial and cultural subjugation. Thus, what has been lost is more than a stand of trees or a perfect view; with it has gone, many of the writers claim, a part of their cultural identities.

bell hooks, for example, grew up in the agrarian South knowing that nature, not white landowners, held the ultimate power, and this "fundamental understanding that white folks were not gods… helped imbue black folks with an oppositional sensibility." Severing that connection with nature, as hooks asserts many blacks did when they moved into the cities, has meant losing a vital source of resistance. "Black folks must collectively renew our relationship to the earth," she writes, and also reminds readers that nature bestows equality better than any nation: "No race, no class, no gender, nothing can keep any of us from dying into that death where we are made one."

Not all the essays collected in this volume are as lyrically written. Activist Melissa Nelson talks about decolonizing her mind as a necessary part of "transcending self-centered ethnocentric and exploitive patterns of Western hegemony," language that will seem academic and overwrought to some readers. But the editors did well to realize that the book's essential point -- that to respect nature is to respect oneself -- is a message best delivered by those who have reflected deeply on what it is to lose both.
-- Jill Davis

A Human History
By Barbara Freese
Perseus Publishing, 308 pp., $25


Compared to its geologic offspring the diamond, coal is prosaic; neither costly nor rare, it brings to mind mostly pollution and poverty. Much of its story flows through a sooty, Dickens-ian past, when cities on both sides of the Atlantic lay shrouded in thick coal-smoke fog, and impoverished men, women, and children labored in treacherous mines and coal-driven factories.

But dig deeper, as Barbara Freese has, and coal's history becomes surprisingly complex. While fueling profound misery, pollution, and strife, coal has also been inexorably linked to the course of empire, the outcome of wars, and the wonders of the modern age. The implications give pause: If not for coal, could Great Britain and, later, the United States have become superpowers? Would the Industrial Revolution have begun? Would The Communist Manifesto have been written? While Freese explores these and other big-picture subjects -- not the least of which is coal's toll on the environment -- she humanizes her narrative with rich detail and clear, engaging prose.

Coal begins in the ancient world, where the mineral was valued as jewelry, not a source of energy. It ends today, with much of the world dependent on coal yet increasingly wary of its pollution. As a former assistant attorney general of Minnesota, Freese helped investigate the effects of greenhouse gases on global climate change -- gases emitted by coal-fired power plants. Her book, as one might expect, is no brochure for the coal industry, but neither is it an indictment. "Coal has always been both a creative and a destructive force," Freese writes. "It is the tension between the two that makes the story of coal so compelling."
-- Anthony Jaffe

The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives
by Nicols Fox
Island Press/Shearwater Books, 405 pp., $25

Against the Machine

Don't be put off by the clunky subtitle. Against the Machine is a remarkably interesting, impressively researched book populated by a large cast of fascinating characters, from the original Luddites -- nineteenth-century English weavers who waged a guerrilla war against the new technology of their time -- to aristocratic supporters of the Luddite cause, such as Lord Byron and Shelley, and America's own crop of neo-Luddites including Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, David Brower, and Wendell Berry. As Fox explores the lives and works of writers and artists and plain-living people over the last two centuries, she dem-onstrates that being a Luddite isn't all about smashing things; it's about resisting "the domination of the machine in our society."

Fox shows how a persistent strain of outsider thought accompanied the rush to industrialize society, including the way people think, feel, and behave. Among the outsiders whose works she illuminates are William Morris, one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which sought to restore a sense of pride in work and joy in the workplace, and D. H. Lawrence, who grasped "the growing dangers of mechanical thinking, of mechanical living," and lamented the effect industry had on both man and landscape as epitomized by "the utter soulless ugliness of the coal-and-iron Midlands."

The Luddites, Fox writes, "challenged what the machine was doing to human lives; the environmental movement would challenge what the machine was doing to the natural world." This briskly paced, wide-ranging overview of a movement often dismissed as romantic and irrelevant makes a compelling case for its relevance -- and, along the way, asks: What's wrong with being romantic?
-- Jon Swan

Why the Corporate Ski Industry Is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns, and the Environment
By Hal Clifford
Sierra Club Books, 282 pp., $24.95

Downhill Slide

The premise -- and the conclusion -- of Hal Clifford's in-depth investigation of the world of Disneyesque mega-ski resorts beholden to the bottom line is that skiing has "morphed from a more or less environmentally benign outdoor experience" into something capable of causing "permanent environmental damage on par with ranching, logging, and mining." Unfortunately, between premise and conclusion, Clifford fails to make his case.

The fact that the ski industry lost much of its spirit as it became more corporate during the 1990s is appallingly self-evident -- just take a walk through any of the contrived "villages" Clifford singles out in the book. It takes about five minutes to realize that the experience is designed more for shopping enthusiasts than alpinists, by Wall Streeters who've quickly learned that skiing is just an excuse to sell overpriced time-shares and $7 hamburgers. And that's about all the time Clifford should have spent on the subject. Instead, readers who had hoped to glean insight into whether corporate skiing really is a blight worthy of being lumped with mining, logging, and the rest have to suffer through an anti-capitalist rant that glosses over key issues of resource depletion and habitat loss.

Clifford is best when he details the Forest Service's complicity in all facets of this new wave of alpine sprawl. We get a list of fox-in-the-henhouse examples illustrating how the Forest Service has gone from subsidizing extractive industries to subsidizing recreation: They spend $45,000 here to get mostly white, affluent kids interested in skiing, $30,000 there in a greenwashing campaign. We read how Forest Service Deputy Chief Grey Reynolds drew up plans for a 1,320-acre land swap and a $15 million road building project designed to benefit Utah's Snowbasin ski resort, only to resign six months later to become the resort's general manager. Meet the new boss: same as the old boss.

Clifford should have followed more threads like this one. Skiing is the most high-profile form of industrial recreation on our public lands. How it's regulated now speaks to the future of all outdoor recreation.
-- Marc Peruzzi

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OnEarth. Spring 2003
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council