Category Archives: Book Reviews

Cranes, Wild Turkeys, and Death Valley Crossings


A very diverse trio...
A very diverse trio…

We have just moved.  In moving I decided that the stack of books, each book with a bookmark that seems to be inserted in a random pattern but only one per book (a good sign), should be read.  I have a bad habit of reading several books at a time.  It is not a good way to read books, but it suits my ever decreasing attention capabilities.  These were the first three to be finished and put on the almost well-ordered bookshelves.

The Birds of Heaven : Travels with Cranes — Peter Matthiessen, 2001

I have only seen two species of cranes; the Whooping Crane and the Sandhill Crane.  It only takes one glimpse, whether a crane is in the air or on the ground to know you have are seeing something special; almost unique.  They stand about four feet tall.  Their wings often span seven feet.  These dimensions, impressive as they may be, disappear as Matthiessen took me around the world and across the equator explaining where the various cranes of the world exist.  These great birds are not to be seen as separate parts of the landscape.  They are integral to the well-being of our environment, barometers of its state.  Weather and landscape of far distant lands became part of my mind’s eye as the pages were turned.

Matthiessen writes of one species in a way that should send any reader in search of more books about our winged creatures–any of them.  Whether talking of the cranes’ migration, courtship, eating, or simply the grace of their existence, his pages captivate and educate, and make me long for another trip to Malheur NWR in Oregon, the Klamath Basin along the California-Oregon border, or down to the Aransas NWR in Texas–all the while knowing there are other continents with large-winged relatives waiting to be seen.

Illumination in the Flatwoods : A season with the wild turkey — Joe Hutto, 1995

I am indebted to Burke Jones, down in Greensburg, Louisiana, for sending me a copy of this wonderfully worded and illustrated story of turkeys–from incubators to their departure to the wild, leaving their human parent behind.  We have seen Wild Turkeys in Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Kansas.  They were on the trails in Palo Duro Canyon in Texas as we ran one morning long ago.  We took notice of their color and later added a note on “their” page in the bird book in the car.  Other than a brief conversation about their unexpected beauty, little was remembered, until this book arrived.

Joe Hutto becomes a mother, father, sister, brother, protector, sleeping companion, doctor, and roost as he keeps first the eggs, then the poults, then the adults, and finally, the disappearing family, company.  He describes conversations, first imprints, up-all-nights with the hatchings, and his evolution into thinking like a turkey.  My image of turkeys as ungainly clowns that make silly noises disappeared as Hutto described conversations with his “family” and their walks through the Flatwoods.  His forests came alive through his words and sketches.  What we see as dangers (a rattlesnake) was explained by someone comfortable in the woods.  What we see as unexciting (a new creek crossing) was viewed through the eyes of curiously cautious young turkeys.

The descriptions of days become the lyrics and prose of nature singing her song as the young birds pass through childhood.  We miss so much as we walk through the woods because we don’t know how to see through someone or something else’s eyes.  Hutto gives us this vision, offers us a new way to pass through nature.

The Death Valley 300 : Near Death And Resurrection On The World’s Toughest Endurance Course — Richard Benyo, 1991

If I understand things today (the moratorium of the Badwater™ ultramarathon is in effect as I type), Badwater-with-no-licensing ceased to exist a few years ago.  Benyo’s book is of a time many years earlier, when a phone call or letter was all that was needed to tell of an intended crossing.  There were just enough people interested that a record would be kept, information passed in small circles, and the simplicity of accepting one of nature’s challenges was meet.

This is history.  In today’s vernacular, it is a race report.  It is several race reports from a place most of us simply cannot imagine.  My wife and I have passed through Death Valley a half dozen times, maybe more.  We have ran there.  We have camped there.  Sitting in a campground while the thermometer registers 118º does little to create the sensation of running past the campground on a ribbon of baking asphalt.  Between the covers of The Death Valley 300 is all the imagery one’s mind needs, especially if that one has been to “the Valley.”  There are stories of early crossings; the crossings before anyone knew any of the science needed to understand the physiology of endurance running in extreme heat.

We took the book with us on one trip through Death Valley.  We stopped a few miles east of Lone Pine.  We looked westerly, picking out Mt. Whitney and thought about seeing it with all the hours and miles behind you–so close, so far, so near, so unreachable–and then the footsteps for some would continue on.  We stopped on Townes Pass, looked both ways and tried to find the appropriate pages for connection.  Wind whistled and burned us as we stood on road’s edge trying to hear the footsteps that Benyo described.  There were no trademarks and no fees, but there were echoes we could hear.

We stopped at Badwater itself, the point in the park that cannot be licensed.  The point that is 282 feet below sea level.  We did one more misconception experiment.  We ran for about thirty minutes in 120ºF bone-dry air.  Benyo would take us the other 145 or so miles with his typewriter as we turned the pages of an excellent reliving.

On a related note

Living on the Wind : Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds — Scott Weidensaul

Conversations With an Eagle : the story of a remarkable relationship — Brenda Cox



—– Run gently out there —–

Book Reviews — Joss Naylor and Bob Graham Round

Two smallish books arrived in the mail yesterday; maybe properly called booklets; one about twenty pages, the other a few over forty.  They can’t be about any significant adventures being that few in pages, can they?

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Here in the U.S. they might be more appreciated by runners east of the Mississippi where the valleys and peaks are many, but not so tall as those out west.  The debate over which is more difficult–a series of medium length ups and downs versus the five-mile, six-mile, and even longer climbs or descents of the Rockies, Sierra, or Cascades–will never be settled.  That is as it should.  It is there as conversation as well as physical and mental challenge.  These books deal with those lesser nuisances; the constant ups and downs.

The books:

Joss Naylor MBE Was Here : A personal account of the complete traverse of the ‘Wainwright’ Lakeland peaks, Joss Naylor, M.B.E. (The shorter one.)  KLETS, Braithwaite, UK   ***A special thanks to Jacqui Byrne for alerting me to this being available.***

42 Peaks : The Story of the Bob Graham Round, Paddy Buckley (2005) & Roger Smith (1982), Brian Covell  — Hayloft Publishing, Cumbria, UK

were written long before blogs, e-mail missives, and other text limiting devices came on the scene.  The pictures are black and white–leading the reader to view and imagine.  Midges and rocks, roots and burning sun, grassy slopes where naps should be taken are only to be crossed as quickly as possible.  A finish line awaits.

Both books provide just enough words to lead a person to put the book down and let the mind wander–and wonder.  They both remind us that the challenge someone faced in 1932 is still there in 2014 (maybe all our batteries will go dead).  History begs us to come, retrace!

—–Run gently out there—–