Monday, May 23, 2011

A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir - Donald Worster

Donald Worster, one of the preeminent modern voices of American conservation, has written a well-researched and at times insightful biography of the greatest voice in the history of American conservation - John Muir. Worster recounts Muir's roots in Scotland and forging in Wisconsin and tries to dig into Muir's intellectual development to better understand how and where his passion for the wild and untamed places developed and changed over the course of Muir's long and very active life.

As Muir moved across the states and eventually came to the hills of California, we see how his rambling and his faith forged a wilderness ethic through which he would come to view not only his relationship to the land, but also his relationship to the universe, to his work and to society. Worster does a wonderful job of grappling with these complexities and communicating that even for Muir, such questions of human's proper relationship to the natural world is never simple. One of the more revolutionary of Muir's ethos was that he extended morality to living biota beyond the narrow confines of human society: for Muir plants and animals were as worthy of care, notice and rights as any person.

Given that Muir's life revolved around wilderness, and that Worster is a historian by training, Worster treats the notion of wilderness in Muir's and the American mind in a surprisingly ahistorical manner. What Worster gives, at best, passing mention to, is that Muir and most Americans in the 19th century were experiencing "wild" landscapes that were very much a construction of their society and their predecessors. This is not to marginalize Muir's very real feelings about "big outside"and his foundational beliefs concerning divinity, however, as Worster tries to skip between 19th and 21st century morality, it is something that could have stood a bit of examination.

What Worster has accomplished is a fluid and easily consumable biography that gives a reader a better sense of Muir as a man and as a mind. Worster's call at the end, though a touch simplistic, is very appropriate: would that we could live out Muir's vision on Earth.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Islam: The Straight Path - John Esposito

With the death of Osama Bin Laden an awareness was reawakened within me that I know frightfully little about Islam. I have long meant to read a sort of introductory text on the faith and history of the Muslim people and I think John Esposito's work served that purpose quite well. Esposito gives a very basic - 250 pages, roughly - rundown of the history of Islam into the end of the twentieth century. Perhaps the most important thing he accomplishes is a cogent tying together of sectarian separations across time in Islam and how those continue to have very real implications for how people identify themselves and groups of Muslins interact.

Two takeaway points that I found particularly illuminating. First, because of where I grew up, Christianity is the baseline of comparison for how I conceive of religions. Thus I always analogized the Quran with the Bible. But that is not really true. If we think of the Bible as the foundation upon which Christianity is built, it is more accurate to say that the Quran is the house of Islam. The forced equivalency of the Bible and the Quran does a disservice to the role of the Quran. Second, because the Quran has a much stronger proscriptive history in Islam, much of what westerners see as conservativism is really a more public grappling with the intersections between western-style modernity and the role of morality in society. Certainly there is much wrestling among all people between morality and modernity, however, the western world likes to unfairly focus on the seeming disjuncture and clashes it has with Islam. Rather, we should turn the lens on ourselves and see what we cannot learn from any person who struggles to better understand their relationship to the world around them.

This provided me a much needed introduction to historical Islam and I will certainly follow this up with further reading.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Cod - Mark Kurlansky

My second time reading Mark Kurlansky's pithy recounting of the role cod has played in the settling of the east coast of North America and how the market for it has developed since the 1500s. Its been a couple of years since I read it the first time and my impressions have not changed terribly much. Kurlansky recounts the discovery of the northern fishing grounds named the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland and how, with the changing of fishing technology and policy over the years, they have come to be drastically depleted. Indeed, he explores the trend of diminishing fishing stocks across much of the northern hemisphere.

Though a bit over-reaching and episodic, Kurlansky makes a cogent and moving case for people to rexamine our tacit and often stated assumption that nature is virtually inexhaustible and can recover from human exploitation. What Kurlansky unfortunately does not fully explore is the strain between trying to protect natural resources and the manner in which so many industries are tied up with notions of national identity and the ever-present need for governments to provide employment. The book is ably written and accomplishes a very tricky proposition, to introduce a complex problem to people who may have little to no acquaintance with it. Certainly a good introduction to the issue but often not enough information to fully satisfy.