Five Best Books on the Great Outdoors

From a Wall Street Journal story by Dean King headlined “Five Best: Books on the Great Outdoors”:

Two Years Before the Mast
By Richard Henry Dana Jr. (1840)

1. To improve his failing eyesight, Richard Henry Dana Jr. leaves Harvard in 1834 and enlists as a seaman on a brig sailing from Boston to California by way of Cape Horn. In “Two Years Before the Mast,” he records the harrowing details of life at sea as the crew outruns pirates, loses a sailor overboard (“like losing a limb”) and faces treacherous storms. “The vessel, diving into two huge seas, one after the other, plunged us twice into the water up to our chins,” he writes. “We hardly knew whether we were on or off when the boom lifting us up . . . raised high into the air and then plunged below again.”

Dana’s voyage includes months of toil collecting and curing cowhides; at one stop, the hides must be tossed from a ridge down a 400-foot bluff from the ranch above to the waiting ship below. When the skins are caught among the trees, Dana is lowered down the face of the bluff to retrieve them. The reward for these travails is getting to see the “almost unknown” and unimaginably quiet California coast. “Not a human being but ourselves for miles, and no sound heard but the pulsations of the great Pacific!”

No Picnic on Mount Kenya
By Felice Benuzzi (1946)

2. Confined by barbed wire and armed guards, Felice Benuzzi gazes at Mount Kenya, looming 17,000 feet above him and illuminated by the stars. “The white glaciers gleamed with mysterious light, and its superb summit towered against the sky,” Benuzzi recalls, hatching in that instant one of the most audacious mountain expeditions of all time. Soon he and two other Italian World War II prisoners of war escape—leaving a note promising to return and begging not to be pursued—and set out to climb the behemoth, with its treacherous bamboo forests and wild animals. “We stretched out our limbs in the sunshine, feeling like lizards in the first days of spring,” Benuzzi writes of the giddy early going.

But their scant prison fare and makeshift alpine gear, fashioned from scavenged materials, soon take a toll. In this gripping 18-day misadventure, the trio, driven to plant a flag on high for their fellow inmates, fights fever, starvation, extreme slopes and blizzards—but Benuzzi never loses his sense of wonder. Looking out on “buttresses, jagged peaks and ledges, bejewelled with sprinkled ice,” he finds himself “spellbound at the glowing colors cast by the setting sun on the mount of their dreams, now resplendent as though celebrating the glory of creation.”

By Robyn Davidson (1980)

3. The only thing more treacherous than the 1,700 miles of Australian desert that Robyn Davidson attempts to cross is the dusty town where she sleeps in a tent as she prepares for her adventure, struggling to learn the ways of camels and to scrounge up enough cash and courage for her trek. Over and again, drunks, bullies and bigots combine with searing heat and ferocious—not to mention cantankerous, diseased and disappearing—camels to nearly drive Ms. Davidson to despair. But the thrill of racing bareback on a young bull “without a thought for the ground whizzing below those pounding legs” keeps her dream alive as she slowly readies (and arms) herself for the ordeal.

Beset with self-doubt, as well as navigation and provisioning problems, the distractions of an amorous National Geographic photographer, and the crushing need to shoot threatening wild camels that are stalking her own, Ms. Davidson wrestles with a multitude of demons in her quest to become queen of the Outback. But just as the Outback drains and demoralizes her, it also beckons and sustains her. “It is difficult to describe Australian desert ranges as their beauty is not just visual,” she observes. “They have awesome grandeur that can fill you with exaltation or dread, and usually a combination of both.”

The Deer Pasture

By Rick Bass (1985)

4. The Texas Hill Country, Rick Bass writes in “The Deer Pasture,” is a “severely twisted and faulted region of cactus and rattlesnakes and canyons and hills that spring up out of the Gulf Coastal Plains like serrated ridges on a dinosaur’s back.” It’s also home to the beloved 956-acre hunting camp where Mr. Bass and his kin reconnect, refuel and retell family tales every third week in November. The gathering, he says, allows relatives to “notice things that would not be noticed on a less-controlled and more random series of visits, such as February one year and September the next.”

A master of understatement, Mr. Bass notices plenty. When you look at your reflection in the creek in Turkey Hollow, one of his favorite hunting spots, “ocher hickory leaves stare back at you from the bottom”; armadillos, which Mr. Bass and his Cousin Randy like to track and observe, are blind but have ears “like radar dishes.” Mr. Bass and Cousin Randy not only hunt the abundant whitetail deer here but also indulge in pranks, like putting a stuffed deer in the meadow for their unwitting grandfather to blast away at when the mist rises. The camp is Mr. Bass’s “anchor,” and in his elegiac stories—about ephemeral family ties, nature, traditions and attention to detail—we come to understand why.

The Dreamt Land
By Mark Arax (2019)

5. Ever since the Gold Rush of 1849, California has been the place where Americans go to seek their fortunes. But it is crops, not gold, that have made dreams come true, and men moved heaven and earth—and water—to achieve those dreams. Driving in the Central Valley outside Fresno, Mark Arax, a journalist from a family of farmers, traces byzantine irrigation lines and describes what he calls “one of the most dramatic alterations of the earth’s surface in human history.”

“Every river busting out of the Sierra was bent sideways, if not backward, by a bulwark of ditches, levees, canals and dams,” he writes. “The farmer corralled the snowmelt and erased the valley, its desert and marsh. He leveled its hog wallows, denuded its salt brush and killed the last of its mustang, antelope, and tule elk.” Today the region, where water-hungry almond trees occupy an area bigger than the state of Rhode Island, is in a long-term spiral of desertification while Big Ag drills ever deeper to irrigate and expand orchards and vineyards. Mr. Arax’s critical but compassionate exploration of this mesmerizing landscape and its reason-defying shapeshifting is both alarming and magnificent.

Dean King is the author of ‘Guardians of the Valley: John Muir and the Friendship That Saved Yosemite.’

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