Last year I found myself reading, or rereading, wide swaths of Joan Didion’s work, as collected in the recent compendium We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live. Her piercing portraits of 1960s California in such article-essays as “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” and “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” are eerily prescient of the sort of dystopia into which much of California, and the Sunbelt in general, seem to have fallen of late. For a more academic look at how Americans use and perceive space, I turned to Witold Rybczynski, whose City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World is a survey of how American ideas about urban planning have evolved over the years. Americans, Rybczynski writes, have always been careful about time, careless about space. That’s an insight that may help explain many of the bleak suburban vistas that so characterize life in our time — and whose evolution in an age of foreclosure is going to be an interesting trend to watch.
I’ve been a resident of the Sunbelt for some time now, and when the parlous state of our economy and regional politics gets to be too much I need to remind myself that this part of the country is not just a bad example — it has also shaped a lot of cutting-edge thought into how people and place interact. I pick up a copy of Wallace Stegner’s The Sound of Mountain Water, perhaps: brilliant and clear-eyed essays about the West’s problems and promise. Or I read about Aldo Leopold, who came to this region almost exactly a hundred years ago as a freshly minted forestry graduate. A tenderfoot. But he watched and listened, and soon learned of the region’s cowboys, Native Americans, and New Mexico farmers (to say nothing of wolves, pinyon jays, and thick-billed parrots) how land should and should not be managed. His intellectual journey is well limned in Julianne Lutz Newton’s Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey: Rediscovering the Author of A Sand County Almanac. Wisdom, it turns out, and not just callousness and greed, resides in American places too.
No book I’ve read in recent months, though, has given me more pleasure than one by my good friend Jim Malusa, who some years ago had the brilliant idea of riding his bicycle to the lowest point on each continent. It took him a while (turns out that Djibouti’s a tough place to get to, and to ride in), but the end result of his journeys was a great travelogue, Into Thick Air: Biking to the Bellybutton of Six Continents. Traveling with scant supplies but with enormous patience and good humor, Jim met the locals, saw the sights, and conveys a great lesson that’s all the more important in an era so easily given to xenophobia: namely, that people all over the place are pretty much alike. I’m hoping he travels somewhere else soon so that he can write about it some more.
Peter Friederici teaches journalism and science writing at Northern Arizona University and lives in Flagstaff. His most recent book is Nature’s Restoration. He wrote the Coda “Transmutations” for the January/February 2009 issue of Orion.