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Book review: Wandering Home


Published April 27, 2005 at 7:58 p.m.

Toward the end of his 10th book, nature writer Bill McKibben makes a disarming admission. "I am, as you have doubtless already gathered, an incompetent naturalist," he tells us. "Beyond the obvious -- trillium, loon, monarch -- names tend to slip from my memory ... It's the general, the trend, the feeling that somehow sticks with me."

The passage is cannily written, and succinctly sums up both the strengths and limitations of McKibben's approach. He doesn't offer the breathtaking knowledge or densely layered detail of a nature writer such as Barry Lopez, who makes us see more life teeming in a landscape than we could possibly have imagined. Though McKibben is far from "incompetent" when it comes to sketching an ecosystem, his special skill lies in placing himself on the level of his likely readers, who don't have to memorize the species of trillium or classify the calls of the loon to feel that these things matter. He knows that most of us amateur nature lovers do focus on the "general," the "trend" and the "feeling" when we make decisions: We recycle because clear-cuts are ugly; we buy local produce because we prefer a landscape of farmsteads to one of McMansions. To want to preserve a landscape, we first have to love it.

Accordingly, McKibben makes no attempt to hide his bias in favor of the region he describes in Wandering Home, one he jocularly calls "Adimont" and "the Verandacks." "To me," he writes, "this country on either side of Lake Champlain, though it has no name and appears on no map as a single unit, constitutes one of the world's few great regions, a place more complete, and more full of future promise, than any other spot in the American atlas."

The book's conceit is that McKibben is not just contemplating the "Verandacks" in the abstract; he's feeling them under his feet. Written for Random House's Crown Journeys -- a series of books in which acclaimed authors take the reader on "walking tours" -- the slim Wandering Home chronicles McKibben's three-week hike from his second home in Ripton to his first home in the dark heart of Adirondack Park, near Crane Mountain. Taken in high summer, McKibben's twisty walk is humid and bug-ridden, but it's no solitary vision quest. The author stops frequently to chat with friends, some of whom accompany him on legs of his journey.

From these carefully chosen encounters, McKibben's "big picture" emerges. It's one in which the Vermont and New York sides of the lake appear in different colors, the patchwork of pastoral culture and the deep green of wilderness. In Vermont, McKibben talks to people with "fascinating dreams, some of them fever dreams," about sustainable, locally based economies: a wine-maker, a "kingpin of hemp," Middlebury students wheedling money from the student government to grow organic vegetables.

On the other side of the lake, he hears from people who are intent on preserving the land in its "wild" state -- such as John Davis, a founder of the journal Wild Earth, who's using private philanthropy to create an intact forest corridor between the lake and the High Peaks. As McKibben sees it, the Adirondack and Vermont approaches to the landscape reflect a similar split in nature writing between gonzo wilderness defender Edward Abbey and Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry, who promoted a "communalist," pastoral ideal.

McKibben has perfected a writing style that mimics the up-and-down rhythms of speech, asserting and questioning, turning the reader into his hiking companion. "Do you see what I mean?" he asks, after walking us through the community-owned enterprises of Bristol. "People are trying things here." He's partial to starting sentences with "maybe" and to describing people and places with coy superlatives: John Davis is "in insanely good shape"; the Hudson is "drop-dead gorgeous"; a raft ride makes him feel "more or less perfect." The book often reads like an overgrown monologue from the National Public Radio show, "This American Life," and there's something a bit off-putting about being addressed so conversationally when you can't talk back.

Still, McKibben's chattiness keeps the book from getting solemn, and most readers will appreciate the way he mixes his heartfelt environmentalism with irreverence. Among the targets of his wry humor are Subarus -- "so nearly ubiquitous [in Vermont] that it's impossible to recognize your neighbor by his vehicle" and the fleets of 46ers climbing the High Peaks: "If you know an Adirondack summit is 3950 feet high, then you know you'll have it all to yourself."

McKibben can riff entertainingly on the contrasts between Lake Champlain's two cultures. But his love of the region comes through as he maintains that, despite their geographic, economic and cultural differences, the inhabitants of the lake's two shores need to stick together. McKibben acknowledges that the wilderness advocates, the Adirondack old-timers, and the hoeing college students all seem to stand on the losing side of history -- if by "history" we mean "the march of the big-box stores, the decline in the number of farmers," and the powerful lure of "More and Cheaper." But he also suggests that opposition isn't doomed, so long as it draws strength from its roots in a landscape. "[S]ometimes," he writes, "... history churns up its own countercurrents."