Wednesday, April 16, 2008

John Soennichsen's "Live from Death Valley": Book Review

He attempts to capture "my reverence for Death Valley's geology, history, and harsh environment. It is a reverence conceived in naiveté, nourished through repeated exploration, and polished with the passage of time. It is the story of how this region helped construct my views on the environment, tourism, solitude, and religion, among other topics. It is part memoir and part adventure tale; part history and part coming-of-age story." (xiii) He compares the Valley to a harsh mistress whom he still loves. One who "did not seek to hide its appearance with vegetative cosmetics, did not adorn itself in soft and sumptuous outer garments or employ subtly filtered lighting or cool desert breezes the tempt my senses." (xii) Not all the narrative, wisely, emerges from such extended metaphors. These are deployed sparingly, for maximum effect.

He knows the power of the fanciful placenames we use to try to account for Death Valley's weird formations. Our attempt to play Adam shows both our bold confidence that we can control nature, and our failure to understand the ineffable forces that outlast us. Our naming reveals their power over us far beyond what words can convey. Nevertheless, he tries in a variety of registers to explain some of the fascination that this territory's provoked in him and within a few hardy, or deluded, people over the past century and a half.

William Lewis Manly's tale-- as retold skillfully by Soennichsen-- of his fellow pioneers who took what would become a fatal short cut for some in their party in 1949-50 (ironically a much wetter winter and more forgiving climate than usual) here's interspersed with chapters on the geology and desiccation, the mining and pioneer days, the unpredictable weather, the flora and fauna, the crazy folks, The Devil's Racetrack mystery of gliding boulders, more crazy folks, his earlier forays into danger, burros, and what can be seen off the main roads that circle the National Park. Unfailingly, he gives enough insight into his own experiences without getting bogged down in superfluous details from the rest of his life.

He selects only what's appropriate to illuminate the Valley, from his point of view, and supplements it sparingly but deftly with the records from history and fellow sojourners. I sensed that much more could have been told about the mining camps in particular, but other guides and academic works did this. The context, nonetheless, for such efforts as the 20-Mule Borax Mule Team that in turn spawned the now-nearly forgotten (he makes an aside to it) "Death Valley Days" show by Ronald Reagan before he entered 60's politics remained undernourished. Yet, we can find out more in longer, or less accessible, works. He appends a short list of sources selected, but I would have liked much more annotation or specific suggestions for other media. (There's a URL given on the dust jacket with www. plus the main title of his book as a single word plus dot-com; I tried it today and found a dead link, however.)

This book earns five stars for its clear prose, careful composition, and thoughtful analysis of this infamous expanse. Although the cover and titular typeface make it at first look less than the well-informed investigation that the contents reveal, and the lack of a usable map or representative photos do detract unfortunately from my perfect rating overall, this book's recommended. The photos tended to be rather indistinct, as if random snaps, and did not depict the splendor or strangeness of the sights his words witness.

I admit a bit of confusion. He cites verbatim the dangers of dessication from Richard Lingenfelter's standard history, while he contradicts what Lingenfelter asserts on the previous page of "Death Valley & the Amargosa": that the Shoshone term "Tomesha" did not mean what Soennichsen in his own introduction's first sentence asserts: "Ground on Fire." (xi; cf. Lingenfelter 1986: 11-13--also reviewed by me here and on Amazon.) Lingenfelter traces this false "Paiute" etymology to a 1907 "one-liner" from a geologist. Lingenfelter gives "Coyote Rock" as the probable Shoshone derivation from what was once the largest Indian village there. Thus, as both authors agree, the mythic and the illusive certainly reign over the landscape.

Speaking of placenames, Soennichsen's map, while it reminded me of an affectionate sketch one might take away from an insider who shares his own points of interest on a napkin with you after a long conversation in a local bar near the Valley, on small paper's too cramped and idiosyncratic to serve the curious reader wishing for more precision and an easier comprehension of the many sites referred to in the text.

Yet, these remain minor faults compared with the book's strengths. I admired Soennichsen's style, both as a thinker and a chronicler of his beloved realm. For roughly four decades, as he sums up his book's scope, he's been roaming when he could these quiet lands, preparing to tell the tales in this brief, lively, but serious record of what lurks beyond the myths of this often forbidding, yet coyly inviting, place.

He's edited this efficiently told collection of interrelated essays down, I estimate, from a larger work, and the discipline in crafting his reflections shows in the meditative, yet never dull, pace. With touches of self-deprecation, memories of lots of beer in coolers, and the right amount of anecdotes, he tells entertaining yet educational stories. As with Edward Abbey's "Desert Solitaire," this updates the ancient wonder of the American desert for our times; Soennichsen has the advantage of moving further west than Abbey into what still seems to me a Mojave that has lacked the attention from nature writers that it deserves and earns in the hands of such earlier efforts as the late Colin Fletcher's "A Thousand-Mile Summer."

Soennichsen's final chapter accomplishes this feat of verbal reclamation best. Without revealing why I think his night in Surprise Canyon proved so apt a name for such an encounter as the one he relates, he also cocks a sober eye towards our hubris and chides our refusal-- in a wilderness that often punishes the foolhardy visitor-- to respect the limits that such a desert represents to all of us who drag motorhomes and generators out there into the silence. We wish to see Mother Nature from the comforts of only our frigid automobile window, or perhaps after tearing it up under our 4WD's spattered windscreen. Without getting sanctimonious or hypocritical, he marvels at relentless human endeavor to tame such an awesome place. Also, he elicits respect for the hidden places that should not be domesticated.

I did not expect the penultimate pages of this little book to end with a chapter citing Sartre, but it's again testimony to Soennichsen's skill that he can integrate a profound observation into his own reflections without it coming off as showing off. At Chris Wicht's Panamint camp, he finds intimations that connect with Wordsworth's "inward eye which is the bliss of solitude." (qtd. 168) Our existential solitude, as he learns one midnight, takes us into our minds as the most mysterious of all our landscapes, where even Death Valley may look tamer by psychic comparison.

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

1 comment:

Fionnchú said...

This was e-mailed to me today. Thanks very much. I post it for you too. You can find out more about John S. and his new research via his links that he's made to his "Live From Death Valley" book listing on Amazon US.

Dear Dr. Murphy -

I just wanted to thank you for your thoughtful, well-written and - most important - complimentary review of my book, "Live from Death Valley!" I have been overjoyed to receive nothing but praise for the book over the past few years, and I did truly appreciate your comments. I hope you will also take time to read my next book, Bretz's Flood, which comes out this fall.
This is a biography rather than a series of essays, but is nonetheless an interesting look at a geological region as fascinating to me as DV, not to mention the story of a stubborn geologist in the 1920s who insisted that a
massive flood had occurred, despite a high level of protestation from the rest
of geological community in his day.

Again, thanks for your review. I enjoyed reading it!
John Soennichsen