Fall Books '98 

Wilkinson's tales of political courage in the New West


Science Under Siege
Todd Wilkinson
Johnson Books

I picked up Todd Wilkinson's new book for the worst of reasons. As a journalist, I felt obligated to read the Bozeman writer's paperback account of "combat" scientists working for the federal government, Science Under Siege. In reading Wilkinson, I was studying up, as it were.

I wanted to get a handle on the challenges faced by bureaucrats and scientists alike as they hammer out the laws of the land. The last thing I expected from Wilkinson-a veteran journalist who has written for the Christian Science Monitor, High Country News, Backpacker magazine and many other publications-was an inspirational account of the dangers and pitfalls faced by government scientists.

But the fact remains, Science Under Siege is not entirely about science. In his first book, rather, Wilkinson takes on the human soul, delving into the hearts of men and women who find their professional lives at odds with their sense of morality. He chronicles the struggle of biologists, herpetologists and speleologists to reconcile a commitment to ethics with their unwritten job descriptions.

In so doing, he gives voice to those who act as a voice for the planet. And because his subjects have all stood tall in the face of adversity, Wilkinson's book is, in many ways, primarily about the triumph of the natural world.

It's a surprising feat. Wilkinson is a prolific writer, whose past work as a journalist has been often well-researched but rarely fiery. In the past, I've had the impression that he values what he has to say more than the prose itself-which is not all bad. As Missoula author Dick Manning once told me, "the surest way to write a bad book is to write an angry book."

And like Manning, who found success with his most recent book One Round River, about the Blackfoot River, Wilkinson scores with just the right combination of informed outrage and skillful reporting. If there's any faulting the book, it's that Wilkinson seems to take a couple of chapters to get warmed up to his anger.

But when he gets going, a nearly poetic command of language complements these stories of indignation, insult and injury.

Wilkinson makes a convincing argument that despite all the government's environmental impact statements and biological assessments, money remains most often the deciding factor when it comes down to public agencies' rulings on the environment. The term "combat biologist" itself comes from the politically-charged atmosphere that pervades public lands debates. In these conversations, decisions about the impacts of logging, mining and more carry implications far beyond what can be seen under a microscope-and often management decisions are made with an eye on keeping industry fat cats happy.

Many government scientists work within this combat paradigm, but those Wilkinson profiles refuse to. It's the combined stories of their personal struggles that gives Science Under Siege its value. Reminiscent of Noam Chomsky's analysis of the media's coverage of Central American issues in the '80s, Wilkinson's chapters add up to a framework for understanding the way environmental bureaucracies work.

Subjects most often discussed in obtuse language, in articles relegated to obscure science journals, get compelling treatment from Wilkinson. At the heart of this book is a love story. Love for frogs, passion for caves, enduring fascination with the desert. After the chapter on herpetologist David Ross' struggle with Utah politicians, my mind reeled with images of the teeming life that the Wasatch Front outside of Salt Lake City once supported:

"In the evenings, egrets, herons, cranes, and other wading birds sailed into the backwater sloughs, ornamented with the domes of beaver lodges, to feed upon, among other animals, frogs, toads and salamanders. Lining the large river channels were cottonwood galleries, and at the foot of the mountains more grassy marshes and dark, sheltering pools. At night amphibians ratcheted up their primordial symphony. In this desert containing frogs and clean water, [Brigham] Young must have known he had reached a promise land."

Few of those in this book think of themselves as environmentalists. Most are like spelunker Ronal Kerbo and hydrologist Ben Lomeli, whose respective connections to caves and desert rivers began in childhood, or Howard Wilshire, who after three decades with the United States Geological Survey, was forced to choose between his career with the government and his wife's in retribution for bucking the system.

According to Wilkinson, Wilshire was staid, competent and apolitical when he became inspired by Neil Armstrong's famous first step on alien ground. He writes: "On July 20, 1969, at roughly the same moment that Apollo astronauts touched down on the moon, Wilshire was sitting beneath the stars in the Mojave Desert listening to a crackling portable radio.

"Leaning over to gently scoop a bit of crust from the sun-scoured ground northeast of Los Angeles, the then-fortysomething geologist began thinking of possible parables between his world and the lunar mysteries awaiting Apollo 11.

"Eventually he and his colleagues at the U.S.G.S. offices in Menlo Park came to a remarkable conclusion. They theorized that it might take a million years before the virgin footprints of Neil Armstrong... were erased from the face of the moon."

From that point, Wilshire made the choice to take on the off-road vehicle industry, arguing against machines that tear into ancient, fragile soil and render huge swathes of land lifeless.

In this manner, Wilkinson has written an important book. Like the characters he portrays, this is also brave book. It will put fire in your belly and an anger in your heart that will be a long time leaving you.

Trills and more mark Siler's accomplished debut


Easy Money
Jenny Siler
Henry Holt

"I stand staring at the weathered door for a moment, reasoning with myself. A town along the Bassac called Chau Doc. A thirty-year-old letter with the word HMONG typed in black ink. A truck with Colorado license plates. An old junkie ex-Seal in a battered trailer. A farm without crops. Only the barest thread connects them, but it is all that I have. I knock on the front door and wait."

Allie Kerry, the protagonist of Missoula author Jenny Siler's debut novel, Easy Money, is a young woman who has come to terms with herself. Motherless at the age of three, she has long befriended and taken care of her father, a drug smuggler in Key West, a man haunted by his past as a special operative in Vietnam, involved in covert CIA menace behind the lines. Allie's kicked "one of the greatest love affairs with cocaine," and gotten herself out of a darkly passionate relationship with her current boss.

Allie's a driver, a courier, mostly of drugs, but the package hasn't been important until now. As Easy Money opens, a top ranking CIA official dies mysteriously, Allie learns of her father's death, and is offered a ride that will pay more than she's ever made.

"Money like this is what we all hope for. Money like this could give me direction, or at least a nice long vacation, during which I could collect my thoughts."

In Bremerton, Washington, the pickup goes wrong. A soon-to-be-dead man slips a computer disk into Allie's back pocket, and Allie becomes the hunted-by whom, for what, she doesn't know. She lights out in her Mustang, with several guns and a photograph of her father, the disk, fake passports, hair dye, colored contact lenses, and a thick stack of license plates hidden in the floor.

Easy Money is subtitled, "a Thriller," and Siler paces the book expertly. It's taut, never contrived, and revelations unfold throughout as naturally as consequences will. Among the contents on the disk is a 1969 topographical map of Vietnam. Woven through the plot are tragic secrets of the war, and the "survivors," characters whose lives have been wracked by the horror they went and still go through. Siler draws a wonderfully melancholy portrait of cross-dressing ex-SEALS, Miss Darwin and Miss Kiki, who wear stiletto heels in their trailer outside Platteville, and call Allie "baby girl."

Layered in with this sad intrigue are fresh emotional passages, elevating Easy Money beyond the plot and pacing of a thriller into the realm of a meditative novel. The thoughts Allie Kerry gathers and makes sense of while diving out of the reach of the killers are lyrical descriptions, not only of diving and investigating the waters of Key West, but of her mother, "an oddly shadowy collection of smells and movements not quite to real to miss." Fragments of scenes with Joey, her ex-lover and current boss, mix with ruminations on the beauty and ruin of cocaine, and form a collage of addiction. And from her father's mysterious sorrow emerges the driving power of Allie's own grief.

"The small things we lose in our lives, a forgotten sock, a comb, become the habitations of other animals, so that somewhere in Saigon or Hanoi a sparrow might be laying her eggs on a lock of my father's hair or the torn sleeve of his coat."

Allie Kerry enters several histories in a sense, learning some awful secrets of the country's, her father's and her own, and loss emerges as a motivation. As Allie discovers what's on the disk and who's chasing her, the novel incorporates the personal journey. Among many things, Easy Money is a road book, and Siler uses her eye and ear for detail flawlessly, vividly setting scenes with a sentence, all the way from brisk Missoula, late at night in The Ox, to lush, watery Key West, a place of monkey trees, banana plants, and "the rigid red bodies of mating palmettos."

One of the beauties of first novels is that readers get all the images and ideas the novelist has collected thus far. Not only has Siler studied her thrillers, but she's got a rich and interesting range of experiences to draw from. Easy Money delivers.

Bitterroot adventurer Jon Turk spins gold from misfortunes


Cold Ocean
Jon Turk
Harper Collins

There's nothing quite like picking up the account of a self-confessed three-time loser and discovering traces of one's own personality strewn throughout his tales of mayhem and failure. But that's just what happened when I picked up Cold Oceans: Adventures in Kayak, Rowboat, and Dogsled by Jon Turk, an author who makes his home in Darby in the Bitterroot Valley.

Turk is an adventurer of sorts, a former chemist with a penchant for surviving trouble and remaining undaunted by the unlikelihood of success. His new book, which joins the growing ranks of non-fiction adventure tales, finds a remarkably palatable balance between self-discovery and gripping danger. Think of John Krakauer's Into Thin Air, a tale of tragedy on Mount Everest, written by a true idiosyncratic, and you may glimpse the unconscious irony which shadows Turk's prose like a seal veiled by ice in the Arctic.

In the '70s, long before sponsors had been charmed by endurance challenges, Turk attempts a several hundred mile solo kayak trip around the southern-most trip of Chile. Then, just as he is about to reach his destination, Turk gets caught in a storm, loses his boat and can't complete the trip.

This is life for Turk, who with each section of the book embarks on a more and more obtuse trek, attempting to row across the frozen north shore of Canada through the Northwest Passage, and trying to dog sled across the wintry Arctic tundra. In the meantime, he tries to raise his estranged kids, woos the woman who would become his wife, and discovers that the destination may not be the most satisfying part of the journey.

In his words, "I can trace the events that led me to Cape Horn, the Northwest Passage, the east coast of Baffin Island, and northwest Greenland. But I can't tell you why an offhand joke told in a bar over a third pitcher of beer propelled me toward some of the coldest, wettest, most remote regions of the earth."

Fortunately, Turk's accounts suffice as an explanation for why he puts himself to the test time and again. As he struggles to comprehend his itinerant tendencies, the reader gets to sit back, and thank goodness that Turk has undertaken these trips without us. Anybody who has ever gotten stuck in a rainstorm or lost on a camping trip will muster sympathy for him, but wanting to tag along is beyond comprehension.

Adding to the book's pleasures are the twinned talents Turk, a trained scientist, has as an observer and an explainer. He offers history and science lessons throughout, and retells excellent condensed versions of the adventures had by his predecessors.

When it comes to his heroes-be they indigenous peoples or eccentric European explorers-Turk finds unlikely allies. But the truth is, for the reader, Turk becomes a strange hero himself, a sort of Charlie Brown for the adrenaline set. As he learns to tailor his expectations and think according to the land, as he puts it, what emerges is a man who spends so much time trying to getting lost that he finally becomes found.

Early in the book, he writes: "I thought of that day, after my shipwreck, when I sat on the hillside above Puerto Toro, happy to laze in the sunshine, free of my obsession to round the Horn, Why couldn't I domesticate that happiness? It lived inside me somewhere. Where did the anger, ambition, and frustration reside? Maybe I could lure those pesky emotions into a hidden crevice and then roll a rock over the entrance so they'd die slowly of thirst and hunger."

Such a passage prompts a glimpse into the honesty with which Turk faces his own self-doubts, and provides a model for decent living, ultimately. Thus, he wins the reader's trust and confidence, and finally our cheers when he finds success at the end of the book.

So it is doubly ironic that Turk was forced to write this book, in part, because he was confined to bed following a ski accident. Nonetheless, as with most of Cold Oceans, the author's suffering makes for the reader's gain.""

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