Peter White Public Library’s non-fiction book group called The Human Condition meets on the third Wednesday of each month. We discuss stories of survival and adventure, frequently with a multicultural, spiritual, or philosophical approach. Here are a few of our recent reads.
A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art by Carl Hoffman
Michael Rockefeller was the youngest son of massive wealth and power who, after graduating from Harvard, headed as far from civilization as possible on a quest for indigenous art. Many of the natives in New Guinea were still warring cannibals at that time. Rockefeller disappeared in 1961, never to be found, after his boat capsized. “Savage Harvest” is a tremendously compelling read from cover to cover. Author Carl Hoffman, a contributing editor at National Geographic Magazine, entwines travel journalism-style reporting of his recent excursions to remote villages in New Guinea, with a painstakingly-researched account of Rockefeller’s disappearance. Hoffman uncovers a plausible solution to the mystery. Correspondences suppressed by Church missionaries, as well as a chilling confession on the final page, seem to confirm a worst-possible theory about an unthinkable demise for the young Rockefeller. Favorite quote: “Those who began swarming into the exotic world, however, were not just acquiring inanimate objects, but walking into something else entirely: a potentially dangerous world of spirits who could make them sick or even kill them, of secrets and meanings whose language they didn’t speak, whose symbols they didn’t understand, and where life and death, literally, hung in the balance.
Writer John Vaillant traveled to the remote taiga (boreal forest) environment of Amur, Siberia, near China. He documents the efforts of a small group of government game wardens tasked with tracking down a man-eating Amur tiger. These tigers are the largest cats on earth, and a threatened species on the verge of extinction, especially in corrupt, economically-depressed, post-Soviet Siberia. Vaillant’s protagonist is tough yet warm-hearted tracker Yuri Trush, tasked with hunting a particularly ferocious tiger which stalked and killed local hunter Markov. The charm of the book lies in skillful descriptions of the environment, and the fact that populations of humans and tigers have coexisted for millennia. Massively enjoyable is the skill with which Vaillant keeps the reader in suspense as the group closes in on the killer beast, an extremely intelligent animal with an almost supernatural ability to stalk its unlucky prey. Favorite quote: “Fear is not a sin in the taiga, but cowardice is.”
Kira Salak is a National Geographic contributing editor who paddled an inflatable canoe alone for 600 miles up the Niger River in Mali, Africa. In 2004 Salak was inspired to complete the unfinished travels of Scottish explorer Mungo Park, who died trying to discover the source of the Niger in 1806. She details her encounters with shamanic fortunetellers, ferocious storms, and exceedingly patriarchal Islamic villagers. Interestingly, Peter White Public Library screened the recent film “Timbuktu”, which dramatizes the dreadful changes brought on by the recent spread of Islamist groups in the same region. Favorite quote: “Hardship brings us closer to truth, and thus is more difficult to bear, but from it alone comes compassion. And so I've told the world that it can do what it wants with me during this trip if only, by the end, I have learned something more. A bargain then. The journey, my teacher.”
Vietnam veteran Claude Anshin Thomas experienced the hell of combat during his service as an Army helicopter gunner, only to return to experience the dreadful symptoms of PTSD, homelessness, and addiction. In his book At Hell’s Gate he describes the turning points in his life toward sobriety and healing, as he eventually achieves ordination as a Zen Buddhist monk by noted teacher Bernie Glassman. For the past two decades Anshin has undertaken pilgrimages on foot, including walking all the way from the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland to Vietnam. He has hiked from coast to coast across the United States twice, and regularly holds Buddhist lectures and retreats for veterans with PTSD. The most important lesson Anshin describes is that each of us carries the seeds of violence and war within, and that a personal transformation is essential if the world is to know any semblance of peace. Favorite quote: “I have to do things differently. But I cannot think myself into a new way of living, I have to live myself into a new way of thinking.”
John Vaillant appears on this list again with a fantastic analysis of a truly bizarre and tragic occurrence. In 1997 logger-turned-activist Grant Hadwin single-handedly cut down a rare 165-foot-tall Sitka spruce tree with a chainsaw on an island off the coast of British Columbia. Vaillant spends a good portion of the book detailing the mythology and history of the Pacific Northwest Haida tribe, and the lumber industry that developed with the arrival of European settlers. Just why would anyone chop down such a beautiful and rare tree? One man’s rage over the senseless clear-cutting of old-growth forests caused him to go over the edge. Vaillant’s analysis carves deep into the subject. Favorite quote, on the topic of deforestation: “It is an eccentric and uniquely human approach to resources: like plowing under your farmland to make way for more lawns, or compromising your air quality in exchange for an enormous car.
By Jeremy Morelock