Every year I find a few great books I want to tell people about, especially when (like most of what I read) they don’t make a splash on the popular book lists. These aren’t about photography—they’re about places—the geography, history, and spirit of some great landscapes. And getting to know great places is why I photograph, hike, botanize, or (if I can’t be in the field) explore old maps and Google Earth. So here are a couple of my favorite reads from 2016:
A Way Across the Mountain: Joseph Walker’s 1833 Trans-Sierran Passage and the Myth of Yosemite’s Discovery. Scott Stine. University of Oklahoma Press, 2015. In the summer of 1833, Joseph Walker (for whom the rivers, lake, community, and pass were later named) led a group of 58 men and more than 200 horses west from Salt Lake, crossing Nevada along what is now called the Humboldt River. They reached the steep eastern front of the Sierra Nevada in early October, toward the south end of what is now called Carson Valley. We know their route to this point fairly accurately from the journal of Zenas Leonard, a brigade clerk.
In 1876, Walker’s obituary celebrated his fame for leading this first party of explorers westward across the Sierra Nevada, which was a great achievement. But the obit and even his tombstone also claimed that his party had been the first white men to “discover” Yosemite Valley. This latter detail became Walker’s greatest claim to fame, as most historians for more than a century have perpetuated this part of the story without question, without further research, and, as it turns out, without much justification. Leonard’s documentation of their route across the Sierra Nevada is incomplete and short on details, but the survival of Walker, Leonard and the rest of the party (except for some of the horses) is remarkable, given the extreme physical hardships, harsh weather, and confusing topography they faced while crossing the Sierra, as fall turned to winter during what was still the “Little Ice Age.”
Scott Stine (with whom I had the pleasure of working on stream restoration plans in the Mono Basin in the mid-’90s), is a geomorphologist and paleoclimatologist who knows the central Sierra Nevada and western Great Basin well. He was not convinced about the Walker passage through Yosemite, so he examined Leonard’s journal objectively and in minute detail. In a brilliant synthesis of evidence as varied as geomorphology, plant identification, and the plausibility of distances traveled in a day, Stine has shown that Walker’s party came nowhere near Yosemite Valley. Instead, they crossed the mountains south of Lake Tahoe (which they didn’t see either), through . . . well, read the book to find out where. If you know the peaks, passes, valleys, and lakes south of the Tahoe Basin, this book will deepen your appreciation of that area.
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House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization across the American Southwest. Craig Childs. Little, Brown, 2008. Craig Childs examines another winely-held historical belief: that the “Anasazi,” or ancestral Puebloan peoples of Colorado, Utah, and Arizona “vanished” with hardly a trace in the 13th century. Childs takes us through his process of exploring scientific evidence, interviewing scholars and Native Americans, and studying rooms full of artifacts. He also walks extensively through a landscape of enormous cliffs, buttes, ridges, and canyons shaped by countless years of intense heat and cold and raging floods. He seeks to understand the feelings, fears, motivations, and culture of those early people by studying the archaeology while also deeply experiencing the places they inhabited, migrated through, and eventually fled. His conclusions integrate and also challenge scientific and popular ideas about the prehistory of the American southwest.
Other books by Childs that I didn’t want to end: Soul of Nowhere and The Secret Knowledge of Water.
Wishing you lots of good reading in 2017!