Changing the face of the wilderness

“A Hunger for High Country”

Susan Marsh

“The Adventure Gap”

James Edward Mills

A new year always fires up my optimism – in terms of both personal goals and big-picture dreams like world peace. So it’s no surprise that while in that frame of mind, I’ve discovered two new books that strike a similar chord between individual aspiration and social advancement.

Susan Marsh is a baby boomer who grew up in South King County at a time when the construction of I-5 was dozing through woods and old homesteads, SeaTac Airport was expanding, and Southcenter was sprouting up on what had been fields of beans.

As a young adult, Marsh fled the rapidly developing area to find more wild places, and a job in the U.S. Forest Service.

“A Hunger for High Country,” is her memoir of what life was like for the women coming into that agency in the 1960s and ’70s. It was a time when new employment laws were opening up traditionally male-dominated career paths in land management and new federal environmental protections were being implemented that often contradicted the customary way of doing things.

As one of the newcomers, Marsh encountered hostility to new ideas and outright sexism. Her dream assignment in Montana became hellish as she butted heads with her tradition-bound supervisor. Eventually, she found a more copacetic position in Wyoming – where she could start over with a better understanding of the forces she was up against.

Marsh is most compelling when she writes about the natural world around her. She laments that so many people today have walled themselves off from any experience in the wild.

Her plea for “[q]uiet, the precious commodity of our time,” and “authentic and individual experience… the practiced intimacy needed to grow a personal relationship with real places” is echoed by the second author I’d like to bring to your attention this week.

James Edward Mills is an African-American journalist specializing in environmental conservation, outdoor recreation, and – as proclaimed by the title of his new book – “The Adventure Gap.”

Before becoming a journalist, Mills had worked in the outdoor recreation industry for 20 years as an REI employee, a guide, and an outfitter. Perhaps even more profoundly than Marsh, he has felt like a fish out of water as he pursued his career.

Even more forcefully than Marsh, he worries about the skewed, mostly-white demographics of those who currently participate in outdoor adventure sports, and about the even smaller percentage of minorities in careers dedicated to environmental science and the preservation of nature.

That’s because the demographics are changing quickly and it’s estimated that in 30 years or less the majority of American citizens will be nonwhite.

“What happens,” Mills asks, “when a majority of the population has neither an affinity for nor a relationship with the natural world?”

This book cobbles together the stories of African-American outdoor adventurers, from the fabled Buffalo Soldiers to modern-day mountain climbers – people who can serve as role models to inspire other minorities to get out into the great outdoors.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.