Vision Quest

Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche
Bill Plotkin
New World Library, 2003

I dare you to read this book, especially if your first reaction to the title is similar to mine: No Way. Once you get past the psychological ew Age lingo, there’s a wealth of tools both practical and conceptual for reconnecting deeply with nature and for finding that unique contribution no one else can bring to the world. The starting point: “Contemporary society has lost touch with soul and the path to psychological and spiritual maturity, or true adulthood. Instead, we are encouraged to create lives of predictable security, false normality, material comfort, bland entertainment, and the illusion of eternal youth.” Can’t argue with that.
Plotkin weaves strands from mythology, psychology, the initiation practices of nature-based cultures, his own experiences, and the stories of contemporary Western “vision questers.” The result is a compelling invitation to descend into the unknown, followed by a surprisingly detailed map of the terrain that might be encountered and an abundance of clues, encouragements, and helpful hints.
Though the soul’s journey is explained in psychological terms, this language is a bridge across Western Civilization rather than the reductive exercise sometimes performed on the beliefs of nature-based cultures. Don’t worry, you can trust this guy. For instance, Plotkin’s perspective on the practice of interpreting the meaning of encounters with animal spirits veers sharply from psychological truism: “Interpreting an imagery animal would be like responding rudely to someone who knocks at your front door: without saying a word to them, you give them a quick once-over, close the door, and ask yourself, ‘I wonder what that meant?’” Instead, he encourages readers to cultivate relationships with the animals, plants, places, and forces that present themselves, and offers creative techniques for doing so.
Anyone who spends time in wild places, who observes birds and animals, who listens to water or watches clouds, will find this book an invaluable guide along a journey already underway. Anyone else needs this book even more, and will find here paths both gentle and extremely steep for entering that land where our truest selves and wild nature are one indivisible mystery. Soulcraft shows us how to listen more accurately to what is most important: “What nature has to say is the necessary complement to what we hear all day long from news, ads, and social chatter. To save our souls, we need nature’s news.” —Gina Covina


American Bison
Dale F. Lott
UC Press, 2003

This book is a surprise. Proclaiming itself a natural history, it is exactly that: in clear, persuasive prose, Dale Lott describes bison behavior, ancestry, and history on the Great Plains and east of the Mississippi and west of the Rockies. To say Lott knows his subject is an understatement—as an animal behaviorist, he’s spent years observing bison, and he grew up among them as well; his father was superintendent of the National Bison Range. Lott delights in exploding myths—he tells how Native Americans managed the herds and how population estimates were made before the great hide hunt. He places bison within a community, painting vivid pictures of their neighbors: prairie dogs, buffalo birds, coyotes, and others. Lott offers competing explanations of behavior, so each chapter becomes a fascinating mystery; his essay on wolves is a jewel. His focus inevitably turns to management and ends with a plea for a Great Plains Park. It is so apparent by then that bison are far better suited to the Plains than cattle ever were that this goal seems like a return to sanity. —Linnea Due


Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity
Eric R. Pianka and Laurie J. Vitt
UC Press, 2003

The companion volume to Harry Greene’s Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature, this handsome book covers lizard evolution, behavior, ecology, and conservation and describes each of 21 families, from iguanas to monitors.
The photographs are amazing: all the crests, throat flaps, startling colors, tesselated scales. Some of the most baroque bodies—those of the North American horned lizards and the Australian thorny devil—turn out to have an elegantly functional logic.
The authors—University of Texas’ Eric Pianka and University of Oklahoma’s Laurie Vitt—are not just authorities; they’re enthusiasts. Both were kids who brought live creatures home, and in humorous sidebars throughout the text, they recount adventures in the field that often end with the herpetologist getting bitten, clawed, or thwacked by a flailing tail. Undeterred, they keep going back to the deserts and rain forests to learn more about these remarkable beasts. —Joe Eaton


Introduction to Trees of the San Francisco Bay Region
Glenn Keator
UC Press, 2003

UC Press keeps churning out new titles in its California Natural History Guide series—pocket-sized, durably bound volumes covering the state’s flora, fauna, geology, and weather.
Three recent guides deal with botanical subjects. The nearest to a conventional field guide is Glenn Keator’s Introduction to Trees of the San Francisco Bay Region. Keator, a Bay Area botanist, writer, and environmental educator with a shelf of natural history and gardening books to his credit, gives each tree species a capsule description that may include its ecological role and historic uses, identification tips, and where to see it in the wild. In addition to native trees, naturalized aliens—including such recent arrivals as the Chilean mayten—are covered. One minor gripe: the species accounts are arranged alphabetically by the Latin names of plant families, so if you don’t know that oaks belong in the family Fagaceae, you might have a hard time finding the tree you’re after. —Joe Eaton

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