Oregon State University Press
Corvallis, Or. 2002
120 pages, no index.
Carol Ann Bassett, the author of A Gathering of Stones and a professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, sure does get around. The book covers journeys to Ecuador, the Northwest Territories of Canada, the Mojave, the Kalahari Desert in Africa, and other outposts around the globe.
Bassett’s writing and subject matter appeals to the thoughtful traveler. In the first chapter, Calling Down the Moon, she offers a lucid explanation of the geologic evolution of the Sonora Desert, the birthing of the west, its plants, volcanoes and stones. Her writing is engaging, not always an easy task when explaining geology and botany.
A few of the journeys occurred a number of years ago and could have profited from factual updates. For example, in the compelling account of a 10-day shepherding trek across Arizona with immigrant Basque herders in 1986, Bassett skillfully captures the men’s wistful lonely life and their crusty exteriors. She reports that the men come from their Spanish Basque homelands to work a few years (or longer) on contract with the Western Ranger Association. It’s not revealed whether any of herders are working there now or whether other men are still arriving from Basque lands to herd in the American west.
Geoglyphs, which are rock alignments and giant figures created by indigenous peoples, are best seen from the air. Bassett describes some of these monuments in the Mojave located inside U.S. Army training compounds. Quite possibly the rock figures have been defaced by routine weapons firing. The rocks were sacred relics for first peoples of the lower Colorado River region, yet we don’t know the current condition of the rock alignments or whether scientists who want to study them are still forbidden entry to the military area. Such mindless institutional desecration is difficult to read about. Perhaps that is Bassett’s intent: to send the curious reader to the Internet to research the status of these cultural relics.
Bassett tackles the downside of nature tourism, which can deposit hundreds of visitors a day in fragile habitats such as the Galapagos Islands. She discusses the inveterate laxity of enforcement even though protective laws may be in place.
Though all of the chapters offer sleek writing about important subjects, the facts are sometimes left open ended. Perhaps this serves brevity, but the absence of fact grounding and updates reveals the previous incarnation of many of the chapters — as newspaper and magazine feature content for travel consumers hunting down fresh exotica. Collected in book format, the older journeys would be more meaningful for a contemporary reader if current conditions in these threatened regions had also been examined, at least as brief epilogues.
In the chapter Where Butterflies are Souls, Bassett paints a detailed portrait of the Tarahumara people and handily compares the Aztec Day of the Dead celebrations with a gloomy Catholic mass. This second largest (Navaho nation is larger) indigenous American population north of Mexico City experiences socio-cultural stress from clear-cutting of forests for lumber and abandonment of their traditional practices in favor of work in the lumber mills. Attentive readers will also get the message that the indigenous people are also affected by the intrusion of ethno-tourists who pack into eco-lodges to observe the Tarahumara ways.
In other chapters, Bassett bravely discusses the issue. Ethno tourism may provide survival revenue for tribal peoples near extinction, but at what cost? It is demeaning to the natives and tourists alike as the visiting westerners peer at household rituals of fire making, eating and washing. Are we to stop traveling, stop the momentum of progress?
Curious readers will want to do further research to investigate the outcomes of these threatened locations and peoples. The collection is a solemn drumbeat, a wake for vanishing people, regions and cultures.
Book review by L. Peat O’Neil was published in excellent book newspaper The Bloomsbury Review.
Peat O’Neil is a writing instructor and author of Travel Writing: See the World, Sell the Story published by Writer’s Digest Books.