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Work and dreams

| Wednesday, November 11, 2015

“This is the easiest part of your job,” the editor assured me, setting a stack of books on my desk. “You need to give us three or four book reviews that we can use in the front section of the magazine.”

Part of my job as assistant editor at a petroleum industry trade magazine was to generate copy to help fill the non-technical portion of the journal. In addition to feature pieces and stories about recent and upcoming trade shows, book reviews would provide flexible column inches that could wax and wane depending on the sales department’s ability to peddle advertising. I mentioned that it would take a while to read all those books, but the editor smiled and said I did not actually have to read them. His advice: “Just take the synopsis off the dust jacket, slice and dice it, and you’ve got the review. Most of these are dry technical works, so don’t spend any more time than you need to.”

Looking over the books that got dropped off at my desk, I could see his point: 600- to 800-page tomes such as “Natural Gas Production Engineering,” “Chemistry of Asphaltenes” and “Dynamics of Fluids in Heirarchical Porous Media” were not likely to be optioned into feature films. I dutifully did as suggested and each month delivered a mound of serviceable reviews.

One day, a small book entered the stack, though its title was similar to many of the technical volumes: “Basin and Range” by John McPhee. At slightly more than 200 pages, it was a veritable pamphlet in this crowd.

The dust jacket provided enough information for a review, but this time, I dropped the book into my briefcase and took it home for a quick perusal. My boss had advised me to take the short path to get the job done, but I tend to follow Mark Twain’s maxim: “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” We might just be obliged to do whatever it takes to make work more like play.

Many of the books I reviewed were dense with charts and information about geology and fossils, but this was different. McPhee surveyed the American continent, interviewing and working alongside scientists who studied the rocky bones and hide of this country from New York to California. McPhee unearthed the poetry in the rocks, as read by professionals conversant with the slow and relentless forces that shape the planet: the stretching, folding, weathering, layering and tectonic powers molding the rocks of the earth.

McPhee worked up an appreciation of “deep time,” especially evident where a road-cut slices and exposes a hillside, exposing millions of years of mountain building, erosion, colliding crusts and volcanic events. Early in the book, McPhee summed up the wonder of this journey into deep time with this fact: “The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone.”

Mind blown, I finished the book in one sitting and wrote my review the next day. The editor was not thrilled. He told me, “It’s sort of long; cut it in half, and we’ll use it.” But I had an appreciation for a gifted writer’s ability to help us see the wonder in aspects of the world we otherwise might take for granted. The experience also made me hungry for more exhilarating non-fiction.

A few years later, I found the same sense of discovery and admiration for the skills of a great writer and guide to the natural world, in “Arctic Dreams” by Barry Lopez. Lopez’s work explores and explains the natural world in much the same way as McPhee, embedding the reader in Inuit hunting parties and scientific expeditions, but his approach is more spiritual and personal. This difference is more than a stylistic choice; it likely reflects his education in a Jesuit high school and at Notre Dame.

Lopez once described himself as “a writer who travels,” but he is adept at bringing the reader along through meticulous attention to detail and an obvious curiosity. To be significant, writers need to be honest and fearless, and Lopez provides an authentic narrative of nature as awe-inspiring yet desolate, uplifting and cruel, and shares his emotional responses to it all.

In an interview after the release of “Arctic Dreams,” he said, “What I am doing … is trying to bring language and landscape together in such a way that landscape can come to the fore as a metaphor as well as a reality.” As to how this impacts his work, Lopez explained that his life “is defined largely around issues of language and story and landscape … the way in which landscape is imperiled — by manipulation and attenuation to serve various political and economic policies — is almost indistinguishable from the way in which language and story are imperiled.”

His direct and scrupulous writing is essential for an honest witness and messenger of nature’s moral and spiritual lessons. Clearly Lopez is obliged to do this work, but it serves a greater purpose than securing a paycheck. As he explains, “Your work is your prayer.” Amen to that.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Raymond Ramirez

Ray Ramirez is an attorney practicing, yet never perfecting, law in Texas while waiting patiently for a MacArthur Genius Grant. You may contact him at [email protected]

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