An Earth Day Read
Destination: the World
“Tourism’s hyperbole to the contrary, there are very few “timeless” places left on the planet.” Eugene Linden.
Surely anyone afflicted with an addiction to travel will envy the itinerary of Eugene Linden‘s life. This is the sort of book that convinces people that travel writers lead glamorous and exciting lives. The important thing about Linden’s travel, though, is not the sheer joy of exploring far-flung places, but the intellectual journeys that motivated his jet-away life.
With Earth Day coming next Sunday, this seems a perfect time to share a new and thought-provoking book by Linden, who has written for more than forty years about the natural world and the intersection of modern civilization with the primitive. Reading The Ragged Edge of the World reminded me of how easily we are lulled into the sense that we are doing all we can if we use our towels more than once and check to see if hotels have LEED certification. The environmental problems that we face are so large that it is tempting to throw one of those towels over our head and wait for someone to do something. And that is where Linden’s experiences come in.
Fear not, The Ragged Edge of the World does not preach. In fact, rather than overwhelming with unsoluble problems, he shares the human experiences he had as he wrote for publications like National Geographic, Time, and Smithsonian. These are the stories about getting the story–the small incidents that did not fit into the assignments or books.
His travels have taken him (and thus this book takes the reader) to Borneo, central Africa, Papua New Guinea, the Bering Strait, Easter Island, Midway Islands and to the Amazon Basin in Peru to name a few exotic locales. We have heard the stories from here about vanishing species, vanishing ice, vanishing islands, and vanishing traditional cultures before. But the book also surprises by going to Cuba. And Yellowstone National Park. And Vietnam.
In Vietnam he finds species of animals previously unknown to science, and surviving pockets of plants and animals believed to be extinct. The same thing is true of Cambodia because the effect of lengthy war has been to keep people out of large areas, leaving the ecosystem in tact. But what thrills scientists has been known to locals for a long time, albeit in a different context. Animals that “may be a heady tonic for scientists,” Linden says, maybe “for the local hunters these animals were just a meal.”
One of Linden’s specialties is studying the loss of native knowledge as civilization encroaches. In Borneo, he learns that the Penan tribe watched for a certain butterfly which heralded the best time to hunt wild boar. But with children going away to school and forgetting traditional knowledge, people are forgetting the importance of the connection. Multiply this by indigenous knowledge lost around the world, and the result is a great scientific loss to those studying the interrelations of ecology.
And civilization changes native peoples in other ways. In New Guinea he was told that carvers had reduced the size of traditional carvings so that tourists could fit them in a suitcase. That reminds me of the way that the tourist trade influenced the development of Navajo rugs and pueblo pottery in the Southwest. While Linden is careful to point out that he does not want to deprive the indigenous people of the opportunity to better themselves, he mourns the loss of tradition. Items once made for religious purposes change irreparably when they become souvenirs and gradually understanding of the original purpose is lost.
Linden is particularly fascinated by what he finds in Cuba. His description of the natural wonders in a chapter entitled “The Lost Worlds of Cuba” makes you want to expand your Cuban itinerary beyond Havana and the beaches, but his coverage of the island goes beyond mere travelogue. He finds promise in the fact that Cuba, unlike the communist countries in Europe, has protected the environment and unique species and landscape. An amazing 22% of the country is set asside in parks or bioreserves. Linden acknowledges the problems of Cuba, but finds lessons that might profit the rest of us.
While stipulating that economic hardship and the rigors of a police state have inflicted untold hardship on Cubans, it remains the only geographically accessible tropical island in the world that has escaped the curse of ribbon development…alongside roads.
Interestingly, as the developed world faces shortages of oil and the need to find alternative energy sources, Cuba has for 50 years had to make do with less and utilizes solar power and other non-fossil fuel sources. But regardless of whether the rest of the world wishes to learn anything from Cuba, we can hope that a post-Castro Cuba will at least continue to protect its unique and beautiful ecosystem.
After sharing his explorations of the far corners of the world, Linden proposes his own solution to environmental problems. His program has problems, mostly because he glosses over the difficulty of securing the cooperation of those who profit form degradation–loggers, miners, corrupt officials who depend on bribes, wagers of war. But as he challenges:
That’s my idea. What’s yours?
I have skimmed quickly over his ideas and his visits to each of these countries, but as I read, I thought of people who would be fascinated by certain chapters, in addition to all who have traveled there or want to. Beth Whitman, of Wanderlust and Lipstick, who leads tours there, would love the New Guinea passages. Margaret Randall, whose poetry and photography book about Rapa Nui I reviewed would like that chapter, but also be fascinated with the thoughts about her old home, Cuba. Donna Hull, of My Itchy Travel Feet, who longs for a trip to Antarctica would like that chapter. How about you? Which of Linden’s travel locales would you like to read about or visit?
Amazon links in my posts allow you to more easily shop for the books we discuss. But I also make a few cents which helps maintain A Traveler’s Library. It doesn’t matter what you buy once you get there, and it doesn’t cost y0u any more, so why not do all of you Amazon shopping through my links? If you want to know more about the photos and the photographers, click on an image. They all come from Flickr and are used with a Creative Commons License.