By Lisa Runyon
While snuggled in our cabin on New Year’s Day, our son asked what books my husband and I read last year. It took some time to recall all the titles, but I finally had my reading log. Then I reflected on the question I asked my students as they looked at their logs, “What do you notice?” Hmmm, I could beef up the quality of my fiction choices, no doubt. Then I studied my favorite non-fiction choices: The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick, Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer, and Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free by Hector Tobar. These are some heavy-duty choices! Why do I love those books?
As I thought about my favorite non-fiction choices, I realized most of them centered on the conflict “Man vs. Nature.” What? How can a Master Naturalist be drawn to books that pit us against nature? That is very UNnaturalist! Slowly it dawned on me – I love being outside, hiking in a forest or desert, rafting a wild river, swimming in the ocean, or climbing a mountain. And yet, every minute I’m outside, buried in the pit of my stomach, I know my adventure can go horribly wrong. When I read this type of non-fiction, I relive that tension as I put myself in the place of the characters. I can relate to their helplessness as they grapple with the sheer power of Mother Nature. I am in awe of Her power and their bravery.
If you’re ready to live vicariously, I suggest you start with my absolute top pick in the “Man vs. Nature” category, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey. I love how the author, Candice Millard, made Theodore Roosevelt come to life. This isn’t a dry historical novel! She goes to the trouble of developing Roosevelt’s state of mind so the reader can understand what drove him to explore The River of Doubt, one of the last uncharted tributaries of the Amazon River. This is the kind of challenge Roosevelt can’t resist, especially as a way to recover from his embarrassing presidential defeat. You may grow weary waiting for Teddy’s adventure to begin, but without some background on TR, his family, and circle of well-meaning friends and guides, I don’t think we could appreciate the magnitude of their endeavor. Be patient!
Once the expedition kicks off, it doesn’t take long before the group encounters problems. Too much weight on too few animals. Deciding what to keep and what to leave behind. Deciding WHO to keep and who to leave behind! Can we relate to not having the right gear for the job? Oh yes! The men on this expedition went so far as to carve their own canoe when their ill-suited boats were smashed or washed downstream. Numerous waterfalls on the river lead to unexpected delays, and even death, as the men portage their boats and gear. The delays mount and soon food is running low. Hunting trips rarely yield food, the animals are so well camouflaged. Fishing? The River of Doubt rarely gives. Soon malaria plagues the group, especially TR’s son, Kermit. The list of obstacles goes on and on until you are left wondering if this perilous journey will ever end. I was exhausted by the end of the book and I didn’t even take a step!
I hope you will consider reading this novel or one of my other favorites. What’s next on my reading list? Why more man vs. nature choices – Endurance by Alfred Lansing or David Welky’s A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In search of the Last Arctic Frontier. Time to leave the jungle behind!