'Satellites in the High Country,' Mills College Book Art Program Threatened, and Upcoming Book Events

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Oakland environmental journalist Jason Mark, whose new book explores the state of wilderness in the Anthropocene. (Photo: Micah Baird )

Review: 'Satellites in the High Country,' by Jason Mark

Teddy Roosevelt, the former U.S. president who reinvented himself as a rugged outdoors man, once described the wolf as the "beast of waste and desolation." On reading Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man by environmental journalist Jason Mark, it's obvious that humanity's destructive influence on the natural world far outweighs any waste and desolation caused by the poor, maligned wolf. It's also clear that humans need the wilderness, and everything it entails, now more than ever before.

Mark arrived at the writing of the book -- a collection of essays about our conflicted relationship to the wild in the Anthropocene epoch -- on impeccable credentials. Recently announced as the new editor of Sierra Magazine, he's also the cofounder of Alemany Farm, a 3.5-acre organic farm in southeast San Francisco. Mark, who lives in Oakland, is an avid backpacker, lover of wilderness, and a "committed pastoralist."

This background lends a certain levity to an issue that often stirs up heated arguments. Essentially, by the book's end, Mark arrives at the argument that the wild (or nature, or wilderness, however you call it) would thrive best if self-willed, uncontrolled, and allowed to change and evolve as it may, even if that means losing species along the way. "A renewed respect for the wild can check the delusion that somehow it has become humans' responsibility to take control of everything and every place," he writes in "Bewildered."

MarkCover-r03bMark journeys from the Black Hills, a contested place of massive spiritual importance for the Lakota of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota; to the Gila Wilderness, where wolves are tracked and monitored to within an inch of their lives by conservationists; to the ancient Olympic Wilderness, where the author struggles in vain to find one place in the U.S. that might remain untouched by human industrial presence. Through it all, he does a nice job of balancing historical fact and sociopolitical commentary with poetic passages that celebrate the breathtaking beauty of the natural world.

In the Eagle's Nest Wilderness, streams spill "down mountainsides like braids of silk." When Mark spends the night in the Gila Wilderness in Arizona, stars "appear hung in three dimensions, crystals dropped into a net of dark matter." During a pit stop at spring-fed Aravaipa Creek, he describes how the canyon "begins with heavy slabs of dark-red shale at the bottom, prickly pear, and patches of gray bursage and brittle brush. It's a world of heat and thorn and rock. A whole universe exists just below."

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In a section about the Stone Age Living Project, run by a weather-worn middle-aged woman named Lynx, Mark makes purses out of the bone and skin of deer forelegs, learns how to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together, and studies the basics of primitive shelter building -- including the making of glue from pine pitch and deer hide. His final meal at the end of the one-week immersion course held in Washington's Eastern Cascades involves foraged wild foods like venison steaks, mallow, dandelion and nasturtium salad and hawthorn berry cakes. "I loved every minute of it," writes Mark. "But I couldn't get away from the thought that Paleo living is an impossible model for humanity today." With the world global population at its current scale (seven billion people), if everyone started foraging for wild foods and killing deer for purses, before too long there wouldn't be anything left.

In the end, Marks concludes that only further human domestication can save the world's remaining truly wild spaces -- and in the U.S., that's only about 2.7 percent of the contiguous land mass.

To share space with wild plants and animals will require that we shrink humanity's footprint. This means, among other things, that we'll need to have fewer babies and finally find a way to slow and reverse human population growth. We'll have to staunch our ceaseless consumption of the planet's resources, returning to the old ethic that valued craftsmanship over quantity. Most of us will have to live in cities, and those cities will have to become denser and taller. We'll have to ditch the convenience of cars for the camaraderie of bike and train. At the same time, we'll have to further intensify our agriculture and grow more food on less land.

Only that way can we coexist as living creatures with trees, polar bears, moss, lichen, rivers, foxes, bears, Redwoods, and yes, even the big bad wolf -- who deserves, as Mark might argue, to live on this planet just as well as its closest Alpha predator... big, bad, extractive man.

Jason Mark appears at Copperfield's Books in Sebastopol on Nov. 14.

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Mills College Considers Shuttering Book Art

Reports of the analog book's demise may be heavily exaggerated, but at Mills College in Oakland, the Book Arts program could soon go the way of the dinosaur. On October 20, students and staff got word that the 35-year-old Book Art Program might be cut within the next month. The program offers the only MFA in Book Arts and Creative Writing in the U.S., where students take classes in printmaking, bookbinding, letterpress, typography, and publishing. Graduates have gone on to teach at art schools, become printmakers, and bookbinders.

Beck Levy and Isabel Duffy (in the background) work on the presses at Mills College. (Photo: Jess Heaney)
Beck Levy and Isabel Duffy (in the background) work on the presses at Mills College. (Photo: Jess Heaney)

In a statement to KQED, Provost and Dean of the Faculty Sharon Washington said the following:

It's standard for colleges to regularly re-examine their curriculum and Mills is no exception. We are taking this opportunity to transform our core curriculum and offer innovative and flexible programs to prepare our students for the 21st century. Part of the process of building a contemporary curriculum is to examine existing programs. A number of considerations are currently on the table and being reviewed by faculty including the possible closure of Book Art. However, as has been stated in a number of open forums and in written communications, no final decisions have been made. We are still in the process of collaborating with faculty and students about the best way to build a contemporary liberal arts education with flexible programs and curriculum that will distinguish us as a college and serve our students well into the next century.

In an open letter, Department Chair Kathleen Walkup noted that the undergraduate Book Art program is "experiencing full classes and robust enrollment," and questioned why it's being targeted by an administration that recently professed a desire for more innovative and interdisciplinary degree programs. She went on to say that the program had been targeted because its two main faculty members hold positions that are not tenured, making them vulnerable to elimination. "We believe the college is making a seriously shortsighted and senseless mistake," she added. Other students and alumni have similarly accused the college of prioritizing business-oriented programs over a unique curriculum. Since the announcement, students have started a blog with testimonies and examples of how students have used their degrees out in the greater world. "Book Art is the jewel of Mills College and cutting it is a betrayal of the school's identity," writes one student. It remains to be seen whether that jewel will continue to shine.

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Bay Area Book Events: Oct. 28 - Nov. 10

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The sheer amount of great literary events on any given week in the Bay Area never ceases to amaze. In The Born Frees: Writing with the Girls of Gugulethu,journalist Kimberly Burge writes about teaching writing to a group of girls in South Africa who are part of the Born Frees, the first generation of black South Africans born after apartheid. "The lives of these girls embodied the complicated and brutal history of their country, its present struggles, and all the promise it yet holds," writes Burge, who appears at A Great Good Place of Books on Nov. 1 and at the San Francisco Theological Seminary in Marin on Nov. 5... Ian Svenonious, former Sassiest Boy in America and frontman for legendary D.C. bands Nation of Ulysses and the Make-Up comes to Diesel Bookstore in Oakland on Nov. 3. His new essay collection, Censorship Now, is wild with subject matter, including Ikea, Marion Barry, Christian pornography, hoarding, tipping in restaurants, and, yes, the role of sugar in empire-building... Sandra Cisneros, Latina icon and author of the beautiful and essential House on Mango Street 9780385351331appears at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley on Nov. 3, presented by KPFA. She reads and discusses her new memoir, A House of My Own: Stories From My Life...  Isabel Allende will be in conversation with Rose Aguilar as part of the City Arts & Lectures series on Nov. 5. Allende's new, sure-to-be-epic novel The Japanese Lover is released in early November... The iconoclastic and brilliant novelist Mary Gaitskill makes her only California appearance on Nov. 8 at Green Apple Books on the Park, where she reads from her new novel, The Mare.