In The Ragged Edge of the World ($17.80 at amazon.com) Eugene Linden tells the untold stories of his globetrotting adventures as a journalist covering environmental and cultural loss (and resilience) at the intersection of the modern world and the wilderness. His 40-year career as a book author and magazine writer for Time, National Geographic and others has given him the enviable opportunity to visit some of the world's most remote places, from Polynesia to Midway Island and from Antarctica to the Alaska, where he's reported on environmental issues and the impact of modern encroachment on indigenous cultures. He's a writer of flawless sentences who can evoke scenes, landscapes and dialog as well as he can explain complex scientific ideas.
The earlier chapters of Ragged Edge, though, came off as too anecdotal, with too little time spent on the substance of his reporting trips and too much on disconnected remembrances. I have a feeling they'd be more enjoyable as a companion to Linden's other works (like The Future in Plain Sight), but this is the first book I've read by him, so these chapters came across as incomplete and fragmentary. (Which is to say that they deliver on what Linden promises he'll do in his introduction: "It is these vignettes that are freshest--my memory has inverted the priorities of my career," he writes.) The latter chapters didn't suffer from this problem, and each chapter told its story fully, with emphasis shared between the anecdotes of a traveler and journalist, and the substance of his reports about the lands he visited. In both cases I'd have liked, as a writer, to hear more about the challenges of reporting exciting stories such as these, beyond the logistics of traveling in Africa, say, or the rules of weather-proofing one's body in Antarctica. But I think there's enough detail to satisfy most readers.
Regardless, he makes his points persuasively. In his lifetime, both the presence of wilderness (with its magical qualities untouched by human exploitation) and the strength of indigenous cultures (with their knowledge, sometimes magical and sometimes practical, of the local environment) have gone from endangered to all-but extinct. Development, whether in the form of logging or all-inclusive resorts, has destroyed much of both, along with the authenticity once available to lucky world travelers. With global travel so common, it's unlikely we'll find new places with true wilderness or cultures untouched by consumer culture. If "we" do, we will likely destroy them as we have the others, Linden predicts, with sobering assuredness.
In the final chapter he makes a relatively quick case for a market-based continent-wide conservation scheme that is untested, but which he says holds promise for protecting ecosystems more effectively than we have done to date. I'm not convinced that would work, and neither is he, but at least he's looking for solutions in addition to reporting on the damage we've done. He's had an envious and admirable career, and lived a full life. These stories, even when they devolve too far into anecdote, left me both with a yearning for the adventure of travel and the conviction that unique places and societies deserve preservation.
The Ragged Edge of the World: Encounters at the Frontier Where Modernity, Wildlands and Indigenous Peoples Meet, $17.80 at amazon.com.
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