I picked up this book on the recommendation of my friend and massage therapist who is an avid runner. I am as far removed from an avid runner as Starbucks is from good coffee, yet I love a good book on any subject and this one hit all the best seller lists. And it’s a hell of a story. Any of the subplots could have been a book in their own right, and the overarching story pertains to the Tarahumara tribe from Mexico who live in the remotest depths of an unreachable canyon and who run ultramarathons for fun in homemade sandals, and the westerner who finds themselves on the fringes of their society.
As the author says the book arose out of pain. Specifically the pain of running. Barely qualified as a runner, he managed to amass an impressive array of injuries in a very short time, and conventional wisdom told him to get used to it – our bodies are not meant to run, and injuries are inevitable. Statistics bear this out – anywhere from 60-85% of runners incur some sort of injury each year, which seems statistically far more dangerous than riding a motorcycle without a helmet or pissing off a bear in the woods.
Yet there are people who engage in ultrarunning with stunning regularity, running distances that far outpace something as puny as a marathon over terrain so challenging that there shouldn’t be a way for the human body to survive, like the Leadville 100 or Badwater. Something along the lines of running for 15-30 hours straight, fording rivers, climbing mountains, at alpine altitude or inside a furnace, for no money or glory other than the exhiliration of testing every limit of human endurance.
And of course, there is the linchpin to the story – the Tarahumara, or the Running People who run ultramarathons for fun, in sandals, en masse, fueled by beer, corn and occasionally chia seeds, as well as enjoying great health and serenity. Brought out of the jungle by an ambitious photographer to race in the Leadville 100, against a legendary female ultramarathoner Ann Trason, they wiped the competition with a smile on their face – once they figured out what the point was, and in the media hoopla that followed decided that this is too loud and crazy, never to return.
Written in an exhuberant, whopping style, the book is full of hyperbole and bold language, underscoring each of author’s sweeping assertions. The description of the Leadville race is taut with tension and far more exciting than you’d think, a grand adventure full of suspence and sheer admiration for the incredible feats that occurred. After this race, one needs a break and the book delivers, easing the pace with segments on anthropology, paleontology, and some larger than life characters in present time.
For there was a man, whom we briefly meet at the very beginning, who had a dream. And his dream was to run a race with the Tarahumara that he adopted, and the kindred spirits he admired across the continent. The man who acquired the nickname of Caballo Blanco (White Horse), once was a full fledged member of the rather unhealthy society we are all a part of, and chose to leave it all behind to build a stone hut deep in the jungle near the Tarahumara and run crazy distances exploring his new terrain. He felt a desire to meet and race with the ultra legend Scott Jurek, whose incredible athletic accomplishments are only eclipsed by his kindness and grace as a human being.
Slowly and improbably, a motley crew of ultra runners amassed – people whose personalities are larger than life, at least as captured by the author. A young couple, whose zest for life, legendary partying and recuperative skills I can only deeply envy, Barefoot Ted – the man who inspired the Vibram Five Fingers shoe craze, Erik the running coach who rebuilt the author’s running form from the ground up in order to be able to participate, and Luis the photographer. Getting in one piece to the edge of the Copper Canyon on a hope and a prayer, they take over the small mountain town, joined by the Tarahumara runners wishing to pit themselves against Scott Jurek – The Deer as he’s christened.
And a joyful race, a celebration of running for its own sake happens. Over an inspired fifty miles of gorgeous but forbidding terrain, the runners have an epic race, the kind of thing that seems to have serendipity guiding it, and an ending full of hope. It’s an inspired book, and leads one to like and believe in people again, something that’s easy to forget in daily life sometimes. And photos of which are posted on the author’s website to my deep delight. Looks like the race became an annual event with most runners returning for a celebratory rematch.
Of course no book is perfect, and this one opens up some tantalizing questions. You can tell that the science on running, and barefoot running is far from complete. And if everyone is born to run, then why is it that most people who do still injure themselves, despite great form, shoes or no shoes, and all sorts of terrain? Including many of the runners in the book and my massage therapist who recently tore his calf muscle. Googling some of the larger than life characters is fascinating and mysterious as well, Ann Trason is done with ultra running due to injuries, and although still active in the sport will likely never run an ultra again. (Although her Leadville record from the books’ race is still unbeaten).
Most of the principals in the book have very little to say about it. You can find glimpses of quotes on the internet that Ann Trason has been angry at her portrayal in the book, and Jenn Shelton is said to have pointed out that the book omits Tarahumara poverty while romanticising a way of life that is dissappearing like sand in an hourglass. (Her and partner donated their race winnings to the native racers). But few of them have published interviews online offering a candid opinion about the story, and we all know how people can have a vastly different perception of the same event.
And of course there is the undercurrent that the way of life and isolation the Tarahumara have enjoyed for hundreds of years is disappearing, and there truly IS no place remote enough for an indigenous people to hide from the onslaught of our world. Nope the book does not focus on it, but reading between the lines and more Googling quickly leads to the same sad feeling you get while reading about the disappearing tigers or gorillas. We as a species are no good at sharing the planet and frankly we have encroached enough on their traditional way of life that it’s probably too late. Now it’s becoming a vicious circle of education? poverty? get everyone a television? and that’s too big of a topic for a book review post. Although there is a non-profit run by Caballo now.
None of this takes away from the wonderfulness, epic-ness and joie de vivre of the book itself though, which has earned a spot on my bookshelf and got the author a sure buyer of his future books. I won’t lie and say it inspired me to run, it didn’t, but the joy of moving your body is infectious, and my workouts have had a lightness and zest to them that only genuine inspiration can bring.
Image by Pere Ubu
I’m the kind of writer that likes to write about things after they’ve happened. That way I get to process the information in the privacy of my own mind and change my mind a good deal in the process. Almost any significant experience I have has to take its time and percolate through my thoughts before I can articulate what I think.
I’ve always been like this, upon my return from a whirlwind week in London, it took me about six months before I could really talk about it. That’s at the extreme end of the scale of course, but it was also before I recognized how my mind deals with stimulation. A less severe example is the three weeks it took me to explain what I got out of the Body Worlds Exhibit I visited earlier this summer. And the latest is the grim yet important book I finished that put me in a funk for about two weeks – the beautifully written, yet profoundly disturbing look at the sickness of our culture – The Culture of Make Believe by Derrick Jensen.
I’ve never read anything else by the author, so didn’t know what to expect, and what I got was a very clear dissection of the culture of hatred that we live in. We see the results of this hatred everywhere, from the smog in the streets, to the disappearing wildlife, to the landfill of the third world where we ship our trash, and those are the mildest examples. A large section of the book deals with the cognitive dissonance that is created when we actively participate in this culture and the coping mechanisms we develop n order to continue to participate in it. It takes a hard look at the fairy tale of our daily life and exposes it for the fraud that it is.
It’s not an easy book to read. Many of the horror stories of humanity are so disturbing and insane, really, that it’s easy to begin distancing yourself from the book as you read it – well, that would never happen here, not in Canada, not in our current culture, oh we don’t do things like that anymore. That is until the book comes to very modern current examples of the way we externalize the costs to keep things the way they are. Until we realize that nothing costs what we truly pay for it. And until we realize that we, you and me, have also developed some deep coping mechanisms to avoid looking at reality for what it is.
After I processed the book I went on Amazon to see what other people thought of it, and was gratified to see that any review that I write will not hold a candle to the great reviews others have written. The book seems to beg a long intelligent review, and many have obliged. I’d have to recommend it to anyone who has ever felt out of step with the values of current society, especially our insistence on productivity, time management and progress. To anyone who thinks our society is slightly insane in many ways, and to anyone who is typically too busy to reflect much on it.
In other news – my bush peas were doing great – they were bushy. Until a momentous hail storm last Monday came and flattened the lot, just like last year. Now I have a great foot-thick rug of peas growing sideways, with the peas underneath yellowing from lack of sun. Sigh. I’m already jury-rigging a solution for next year – perhaps that will be my ticket to an early retirement? But otherwise the peas are doing wonderful – they are producing a large bowl per day which we gleefully shell and eat each night. All my friends’ peas are puny in comparison, so all hail the pea whisperer!
The tomatoes are also doing well, with the exception of one wee plant that simply refuses to grow. Otherwise they are all producing – before AUGUST which is very momentous in my neck of the woods. And the raspberries have settled in just fine and are already rewarding me with a few berries, something that they’re not supposed to do until next year.
I did plant a few cucumbers, but some enterprising bunny came and ate the lot. Oh well – if he needed them that much, who am I to argue?
I also have a new job, which I start next Monday. That came about in an oblique way, but has also occupied my time, and is a welcome change. The thing with jobs is that you cannot talk about the job, until the offer is signed, kind of like the first rule of fight club. Otherwise for some mysterious reason they are apt not to materialize. Now I’m off to catch up with all of you!
I was thrilled to come across this book written by a fellow Calgarian that received some high praise from critics. The premise of the book is simple - spurred by the birth of his daughter Chris Turner looked around and saw a world careening out of control. Global warming, pollution, destruction of natural resources, excessive consumption and faulty economics drive our consumerist engine, and there is no shortage of problems to look at and wonder when this train ride will come to a wreck. But dozens of books have been written about the staggering problems facing our world and future as a species, but quite few offer real suggestions as to what we can do about it. Chris Turner went on a whirlwind tour around the globe looking for existing, often very local solutions to a truly sustainable future that work splendidly and point the way to a more hopeful future.
Off the bat I’ve got to say that I am not a proponent of anthropogenic climate change. i.e. I do not feel that man-made global warming is our biggest problem, nor do I condemn CO2 as the largest pollutant in our atmosphere. This book is largely structured around this very premise, and the undertone wonders how is it that any rational human can continue to deny the movement largely started by Al Gore et al. Now that several years have passed, and Al Gore’s faulty research and blatantly incorrect hockey-stick graph has been soundly denounced even by the most ardent global warming proponents, not to mention his energy hogging lifestyle, it is clear that he himself, is probably not a good advocate for the cause.
I personally tend to think that plants breathe CO2, that any volcano eruption as well as our oceans dwarf our CO2 output, that the largest drivers of climate are the sun and the oceans and our orbit, things so vast that we cannot even understand their effects, never mind control them, that the planet is typically a much more tropical place and in fact we are geologically speaking in the middle of a short warm pocket that happens to be in the middle of an ice age, and most important of all – that carbon sequestering is a huge money making scam that will make some people very rich, while doing very little to impact our climate. I also fear that the debate whether pro or con is stealing all the spotlight while ignoring the ridiculous pollution issues plaguing our planet. But what I do understand is that whether we agree on global warming specifically or not, we can both be appalled at the damage to our planet wrought by our species, and overwhelmed with the negative press and dialogue that seems to lead us no closer to real solutions.
The book itself is a manic romp around the world skipping from Denmark to Thailand and even yes, Okotoks. His writing style is a unique mix reminiscent of Gladwell and Pollan, both of whom are referenced, except for on speed. Interspersed with commentary on popular culture, pop psychology and history lessons the book is best digested in small increments lest it simply overwhelm your brain. Since he is local, some of his stories revolve not too far from home, a wind farm nearby, a green community in a small town only a twenty minute drive from my house, even our very own downtown Calgary. To me this was obviously exceptionally interesting since I can add my own observations to the mix.
I found it rather worrying that all the examples of a new way of living that he profiles – a fully self sustaining home in Thailand built using local renewable resources, that costs about as much as a ‘conventional’ style dwelling, a small Danish island where the villagers fully bought into wind farms and barely have any need for oil, a community of Earthship dwellers proudly living in a rather hostile climate with all the creature comforts of the average urban home but with almost none of the energy requirements, E+Co which pioneer a genius partnership to turn waste ponds into energy, and amazing real estate developments which allow people to live and thrive in their communities, not simply exist, – are so few and far between taken in the larger context. They are small pockets of wonderful enterprise, human ingenuity and revolutionary principles on display, but they are quite rare when looked at globally. And frankly we’ve always had great people doing amazing things. All the pioneers above use existing technology in innovative ways, they are not inventing anything as such, but until they reach a ‘tipping point’ a la Gladwell, they will always remain an oasis of sanity with hardly an impact on the global scene.
Calgary is a prime example. The book ends with the author looking over the city and noting how things could be different. How the large empty concrete tracts can be re-imagined as green spaces and truly livable mixed use neighborhoods, how flat sloping roofs seem made for solar panels (in a city with over 300 days of sunshine per year), how urban sprawl can be curbed once and for all and many other wonderful ideas. But since this book was written I can’t say any of those changes have materialized. I’ve yet to see a solar panel on any roof whatsoever, our neighborhood that was once on the edge of the city has been surpassed by further development, mixed use neighborhoods are still things that are developed by far more progressive planners than ours, urban agriculture has not exploded, we do have recycling but strictly as downcycling, and sadly, Seaside Florida, one of the communities lauded in the book is currently drowning in oil from a terrible man made disaster.
I also haven’t seen any of those flexible solar panels that were going to drastically decrease prices in the markets, and in fact I haven’t heard any follow up on that story since it was hyped a few years ago. A shamefully quick google search turns up flexible panels that cost several times more per watt that a generic one does. Okotoks’ award winning Drake Landing community has not been followed by any more, despite its cachet.
Chris travels the world looking for examples of a new sustainable economy. Places where the change is people driven, whether it’s machete wielding villagers peeling bamboo for their micro-hydroelectric dam, or a community investing in wind farms without government mandates, oversight or involvement really. In contrast there seem to be pitifully few solutions to be found around our very own urban yards. Since we don’t have to choose whether to spend money on kerosene or purchase a small solar panel, we don’t have the immediacy of looking for a solution as we continue to live in our urban houses constructed with toxic materials and heat them with coal and gas.
Speaking with a local solar installer generates an estimate that to convert a typical house to be entirely off-grid would cost in the realm of $25,000 – a figure hardly affordable and yes, it would take a very long time to pay for itself. Unless you built a passive solar heated home which costs about the same as a conventional house, but you would likely never get the permits to build one. Sure we recycle, but we all know that at best it’s postponing the trip to the landfill by a reuse or two, and at worst – well, how much does it cost (literally and carbon-wise) to ship our recyclables to Asia where they can be processed/landfilled as prices dictate?
Perhaps it’s my propensity for cynicism and gloom that leads me to read this book, and ask what’s changed since it was published? Or the recent environmental catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf is too vivid and underscores the plight of the planet too much. But where many reviewers see hope in this book, I still see a planet heading for disaster simply because I, the reader, still feel powerless to help stop the train. Unless the residents of this fine city start getting together and implementing our own solutions we will continue to have small pockets of hope around a very sick planet.
Not only that, but as he cleverly points out change has to be FUN and beneficial – no one wants to do things out of desperation out of coming doom and gloom. A great example is cell phone technology and internet – the technology is so convenient and so seemingly necessary that hundreds of homemade solutions sprung up to bypass entirely the slow governmental machine that would have taken decades to deliver the service. What we need is someone to bring a sense of fun, cachet, unbelievable convenience and necessity at an affordable price point to renewable technologies. When that happens, consumers will drive the engine of change faster than you can blink. So to me it’s a brilliantly written book that offers the possibility of hope, but note hope as such.
If you’ve made it this far, through the very long book review, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this interesting and vital topic: what do you think of climate change, our path as a species, what we can do to actually change rather than greenwash our lives? Do we have hope?