Books: March-April 2001


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Coming Out of the Woods: The Solitary Life of a Maverick Naturalist
By Wallace Kaufman ’61. Perseus Publishing, 2000. 336 pages. $26.

If you know the author of a memoir you’re about to read, you probably hope that the work will capture something of the familiar: histories you hold in common, faces from the past. If the author is someone at a personal distance, someone who has proved puzzling over time, you might hope that mysteries will be revealed, and that you will understand the author far better than before.

In Coming Out of the Woods, Wallace Kaufman addresses some of these hopes, but mostly he captures other items of his “solitary life.” In vivid and engrossing narrative, he shows us the people who passed through and comprised more than three decades, during which time he seems to have changed in almost stunning ways. More than that, he brings to us in bright light the plants, animals, waters, and rocks of the Carolina Piedmont landscape that surrounded his home in the woods; and he gives his own peculiar version of their changes.

Kaufman obviously chose his work’s subtitle with immense precision. He selected his noun of identity—“naturalist”—with reference to many years of an expert amateur’s enthusiasm at finding mushrooms to eat without threat, at interpreting the geology and ecology of where he awoke every day. Looking at his previous books, you can assume he was a naturalist before he applied the adjective “maverick” to highlight his profound dissent (some might say alienation) from his colleagues in the environmental community.

Writing with Duke geologist Orrin Pilkey more than a quarter-century ago, Kaufman co-authored a ground-breaking—and convincing—popular text, The Beaches Are Moving. This was a powerful volley over the bow of that slow-to-turn battleship, the Army Corps of Engineers. The authors made the case to the general public for the first time that the government was squandering our tax monies to “harden” shorelines that Nature never intended to stand still.

Two decades later, it appeared that Kaufman had become a lone sniper among his colleagues in the environmental movement when he published No Turning Back: Dismantling the Fantasies of Environmental Thinking. One reviewer at the time described it as an examination ofhow “conservationism,” which em-phasizes resource management, has been overtaken by “environmentalism,” which Kaufman sees as an emphasis on “litigious vengeance.” With that work, Kaufman succeeded in solidifying his maverick status. But a whole set of actions for years before that time—some detailed in this book before us, some entirely absent—ensured that he would carve out as controversial a reputation as anyone in the world of North Carolina environmental activists.

It’s this history that surely explains his conclusion for the book’s long and affectionate list of acknowledgments: “All of the places, events, and people in this book are real and recorded as accurately as possible from my records, from public records and other documents, and from the best of my memory and the memories of others. In a few cases I have changed the names and other details about certain people to protect their privacy or simply out of the sense that they might want to avoid the embarrassment of associating with other people and events in this book or with the author.”

Only a few pages later, Kaufman gives a clear summary of what he has set out to do. At the end of Chapter One, he asserts: “I have lived in the woods ten times longer than Thoreau lived at Walden Pond. I am a slower writer than Thoreau, maybe a slower learner, but now I am coming out to give you my report. I tell you the story of how my life here has led to the opposite conclusion from Thoreau’s, to the conclusion that the preservation of wildness is in civilization.”

If all Kaufman did were to report to the world, the work itself would be nearly perfect. Some will find it spoiled by his insistence on regular reiteration of almost every theme from No Turning Back, consistently inserted at the end of chapters otherwise full of his keen, erudite, and affectionate observations of human and wild nature.

For a reader who revels in the reporting, there are any number of delicious moments. For me, the first was the sensorial and psychological description of his first encounter with the place, Morgan Branch, that is the subject of his book. On the kind of muggy yet thirsty summer afternoon that is the limiting factor on growing things in the Carolina Piedmont, he took his first stroll there, alone, thinking his maverick thoughts, looking hard at nature: “I took off my clothes and eased myself into the water.... Minnows nibbled at the air bubbles clinging to the hair on my calves…the summer sultriness washed out of me like silt from gravel.” Then: “For a moment, I thought that I was wasting time.... I felt like a soldier who had gone AWOL.” Another delightful passage is the splendid depiction of an encounter with a flying squirrel—so well performed that it almost recommends the book in itself. The episode shows that the author has humility to spare, and it certainly could serve to instruct all of us in the virtues of that humility.

What readers of this magazine might like to see are more reminders of the Duke education we experienced, but the few that Kaufman includes are masterfully conveyed. My favorite episode opens the second of the book’s three parts, “Settling In”: “In the first week of my freshman year at Duke…history professor Harold Parker began our seminar by asking us to put a penny on the table…. Parker’s thin mouth always smiled slightly and kindly when he asked us to think about something whose significance only he knew.” For someone like this writer for whom Dr. Parker’s teaching (along with that of Wallace Fowlie and Reynolds Price) was a pinnacle of the undergraduate classroom experience, it was sheer delight when Kaufman suddenly placed him in front of me again.

On balance, I would not treat this as a manual for living in the woods of Piedmont North Carolina, although it gives a full picture of that. Nor should it be seen as a “gloss” on or counterpoint to Thoreau’s Walden, although it can serve to do as that as well. This book does best when it reports what the naturalist has seen in his years there—again, both human and wild nature—in the elegant manner of which Wallace Kaufman the writer is clearly capable.
—Edward C. Harrison

Harrison ’72, M.E.M. ’76 is a past officer of the North Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club and the Conservation Council of North Carolina. He is as an environmental planning consultant based in Durham County.

Triumph of Good Will: How Terry Sanford Beat a Champion of
Segregation and Reshaped the South. 
By John Drescher A.M. ’88. 
University Press of Mississippi316 pages. $27.95.
In 1960, Terry Sanford challenged I. Beverly Lake in the race to become North Carolina’s governor. Both men were Democrats, but Lake was a segregationist and Sanford believed in opportunities for all citizens. Triumph of Good Will examines the campaign from both sides and shows how Sanford’s victory—one of only two by racial moderates in the South between 1957 and 1973—helped fashion a political formula of centrism and moderation that Southern Democrats still follow today.

Healing Moves: How to Cure, Relieve, and Prevent Common Ailments with Exercise
By Carol Krucoff and Mitchell Krucoff
Harmony Books. 319 pages. $24.
Carol Krucoff, a science writer and health columnist for The Washington Post, and her husband, Mitchell, director of the Ischemia Monitoring Laboratory at Duke Medical Center, have written a guide to using physical activity to prevent and treat a broad array of common health problems. Their book combines Western science with Eastern concepts of healing to explain the underlying mechanism of an ailment and to offer specific exercise prescriptions for relief of symptoms.

Abandon Ship! The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the Navy’s Greatest Sea Disaster
By Richard F. Newcomb, with introduction and afterword by Peter Maas ’50
HarperCollins. 326 pages. $25.
Near the end of World War II, the U.S.S. Indianapolis delivered a secret cargo to U.S. forces in the Pacific. As her voyage continued, she was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine. More than 300 men went down with the ship, and 900 more spent days in shark-infested waters hoping for rescue. Only 316 men survived. In 1958, Newcomb wrote Abandon Ship! to describe the sailors’ ordeal and to examine the Navy’s role in her plight. For this updated edition, Peter Maas reveals previously unavailable facts, chronicles the forty-year crusade to restore the reputation of Indianapolis captain Charles Butler McVay III, and pays tribute to Newcomb’s original work.

A Tree Accurst: Bobby McMillon and Stories of Frankie Silver
By Daniel W. Patterson ’49
University of North Carolina Press. 264 pages. $18.95 paper.
In the North Carolina mountains in 1831, Charlie Silver was murdered with an ax and his body burned in a cabin. His young wife, Frankie, was tried and hanged for the crime. A legend sprung up that a tree growing near the cabin’s ruins was cursed—that anyone who climbed into it would never get out. For nearly 170 years, the memory of Frankie Silver has been kept alive by this legend and others, by a ballad, and by the news accounts, fiction, plays, and other works inspired by the events. Appalachian singer and storyteller Bobby McMillon was one of those inspired, and Patterson, Kenan Professor Emeritus of English and Folklore at UNC-Chapel Hill, weaves McMillon’s personal story into an investigation of the Silver murder.

Doing Lucretius
By Sidney Burris ’75
Louisiana State University Press. 80 pages. $22.50 cloth, $14.95 paper.
In reviewing this latest book of poetry from University of Arkansas English professor Burris, Reynolds Price says, “The clarity, intensity, and emotional depth of Sidney Burris’ new poems—with their high verbal and rhythmic finish
—evoke the enduring standards of his Greek and Roman masters. They have a genuine weight in the hand; and as they enter my eyes, I feel them press their adamance deep in my mind.” The poems are at once serious and lyrical; they include “Bourbon Song,” “Anthem,” “An Antipastoral for Friends Moving to the Country,” and “Siren.”

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