Friday, June 28, 2013

Walking (continued): Under the Tetons

(Outside the town of Jackson a little patch of woodland that looms large in U.S. wilderness preservation. Since this visit Brooke and Terry have lost their cherished place at the Murie Center. And yes, that's an Ansel Adams photo at the end.)                                         

       "Look, a bear."
     Not one but three black ones, a mother and cubs, close enough for us to clearly see the blond streak down the mother's back as she ambles in our direction. I'm at the historic Murie Center in northwestern Wyoming. My companions-nature writer Terry Tempest Williams and her husband, Brooke, the center's former director-are used to looking at wildlife, but not so closely. Terry's wearing a crisp blouse, slip-on boots, and a silver Navajo clasp in her steelgray hair; Brooke has on a faded T-shirt and old running shoes, but they're clearly a team. Ever since we entered this flat, riverine landscape of spruce and quaking aspen under the brow of the Grand Teton Mountains, they have been identifying flowers in a kind of antiphonal botany lesson: goldenrod, sticky geraniums, monkshood, bog orchids, coneflowers.
     "They're like old friends," Terry says. "Right, Brooke?"
     "Right" He pauses. "And those are asters. There's scarlet gilia. And horsetail, which has survived since the Jurassic-it lived with the dinosaurs."
     We're in the middle of what's called the Around the World Walk but is really just a jaunt, as Terry calls the half-mile loop. The name was bestowed by the well-known naturalist Olaus Murie who, with his wife, Mardy, established their nonprofit here for "creating strategies for conserving wild places."
Now deceased, the  Muries were long-term residents of the beautiful Snake River valley and early influentials conservationists. They owned and later donated these 77 acres on the outskirts of Moose, where hikers provision before taking on the Cascade or Paintbrush canyons and tourists gas up for the drive to Yellowstone or Grand Teton National parks.
     The Wilderness Society was born here half a century ago, and much of the nascent Wilderness Act of 1964 was debated. The Muries also mentored people, among them Terry and Brooke when they were instructors at the Teton Science Schools in the town of Jackson. "This was Olaus's daily walk," said Brooke. "You can make it around in half an hour, or you can take all day."
     "We see elk here all the time," adds Terry. "During the fall rut, the woods are full of bulls bugling. You can smell the pheromones."
     I smell dust and pine needles baking in the sun. The bleached carcasses of fallen lodgepole pines are banked by pine squirrel middens-piles of needles and cones picked clean as corn cobs-and all around are rotten logs full of ant colonies. An unseen pine siskin chatters ominously. Other possible distractions hereabouts are big gray owls and moose, but Ursus americanus has all our attention.                                 

     "Hey," Brooke whispers, with no effect on the bear. Sandy-haired and sunburned, Brooke has degrees in biology and sustainable business, and where wildlife's concerned he's more scientist than entrepreneur. By his own admission, he "wants to save the world," in part by preserving scenes like this. Among the ways the Murie Center seeks to foster conservation is to host conferences and retreats with wilderness as a common theme, bringing together young conservation leaders, business people, government officials, academics, and kids, some from urban centers. Even now, a group of teenagers from Newark is eating bagels in one of the collection of historic log cabins from which we set out.
     Terry has written several books, among them Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, touching on the urgent need for protecting natural landscapes and their indigenous inhabitants. In The Open Space of Democracy, she insisted that "our character has been shaped by the diversity of America's landscapes and it is precisely that character that will protect it."
     "We're here," Brooke tells the bear. Spontaneously Terry and I add our voices to the announcement, and the sow digs in her heels. One of her cubs goes up a spruce, the other off into the brush. For a long moment the mother stares at us, then turns, stands, and braces her front paws on the spruce. We tiptoe past, aware of both the charms and the perils of a jaunt in this valley.
     The clearing ahead in washed in clear mountain light. We emerge into a meadow under the gaze of Buck Mountain, rising some 12,000 feet above sea level. Marching off to the north are the other peaks of the Tetons, which means "breasts" in French. One story holds that the word was bestowed upon these decidedly jagged granite uplifts by lonely Gallic trappers. The rock faces could as easily be seen as facets of prime American jewels, the high defiles full of snow in July. A stream is running over cobbles, providing an inspiration in this dry season.
     Terry says, "I depend a lot on the soundscape. That's the ruby-crowned kinglet we're hearing."
     "And the chipping sparrow," says Brooke.
     And the private jet, approaching the Jackson Hole airport a few miles to the south. "That's a sound the Muries never heard," Terry adds, and we reflect on the vast changes that have overtaken the valley and the nation in the last half century. The spring-fed runnels passing through the little rock garden make a sound that gradually replaces the whine of turbines, and we relax a bit.                                                   

     This discreet pocket at the foot of the mountains has been largely untampered with for a long time, despite its closeness to millions of people who pour in annually to embrace the grandeur of mountain and plateau. Incredibly, all this was little noticed by Americans until the mid-20th century, after park status had been long debated, with loud opposition from ranchers and persistent advocacy by, among others, the Muries. Brooke tells the story of Olaus meeting with ranchers in an effort to sway them, after his pickup had been stuck in a stream. He returned after the meeting to find that some of the ranchers had pulled the truck out for him, "the point being that they might not agree with him, but they liked and respected him."                                                     

     The park became a reality in 1950, and from that point on visitation-and development on the park's periphery-has grown exponentially. Today Teton County has one of the highest median home prices in the nation.
     The trail takes us back through the woods and loops past the Murie Center. The historic cabins are on the National Register of Historic Places, and restoration of these functional artifacts of ranching is another objective of the center. We cross a little wetland on a rustic bridge, pass some cottonwoods, and we're standing on "the beach," a stretch of sand overlooking the floodplain of the Snake, with Black Tail Butte in the distance.
     Now the soundscape includes distant highway traffic, but anyone wishing to get really away and into the alpine experience can easily do so in the immediate neighborhood. For instance, just up the road is the trailhead to Death Canyon, offering quick access to the ruggedly gorgeous country for which the Tetons are famous.
     We have come most of the way Around the World, and only an hour has passed. Walking, however, is not a matter of time, or distance, but of perception. This proximity to both the wild and the civilized has provided much to see and to think about, as Olaus Murie no doubt intended.
     "It's been a meditation," says Brooke.
     "And a gift."
Comments, etc.:
To order my novel, Nose, click on:  

Monday, June 24, 2013

San Francisco Chronicle Q&A about Nose, more

Back to Wine Country, warts and all

Author James Conaway turned to fiction for his new wine book, "Nose."
Every culture has its warts-and-all chronicler. For modern Napa, that would be James Conaway.
In 1990's "Napa: The Story of an American Eden," Conaway, a former Washington Post reporter, detailed not only the valley's fame but its politics, its infighting and tarnished spots.
He continued that in 2002's "The Far Side of Eden," with a pointed view of the valley through its struggles over environmentalism, specifically as it battled over what would become a 1990 ordinance to preserve its hillsides.
More than anything, both books chewed into the displays of raw ambition and privilege that, in the 1990s, were coming to define Napa. In turn, Napa was miffed by discussion of what The Chronicle described in 2002 as a look at "what life was like when the glitz got out of hand."
Conaway, who resides in Washington, D.C., couldn't stay away from the West Coast. Earlier this year he published "Nose" (St. Martin's Press; 336 pages; $24.99), which extends his earlier work into novel form.
Its main character, Clyde Craven-Jones, is a curious hybrid of ubercritic - based in Northern California, wielding the power of Robert Parker (and the girth of John Candy), but hewing to his British roots, 20-point scoring and all.
Of course, Wine Country in 2013 is quite different from 1990. As Conaway tells it, he found the need to adapt. And his fascination with Napa continues: He's at work on a prequel to "Nose," set in 1970s Napa.
Excerpts from my recent interview with him.
Q: What made you want to circle back to Wine Country?
A: I never really left it. I published a book of essays after "The Far Side of Eden" and worked for a time as the editor of Preservation magazine, but returned often to California and the state of mind that is "Wine Country" was always with me.
Wine remains a great way to tell the American story, which is essentially of pushing the borders and making it, and nowhere has this been faster, more transformative, and more instructional than in Napa.
Q: I almost said, "circle back to Napa," but your new book isn't based in a specific place, more a fictional valley that specializes in fancy Cabernets. Any reason you didn't get more specific?
A: The valley in "Nose" resembles many in California, but is admittedly most like Napa. I didn't want to be hampered by the need for absolute accuracy and I didn't want readers to get distracted by identifying specific people and places.
Q: Why fiction this time?
A: To escape for a bit from almighty fact and give fuller play to the themes in the earlier books.
As I've often said, wine is less interesting in itself than as a keyhole through which you look deeply into a specific place. Looking deeply into motives and obsessions of people anywhere requires the unburdened imagination. That means fiction.
Q: Your two books on Napa were remarkable narratives, but certainly showed the wine industry with a blemish or two - something the valley didn't seem to take well. Did you expect that reception?
A: I was surprised at the reaction to the first book, since I carried a notebook all the time and recorded every conversation I had. I think some in Napa Valley thought they lived such a charmed life no one would notice the warts. Writers are supposed to notice those, but not to exploit them, and I don't think I did.
Q: I'm paraphrasing, but something you noted when I heard you speak earlier this year is that, especially at the top end of the wine industry, there are people who are not particularly nice human beings. What made you come to that conclusion?
A: At the top of any industry are some people less than exemplary. Just look at finance. Some have come forcefully into wine. I don't personally care for people who wreaked havoc on others or on the system to develop their hillside in Eden. Of course, Napa has its share of such fortunes.
Q: Is that simply endemic to the industry - or to the fancier parts of the industry?
A: I suppose to the so-called high end. And in a small, unusually prosperous valley, all forces are brought most forcefully together, throwing off sparks - and sometimes wine - that lead to unforeseen consequences. Michael Pollan says that eating is an agricultural act, but so is drinking wine. It's also an environmental act, or should be, and that's often the conflict between talking about doing the right thing and actually doing it.
Q: Wine criticism seems to have gotten a poke or two in "Nose." Was there something that made you want to shine a closer light on critics, and not just vintners?
A: Wine criticism can use a poke now and then. For too many years, too few people held sway over what one should and should not drink. The excesses of some in the wine press are well known.
Great expertise and pretension do sometimes come together, and they certainly do in Clyde Craven-Jones, the 300-pound wine critic whose opinion matters so much to everyone and who gets himself into serious difficulties in the novel. I see him as representative of the changing order - the demise of the numerical point system, and the rise of more democratic expression of knowledge and opinion via the Internet.
Q: Are there changes that you had in mind writing the books that you'd want to see the wine industry make?
A: I would like to see throughout California stricter and more vigorously enforced rules on what can and can't be done by developers, although Napa set the tone for this long ago by passing the first agricultural preserve in America.
Things have changed so much for the better in the quarter-century (since writing "Napa"), but more should be done. I'm particularly concerned about the intrusion of big corporations in the vineyard, and what this presages for the future.
Jon Bonné is The San Francisco Chronicle's wine editor. 
Comments, etc.:
To order my novel, Nose, click on:  

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The novel can be read most anywhere, actually

Saturday, June 22, 2013 |  Madison, WI: 79.0° F  Mostly Cloudy

The Paper


Nose uncovers the world of Cali wine
An impertinent summer read

First there's steamy sex. Then a mysteriously unmarked bottle of wine shows up on the doorstep of wine critic Clyde Jones. He's smitten; it's the perfect cabernet. Later, his body is discovered stuck in a fermentation tank. There's an ambitious gumshoe reporter, a beautiful widow, a reclusive winemaker, a disgruntled vineyard heiress, a seedy bar called Glass Act. And more sex.
Nose, by James Conaway -- part romance, part wine society sendup, part Encyclopedia Brown -- is your new summer wine thriller. It's an intelligentFifty Shades of Cabernet for the poolside wine-geek set. You know you're out there.
New York Times best-selling author Conaway is known for his landmark bookNapa, a sprawlingly detailed account of the valley's rise to international prominence. He followed that success with The Far Side of Eden, continuing the story he left off in Napa in 1989.
Nose is a fictional take on many of the themes of those previous books of nonfiction: social climbing, environmental degradation, greed, lust, megalomania and just plain criminality. A former New Orleans crime beat reporter, Conaway doesn't shrink from describing Napa Valley for what it is: a great place to wash dirty money and buy class.
The story takes place in a fictional northern California valley, but the scene is recognizable. A Robert Parker-like wine critic has a problem: a cabernet he can't identify. His wife, Claire, hires struggling 32-year-old reporter Lester Breeden to uncover its identity. Along the way, Lester also begins to uncover the social and economic dynamics that rule the valley. He starts to blog the dirty laundry on his website called Nose.
Conaway grew up in Memphis and lives in Virginia. His books have an element of Southern gothic. Characters are arranged in a small, finite community; their fortunes rise and fall in relation to each other; they have long memories and even longer grudges. And even though it's international, the world of the valley functions as a tiny social organism.
The narrative voice is writerly; piercing observations are mixed with wry wit. This is a light novel with a heavy underlying moral compass. The characters never become caricatures. Instead, they are intensely familiar, and watching them scheme is delicious.
But the novel can also be deeply melancholic. Conaway's lovers find each other out of mutual consolation, because events have got the better of them. Here searing indictment is mixed with great compassion.
There is a certain fidelity to the kinds of people one encounters in the wine world outside of the novel -- in Napa Valley, for instance. Along with the suspense built into the book, there is a sense that we are getting raw data culled from long experience now refreshingly digested in novel form. It confirms our own suspicions about what goes on behind winery gates.
Nose's breeziness makes it compelling for anyone craving a lively and informative summer read. For wine nerds, it will prove light to medium-bodied with well-balanced humor and bright acerbity.

Comments, etc.:
To order my novel, Nose, click on:  

Monday, June 17, 2013

Walking: Tsankawi, New Mexico


     I'm sitting in Dave Munsell's green pickup beside New Mexico's State Highway 4, the route to Bandelier National Monument, feeing a pockmarked plateau framed by a blindingly blue sky. The topographical map of this "p-j" country (piñon pine and juniper) that I bought at the Travel Bug in nearby Santa Fe shows mesas, mountains, wooded valleys, and canyons. Much of it lies within overlapping cultural and federal jurisdictions that define this unique state: Santa Fe National Forest, Caja Rio Grant, San Ildefonso Indian Reservation, and Los Alamos National Laboratory, as well as Bandelier.
     Dave plants a large finger in the middle of an inky whorl that is the unexcavated pueblo of Tsankawi, abandoned some 500 years ago, and says, "This is where we are." The site, he adds, is laced with innumerable potsherds, obsidian flakes, bits of jewelry, and other artifacts
     Looking up, I can see darkened caves - "cavates," in archaeological parlance - in the soft pumice cliffs that were enlarged by the people who once used them as ancient condos, with exterior rooms added, a scene thaf s both intriguing and a bit unsettling. Before we set out, Dave extracts the old cigarette lighter from the dashboard and dribbles crushed sage leaves onto its hot coil. Bluish smoke rises.
     "Thanks for this day," he intones, wafting the pungent smoke toward us, "and for this place," speaking to no one in particular-Dave's an archaeologist, not a medicine man-just paying tribute to those who once occupied this beautiful, daunting, inherently spiritual land.
     At six-foot-six, in jeans, cowboy boots, and snap-pocket shirt, Dave looks the classic Southwesterner, although he grew up in Seattle and studied Native Americans at the university there. But in the dozen years he's spent in New Mexico, working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other organizations assessing archaeological sites, he has learned a great deal about Pueblo cultures. A bit of a maverick among archaeologists, he has also acquired many friends among existing tribes and is often invited to Indian ceremonies off-limits to others.
     We get out and pass through an opening in the barbed wire fence, pausing beside a marker put up by the U.S. Park Service: "The Tsankawi (San-ka-WEE) spoke Tewa, while those in Frijoles Canyon, the main section of Bandelier, spoke Keres." They were all so-called Anasazi, a Navajo word meaning "enemies of our ancestors," although that collective term is controversial among Pueblo people these days.
     We climb toward their ghost town, along an eroded rut that has borne human traffic for thousands of years, bordered by blooming Indian paintbrush, globe mallow, yucca. A ladder made of skinned piñon boughs and set in place by the Park Service takes us up to the rock ledge above, where grooves in the pumice indicate that stone axes were sharpened here. Higher up, designs- petroglyphs-have been etched into the cliff walls. They depict snakes, crosses, spirals, and a man apparently playing a flute-Kokopelli, a common figure on cliff walls throughout the Southwest, alternately referred to as flute player and fertility deity. No one knows for sure what Kokopelli and many other petroglyphs and pictographs mean, all of them unanswered, stony questions left in the wake of a once lively, vanished race.

     Essentially pueblo dwellers, the ancient inhabitants migrated originally from Chaco Canyon to Mesa Verde, up in Colorado, and then down to these parts. Hunter-gatherers, they depended upon piñon nuts harvested in the fall and on corn, beans, tobacco, and maybe amaranth, grown on hundred-foot-square plots down on the sage flats, also wintering ground for elk "Most of them here lived on top of the mesa," says Dave, as we reach the rim. There, big stones have been arranged in a rough circle some 20 yards across, overgrown now with brush, what's left of a multistoried structure once housing hundreds.
     "It was probably the oldest pumice block building in America," Dave says, "with 300 to 400 rooms. No one knows how long it took to build it. Let's sit awhile, and try to imagine what it was like, living here."
     Sleeping quarters were on top, the food stored below. "The plaza would have been swept clean. People would have been cooking down here, bartering, maybe dancing, while others were out gathering food. And all around were the ldyas"-subsurface, cylindrical pits belonging to various clans, where only males were allowed to enter. There the men wove blankets and cloaks of cotton and turkey feathers, in the presence of the sipapu, a Hopi word designating the hole in the floor, symbol of human emergence from the earth.
     "Their society was matriarchal and matrilineal. The men may have controlled religion, but the women controlled life, because of childbirth."
     It was Dave who uncovered the six-footdeep hole off to one side that was once a catchment basin for rainwater. "It's logical. The nearest water was a mile away, and that was a long way to carry it." Now that he has identified the basin, it seems obvious, but for a long time it escaped official notice. "Academic archaeologists are always looking for big architectural features," he adds, smiling. "I just poke around."
     And he asks questions, like "Why did the Tewa abandon this site in the early 150Os? Was it drought, or overutilization of resources, or some messianic cult demanding that they move out? After that time, why did other kinds of settlements develop all around here-scattered pueblos, linear villages? Maybe they were defenses against invaders, maybe not."

     Partial answers certainly lie beneath the ground, which has never been excavated and catalogued. Dave picks up a piece of knapped flint. "This is from the Cerro Pedernal, 30 miles away, where there's a band of chert three feet thick." This flinty rock was traded all over, and made into arrowheads. Coral and abalone shells came all the way from the Pacific coast, and turquoise from Cerrillos, 50 miles distant. None of this is readily evident here, although occasionally artifacts are exposed by the wind and rain-and by fire ants, great excavators in their own right, as well as fierce defenders of their turf.
     We sift through sand in one of their mounds. "Ouch," says Dave, inspecting his bitten finger. "They're supposed to be hibernating." But I have spotted something pale blue reflecting the pure New Mexican sunlight, smaller than a nail head. Close inspection proves it to be a broken turquoise bead, a groove worn into the side by a cord long since destroyed by rain and the desert sun.
     Much of the Tsankawi's garbage and rubble was dumped over the north side of the mesa, where it lies today under more earth and sand. The cliff dwellings were all on the east and south sides, where they caught the sun in winter. Another ladder is to take us down, but before descending, Dave opens a pouch of tobacco and scatters some on the wind, another gesture of respect 'Tobacco was sacred, and still is."
     On the ledge below we examine holes dug into the pumice above the cavates for wood roof supports-vigas-that extended outward for the creation of exterior rooms. Many of these dwellings had second stories. Householders could stand on the roofs and chip petroglyphs into the cliff face: more spirals, stick figures, animals real and imagined, animate this place. "I think some of these were fairly mundane," Dave says. "Like, 'Turkey seller lives here.'" However, what may look like casual doodles in stone, or ancient graffiti, was all related to the natural world. Today its mystery and immediacy still mesmerizes.
     Some of the cavates served as kivas, which was typical among Pueblo people. We crawl inside one. The ceiling has been blackened by ancient fires, the hard-packed dirt floor once sealed with animal blood, an ancient substitute for floor wax.
     We lean against the wall. "Wait a while," Dave says. "You'll feel the power."
The November wind plays over the eroded cliff face, rattling brush. Dave says he has seldom seen anyone inside the kiva, just an occasional tourist, cautious with the darkness. He speculates that men once played drums in here, and begins to rhythmically pound the floor. The pumice walls resound like a hollow log. He begins to chant I have no idea what the words mean, and Dave never says, but this hidden domain reverberates with the combined voice of man and stone, distinctly otherworldly.

     Afterward, we walk back to the pickup in silence, careful to avoid the prickly pear cactus. Before climbing back into his pickup, Dave says thoughtfully, "I know a lot about this place. But I still feel like an interloper."

Comments, etc.:
To order my novel, Nose, click on:  

Friday, June 14, 2013

My Bay Area appearances in June:

Napa Writers
The Hatt Bldg.
Napa, CA
7 pm
Wed., June 12

1149 S. Main St.                                                      
Walnut Creek, CA 94596
3:00 pm
Saturday, June 15

San Francisco Ferry Building
1 Sausalito St., Ferry Bldg #42
San Francisco, CA
6:00 pm
Tuesday, June18

Women for WineSense
Ram's Gate Winery
Sonoma, CA
5:30  - 8
Thursdsay,  June 27

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Walk into America: Smoky Hill River

(Several years ago I went strolling in various parts of the country for National Geographic Traveler, accompanied by people who knew their terrains well: Big Cypress swamp, a frozen lake in Maine, Anastasi ruins in New Mexico and other interesting places including the Kansas beloved by one of the most interesting and dedicated environmentalists in America.)

     "I don't like the looks of that," says Wes Jackson, of a large, black, fast-moving, amoeba-shaped cloud on the southeastern outskirts of Salina, in the center of Kansas. A dozen twisters have touched down in this part of the state in the last 24 hours, killing ten people and demolishing at least one town, and more are predicted. The idea of a tornado as a possible hiking companion has gotten my attention, too. But the cloud moves on, the rain stops, and Wes ties on his slicker and sets out through the biological complexity that is the American Great Plains.
     The rare moisture has glazed the prairie grass and turned the burr oak leaves a fluorescent green. It has also transformed the Smoky Hill River into a torrent. "This is a true Great Plains river," Wes points out, with pride. 'Tart of the Kansas River watershed, it doesn't rise in the Rocky Mountains, and so is more vulnerable to global warming" because it doesn't receive the benefit of snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains 450 miles to the west. "The Smoky," as it's known locally, will eventually wind up in another flatlands river, the Missouri.
     For now, it runs through the roughly 600 acres owned by the Land Institute, a nonprofit Wes founded 30 years ago in an attempt to restore the natural prairie and by experimentation develop a strain of perennial wheat as an alternative to traditional agriculture. He believes such self-renewing plants can one day replace annuals designed in recent times for maximum production, those heavily fertilized monocultures that have proven unsustainable, depleting groundwater, sending soil airborne, and contributing to the decline of both plant and human communities.
Wes looks more like a heavy-set farmer in hiking boots than a respected maverick scientist, recipient of a MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 1992, and one of 18 people Life magazine predicted would most affect history as "important Americans of the 20th century."
     "We can't do better than nature," Wes is saying. "Period. If we accept that idea, it will prevent hubris and our treating everything as if it were expendable"-not just water from the steadily diminishing Ogallala Aquifer but also the national forests, even coal and oil poured into power plants and internal combustion engines. It's a familiar litany in America today, and a real concern, but for the moment the view is gorgeous.
     The distant floodplain on the far side of the Smoky is a carpet of unadulterated chlorophyll. Rolling hills on this side are studded with runty oaks and elms long adapted to this land. There are poppy mallow, blue-eyed grass, cat's claw, and prairie parsley, all of it obviously dear to this unconventional scientist. "It is possible," he wrote in his book Becoming Native to This Place, "to love a small acreage in Kansas as much as John Muir loved the entire Sierra Nevada."

     He hopes to turn what is now a rural ramble into a formal hiking trail forming a ten-mile loop connecting Salina with the countryside and enticing schoolchildren to walk it and learn about its plants, terrain, and history. Build it, and they will come. "We have to get people out into the country, particularly young people, to show them a little ruggedness and introduce them to the real world." He pauses on the edge of a 25-acre stretch of prairie in the process of being reclaimed. "I don't think this was ever plowed," an important distinction because long-intact root systems both hold the soil and retain the cellular makeup needed for renewal.
     Displayed on the wall of the greenhouse back at the institute is what appears to be a large mass of hair, but is in fact the sixfoot-long roots of a clump of prairie grass. The grass was grown inside a tube here to demonstrate its dense, tough life support system, a testament to the plant's hardiness and a problem for early settlers. When first plowing this land, in the mid-19th century, pioneers spoke of a twanging sound as the steel blade ripped through the roots, "a storm of wild music."
     Honey locust trees, an invasive species, have all been removed in the field, though a single osage orange tree still stands like a sentinel. The invasive brush will be burned off to allow native grass underneath it to regenerate, a natural process older than history. Pointing to a stand of burr oaks, Wes asks, "Why are the limbs on this one low, and on that one high? Same answer: fire. Fire has always been a factor in the renewal of this land, and this has to be explained to kids. We have to get them involved in prairie restoration, to understand that the biggest compliment they can pay the prairie is to restore it."
      His vision includes an ecologically concerned community where the houses are powered with wind machines-"we're the Persian Gulf of wind"-and the streets named for great scientists, so that their accomplishments would become familiar to young people. Crops would be grown down on the floodplain, and much of the work done by hand. If this sounds like a vestpocket eco-topia, well, it would be.
Wes has written about some abandoned acreage he bought on the far side of Salina: "I have imagined this as a place that could grow bison for meat...where photovoltaic panels could be assembled at the old booster station, where the school could become a gathering place that would be a partial answer to the mall."
     Typical of the idealistic approach that earned him a reputation for integrity and perseverance, this hiking trail is, too, an ancillary attempt to change peoples' perceptions. By providing visitors with a kind of functioning prairie diorama through which they can stroll, taking in plains phenomena from wild blue indigo to the tracks of US. cavalry wagons that passed through on their way west, the institute can help them learn, as I am doing.
     We cross a little ravine. "This was once filled with trash. The old farmer who owned it just left everything where he dropped it." After he died, $70,000 from his estate had to be paid to clear away all the trash and abandoned equipment. The Land Institute purchased the property, and now the water in the creek runs clear.
The next ridge supports yucca, a stalky reminder that this is arid country, and prickly pear cactus. "Imagine bringing seventh graders here and showing them a map, then drawing lines to show that this is on the far edges of both the Rocky Mountains' rain shadow and the Gulf of Mexico's moisture patterns." This explains the presence of prickly pear, which requires aridity to exist "And all this phlox is really good news," he adds enthusiastically, of a recently reestablished colony of the native perennial.
     Gathered on the hillside ahead of us are dark, vaguely ominous silhouettes: a dozen big bison, watching. "Their tails are up. That's a good sign, but make sure you keep a tree between you and them. Don't try to climb it, though," the little prairie oaks being too frail to support us.
     One of the bison cows is preoccupied with a drawn-out process of giving birth, and we pass safely by. Wes points to the eroded ruts that he believes were left by the U.S. cavalry prior to 1869. "They could have been coming from Fort Leavenworth on the Missouri to Fort Riley and Fort Hayes. Or they could have been heading for Council Grove, on the Santa Fe Trail. It was around here that General Custer shot his wife's horse while trying to kill a bison."

     We end up on the Wauhob Prairie, named for the person from whom Wes bought the land. Across Water Well Road from the institute, and only two and a half miles east of Sauna's Ninth Street, it has a parking lot where walkers can leave their cars before setting off on the roughly four-mile roundtrip, and a wooden bench for resting when they get back. Wes says with conviction, "This place will help people imagine how we're going to have to live in the future," for, after all, he has staked his career on it "The kids will understand, with explaining, that a real economy must feature recycling, and run on sunlight and wind."
     Lightning strikes far out to the west After a few seconds the reverberating crash rolls over us. "The unplowed prairie," says Wes, ignoring the rain, "holds answers to questions we've never asked."

Comments, etc.:
To order my novel, Nose, click on:  


Wednesday, June 5, 2013

From The Wine Enthusiast

Q&A: Bonfire of the Vineyards

Napa beware: Writer James Conaway is back on the beat.

Published on Jun 3, 2013
Journalist James Conaway, who charted Napa’s messy, meteoric rise in his best selling books Napa: The Story of an American Eden, and The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley, recently released Nose, his first fictional take on the wine region. We sit down with the writer to discuss fruit bombing, blogging and the Gatsby-esque qualities of not-a-few nouveau winery owners.
Wine Enthusiast: Why fiction instead of nonfiction this time?
James Conaway: I wanted to write more imaginatively about a subject I’m familiar with but to have some fun. For once I didn’t want to be bound by the strictures of journalism and almighty fact, and to explore the vaunted high-end wine trade. Specifically the hidden life of a critic with the world’s most celebrated nose.
WE: Why is California wine such a fascinating topic to you?
JC: I’ve always thought of wine as a keyhole through which to view society. California still epitomizes the American success story, with many of those in it wanting just to make great wine, but as many wanting to transform fortunes acquired in less glamorous ways into an approximation of art. I sometimes think of Napa and Sonoma as gigantic hot tubs full of latter-day Jay Gatsbys, trying to get 100 points on someone’s scale and soak up the adulation.
WE: What does Napa represent to you as time marches on?
JC: Napa is the apotheosis of the American family farm, with a product of little value in the 1950s that became one of the most valuable legal ones anywhere. Farmers have since been replaced by industrialists, entrepreneurs, showbiz personalities and inheritors who hire the real work out to immigrants.
WE: What’s your favorite way to spend a day there?
JC: I like hiking up behind the old Bale Mill and on the Palisade trail from Mount St. Helena down to Calistoga. I love the art collection at the Hess winery and the di Rosa art preserve, and walking the streets of St. Helena and the increasingly vibrant city of Napa that has begun to attract young people from all over the country, a kind of mini-Portland.
WE: What wines are you liking?
JC: I prefer reds, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon blends and those of the Rhône Valley, that have balance and slightly tighter structure, particularly those with lower alcohol and less fruit-in-the-face. I used to have a more extensive cellar but nowadays that’s less necessary, with wine being made more readily accessible and at reasonable prices. I still write about high-end wine on my blog, but for the most part I’m a mid range guy.
WE: Is Napa’s future bright?
JC: Quality will continue to rise while alcohol and fruit bombing will decline, which is good. There are still many more small, quality producers than large ones, but we have an odd bifurcation: so-called boutiques, and big corporations. The latter will continue to grow in size, and in my view are a great danger in such a small, vulnerable place.


To order my novel, Nose, click on:  

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Iconic Eyes

I was recently in Greece, looking at Byzantine art (and eating). Here's some of the former, from National Geographic's blog, Intelligent Travel:

       Icons are, for the uninitiated (that means most of us), an encounter with the unknown: religious paintings on wooden panels of great antiquity. For others, they take on great spiritual significance. And there’s no better place to see them than Thessaloniki in northern Greece.
      This often neglected city (despite being Greece’s second largest) should be visited by anyone planning a trip to the country — not just for its incredible store of Byzantine art but also for its beaches, tavernas, fortified city, and friendly if exotic ambience.
(Photograph by James Conaway)
A typical Byzantine icon depicting Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

      After all, this was once the gateway — depending on which direction you were headed — to Asia, the Balkans, and Athens and the Peloponnesus to the south. And you don’t have to be a believer to appreciate the painting and the mosaics that often adorn the walls of churches, basilicas, and monasteries. They’re made more potent by their very survival and by intricacies of craft so exacting and time consuming that they are almost unfathomable today.
      Two-dimensional, austere, alien, these masterpieces are also intensely mysterious, even frightening. Faces of apostles, Jesus, Mary, and assorted saints and angels appear as deer caught in the headlights of now. The problem that arises from staring into their big, soulful eyes is that you, too, become exposed to the passions of a complicated, often violent past — and to a spirituality palpable even if you believe in nothing at all.
      This is the lost world of Constantinople (now Istanbul), much of which was lost to invasion and physical destruction but is here preserved — at least in part. These gilded or kaleidoscopic surfaces, like the minds of artists and saints behind them, may seem impenetrable, but look at them for a couple of days running, as I just did, and an entirely different impression emerges. These gorgeous relics of a vital past tell a real story about the survival of the Greco-Roman tradition that essentially defines what we think of as “the West.”
      At a time when history could have taken a very different turn, the Byzantine civilization so well represented in Thessaloniki forestalled the Muslim invasion of Europe from the east by a millennium. In the process it strengthened the Greco-Roman tradition and helped define institutions — that we now take for granted — as far away as America.
      Many such treasures from Thessaloniki, Athens, and elsewhere in Greece never before seen outside that country are coming to Washington, D.C. this October. They’re part of a unique exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections, not just icons and mosaics but also rare glass work, jewelry, implements, sacred objects, frescoes and more.

To order my novel, Nose, click on:  

Monday, June 3, 2013

From Paul's Franson's NapaLife (

                   Women for WineSense  signing for Conaway’s Nose 

      New York Times bestselling author James Conaway will sign his latest book, Nose, at the Napa|Sonoma chapter of Women for WineSense at Ram’s Gate Winery in Sonoma Carneros on Thursday, June 27 at 5:30 p.m. The evening will feature an intimate conversation about hot-button issues in American wine today covered in Nose, including ratings, corporate domination, environmental concern and biodynamic farming.
       Guests can buy a copy of Nose, along with other Conaway books Napa and The Far Side of Eden, and have a chance to win a copy of Nose, all three titles and gift certificates from Reader’s Books. All proceeds from the raffle will go toward the chapter’s scholarship fund, which benefits enology students at local universities. Sip Ram’s Gate Sparkling Brut and nibble on light hors d’oeuvres prepared by executive chef Jason Rose.
       The evening’s events will include a discussion with the author led by me, Paul Franson, and a raffle that also benefits the chapter’s scholarship fund.
James Conaway’s love affair with wine took off when he was a wine columnist for the Washington Post. He has since authored three novels, including the recently released Nose.
He is also the author of nine nonfiction books, including the best-selling, Napa: The Story of an American Eden, and its sequel, The Far Side of Eden: Old Land, New Money and the Battle for Napa Valley.
He is a regular contributor to Smithsonian, National Geographic Traveler and Food & Wine magazines. He will also be the keynote speaker at the 13th annual Wine Bloggers’ Conference in early June.
Upcoming Napa|Sonoma chapter Women for WineSense events include “Meet our WWS Wine Industry Experts” at Chimney Rock Winery in Napa on June 6, “Connect with the WWS Community” at NapaStyle in Yountville on Aug. 15, “Women in Wine” at Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma on Sept. 12 and “Wine on America’s Holiday Table” on Dec. 12.
Buy tickets for $25 at Call 996-8740.