Reading the North

John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire

Kim Heacox (Lyons Press, $25.95)

The blurb: The book takes two of the most compelling elements in the narrative of wild America, John Muir and Alaska, and combines them into a brisk and engaging biography.

John Muir was a fascinating man who was many things: inventor, scientist, revolutionary, druid (a modern-day Celtic priest), husband, son, father and friend, and a shining son of the Scottish Enlightenment, both in temperament and intellect. Kim Heacox, author of "The Only Kayak," brings us a story that evolves as Muir's life did, from one of outdoor adventure into one of ecological guardianship. Muir went from impassioned author to leading activist. The book is not just an engaging and dramatic profile of Muir, but an expose on glaciers and their importance in the world today. Muir shows us how one person changed America, helped it embrace its wilderness and, in turn, gave us a better world.

Muir's legacy is that he reordered our priorities and contributed to a new scientific revolution that was picked up a generation later by Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, and is championed today by influential writers like E.O. Wilson and Jared Diamond.

Heacox takes us into how Muir changed our world, advanced the science of glaciology, popularized geology and gave America a new vision of Alaska, and of itself.

Excerpt: Man and dog climbed the east flank of the mighty glacier, a vast plateau of ice broken into a bewitching maze of crevasses. They worked their way north. Muir kept telling the dog to be careful, but Stickeen, according to Muir, "showed neither caution nor curiosity, wonder nor fear, but bravely trotted on as if glaciers were playgrounds. His stout muffled body seemed all one skipping muscle."

Man and dog gained confidence from the other, and soon they were deep into the glacial maze, beyond the point of an easy return. In every direction was an ocean of ice. The sky darkened with heavy clouds and gave only an occasional hint of the position of the sun, a signpost back to camp. The rain turned to wet, blinding snow. The temperature fell, and Stickeen trotted on with his usual aplomb.

Muir made guesswork of which way to go. For hours they jumped many smaller crevasses and winnowed their way through obstacles. But then they came upon a crevasse so deep and wide they were forced to move a mile to the left, then a mile to the right, each time without success. The only route home, Muir knew, was over a long sliver of ice, like a suspension cable, that bridged the chasm. It began 10 feet below the brink and ran seventy feet across to the other side, ending again 10 feet below the brink. A sobering prospect, rife with peril.

Wet and shivering and smart enough to know the fix they were in, Stickeen whimpered while Muir used his ice axe to cut steps down to the ice bridge, then across it, careful not to look down as his "other self" took over: "At such times one's whole body is eye, and common skill and fortitude are replaced by power beyond our call or knowledge." Muir notched steps on the other side and hauled himself up.

Stickeen ran back and forth on the opposite side, howling with despair. He stopped and stared at the task before him, the impossibility of it, and cried more. The day was ending, the light fading. It was now or never. Down on his knees, Muir encouraged Stickeen from the other side. Again, the dog howled with despair. Then slowly he took one step down where Muir had cut a notch, and another, easing his trembling body one step at a time, doing his best, suspended above a sudden frozen death.

"Hush your fears, my boy," Muir said. "We will get across safe, though it is not going to be easy. No right way is easy in this rough world. We must risk our lives to save them."

Gyre: The Plastic Ocean

Editor, Julie Decker (Booth-Clibborn Editions, $25)

The blurb: Both rising sea temperatures and acidification are due to become increasingly extreme throughout this century, along with other climate change impacts such as rising sea levels and more frequent and severe storms. Other modern inventions, too, affect the health of our ocean, including fishing methods and large catches, oil and gas extractions, alien species and pollution.

Most pollution in the ocean originates from industry, agriculture or domestic sources on land -- whether dumped directly into the sea or reaching it via rivers and air currents. The release of sewage and waste into coastal ecosystems has complex impacts, including being transferred up the food chain to impact human health.

One of the most visible types of ocean trash is plastic. It can be seen walking along a beach. Everything from straws to foam carry-out containers and bottle caps wash up on shores around the world. Plastic is a modern material, used in many aspects of daily life and therefore a big part of the waste stream. It's not easy to imagine the plastic straw used to sip a soda in a movie theater becoming an attractive plaything for a marine mammal, but once waterborne, plastic travels.

A gyre is a large-scale circular feature made up of ocean currents that spiral around a central point -- clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere. Worldwide, there are five major subtropical oceanic gyres: the North and South Pacific Subtropical Gyres, the North and South Atlantic Subtropical Gyres and the Indian Ocean Subtropical Gyre. The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is the one most notable because of its tendency to collect debris. It is made up of four large clockwise-rotating currents: the North Pacific, California, North Equatorial and Kuroshio. It is very difficult to measure the exact size of a gyre because it is a fluid system, but the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is roughly estimated to be 7 to 9 million square miles. Since plastic floats, many of these gyres are colorful testaments to human consumption.

Excerpt: In 2010, a 37-foot dead gray whale washed up on a rocky beach in West Seattle. While it was not the first whale to die in the Puget Sound that year, the necropsy surprised responders. Plastics, duct tape, rope, fishing line, sweat pants, towels, a juice pack, a sock, a golf ball, a 5 A Day fruit and vegetable bag and a host of other foreign items swirled around in its stomach. According to Cascadia Research, a nonprofit that helped lead the examination, while there was no clear cause of death, the amount of human debris in the whale's stomach was larger than what they had ever found before. "Most of the gray whales we see have plant material and wood chips in their stomachs," said Jessie Huggins, a stranding coordinator with Cascadia Research. "We hadn't seen that volume of trash before, so it was very surprising.'"

Gray whales are bottom feeders, which means they eat near the sea floor, filtering tiny prey from water, sediment and foreign objects through large baleen plates. Unfortunately, the food they filter is not always food; it can be plastic bags, textiles or any other debris found in industrial, coastal waters. The irony of a whale eating the very non-nutritious plastic remains of a 5 A Day nutrition campaign should not be lost on anyone.

There is no solid data on how many marine mammals ingest plastic and other debris each year, but the Seattle incident is certainly not isolated. There are anecdotes from all over the globe, covering a range of species. For example, two sperm whales stranded on the Northern California coast in 2008 had large amounts of plastic debris and fishing nets in their stomachs -- nearly 134 different types of nets between the two.

One whale's stomach was ruptured, and the other whale was emaciated. Both likely died from the debris blockage. Just recently, in March 2013, scientists in southern Spain found nearly 38 pounds (17 kg) of plastic sheeting used to make greenhouses protruding from a dead sperm whale's stomach. One responder reportedly said, "there was so much plastic that it finally exploded."

Compiled by Kathleen Macknicki, Anchorage Daily News