American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains

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A Year in Reading: Ken Layne


What Artists Wear by Charlie Porter (2021)

How artists choose their daily uniforms is Charlie Porter’s subject in this delightful book that flows like a good conversation.

From Warhol’s uniform of Levi jeans and turtlenecks and Georgia O’Keefe’s simple tailored suits of perfectly draped black wool to Joshua Tree artist Andrea Zittel’s decades-long project of seasonal/daily uniforms and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paint-splattered Armani suits, Porter shows how artists—especially queer artists—subvert class, racial, and gender roles in their matter-of-fact approach to life.

By taking on a uniform, you simultaneously quit thinking about clothes and force the world to deal with you on your own terms. The book itself is beautiful, a stark Penguin paperback with many photographs throughout the elegant text.

Wilding: Returning Nature to Our Farm by Isabella Tree (2019)

What if we’ve misunderstood the habitat of threatened species as preferred rather than as a last refuge due to humans having claimed all the good habitat? Isabella Tree and her husband transformed their industrialized-agriculture family farm over three decades by letting nature reclaim it. The results have been astonishing, as rarely-seen wildlife has returned along with a healthier landscape that’s a blessing to the people who live there. Isabella Tree writes as if she’s convincing and charming you over dinner, which is how she brought so many of England’s environmental experts to support this simple yet radical approach.

American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains by Dan Flores (2017)

I’d read some of Dan Flores’s book on coyotes a few years ago and it didn’t do much for me, but this collection about the astonishing wildlife of the American Great Plains—still mostly wild only 150 years ago—is rich and visionary in its scope. Nowhere else in the United States is there such an opportunity to restore a massive ecosystem of bison, bears, wolves, and antelope living in a landscape as large and potentially Edenic as the middle of America.

Robinson Jeffers: Poet and Prophet by James Karman (2015)

Jeffers was the leading poet of America only a century ago, but his stubborn refusal to become a flag-waving warmonger made him fall out of favor. This book, originally the lengthy introduction to Jeffers’s collected works, is a wonderful introduction to this craggy romantic poet who made the wild California coast come alive as a rich literary landscape. There’s enough of Jeffers’s narrative verse within this volume to get you hooked.

Magic: A History: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present by Chris Gosden  (2020)

There hasn’t been a serious anthropological study of magic since The Golden Bough, so Chris Gosden’s thick book on the crucial role of magic in human society is necessary and convincing. Moving from one surprising archeological site to the next—many just now revealing their secrets—Gosden shows how magic is the root of both religion and science. His approach is careful and occasionally dry, but he’s writing for people who’ve been so severely disenchanted by the dull emptiness of modern life that anything else would scare them off.

The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (Library of the Mystic Arts) (1994) by Walter Evans-Wentz  (Author), Terence McKenna (Introduction)

Evans-Wentz is better known for his work in Tibetan religion, especially the English-language Tibetan Book of the Dead that spurred the Beats and the mystics of the 1960s-1990s to that magical form of Buddhism. But his earlier book on Celtic fairy belief and folklore, written as his thesis at Oxford, is his own research and writing. 

He illuminates a world that was already fading more than a century ago, the rustic pagan culture of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Cornwall, and Brittany. This is not a collection of fairy tales, but an account of his travels through these romantic lands and the deeply held beliefs and stories of the Celtic people. The accounts are eerie, mysterious, and enchanting.

The introduction, by psychedelic shaman Terence McKenna, puts this classic folkloric work into a modern context that will be appreciated by those who enjoy crystals and mushroom trips.

Miracle Country: A Memoir Hardcover by Kendra Atleework  (2020)

Here is a history of the Eastern Sierra and Owens Valley, that narrow land between Yosemite and the White Mountains of Nevada, delivered in the form of a memoir. Atleework is from this place, connected to Los Angeles by the infamous diversion of the Owens River yet five hours away by car, the only real way to get there. It’s the rare modern memoir where you learn something about the world, and this part of the world is sublime.

The Lost Years of William S. Burroughs: Beats in South Texas by Robert Earl Johnson Jr. (2006)

William S. Burroughs is unfashionable today, although it’s baffling how a queer American writer of such astonishing insight and humor has come to be seen as archaic—mostly by people who’ve never read him, as usual. 

This rewarding little history tracks Burroughs and his misfit gang during the little-known years he spent trying to be a farmer in the very bottom of Texas, closer to Mexico City than Dallas. Forever at odds with society, even his own oddball clan, Burroughs fails at agriculture but hardens into the outlaw he would become: slipping across the border for sex with men, failing to become a successful marijuana dealer, and creating the routines and characters that would make him a hero of the counter-culture by the time of his obscenity trial in Boston.

The Crown and the Cosmos: Astrology and the Politics of Maximilian I  by Darin Hayton (2015)

After I did a radio show about astrology and its importance to medieval rulers, professor Hayton sent me a copy of this heavily researched history of magical propaganda—in this case, the astrological politics of Emperor Maximilian I. Taking advantage of the printing press and spin doctors (who were doctors of astrology), this European monarch used divination not just for policy decisions, but as public justification of his wise rule endorsed by the stars themselves.

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