Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Dispatches from the Vanishing World

A website almost isn’t big enough for Alex Shoumatoff. He writes long, long pieces that seem to contain everything he learns about a subject and yet avoid seeming like an information dump – which is one of the things that make a good non-fiction writer. Shoumatoff used to work for The New Yorker. Most of his work, including relatively up-to-date things, appear on his website, Dispatches from the Vanishing World.

When he lived in New Rochelle in the 1980s, I tracked him down and contrived to go interview him about something-or-other, mainly because I was a fan and wanted to meet him. He then moved to the Adirondacks and coincidentally settled right up the road from where I used to live.

I like his stuff because, among other things, as he has gotten older he has become more steadfast in his belief that the natural world and important cultures are being destroyed by the forces of “progress” and he says it in compelling ways, with compelling stories and descriptions of trips he has taken. Someone once said of Jonathan Schwartz, the disc jockey, that he takes himself seriously but he takes his listeners seriously too – which is rare. Substitute “readers” for “listeners” and the same applies to Shoumatoff.

Scroll around his site and find The Garter Snake Dens of Manitoba, and his dispatch from the Gulf of Maine. One of my favorites is an old Talk of the Town piece, from ’85, about sea turtles in Long Island Sound, which prompted me to write a chapter about sea turtles for my book (I ultimately dropped it because it didn’t fit it very well).

He has a new piece, not yet on his site but online at NRDC’s journal, about a power company’s plan to desecrate an incredible wilderness in Manitoba.

These aren’t the quick hits of a blog, but they’re well worth reading and his site is worth knowing about.


Anonymous Robert Funicello said...

Alex Shoumatoff, years ago, wrote one of the most interesting and enlightening books about Westchester County. I can't remember the title but it was a series of essays describing the County's natural and cultural setting. It showed Alex has an excellent eye and voice. I had lost track of him, so thank you for alerting us to Dispatches. Do you remeber his wonderful brother Nick, the naturalist at Pound Ridge? What happened to him?

9:26 AM  
Anonymous Tom Andersen said...

Shoumatoff's book was called "Westchester: Portrait of a County," I believe.

Nick was into Native American culture and took a Lenni Lenape name, He Who Stands Firm. I met him only once or twice. I remember sitting in the office at Trailside Museum more than two decades ago and watching as a man came in who was obviously Native American; Nick took him to a back room, reached behind some books on a bookcase, and handed the visitor a bald eagle feather. The man hid it under his coat and departed.

I'm not sure where Nick is now but every once in a while he does a presentation at Trailside. My impression was that he was a smart, gentle, nature-loving eccentric.

1:26 PM  
Blogger john massengale said...

Well, you could obviously find Nick by sending Alex an e-mail, but alternatively, you could ask Foxy Gwynn, or Jim at Stewart's. When his father was still alive and had the house on 22, Nick used to drop in at Stewart's whenever he visited his father.

12:21 AM  

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