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Know the West

Solo journeys, life lessons

  The nine essays in Mary Beath's new book celebrate nature from the viewpoint of an "independent woman pursuing adventures that include self-exploration." An avid hiker, the artist and award-winning poet moved to New Mexico from New York almost 20 years ago. Her title piece sums up this collection's recurring theme: the risks and rewards of self-reliance in "complicated territory."

The backcountry offers challenges, especially on the solo backpacking trips Beath loves. When she sets off for a week in Colorado's Weminuche Wilderness Area, with a pack as heavy as a "huge moose," the weather deteriorates, and the trail's frightening cliffs at the aptly named Knife Edge test her resolve. Later, men on horseback and other hikers arrive and take shelter nearby, ending her solitude's "internal cleansing." But the visitors bring benefits, too, not the least of which are steaming hot coffee and skillet-fried pork chops for supper.

In another essay, protecting these cherished places in the West becomes her goal. "Differential Weathering: A Wilderness Lobbyist's Field Notebook" recounts a venture in Washington, D.C., in 1995, when the Utah Wilderness Coalition asked Beath to join other "redrock addicts" in an effort to prevent the paving of a route to Bullfrog Marina. For both Beath and her readers, this effort to sway Congress is an eye-opener. Back East, "nature meant a framed watercolor" and consensus held that if Western lands weren't being mined, drilled, or logged, if rivers weren't being dammed, what use were they? Seeing firsthand "Washington's isolation from the land it attempted to administer" taught Beath many valuable lessons.

Other lessons -- a fascinating study of agricultural techniques in "Zuni Maize," of peregrine falcons in "The Brilliant Air," of Baja California in "The First Rule" -- cover complicated scientific territory. Readers may find Beath's prose sometimes long-winded and self-indulgent, but her honest respect and love for the Western landscapes she experiences and shares inspire thought as well as pleasure.