James William Gibson is a professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach.
As urban sprawl continues to overtake our landscape with freeways, shopping centers, housing tracts and office parks, we seem to long for a life rooted in a sense of place. America's writers and photographers have been busy documenting what has been lost, retracing forgotten journeys and meditating on history in ways to make us once again feel at one with the land beneath our feet.
Robert Dawson and Gray A. Brechin's haunting collection of photographs and essays in Farewell Promised Land: Waking From the California Dream (California) portrays California's landscape from the Forty-Niners' destruction of streams and mountains to 20th-century transformations caused by agribusiness, refineries and development.
Freeman House and his friends living along the Mattole River in northern California spent years trying to save a remnant population of King salmon from extinction. House tells that moving story in his reflective memoir, Totem Salmon: Life Lessons from Another Species (Beacon).
Alan Boyle walked a thousand miles to write Holding Stone Hands: On the Trail of the Cheyenne Exodus (Nebraska), his story about 300 Cheyenne exiled by the U.S. Army to the Indian Territory of Oklahoma in 1878, and their desperate, bloody escape across the Great Plains to their homeland in Montana. Accompanied on the long trek by Samuel Spotted Elk Jr. and Andrew Sootkis, two direct descendants of Cheyenne Chief Dull Knife (who led the attempt), Boyle alternates his own story with the 1878 account.
Jonathan Raban makes a 1,000-mile trip, too, in his finely written Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings (Pantheon). Following British explorer George Vancouver's 1792 voyage up the coast from what is now Seattle to Juneau, Raban writes insightful commentary on the people of the Northwest -- from original Indian inhabitants to 18th- and 19th-century explorers and fur traders to contemporary workers and observers -- and how they have found different meanings in the often turbulent waters of "The Inside Passage."
Bone by Bone (Random House), the last novel in a trilogy by Peter Matthiessen, takes place in the late 19th-century Florida Everglades. In a brilliant meditation on frontier violence, Matthiessen weaves together war, murder and the desecration of the environment -- as characters kill in the name of race, riches and honor.