by Luke Baumgarten & r & Live! From Death Valley by John Soennichisen & r & Lord, what a book this might have been! What a topic! Death Valley, with its pillars of salt, its insane weather and its abundant, absurdly specialized life forms, is exactly the kind of natural freak show to get the pseudo-scientist in me all sexed up. It's the lowest point in the Western world. It'd be a lot lower if sludge from the dried remnants of a massive, ancient inland sea hadn't hardened to form a thousand-foot-thick slab of salt. Fantastic! If only Cheney author John Soennichsen could keep his attention on Death Valley.
More often than not, though, he uses the bizarre particulars of the Valley as a jumping-off point for talking about other, broader themes in geology and sociology, as though Death Valley were a metaphor for the world and its inhabitants (which it isn't). As though it weren't, in itself, enough to fill 170 pages (which it is).
That's a shame, because when Soennichsen does focus on the Valley, the stories he weaves are compelling. When he stays honed in, alert on fleshing out his starkly gorgeous subject -- explaining it, humanizing it -- he tells some great stories. For example, the story of how one-third of an inch of rain closed the park for 10 days illustrates simply all the points Soennichson so languorously makes elsewhere (that small changes usually snowball into catastrophes, that nature rarely gives warnings and that, really, this is no place for people).
I would have loved more stories like that of the minnow-like pupfish, which lives in 120-degree water that is six times as salty as the ocean. More isn't always better, though. The tale of William Lewis Manly stretches out too long before chugging to a conclusion.
Early in the book, Soennichsen explains that Death Valley is actually a "fault-formed trough." Originally 10,000 feet deeper, it gradually filled with debris. Not quite a memoir and not quite a geologic text, Live! from Death Valley, has a trough of its own. Soennichsen doesn't provide enough interesting scientific and anecdotal details to fill the maw. Ultimately, the book, is best illustrated by Death Valley at its formation: deep in spots, but only half full.
John Soennichsen will read from his new book at Auntie's on Thursday, Oct. 13, at 7:30 pm.