The best books I read in 2021

Fiction: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu, The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Nonfiction: Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez, Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl by Jonathan C. Slaght, Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald

Poetry: A Fortune for Your Disaster by Hanif Abdurraqib

A change of scenery

Little Sugar Creek, Charlotte, NC

I am becoming reacquainted with so much of what I took for granted— fireflies, downpours, indigo buntings. I didn’t expect it all to feel so familiar. I’ve never lived in the South, but after three years in the Great Basin, North Carolina Piedmont feels close to the home I’ve been homesick for.

At least at first glance. It’s dizzying to look closely and realize the leaves are in shapes I’ve never seen. I’m swimming through birdsong which is not quite identifiable, but lingers in the back of my mind. Is it that I used to know or that I am about to know? When I start feeling uneasy, the skittering of an anole around the trunk of a tree brings me back to my senses.

The best books I read in 2020

Fiction: On Earth Were Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

Non-fiction: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf, The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

Poetry: Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky

Lava Beds National Monument

At the deepest point of Heppe Ice Cave, there’s a pool of water that stays partially frozen throughout the year. When I hiked down into the cave last week, the layer of ice was visible about a foot under the water’s surface. I stood in twilight at high noon. A house finch flew down from the mouth of the cave and landed by my feet. He didn’t seem to mind me, just drank leisurely from the pool. I waited him out— watched him flutter and disappear back into the light.

Heppe Ice Cave

The Monument is 46,000 acres without a drop of surface water— only what snowmelt collects at the bottoms of lava tubes. A ranger told me that over the phone while I was planning the trip. I imagined an inhospitable landscape not capable of supporting human life, but I was terribly wrong.

Pictographs at Symbol Bridge

I didn’t take Tule Lake into consideration. Just north of the Monument, Tule Lake was massive before the Bureau of Reclamation drained most of it for irrigation in the early twentieth century. Tule Lake sustained Native populations for the last 11,000 years.

Sagebrush Mariposa Lily (Calochortus macrocarpus)

The north half of the Monument, closest to Tule Lake, was the site of the Modoc War of 1872-1873. At Captain Jack’s Stonghold, one can walk through the series of lava formations that Modoc leader Kintpuash and sixty followers used as trenches and fortification for five months. Despite their small numbers, they held off hundreds of US Army soldiers in a last-ditch attempt to protect their homeland. As a Jew, I was reminded of Masada.

Schonchin Butte Fire Lookout

Intent on catching the full moon rising, I hiked Schonchin Butte at sunset. It didn’t occur to me that it was the Fourth of July until I saw the miniature fireworks way out on the horizon. It was a terribly sad thing to see those fireworks over the battlefields, knowing that Kintpuash was ultimately hanged and the survivors were packed in cattle cars and shipped to a reservation Oklahoma.

There’s so much more to grapple with than the walls of caves.