Travels along the Ring Road
An island is a world out of time and place, separated by literal and figurative oceans, where the confines of reality are tenuous and magic may be possible. Iceland—with its relative isolation, enchanting mythologies, creative people, and the otherworldly wild beauty of its glaciers, geysers, volcanos, and fjords—encompases this special magic in the minds of many, including writer Kurt Caswell.
Vividly illustrated by Julia Oldham, Iceland Summer recounts Caswell’s journey traversing the country by foot and bus accompanied by his lifelong friend Scott. The pair set out from Reykjavík and travel clockwise along the Ring Road, stopping along the way for backcountry walking trips. Caswell immerses himself in the natural beauty and charming eccentricities of the tiny island nation. With his drinking and hiking buddy by his side, and fueled by a steady diet of Brennivín (fermented grain mash) and pylsur (Icelandic hot dogs), he explores the Hornstrandir peninsula, walks to the famed Dettifoss waterfall, waits for a glimpse of the lake monster Lagarfljótsormurinn at Egilsstaðir, visits the world’s only penis museum, and pays homage to centuries of Icelandic literary tradition at the Árni Magnússon Institute.
Writing in the tradition of other pairs who have traveled in Iceland, like W. G. Collingwood and Jón Stefánsson, and W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, Caswell meditates on the value of wild places in the modern world, travel as both pastime and occupation, the nature of friendship, and walking, food, and literature. Scott is the Sancho Panza to Caswell’s Don Quixote, offering a ribald humor that grounds Caswell’s flights into the romantic. The two travel well together and together arrive at the understanding that what anchors them both is their lifelong friendship.
The Legacy of a Soviet Space Dog
Laika began her life as a stray dog on the streets of Moscow and died in 1957 aboard the Soviet satellite Sputnik II. Initially the USSR reported that Laika, the first animal to orbit the earth, had survived in space for seven days, providing valuable data that would make future manned space flight possible. People believed that Laika died a painless death as her oxygen ran out. Only in recent decades has the real story become public: Laika died after only a few hours in orbit when her capsule overheated. Laika’s Window positions Laika as a long overdue hero for leading the way to human space exploration.
Kurt Caswell examines Laika’s life and death and the speculation surrounding both. Profiling the scientists behind Sputnik II, he studies the political climate driven by the Cold War and the Space Race that expedited the satellite’s development. Through this intimate portrait of Laika, we begin to understand what the dog experienced in the days and hours before the launch, what she likely experienced during her last moments, and what her flight means to history and to humanity. While a few of the other space dog flights rival Laika’s in endurance and technological advancements, Caswell argues that Laika’s flight serves as a tipping point in space exploration “beyond which the dream of exploring nearby and distant planets opened into a kind of fever from which humanity has never recovered.”
Examining the depth of human empathy—what we are willing to risk and sacrifice in the name of scientific achievement and our exploration of the cosmos, and how politics and marketing can influence it—Laika’s Window is also about our search to overcome loneliness and the role animals play in our drive to look far beyond the earth for answers.
GETTING TO GREY OWL
Journeys on Four Continents
Getting to Grey Owl: Journeys on Four Continents chronicles over twenty years of Caswell’s travels as he buys a rug in Morocco, rides a riverboat in China, attends a bullfight in Spain, climbs four mountains in the United Kingdom, and backpacks a challenging route through Iceland’s wild Hornstrandir Peninsula.
Writing in the tradition of such visionary nomads as Hermann Hesse, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux, Pico Iyer, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth, Caswell travels through wild and urban landscapes, as well as philosophical and ideological vistas, championing the pleasures of a wandering life.
Far from the trappings of the everyday, he explores a range of ideas: the meaning of roads and pathways, the story of Cain and Abel, nomadic life and the evolution of the human animal, the role of agriculture in the making of the modern world, and the fragility of love.
IN THE SUN'S HOUSE
My Year Teaching on the Navajo Reservation
In the year he spent teaching at Borrego Pass, a remote Navajo community in northwest New Mexico, Kurt Caswell found himself shunned as persona non grata. His cultural missteps, status as an interloper, and white skin earned him no respect in the classroom or the community—those on the reservation assumed he would come and go like so many teachers had before.
But as Caswell attempts to bridge the gap between himself and those who surround him, he finds his calling as a teacher and develops a love for the rich landscape of New Mexico, and manages a hard-won truce between his failings and successes.
AN INSIDE PASSAGE
Although finding a way to feel at home in the world is ultimately the life’s work of us all, rarely has the search ranged as far or found as precise and moving an expression as it does in An Inside Passage. Winner of the 2008 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize, Kurt Caswell’s narrative chronicles his travels in the rugged mountain forests of Japan’s Shiretoko National Park, on a vision quest in Death Valley, and to the sacred waters of the Ganges River.
Whether contemplating a great blue heron as it rests riverside at the onset of a storm, reflecting on a beloved student’s untimely death, walking through the Navajo reservation, or receiving the blessing of a Hindu priest, Caswell unerringly finds the moment of truth.
His journey also takes us across the landscape of his marriage, both its initial sweetness and its eventual failure. The ensuing inner dislocation echoes a larger estrangement that makes more poignant Caswell’s quest to find a place he can call home.
TO EVERYTHING ON EARTH
New Writing on Fate, Community, and Nature
In October 2004, Barry Lopez invited a group of writers to meet with him, Bill McKibben, Alan Weisman, and Dennis Covington at the Junction campus of Texas Tech University. Out of this meeting grew a community that has since collaborated on initiatives and projects tied to fate, community, and nature.
To Everything on Earth is a journey through many landscapes. It begins with stories that look at the external landscape, the world around us, asking hard questions about the capacity to destroy what we love best.
The stories then turn inward, into the human heart, searching for an answer there. The journey ends by addressing perhaps the central question of our time: how best do we make a home on earth?