Books

Books: Diving into the underground

Selections from the Taos Public Library’s new releases section

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This week’s books were borrowed from Taos Public Library’s new releases section. The first is a ranger’s memoir about his experiences at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The second is a novel about the women married to the men working in Los Alamos during World War II.

Underground Ranger

Caving is not for those who would be uncomfortable exploring deep, dark places or crawling through narrow passages. But nature has created so much beauty hidden underground.

Fortunately, author Doug Thompson shares his experiences as a park ranger at Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

Thompson, now retired, began his career as a national park ranger in the early 1970s. Prior to his arrival at Carlsbad in 1995, he had been stationed at various national sites, including the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.

During his six years at Carlsbad, Thompson presented guided tours and other interpretative programs while interacting with the park’s visitors. He also got to explore caves not available to the public. After all, Carlsbad Cavern refers to the park’s largest and best-known cave. The park has at least 120 others.

Thompson did have to overcome claustrophobia to handle tight spaces when he first started. He also had to learn to use ropes to descend and climb inside caves.

But he was game.

Of course, there are rules for cavers — please don’t call them spelunkers. Here’s the “rule of three.” First, tell at least three people where you’re going and when you’ll get back. Second, go into a cave with at least two other people. Third, make sure each person carries at least three independent light sources.

And it appears those who cave together share a close bond, at least in Thompson’s experience.

Thompson also hiked the Chihuahuan Desert, which he says was a pleasant respite from the hazards of caving trips. (Carlsbad has 46,000 acres of desert.)

“I didn’t have to be concerned about tight spaces, heights, nylon ropes, technical equipment, or the rule of three. I could hike alone, move at my own pace, and wander wherever I wanted to go. All I had to do was take along plenty of water.”

Along the way, Thompson gives us some history concerning Carlsbad, plus information about the park’s geology, animals, vegetation and American Indian lore.

Better yet, Thompson takes readers along as he explores caves with such names as Ogle Cave and Lechuguilla Cave.

The book does provide some grainy black-and-white photos for those curious about the cave formations Thompson saw way below. Or go to his website – parkrangerdoug.com – to enjoy them in color.

“Underground Ranger,” published by the University of New Mexico Press, is a 257-page paperback that costs $24.95.

The Wives of Los Alamos

No, they’re not that kind of wives — the ones from those reality TV shows. They’re the fictionalized significant others of the scientists who helped create the atomic bomb during World War II.

Author TaraShea Nesbit presents an intriguing scenario about the women who were uprooted from their homes to live under secrecy and in uncomfortable conditions at Los Alamos. They had no idea what they were getting themselves into in 1943.

“Our husbands joined us in the kitchen and said, We are going to the desert, and we had no choice except to say Oh my! As if this sounded like great fun. Where? We asked, and no one answered.”

Nesbit uses the first-person plural — “we” — throughout the novel. The sentence structure may be poetic and perhaps fitting of the secrecy that enveloped Los Alamos, but frankly, it’s a bit off-putting. My preference would have been an in-depth fictionalized account of one woman or a few rather than skimming the surface.

Still, she covers a lot of ground: birthing and raising children, running households, plus maintaining relationships with their overworked husbands. They — or rather “we” — develop friendships during this temporary isolation.

The Los Alamos wives have only censored contacts with family living elsewhere. They have to adjust to life in the high desert.

“When we wanted to leave we were fingerprinted, and even then we could only go as far as Santa Fe. We were told, for the millionth time, secrecy was imperative.”

Many of the “we” are well-educated women. They gave up pursuing a degree or career to marry and have children, but this was the ’40s.

Then comes the realization of what the Manhattan Project really entailed — atomic bombs dropped on Japan to force its surrender. “We felt ashamed, we felt proud, we felt confused.”

Nesbit teaches creative writing at Miami University. “The Wives of Los Alamos,” her debut novel, is a 233-page hardcover published by Bloomsbury. It costs $25.

Livingston is a writer and reader living in Ranchos de Taos. For more, visit joanlivingston.net.

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