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Places: Habitats of a Human Lifetime
By Philip Shabecoff
Becket Mountain Books, $12.50
Reviewed by TOM HENRY
Don’t let Phil Shabecoff fool you. “Places: Habitats of a Human Lifetime” is more than a memoir of the places he holds dear.
This groundbreaking environmental journalist shares some juicy tales of his upbringing in the Bronx, his glory days (and some not-so glory ones) at the New York Times, various thoughts on covering former President Richard Nixon as a Washington correspondent and what it was like to have a front-row seat when many of America’s landmark environmental laws were passed in the 1970s.
Along the way, he offers a taste of the Times’ newsroom politics, revealing his views on some editors he liked and some he despised.
The places he holds dear — mostly in the Northeast and Europe, with impressions of some faraway places such as East Africa, Japan, and Vietnam — serve as more than a backdrop, though. They are weaved into a beautiful literary tapestry that is part history lesson and part wilderness tonic along the lines of what Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold would have written.
The story begins and ends near an idyllic lake and forest near the top of Becket Mountain in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts. Shabecoff’s peace and serenity come from the family’s Barn, a simple-yet-soothing structure that sounds like the sort of thing Thoreau and Leopold would have approved.
As you’re reading, it dawns on you this is the prose of a retired newspaperman, but it’s not. It’s much more. There’s simplicity, candor, and modesty in Shabecoff’s writing, but — when the focus shifts back to the settings he has chosen to tell his life story — there is warmth, compassion and a vivid sense of awe and appreciation for nature.
What you learn from Shabecoff and the places of his life is that, yes, humans are interconnected through a common ecology, but our view of the world can be shaped by the microcosms and memories that form us individually as people.
The distance between the Bronx and the Shabecoff Barn isn’t all that much in miles, but it is in perspective. This book is part travelogue and part career retrospective, in a tone that meanders from frank observations to poetry. You’ll find yourself breezing through it one moment, then pausing to reflect another.
Tom Henry writes for The (Toledo) Blade. He is a member of SEJ’s board of directors, SEJournal’s editorial board and is SEJournal’s book editor.
* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2013. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.