Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - February 26, 2010

A witness to world change

Travel writer Paul Theroux has seen the environment evolve — with population booms, erosion, deforestation

by Karla Kane

Best-selling author and world traveler Paul Theroux has seen it all and written about much of it.

The U.S.-born writer and adventurer has spent years in Africa, traveled across Europe and Asia by railway, kayaked the South Pacific and otherwise journeyed to the ends of the Earth. On March 1, he will make the voyage to Mountain View to speak as part of the Peninsula Open Space Trust's Wallace Stegner Lecture Series.

Theroux, who has authored more than 30 novels and 16 nonfiction books, got involved with the Stegner series because, he said in a recent phone interview, "environmental travel interests me."

"I will be talking about my experiences with travel and the way the landscapes I've seen have changed in my lifetime," Theroux said. The series explores ideas about nature and conservation, and human relationships with the land.

His talk will focus on his perspective on the environmental transformations he has observed as a traveler, rather than as a trained ecologist or activist.

"I am coming from an unscientific perspective. I haven't studied these issues but it's what I've seen as an eyewitness to these places and their changes," he said.

Since beginning his travels in the 1960s, Theroux said, he's observed that many of the countries he has visited are "immeasurably worse off" environmentally now than in years past. Populations have boomed and landscapes such as those of Malawi have been degraded by erosion, deforestation and development. On the other hand, nations such as Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore "seem to have a grip on things, but so many places have so much political corruption and are out of control," he said.

Over the years, Theroux's books have taken readers on journeys to many different landscapes. His tales are as diverse in setting and content as his travels themselves. They include the 1982 novel "The Mosquito Coast," about an American family moving to the jungles of Central America, which was made into a feature film. His 1975 nonfiction book "The Great Railway Bazaar" chronicles the author's real-life adventures traveling from London to Tokyo and back via train.

His newest book, "A Dead Hand," set in Calcutta, was released in the United States this month.

Centering another novel in India (his first was 2007's "The Elephanta Suite") "thrilled me," Theroux said. In "A Dead Hand," a tale of intrigue, a corpse is found in a hotel room under mysterious circumstances. Want to know more?

"You'll have to read the book," he said.

The ever-prolific Theroux is already planning his next projects, including an Africa-set novel and a travel anthology, which will be a compilation of many of his favorite pieces of travel writing.

While he's not globetrotting or authoring books, Theroux keeps busy in Hawaii, his home of nearly 20 years, with hobbies that reflect his keen interest in the natural world. He's growing bamboo (which he calls "the crop of the future"), raising flocks of geese and even practicing beekeeping.

"Everything to do with geese, I find fascinating," he said. He's written about his observations on the social habits of his feathered friends for Smithsonian Magazine, and currently lives with six domesticated geese of various breeds, although he has had up to 20 in the past.

His interest in beekeeping stemmed from its popularity among such literary icons as Sherlock Holmes. Theroux has even collected and sold his own honey.

"Honey is like wine. It depends on the weather, the types of flowers, the seasons," he said.

His experiences with beekeeping form another topic of environmental interest, as he has witnessed local apiaries suffer in recent years.

Hawaii's sunny, warm weather makes good conditions for bees, he said. However, Theroux, like many Hawaiians, experienced a drastic decrease in hives eight years ago, due to an invasion of harmful mites. And small-time honey businesses struggle to compete against the low-quality, corn-syrup-based honey sold on the mass market.

"Beekeepers have a hard time," he said.

Though he has visited many of the world's most cherished landmarks and exotic locales, Theroux said in some ways, there's no place like home. The United States has among the most spectacular and diverse of natural wonders, he said, and writing satisfactorily about North America has proven difficult for him thus far.

"It is a great surprise to travel in your own country, and it's very hard to write about. I would love to, but it's hard to find a way to write about it, to find a way of penetrating the culture and subcultures," he said, naming the Bay Area as one of his favorite parts of the American West.

"For seeing the glories of the world, look at the landscapes of New Mexico, of California. Nothing on Earth can compare to what we have; it's so amazing. There's very little to compare it to and that's the truth," he said.

What: Author Paul Theroux, speaking as part of POST's 2010 Wallace Stegner Lecture Series

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.

When: March 1 at 8 p.m.

Cost: Tickets are $22.

Info: Call 650-903-6000 or go to http://openspacetrust.org .

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