Carl Boenish and the Origins of BASE Jumping

This weekend sees the debut of Sunshine Superman, a documentary about BASE jumping pioneer Carl Boenish. It's a film that's become much more poignant, and perhaps much more important, in the wake of last weekend's BASE jumping accident that claimed the lives of Dean Potter and Graham Hunt. I spoke with the film's director, Marah Strauch, for a Q&A for Outside.

It was in Yosemite in the late 1970s that Boenish started what was then known as fixed object parachuting or cliff jumping. An electrical engineer turned aerialist, Boenish left his job behind to pursue skydiving and aerial cinematography full-time. “But,” as he says in an archival interview in the film, “after 1,500 skydives over 15 years, you become so proficient at it that you wonder, ‘Well, what else is out there.’” 

Boenish became the ringleader of a band of likeminded jumpers, including his wife, Jean Boenish, who graduated from the cliffs of Yosemite to other objects and locations. He had an offbeat charisma that sometimes verged on manic, but he was also highly organized and practical. He worked tirelessly to legitimize BASE jumping as a legal sport and cataloged its development obsessively, mounting 16mm film cameras to his and his partners’ helmets.

His death, during a jumping accident in Norway in 1984, the day after he and Jean set the Guinness record for world’s highest cliff jump, came as a jolt to a sport still in its infancy. And though decades have passed, Boenish's death—and the film—provokes the same conversations we’re having now after this week’s tragedy. (Boenish was 43 when he died—the same age as Potter.)

The film itself, which took eight years to complete, is a tremendous feat of research, storytelling, and imagination It splices together Boenish’s personal footage with atmospheric recreations of scenes for which no footage existed, and includes interviews—sometimes funny, sometimes confounding, often emotional—with his co-conspirators from those early days. 

(Click through to Outside to read my conversation with director Marah Strauch.)

The Other Man: Remembering Graham Hunt (1986-2015)

An accident during a wingsuit BASE jump in Yosemite on Saturday claimed the lives of jumpers Dean Potter and Graham Hunt. While Potter was a legend in the outdoors world, Hunt was relatively unknown, and in the wake of the tragedy, most of the chatter centered on Potter, rendering Hunt little more than a footnote. To shed a little more light on Hunt's life, I did some reporting, spoke with his friends, and came up with this remembrance, published on Outside's site today. Click through for the full article.

Since the news began to filter out that two men had died in a wingsuit-flying accident in Yosemite on Saturday, thousands of words have been written about one of them, Dean Potter, 43, and far fewer about the other, Graham Hunt, 29. 

Which makes sense: Potter was a towering figure in the outdoor sports world, a renowned-climber-turned innovator, and a proselytizer for a range of high-altitude pursuits, among them highlining, free-BASEing, and, of course, BASE jumping and wingsuit flying. So when word came that Potter had died, the tributes poured out, many of them nearly ready-made, because, while tragic, Potter’s passing was not entirely unexpected. 

Hunt, on the other hand, was mostly unknown outside of the close-knit fraternity of BASE jumpers and climbers in the Yosemite orbit. What’s more, his complete disinterest in self-promotion and nearly non-existent digital footprint rendered him un-Googleable, which has meant that most of the coverage in the immediate wake of his death barely registered who he was, other than that he happened to be flying with Potter when something went terribly wrong. The basic narrative was, “Dean died, and this other guy was with him.” 

But among those who knew him and had climbed, jumped, and lived with him, Hunt had a reputation for soulful, unshakeable competence and confidence, for being reliably reliable when situations got tricky in the mountains, as they often do for this tribe. He’d progressed rapidly in his early twenties from the climbing gyms of Sacramento to the walls of Yosemite, with 5.12 first ascents to his credit. He was someone people turned to frequently when they needed a solid partner for exploits in the Valley. In recent years, he’d gravitated more towards jumping and wingsuit flying, and though he’d only been at it for five years, he’d gone full tilt, evolving from apprentice to being among the sport’s best. “Whatever he focused on, he became really good at, and he was probably one of the top wingsuit flyers in the world,” says Shawn Reeder, a photographer and climber who met Hunt shortly after he arrived in Yosemite as a 22-year-old. “He got really into jumping, and Graham and Dean became really good friends through jumping. He was Dean’s partner, his compadre.” 

Or, as a Facebook post from slackliner and BASE jumper Andy Lewis put it: “Graham Hunt was a G who rolled silent like lasagna. He was known only by those who needed to know.” 

(Read the rest at Outside online .)

Talking BASE Jumping on Sirius Radio with Jay Thomas

I spent part of yesterday afternoon as a guest on the Jay Thomas Show on Sirius, discussing my latest article for Outside about the men who BASE jumped off NYC's Freedom Tower. Also on the show was the jumpers' lead attorney, Timothy Parlatore, so forgive the "two Tim's" confusion.

Here's a recording of the full segment:

And if you haven't had a chance to read the piece yet, it's posted on Outside's site here.

On BASE Jumping off the Freedom Tower, and its Consequences

For over a year now, I've been tracking the story of the three men who BASE jumped off of the nearly completed Freedom Tower in lower Manhattan in September 2013. Since their arrest in March 2014, I've met with them and their lawyers repeatedly as their case has wound its way through New York's criminal justice system. Now, with their trial set to begin in May, Outside has published my feature on the men, their jump, and their legal woes, all supplemented by some fantastic illustrations by Erin Wilson.

Click through to Outside to read the full piece and see the rest of the illustrations. Or if you don't feel like reading, check out the videos from the jump here.

Still Searching for Michael Rockefeller

I've got a new piece over at Outside today that goes back to an old subject of mine: Michael Rockefeller's disappearance in Dutch New Guinea in 1961. You'd think ever angle of the story has been covered by now, but a new documentary, "The Search for Michael Rockefeller", now on Netflix, has unearthed some previously unseen footage and interviews from the 1960s. It doesn't change what we know about the story, but it's still fascinating. I talked with the film's director, Fraser Heston.

Read the rest of the piece at Outside.

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New on NewYorker.com: The Bat Man of Mexico

It sounds like the setup for a bad joke: a Mexican bat biologist and a British filmmaker walk into the Explorers Club... In fact, it was the premise of my first piece for the New Yorker's website.

The piece involves me tagging along while renowned Mexican bat biologist Rodrigo Medellin, and British Director Tom Mustill attend the US premiere of their BBC2 film The Bat Man of Mexico, at the Explorer's Club on Manhattan's Upper East Side as part of the New York Wild Film Festival. The event also featured a tequila tasting, which probably had something to do with this photo:

Amy Cooper, Rodrigo Medellin, and Tom Mustill. (Photo by Nancy Rosenthal.)

Amy Cooper, Rodrigo Medellin, and Tom Mustill. (Photo by Nancy Rosenthal.)

Read the full article here.

Reality TV Comes to Bristol Bay

Tonight, a "reality" show about fishing in Bristol Bay premieres on Animal Planet. For the past few years, lots of fishermen, myself included, have fielded calls from producers trying to make a show like this. Most of us had little interest, reasoning that the end product would bear little resemblance to reality and could only misrepresent Bristol Bay and do harm to its reputation as the producer of the world's best wild salmon.

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And while I haven't seen the show, it seems, judging from the few clips posted online, that we were more right than we knew.

"Battle on the Bay" seems to combine all the worst elements of the Reality TV genre into a sensationalistic mash up that does not represent what the Bay is about. The teaser clips are full of ginned up drama, people performing for the camera, and line-fishing blowhards who care more about shouting at each other than catching fish.

Perhaps the show will prove my initial, hasty reaction wrong, but click through to see the clips and see what you think.

Monadnocking for the New Year

Anxious for some perspective on the new year, I sought out higher ground with a scramble over frozen trails to the top of Mount Monadnock (3,165 feet), the highest point in southern New Hampshire. The mountain has an impressive geological prominence, rising more than 2,100 feet from the surrounding valley floor, as well as a cultural prominence out of all proportion to its relatively modest elevation. The first trail to its summit was set in 1706, and the mountain has since proven a persistent beacon to generations of writers, artists, geologists, and philosophers, and was a particularly popular playground for the Transcendentalists.

So, taking my lead from Ralph Waldo Emerson's long poem Monadnoc, composed, according to legend, atop the mountain on a May morning in 1845, I broke my sloth and marched: 

Up! where the airy citadel
O'erlooks the purging landscape's swell!
Let not unto the stones the Day
Her lily and rose, her sea and land display.
Read the celestial sign!
Lo! the South answers to the north;
Bookworm break this sloth urbane;
A greater spirit bids thee forth,
Than the gray dreams which thee detain.

I escaped gray dreams into a gray day, cold and cloudy with intermittent flurries. But the lack of visibility troubled me little, as I was taking Henry David Thoreau's advice, as recorded in his journal during his climb in August 1860:

They who simply climb to the peak of Monadnock have seen but little of the mountain. I came not to look off from it, but to look at it.

This was not my first climb up Monadnock, but then Thoreau climbed it four times, so I suspected there would be a benefit to returning. And there was: clarity, as Emerson also found:

Man in these crags a fastness find
To fight pollution of the mind;
In the wide thaw and ooze of wrong,
Adhere like this foundation strong,
The insanity of towns to stem
With simpleness for stratagem.

Happy New Year.

President Obama Protects Bristol Bay from Oil and Gas Drilling

Up now at Outside online and sitting front and center on the home page (see below) is my analysis of President Obama's announcement earlier this week that Alaska's North Aleutian Basin, including Bristol Bay, would be off limits to future oil and gas exploration and drilling. It's a huge win for those who have been fighting to protect the Bay from the threat sandwich of offshore drilling and inland mining, but the threat of the Pebble Mine still looms. Click through for the full story.

(Those are the fine folks of Iliamna Fish Co. hauling in some Bristol Bay Sockeye. Photo by Corey Arnold.)

Judge Orders EPA to Halt All Work on Pebble Mine

In a ruling issued Thursday in Anchorage, a federal judge ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to cease all work pertaining to its investigation of whether to block development of Alaska’s controversial Pebble Mine. The order, dated December 4, was in the form of a Case Status update that clarified the terms of a preliminary injunction issued by the same judge, H. Russel Holland, Senior Judge for the US District Court in Alaska, on November 24.  

The preliminary injunction pertained to a lawsuit filed by the Pebble Limited Partnership against the EPA, alleging that the EPA had used an anti-mine team of experts during its study of the Bristol Bay watershed, thereby prejudicing the process towards what the mining company has called a “pre-emptive veto” of the as yet undeveloped mine. The EPA had begun a multi-step process whereby, under powers granted it by Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, it may prohibit dredge and fill activities that would have “unacceptable adverse effects” on fishery areas. The injunction ruled in Pebble’s favor, seeing enough merit in the lawsuit to ask EPA to pause its process; it also requested amendments and clarifications to Pebble’s complaint.

Following the injunction, there was some disagreement over whether the EPA could continue work on the 404(c) process while Pebble revised its complaint and EPA prepared a response. The Pebble Partnership believed all work should cease, while the EPA maintained that they could continue internal work on the process.

Judge Holland sided with Pebble: “Defendants may not,” he wrote, “engage in any activities related to the 404(c) process.” In addition, the order lays out a timetable for moving forward: Pebble will submit an amended complaint by December 19; EPA will file its motion to dismiss by January 23, 2015; Pebble will respond by February 17, followed by another EPA response by March 6, and a hearing to follow.

In a statement, the EPA reiterated that the injunction was only preliminary and that the court had not yet made a ruling. “EPA is complying with the preliminary injunction as set forth in the court's Dec. 4 update,” the statement says. “We are pleased the court set a swift schedule to move forward. We are confident in our case and look forward to a prompt resolution.”

The injunction is the latest chapter in the now decade-long fight over development of the controversial mine. The Pebble deposit, a low-grade copper and gold deposit worth potentially hundreds of billions of dollars, sits amid spawning grounds that feed the legendary Bristol Bay salmon run. It has been the target of a years-long effort by a consortium of Native groups, commercial fishermen, sport fishermen, conservation groups, and other Bristol Bay stakeholders to halt its development.

The EPA’s involvement in Bristol Bay dates back to 2010, when a number of Bristol Bay Native groups and other stakeholders petitioned the agency to take action under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to protect the Bristol Bay watershed from the perceived threat of the proposed Pebble Mine. The Agency undertook a three-year study of Bristol Bay, eventually releasing its peer-reviewed Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment in January of this year. In February, it issued notice of its intent to propose protections for Bristol Bay, and in July, it issued the proposal and initiated a public comment period that ended in September. The next phase of the process would be to either recommend moving forward with protection for Bristol Bay or withdrawing the proposal.

The EPA’s “veto” power under Section 404(c) has been infrequently invoked: the process has been initiated only 30 times in the 42 years of the Clean Water Act’s existence, with only 13 of those processes leading to final determinations to block a permit. In the case of Pebble and Bristol Bay, the agency argued, their study showed that such action was merited.

In response, Pebble soon filed three lawsuits. The preliminary injunction remains silent on two of them but saw enough merit in one to call a halt. In a statement issued last week after the preliminary injunction was announced, Pebble CEO Tom Collier called it an important “procedural victory.”

“This means that for the first time EPA’s march to preemptively veto Pebble has been halted,” he said in the statement. “Last,” Collier’s statement concluded, “one criterion that must be met as a prerequisite for a Preliminary Injunction is that we have a ‘likelihood of success on the merits.’ EPA argued strongly that we could not meet that test. The court disagreed and granted the Preliminary Injunction.”

The EPA noted when the preliminary injunction was announced that it is just that—preliminary—and does not represent a decision. “EPA is waiting to see the court’s written order on the preliminary injunction,” the Agency said in a statement at the time. “EPA hopes the litigation is resolved expeditiously so the agency can move forward with its regulatory decision-making.”

And while the injunction represents a rare win for Pebble, the mine’s future prospects remain murky. Beyond the open question of how these suits are eventually decided, the Pebble Partnership currently has no backer after multinational mining company Anglo American pulled out of the project in 2013, followed by Rio Tinto’s divestment of its 19% stake in April of this year, leaving Northern Dynasty, the junior partner, as sole owner. Northern Dynasty has neither the money nor the capacity to develop the mine itself. Adding to the problems, in a statewide referendum on the November ballot, 65% of Alaskan voters approved the so-called Bristol Bay Forever Initiative, which gives the state legislature veto power over Pebble, taking it out of the hands of the state and federal agencies, including the EPA, that usually handle mining permits.

(A version of this story also appears on The Huffington Post.)

Feds Crack Down on AK Mining Co in Clean Water Act Indictment

I had an advance tip on an interesting indictment coming out of Alaska, where a Platinum mining company trying to re-process the detritis of decades-worth of mining near remote Goodnews Bay had been polluting the Salmon River with compolete disregard for the environmental impacts or the requirements of its mining permits. From my HuffPo piece:

In a first for extraction-friendly Alaska, the Department of Justice last week announced an indictment against mining company XS Platinum, Inc. (XSP), and five of its officers and employees. The XSP executives stand accused of five felony counts centered on a conspiracy to knowingly dump mine waste into Southwest Alaska's Salmon River, a violation of the Clean Water Act. Further, according to the indictment, they deliberately misled regulators and submitted false statements to hide the pollution that they knew was occurring. The indictment is also noteworthy because XSP marketed itself as a "sustainable" mine that would get its platinum from mining waste rather than fresh excavation, and, as such, signed a contract with Tiffany & Co, which has positioned itself as a leader in responsible mining by signing on to a "No Dirty Gold" campaign directed at another Alaska mine.

"This is the first criminal indictment of a mining company for federal Clean Water Act charges in Alaska," said Kevin Feldis, First Assistant United States Attorney for Alaska. "This is part of our ongoing commitment to aggressively enforcing environmental law in Alaska."

The 28-page indictment centers on alleged criminal activity that occurred primarily in 2010 and 2011 on public lands around remote Goodnews Bay, where XSP's Platinum Creek Mine operated from 2008 to 2012. It's the culmination of a cooperative investigation involving a number of federal and state agencies and led by the EPA's Criminal Investigation Division and the BLM's Office of Law Enforcement and Security. They began building the case in 2011, shortly after XSP was initially cited for violations by the Alaska Department of Environmental Control.

The indictment names the company's top three officers, Chairman and CEO Bruce Butcher, 59, and Director and Executive VP Mark Balfour, 62, both Australian, and both Australian corporate attorneys; and James Slade, 57, a Canadian mining executive who served as Chief Operating Officer. In addition, Robert Pate, 62, an American geologist who was the mine's general manager and James Staeheli, 43, an American and a manager at the mine, were also indicted. All five of the men were charged with violating the permit and conspiring to cover up the violations, and all but Staeheli also face the charge of submitting a false statement.

XSP's holdings consisted of nearly 200 mining claims spread across more than 4,000 acres, mostly clustered around the Salmon River just upstream from where it flows through the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge and empties into the Pacific in Kuskowim Bay. The Salmon, like other rivers in the area, is an essential spawning habitat for all five species of Pacific salmon. The vast majority of the mining claims are on land managed by the BLM, while a small number of undeveloped claims lie within the Togiak Refuge.

XSP's plan was to reprocess the scrapheaps left over from the Goodnews Bay Mining Company's platinum mine (1937-1979) and extract residual platinum from the 45 million tons of tailings--mine waste--left behind over the decades it had been in operation. The company said it would do this all on a "zero-discharge" basis, filtering and reusing the massive amounts of wastewater created by the reprocessing, and thereby protecting the surrounding natural resources.

Click over to the Huffington Post to read the rest of my piece.

Pebble vs. EPA gets the Fox News Treatement

It's no secret that politicians on the right aren't particularly fond of the EPA, viewing it as an overreaching, industry-hobbling agent of Big Government, and it's proven a particularly attractive bogeyman for right-leaning media outlets.

So it should come as no surprise that they found cause for celebration in the recent temporary injunction stopping EPA's work to block the controversial Pebble Mine. Fox News latched onto the ongoing investigation over lost EPA emails in addition to the injunction, and capped it all off with a quote from Rep. Don Young (R-AK) who was predictably anti-federal and proprietary. "Allowing a federal agency to have this control over private land is a taking," Rep. Young said, even though Pebble sits on public land owned by the state. "And they can argue all they want about this, [but] this is really a taking." Full clip: 

It should be noted that many of Pebble's opponents would dispute the "thousands of good-paying jobs for many decades" that the Fox correspondent mentions, among other details.

The Daily Caller got in on the action with a piece full of loaded language.

The small legal victory, combined with a federal investigation, could present huge problems for the EPA, which is preventing Pebble from getting a key federal permit needed to operate. PLP can now obtain documents through discovery and depose individuals in their pursuit to show that the EPA’s veto of the Pebble Mine was biased. ... But that’s not all. As Pebble supporters celebrate their legal win, investigators with the EPA inspector general’s office are continuing their probe into the agency’s decision on the Pebble Mine to discover if the process was rigged and influenced by environmental activists.

This should be interesting to watch in the new year, when the new Congress is seated and we can expect a renewed round of attacks on the EPA's authority, as well as further developments in Pebble's various lawsuits.

AK Judge Sides with Pebble, Issues Prelminary Injunction Against EPA

In Anchorage on November 24th, a federal judge issued a prelminary injunction blocking the EPA from taking further actions to block the controversial Pebble Mine project. The Pebble Limited Partnership had sued the EPA for, in effect, colluding with anti-mining activists to begin the process of blocking the mine, which the EPA contends it can do under powers granted it by section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. The Pebble Partnership disagrees, but the injunction, from Judge H. Russel Holland, Senior Judge for the US District Court in Alaska, remains silent on the ultimate legitimacy of EPA 404(c) action. As Lisa Demer of the Alaska Dispatch reported,

Activists fighting the mine noted that U.S. District Judge Russel Holland rejected two of Pebble’s three arguments to halt EPA over a theory that it colluded with anti-mine activists and scientists. Rather, the judge determined that Pebble had a chance of winning on one claim, that EPA improperly turned to an anti-mine team as it worked on its study of how a big mine would affect the Bristol Bay watershed.

The EPA in July announced that it intended to take extraordinary steps to protect Bristol Bay’s world-class salmon runs and proposed restrictions that would prevent the mega-mine from being advanced by the Pebble Partnership. While it stopped short of an outright veto of the project, the EPA said it would place caps on how many miles of streams and acres of wetlands could be lost if the mine were developed.

Pebble responded with three lawsuits.

 

Read the rest here. And though this is only a temporary measure, Pebble CEO Tom Collier called it an important "procedural victory" that meant that "for the firs ttime EPAs march to preemptively veto Pebble has been halted."

Much more to come on this, I'm sure.

Bristol Bay Outlook 2015: Lots and Lots of Fish

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game released its Bristol Bay salmon forecast for 2015 this week, and it is a doozy: in what's predicted to be the biggest run in 20 years, some 54 million sockeye salmon should return to the Bay in 2015.

That's a lot of fish. Click through for full report.

To put that in perspective, the historical average over the past 20 summers is 34.7 million, and the 2014 run, which was a strong one, saw 40.6 million sockeye return to the Bay. It should go without saying that Bristol Bay remains a shining example of what can be accomplished via diligent and intelligent fisheries management, and ADFG should be commended for the way it manages the run.

And to put that number into further perspective, if the 2015 run lives up to this forecast, the overall 2015 harvest will be nearly as much as the total run was in 2014. Amazing.

But fishermen being fishermen, not everyone's jumping for joy just yet. As Robert Heyano, who's fished Bristol Bay since he was a boy and is now president of the Bristol Bay Seafood Development Association, told the Alaska Dispatch, "They are paper fish until they show up."

Here's to hoping they all show up.

Bristol Bay Salmon Report: Lots of Fish

Me and a net full of sockey. Photo courtesy of Corey Arnold.I've just returned from a quick but productive trip to Bristol Bay, where I teamed up with my old partner in crime Corey Arnold (the talented photographer behind the image above) for the peak of the Bristol Bay commercial salmon season. It was a quick, exhausting, exhilirating trip, with none of the gradual ramp-up that you have in working the full sockeye season. This year, it was out of the plane and into the fire: 24 hours after leaving Newark, I was hauling in nets with salmon hanging off of them, as someone once wrote, like grapes off a vine. The fishing hardly let up the entire time I was there, as the Kvichak River experienced a particularly robust run this year. The weather was perfect, the midnight sunsets memorable, and the company, as ever, varied but enjoyable. More to come on all of this soon, including photos.

Gone Fishing: Bristol Bay 2014

It's that time of year again--the salmon are returning to spawn in the rivers of Alaska's Bristol Bay region, and I'll once again be joining the shadow migration of fishermen drawn there in their wake. I'm headed out tomorrow to join my old co-conspirators at the mouth of the Kvichak River to work the peak of what is shaping up to be a rather impressive season for the east side of Bristol Bay. It'll be a short trip for me, two weeks of tides and mud and mosquitoes, no showers or electricity or internet or cell phones, long days and very little sleep and grinding work and thousands and thousands of fish. I'm looking forward to it.

Last of the Young Men: Robert Sallee Dies

 

Anyone familiar with Norman Maclean's masterful Young Men and Fire, a stunning recreation of the events surrounding the deaths of 12 smoke-jumpers in the legendarily tragic Mann Gulch fire in 1949, will likely recall Robert Sallee, one of only three survivors from that doomed crew. Sallee was just 17 years old at the time of the fire, and was the last living link to it until he passed away last week in Spokane, WA, at the age of 82.

Sallee returned to the site of the fire with Maclean in 1978, and that visit is captured beautifully in the book, though, as the Times obituary observes, the eyewitness testimony proved inconclusive:

[Maclean's] detailed account of their recollections and their court testimony fails to unravel precisely what happened; rather, it succeeds in illustrating the terror of being caught in such a monstrous natural maelstrom.

Mr. Maclean wrote: “Sallee talks so often about everything happening in a matter of seconds after he and Rumsey left Dodge’s fire that at first it seems just a manner of speaking. But if you combine the known facts with your imagination and are a mountain climber and try to accompany Rumsey and Sallee to the top, you will know that to have lived you had to be young and tough and lucky."

The book, published posthumously in 1992 (MacLean died in 1990), won the National Book Critics Circle award. I remember the first time I read it, when I was about the same age as many of the young men of the title and thought myself young and tough and lucky. I recall being entirely entranced by the craftsmanship of the book, by the attempt to put the pieces of the puzzle together even if the end result is bound to be inconclusive. But I was also warned by its content of the limits of the seeming invincibility of youth:

“They were still so young they hadn't learned to count the odds and to sense they might owe the universe a tragedy.”

I'd encourage any reader at any age to pick up a copy. In fact, it may be about time I re-read it.