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Bare Necessities 

Naked: Writers Uncover the Way We Live on Earth (Four Walls Eight Windows), according to its back cover, "takes a spiky, witty, engaging look at the complicated relationship we have with the natural world". That it certainly does. Its essays, short stories and excerpts from books by the likes of James Lee Burke, T.C. Boyle and Edward Abbey examine how we humans feel about the desert, animals, the jungle and our own backyards.

To that end it is at times delightful, at other times pretentious, often moving and occasionally surprising. But here's what this book is not: it is not environmental reporting. It's creative writing about humans and nature. Which would be fine, were it not for the fact that the person who pulled it all together, the magazine writer and author Susan Zakin, irritatingly does not spell out the difference.

This is unfortunate, because she is right about so many things -- the writers she's chosen are good and the stories she's used are uneven but largely excellent. From time to time she pegs the issue perfectly: the downward slide of the environmental movement among the general public has, as she says, been catastrophic. The issue that was cutting edge in the 1980s when Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior jousted with the warships of America and Europe, then became trendy in the 1990s when supermodels posed in lettuce leaves to discourage the wearing of fur, is now passe.

How did it happen? The battle for hearts and minds had been virtually won. And then the Environmental Protection Agency backed off on its enforcement, the federal government looked the other way, and industry went back to its bad old ways, and nobody cared. Perhaps terrorism and war distracted everybody. Or maybe corporations are much better these days about doing just enough to keep their misdeeds out of sight.

Whatever the reason, it's not the fault of the beleaguered environmental reporters who for years have been banging their heads against the wall of indifference. But Zakin, in her introduction to Naked, dismisses them all. Male environmental writers she says, "sport the inevitable beard and speak in a considered, responsible manner." Female environmental reporters "intone sentimental aphorisms revealing a certain mystical streak." All of them, apparently, "drive Volvos. They drink decaffeinated tea. They meditate." I can't help but wonder what insights she might offer about accountants.

Will this book appeal to people like Zakin -- bored and put off by traditional environmental reporting? Maybe. Will it inspire people to care about or work for the environment? I do not see how it could.

Would T.C. Boyle's "Dogology," a short story about a woman who studies canines and eventually begins to believe she is a dog, make you picket your neighborhood chemical plant? Probably not. But it is interesting, in a freak-show kind of a way.

An excerpt from Alexandra Fuller's "Don't Let's Go To the Dogs Tonight" is a compelling and beautifully written memoir of growing up on a farm in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the early 1970s: "Vanessa and I are in the back of the Land Rover with the dogs and the African laborers, bumping with our skinny bottoms on the spare tire and singing against the loud scream of the diesel engine cutting through roadless land, ŒIf you think ah'm sexy and you want my body.'"

Some of the pieces don't work at all. An excerpt from Kinski Uncut by the actor Klaus Kinski is pointless and boring. A series of letters to and from the late, great writer Edward Abbey (author of The Monkeywrench Gang) is not particularly illuminating.

But an excerpt from Ryszard Kapuscinski's book The Shadow of the Sun tells beautifully of his becoming hopelessly lost while driving in Uganda. In the middle of a tangle of roads in the Serengeti, he comes across a massive herd of buffalo frozen as if they had suddenly died while standing in the sun. In the middle of this bizarre scene he learns that, in the heat of the day, when most animals seek shelter in the shade of trees, "herds of buffalo have nowhere to hide. They are too large, too numerous. Each might be a thousand strong. Such a herd, in the hour of the greatest heat, simply grows motionless, dead still." They remain frozen until the temperatures drop.

Scenes like these make for an interesting book, but they are not, despite Zakin's hopes, going to resurrect the environmental movement from its current coma. In the end, stories about people thinking that they are dogs are simply not going to change the world.

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