Category Archives: Reviews: Books & Videos

Books I’ve Read on the Missouri

Book and canoe.

I am enjoying reading great books on our Missouri River Expedition!

One of the rewards of paddling the Missouri River is that we have a great deal of mostly uninterrupted reading time. Turning pages is just as satisfying as covering miles down the river. Sometimes there is an opportunity to do both together.

When possible, I prefer reading books more or less “on location,” so this year’s adventure is the perfect setting for catching up on some Lewis and Clark-themed books that have been on my reading list for a long time. Now, having read everything I brought, I’ve started buying a book in every town, trying to stay in theme with the area we are paddling through. Here are the books I’ve read so far, mostly in the order I read them:

Colter’s Run by Steven T. Gough (2008)

The author gave me a signed copy of the book nearly ten years ago, and I finally had the opportunity to give it the attention it deserves. Colter’s Run is a work of historical fiction about the life of John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition who spent the next several years trapping beaver in what later became Montana. He was the first westerner to see the thermal features of what later became Yellowstone National Park, and he had several harrowing encounters with the Piegan Blackfeet near present-day Three Forks, Montana. I read this book first because we launched from Three Forks. It was a good read, written in first-person narrative form. It is challenging to get into the mind of someone who has been dead for two centuries, so I was occasionally distracted with debating whether or not it was an accurate portrayal of Colter’s character. I think it would be difficult to write a book of historical fiction like this that is 100% convincing, but Steven Gough did exceptionally well. Ever since he published the book he has been working to get the story picked up as a motion picture. It may yet happen!

John Colter: His Years in the Rockies by Burton Harris (1952)

There are very few historical references about John Colter’s life, but this book compiles the available information into one comprehensive work. This text was obviously the source for much of the factual information behind the narrative in Stephen Gough’s Colter’s Run. Gough’s book is easier to read, and I probably would have gotten lost with Harris’s book if I hadn’t read the other first. It was enlightening to see the connections between fiction and nonfiction.

This Land Is Our Land: How We Lost the Right to Roam and How to Take It Back by Ken Ilgunas (2018)

I learned of this book shortly before our launch. Freedom to Roam is a topic I am very passionate about, and I’ve written some essays about it as well, so the book jumped to the top of my reading pile. It was the best read of the expedition so far, and I wish it were required reading for all Americans to better understand how we all formerly owned the right to roam the open countryside. I could easily buy this book by the case to gift to friends and family. In any case, I just started reading it a second time.

William Clark and the Shaping of the West by Landon Jones (2004)

This was an exceptional and riveting book, which introduced the backdrop of William Clark’s life  through the exploits of his older brother George Rogers Clark. While I am fairly well versed in the history of the West, I feel more ignorant of American history east of the Missouri River. In particular, Landon Jones details the many act of Indian removal to systematically displace Native Americans from eastern states, sending them West of the Missouri. Jones shows how William Clark the Clark family were deeply involved in Indian removal, even when William was otherwise friendly to the natives. The book lays out the facts without judgement right up to the very end where Jones simply points out that in today’s world, William Clark’s actions would be considered ethnic cleansing. It’s a gut-wrenching read, but an essential one to better understand American history and the dark side of some of our greatest heroes.

The Big, Bad Book of Botany: The World’s Most Fascinating Flora by Michael Largo (2014)

As the author of Botany in a Day, I am always picking up plant books. Although there were a few interesting tidbits about unusual plants, I wasn’t greatly impressed by it, and I concluded that the author doesn’t have a botanical background.

The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend By Bob Drury and Tom Calvin (2014)

This was the first book I bought on our journey, having picked it up in Fort Union. It is a fascinating read about Red Cloud and how he defeated the U.S. Army and made the United States abandon the Bozeman Trail and all the military forts along it, which Red Cloud burned to the ground. The book deals more with Wyoming history and the Powder River Basin, than the Missouri, but it was a really great read.

Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People by Elizabeth A. Fenn (2015)

I bought this book at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park in North Dakota. Elizabeth Fenn wrote of the confluence of the Heart River with the Missouri as the heartland of the Mandan people, which happened to be about one hundred feet from my tent when I started reading. That was very location relevant, and the book greatly helped fill out my understanding of the Mandan people. It was very helpful to be in the midst of the earthlodge villages referred to in the book to help fit it all together. I thought it was an excellent read.

Eclipse: A Novel of Lewis and Clark by Richard S. Wheeler (2002)

Richard S. Wheeler was a Montana author who died just this year. I was unaware of his work until Norman Miller suggested it to me. Eclipse is a work of historical fiction about Lewis and Clark. I brought the book from home, but didn’t crack it open right away because I’ve heard the Lewis and Clark story so many times that I wasn’t ready to go through it again until I ran out of other books to read. Then came the pleasant surprise, the story actually starts right at the end of their expedition to the Pacific Coast and back. I found it immediately entrancing, and read the entire book in a couple days. The book is written in first person narrative form, switching back and forth between Lewis and Clark. Like all historical fiction, I found myself debating the accuracy of the portrayal, but still considered it a great read.

Sister to the Sioux by Elaine Goodale Eastman (1930s)

I bought this book at the Klein Museum in Mobridge, South Dakota, opposite from the Standing Rock Reservation. Written in the 1930s, Elaine Goodale recounts her experiences as a young woman when she left home in the northeast on a mission to educate the Sioux people to western ideology. Unlike other reformers who advocated taking children away from their parents to go to distant boarding schools, Goodale believed in bringing schools to the people. She embraced the Sioux people, lived with them, learned to speak Dakota, and preferred wearing moccasins. She and a similarly young gal worked among the Sioux largely unchaperoned right at the close of the frontier when the West was still truly wild. Goodale later married a western-educated Sioux named Charles Eastman, leading to multiple collaborative books between them, which I would also like to read.


That’s all so far. I just picked up a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, so that’s my next read! To learn more about my own books, please visit: Thank you!

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Author Interview: Thomas J. Elpel

I was interviewed by Write Coach David Alan Binder. Here is a copy of the interview, originally published on Binder’s website.

Author Thomas J. Elpel

Author Thomas J. Elpel

How do you pronounce your name?  Elpel is pronounced El-pel, kind of like El Paso, but it is German or Lithuanian, not Spanish.

Where are you currently living?  I’ve been in Pony, Montana since 1989. My grandmother moved here before I did, and she mentored me in edible and medicinal plants and wilderness survival skills. Three years out of high school, I bought land a block from her house and starting building my own.

What is the most important thing that you have learned in your writing experience, so far?  Use simple language. There is no need to impress anyone with big words. Any word that isn’t familiar to the majority of the population requires a definition embedded in the text, so that the reader can fluidly absorb the new word and continue reading without interruption.

Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills.

What would you say is your most interesting writing, publishing, editing or illustrating quirk? I like to dedicate each book to a different person who is special to me and somehow connected with the book. The dedication and a photo of the person is included on the title page.

Foraging the Mountain West.

Tell us your insights on self-publish or use a publisher?  My publishing business, HOPS Press, LLC, started very out very slowly. As a young man, I was selling photocopied books with plastic comb bindings. Over time, the quality of my writing improved, and I started printing real books with paperback and hardcover bindings and ISBN numbers. The publishing business matured with my writing, and I really like being able to design and market all facets of a product on my own schedule, without anyone else dictating how they think it should be.

Any insights eBooks vs. print books and alternative vs. conventional publishing? Most of our titles are rich with pictures and captions, so converting from paper to eBook can require major reformatting. We are tip-toeing that direction, but otherwise prefer traditional printed books.

Do you have any secret tips for writers on getting a book published?  The most important step is to write the book you want to write, not the one you think the market wants. Stay true to yourself, and you will build a deeper connection with your audience.

How did you or would you suggest acquire an agent?  Any tips for new writers on getting one?  I’ve never worked with an agent. Maybe I should. On the other hand, being my own publisher and not having an agent has necessitated learning and understanding how to connect with my audience directly, and I prefer that deeper connection.

Botany in a Day.

Do you have any suggestions for new writers?  A book is never done, especially a nonfiction book. It can take years to get a book ready for publication, yet a publisher may only market the title for six months or a year, then remainder or shred the rest. As my own publisher, I prefer to market a book until I’ve sold every copy, then revise, improve, polish, and print it again. Some of my titles have six editions, each a significant improvement over its predecessor, like wine that improves with age.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in your creative process with your books, editing, publishing or illustrating?  Writing continually improves with time and experience. When I finish a book I’m sure it is the greatest work ever written. But by the time I sell out and revise the book for the next edition, I am embarrassed by what seems like shoddy writing, and I wish I could buy up and burn the old books!

How many books have you written?  I’ve written seven books so far, plus I’ve produced several videos and a card game. Books include:

Shanleya’s Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids Ages 9 to 99
Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification
Foraging the Mountain West: Gourmet Edible Plants, Mushrooms, and Meat
Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills
Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction
Direct Pointing to Real Wealth: Thomas J. Elpel’s Field Guide to Money
Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit

Do you have any tricks or tips to help others become a better writer?  Weed out the little words and make your writing more concise and to the point… Weed out little words for more concise writing. 

Shanleya's Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids

Do you have any suggestions for providing twists in a good story? I write mostly nonfiction, which is easy, because it doesn’t have to be invented, just documented well. My children’s book, Shanleya’s Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids Ages 9 to 99 is a fictional story, yet only on the surface. It uses mythology to teach science and botany. It is successful because the substance of the story is real, rather than invented.

What makes your or any book stand out from the crowd?  I write about topics that matter to me and haven’t been covered adequately by others. There is a niche and a need, and I write the books I’ve been searching for myself.

Living Homes.

What are some ways in which you promote your work? My books sell through word-of-mouth. People like what they read and share it with others. The challenge is to introduce a new title, often a new topic, to a new audience, to entice enough people to read it and start talking to other people about it. Botany in a Day was the easiest book to market. I delivered review copies to herbal schools, and they recommended it to their students and have continued to do so ever since.

What is the one thing you would do differently now, concerning writing or editing or publishing or illustrating, and why? I get excited about a new book and print thousands of copies, when it might be smarter to launch new titles with print-on-demand and refine them for another year or two before doing a large printing.

Roadmap to Reality.

What saying or mantra do you live by? Carlos Castaneda once said something to the effect of, “Death is stalking you over your left shoulder.” I don’t want death to stalk up on me lazing around in front of the television. I seek to make the most of every day I have in this life. I try to keep pushing my own boundaries and limitations to do more and to contribute more to humanity and the natural world with whatever time I have left in this world.

Author book links:  HOPS Press, LLC | Personal Website | |

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American Nations: Book Review

American NationsThe issues that divide our country are as old as the union itself, according to Colin Woodward, author of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. The original colonies were founded by vastly different cultures that had little in common, aside from a common enemy during the revolutionary war. Even then there were instigators, pacifists, and colonies that were reluctantly dragged into the fray. One might expect that these disparate cultures would have long ago melded together or been diluted by immigration, but Woodward asserts that the nation is still divided into multiple definable “ethnoregional cultures” that have largely carried forward the beliefs, values, and behaviors descended from the original colonies.

These ethnoregional cultures remain intact because new immigrants from other states or countries tend to adopt local perspectives and beliefs over time. In a family, for example, the parents might retain their own traditions, but their descendants tend to adopt the local culture. As a result, the original cultures mostly grew and spread, yet retained identifiable geographic boundaries, independent of state lines, that can be mapped according to factors such as crime rates, religious tendencies, and election results. None of these cultures are able to dominate the national agenda, but through shifting alliances based on overlapping priorities, sometimes one culture can strong-arm the rest of the country into following its agenda.

Hunter GatherersI was drawn to the book because the author outlined a theory of realty that potentially conflicted with the theory of reality outlined in my own book, Roadmap to Reality, and I felt it important to compare the two books.

Roadmap to Reality shows how technologies used for survival ultimately dictate population levels, style of government, and beliefs about the nature of reality itself. For example, hunter-gatherer societies typically live in bands that vary in size from a few families to multiple extended families. Hunter-gatherer societies are largely egalitarian, where everyone works to produce food and the chief only has power to the degree that everyone else agrees or disagrees with him. Hunter-gatherer societies tend to have a very magical worldview, believing, for example, that a sacred charm might bring success in hunting.

AgricultureSkipping over horticultural societies to full-blown agricultural societies with livestock driven plows, these societies are overwhelmingly patriarchal and hierarchical, organized as state governments with centralized leadership and standing armies. Agricultural societies typically have a monotheistic and mythical worldview, with a moral code of right and wrong dictated by myths or stories such as the bible.

IndustryAn industrial society enables even larger populations and restores a degree of equality, for example, that men and women can do equal work and attain political power. Industrial societies develop a sequential worldview, for example, that illness might be caused by bacterial infection, rather than God’s will or black magic. Thus, Roadmap to Reality effectively provides a broad “theory of everything” that explains human behavior in all past, present, and emerging societies.

American Nations doesn’t contradict Roadmap, but rather compliments it nicely. Roadmap outlines big picture principals that apply to societies everywhere, while American Nations focusses specifically on the ongoing clash between competing ethnoregional cultures largely descended from the original colonies. The culture clashes Woodward describes are deeply rooted in the fact that the southern states were solidly agricultural, while the northern states industrialized first, resulting in vastly different worldviews and beliefs about everything from family life to education to government.

Societies do not suddenly jump from one technology and worldview to another, but transition gradually over time. As noted in Roadmap to Reality, northern states were still solidly agricultural in the mid-1800s, driven by a God-given mythical view of reality that dictated right and wrong. Yet, northerners also retained a few holdover ideas from a past magical worldview. They knew and understood that most plants sprouted from seeds, but it was also commonly believed that plants, particularly those that sprouted far from any obvious seed source, arose spontaneously and magically. At the same time, the North was already building textile industries and hand innovated interchangeable parts, laying the foundation for assembly lines and full-scale industrialization in the twentieth century. These technologies are characteristic of sequential, linear thinking.

The South has followed the same trajectory, but industrialized later, resulting in a developmental rift and a never-ending culture clash, not just between competing ethnoregions, but between inherently incompatible viewpoints about the nature of reality itself. Roadmap to Reality and American Nations compliment each other to provide a comprehensive view of current events, explaining regional differences that play out in our interpersonal relationships and political dramas.

Thomas J. Elpel is the founder of Green University® LLC and the author of Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit and several other books.

Interesting stuff?
Challenge your preconceptions about reality:
Roadmap to Reality

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Robins Barking at Owls and other Bird Language Basics

Book Cover: What the Robin Knows

Jon Young’s newest book on bird language.

I never knew that sitting and listening could be so fascinating. Parked there in the evening twilight, it was evident that the nearby robins were agitated, while those farther away were not. In retrospect, it seemed that the robins were barking, much as a dog might bark at something or someone scary, but in a shrill, bird-like way. I had often heard this behavior in the evening, and never made any sense of it, nor really tried to. But then this great horned owl swooped by overhead, and the “barking” followed it. The robins didn’t follow it themselves, but the barking did as robin after robin sounded the alarm in sequence along the owl’s flight path. I felt as if the door had just been opened to a whole new experience of nature.

            The following day, and again a couple weeks later, I encountered barking robins and stopped to investigate. In each case they were barking at an owl. I do not know if that call is always associated with owls, but I definitely know to look, listen, and pay attention now when I hear the robins barking.

            Interpreting bird language is a skill I’ve wanted to learn for the last thirty years, but somehow never figured out how to get started with it on my own. Back in the early 1980s, in junior high and high school, I devoured each one of Tom Brown’s books as fast as he could write them. I constantly practiced my fox walking, stalking, peripheral vision, intermittent attention, basic tracking, and survival skills. Brown also talked about the “concentric rings of nature,” how disturbances, such as a person walking, sent ripples of alarm out through nature. If you could learn to read these disturbances, he implied, then you could know what was happening beyond your field of vision. It was a skill I desperately wanted to learn, but somehow couldn’t figure out how to begin. Brown’s advice was basically to sit in one spot and observe nature until you figured it all out.  I admit that I never really did. I got restless. My mind wandered. I didn’t have any tools to decipher what was going on around me.

            I was completely stymied for twenty years, until Jon Young described learning the language of the birds in his Seeing Through Native Eyes audio series. Young outlined the five voices of the birds (song, companion calls, territorial aggression, juvenile begging, and alarms). Somehow, merely having definitions of these calls made it possible to begin to hear them for the first time.

            In retrospect, I wonder if I might have been more successful if I had spent more time in the bird-rich riparian areas of the valleys, rather than in the hills and mountains. The whitetail deer of the valleys, for example, are hypersensitive to bird language. Sometimes it seems like you cannot walk ten feet through the woods, even quietly stalking, without spooking out a bunch of whitetails a quarter mile away. It is very different experience than in the mountains, where an absent-minded person can walk around a bush and nearly bump into a mule deer. The mule deer are either not as attuned to bird language as whitetails, or there is much less bird language to listen to. I suspect it is the latter. 

            Nowadays I take junior high kids out camping each spring in the bird-rich riparian zone along the nearby Jefferson River. I am in that busy part of my life where I have not yet been able to prioritize a sit spot on a daily basis, but we at least try to spend a few days in the field before the junior high kids arrive, tuning in, practicing bird language, and evaluating potential means to incorporate lessons about bird language into the experience for the kids.

            This year I eagerly watched Jon Young’s new video, Bird Language: How to Interpret the Behaviors and Patterns of Nature, and learned several new tips for interpreting bird language. Most helpful was the journaling/mapping procedure, to record pretty much everything that is happening, as it is happening. Instead of randomly hearing bird song without meaning, and ultimately drifting off in thought, this method provided a clearly defined mission for my admittedly very busy Western mind to tackle and accomplish. Almost immediately I observed events that I may not have paid much attention to in the past. It opened up a whole new channel of experience. For example, while walking along the slough one day, I saw a common mallard duck shoot out of the water like a bullet. I recognized that it was not the usual, agitated, quacking rise and departure associated with my own approach, but rather that the duck was more like a missile fired straight out of the water. It reacted precisely to the arrival of a bald eagle flying in over the trees. It was utterly obvious, yet I probably wouldn’t have noticed the connection had I not just watched the bird language video. Somehow, writing it all down and making a map brings the bird world directly into my consciousness.  It is pretty basic stuff, but it is a start!

            Right on the heels of the video, Jon Young published his newest book, What the Robin Knows, which I also eagerly devoured. It is a veritable encyclopedia of bird language tips and tidbits, fleshing out and clarifying many of the themes he introduced in Seeing Through Native Eyes and the Bird Language DVD.  The book is definitely not just about robins, but also describes bird language in detail across numerous other songbirds, as well as water birds, such as geese. Young also clarifies some previous statements, such as, “You cannot trust the corvids.” While the crows, ravens, magpies, and jays do not necessarily play by the rules of the five voices of the birds, they nevertheless have a lot to talk about in their own way, as Young expounds on throughout the book.

            My only complaint about Young’s book is that it isn’t organized in encyclopedic fashion. The information is excellent, just so scattered through the text that it would be difficult to relocate and review a specific tip about any particular bird. The book wasn’t apparently written as a book per se, but condensed by editors from 200,000 words of other text and speeches given by Jon Young over the years then peppered with notes from bird biologists. No matter, the book is worth reading again and again and again. 

            A purist might argue that it is “cheating” to have such great resources to work from at all, rather than just sitting out in the woods and figuring it out from scratch. But on the other hand, even the best resources still just outline what is possible. It is ultimately up to the individual to go out and see firsthand some of the bird language patterns described by Jon Young, and from there to build one’s own library of observations about bird language and bird behavior.  A person can still spend a lifetime listening and learning.

            Having spent the past week visiting a friend, I couldn’t help but notice a particular robin singing on and off throughout each day.  We were busy, so I didn’t have much time to sit and study bird language. But in the middle of a conversation one evening, I did notice the robin “barking” away at something. When I walked over to take a look, there was an owl sitting in a tree. It was a real thrill to recognize the same kind of behavior yet again. The door has definitely been opened to a whole new kind of experience in nature!

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