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Book Report: Two works too hard to pass up

Two books by Wisconsin authors this week. "The Last Empty Places," by Peter Stark (Ballantine Books, $26), is a fascinating look at "the blank spots on the American map."

Stark, who grew up in the wilds of Wisconsin, was inspired to research other wildernesses that still exist on this continent. He journeys to the emptiest expanses he can find, defined as a place so bare of civilization, it would take two weeks' worth of supplies to get through it. And then he writes about it: Northern Maine, central Pennsylvania, southeast Oregon.

And he also writes about earlier wilderness mavens who have been there, like Wisconsin's own Aldo Leopold, author of "A Sand County Almanac." In 1909, Leopold graduated from Yale with a degree in forestry and hired on as a U.S. forester in the southwest, where "he quickly demonstrated that he was incompetent."

But he had an epiphany one day that forever changed his life and made him a revolutionary environmentalist, when he and his cohorts shot a wolf:

"In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack...when our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide rocks. We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes -- something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger itch; I thought that because fewer wolves mean more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire eyes, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view."

Not many former Wisconsin county agents crank out book after book, especially in the fiction category. Not any, really, except for one Jerry Apps, professor emeritus, University of Wisconsin, whose recent novels about the Wisconsin agricultural scene I can't put down once he's involved me.

I've written about his novel about the pickle factory called "In a Pickle," "The Travels of Increase Joseph" and "Blue Shadows Farm." For these efforts Apps has received the Major Achievement Award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers and the Notable Author Award from the Wisconsin Library Association.

Next month he'll publish "Cranberry Red" (University of Wisconsin Press, $26.95).

Apps sets his novels in fictional Ames, a county in central Wisconsin. The new book opens when county agent Ben Wesley goes to the courthouse and finds out that Wisconsin has just fired all of its county agents for budgetary reasons.

You've gotta love Apps, the former county agent, because in the novel he tracks the public response in the county's weekly newspaper. Is everyone sad for Ben Wesley and all the other county agents in the Badger State?

Not on your life. The letters to the editor flow in, complimenting the Legislature for its actions. As I read them, all I could think about was my farmer father who always said most county agents were dreamers, that most were either academics or failed farmers and that the whole project was a waste of money.

Poor Ben Wesley: He's devoted his life to his job and now he's out of one. That's until he's approached by the new for-profit college in the area, Osborne University. It wants him to go to work for it, publicizing a new chemical developed by its researchers. It's called "cranberry red," which the university claims will increase crop yields and also prevent heart disease, strokes and even Alzheimer's disease.

The pay is great, but Wesley wonders if this for-profit outfit is on the up-and-up. So you get the picture and the conflict.

I especially liked Apps' take on for-profit colleges because I'm sick and tired of seeing their endless commercials on TV, appealing to kids who probably shouldn't be going to college, or at least one of these computer generated institutions that tell kids they can make a living as legal assistants, hairdressers, and construction engineers by tuning in and sending along hefty tuition charges.

In a recent article, Iowa's Senator Tom Harkins writes that nowadays 23% of all federal scholarship funding is eaten up by these universities, who won't even tell how many "graduate" or how many flunk out because unlike real colleges they are privately held and needn't divulge their success or failure rates.

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.