Room for Craft
JUNE 2017: MICHAEL BRANCH
Author Michael P. Branch lives with his family in the high desert of the western Great Basin. Their remote home sits at six thousand feet above sea level and is subject to deep snows, blistering heat, wildfire, and flood—none of which deters Mike from walking over one thousand miles per year on the surrounding public lands, often accompanied by his two young daughters.
Mike’s recent projects include Raising Wild: Dispatches from a Home in the Wilderness (2016) and Rants from the Hill: On Packrats, Bobcats, Wildfires, Curmudgeons, a Drunken Mary Kay Lady, and Other Encounters with the Wild in the High Desert (2017). He is also the recipient of the 2017 Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award. The Hopper contributor Talley V. Kayser spoke with Mike about strategies for successful writing—and thriving—in a rugged and often misunderstood wilderness.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. All photos are by Eryn Branch.
Let’s start by introducing your landscape to folks unfamiliar with high desert. What conditions have you seen during this winter and spring?
Well, access is always an issue in this place. But this year's been incredible. The mountain that we can see from our house has had sixty-seven feet of snow this winter. We've been snowed-in, snowed-out, mudded-in, mudded-out, flooded-in, flooded-out—you name it. It's a real challenge to keep the roads passable. We have a lot of challenges up here: fire, and snow, and access, and everything else, but that's part of the choice we made when we came to the wildland interface. There's no way to have the beauty and the wildness and the openness and the freedom and the pleasure of this place without playing by the rules that this landscape has already made for us.
When you are subject to these changing conditions, does that inspire you to write? Or does it inhibit the daily rhythms of life that facilitate writing?
When you're writing about a place that you love, it really helps you to focus your attention on what matters most and what's inspiring and what's gratifying. I have written pretty celebratory lyrical essays about things like wildfires and blizzards because art gives you the power to process and transform difficult experiences into something that can be meaningful enough that it still has beauty.
It has been a really grueling winter in the sense that I'm on my tractor all the time pushing snow, or digging out ditches, or keeping culverts clear just so we can get to the roads. But the overall experience is still great because these things happen to you and before you know it, it's a story, and as soon as it's a story, it has value that takes away the part of it that was hard and emphasizes the part that's worth having. Those experiences and frustrations are a package deal, you know. When we fall in love, we fall in love with the whole complex set of things about a person. I think relationships to landscape are similar. This isn't supposed to be the place where I'm on vacation. This is supposed to be the place where I'm subject to forces beyond my control.
So this contractual relationship, where you say, "Okay, I am here in this place, and I have to play by its rules”—that’s an environmental ethic. Did living in the high desert shape that ethic? Or did you take that approach as you decided to live in the Great Basin?
That's a great question, and I think as with all good questions the answer is both. We came here because that was an environmental ethic that we found appealing, but it's the practice of trying to live here that enforces the ethic. So just an example is how you raise kids. You can tell them that scorpions and rattlesnakes and mountain lions and wildfires are bad and evil and they have to be controlled and escaped. Or you can say, "Look, here's how this place works, and you need to mind your manners." If you understand what you need to understand about a rattlesnake, or a mountain lion, or a fire, you're gonna be safe. If you're both informed and respectful, which is what we've tried to teach our girls to be here, it's a lot safer living here than it is living in any town or city in the country.
But you have to subscribe to that foundational or fundamental environmental ethic that you described, which is one that starts from a desire to understand how the world works. If you're not respectful here, this place will finish you off. You have to be well-behaved, and that means understanding these unwritten rules and being willing to play by them. It's a huge part of parenting out here because I want to make sure that my girls don't need me with them every minute. I want them to understand how this place works and be humble before it.
You are describing a very “grown-up” logic, and you're using phrases like "be well-behaved" and "mind your manners." But so much of your writing explores how kid logic challenges adult logic, especially when it comes to relationships with place.
True! We grown-ups, no matter how well-intentioned we are, are able to construct pretty elaborate self images. But kids ask direct, honest questions that expose adult hypocrisy so quickly—"Dad, why do you say you believe this, but you do this other thing?” [laughter] I think we inhabit these illusions that we have about ourselves, and kids can just explode that in a moment. So I have constructed my identity as a man, as an outdoors person, as an environmentalist, and my kids have cut through the soft or self-serving parts of that image pretty quickly, and that has helped me have a more solid foundation for my relationship to the natural world.
I also think that kids have a much more immediate sense of relationship to the world, especially physically. I mean, a kid's way of knowing the world is really tactile, and it's immersive, and it's direct. We spend a lot of time as grownups, even when we're outside, thinking about our past, or thinking about our future, and maybe not just being in the place we are in the moment. And I think that is something that comes really naturally to kids. So another way kid logic has been incredibly helpful in reeducating me is that my kids teach me to engage the world in a much more immediate way, to be in the moment, in the place.
You walk over a thousand miles a year. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between those walks and your writing process?
Yeah, these two things are completely interrelated for me. For example, when I'm writing, I'll draft up a certain part of what I'm working on, and then I take that text and I head out into the desert. I often read it out loud while I'm walking. Part of my writing process is being able to edit prose to the voice. I'm a humor writer, and the voice is crucial to humor, because you have to be able to hear jokes and timing. So I literally walk around in the desert by myself, reading stuff out loud that I've written.
In that sense, the walking is literally part of my writing process, because I'm walking around out there editing, and reading aloud and editing. But even when I'm not doing that kind of work during walks, that's absolutely the processing time, that's where the good ideas come from for the writing, that's where problems that I have come up against get solved, that's where my overall motivation to do the writing comes from.
And you always walk the same stretch of land.
Yes. I love to walk anywhere, but I’ve logged perhaps sixteen thousand miles within about a ten-mile radius of my house. When they hear about this, people’s first thought is, "Oh my God, this is a true treadmill. You're just doing the same thing over and over again!" But what I've found is by going over the same territory repeatedly, I've been able to hone my sense of attention, so that my ability to notice things on that territory gets better and better and better as conditions change. Sometimes it's day, sometimes it’s night, all different seasons, all different weathers, different wildlife conditions, after fires, snowshoeing during blizzards, whatever.
And walking the same ground had made me much more attentive during the recursive process of writing. If I'm finishing a piece and I'm on my fourteenth draft, well. Fourteen drafts of an essay, or a whole bunch of walks on the same landscape—those two forms of practice have a lot in common. So I modulate between my desk and the field, my desk and the field as I'm writing.
Since we’ve introduced the field, let’s talk about the desk. "Fire on the Mountain" (a chapter in Raising Wild) includes a brief description of your scribble den: a separate room upstairs with a writing table, towers of papers, and boxes of notes. What else is in there? When you sit down to write, or walk to write, what are you looking at and how does that influence the way you develop your craft?
I remember the story of Annie Dillard writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, in study carrels in the library at Hollins College; in other words, some of the most lyrical, evocative writing ever written about an American landscape was written from a windowless room. I just can't do that. For me, the key to the scribble den is lots of views of the open landscape and my binoculars right there so that I can stop writing and look at stuff whenever I want.
But mainly I have to write in a place where I can go outside. I literally need to be able to walk from wherever I'm writing. The main key for me is access to places where I can walk and to being able to see and to watch the natural life.
You mentioned binoculars. Any other materials or technologies that are at hand ifyou're sitting down to write?
Well, because I'm a research monster, I'm surrounded by books and papers. I might have field guides, scientific articles, certainly books on the subject, whatever the subject is. And then also I keep a very small pocket journal that I carry with me all the time, and as those journals fill up, then I have larger journal books that I cull from the pocket journals, and I put the ideas in the larger journal books. And then I work from those journal books to create computer files with writing ideas, and then I work from the computer files of ideas when I start to frame an essay that I'd like to write. So ninety percent of the time when I'm writing, I'll be surrounded by journals of one kind or another also.
Do you find it important to have the pen and the paper—tactile interactionswith the journal—as opposed to taking notes on a phone?
For me, yes. But I'm not one of those writers who would say that I need to write things out longhand. For some people, the wiring between the movement of the hand and the mind is necessary, and then they type later. I compose on the keyboard, so I don't have any problem with that. Yeah, the physical pen to paper of the field journal is important to me. But again, I edit on-screen, I edit on the page, and I edit with the voice. I have tried every combination of every other two of those, but I have to have all three.
I just couldn't edit without using the voice. I mean I read aloud constantly. It really helps. If you've got a flabby sentence, you'll feel it in your voice—you feel like, "Gosh, when am I gonna get to the end of this sentence?" Or if something's too staccato, or if your diction is off a little bit, you hear it. Certainly, with humor writing, you can hear a joke much better than you can see it. Humor is essentially an oral form, so all of those things combine to make that voice aspect really important.
I’m glad we’ve returned to humor; that’s the mode you’ve chosen to engage ideas of place and environment. Why?
I think the value of humor for environmental writing is that if we care about connecting with broad audiences of readers, we have to meet these people halfway. We have to be willing to make the reading of our work a pleasurable experience. And, frankly, that’s not part of the American environmental writing tradition.
As I see it, the American environmental writing tradition has been dominated by two rhetorical modes: the jeremiad and the elegy. The jeremiad goes back to puritan culture, and it's an angry tirade against backsliders. Environmentalists do this all the time, right? We lay into people whose behavior doesn't comport with our environmental values, and then people see us as sanctimonious and judgmental and blaming. That doesn't help, even if we are right. By contrast, the elegy is a sort of stylized form of expressing grief at loss. We're losing so much now with biodiversity crises and global climate change, and we should feel grief, and we should have forms that allow us to express that. But at the end of the day, writers have to think about readers’ needs and not just their own needs. Readers need to be entertained, and they need to have their difficult heavy daily lives lifted a little bit. They need to see a new way into topics that doesn't feel just plain demoralizing to them.
So I have really come to believe that humor is a way of opening to a wider readership of people who wouldn't otherwise read about the kind of stuff I care about. I can bring readers into humor, because humor provides pleasure, and then once I get them in the door I may be able to expose them to some ideas that are important, but that they wouldn't necessarily pay attention to if that was what I opened with.
I just think it's human nature to say, "I can be exposed to only so much anger and sadness, and then I need a break." I want my work to be able to address the same issues that I've always cared about, but in ways that will give readers some relief and help them to see that you can think critically about environmental issues without necessarily being angry or sad. We talk all the time about sustainability, but it's not an ethic that we tend to apply to ourselves. And humor is very sustaining, it helps us to be more resilient, it gives us hope when we're discouraged. And to me, it's a very promising forum for opening conversations about things that might otherwise feel daunting.
Are there any dangers to using humor to explore environmental issues?
People can incorrectly perceive that if humor is being used to treat a subject, then that subject must not be important, it must not be serious. This one chaps my hide, because you can go back to the ancient world, and humor was never separate from important work. It was assumed by the Greeks, it was assumed by Shakespeare, by Milton, by Dante, by Plato, by Homer, that the comic is a powerful mode that can be used to address real issues. It's really not until about the Victorian period that people came up with this idea that to use comedy means that you're trivializing something, or that isn't serious. And that has really stuck in our culture.
The risk in 2017 of using humor to talk about environmental issues is the response that is some version of, "Hey, if you had any appreciation for how important and urgent this issue was, you wouldn't be making fun, you wouldn't be willing to laugh at this." And so I do have to defend myself on that pretty often, when I try to point out to people that the comic mode is one that not only can be used to attack injustice, it can be used to build resiliency in ourselves. The stuff that's funny and the stuff that's serious often are right up against each other, and I want to produce a kind of writing that acknowledges that.
Humor isn't the only component of your essays that is challenging some wildernesswriting stereotypes. What trends in the genre of place-based literature does your work intentionally counter?
A couple of things come to mind when I think of stereotypes I want to confront. One is that wilderness is a place for solitary adventure, rather than a place for people to be together—and especially families to be together. One is that wilderness is a place for men and boys, instead of women and girls. One is that environmentalists are overly serious and judgmental and sanctimonious. I am deliberately crafting a voice that challenges that.
And I want environmentalists to feel like I'm a voice for their community, but I also just wanna help them think about how that community can be enlarged. I have no patience, in an era of mass extinctions and climate change, I have no patience for people whose main concern is to sound right. That's not helping. I think that if we actually want to make a difference in the world, we’ve got to figure out how to talk to some people who don't see the world the way we do, and that means starting from a position ofopenness, observation, compassion, tolerance, patience. I know that sounds really squishy, but we just gotta get out of this mode of, "We're environmentalists, we're right, and we need to make sure everybody hears it," and instead imagine a world where everybody is an environmentalist, even if they don't use that kind of term to describe themselves. There are other ways of making connections with people who care.
So your readers might connect with your humor, or with your position as a parent, and be drawn into thinking about environmental connections that way—but the high desert is likely to seem completely foreign to them. Do you feel like your work is always a balance between the familiar and the utterly alien?
Yeah. I mean, as a desert writer, you're up against this all the time. You say the word “desert” to an American, they're going to picture a sandy place with giant cacti. Well, it isn't sandy here, and there are no cacti, and you certainly are not gonna have a person picture a desert that has a blizzard. I mean, this is a high cold desert, the sagebrush steppe, and it is an alien landscape that is very difficult for people not only to learn to understand the ecology of, but also to find beautiful.
If I were writing about the Colorado Rockies front range, I would not have this problem, because that landscape looks like every Sierra Club poster and every painting on every hotel wall that anybody has ever seen. They understand that it's beautiful. But people will drive from Salt Lake to Reno across the Great Basin, and then tell you there's nothing out there. Aesthetically, or environmentally, they have not been educated to understand how amazing this place is.
So, yeah, the burden is on me. How can I help them have a better sense of it? I can't start out by saying, "I live in this place that you think is empty and barren, but I think it's beautiful. So now, sit still while I re-educate you." Nobody wants to hear that. But if I say, "I'm gonna tell you a story about kids," a lot of people can relate to that. Or, "I'm gonna tell you a story that intersects with popular culture in ways that are absurd and entertaining." Or, "I'm gonna write about my dog or my cat." Right? House pets, people can relate to that. Or, "I'm gonna write about my zany neighbors." And once I get readers in there, they're gonna see: "Oh, that experience of parenting those little girls is happening in this amazing place, and this place must be more interesting or more beautiful than I had thought before."
The ultimate environmental consequences of this kind of engagement are real. The Great Basin Desert is proposed as the repository for all of our nation's high level radioactive waste. Why do people propose to put it the Great Basin? Because this looks like a big, empty nothing to people who haven't thought about it. Even the Mojave comes off better, because it's closer to LA, so it's cheaper to shoot television and movies in the southern deserts—and so people see those deserts and think, "They look bonafide, we've seen those in movies."
My point is: if you think of a place as disposable, empty, barren, ugly, you are more likely to misuse that place—in the same way that if you feel that a person doesn't have status, they're gonna be more likely to be exploited. So on the surface of it, I'm using things like humor and kids to get people through the door, but my ultimate agenda is much more serious, and it involves nothing short of trying to re-educate people about the value of this landscape.
In addition to publishing seven books and over two hundred essays and articles, Michael Branch has given hundreds of invited lectures, readings, and workshops. More information on Mike’s essays and publications is available at michaelbranchwriter.com.