Connecting With the Unknown, Unexpected in Nature: Q&A with David Rains Wallace

David Rains Wallace (photo by Betsy Kendall)

David Rains Wallace was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1945 and grew up in New England. He attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. (B.A. 1967) and Mills College in Oakland (M.A. 1974). His first published writing on natural history and conservation appeared in Clear Creek Magazine in 1970. Since then he has published seventeen books, and his work has appeared in many anthologies and periodicals, including The Norton Anthology of Nature Writing, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Harpers, Mother Jones, Greenpeace, Sierra, Wilderness, Country Journal, and Backpacker.

Wallace received the 1984 John Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing for his third book, The Klamath Knot: Explorations in Myth and Evolution, which also won a 1984 California Book Award. The San Francisco Chronicle and Chicago Tribune included it in their lists of the best books of 1983.

In 1999, the Chronicle included The Klamath Knot in its list of the 20th century’s 100 best non-fiction books west of the Rockies.  Other awards include a 1979 California Book Award for his first book, The Dark Range: A Naturalist’s Night Notebook, and Ohioana Library Association Medals for Literature in 1981 and 1990.

His most recent books are The Bonehunters’ Revenge: Dinosaurs, Greed, and the Greatest Scientific Feud of the Gilded Age (1999), a finalist for a 2000 PEN West book award; Beasts of Eden: Walking Whales, Dawn Horses, and Other Enigmas of Mammal Evolution (2004), a New York Times Notable Book; Neptune’s Ark: From Ichthyosaurs to Orcas  (2007); and Chuckwalla Land: The Riddle of California’s Desert  (2011) which was recently reviewed in ZYZZYVA. He lives in California with his wife, Elizabeth Kendall. We talked to him via e-mail about his books and about nature writing.

ZYZZYVA: You grew up in the East and attended Mills College in Oakland. Was there something, other than graduate school, which prompted your move to California?

David Rains Wallace: Growing up, I thought of California as a big beach with palm trees and movie stars. On the other hand, I had vivid dreams of a place with high cliffs overhanging wild surf, very unlike Long Island Sound.

I first came here in 1968 to visit a friend who had a fishing boat on Bodega Bay. Nature had always excited me, but I’d never experienced it in such a wild state—just like my dreams– so it was a revelation. I spent the next four years doing odd jobs so I could explore the West Coast, south to Central America and north to Alaska. I then went to Mills for two years to write my first book (The Dark Range, based on the Yolla Bolly Middle Eel Wilderness and other northwest California places) as an M.A. thesis. Mills was friendly to such oddball projects then, under English Department Chairman Elizabeth Pope: they even gave me some money. Then I got a job with a park agency in Ohio for the four years it took to get the book published. Then I came back to California to write The Klamath Knot, which got attention—not all positive—won prizes and “established” me as a writer, more or less.

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Z: Your 1984 book, The Wilder Shore, explores the California landscape via Morley Baer’s photographs and your writing, which includes short “objective vignettes” describing various ecosystems throughout California. However, the majority of the book is devoted to your examination of California literature as a response to the landscape. How would you define the Californian literary sensibility?

RW: The Wilder Shore is about classic (meaning mainly Anglo American in this context) California literature’s response to landscape, which was unusually direct because civilization occupied the place so rapidly (thereby strongly revealing how destructive its growth had become on land and native people), and because California’s tectonically-active geology gives nature unusual power here in contrast to the East. The older nature-friendly tradition of Bartram, Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman influenced California classic literature through writers like John Muir and Bret Harte and helped create a climate that encouraged informed views of the landscape as expressed by a range of later ones—John Van Dyke, Mary Austin, James Smeaton Chase, Frank Norris, Jack London, Robinson Jeffers, John Steinbeck, etc.  So that’s one aspect of “California literary sensibility.”

The state has become so urbanized and globalized since the mid-twentieth century that a correspondingly urban and global literature tends to overlay the landscape-oriented classics in the institutional mainstream. A friend who wrote an environmental curriculum guide for California public schools found that neither Muir nor Austin is taught in them. Some classic writers — Muir, Austin, Steinbeck — remain popular with the reading public, while others like Jeffers and Van Dyke have faded. So I suppose I might define the California literary sensibility as a bit schizoid, too.

Z: In the introduction to The Wilder Shore, Wallace Stegner explains the role of the Sierra Club in publishing Exhibit Format books. “The marriage of text and pictures took place as publicly as possible, under intense light, on the highest grades of coated paper, under the supervision of some of the world’s best printers, often set against the background of environmental controversy, and with such success that the Exhibit Format, as it was called, began something of a revolution in publishing.” How did The Wilder Shore come about as an Exhibit Format book?

RW: The book was part of publisher Jon Beckmann’s undertaking to revive Sierra Club Books, which was falling apart after the club leaders pushed out David Brower, who’d started and developed the Exhibit Format series. (They pushed him out partly because they thought books were costing them too much money.) Beckman and Jim Robertson at Yolla Bolly Press had the idea of reviving the series using Morley Baer’s landscape photos. (It’s unfair the way the media dote on Ansel Adams and ignore other nature photographers like Baer and Philip Hyde.) Since Jon and Jim had cooperated to publish my first three books, they asked me if I wanted to write something for it. I don’t remember whose idea it was to do California classics and landscape. Probably Jim, who was also doing a series of limited editions of the classics — high quality, illustrated letterpress books, the kind that last for centuries. I think it was my idea to approach it as a literary transect, moving from the coast across the mountains and valleys to the desert. A SCB editor, Diana Launda, got me some extra money to add the nature vignettes at the chapter beginnings. That was how I first encountered Red Rock Canyon as described in Chuckwalla Land.

It was very encouraging to me that they got Stegner to write the introduction, although they made him revise it to have do less about my text and more about Morley’s photos. I guess, as a writer, Stegner had leaned too far toward the words. Sierra Club gave the book a nice send off. Unfortunately, publishing economics had moved on from the “coffee table” book by 1984, and The Wilder Shore was the last Exhibit Format book. Beckmann and Robertson did a wonderful job of promoting nature-related publishing from the 1970s to the 1990s, but then the club pushed Beckmann out in 1994 and the book program “downsized.” There seemed to be a trend of advocacy environmental organizations abandoning or reducing their programs for communicating with the public.

Z: In The Wilder Shore you write, “I would not have seen California as I have without the incentive of its literature.” Which California authors most influenced your early work? Why? What contemporary Californian or Western U.S. authors working today do you admire?

RW: I read Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums in college in 1965 and that led me to Gary Snyder’s work and its emphasis on mythology and wilderness, which has been basic to me. Snyder’s work led me to other poets like Philip Whalen and Lew Welch, whose “Hermit Poems” and “The Way Back” I like because they’re about the Klamath Mountains. Snyder also interested me in Native American sources like Black Elk Speaks and accounts in anthropological literature like Alfred and Theodora Kroeber’s Ishi in Two Worlds, etc. John Muir’s books were essential to my explorations of mountain natural history and my ideas about nature writing generally, as were Sally Carrighar’s and Aldo Leopold’s. Robinson Jeffers’ poetry was also an influence, although in a more distanced way through his tragic sense of culture’s failure of self-control in relation to nature. Mary Austin, James Smeaton Chase, and John Van Dyke were influential in my writing on desert and early California, as were classic Hispanic writers like Pedro Font and Miguel del Barco. Wallace Stegner and T.H. Watkins were very enlightening influences in their sense of how Western history and natural history have interacted. Raymond Chandler and F. Scott Fitzgerald were influential when I wrote a couple of “eco-thriller” novels. Getting away from California a bit, I liked Edward Abbey’s unapologetic advocacy of wilderness, although his “Cactus Ed” posturing could be tiresome.

As I said, the literary landscape has changed so much in my time that recent decades are kind of a blur. Some writers who were working earlier in the nature-related tradition seem to have moved in other directions. There are many good writers in my generation (born in the 1940s or ‘50s), but I can’t think of any who have influenced me particularly.

Z: In your latest book, Chuckwalla Land: The Riddle of California’s Desert, you explain your initial lack of appreciation for the California desert. During a 1983 trip to Red Rock Canyon, that changed. In the prologue, you write, “I returned from my 1983 trip in a state of exhilarated puzzlement.” What was it about the landscape that produced this feeling?

RW: I just wasn’t paying attention to the California desert at first. When I started paying attention, things jumped out at me, which is true of any landscape, but particularly true of the desert since it seems so barren and inimical if you’re not paying attention, but suddenly seems so full of life when your are. Red Rock Canyon is compelling even for desert because it’s a badland, where wind and water erosion have bared geology and paleontology so much that you feel as though you are walking around underground, in the world of the mastodons, camels, and saber tooths that lived there 3 million years ago. Badlands are magical places, and desert badlands are doubly so. That experience made me wonder about where the desert itself came from, and when I started looking into that, I found that—although some people have very definite ideas about the subject—nobody really knows where the desert came from. So that’s what the book is about — nature in time as well as space, which has been a basic theme of my writing since The Klamath Knot.

Z: You are considered a nature writer. But in your 1978 book, The Dark Range: A Naturalist’s Night Notebook, you write, “But facts are only part of the human relationship with the biosphere … the old cultures translated an awareness of interdependence into myths that extended human feelings throughout the fabric, but the insulated existence of civilization numbs this awareness and the myths lose their meaning.” Can you explain?

RW: I once defined nature writing as “an appreciative aesthetic response to the scientific view of nature,” and I couldn’t have written as I have without concepts like evolution, plate tectonics, symbiosis, etc. On the other hand, I’ve had experiences in living landscapes that science doesn’t explain, that I don’t understand, and that I don’t think anybody really understands. Science had largely dealt with this “psychic” aspect of nature by ignoring it, which is possible in a world where wild nature has been subdued and set apart. Other cultures that dominated nature less had other ways of dealing with it—shamanism, etc.—and they evidently worked well in their context, since humans are still here. They don’t always work so well now against civilization’s juggernaut: Black Elk’s wonderful visions and the beautiful rituals he drew from them didn’t save the Great Plains bison ecosystem or the way of life that Lakotas had developed from it. I think the most important thing nature writing can do is to find new ways to connect creatively with the unknown and unexpected in nature, what the old ways did so well in their time.

I’m not sure what all this means for “the future of humanity” except that it’s very dangerous for us to think that we can go about obliterating living landscapes with impunity indefinitely. So I’ve basically tried to advocate landscape, as I wrote in a ZYZZYVA essay Howard Junker anthologized in the book Lucky Break. I think science in its biological-ecological role can protect landscapes by helping us understand how diverse and complex they are, and how much we depend on them for air, water, food. An example is when Native American groups in the Klamath River watershed hire or become biologists to help conserve fish and forest, and to re-establish a native species like the California condor there.

But science in its techno-commercial mode, which makes us think we can control the biosphere, is also a part of the danger. (Control earthquakes? Oceans? Tectonic plates? Atmospheric cycles?) Environmentalism that emphasizes technological control (all that “green” hardware) over self-control is part of the danger, too. Self-control tends to be unpopular as long as people can get away with controlling somebody or something else. But we won’t “stop global warming” until civilization stops growing like a malignant carcinoma, no matter how many hi-tech gadgets we pile onto deserts, hilltops, and seashores.

Z: In Chuckwalla Land, you gracefully weave together fact with myth, legend and the classics. How do these forms of story inform your writing?

RW: Just because old ways of mentally connecting with nature don’t always work as they used to doesn’t mean they don’t have great value, or that they can’t work in new ways. What strikes me about old mythologies is how they keep coming back into our minds despite the enormous differences between our lives and the lives of people thousands of years ago.  They seem to have a life of their own. People have long told stories of wild humanoids, and in the Klamath Mountains both Old World and Native American lore has evolved into the Bigfoot stories, which express the power and wonder of the region’s old growth forest wilderness. A lot of Bigfoot lore came from local people who worked in logging and road building, which is very hard, dangerous work and very destructive of forest and watersheds.  The people who do the work don’t get rich from it; the big money goes out to the corporations and banks, of course. So these tales of giants that come out of the woods and throw culverts and other equipment around seems to reflect a demotic sense of the limits of the dominating commercial “tree farm, wise use, sustained yield” mentality. Native American groups have very diverse and complex wild humanoid lore that seems to have evolved a similar sense of the resistance of local nature to the commercial forces that are coming to exploit it.

Composite human animal monsters are another widespread kind of lore. I was interested when I was writing Chuckwalla Land of how the human-lion-bird monster, the Sphinx, had originated in Egypt as an embodiment of the desert’s power, then evolved as it moved to the Middle East and Greece during thousands of years, then thousands of years later reappeared in the classic writing about California desert. Austin, Van Dyke, and Chase all bring the Sphinx into their desert writings as an embodiment of the desert’s mystery. The Sphinx seems to have assumed a role in California like that she played in the Greek myth, wherein she threatens the city of Thebes by devouring everyone who can’t answer her riddle: “What walks on four legs at dawn; two legs at noon; and three legs at evening.” [Ed. note: Answer: man] What she is asking for, I think, is a definition of humanity in relation to the natural mystery she embodies, but it turns out to be a trick question for Oedipus Rex. For him, humanity has to be the dominator, which is a childish definition, as he demonstrates in his infantile Freudian triumphs of killing his father and marrying his mother. The Sphinx is supposed to have committed suicide in chagrin at his answering her riddle—but she had wings. Triumphant Oedipus ends up a blind cripple—at a human life’s twilight.

I imagine the California Sphinx in Chuckwalla Land as having taken on a local form as part mountain lion, part condor, and part Bette Davis (the scariest screen goddess), and established a new lair at Red Rock Canyon, which not only is a portal into the prehistory of three million years ago but into the also mythic past of the hundreds of Hollywood Western movies that were filmed there before it became a state park. She might pose the same question as the Greek one, and we might still be getting it wrong. In scientific terms, humans walked on four ape legs in prehistory, two human legs in history, and three legs — part human, part machine — in the high technology present, when we’ve come to think we can dominate everything. But the crutch was one of the first “high technologies,” and Oedipus walked blindly into oblivion on his three legs.

Z: What do you see as the role of the nature writer in the 21st century? Has this changed since you began writing? If so, how?

RW: Nature writing had a vogue in the 1970s and ‘80s, following the Earth Day environmentalist trend, then faded commercially through Ronald Rex’s “Gilded Age II,” as civilization denied and then forgot the alarms that the “environmental decades” had raised.  If Gilded Age II is fading in its turn, as seems to be happening recently, then environmental concerns may get more attention and the nature writing tradition, which goes back to the eighteenth century with the writing of Gilbert White and William Bartram, may have another upsurge. It has always been a bridge between the sciences and the humanities, and we need bridges now more than ever, when it seems that both the humanities and the sciences are taking second place to business-as-usual. We also need writing that gives a positive, accessible incentive to protecting nature along with all the journalism about global warming, mass extinction, and other huge threats, which can be discouraging to the individual, especially in these days of rampant, corrupt elites that make everybody else feel isolated and powerless. There’s still a lot of nature to write about, and it’s not just the charismatic megafauna, African savanna, Amazon rainforest, and Arctic tundra that we repetitively get on TV.

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