“What does it mean to be an ‘environmental writer’?” Joy asks, her bony frame nested into the corner of a faded yellow couch. The sun has finally come out after 36 hours of heavy rain, nearly unprecedented weather for the Chiricahua Mountains of southern Arizona, and we are all catching our breath as the looming red and yellow welded tuff cliffs emerge from the morning fog, ominous and enchanting in their immensity. We are participating in the 2020 Orion in the Wilderness Environmental Writer’s Workshop, having traveled from all over the U.S. and Canada (on the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic) to discuss with masters like Joy Williams and Sherwin Bitsui how to become better “environmental writers.” This seems an increasingly elusive task given the silence that now surrounds Joy’s shrewd question.
We shift uncomfortably in our seats, feeling foolish for having no answer to a question so central to our purpose here. I self-consciously raise my hand.
“I think it’s less about being a writer of environment,” I venture, “and more about being a writer of place.” My workshop mates smile in agreement, and it strikes me that this nuanced distinction applies not only to my life as a writer, but to my life as a conservationist as well. I am so often moved to write from a feeling of connection to place, not necessarily environment, and equally moved to participate in protecting these places as their fate grows more and more uncertain through these rapidly changing times.
For five days my workshop co-participants and I wander the pine-oak scrublands of the Chiricahuas, squatting on our haunches beside rushing gray rivers as rafters of turkeys bob in and out the bushes, dutifully following the leader in near perfect alignment. Small herds of Coues’ deer flit their feathered white tails and browse on the greening desert bunch grasses while we furiously scribble in our journals. We stoop over our notebooks, eyebrows furled, deeply absorbed in pressing this feeling of place onto a page. Finding words that effectively convey this feeling is futile; it is vast and wondrous and evocative of indomitable smallness and deep connection. And, more often these days, it conjures grief and despair and irrevocable heartbreak.
I think these same sentiments are the drivers of individual and community involvement in environmental advocacy (which perhaps should be called advocacy of place). Since beginning my work with WildEarth Guardians, I’ve felt such gratitude for the quiet solidarity shared between members and staff. It’s a truism known but rarely spoken: we all love our time in place, we all fear for its future, and we’re all here to do all that we can to ensure its ability to survive and thrive for generations to come. The same thread of unwavering commitment to the more-than-human world weaves itself through the Orion gathering. We write as though our lives depend on it, because on some level, they do. But more critically, we write because so many other lives depend on us, and they are the voiceless, the most vulnerable, whose value has been forgotten and most urgently needs remembering.
Driving north on New Mexico highway 80, the Chiricahuas now the rugged horizon in my rearview mirror, I reemerge in the middle of March from the Orion workshop into a world utterly changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. In an hour, I learn the metrics of social distancing, I weigh the risks I might bring upon my septuagenarian mother and step-father should I choose to visit them when I return to Santa Fe, I take mental stock of my pantry shelves, and steel myself for the inevitable chaos that awaits me at our local grocery store. I shlep a half-dozen bags of vittles into my kitchen, throw my travel bags into my bedroom, and do the one thing that invariably calms my mind, centers my body and rejuvenates my spirit: I head for a quiet trail in the woods, I seek the salve of place-based perambulation.
I imagine in the past few weeks, many have found themselves walking more than usual. The palliative effects of strolling have been widely documented by those much more gifted in literary explications than myself. But I imagine we’ve all experienced something that resembles this arresting juxtaposition: after a tachycardia-inducing morning of news feeds, social media posts, vitriolic op-eds and live updates of viral outbreaks infecting a map of the world like a rapidly spreading digital rash, you gather your trembling body and panicked brain, tie your shoes and zip yourself into your parka, and find your way to the nearest tree-scape. You step out of your vehicle, slam the door behind you, and momentarily steady yourself against the frame of your car as you reel in the bright spray of sunshine, the cool air on your face, the tiny bird voices drowning out the din of a world in furious flux and fear. This other world suddenly penetrates your being and your becoming more intensely than ever before. You feel deeply grateful for the respite of this world. “Thank you,” you whisper.
I reflect back on my time in the Chiricahuas and all that we pledged ourselves to as writers of place. It’s these moments of place-based gratitude that I want to etch into words, want to linguistically sculpt into a paragraph that resounds with why we cherish this world, our world. Why now, as always, we must endeavor to tend to its wellbeing as we are tending to the wellbeing of ourselves and our loved ones.
How easily we forget, have forgotten, the world within the world, the one that has always been there, full of bird song and tree shadows. It’s not that the crisis of the moment is minimized, not that the tragedy and uncertainty discarded. It’s simply that we (re)discover our own well of tranquility, our own resilience and exquisite connectedness, not merely to cope, but to grow. To love and cherish the poignancy of our own fragility, and at the same time the power of our own ferocity. To wield this duality for the human and the more-than-human, as a mandate, as a gift, as a reclamation of what it means to be human.
Leia Barnett is WildEarth Guardians’ Greater Gila Campaigner.