How did Otters Dance come about? What gave you the idea for the book?
The book is a long series of reflections on our place in nature and the world, and how we might be able to balance the absolute wonder of the natural world with the need to maintain our home. Some of the chapters are more than 20 years old, and some are brand new. They came from hundreds of speaking opportunities, and the urging of my wife and others to write those thoughts down. That led to chapters in a variety of books, and other observations that are completely new. Ultimately, it was the urging of my wife and family, and friends Rick and Heather Knight that led me to submit the manuscript. I have to add that the publishing process with Fulcrum was absolutely seamless and utterly fantastic!
Can you tell us a little bit about your process for writing the book?
I write when I am traveling, or when a thought hits me – often that is the result of a long drive, or a summer rain or winter snow. Sometimes it is as simple as a response to a comment, or seeing a new species of bird, like Lesser goldfinches. Other times it may be a reaction to a scientific paper that highlights something new in ecology. There is really no single impetus. The process was a little like making a good beer – get the ingredients figured out and let time work some magic…..it amazes me sometimes how something I wrote is actually awful a month later, and it amazes me sometimes when something I wrote is actually really good. When what you write looks new to you much later, that is magic – I find some phrases that I wrote and just shrug – not sure where that came from – those are special. Mostly though, it is a process of capturing moments in time and translating them to a much larger temporal expanse.
How has your relationship to the earth impacted your writing?
My education and experience are almost all based in ecology and natural resources, which includes people on the land. I am so fortunate to have been raised in a family and culture that values all of the pieces of the frame, as John McPhee phrased it, and to have friends and a career that places me with the same kind of people on a daily basis. Everything we have comes ultimately from the earth, from plants and animals, and everything we have is ultimately only as good as what we leave behind.
So much of Otters Dance is about a love of the land and how loving a place can make us want to care for and conserve it. What do you believe are some of our most significant conservation needs at this time?
We desperately need people on the land who are vested in the long-term health of our ecosystems and we need to find responsible ways to compensate them for values the public holds dear – wildlife, clean air and water, viewsheds, healthy plant communities, and natural processes, including those we don’t really enjoy – like fire and flood. Right now, we need to pay attention to natural processes, invasive species, and water. Most importantly, we need to keep decision-making at the local level, where those actually on the land have the opportunity to help make decisions. There is so much knowledge in the collective cabs of old pickup trucks, and we tend to ignore that to our peril. If I have a single greatest worry, it’s that we will love this landscape to death, carve it into pieces and break it up with houses and other things that just don’t work for critters that need open space and lots of room. We absolutely must find comfort in the knowledge that there are stewards out there to take care of the things we love.
For those wanting to get involved in environmentalism or conservation, what advice do you have about starting out?
Do your homework. Truly understand the basic ecological principles and the ancient and recent history of land use and management in the area of interest. Focus on those things where you can find agreement, and don’t get sucked into the emotion of the moment. There is a huge difference between conservation and environmentalism when the latter becomes nothing more than advocacy and litigation. Get your hands dirty. Meet some people you never thought you would like, and listen more than you talk. And always, remind yourself why it is important.
While we’re on the topic of advice, what advice do you have for people who want to write a book?
Keep notes. Write like you talk. Read good authors. Write fast and put it away for at least a week. Then see what you think about it. I don’t write novels, so I doubt this is relevant at all, but you can’t write about a rainstorm if you’ve only seen one of them, can you? And the hardest part is to let other people read your work – that will drive you (and them) crazy sometimes, but my mom, and my wife and kids read everything I write, and they have made me a better writer, a better observer, and a better person.
What’s your favorite place in Wyoming? The world?
This past Saturday night my favorite place in Wyoming was Glendo, a little town in the center of the state – we watched for an hour as a lightning show brought a torrential rain and dozens of toads hopped across the yard. I say that in jest because I absolutely love this state, and I have been in every corner. There is no way to pick a favorite place, but if I had to do so, it would be the Green River Valley – ecologically and culturally that will always be the place that made me what I am. I still choke up when I look at the Wyoming range in my rearview mirror. But, I could easily write a whole book about places in Wyoming that are special – some deserts and some mountains – some rivers and some ponds – it is a very special place. And, never forget, it’s the people who complete that picture.
Are you reading anything good right now?
Just finished C.J. Box’s new book, “Treasure State” on the fiction side – it’s outstanding. On the other end of the spectrum, I’m re-reading “The Revolutionary Genius of Plants” by Stefano Mancuso – spectacular!