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“Literary Theory”? I’m Outta Here, Mr. Chips!

The course also refreshed my understanding, begun at Hobart, of that thing known as “literary theory”: the various methods of interpreting, for instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, interpretations that are galaxies beyond what one understands upon merely reading Gatsby for enjoyment, escape, beauty, and perhaps a little edification.  Indeed, forget merely struggling to divine a “theme” in a Fitzgerald novel; that is so high school.  At Hobart, literary theory was the province of many-lettered men like Allen Tate, Northrop Frye, John Crowe Ransom, and M.H. Abrams; yet during classroom discussions of their stellar contributions to American literature my mind often wandered to the next pick-up basketball game, the sly observations of bluesman Lightning Hopkins, or the Dexedrine I planned to drop at the upcoming mixer at a nearby women’s college.  At Hobart, I found literary theory hopelessly dense.  Couldn’t the reader, I wondered, simply be moved by the haunting image of Hemingway’s bereaved Frederick Henry walking home alone from the hospital in the rain?  An appallingly sophomoric attitude, I now admit. 

At UNM, I was introduced to a whole new generation of literary string theorists who had entered the spotlight during my academic locust years, among them two French philosophers named Foucault and Derrida.  Grappling with ideas developed on my side of the Atlantic was difficult enough; now the Continental perspective, which had given us Being and Nothingness, had been stirred into the intellectual gruel.  The new theories included “deconstruction” and “post-modernism.”  I, who was still familiarizing himself with the “modernity” of the CD, videocassette recorder, personal computer, and freestanding backpacking tent, now had to fathom the meaning of the “post-modern novel.” 

Yet I was now among students who not only enjoyed good reads, but were prepared to churn out mind-numbing interpretations of those reads; students, that is, who were pursuing their doctorates in English; PhD candidates nurturing dreams of a tenured professorship in a college or university.  They knew they had to publish these interpretations and plenty of them.  Indeed, the expression “publish or perish” had now entered my consciousness.  Yet, at least one of my early UNM professors seemed to acknowledge the folly of it all: “PhD?  Pshaw!  ‘Piled high and deep’!” he laughed.  I suspected he echoed the cynicism, if you will, of many another professor across America.  But, of course, he could afford to: he was a tenured Dickens scholar, and a very interesting and enjoyable one.  Before entering UNM, I often fantasized about one day turning “my students” on to Whitman or Hemingway, maybe even Abbey, but now the thought of creating a pile of arcane articles―or, God forbid, an entire book on a single author―that would be read by only a dozen members of yet another generation of anxious and exhausted PhD candidates dampened that fantasy.  After all, I merely wanted to write, and write well, about inspections of arroyos.[1] 


[1] Frank Waters about summed it up for me when, writing in the appendix of his marvelous book about the Colorado River, he stated: “To append a complete list of references consulted would be both needless and misleading. It would fall far short of being a complete bibliography on the Colorado . . . and it would imply, like most imposing lists, an academic interest in its history which I have never had.”    

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Welcome to Graduate School

In order to be accepted into the University of New Mexico graduate school program, I not only had to provide a transcript from Hobart College, I had to take a standard aptitude test similar to the SAT I’d taken decades earlier.  I also provided letters of recommendation and copies of the various columns I wrote for the Nature Center newsletter.  Unlike Hobart, where I was accepted after being initially rejected, I was promptly accepted at UNM, a pleasant change. 

I entered Hobart immediately after graduation from a public high school and one year of remediation at a private school.  Although my mother never attended college, my father did, and he understood that a college education vastly improved one’s chances for happiness and success.  And, fortunately, college affordability was not an issue with my family.  The Selective Service “student deferment,” which until November of 1969 permitted an eighteen-year-old like myself to avoid service in America’s armed forces―and a likely tour of duty in Vietnam―was also an enticement to enter college.  (I felt no sense of duty to join our armed forces; furthermore, service in any form in the armed forces held no attraction for me.[1])  So, vague expectations and pressing desires, including to grow my hair long, wear bellbottoms, join the “sexual revolution,” and continue my misunderstood-young-man routine, pushed and pulled me into Hobart with seemingly no more control on my part than that of a fallen leaf in the wind.  Still, I was not totally without focus.  I liked to read and write, and from the start decided I would major in English, although I had given absolutely no thought to what I would do with a degree in that subject.  I did assume that upon graduation some job other than mowing a lawn or working in the mill room of a tire factory awaited me, hopefully a job that had to do with writing and literature. 

Entering the University of New Mexico, I had a somewhat clearer vision of my life after graduation: I would be a professional writer, penning novels, stories, or non-fiction, although I had no idea if and how I could make a living doing any of this.  What I was determined to do at UNM was get an education: to attend all of my classes, read all of my assigned books, and enrich my life with ideas, with no distractions from drugs, rock music, political protests, and clumsy attempts to lose my virginity.  I entered the University of New Mexico in September of my thirty-ninth year.

Prior to entering UNM, I was no stranger to its main Albuquerque campus.  Again, I married there; I heard ecologist Paul Ehrlich and New Mexico novelist Tony Hillerman speak there; I heard Itzhak Perlman perform Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, one of my favorite classical works, in the college’s concert hall.  I loved the look of the campus.  The pueblo revival style that I first noticed in the university’s buildings that front Central Avenue abounded throughout the campus.  It was on particularly impressive display at Zimmerman, the campus’s multi-storied main library, to which I was naturally attracted.  It was so much softer and warmer than the right-angled brick and stone of Hobart’s architecture.  Rather than an institutional chill, the adobe structures lent the campus the warmth and ease of a village in 19th-century “New Spain.”  The campus was attractively landscaped, with paths winding beneath majestic trees offering welcome shade against the still-formidable heat of central New Mexico’s September.

The graduate program had a “foreign language” requirement, so during my first year I took elementary Spanish, which was taught by a vivacious female, a South American doctoral candidate.  Of course, the irony of Spanish as a “foreign language” in New Mexico was not lost on me.  For two years prior to entering UNM, I had heard it spoken―as with any language, not always with perfection―on the sidewalks of downtown Albuquerque and in the lumber yards of Española and Cuba.  I had even made an effort to properly pronounce the few words of Spanish I did understand, although to this day I can’t roll an “r” down Mt. Everest.  Two additional semesters were spent taking a course in translating Spanish.  

Another first-year requirement was a course entitled “Introduction to Professional Study,” taught by an amiable long-time professor who had long, thinly-whiskered sideburns and particularly admired some ancient novel entitled Tristram Shandy.  Among other things, the course dealt with the rules for producing “scholarly” papers, including their proper documentation.  As monsters who had managed to thrive for a dozen years, Nazis had fascinated me since adolescence, so my term paper for the course dealt with the early-eighties hoax known as the “Hitler diaries.” 


[1] My luck in avoiding service in the armed forces continued with the results of an amendment to the Military Selective Service Act of 1967, known as the “draft lottery.”  My lottery number, drawn in December of 1969 and corresponding to my birth date, was 359.  The highest lottery number called for induction was 125.  So, no boot camp, rice paddies, and Saigon go-go bars for me.

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I Begin to Write the Southwest

And then along came love and New Mexico.  Immediately after arriving in the state, I not only read enthusiastically, I began writing again.  In the spirit of Abbey, Mary Austin, Lawrence Clark Powell, Willa Cather, Frank Waters, and others, I wanted to write about the fundamental land and what it does to a person. 

Recalling the first words I ever scribbled to myself about a particular landscape―the Pawnee National Grasslands, during my visit there years earlier―I purchased a cheap stenographer’s notebook.  To Linda and curious family and friends, I called it just that: a “notebook.”  To myself, however, I called it a “journal,” preferring the loftier name.  I always filled it when I hiked and backpacked.  And I tried to fill it at least once or twice a week while confined to Albuquerque.  The more I scribbled in it, the more I realized what a pleasure and revelation it was.  Aspirations to Thoreau and Abbey, a fount of epiphanies and profundities, were not its purpose.  It was a remedy whenever blockage of my more high-minded literary efforts occurred.  It was a mountain of raw material for future high-minded literary efforts.  It was a regular affirmation and reminder of my unique skill, a reminder of the hard work that is often required to put even the simplest and most mundane event into a word, sentence, or paragraph.  This paragraph is a product of my journal, which today numbers thirty-seven “notebooks.” Or, more loftily, “volumes.”

“Loftily”? Apologies, Ernest.      

Not long after arriving in New Mexico, I did publish, albeit obscurely.  I wrote a volunteer column for the quarterly newsletter of the city’s Rio Grande Nature Center, discussing, among other things, my first impressions of the Rio Grande; my landscaping activities on the center’s grounds; the Corrales hobby farm of my lumber company coworker; and my impressions of a summer afternoon in the bosque.

And my thoughts on the late Edward Abbey.  One warm March afternoon in 1989, I was pedaling Linda’s stationary bike on her balcony at The Conquistador when I heard National Public Radio’s Noah Adams announce, to my shock, that Abbey had died after a mere sixty-two years.  Just prior to this, I puzzled over the announcement in the Albuquerque Journal that an appearance by Abbey at a local bookstore to promote his latest novel, The Fool’s Progress, had been cancelled; now I knew the reason why.[1]  I was deeply saddened by the death of this novelist, essayist, philosopher, and iconoclast who had so influenced me.  Here I was, newly arrived in the Southwest about which Abbey so lovingly wrote, prepared to read carefully for the first time his various novels set in New Mexico and Arizona, to eagerly await his latest observations about this land and the powers that daily threatened it, all the while knowing he was still alive, still out there just across that harsh desert, observing exactly what I was observing.  My remembrance of Abbey in the newsletter did not approach the insight and eloquence of essayist Edward Hoagland’s in The New York Times, but I was grateful for the permission by the newsletter’s editor to write it.  For all I knew, mine was the only commemoration of Abbey by a local writer in Albuquerque’s print media in the immediate months after his death.

In the summer of 1990, Linda and I wed at the chapel on the University of New Mexico campus, our Methodist minister officiating.  We honeymooned at the Inn of the Mountain Gods on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in the White Mountains of southeastern New Mexico, where I was accosted one morning by a security guard for straying onto the resort’s golf course while going for a brisk walk.  Linda continued with her fellowship in infectious diseases, and I began attending the University of New Mexico as a graduate student in English.   


[1] Despite his obvious fame, Abbey was never asked to give a reading at his alma mater, the University of New Mexico, likely because, as editor of the UNM literary magazine, The Thunderbird, in 1951, he published a quote by Diderot―“Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”―yet deliberately attributed it to Louisa May Alcott.  The quote infuriated a Catholic archbishop, and The Thunderbird was promptly shut down.  This lack of an invitation irked Abbey throughout his life as a published writer.

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In My Craft and Sullen Art

After Hemingway, I opened myself up to other writers: Sherwood Anderson, Bernard Malamud, Dylan Thomas, and Erskine Caldwell.  Alan Sillitoe’s writing spirited me to the grit of Nottingham, England.  I particularly liked John Cheever, not only for his witty, sparkling prose, but also his primary landscape: my home turf, the New York metropolitan area.  He made me almost want to live there.

After reading Hemingway, I, like thousands of writers before me, attempted to write like him: resisting the urge to go florid and wildly metaphorical, keeping my adjectives and adverbs to a minimum, striving to honor Papa’s dictum that prose should be “structure, not interior decoration.”  I submitted stories to various publications of greater and lesser renown, including The New Yorker, to which my parents subscribed.  Surely Mom and Dad knew their 18-year-old son’s submission to this, the country’s most prestigious forum for the short story, was doomed to failure, but they didn’t discourage me.  I guess that’s how much they understood.  I guess that’s how much they loved me. 

In any event, for two decades that early spark never blossomed into a flame of any size.  I majored in English as an undergraduate, focusing on American literature.  However, I struggled to understand my assignments, and today I can recall only a handful of the courses I took.  I took one creative writing class, in which I labored over a single short story that went nowhere.  For me, Hobart College was far more of a social experience than an academic one, often fueled by alcohol and marijuana, with occasional doses of hashish, mescaline, LSD, and amphetamines.  Oh, I read Hemingway―once: high on Dexedrine, I plowed through the entirety of The Sun Also Rises the night before my Introduction to American Literature final exam, finishing the novel, appropriately, as the sun rose, and nearly crashing during the exam.  Meanwhile, if I was majoring in English at Hobart, I was minoring―not for credit, of course―in rock music, the primary text for which was a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine.  I graduated from Hobart a thoroughly average student.  I earned my diploma without having studied Shakespeare in any depth and incapable of discussing with any confidence any American literary movement or any American author.  I chose to skip my formal graduation ceremony, which, I would learn a decade later during an ugly scene over a dinner table, my parents deeply regretted. An educational opportunity of a lifetime . . . squandered. 

Resettled in the West, I often checked out books from the Denver Public Library, yet finished few.  I purchased some books: collections of essays by Edward Abbey, novels by Jean Genet, William Burroughs, Alexander Trocchi, Hubert Selby Jr., Charles Bukowski, John Rechy―the rebels and oddballs.  The writing of film critic Pauline Kael I particularly enjoyed.  The only writing I undertook on a regular basis consisted of letters to my parents back East.  I was too nomadic and poor to have a telephone, and, besides, letters kept Mom and Dad at a distance I preferred.  I favored fantasizing about writing books over doing the actual writing.

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Fan of Papa

As a high school junior, I was drawn to writing again.  I enrolled a creative writing course.  I wrote short stories, some firmly based upon events in my own life and the lives of people I knew, others purely products of my imagination. Setting was extremely important to me, because I wrote not only to attempt to develop and reveal character, but to escape the drabness, overcrowding, and raw winters of New Jersey.  I loved the sunshine and warmth of the southeastern United States during occasional trips, by car and train, between New Jersey and Florida, where I had relatives.  Thus, I set a short story in rural Georgia and a play in the Florida Keys.    

Much of my writing at this time, like that of most adolescents initially plumbing their creativity, was florid, overblown, dreadful.  I was discovering and gorging on the dizzying number and variety of words in the English language, aided and abetted by that thing called a “thesaurus.”  Thus, it wasn’t a “snowy” day I was offering in a story; it was a “niveous” day, a day of “albinism.”  Such ludicrous touches, I was certain, made my writing unique.  And similes I loved, to the point of blind absurdity.  For example, I thought I was actually complementing a sexy teenage girl, actually writing in the erotic tradition of Candy (the dirty-book parody that circulated under our high school desks one year), when I wrote of her: “She had buttocks like two halved basketballs.”  (Honest, it stirred my loins every time I read it.  However, “This is gross!” remarked Miss Franklin, my creative writing teacher, in the margin of my manuscript after she read it.)   

My renewed interest in writing finally got me appreciating “literature,” especially the writing of Ernest Hemingway.  Remarkably, none of my junior high or high school English teachers ever assigned a novel, or even so much as a short story, by him.  Nor was any book by Hemingway on our shelves at home.  I came upon him on my own.  As a more committed writer now, I regularly looked at the weekly bestseller list in our Time magazines, curious about the titles and authors of books that were holding American readers spellbound. 

For weeks in 1966 I noticed a book on the list entitled Papa Hemingway by somebody named A.E. Hotchner.  I didn’t give it much thought until sometime later when the carousel at our local bookstore displayed the paperback edition of Papa.  The front cover included a photo, a partial frontal facial, of a man I thought could have worked as a department store Santa.  There was joy and warmth in his face, but also, owing to the thick, trim, salt-and-pepper beard, a gravity and wisdom.  The cover included, in bold letters, the provocative declaration: “THIS IS THE CONTROVERSIAL BESTSELLER THEY TRIED TO STOP!”  Of course, this, too, sparked my interest.  Was this bearded man a writer (like myself)? 

At my high school library, I thumbed through a book I had recently discovered: a collection of biographical sketches of world authors.  And there I saw that rugged, handsome man again.  I learned that Hemingway wrote about such things as hiking and fishing in rural Michigan; driving an ambulance amid the horror of World War I; bullfighting in Spain; boxing; and deep-sea fishing―things that I knew had the potential to interest me.  I learned that Hemingway was honored: he had won something called the Pulitzer Prize and another thing called the Nobel Prize in Literature.  I learned that he wrote in a revolutionary style.  And, most intriguing of all, I learned that, despite his huge success, he killed himself not long before I discovered him.  (Teenagers, of course, are fascinated by suicide.)  So I bought the Hotchner book.  It engrossed me.  It was the first book of its size that I had enjoyed reading from cover to cover. 

Then, from the same library, I checked out a book by Hemingway himself: the novel A Farewell to Arms.  I marveled at the ease of reading and understanding Hemingway’s simple sentences written in standard English.  No Huckleberry Finn this!  I was completely absorbed by the narration of the novel’s protagonist, the American Frederick Henry: his descriptions of the war-torn Italian countryside, his comical friendship with the Italian Rinaldi, and, most of all, his evolving love affair with the Englishwoman Catherine Barkley, which ended in sublime tragedy (tragedy coming in a close second to suicide in the teenager‘s ravenous imagination).  This was the kind of prose I found enjoyable.  This was the kind of story I liked.  These were the kind of characters that interested me.  After Farewell, I read Hemingway’s The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories.  Then I read To Have and Have Not, imagining, during the cold of a New Jersey winter, the delicious warmth of the novel’s Caribbean setting.  I couldn’t get enough of Hemingway, and I eventually read my first full-length, scholarly biography: Carlos Baker’s groundbreaking book about the author.

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First Inklings of Reading and Writing

My love of books and writing developed as slowly and subtly as my love of the Southwest.

Like many a five-year-old in 1955, I had a collection of Little Golden Books, the popular series of children’s tomes.  I liked the stories they told; I liked even more their generous and colorful illustrations.  One of my favorites of this series was 1946’s The Taxi That Hurried.  (“We’re a speedy pair,” the taxi’s driver assured his fares.  “We’ll get you there.”)  I loved Catherine Danner’s Buster Bulldozer, issued by Tell-a-Tale Books in 1952. 

However, my interest in books slowed to nearly a standstill during my late childhood and remained that way into my early adolescence.  The reason?  Television, of course.  We had a television in our 50’s New Jersey house as far back as I can remember.  This medium so seduced me that on Saturday mornings I willingly sat through at least some of the 30 minutes of WRCA’s The Modern Farmer, at the time a weekly glimpse at our nation’s agricultural practices, in order not to miss a single minute of kiddie impresario Herb Sheldon’s show at 8 AM.  (I assure you, beyond eating fresh Garden State fruits and vegetables, my family was not into farming.)  Add to this show Sheena: Queen of the Jungle, Hopalong Cassidy, Lassie, Andy’s Gang, Roy Rogers, The Mickey Mouse Club, Howdy Doody, Annie Oakley, The Cisco Kid, countless Paul Terry cartoons, hundreds of commercials . . . and a tender young mind was now nearly closed to the written word.  Yet, my parents, in wistful hope, gave me James Otis Kaler’s popular 1881 children’s novel Toby Tyler; or Ten Weeks with a Circus.  I opened it once or twice and then proceeded to ignore it: no way was I going to read a book that thick. 

In my early adolescence, my father, likely in desperation, offered to pay me to read a book on one of our shelves, a favorite of his when he was a lad: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  I slogged through its first 20 pages.  What, I wondered, did I have in common with this dumb, ragged kid who lived on the banks of the Mississippi in the previous century?  The narrator, Huck himself, couldn’t write―that much my TV-enfeebled brain did realize―and his older “Negro” friend’s speech was an utter chore to understand.  I was, however, fascinated with E.W. Kemble’s illustrations for the novel, especially the one with the caption “GIMME A CHAW.”, which depicted one yokel transacting with another for a plug of chewing tobacco.  I related to it because, unbeknownst to Mom and Dad, I, too, was just learning to enjoy tobacco―in my case, the kind that was smoked.  I skimmed through the remainder of the novel and guiltily pocketed the $10 bill from my father, grateful he didn’t require me to provide a “book report” on my literary venture. 

No, I didn’t like to read much as a kid, but, strangely perhaps, I did like to write.  The enjoyment I took in writing possibly began with a device commonly used to produce it.  As a toddler, I loved playing with my grandparents’ 1920’s Corona typewriter.  Of course, my initial attraction to it was purely of the physical/sensual/motor nature.  Like any child, I loved using my hands and fingers to strike things―in this case, keys and a space bar―and make noise in the process.  However, at some point, someone fed a sheet of white paper into the Corona, I resumed randomly striking the silvery keys, and then must have paused to marvel at the little black figures I had magically created on the paper.  Gradually I realized this machine’s wonderful capabilities.  I learned how to make not only a progression of “little” letters, but also, by pushing the “CAP” key, “big” letters, as well.  Further manipulation of the machine showed me how I could make―Wow!―colored letters by accessing the red striping on the machine’s two-tone ribbon.  Eventually I was playing with the Corona nearly every time I visited my grandparents, the machine vying with my grandfather’s Schick electric razor, humming against my tender facial skin, for my attention.  Before long, I was practicing typing a specific sentence―meaningless, as far as I was concerned―my grandparents had handprinted for me on a scrap of paper: “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.”  In time, I assumed that, because the words I created on the typewriter looked very much like the “important” words in, among other things, a newspaper, my words must be of equal importance, and I was thus spurred to type more and more. 

Eventually, the typewriter migrated to our house in New Jersey, and one day I began to use it to produce my regular “newspaper”―a brief narrative of my daily activities.  On small slips of paper, I pounded out several identical copies―with “headlines” in red―to make sure that every family member had an “edition” of my paper.  Then I placed the editions in the lid of a shoebox taped on my bedroom door for “circulation” in our household.  

Soon I began to dabble in fiction on the Corona.  I typed a narrative about one “Mick Sales,” a basketball player like myself, who, at the buzzer of a crucial game, made the winning two-pointer.  I titled the story “The Rim Told the Tale,” rather proud of my little alliterative touch.  Shortly after discovering, at age 11, popular music on the radio, I became obsessed with the “top-10” rock and roll songs as reported by the New York City radio stations.  I listened faithfully to the radio, enthralled by this newly-discovered music, and weekly provided typed copies of this dramatically fluctuating “hit parade” for my friends.

Meanwhile, however, as I’ve said, a lack of enthusiasm for books continued into my early adolescence.  Those I did read were the ones assigned by my high school, and reading them was a chore.  As with Huck, what, I wondered, did I have in common with the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird, Shane, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Good Earth, and The Member of the Wedding?  (And how could any reading compete with listening and moving to the sounds of that gang of sullen, surly, cigarette-smoking guys from England who performed that cool “Negro” music and were called The Rolling Stones?) 

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An Environmental Conscience – Conclusion

After two years, it got to a point where I was daily trying to rationalize my employment at the company.  In my mind, worthy arguments seemed to come from both sides.  I told myself that even tree-huggers lived in houses framed with two-by-fours.  Or did they?  Maybe they all lived in wickiups.  Or wigwams.  Or geodesic domes of steel and plastic.  Or dwellings of adobe, sod, or straw bales.  I thought of my first company picnic.  Sure, it included the executives decked out in finery likely from L.L. Bean or Eddie Bauer.  But it also included the denim and T-shirts of sawyers, shipping clerks, fork-lift drivers, receptionists, lumber graders, stackers, kiln operators―the salt of the Southwest earth.  And their spouses.  And, especially, their children.  Children who were eager to be blindfolded and told to whack at a papier-mâché cabron engorged with a rainbow of Jolly Rancher candies.  Children who now played with doll houses, Big Wheels, and toy dump trucks operated by remote control.  Children who were covered by medical and dental insurance.  Who would deny these children?  Ah, but was the company clear-cutting, and could I stomach the sight of this?  And these were Western forests.  Their vastness notwithstanding, they were arid and thus slow-growing.  Perhaps America should get all of its “forest products” from the dark and dripping woods of Maine, where trees grow like weeds.  Perhaps the timber companies should be required to harvest timber only from private land.  Perhaps the Forest Service should stop taking an outrageous loss on each and every one of its timber sales.  Yet, what about that handsome 40-foot-long footbridge across the Rio Grande north of Taos, its $5000 tab paid for by the lumber company, used by grateful fly-fishermen and hikers like myself?  Yes, but have I lately heard the bark-like call of the threatened spotted owl in the chill of a November night?  Or seen the imperiled goshawk coast silently through the dim understory? 

Meanwhile, I hoped.  I hoped the company and Forest Guardians would reach some kind of amicable compromise.  Not a chance.  Forest Guardians continued to challenge every timber sale.

After two-and-a-half years, I left the company.  My moral crisis had something to do with it, the trees having won out, but I also left because I couldn’t see myself writing code for the rest of my working life, regularly attending seminars and training sessions in an effort to keep apace with a constantly evolving field.  Although opportunities for performing challenging software maintenance and development were rare at the company, when they did occur, I would come home from work mentally drained and headachy.  Furthermore, while I liked the distinction of my position at the company and the attention it garnered, and I liked the salary, there were many days at work in which I was bored.  One afternoon in July, members of the data processing and accounting departments and several salespersons treated me to a going-away lunch at Sadie’s restaurant.

I didn’t look for another job.  Shortly after leaving the company, Linda and I, after living together for a year in a rented townhouse in northeast Albuquerque, married at the chapel on the University of New Mexico campus.  Meanwhile, I had been accepted in the university’s graduate program in English.  I planned to attend the university full time.  I wanted to get the education I felt I had squandered at Hobart.  I wanted to read books.  I wanted to write books.

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An Environmental Conscience – Part 2

Soon, it seemed that issues regarding America’s management of its national forests were proliferating on television and in the print media.  One evening, I watched a segment on television’s MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour that dealt with the 1988 forest fire that charred a third of Yellowstone National Park and parked for weeks a pall of smoke in New Mexico’s normally crystal-clear skies.  The segment questioned the wisdom of our country’s nearly century-old―and sacred―Smokey-the-Bear policy of extinguishing by whatever means all forest fires.  Such fire suppression, more and more people were concluding, was causing a dangerous buildup of fuel―logs, grasses, and shrubs―on our forests’ floors, which in turn was causing more needless conflagrations like the one in Yellowstone.

In the New York Times, a representative of the forest products industry weighed in on the Yellowstone fire.  He maintained that still standing, although “dead and dying,” timber contributed greatly to the conflagration, and thus proposed that the industry be permitted to remove such still-profitable timber before the possibility of any fire.  However, this practice would mean more logging roads carved into the national forests, which, not surprisingly, environmentalists opposed.

On another occasion, Linda and I listened to actor Paul Newman narrate a television program entitled Ancient Forests: Rage Over Trees, which dealt with logging in the Pacific Northwest.  It included a scene of young people―they could have been my blossoming children―blocking a road to a timber sale.  During the scene, amid logging trucks at a standstill, a man, wild-eyed and frustrated, was expressing outrage at the blockade.  He happened to be missing an arm, which, in my imagination, only added to his menace; that he was defending an industry that very possibly had been responsible for the loss of that limb only added to the peculiarity of the sight.  (Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics lists logging as one of America’s “10 most dangerous jobs”; this was likely true back then, as well.) I’ve never forgotten this man.

Eventually, I became acutely aware of another New Mexico environmental organization that had jumped into the logging-on-public-lands battle.  Santa Fe-based Forest Guardians was beginning to challenge in the courts virtually every one of my company’s timber sales in northern New Mexico.  The organization’s name was rarely mentioned on my second floor, but when it was, usually on the lips of Carlos or one of the foresters, I merely listened in silence with a blank expression.  On one occasion, a forester―the friendly, hardworking fellow with whom I toured the timber sale outside of Cuba and shared a hotel room at the annual meeting in Phoenix―angrily spat, “I don’t give a shit about a spotted owl!”  On another occasion, a different forester was recounting a meeting he attended that occurred in some government chamber in Santa Fe.  In addition to the director of the Forest Guardians, the meeting likely included a judge, lawyers, and Forest Service big shots.  The forester mocked the behavior of the director at this meeting, depicting him as some sniveling, candy-assed tree-hugger embarrassing himself while attempting to play upon the emotions of the participants. 

Meanwhile, at the lumber company’s annual meetings, the question of how to grapple with the threat posed by “the environmentalists” was of course on the agenda.  During the resultant discussions, I once again only listened, my expression as enigmatic as a wall of trees, my skin crawling.  

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An Environmental Conscience – Part 1

While still living in Denver, I spent a year looking for work in Albuquerque.  My efforts yielded just two job interviews.  The first occurred at a heavy equipment dealership―the kind of machinery that levels mountains and carves valleys.  Had the dealership offered me a job, I would have gladly taken it.  Then I learned of the opening at the lumber company.  I interviewed there, and, after some dithering, Carlos offered me the position. 

That the job was in the “forest products” business made no difference to me.  My job history included being a cog in a wheel that leveled trees and ripped open the earth in order to expand residential development in Breckenridge, Colorado; that gutted a mountain on Colorado’s Fremont Pass for molybdenum; and that punched holes in the floor of the Gulf of Mexico for petroleum.  “Forest products” was just another industry to me.  I’d never seen the aftermath of a “clear cut”: the horrid felling of every single tree on a vast acreage for lumber.  I thought trees in the southern Rockies grew as fast as their cousins in, say, the Pacific Northwest.  And I’d never heard of an “old-growth forest,” which Wikipedia defines as “a forest that has attained great age without significant [human] disturbance” and is thus a strongbox of nature’s original “blueprint.”  My goal now was financial security in my new home and advancement in the data processing field.

Regardless, my new love and my new life in New Mexico, as well as my natural curiosity, were beginning to expand my view of the world.  As a result, I was gradually developing an environmental conscience.  Fueling this moral reckoning were the almost sacred joy I experienced in my hikes and backpacks into the pristine forests and deserts of the Southwest; my broader consideration of the writings of Edward Abbey―beyond the romance, plant identification, and wilderness escapades and into his polemics about America’s lust for natural resources and “growth for the sake of growth”; and simply a greater awareness of regional and national environmental issues and activism being addressed on television and in Albuquerque’s daily newspapers.  Such a conscience was making me increasingly uneasy at the lumber company. 

For years while living in Denver, I noticed a little sign in the second-floor window of what I assumed was an office of some kind overlooking Colfax Avenue in the city’s Capitol Hill district.  The sign read “Sierra Club.”  I was intrigued by that name, although I had no idea to what it referred. 

When, in New Mexico, I became a regular backpacker, I purchased at an independent bookstore Words for the Wild: The Sierra Club Trailside Reader.  Pocket-sized, the book fit easily into my backpack and pants pockets and kept me occupied in my tent during those hours in the mountains and deserts after sundown or during a rainfall.  Published just a year prior to my arrival in New Mexico, the book was an anthology of “nature writing.”  It included an essay on the Colorado Plateau by Abbey, reacquainted me with the words of Thoreau and Emerson I’d first read at Hobart, and introduced me to such authors as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, John Graves, Wallace Stegner, and Colin Fletcher.  Its copyright page informed me that the “Sierra Club . . . has devoted itself to the study and protection of the earth’s scenic and ecological resources―mountains, wetlands, woodlands, wild shores and rivers, deserts and plains”―all of which sounded interesting and worthwhile to me.  So I checked the phone book and discovered that there was a chapter of this “Sierra Club” in Albuquerque.  After attending one meeting at the chapter’s office in a modest storefront, I joined.

At the time I joined, the dominant topic of conversation at the club’s meetings was the efforts by a broad spectrum of Albuquerque conservationists to transition Petroglyph State Park, at the western edge of the city, to a federally-managed “national monument.”  Linda and I had visited the state park a number of times after re-uniting in New Mexico, and I was all in favor of advocating for the loftier designation for the place and the additional protections that presumably went with it.  The chapter also discussed cattle grazing on New Mexico’s public lands―that is, lands managed by the United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.  This coincided with my broader reading of Abbey: he was fiercely opposed to grazing on public lands at all elevations.  Grasslands denuded and riparian areas―watercourses that attract thirsty cattle―trampled and fouled with urine and manure were two of his reasons why.  I, too, was starting to understand those reasons.

And then there were a couple topics, in the chapter’s regular discussions and in literature available at the office, that particularly grabbed my attention.  The first was logging on the federal forests of the Rockies, the Sierras, the Pacific Northwest, and Alaska.  Not surprisingly, the club was opposed to clear-cutting in these forests; yet it also had issues with selective logging―the felling of a tree here, a tree there―in the same.  The second topic was specific to New Mexico and tied to the first: habitats for two New Mexico wild birds, the Mexican spotted owl and the goshawk.  Before joining the Sierra Club, I was vaguely familiar with these two species as a result of participating with Linda in bird-watching expeditions in New Mexico’s Sandia and San Mateo Mountains.  Logging in New Mexico, the club maintained, was threatening these habitats and thus had to be checked.  I frankly found this hard to believe, given what I perceived to be the breathtaking vastness of New Mexico’s forests; however, if the Sierra Club affirmed it, I took it as gospel.  As a result of all this, shame crept over me, and I tended to be distant at the chapter meetings, hoping none of my fellow members would inquire about what I did for a living. 

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Initial Backpacks in New Mexico

With this nascent passion, I repeatedly explored, over the ensuing months, New Mexico’s wildlands.  Their variety and breadth astonished me.   Beguiling photographs in my Audubon guide of the glowing Chihuahuan Desert in southernmost New Mexico led me to the harsh, fluted Organ Mountains.  In southeastern New Mexico, I escaped the heat of August by climbing into the Capitan Mountains, where, in the Lincoln National Forest, I caressed the head of a friendly, free-ranging horse and marveled at spiny cactus leaves big as a catcher’s mitt.  One winter night, and a long one it was, I camped atop a bench of the Sacramento Mountains overlooking the Tularosa Valley, listening to the haunting conversations of great horned owls perched along cliff faces. While camped on the Plains of San Agustin, a vast grassland in western New Mexico, I spent an afternoon and evening watching a succession of thunderstorms, compact iron-like curtains descending from the clouds, sweep across the appallingly vacant land.  In the Bisti of northwestern New Mexico, a colorless, sterile badland of soil and soft rock, I wandered among crusty hoodoos beneath a full moon fungus-white and blurry behind a cloudy sky. 

Not all of my initial expeditions were successful.  One February, determined to pitch my tent as close as possible to Mexico, I drove to the ghost town of Cloverdale, in New Mexico’s southwestern “bootheel” region, in the hopes of striking out west into the Coronado National Forest of the Guadalupe Mountains.  However, muddy, rutted roads halted my progress, and with disappointment I returned north through the Animas Valley.  Just south of the town of Animas, a Border Patrol agent, after undoubtedly noting the apron of mud on the sides of the Lynx, pulled me over.  Of course, I complied with the burley Latino’s request to examine the contents of my backpack.  He merely glanced at the plastic baggies of granulated white sugar and Countrytime instant lemonade.  However, he opened a third baggie and gently wafted the scent of its contents, powdered milk, in the direction of his nose.  Then he thanked me and was gone, my brush with the War on Drugs over.  My experience in la frontera aborted, I spent the night in a cheap motel in the little desert outpost of Lordsburg, New Mexico.

Meanwhile, day after day, I marveled at all the things that seemed uniquely New Mexican: restaurants, stores, streets, and offices rife with the language of Spain; towers of smoke arising from weeds burning in ditches in March; remote country roads peopled with the faithful walking toward Catholic shrines in the week prior to Easter; that rare desert perfume of moistened dust that briefly occurs with the initial drops of a rain shower; iron jetty jacks gone to rust in dead floodplains beside the Rio Grande; the pastoral charm of Albuquerque’s many irrigation canals and ditches: Rio Grande capillaries bearing the snowmelt of Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness into urban neighborhoods; Freddy Fender lounging beside his tour bus at a Border Patrol Station south of Alamogordo, displaying what the late John Prine might have described as an “illegal smile”; hard-packed desert soil perversely repelling beneficent summer rain; tumbleweeds orbiting clumsily in a powerful dust devil; the arroyo, the Southwest’s mysterious idea of a creek, chronically empty yet refusing to go away.