Literary Theory

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.  The irony of Spanish as a “foreign language” in New Mexico was not lost on me.  For two-and-a-half years prior to entering UNM I had heard it spoken, surely not always with perfection, on the sidewalks of downtown Albuquerque and in the lumber yards of Española and Cuba, New Mexico.  During that time, I made an effort to properly pronounce the few words of Spanish I did understand―beyond those that had to do with Mexican food. Still, to this day I can’t roll an “r” down Mt. Everest, but I can speak the complete Spanish portion of Freddy Fender’s rendition of “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.” Thanks to my late friend Anthony, I can even translate it into English.  Two additional semesters at UNM were spent taking a formal 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 named 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 wreak havoc for a dozen years, Nazis had fascinated me since adolescence, so my term paper for the course dealt with the early-1980’s hoax known as the “Hitler diaries.” 

The course also reintroduced me to 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 contributions to 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 an upcoming mixer at a nearby women’s college.  As an undergraduate, 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 ending that allegedly required 40 drafts before Hem was satisfied―try that, Leslie Fiedler.) 

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 our side of the pond was difficult enough. Now the Continental perspective, which had given the universe 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 compact disc, videocassette recorder, personal computer, and freestanding backpacking tent, now had to fathom the meaning of the “post-modern novel.” 

However, I was now among students who not only enjoyed good reads, but were prepared to churn out mind-numbing interpretations of them; 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 in front of a packed class.  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, wearing sandals, 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 Edward Abbey, but now the thought of creating a pile of murky articles―or, God forbid, an entire book on a single author―in order to have the hope of actually doing that, dampened the 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―factual, lyrical, mystical―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.”    



Return to the Campus

I entered the University of New Mexico in September of my 39th year.  Unlike at Hobart, I now 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.  Certainly, while at UNM, I would be determined to get an education: to attend all of my classes, read all of my assigned books, and enrich my life with ideas.  No more would there be distractions from drugs, rock music, political protests, and clumsy and unsatisfying attempts to lose the millstone of my virginity.  (I was now comfortable in my manhood and I hadn’t smoked marijuana since leaving Denver.)

Even before becoming a UNM student, I was no stranger to its campus.  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 the few classical works I know by heart, in the college’s concert hall. 

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.  Such architecture was so much softer than the right-angled brick and stone of Hobart’s.  The structures suggested the warmth, ease, and peace, the poco tiempo, 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.


In My Craft and Sullen Art

However, once again, a trough. 

For two decades that early spark never blossomed into a flame.  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 do remember taking 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.  Oh, I read Hemingway there―once:  High on Dexedrine, I plowed through the bulk of The Sun Also Rises the night before my Introduction to American Literature final exam, finishing the novel, fittingly, as the sun rose, and nearly crashing during the exam for lack of sleep. 

I graduated from Hobart a thoroughly average student, earning my diploma without having studied Shakespeare in any depth and incapable of discussing with any confidence any American literary movement or American author.  And I can blame none of this on television: I never watched it during my four years at the college.  (I rarely watch it today.  I suppose I can thank Hobart for that.) 

My college friends graduated without me: At graduation time, due to academic wantonness, I was still two classes short of receiving a diploma.  I took and passed the remaining two at a New Jersey university while living at home.  I chose to skip my formal graduation ceremony at Hobart the following year, which, I would learn a decade later during an ugly scene over a dinner table, upset my parents considerably.  I received my diploma in the mail.    

Resettled in the West, I often checked out books from the Denver Public Library, yet finished few.  I purchased some books that I did manage to complete: collections of essays by Abbey, novels by Jean Genet, William Burroughs, Alexander Trocchi, Hubert Selby Jr., Knut Hamsun of Hunger renown, Charles Bukowski, John Rechy―the rebels, oddballs, and desperadoes.  I particularly enjoyed film critic Pauline Kael for her take on movies and American culture. 

The only writing I undertook on a regular basis consisted of letters to my parents back East. I was too nomadic and poor in Denver 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. 

And I was lonely and frustrated.

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, Hal Borland, and others, I wanted to write about the fundamental land and what it means and does to a person. 

Shortly after arriving in New Mexico, recalling the first words I ever scribbled to myself about an actual, not fictional, landscape―again, the Pawnee National Grasslands―I purchased a cheap stenographer’s notebook.  To Linda and curious 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 when confined to Albuquerque.  The more I scribbled in it, the more I realized what a pleasure and revelation it was.  Yet a lyrical, coherent Thoreauvian treasure trove of epiphanies and profundities was not its aim.  It was simply a remedy whenever blockage of my more high-minded literary efforts occurred, and such blockage occurred often.  My journals were a warehouse of raw material for future lofty stuff.  My journal entries were a regular affirmation and reminder of my unique skill, and of the hard work that is often required to put even the simplest and most mundane event into a word, sentence, or paragraph. 


I Meet Ernest Hemingway

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 Time magazine, to which my parents subscribed, 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 gravitas 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 was thumbing 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 had killed himself not long before I discovered him.  (Back then, teenagers, of course, were fascinated by suicide; today, tragically, it has too often gone beyond frivolous, disconnected “fascination.”) 

So I bought the Hotchner book.  It thoroughly engrossed me.  It was the first book of its size that I had enjoyed reading from cover to cover. 

Then, from the high school 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 (which teenagers also love). 

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 his 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.

After Hemingway, I opened myself up to other writers: Sherwood Anderson, Bernard Malamud, Dylan Thomas, Saul Bellow, and Erskine Caldwell.  Alan Sillitoe’s writing spirited me to the grit of Nottingham, England, and introduced me to the handsome, young, hard-drinking, sexy, rebellious character named Arthur Seaton.  I particularly liked John Cheever, not only for his witty, sparkling prose, but also his primary setting: my home turf, the suburbs.  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 one to The New Yorker, to which my parents also subscribed.  Surely Mom and Dad knew their 18-year-old son’s submission to this, the country’s most prestigious weekly forum for the short story, was doomed, but they didn’t discourage me.  I guess that’s how much they understood, how much they loved me.  The New Yorker even thanked me for the submission. 


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.  More, I liked their generous and colorful illustrations.  One of my favorite stories of the 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, published 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 1950’s New Jersey split-level 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 timea weekly glimpse at our nation’s agricultural practices, in order not to miss a single minute of kiddie impresario Herb Sheldon’s show at 8:00 AM.  (Beyond a crabapple tree and an occasional patch of tomato plants on our quarter-acre suburban property, my family had never farmed.)  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, Queen for a Day, countless Paul Terry cartoons, hundreds of commercials . . . and a tender, young, pliant 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, do 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 is 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 at their home in Port Chester, New York.  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. 

Soon, 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 tapped 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 suspensefully announced 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, 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 drudgery.  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, cigarette-smoking guys from England who performed that cool “Negro” music and were called The Rolling Stones? 

Writing, too, suffered at the hands of rock and roll.  Yet I eventually returned to it as a high school junior, enrolling in 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, where I had relatives and to which I occasionally traveled as a boy.  Thus, I set one short story in rural Georgia and a story and play in Florida.  (Today, still, I write mainly to revisit, not to discover.)    

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 great 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 foolishness.  For example, I thought I was actually rendering attractive and sexy a 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.)   


An Environmental Conscience

As I’ve written, while still living in Denver, I spent a year looking for work in Albuquerque.  My efforts yielded two job interviews.  The first occurred at a dealership for heavy equipment―massive dump trucks, bulldozers, scrapers, the kind of machinery that levels mountains and carves valleys.  Had the dealership offered me a job in its data processing department, I would have gladly taken it.  It did not.  I then learned of the opening at the lumber company.  I interviewed there.  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, tore open the earth, and blew up beaver dams in order to expand commercial and residential development in Breckenridge, Colorado; that gutted a mountain and vomited lakes of lifeless mine tailings on Colorado’s Fremont Pass for the capture of molybdenum; and that punched holes in the floor of the Gulf of Mexico for the extraction of crude oil.    

“Forest products” was just another industry to me.  I’d never seen a “clear cut”: the felling of every single tree on a vast acreage for lumber, and effectively replacing that acreage not with a forest, but with a biologically-impoverished tree farm.  I thought the forests of the arid southern Rockies were as explosive as their cousins in the dripping Pacific Northwest.  And I’d never heard of “old-growth forests”: tree stands that, according to the Audubon Society publication Western Forests, “have developed over long periods without catastrophic disturbance of either natural or human origin,” with an “untouched, primeval quality”; forests that are “more complex . . . and more beautiful than many young forests.” My goal as I commenced working in New Mexico was financial security and advancement in the data processing field.

Meanwhile, however, my innate curiosity―energized by my new love and new life in New Mexico―continued to broaden my view of the world.  As a result, I was, among other things, developing what in retrospect I can only describe as an environmental conscience; or, in conservationist Aldo Leopold’s words, a “land ethic.”  Triggering 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 his romantic wilderness escapades and into his necessarily dry but compelling polemics about America’s destructive lust for natural resources and “growth” simply “for the sake of growth”; and 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.  Yet I recalled that sign when, now a regular backpacker in the Southwest, I purchased at an Albuquerque bookstore Words for the Wild: The Sierra Club Trailside Reader.  

Pocket-sized, the book fit easily into my backpack and kept me occupied in my tent during those hours in the mountains and deserts after sundown or during a rare rainfall.  Published in 1987, 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, Leopold, Ann Ronald, Mary Austin, John Graves, Wallace Stegner, Annie Dillard, 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. 

Not long after, 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 the organization.

At the time I joined, the dominant topic of conversation at the club’s meetings was the effort by a group of Albuquerque conservationists and land managers to transition Petroglyph State Park, at the western edge of the city, to the aforementioned, federally-managed Petroglyph National Monument.  Linda and I had visited the state park a number of times after re-uniting in New Mexico, and we were both in favor of advocating for the loftier designation for the place and the additional protections that 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.  Such opposition was beginning to take shape in me as well.  “CATTLE-FREE IN ‘93” read bumper stickers around Albuquerque at the time.  (Such “freedom,” however, never came even close to happening anywhere in the West.)

And then there were a couple topics in the chapter’s regular discussions and in literature available at its 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 in group bird-watching expeditions in New Mexico’s Sandia and San Mateo Mountains.  Logging in New Mexico, the club maintained, was threatening their habitats and thus had to be checked. 

As a result of all this, a measure of guilt 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.

Soon, it seemed that issues regarding America’s management of its national forests were multiplying on television and in the print media.  One evening in 1988, I watched a segment on television’s MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour that dealt with the forest fire that had recently charred a third of Yellowstone National Park, parking for weeks a pall of smoke in central New Mexico’s normally crystal-clear skies.  (A commonplace today in the era of climate change.)  The segment questioned the wisdom of America’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―grasses, shrubs, and dead logs―on our forests’ floors, which in turn was causing more massive 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 had contributed greatly to the conflagration, and thus proposed that the industry now be permitted to remove such still-profitable timber before the possibility of any more explosive fires.  However, this practice would have meant more logging roads carved into the national forests, and thus more erosion and wildlife disturbance, all of which, of course, environmentalists opposed.

On another occasion, I listened to actor Paul Newman narrating a television program entitled Ancient Forests: Rage Over Trees, which dealt with rampant logging in the Pacific Northwest, to which Newman and scientists and environmental activists featured in the program were opposed.  The program opened with a scene of young people blocking a road to a timber sale.  A burly middle-aged man, wild-eyed and frustrated, approached them, furious at the blockade.  Strikingly, he had a prosthetic arm, which, to me, lent the scene the strangest of moods.  My God, I couldn’t avoid wondering, is he defending an industry that might have been responsible for the terrible loss of one of his limbs?  (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.)  In any event, the man seemed to symbolize the visceral passion and complexity of the whole logging issue. 

Not long after, I noticed, lying on the table of the lumber company’s second-floor lunch room, a Xerox copy of an article from a publication I’d never heard of.  The article concerned a Pacific Northwest logger who horribly lost his lower jaw as a result of a bucking chain saw.  The bucking occurred as the logger was driving his saw into a tree that, the article alleged, had been “spiked.”  “Spiking” was the hammering of large nails into a tree to discourage a logger from felling it or a sawyer from milling it, as the spike risked costly damage to the teeth of a saw.  Abbey, in detail, advocated the practice of spiking―while maintaining its harmlessness―in his 1988 collection of essays, One Life at a Time, Please.  I discovered the Xerox copy not long after I had read One Life.  I left the Xerox copy on the table.    

Eventually, I became aware of another environmental organization, this one a regional non-profit based in Santa Fe and thus much smaller than the Sierra Club, that had obviously been laser-focused on the logging-on-public-lands battle.  The organization was challenging in the courts virtually every one of my company’s timber sales on public lands in northern New Mexico.  The basis of its challenges was always the protection of the habitats of the spotted owl and goshawk.  The organization’s name was rarely mentioned on the 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.  

After two years, it got to a point where I was daily trying to rationalize my employment at the company.  My mind was a welter of worthy arguments that seemed to come from both sides of the “forest products” debate. 

I told myself, echoing the one-armed fellow in the PBS special, 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, tee-shirts, and Red Wing boots of sawyers, shipping clerks, fork-lift drivers, 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 turned loose 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 my 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 a dim understory? 

Shit!  What a muddle.

Meanwhile, I hoped.  I hoped the company and the Santa Fe environmental organization would reach some kind of amicable compromise. 

Not a chance.  The tree-huggers 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 triumphed.

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 a frantic 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 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. 

Finally, one afternoon in July, members of the data processing and accounting departments and several salespersons, good people all, treated me to a going-away lunch at Sadie’s. 

I didn’t look for another job.  While still working, I had applied to and was accepted as a graduate student at the University of New Mexico.  Shortly after leaving the company, Linda and I married at the chapel on the University of New Mexico campus.  After we honeymooned at the Inn of the Mountain Gods on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in the White Mountains of southeastern New Mexico, Linda continued with her fellowship in infectious diseases.  I prepared to resume my education.  I wanted to read books.  I wanted to write books.



I Love My Job, and Then . . .

And I processed data at the lumber company: inventory, receivables, payables, pay rates, salaries, deductions, taxes, financial statements.  Day after day of sitting at my massive metal desk, staring at glowing green letters and numbers on the screen of my IBM System-38 computer terminal, my feet on the worn carpeting, my imagination wandering around the corner of my cubicle to the big second-story windows that were filled with central New Mexico’s vibrant sky.  The computer programs I wrote from scratch were few and simple.  This was wood, after all, not derivatives.  Mostly, I easily managed and tweaked existing programs. 

At lunchtime, I often sprinted in Little Red to the outskirts of Old Town, where I ordered tasty and abundant Szechwan chicken from a quiet, sad-eyed, middle-aged Chinese man at Liu’s take-out (“GOOD FOOD AT FAIR PRICE” read the restaurant’s sign board along Central Avenue).  From Liu’s I’d drive over to Taco Bell to purchase a Styrofoam bowl of “Nachos bel Grande” for Gloria, the computer operations assistant, my first of many observations of a Latino’s curious craving for food that columnist Richard Estrada dismissed as “Mexoid.”  

One morning I was startled when Carlos escorted New Mexico’s Democratic representative in the United States Senate into my cubicle, evidence I had not imagined of the lumber company’s not insignificant role in New Mexico’s economy.  The senator and I shook hands and exchanged a few pleasantries.  The man was handsome, groomed to the follicle, and wooden. 

And then there was the summer day I had the pleasure of accompanying one of the company’s foresters as we negotiated in his pickup the rugged logging roads of the Santa Fe National Forest outside of Cuba, New Mexico, where the company had a sawmill.  We drove among the grand and solemn ponderosa pines.  We paused at active logging sites, where I jawed with independently-contracted tree-fellers, strapping young Latinos who lived in the very mountains in which they worked.  They obviously enjoyed this well-paying―for rural New Mexico―physical, highly-skilled, and dangerous work, much as I once enjoyed working in the mine.  After the tree-fellers, I bantered with the equally-contented loaders and logging-truck drivers. 

I attended a memorable company picnic, which was held at a private “retreat” an hour’s drive southeast of Albuquerque at the eastern base of the Manzano Mountains.  The rural setting was lovely, the weather, as nearly always during summer in New Mexico, pleasant.  We ate grilled meats, potato salad, and watermelon; drank soft drinks; and played volleyball. 

And the event introduced me to my first piñata: a large, hollow papier-mâché figure―for this event, a goat―stuffed with individually-wrapped candies and suspended from a tree limb.  Immediately beneath it, a blindfolded child armed with a long dowel was spun around and then, still blindfolded, invited to attempt to whack the figure open for its goodies―entertainment for the adults, welcomed torment for the children.  Today, the piñata is a popular metaphor in the United States for somebody or something that receives a lot of punishment in the media.  In 1988, however, I―and, surely, much of non-Latino America―had never heard of this amusement, which dated back centuries to Mesoamerica, Spain, and perhaps even China.

The picnic had a warm, richly democratic, uniquely American feeling that touched me, until then rarely enthused about the corporate world, deeply.  The dozens of attendees spanned the spectrums of ages, ethnicities, and job responsibilities.  Every employee there, I proudly assumed, was making a living wage with decent benefits.  The event convinced me that the lumber company was nurturing families and―cliché or not―building a better New Mexico and better America.  To be there simply made me proud to be an American.  And a New Mexican. 

I liked as well aspects of my only two annual meetings of the lumber company, which were reserved for the skirted, pant-suited, and white-collared employees, including the company’s mill managers.  They occurred outside of Albuquerque.  One meeting introduced me to Los Angeles, where the event was held at one of the city’s finer hotels.  At the other meeting, at a resort in Phoenix, I knew, for the first time in my life, what it felt like to play an essential role in the functioning of a large company:  During a dinner, Carlos, whispering “You’re worth every penny,” slipped me an envelope containing a $100 bonus check.

Most of all, I liked the idea of being a programmer, of having what I regarded as a unique ability to harness these mysterious, remarkable machines called computers, of having a skill with nothing if not a bright future.  Around Albuquerque, I proudly wore a tee-shirt that read “IBM,” a freebie from my sister who worked in administration in a New Hampshire office of the computer company.  Ten years earlier, me clothed in that shirt would have been unimaginable. 

And I was doing all of this while living in the strangeness and beauty of this place called New Mexico.  

However, within two years, my contentment at the lumber company would be threatened from a couple different directions. 


Meanwhile . . .

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.  Iron jetty jacks gone to rust in dead floodplains beside the Rio Grande.  The pastoral charm of Albuquerque’s fields and orchards quenched by 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 to grass, weeds, brush, and trees, to go away.

Side by side and equally stubborn: the modern and the proudly ancient.