On October 12, 2013, I went to Humanities Montana’s Festival of the Book. The following are my notes from one of the writing panels I attended. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.
Panel title: Babes in the Woods: Nature Writing / Memoir
Panel members: Marjane Ambler, Christine Byl, Jo Deurbrouck, Gail Storey
Moderator: Andrea Peacock
Panel description: Pushing against expectations for nature writing/memoir—too often associated with the male voice–four female writers discuss how their outdoor experiences changed their lives, and their writing. Their personal stories offer a lens to view larger stories.
MA: My husband was hired by the National Park Service and I went as a spouse. We stayed in Yellowstone until 1993. I had a career that I could take with me for long walks although it was not strictly an individual experience. My book is about community in an unintended community of twelve people. It wasn’t strictly about nature. There were snowmobile problems so it was more man vs. machine than man vs. nature.
JD: My Dad was from Montana. He saw no reason to change his ways. He loves people from a distance–and I take after him. My book is set in Idaho with a protagonist who is a bear of a man where freedom is everything.
GS: I think nature should stay outside. My husband had worked in a hospice but his career was in crisis. Eventually he resigned from his job and decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. I didn’t think that I would like it since I sensed it was not my thing. The learning curve was steep. So did I want to stay in bed or go with my husband on the trail? I decided to go–for conjugal rights. One night when my husband was staying up sewing up the gear, I said that sewing for some people was a sublimation for sex. But then sex is sublimation for those who can’t sew their own gear. I think self and the natural world has permeability. It’s the who am I question.
CB: I consider my book as an accident. I did not draw upon myself as a character. I had never written about Montana. But when I went to Alaska, I started writing about Montana. Stories about the crew is like ethnography. It’s an apprenticeship from naivety to mastery and competence. The term “nature writing” is almost meaningless now. I want to drop that.
Mod: You make the point that women are writing these stories. Why is that important?
MA: The subject matter is related to looking at people. Marriages, people working with each other, other communities that were totally dysfunctional. Women are important in the community fabric–they organize potlucks so people don’t dwell on things at home. The majority of books about the park service are written by ranger men. There was no history about the spouses. Spouses are key to the functioning of rangers long before women were hired.
JD: In many books, women are subtext. A male interviewer asked a mountaineer why he climbed the mountain and he replied that he climbed it because it was there. The interviewer didn’t ask about anything else. A woman interviewer wouldn’t stop with that question. A reviewer for my book said that he felt like a voyeur. But don’t you want to know what’s in the character’s mind?
GS: Following a man into wilderness may seem retro, but it was really a story about marriage. My mother was a feminist. I had the desire to be a great wife, something that my mother didn’t have. My husband already had an ex-wife, a son, and working at the hospice and I didn’t have him to myself. So by hiking the trail with him, I had him 24/7. It’s about trust.
CB: Gender is important in context. Women are a minority in subculture–you have to deal with it as the only woman on a crew. Being a woman is only one part of defining yourself. It’s not really about a woman in a man’s world. It’s anyone’s world. It’s a human story.
Mod: There’s a degree of absurdity in all of your books. There’s “manufactured adventures.” Does that make you lose your sense of wilderness?
MA: Absurd? Yes, indeed. We didn’t realize it was absurd until after the book came out. There’s a certain amount of self protection involved. You don’t get scared on the trail and you don’t admit to cabin fever–because if you do, you can’t do your job.
JD: It’s about how passion shapes and create lives. You have oddball adventures because everything has been done–so what to do now?
GS: While my husband was sewing gear, I threw dinner parties for my friends so it would be the last time I saw them if I died on the trail. I like being a domestic homemaker–I had never camped before. I was terrified of camping. My husband is a gourmet at camping food. So I was in charge of nesting when we made camp. I got the rocks so something wouldn’t get us in the night. I became stronger and discovered the deep feminine in the natural world. One time, I was frustrated that my husband always walked ahead so I ran ahead–and came face to face with a mountain lion. It was then I realized the deep feminine.
CB: Nature is totally absurd. Weather is absurd. The way bushes grow along the roads is absurd. There’s a tension between domestication and the absurdity of wilderness. We’re blurring the lines of wilderness and culture. It’s a good thing we set aside wilderness a long time ago or we’d be fucked. It’s a grounded absurdity, pushing against the perception that we’re in control.
Mod: There’s an undercurrent of Buddhism in your works. What is it about the natural world that lends itself to this mindset?
CB: There’s something about egolessness. You drop your guard. It’s possible when you’re grounded in your body and work.
GS: There’s a chapter in my book called “Blowing Away.” In the middle of the night, a huge wind came up. My husband left me alone and the wind blew me in the sleeping bag across the mountain. This was similar to the three months that we spent at a Buddhist monastery. When it’s quiet, things come up. The old self bubbles up. At the Buddhist retreat, we had a failed experience in camping. We didn’t have tent stakes so were were also blown away. It was raining so we ended up going back to the meditation hall for the night. We woke up with the meditators laughing at us. I’m interested in the essential self–and the awareness that we are deeper than our spiritual selves.
JD: I’ve tried, but I don’t understand it. I just hurt my knees. In one book, there is a cattle guard painted on a highway. It works on cows and humans. Boundaries are for the domesticated. We create boundaries, but the natural world doesn’t recognize them.
MA: Sometimes I get into a deep meditative state. It’s like when a bear is in the area and you become very aware.
GS: I’m curious about the structure of your books.
MA: It was a transition. It took twenty years for the book to become a book. It began as articles in journalism. There were rejections. I set it aside and then got a job where I had time to work on it. I used the structure from Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey as a backbone to hang the articles on it. But it required me to be the hero–a flawed hero. It was the only way to tie the experiences together.
JD: I love books that transcend type. Good books have layers of reality for different people and tension between the layers. Different tellers each have different truths.
CB: The structure of my book is why it’s a book. The backbone is a musing of what was needed for work. There’s an underlying chronological time line, but there are also pieces. The sense of place is fractured. It’s not linear. A place feels different over time. You don’t necessarily like it more the longer you’re there.
GS: My original idea was to juxtapose my journal with my husband’s journal to have two versions of the same event. But when I started comparing, I realized that his journal was just about food and God. His journal was ecstatic while my own journal was, “What the fuck am I doing here?” Mine was not sympathetic. When you’re hiking, it’s not peaceful. The mind gets busy with old trains of thoughts and issues. So my book showed different parts of life (like the blowing away events). I needed some way to let the reader know where we were. So the events on the trail were chronological. But the interior journey jumped around. My chapters had mileage headings.
Audience question: It’s difficult to balance the nature writing of elegiac disasters with hopeful memoirs. Can you speak about it?
CB: The elegiac mode is a certain strain of modern nature writing. Older nature writing is more optimistic. Me, I’m still trying to figure out the balance between hope and despair.
JD: I got defriended by a nature writer because I said that nature writing is not just about nature. It’s not just about the non-human centered world.
CB: It’s a web that we’re changing and destroying.
GS: Hope arises when change begins with ourselves. Despair is when people are still in deconstruction. We need to deconstruct the physical, the emotional, the psychological and finally the spiritual. If we’re collective, there’s hope.
JD: I’m bothered by the term “wilderness” in nature writing and the natural world.
CB: Despair is capitalism since you need to medicate. For hope, you don’t have to buy something to solve your problems.
Audience question: I don’t see a collective. I see conflict and people in denial.
GS: I agree, but we’re letting ourselves collectively fall apart. Even though people are different, there’s the shadow self of our culture.