John Burroughs Nature Essay Award

On April 1, 2019 I was honored and amazed to be at the award luncheon for the John Burroughs Nature Writing awards. My essay “The Carcass Chronicle” received the Nature Essay Award. Published in The Georgia Review in Fall 2018 it is a contemplative view of watching an elk go from life to something else.

I had the chance to share a few words at the award lunch, as follows:

“It is such a pleasure to be here. My heartfelt thanks go to many people, to the John Burroughs Association for all they do for nature writing, Joan Burroughs for all her dedication. The Georgia Review editors – you are great, Stephen and Doug! It was a joy to work with you, and Stephen, a pleasure to meet you in person. Thanks to my family a good handful who are here, especially my parents who made the long trip from Montana, supporting their wayward daughter all the way.

There is not much in common between the elegant setting of our lunch and the setting of my essay. If you’ve not read it, I was watching a carcass transform from elk to something else: a carcass chronicle. But there are a few things in common between here and there: I am wearing black; there are animals eating meat; and I am in good company.
Good company. I’ll explain.

I am one of few people on this earth who can walk the mountains and valleys of my homeland, and find them only little changed. Since my youth, I’ve been venturing into the wildlands surrounding our Montana family ranch on the edge of Yellowstone Park, sometimes with family and friends, more often solo. I’ve come to know that place and its life, come to know it by watching, listening, and moving with care and compassion, recognizing that I am walking within a vibrant non-human community who lives there. Over time, that place and its inhabitants has become part of me. And at least some of those who live there, accept me as part of it, be it the fox who befriended me, the chickadees who stand on my head, or the wolves who saw me watching and resumed their play, knowing who I was and that I would do them no harm.

“Nature teaches more than she preaches,” wrote John Burroughs. That land I’ve come to know and its greater than human community has been a mentor, as it is always living with integrity, honesty and kindness. It takes time, awareness, and love to find belonging in that community, but once one feels that sense of belonging, there is a great joy. An immense joy. It is a reason why a continued connection to the natural world is important: that joy leads to compassion and caring for all life, including our fellow human beings.

We are all together on this planet, part of a whole – as Burroughs said: “… that the celestial and the terrestrial are one, that time and eternity are one, that mind and matter are one, that death [the carcass] and life are one, that there is and can be nothing not inherent in Nature…”

All those critters that came to the carcass; they are part of the greater community of life, and part of that whole. Yes, I do talk with the ravens – and fox and chickadees and squirrels, and whoever else I see. Often there is a sense of communication. It is because I’ve had the blessing of being in a place where I can BE with them. A sense of belonging. And as we learn more and more about the intelligence and emotions of non-human animals, it becomes clear that they are good company.

A few months ago, a wise Native American said to me, “your words are your gift to the earth.” I write in that spirit, that my words are a very humble gift to and for the earth and all of its life. Thank you for honoring them.”

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Shared Paths: Journeys to Inspirational Landscapes

Home in Montana

A few years ago, I started the Shared Paths project, visiting places that inspired some of the world’s influential naturalists and environmentalists. The idea came out of my own connection to a particular landscape in Montana, realizing that my relationship to a Place has shaped my life and worldview. I wanted to explore such geographical bonds through others’ experience, to share their path through the lands that inspired them, and delve into how a connection to a natural landscape enriches one’s life.

I’ve done four of these journeys, ten nights each, wild camping solo in the backcountry. The first was in 2016, in the arctic-alpine of Norway, at the base of Hallingskarvet mountain, the place that inspired Arne Naess. Naess was the force behind the Deep Ecology movement, a man who cared deeply about “free nature” and human society as well.

Tvergastein Hytte

For eleven days I immersed in the place Naess called Tvergastein, exploring his deep ecology philosophy and the idea of “beautiful action” in regard to the earth: an inclination to care for the planet beyond moral or ethical demands. This was a life changing journey, a time of beauty and challenge. From the journey grew a book manuscript.

Next I plunged into the depths of Canyonland National Park, walking in the arid canyons that inspired the radical environmentalist Ed Abbey. Honestly though, I often turned to Mary Austin, another naturalist who found her muse in the desert. She provided a nice balance to Ed, a man who I found rather abrasive and not thoroughly likeable, with his drinking and womanizing. In the end, the Canyonlands trip became a reflection on “Where Ed meets Arne” – two men who came at the same ideas from different directions. That is a complexity I’m still unraveling.

My third journey was into Cairngorm National Park, Scotland, sharing paths with Nan Shepherd. Nan didn’t fit into the category of “highly influential” naturalists, as most people outside of Scotland have never heard of her, and much of her work and writing wasn’t focused on nature. But Nan’s intimate connection with the mountain landscape is truly inspirational. There in the Cairngorms, Nan spoke to me in ways that made me think about my own connection to a wild place. Based on this trip, my book in progress explores a sense of belonging to a place, and how that sense of belonging can expand into something that … well, that takes a book to explain. The narrative weaves together my sense of belonging to a Montana landscape, my growing relationship to Scotland’s Highland landscape, and Nan’s connection to the Cairngorm mountains.

In April, I traveled to the southwest deserts of the US, the arid lands that inspired Joseph Krutch, philosopher and naturalist. Krutch often wrote of the “beautiful balance” in the natural world. I made that the focus of this trip; exploring that balance, the historical context behind that concept, and what that means in the world of today. The journey took me to the Sonoran Desert outside Tucson and then into the Grand Canyon. I’m not yet done with Joseph Krutch. He was a complex man, and a deep thinker. I’m still following his path.

My next shared path is planned for Olaus and Mardy Murie. I’ll be in Alaska and will spend time in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which exists due to their hard work.

Shared Paths. Inspirational landscapes. Inspirational people. There’s no turning back now.



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