“Ecologies braid into the everyday" for Leslie Carol Roberts, author of "Here Is Where I Walk"
Walking in a place can be a way to become more intimately connected to it. That is just what author Leslie Carol Roberts does at the Presidio National Park in San Francisco, California, where she lives. She wrote about these walks and places, including the Presidio, in her new nonfiction book, Here Is Where I Walk: Episodes From a Life in the Forest.
“For what is a walk in the forest if not a chance to fully and deeply celebrate the sauntering and reflective mind?” she asks in the introduction.
Through her walks and the months of the year, which structure the book, she reflects on ecology, experiences from her life, and stories and research on places, including California, Iowa, Maryland, and Tasmania. Through these reflections, she contemplates what nature and wild places are and what humans’ relationship with them is.
Formerly of Michigan, Roberts has covered news around the world as a journalist. She earned her MFA at the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program and teaches and chairs the MFA Writing Program at California College of the Arts. Her first book, The Entire Earth and Sky: Views on Antarctica, discusses Antarctica and New Zealand.
Roberts will read at Literati Bookstore Monday, May 6, at 7 pm and at Source Booksellers in Detroit on Wednesday, May 8. Here, she shares about her experiences in Michigan, her new book, and her own reading.
Q: Tell us about your connection to Michigan.
A: My father was named editorial page editor at The Detroit News when I was in high school so we moved on a cold and snowy January from Maryland to Grosse Pointe. I had never seen so much snow in my life! All the neighbors came over with pans of lasagna and their snow-blowers to clear out our sidewalks and driveway. This is a very distinct memory of Michigan: everyone came out to welcome us. I fell in love with Michigan from the outset. I loved Lake St. Clair and my high school, Grosse Pointe South. I write about my life as a young artist in high school, working with the art teacher Robert Rathbun. He made a profound impression on my development as a thinker and art maker. When it was time to apply to college -- and back then we applied to two or three, not the 15 or so my kids applied to! -- the top 10 percent of public high school classes in Michigan had a good shot at admission, but it was still incredibly competitive. I then had to delay my start at the University of Michigan because, as I recount in Here Is Where I Walk, I was in a horrific car accident over spring break of my senior year in high school. I broke my neck and had a long -- and unbelievably successful -- recovery. I say “unbelievable” because spinal injuries are highly nuanced and there is a lot of “wait and see.” While I was getting better, I took art, French, and biology classes at Wayne State University. I started at Michigan for spring term and lived in West Quad. I recall sitting in the Diag, reading the student work from a creative writing class, and someone asked me to play hacky sack. It was so beautiful. That dappled light through the trees and all these great ideas.
Q: Here Is Where I Walk is described as an eco-memoir. How do ecology and your life come together in this book?
A: All of us have specific personal relationships with the ecologies where we reside: outside your home or in the schoolyard or along the street. Think about the trees of your youth. Think of the smell of spring or the smell of wet concrete on a summer afternoon. Think of a place where you have traveled that smelled and looked so different to you. For me, ecologies braid into the everyday.
As a woman, I am also keenly attuned to how women’s stories are edited out of history and how we learn to walk with very specific caveats from an early age. Women are subjected to everyday violence in a normative way -- and I wanted to consider in this book how my own safe forest offered me a place to reflect. I don’t state that explicitly in the text, but I think other women will get it. There are safe walks and unsafe walks.
I also wanted this book to say a few things about how we each and all can claim our ecologies as ordinary citizens. We are taught from an early age that the so-called nature around us is cataloged, and we are directed to memorize this catalog. But most of us do not need the gaze and methodologies of field biologists and botanists. So this labeling and naming often creates a divide rather than a sense of knowing.
Q: For many reasons, ranging from how places regularly change to how much there is to know about a place, it’s debated whether people can truly know a place. Do you think someone can know a place? What have you learned from interacting closely with a place on your daily walks?
A: This is a beautiful question. There is no objective reality -- it’s all subject to the gaze and disposition of the human taking it in. How does barometric pressure shift our views of place? And I say that philosophically but also pragmatically -- that is, there are forces at work on us each day that affect how we see and feel the world. One part of the book recounts my car accident and how I tried to make sense of it through a literary sensibility. I explored the Coriolis effect -- which I won’t get into here -- but what I will mention is that my father’s friend, the columnist Pete Waldmeir at The Detroit News wrote about me, gave readers my address, and told them to write to me. Then the letters came cascading in, and one of my most devoted correspondents was an elderly man who wrote to me about weather and atmospheric events, including the Coriolis effect. I never met him. I don’t know why I never met him. I was so young -- 18 -- and so into getting better and not being the little accident girl. But all these years later, I have and read his letters. And they are beautiful.
Q: The far-ranging personal essays in Here Is Where I Walk cover your walks in the Presidio National Park, travels to places around the world, and stories from your life. What was your writing process for this book?
A: As I tell my students: This book is an exercise in compression -- I had about 500 pages give or take, and I wanted it to be 200 pages. Why? Because I felt there were too many long books coming out. Books that, in many cases, could have been tighter. I wanted this book to be tight and feel like a great walk -- not a traverse of the Appalachian Trail. So the last year of work on this book was all about creating constraints and testing material against them. What were these? No military history. So my beloved Buffalo Soldiers were out, as were all the weird menus from the early days of military life, as were the facts about different musicians who played in the Presidio bands as part of their army service. Gone! Because I also wanted to emphasize the gaze of an ordinary woman, taking ordinary walks, I needed to really back off on some research. I learned a lot about the Presidio from years of interviews and reading, but that was not in line with what I wanted, aesthetically. This was not meant to be one of those tasty, comprehensive nonfiction projects that maps a place and its people. It’s about walking and how we cast our minds over our present and our pasts.
Q: Here Is Where I Walk is composed of 12 numbered chapters called “episodes,” each of which cover a month of the year. They are followed by shorter, also numbered chapters called “notebooks.” Tell us about how you've organized the book. How does writing about each month reveal your connection to place?
A: Writers love constraints. It sort of "gamifies" the hard work of creating a text. In this case, I set a page limit at 200. Why 200? I wanted the book to read like a walk, and a walk is not a pilgrimage in this case -- 200 pages felt more attuned to the topic than 500 pages. So I needed to organize and compress the work. I have been a voracious reader since childhood and I have always enjoyed narratives with a seasonal emphasis -- think about Laura Ingalls Wilder, which I was mad for -- and the use of place and time of year. I was out walking one day, thinking about the years of walks and I realized -- aha! -- that was the map. The map would be months. I called them episodes from the Greek epeisodios -- “epi” means in addition and “eisodos” means coming in, and then there is this nuance of meaning, a journey, a method. I love how complex the word is. It fits perfectly. According to my research, it came into its current use in the 1930s when it was adopted by radio to describe serials. I would love to look into that! Whose idea was that?
Q: You are a journalist as well as an author and essayist. You tell others’ stories and also your own. How do you go about forming and asking questions to inform your work?
A: It’s all about listening. The questions are important, but I think -- in part due to journalists’ egos -- there is too much emphasis on what the question is. The real point -- the real gold of an interview -- is when you are able to get the other person to relax and lean forward and start to share stories. My experience has taught me that most people don’t get asked to tell their stories, so if you pop in there, and with genuine interest, ask someone to share what they know, they will. I worked very closely with the head of forestry in the Presidio, Peter Ehrlich. We went on many walks and had many long conversations about trees, about how a historic forest behaves, about the political struggles of managing an ecosystem alongside many others.
Q: What did you read when you were working on this book?
A: First, I will tell you what I did not read -- all of the fantastic tree and nature books that were popping up, The Nature Fix and The Wisdom of Trees, for example. I did not want those in my head. What I did read were the journals of Alice Eastwood, the great western botanist whose name is unknown to most, and that is a particular crime. Talk about gendered history! Alice is in my book, and I would love to write a screenplay about her life and have Susan Sarandon play her. She was a complete badass. When the big quake and fire demolished San Francisco, Alice was the person who singlehandedly went into the destroyed museum, and climbed the collapsed staircase, using the railing as a ladder, to save the precious seed collections. And she did that in one of those insane skirts. She also traveled on myriad field trips across the west, again in those skirts (all that fabric!), collected and identified plants, became friends with Alfred Russel Wallace (of the Wallace Line) who was so taken with her work.
Q: What’s on your nightstand to read next?
A: I love novels as well as nonfiction. I just finished Elizabeth McCracken’s Bowlaway and it is amazing. I am loving Tom Barbash’s novel The Dakota Winters, which takes place in New York in 1980, and my latest obsession has been reading and re-reading all the work of the eco-philosopher Tim Morton. His latest, Being Ecological, is brilliant. Some people think, based on my interest in the sixth mass extinction and climate change, that I get lost in the spate of “end of days” fiction and nonfiction. Not me! I don’t think that it is the end of days. I think we will use our creative imaginaries to find paths forward. They may not be the paths we are familiar with, and we will have to adapt, but humans are good at that.
Q: You teach and chair the MFA Writing Program at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. What is something that you tell your students about art? What is something that they teach you?
A: I teach in Design and in Writing, and I tell my fashion students that everything they make is a story. They get sort of caught up in writing being different than making garments. But it’s all of the same (pardon the pun!) cloth. Text is from the Greek, texere, to weave. So we are all weavers of some sort.
Q: What message about preserving forests and wild places do you want readers to take from Here Is Where I Walk?
A: What you see and what you experience matter. The story of your life matters. You know where you live, and you know what you live with -- your ecology is known to you, and you can privilege that awareness by spending time outside each day. We live in times when there’s a lot of obfuscation, and we are all being reminded that things might not be the way they seem. I want people to take a breath and pause and go outside and look at the lilac bush growing in the backyard, or the modest dogwood, or that one shaggy pine tree you pass on the way to work. Look. Breath. Here is where you walk. Feel empowered to care about it, to save it, to love it. This is a beautiful place, this Earth, and you are part of it.
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.