What’s In A Name?

I’ve decided to become Courtney White again.

Sutro

When I left the Quivira Coalition at the end of 2015 to write full-time, I considered using a pseudonym for the mystery series that I hope to write. It’s a common practice among authors who want to keep their fictional identity separate from their other work or if they are writing in multiple genres. Otherwise, crossover is hard on readers, I was told. In my case, I had been writing nonfiction for years and although I wasn’t taking a mighty leap with subject matter of the mystery series I thought I should separate it my former self, especially since I hadn’t planned to write more nonfiction. One idea that came to mind was C. G. Sutro. That’s the pen name Gen and I came up with years ago (C. and G.) when we toyed with the idea of writing an archaeological adventure series together. Sutro was our dog. I wrote down a few other ideas as well but in the end a fake name felt like I was hiding, so I decided to stick a “J” out front of Courtney White instead (Joseph is my first name) and keep things simple.

In the past two weeks, I’ve had a change of heart. For one thing, my CW name will be on the title of a book in the Innovators Series (described in an earlier post) that will be published this fall, reviving my nonfiction brand. It will likely happen again with the book I’m currently working on with farmer Dorn Cox. Meanwhile, The Sun didn’t sell well, which means my dream of financial and literary success as a mystery writer will be harder and take longer (if it happens at all). I’ve also been giving a great deal of thought to the arc of my thirty years of writing, photography, and activism. On the surface, my “career” looks like a collection of discrete activities loosely bound together, but in fact they are all part of the same journey down the same river in the same canoe – full of twists and turns. The connection, I realized, is storytelling – land, people, and the Age of Consequences (which I’ll discuss later).

The kicker came when I stumbled across an interview I penned for Resilience.org, an online “community library and café” dedicated to thoughtful discussion about the multiple challenges confronting the world. I was a frequent contributor for a while and in 2015 the editor asked me to write responses to a short list of questions. Looking them over again, I realized that everything I’ve done over the years originated from one source: Courtney White. So, I’ve decided to take back the “J” and pick up where Courtney left off. Here’s the interview:

Resilience.org: Who/what has been your greatest inspiration?

Aldo Leopold

“My greatest inspirations are William Shakespeare and Aldo Leopold. The key to moving hearts and minds no matter what your field of endeavor is good storytelling and no one did it better than Will. There’s a reason why his plays are regularly performed four hundred years after they were written: they are gripping tales of revenge, love, lust, tyranny, jealousy, betrayal, murder that resonate with us as humans. His words are lofty and musical and his plots and his characters have a poignancy that keeps us coming back for more. Anyone who aspires to being heard can still learn much from the Bard of Avon. On the nonfiction side, I take a lot of inspiration from the great American conservationist Aldo Leopold. He was not only a fine writer but focused his creativity and intelligence on the pressing issues of his day, including wildlife management, wilderness protection, environmental education, sustainable agriculture, economics, ethical behavior, and scientific documentation. Leopold once described living on a patch of land without ruining it as “the oldest task in human history” – a task more pressing today than ever – which ranks it right up there with Shakespeare’s ruminations on the human condition. Whether this task is ultimately a tragedy, a history or a comedy remains to be seen!”

Knowing what you know now about sustainability and resilience building, what piece of advice would you give your younger self if you were starting out?

“Don’t expect facts, logic, or more education to be sufficient. When I began my work with the Quivira Coalition nearly twenty years ago, I assumed that social change was mostly a matter of spreading the news – giving people facts, making logical arguments, promoting profitable approaches, rebutting emotional objections with real-world examples, creating educational opportunities, and generally counting on people to eventually “see the light.” What I didn’t understand is how deep personal beliefs go – as in really deep, even to the point of self-destructive behavior. A rancher once told me he’d rather “go down with the ship” than change his management – which is exactly what happened! Going in, I knew humans acted in contradictory and illogical ways, I just didn’t understand how stubborn we could be even in the face of empirical evidence. I do now. The advice I’d anyone now is to concentrate more on hopeful, fact-based storytelling and less on lectures, numbers, and complaining. I would also advise focusing on young people, who are often more open to new ideas than their elders.”

What keeps you awake at night?

“Besides the low pay of nonprofit work and writing? What keeps me awake at night is thinking about the world my children will be inheriting. Even if we get our act together as a society and work hard toward a sustainable future, all of our children will still inherit a challenging situation. And if we don’t work really hard, then the challenge will be huge. Of course, this situation isn’t fair to them. Parents are supposed to improve the world for their children, not diminish it – but diminishing it is exactly what we are doing. I can only imagine what future generations will say about us when they realize that we still had an opportunity to be proactive rather than reactive to these challenges and we didn’t take it. Strenuous cussing comes to mind.”

What gets you up in the morning or keeps you going?

Greek Muse

“My muse – who is a stern taskmaster. No lollygagging allowed, especially in the wee hours of the morning. Hup hup! Seriously, I’ve suffered from an irrepressible creative impulse and a dangerously insatiable curiosity since I was a teenager. I just love the world, its history, its cultures, its beauty, its mystery, and its diversity. Exploring and interpreting what I find, whether in writing, photography, or activism, is hard-wired into my behavior – I don’t know why. I suppose my parents are to blame! My father was a neurologist who just loved helping people get better. He found humans, and their illnesses, endlessly fascinating. My mother was also insatiably curious about the world, though her interests involved art and literature. Together, they gave me an enduring thirst for discovering and caring. As for the stern muse, as my sometimes exasperated family can tell you, it never sleeps.”

What has been your biggest setback and how did you recover?

“There was a period of time when I struggled with a sense of failure – a slow-growing realization that I wasn’t going to achieve as much as I hoped with my activism. When I began my career in social change, first as an environmental activist with the Sierra Club and then as a cofounder and director of the Quivira Coalition, I had decently-sized expectations of changing the Status Quo both at the grassroots (including the ‘grass’ and the ‘roots’) and at higher levels. I put a lot of heart-and-soul into these expectations so when Business-as-Usual continued to prevail despite our best efforts, my spirits took a beating. We had some success – don’t get me wrong – and I’m proud of our work and the lives we touched, but in the Big Picture we didn’t accomplish as much as I hoped. This was hard to accept for a while, but eventually I got over it. I recovered the way most people do – by going through a grieving process and coming out the other end stronger, wiser, and more focused. Like any loss, you deal with it. The alternative is to succumb to sadness and despair. Those weren’t options for me, so I picked myself up and got back to work (remember the stern muse) and began exploring new horizons.”

For you resilience is…?

“Resilience is both bouncing back and moving on. It’s the capacity to cope with the unexpected, going through a grieving process for example, in order to handle loss, but it’s also the ability to thrive in the face of never-ending change. I love this quote by the Buddha: “Change is never painful, only the resistance to change is painful.” Resilience is all about overcoming the resistance to change in ways that create positive, hopeful, and healthful paths into the future. That’s easier said than done, of course! Take the adventurous journey into mid-life, for example. When you enter your fifties, resistance to change becomes almost a fact of daily existence, especially if you have teenage children as we do. What do you mean I’m not forty anymore! It’s not very resilient, I can tell you, to fight these changes, including the reluctance to admit that life is, in fact, “bounded by a sleep” as Shakespeare put in The Tempest (his career-concluding meditation on aging). The resilient answer, at least for me, is to move on to new work, new horizons, and new opportunities. Never stop using the oars, in other words, even if we must row more slowly.”

What one social/political/cultural/policy change would most assist your work/hopes/dreams?

“From my experience, I’d say incentivizing people to do the right thing with their land is job #1 today. Unfortunately, we have a society/politics/culture that strongly encourages people to do the wrong thing with the planet, and we’re reaping the consequences big time. In vivid contrast, incentives to take care of the natural world (including ourselves) are hugely lacking. What would they be? Aldo Leopold struggled with this question all his life, especially in light of the economic and environmental devastation brought on by the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. He examined a wide variety of financial and policy incentives and found them wanting. In the end, he settled on a plea for a change in our ethics. Fast forward to the present day and his plea looms larger than ever. There is an important difference, however, between his time and ours (see my next response), which leads me to believe that financial incentives might work after all. If we could pay land owners, for instance, to double the carbon content of their soils – and by pay I mean money – than I’m certain we’d see positive, resilient, regenerative results. This is described in detail in my book Grass, Soil, Hope: a Journey Through Carbon Country.”

What gives you hope?

“Human ingenuity. I know it’s the bane of our existence as well, but I’ve been deeply impressed by the large amount of innovation that has taken place within the ecological agriculture community over the past thirty years. It’s staggering actually. The regenerative toolbox is overflowing with new ideas, many of which have gone through an on-the-ground, beta-test phase and proven to be practical, profitable and effective. As I like to tell people, we don’t need to invent anything to solve our problems – we’ve already done it! Mix in photosynthesis and you have answers to most of our problems. This is incredibly hopeful stuff – and I’m certain that Aldo Leopold would have agreed. The challenge, of course, is scaling up – and quickly. That’s the next step and it’s a big one, but in the meantime it’s encouraging to know that human ingenuity is still hard at work for the betterment of ourselves and the world.”

MY COUSIN WILLIAM FAULKNER

Is writing in the blood? Is it inherited? Where does it come from?

My mother and me

If I have writing skills, I didn’t get them from my father. He was a well-respected and much beloved neurologist, but he wasn’t a reader, much less a writer. That was my mother’s department. I knew she loved words and not just in books. She composed them as well. I remember long letters of correspondence she sent me at summer camps (placed in manila envelopes stuffed with newspaper clippings). I also knew she exchanged lengthy letters with her friends. It wasn’t until I waded into her papers after her death in 1988, however, that I realized how good a writer she was – and how badly she wanted a career in literature. Words flowed effortlessly from her. Topics included anything and everything – a recent trip, a visit from a relative, a class taught by Lewis Mumford, a play on Broadway, a book, a favorite dog, the weather. They were the nonstop words of a natural writer, energetically seeking an audience. She was an amazing photographer as well, I discovered, with a natural eye for form and light. I had no idea! Growing up, she never discussed her writing or photography with me at all. I know why. By the time I was old enough to appreciate her skill, she had abandoned any hope of a career – for many reasons – and had settled into a kind of monkish existence, content to read books and watch movies on television.

So where does the skill and desire to write or take photographs come from if one’s parents aren’t tutors? School, I suppose – but I never took classes in these topics, preferring to study history and anthropology. Reading is crucial, of course, but it’s not the same as writing and it doesn’t explain the source of the mysterious drive that propels writers to write. It’s more basic. A friend of mine once declared that he “didn’t have a book in him.” For those of us with many books inside, where does that need originate? Is there a writing gene?

Cousin Bill

This question came rushing at me unexpectedly one day in 1986 when I learned that novelist William Faulkner was my cousin. My aunt Sarah – my father’s sister – had come to Los Angeles, where I was living at the time, to visit Stuart Lacy, their mother’s oldest brother. I tagged along. Sarah had recently retired from a career in social work and decided to dig into the Lacy family tree, the roots of which reached back to medieval England and Normandy (the de Lacys fought alongside William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings). She also wanted to confirm a rumor that we were related to one William Faulkner of Oxford, Mississippi. That was a surprise! On the drive to Canoga Park, Sarah explained what she had learned: Faulkner’s great grandmother and her great grandmother were sisters – Emily and Sarah Holcombe. Emily married Dr. John Murry, whose daughter, Sallie, married John Wesley Falkner (whose famous son added a ‘u’ to the family name). Sarah Holcombe married Watson Lacy and moved to El Dorado, Arkansas. Their child, William Stokes Lacy, was my father’s grandfather. However, Sarah was having trouble confirming our link to the novelist because genealogy trees in those days heavily favored male lineages, leaving wives and mothers to sit forlornly on limbs. In 2006, I paid a visit to Faulkner’s home outside Oxford and spent an hour in a local bookstore confirming the Lacy family connection. My aunt’s sleuthing was correct – I was related to William Faulkner!

Faulkner’s map of Yoknapatawpha County

This news percolated inside me. My mother idolized Faulkner (and never forgave my father for being the family link instead of her). I grew up dabbling in his novels, mostly egged on by her unswerving admiration for the writer. I didn’t get very far. In college, I tried again. I made my way through The Sound and The Fury and Absalom! Absalom! However, his dense writing style and lugubrious sentences (I thought at the time) weren’t my cup of tea. I appreciated his “Southernness” and his world-building, even if I couldn’t pronounce the name of his mythical county – Yoknapatawpha. His regionalism appealed to my budding creative interest in my home ground, the American West. In fact, a direct consequence of my aunt’s visit was a decision to do an ‘independent study’ of the West, which I conducted in the book stacks of UCLA’s main library during breaks from my job in the Acquisitions department (a project prompted by the arrival of John Nichols’ On the Mesa at my desk one day). Faulkner had dedicated himself to articulating what it meant to be Southern, which was a cool idea, I thought. What did it mean to be Western? I had a few ideas, thanks to Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner, among others, but I needed to dig deeper, which is exactly what I did for the next two years, resulting in The Indelible West, among other projects.

My visit to Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak, outside Oxford in 2006 inspired me all over again, but in a new direction. I had spent the previous eight years writing articles, essays, and interviews about ranchers and other progressive land managers as part of my duties as Executive Director of the Quivira Coalition. The previous fall, I was deeply honored when Wendell Berry published an essay of mine titled ‘The Working Wilderness’ in his collection The Way of Ignorance. It felt like crossing a threshold – I was a writer! What did that mean? What should I do now? Reconfirming my familial link to Faulkner in Oxford and visiting Rowan Oak (where I wandered around so long that a security guard asked me if everything was ok) pushed all these questions to the forefront. I felt a kinship with my cousin that couldn’t be denied, whatever its source. Most of all, I wanted to write books. But I was forty-six years old! Not too late to write books, but too late to make a career of it. Fortunately, I didn’t inherit the legacy of alcoholism from Faulkner, so at least I had that going in my favor. Still, it seemed crazy. I decided to compromise. I had recently stopped writing a regular column for the Quivira newsletter, feeling like I had reached an inflection point. I would start another column, on my web site, with a different purpose – more literary perhaps – and see what happened next. I began the project on Earth Day, 2008, titled A Chronicle of the Age of Consequences.

Where does the urge to write come from? I don’t know. It might be inheritable, I suppose, but whatever the source, it’s important to take our inspirations and run with them, not knowing where they will lead. If you can find inspiration among the leaves and branches of your family tree, so much the better!

Innovators

For the past two years, my day job has been working on a book series called Innovators in Regenerative Agriculture for Chelsea Green Publishing. I just turned in a second manuscript in February. It is tentatively titled Fibershed: Local Fiber, Local Dye, Local Labor – Building Regional and Textile Cultures and Economies and will be published next fall.

Its author is Rebecca Burgess, the founder and Executive Director of Fibershed, an exciting and growing nonprofit organization in northern California. As Rebecca describes it, a local fibershed is a geographical region, like a watershed or a foodshed, that sets a definite boundary for the resources we use in our clothes – in her case a 150-mile radius from her front door. In 2010, she challenged herself to dress 100% from locally grown fibers, natural dyes, and labor for one year. It was a process that brought her into direct relationships with well-managed farms, ranches, and skilled textile artisans. It was a deliberate and eye-opening contrast to the industrial model of clothes production, almost all of which takes place overseas at steep environmental and social costs. The book taps into a broader cultural shift taking place that pushes back against our increasingly destructive behavior. “The question for our time,” Rebecca writes, “is how we can transform contemporary systems to benefit all life and promote regeneration without falling into the trap of unintended consequences that force the hand of another set of technological solutions.” To do this, we must tune into the fundamentals of the carbon, water, and nutrient cycles, developing deeper knowledge about the earth’s true ecological carrying capacity.

She writes: “It is within our deepest human know-how to answer the question how will we care for, protect, and moderately utilize what the earth provides in a manner that leaves the land and water more diverse and productive than when we found it. The challenge to create a functioning fibershed is steeped in the process of answering this question.”

The goal of the Innovators book series is to assist innovative farmers, ranchers, scientists and nonprofit directors in the field of regenerative agriculture get their words into print with the support of a professional writer (me). While many leaders in regenerative agriculture have participated in a variety of educational outreach activities over the years, including public speaking, workshops, and articles, few have written books – an important and enduring forum to convey deep knowledge and experience, communicate more detailed information than other platforms accommodate, and create frameworks for promising new approaches. For many, the obstacle to writing a book is a lack of time and experience not a lack of desire or things to say. Working with a writer can resolve this challenge. Prior to Rebecca’s book, I worked on Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture, authored by Gabe Brown, a progressive rancher in North Dakota.

I am honored to work with these innovators and help get their important stories into print.

Stegner Country

Wallace Stegner during his teaching days
at Stanford University

Another conservationist-author hero of mine was Wallace Stegner, who I had the pleasure of meeting twice, once at his home in Los Altos, California, in 1991 and once at an awards ceremony in Santa Fe two years later. I went to Los Altos on a whim. I had a portfolio of black-and-white fine art photographs of the American West under my arm that I had shot the previous year to mark the centennial of the closing the frontier. The goal of the year-long project was to document the ‘modern’ frontier, replete with loggers, environmentalists, artists, tourists, retirees, subdivisions, art galleries, national parks, and the like. It was a vision of the West very much inspired by Stegner, who spent a big part of career pushing back against western stereotypes, especially those generated by Hollywood. His vision of the West was richer and more dynamic than nearly anyone else I knew, with the exception of a few journalists and photographers, including Mark Klett, whose work I admired.

In fact, the seed for the frontier project was planted one afternoon while viewing a photography show in a Los Angeles gallery. It was a group show that focused on Bodie, a charismatic ghost town in Sierra Nevada Mountains. I found the photos amazing, but not in a good way. There wasn’t a single “modern” image of the town – meaning, a vision rooted a living, breathing world. Each photographer in the show idealized Bodie as a relic of the past, moody, haunted, and empty of people. Except it wasn’t empty. “What about all the people wandering around taking pictures?” I thought to myself. “Someone should take a photo of someone taking a photo!” Later, I decided I would be that photographer. I wanted to capture the West I knew, which is why I preferred Mark Klett over Ansel Adams and Edward Abbey over John Muir. And why I called Wallace Stegner on the phone.

To my surprise, Stegner’s number was listed (back in the day when you could ask an operator for a phone number). On the third ring he picked up. I quickly explained my project and my desire to show him the portfolio. He gave me directions to his house. I was stunned. But that’s the sort of person Wallace Stegner was – considerate, open, and generous. I drove to his house at the appointed time and we spent two hours in his detached office going through the photographs. A number of the images resonated with him, sparking anecdotes and reminisces, particularly about rural life in the West. We talked about a rancher he knew as well as the region’s shameful treatment of Native Americans, among other topics. I was struck by his demeanor, which was courtly and kind. But most of all I was impressed by his generosity – he donated two hours of his valuable time to a complete stranger! When we finished with the photographs I asked if he would be willing to write a Foreword (it didn’t hurt to ask, I thought). He agreed and it arrived in my mailbox two months later. It was a kindness that I promised to pay forward.

My take on the ghost town of Bodie.
From The Indelible West.

You can read Stegner’s Foreword and see the photographs here: http://www.indeliblewest.com/

To be honest, I hadn’t read much of Stegner’s fiction before meeting him. My interests at the time focused on his essays, biographies, and his conservation work, particularly on behalf of wilderness and national parks. I had practically memorized portions of his famous ‘Wilderness Letter’ and had devoured The Sound of Mountain Water, a collection of essays largely written early in his career. His biography of John Wesley Powell, his leadership role in the successful fight to stop the Echo Park Dam deep inside Dinosaur National Monument, and his environmental activism, especially as a Board member of the Sierra Club, were all terribly inspiring to me. Stegner achieved an unusual balance of literary skill and real-world effectiveness. If his later nonfiction work became less and less optimistic as the ‘real world’ pushed back, frustrating his hopes, I didn’t notice at the time (though perhaps I should have).

After our meeting in Los Altos, I decided to dive into his fiction, starting with Angle of Repose, a frontier tale. My favorite book was Recapitulation, a moving and nostalgic look back at his youth. Stegner brought tears to my eyes. There is something about his words and sentiments that just grabs you by the throat. His letter to his mother, written in regret many decades after her death, is truly heart-breaking. Alas, although he won major awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, Stegner was branded by critics and east-coast publishers as a ‘western writer’ which frustrated his ambitions and limited his readership. After all, weren’t Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour also western writers? It’s a shame because Stegner’s writing, including his many books set in Vermont, is as universal as it gets, in my opinion.

The second time I met Wallace Stegner was shortly before his death in 1993 at age eighty-four. He had come to Santa Fe with his wife to see old friends and accept a literary award for a collection of essays (tragically unnecessary at that point in his career). Gen and I attended the banquet and I introduced her to Stegner afterwards. He was as gracious as ever. A day or so later he and his wife suffered a major auto accident while driving downtown. Two weeks later Stegner succumbed to his injuries. I felt the loss profoundly. Not only had we lost a great writer but an important leader too. Within a few short years after his death, we entered an era of increased us-vs-them belligerency and diminishing civility. Thoughtfulness, whether in print or in action, seemed to quickly fade in the West, as it did across the nation, to be replaced by division and distrust. Some of us rushed into the breach to do what we could and years later the center seems to have held at local levels, but it has fallen prey to partisanship regionally and nationally, abetted by the rise of the Internet. Stegner was a prolific letter-writer and I wonder sometimes how he would have reacted to the age of email and personal computers, not to mention Twitter. Perhaps he was lucky to have missed it. Stegner inspired me to be a writer and a better person. He was a role model for many other people as well and his example is needed now more than ever.

A Start

Having decided to write a mystery, during the spring of 2015 I mulled plots, starting points, endings, and what to include in between, but I made no progress. In an effort to understand the genre and break the logjam in my mind, I began reading as many mysteries as I could. I began with Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa historical novels, featuring a toga-clad detective, whose books were popular with Sterling, our son. I expanded to P.D. James, Agatha Christie, and Louise Penny before settling on a long run of books by Donna Leon, who police procedurals are set in atmospheric Venice. It was good stuff, but it wasn’t helping me much figure out how to get started. Finally, I took a plunge one afternoon and made a rapid, stream-of-conscious list of story elements:

“Private lands, grazing permits, big rivers, small towns, wildfire, wildlife, endangered species, anti-grazing activists, the Farm Bureau, organic farms, quarries, medical clinics, watershed groups, Boy Scouts, real estate agents, off-roaders, fly fishing, beaver dams, hunters, elk, wilderness, cheap food, local restaurants, pesticides, Big Ag, oil and gas, mining, forests, county commissioners, nonprofits, regulators, water quality and quantity, a leaky dam, lawsuits, showboating politicians, Red vs. Blue, rural vs. urban, water rights, acequias, land grants, land grabs, tribal rights, ghosts, windmills, storms, headcut gullies, riparian restoration, drought, dropping water tables, poisoned predators, cattle getting shot, spiked trees, shoot-shovel-and-shut-up, subdivisions, wildcatters, hikers, tourists, a B&B, a fancy lodge, grassfed beef, raptors, horses, flat hats, kerchiefs, snowbirds, hippies, pot farms, meth labs, wet meadows, a historic flood, a historic graveyard, pioneer families, museums, a haunted hotel, hot tubs, electric fencing, herders, illegal help, immigration services, lookout towers, writers, a jug band, hoedowns, barns, young agrarians, mentors, apprentices, home cooking, heritage orchards, failed bean fields, empty houses, wine collections, archaeological sites, deep canyons, sedges and rushes, fracking, title disputes, old mills, second homes, Safe Harbors, snakes, owls, cats, wilderness warriors, the Rainbow Family, red and green chile, traditional villages, foreign visitors, scientists, range experts, a mobile slaughterhouse, blood and guts, sheep, coyotes, vacation rentals, wi-fi, artisan cheese, dairy cows, a movie set, documentaries, a sheriff, Smokey the Bear, academics, graduate students, a local college, big geology, lakes, backcountry hikes, environmental art, performance artists, forbs, low-stress livestock management, GPS, hay, homemade beer, jeep tours, medicine wheels, fake shamans, vortexes, golf courses, industrial fertilizer, CSAs, CAFOs, feedlots, free-range chickens, banjos, bureaucrats, annual conferences, the radical center, roping tricks, rawhide, abandoned mines, pickup trucks, widowers, toxic spills, sweet spots, marsh gas, solar power, wind turbines, leaky pipes, grass lawns, wild turkeys, buried treasure, lost mission bells, adobe walls, bullet casings, utopian communities, box stores, county courthouses, historical reenactors, public hearings, NEPA, ESA, BLM, red tape, overgrazing, trespass cattle, brands, reporters, television crews, good coffee, bad laws, dust, climate change, big profits, angry bears, rare birds, migrations, pancakes, double-wides, Sunday mass, far horizons, silence, warm-season grasses, springs, teepee rings, isolated cabins, line shacks, wild mustangs, bankruptcy courts, wild bees, local bars, desperados, Hot Shot crews, tree-cutters, fence-sitters, backhoes, poop-and-stomps, opera halls, annual festivals, backyard gardens, mud holes, guns, militia, butterflies, flow charts, Friday night football, taxes, jeans, cowboy hats, more drought, dirty snow, round-ups, resorts, airplanes, and the wide open range.”

The first thing I did after writing the list was pour a cup of coffee. I needed the extra caffeine. After settling into my chair again, I reviewed the long list and decided there wasn’t one book here, but many. That wasn’t a stretch – after all, aren’t most mysteries part of a series? What would I call mine? Two thoughts came to mind: Quivira County (or Country); and The Sun Ranch, the name I had assigned the property. I knew the actual location of both – the Cimarron country in northern New Mexico. There was a big ranch up there I knew pretty well that could serve as a model for The Sun, though its historical trajectories would be different. Having a geography in mind helped hugely in sorting out the arc of the stories – or at least grounding the first story in the series. I could see the ranch, the roads, the town, the mountains, the grasslands, the river, on and on. The next step was easy – call the series the Sun Ranch Saga.

Historic Icelandic Saga

Except I didn’t know what a saga was exactly. I looked it up (in a dictionary that my father gave me in 1974 that I treasure) reading this: saga (n) – a prose narrative recorded in Iceland in the 12th and 13th centuries of historic or legendary figures and events of the heroic age. Ok, not really applicable. There was another definition: a long detailed account, such as the saga of the winning of the West. That was more like it! A different dictionary provided a list of synonyms: epic, chronicle, legend, folk tale, romance, history, adventure, myth, story. I like all of them. It gave the series a feeling of heft, I thought, and I couldn’t resist imagining a small group of people telling the story around a campfire. I checked one more source. Saga: a form of novel in which a family or social group are chronicled in a long and leisurely narrative; a dramatic history of a place or people; a very long story. I liked all these definitions too. I had a place – The Sun Ranch – and a hero and a ton of possibilities for drama, minus the 12th century violence, and a long time frame, or at least a long sequence of books. A saga indeed!

The last thing I did that afternoon in May, 2015, was to sketch out the plots and overall trajectory of each book in the series. In the first book, the murder is resolved (though I didn’t know how yet) and our hero decides to keep the ranch – or else no saga. In the next book, someone shoots her cattle and then commits suicide (based on a true story). There are other threats as well, which destabilize her effort to keep The Sun, with cascading implications for the entire community. In the third book, a lone wolf appears – and a wildlife photographer disappears (or maybe a biologist). Someone is poisoning fish in the river and coyotes are being shot – you know, the usual! Fire and flood dominate the next book, and maybe drought. A body is discovered. A dam bursts. In the next book the healing begins. At the heart of the saga was the ranch – The Sun. I’d start there and build outward, one book at a time. But I had to get my hero to New Mexico first. That proved harder than I expected. In fact, it took two full years before I could even try.

The Sun

The novel that I published in October is called The Sun: a Mystery.

It wasn’t the first novel I wrote – I’ll discuss that book later – but it was the first one I could make available to readers. I’ve had the idea for the story since early 2015, though the desire to transform my experiences with the Quivira Coalition into fiction extended back by at least a decade. The environmental and cultural landscape I was getting to know well through my nonprofit work was so rich and ripe with characters and possibilities that it practically begged for a plot. But what plot? As I traveled around the American West visiting with progressive ranchers and farmers and becoming familiar with the issues confronting the region’s land and people, I kept an eye out for potential story lines. Trouble was the nonfiction angle on these issues was fantastic enough. Feed the world with regenerative agriculture? Mitigate climate change with soil microbes? Work together in the radical center to bridge cultural divides for the benefit of all? That already sounded like fiction!

Then in January 2015 a small plot popped into my mind involving an outsider who inherits a large historic ranch without warning. I’m not certain where the idea came from – part of the enigma of how imaginations work, I suppose – but as I toyed with its possibilities a world began to unfold itself. I made some quick decisions. First, the main character would be a she. Second, she would be a doctor – Gen and I come from doctor families. Third, her specialty would be bone cancer, which I knew very little about other than it was a devastating disease. In the back of my mind, I was already thinking about the link between her work and a cancer cluster situation in the story that I would develop. Fourth, our hero flies out to New Mexico from back East someplace – Boston, say – to sell the ranch to the highest bidder, but her plans are foiled when a ranch hand is found dead in a cattle tank…murdered. A mystery novel? Hmm. Why not? Alright, then. But who would commit such a terrible crime? I had no idea.

Here’s what I jotted down in my writing notebook at the time: “There are a range of suspects, all of whom want the ranch, and she’s menaced at various times. Her ranching neighbor gets shot and she saves his life with her medical skills [this didn’t happen], introducing new characters to the story. She works an intense 10-day schedule and then goes surfing. She can’t make up her mind…events come to a boil…the story ends with her decision to keep the ranch, defying everyone, especially the murderer.”

Except I didn’t know was the murderer was yet!

Mr. Conrad,
looking stern

The trouble with my decision to write a mystery is that I’ve never been a mystery reader. In my youth, my reading habits were shaped by two sources that stuck with me. The first was my passionately devoted book-reading mother who had eyes mainly for serious literature, particularly William Faulkner and other southern writers (she hailed from West Virginia). She also loved biographies of great writers and I have fond memories of books scattered around our house featuring cover photos of stern-looking authors. Inevitably, I picked a few up. I was soon hooked, especially on the books of Joseph Conrad, whose dark themes and exotic locations appealed to my young heart. He was stern-looking too! My mother’s tastes weren’t all sturm-und-drang, however. I know she loved the racetrack mysteries of Dick Francis – I just didn’t pick them up. I stuck with the serious stuff. As an aside, when my father, who was not a reader, discovered a family connection to Faulkner on his side of our family tree my mother nearly died of envy.

A serious book, in my opinion

The other literary source was my rapidly growing interest in the environment and literature of the American West. Exploring the region physically as well as intellectually during my high school years, I discovered Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey, and other western writers, consuming their books with a passion as fervent as my mother’s. I tried to introduce them to her, but she wasn’t interested. John Steinbeck was tolerable in her eyes (he won the Noble Prize after all), but that was it. In her defense, my mother never warmed up to the West. She moved to Phoenix, where I grew up, reluctantly and never adjusted to the city’s reputation as an unsophisticated ‘cow town.’ It was an attitude she extended to the region. It wasn’t just her of course. Many literary critics were dismissive of ‘western writers’ (and continue to be). I never understood why the South could be considered a legitimate source of ‘serious’ literature but not the West. Anyway, after college I quickly expanded my reading on the region, devouring as many words as I could, fiction and nonfiction alike. On the mystery front, I read nearly the entire oeuvre of Tony Hillerman, set in Navajo country, which I enjoyed.

Fiction table at our local bookstore

So, it was a thrill to see my book on display at Collected Works, our wonderful local bookstore, sitting on the fiction table next to Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, a book that had a big influence on me as a young man. Abbey was a hero of mine and I read nearly every book he wrote. He inspired my early interest in the American West and conservation. I thought he was a fine writer, though maybe a bit too breezy and polemical at times. Perfectly in tune with the era, his work had a big impact in the wider world, especially within the wilderness movement. Toward the end of his life, Abbey struggled to complete a sprawling novel that he sardonically called (as I remember) his “fat masterpiece.” Although Abbey’s writing was widely respected, he chafed at the label of being an “environmental” writer. That’s where you would often find him in a bookstore, lumped in with more traditional conservation fare. I think he wanted to be taken more seriously as an author and despite having written a masterpiece already – Desert Solitaire – he set out to write a big work of fiction. Unfortunately, the book – A Fool’s Progress – wasn’t well received, as I recall, but I admired his desire to push personal boundaries, the sign of a true writer, in my opinion.

Abbey had a great brand.

As much as I admired Edward Abbey as a writer, he wasn’t very helpful as a mentor for composing a mystery. Although his fiction often confronted the inexplicable and contradictory ways of human behavior, including his own, and his plots were occasionally peppered with a dead body, Abbey never wrote a mystery per se. Nevertheless, the ‘high drama’ of much of his writing and the ‘placeness’ of the western lands they inhabited provided a useful backdrop to the composition of a mystery, I thought, especially one set in the Southwest as I intended to do. Abbey was also funny, which was refreshing in a genre – environmental writing – that was notoriously pious and gloomy. It was an admirable quality and one that I stored in the back of my mind for writing purposes. By the way, the ‘environmental’ section of bookstores has noticeably shrunk over the years, I noticed, reflecting an important change in reading habits and interests among Americans, I suspect. Apparently, ‘save-the-planet’ books, once prolific, don’t hold the same appeal anymore – but that’s a topic for another day.

Fifty-eight

I became a novelist at age fifty-eight.

That’s as crazy as it sounds. What’s the normal career path for a novelist, if such a thing even exists anymore? Start young, earn a creative writing degree, find a job, write day-and-night, take a second job, keep writing, hook an agent, get published, garner praise, write the next novel, win awards, become a social media star, write another book, pray again, grow your career, build your platform, earn a living if you’re lucky, sell the TV rights if you’re luckier.

Me

The wrong career path, I suspect, is to publish your first novel at fifty-eight. No writing degree, no agent, no platform, no awards. For nearly twenty years, I ran a nonprofit conservation organization called The Quivira Coalition that I cofounded with a rancher. I did a ton of writing as part of my duties, but all of it was heavy nonfiction stuff. I hadn’t planned to pen a novel – until I decided to give it a go. It didn’t feel crazy because that’s what writers do. We write. I didn’t want to write just one novel, however, I wanted to write a bunch of them. A series, possibly. I knew my timing was terrible and the path forward ridiculously difficult, but I’m the sort of person who doesn’t follow paths very well anyway. I like to find my own way. That makes life harder, but more interesting. Stick close to the edge, the views are better!

The decision to become a novelist didn’t arrive out-of-the-blue. I dabbled in creative writing over the years, including two screenplays that I wrote during my film school days at UCLA. In the mid-1990s, I worked out the plot for a murder mystery set in Old West. I also wrote a two-act play titled Canyonlands, which is set in a bicycle shop in southern Utah during the glory years of the so-called New West. However, my work at the Quivira Coalition precluded any major literary endeavors, though I put a great of energy into essay writing.

All that changed in 2010 when I stood on the Rialto Bridge in Venice on my 50th birthday and decided to start writing books. A sequence of nonfiction publications followed each focused on the hopefulness of regenerative agriculture and other save-the-world schemes. I intended to keep going, but I had begun to suffer from a serious case of futuritis which necessitated a change of gears professionally. Besides, stories were drifting into my head – fiction stories – occupying larger and larger amounts of my addled brain, sort of like hearing voices.

They were voices I decided to heed.