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.

The Grass Canoe

This is a journal about my 30+ year career telling hopeful stories about land and people, starting with my decision to become a novelist at age fifty-eight.

I chose this particular title because my creative journey has been as unconventional and daunting as trying to navigate a river in a canoe made of grass. That I made it this far is something of a miracle. From the beginning, I knew my mission in life was to chronicle our times. I was drawn to archaeology and anthropology initially though I knew I would never be a scientist or academic. What I really wanted to be was an ethnographer – someone who studies a people and their culture during a particular time and place. I began by creatively examining the American West, my home ground, eventually becoming a participant-observer with my decision to start the nonprofit Quivira Coalition in 1997. My activism, which I always considered to be a form of storytelling, took me to a hopeful and wonderful land, expanding horizons and provoking new creative responses. Eventually, my adventure down the river carried me beyond Quivira and I adjusted my chronicling accordingly. Looking back, I see that my work, in all its variations, achieved my original goal. It forms a creative ethnography, not of a people or place so much as of a time – The Age of Consequences.

My journey in the grass canoe began in a small stream in the desert and flowed downriver in twists and turns, sometimes slow, sometimes fast, sometimes eddying, sometimes discouraging, sometimes anxious, but always exciting and always hopeful. The water grew wider and deeper as I went, which changed the nature of the journey in ways I didn’t expect, challenging my faith in the future at times. Still, you keep paddling and pray that your little canoe can hold together just long enough to see what’s around the next bend. Life should be an adventure – make it a good one!