My work as a writer and teacher explores how our human world connects with the larger world of natural wildness. Here are some of the main ways I think about this:
More than anything else, I’m captivated by the way language and imagination create new worlds. The imagination is a wild force, a form of natural process which we can partner with. This is the core insight of Wild Writers Seminars (for writers, obviously), and of the Daylighting the Invisible workshops for activists, environmentalists, and creative practitioners in any field.
the urban renaissance
I’m a nature writer who’s come home to the big city, so I’m often looking at ways to get our urban life right. We need to continue learning how to build compact, dense cities that are good human spaces – places we really enjoy living in, places enriching to the spirit and full of opportunity (for everyone, please – not just the privileged).
Such cities do not need to sprawl, but can be surrounded by farmland, timberland, wetland, open space, and wild space.
The natural story is never over – it’s gathering itself into the next surprising, gorgeous, difficult chapter. “Nature bats last” they say – and this is good news. Sometimes the perspective of a longer time-scale can give heart, reminding us that destruction is always a prelude to renewal and rebuilding. Not that this excuses our civilization’s heedless dismantling of ecosystems and wasting of resources. We can be a deadly plague. We should stop it.
But, as my 2003 book Paradise Wild puts it, in the very moment that we stop our destruction – that is the moment in which nature begins recreating itself. That very second! Grass wants to grow through the cracks of our asphalt. And wild gardens will bloom in the ruins of our most grievous faults and follies. I guarantee it.
An environmentalism for the next 100 years will be about becoming a partner in this Resurrection Biology: employing our human cleverness to encourage and amplify the natural process of renewal and recreation.
This Next Ecology will accept that “pristine wilderness” is mostly a romantic construct of the late nineteenth century, not a description of the world which has co-evolved along with these troublesome, successful humans. It will celebrate the light-handed co-management we will need to learn. It will accept the presence of humans as a good thing. It will love good cities not less than it loves untrodden peaks and wildernesses.
In October 2010 we organized the Whitman 150 Project, featuring a multi-voiced public read-through of the entire long poem “Song of Myself” (in honor of the 150th anniversary of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass). Our reading/celebration at Pacific Northwest College of Art was a huge poetic success, with 52 readers for 52 sections. We hope to splice these readings together into a fabulous dvd and will soon have it posted/available for teachers and appreciators of Walt Whitman.
I got a Ph.D. in literature from Emory University (Atlanta) on a Danforth doctoral fellowship. Before that, my path lay through an evangelical Christian college on the west coast (Westmont College) as a place to wrestle with the inherent conflict between the rowdiness of human nature and the narrowness of the religious culture I had been raised in.
All the while I was becoming a scholar, I hiked and climbed, mostly in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. I worked for four years as a climbing instructor and back-country guide for a shoestring “wilderness education” outfit. I had lots of fun, got to be one of the guys for a change, and learned about being in the mountains. We climbed our groups of semi-delinquent boys and girls up many of the best peaks on or near the Great Western Divide: Milestone, Thunder, Brewer, Jordan. Since then I’ve taken myself (often alone) through many mountains and up onto lots of peaks. I’m still having a lot of fun hiking and kayaking. That picture of the guy in the head-rag is me in the Olympic Range (Washington State) with Mt. Olympus in the background not long after I moved to the Northwest.
Where I Live and Who I Live with:
I’ve lived in Portland since 1992. This is a great town, with snow-covered volcanoes visible from a nifty, compact downtown. Portland is a great urban experiment in how the human and natural mix. I’ve curated a gallery exhibition calling for a creative-arts vision for the restoration project on Ross Island in the middle of our river – it’s been a sand and gravel mine for the last 60 years, but in the next 60 years it’s going to turn back into Eden. Across the Willamette from the island is a new high-rise condo village, allegedly “green,” where I was writer in residence and explored meaning of green urbanism with residents through workshops, collaborative poetry, and a graffiti-poetry attack on some drift-fencing along the waterfront.
My companion and partner is the visual artist Horatio Hung-Yan Law. We live in a close-in urban neighborhood. (Google his name or send me an email to catch some of his recent work locally or nationally).
The Teaching Life:
I teach workshops and seminars about the creative process of writing. I offer occasional college and graduate courses in town and elsewhere in the country and abroad. I sometimes teach history-of-ideas courses about environmentalism, sometimes about literature and history. In recent years I was the Kittredge Distinguished Visiting Writer at the University of Montana, offered a course in the MA program at Whidbey Writers Workshop, and taught in an arts college in Brittany, France.
Once or twice a year I offer a private workshop in writing from nature called “Wild Writers Seminar.” I enjoy the personal contact with writers at many stages of development, and I find my fellow writers a source of inspiration and encouragement. Contact me for information about the next opportunity (and visit the Wild Writers Seminars page).
The “Daylighting the Invisible” workshop (derived from my 2009 book What We Love Will Save Us) is designed to encourage creativity by connecting people with the wild, hopeful, dangerous forces of everyday life. We work on telling the truth. We make ourselves partners with what I call “resurrection biology” (which is, after all, a redundancy — all biology is self-renewing!). . . and we let the surprises take us to new places.
For much of my life I made my living as a college teacher of literature and writing (Johnson C. Smith University, Pepperdine University, Northrop University). After moving to Portland I was tenured at Clark College.
The Writing Life:
My ongoing writing projects are moving deeper into the urban/natural borderlands. I’m writing about art and urbanism, music and politics and, of course, how all this fits into the wild world in which nature always gets the last word.
A feature article in Orion (May/June 2010) criticized the big-money biases of so-called Green Urbanism, and called for a more people-oriented version. We need to work on this.
I walked and kayaked the Portland Urban Growth Boundary – some 260 miles – to create a partly collaborative book about how we are learning to “live together in a civilized way” (see Books).
In both poetry and prose I am continuing to explore questions of resistance to entrenched political power. . . But also, how much deeper our lives are than politics. (A paradox, since politics is inescapable in a social species!)
And I am continuing work on a genre-bending story of race-mixing and scientific genocide on the Columbia River called StealHead. Its characters include Chief Comcomly; a Scottish doctor who stole the chief’s head; and the chief’s métis or mixed-race grandson Ranald who entered Japan before Commodore Perry did; as well as a cast of 20th and 21st century tag-alongs. For now, call it a Chinook-kabuki nonfiction prose opera.
(See New & Current Essays, Books, Essays, and Poetry for a rundown of my writing.)