Five Questions for Michael Branch, Winner of the 2017 Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award

Last week, I posed five questions to Michael Branch, Orion friend and contributor, winner of the 2017 Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award, and author of Raising Wild: Dispatches from a Home in the Wilderness and Rants from the Hill: On Packrats, Bobcats, Wildfires, Curmudgeons, a Drunken Mary Kay Lady, and Other Encounters with the Wild in the High Desert, out in June from Roost Books. The photographs below were taken near Branch’s home in Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

Tell us about your most recent project, Raising Wild, and about parenting with such deep intention and land ethic in Nevada’s Great Basin. What are some opportunities and challenges you’ve faced as a father, professor, and wilderness lover, in an era of wholesale digital distraction, funneling urbanization, and—hell, why not—mass extinction?

I appreciate your term “deep intention,” though I must admit that parenting often strikes me more as a kind of controlled free fall. Even the term “parenting” sounds more deliberate, certain, and authoritative than my own experience of it has been. I’ve written that “parenting, like jazz, is the art of improvisation.” You have a sense of the general rhythm, a kind of destination in mind, but the heart and soul of being a parent is seizing opportunities to riff and jam as they open up. For me, learning to be a father has been very similar to learning to dwell in the high desert. I’ve acquired new habits of attention, new ways of understanding and traversing the landscape, but mostly I just work to keep myself open to those moments of growth or insight that you can never fully anticipate. My favorite thing about parenting is that it demands spontaneity. It seems to me an endless string of interesting surprises. Raising Wild doesn’t pretend to give parenting advice. Far from it! It is instead an attempt to share the humbling, funny, and enlightening experiences I’ve had while being a father to two young daughters out in these remote, high desert wildlands.

As for the challenges, they are legion! The funniest of these challenges is the way my kids’ questions about what I believe and why I live as I do expose all kinds of embarrassing inconsistencies in my own behavior. The most innocent question from a little kid can instantly explode the elaborate self-image we’ve spent years cultivating and nurturing. I find that useful and, often, hilarious. The more serious challenge, of course, is how to be honest with children about the condition of the world we’re leaving them without at the same time paralyzing them with fear. Like love and creativity, hope is essential to action. Our kids need information, but they also need a vision for the future. In my experience, kids are more resilient than we give them credit for, and more likely to believe that they can do better than we’ve done. I hope they’re right about that, and I believe they are.

Photos by: Eryn Branch

What are some of the most important action items or sweeping take-aways you hope the reader of Raising Wild will receive?

I suppose if I had to break it down I’d say there are three things most important to me about this book. The first is to offer a spirited defense of high desert landscapes. There’s a reason the Great Basin is the place where hundreds of nuclear weapons were tested during the Cold War—the same reason why Nevada is now the proposed repository for our nation’s high-level nuclear waste. This is a stunningly beautiful, ecologically diverse natural environment, but so long as it is viewed according to the usual stereotypes of barrenness and emptiness, it will continue to play the role of expendable landscape. I hope the book helps question these uninformed, negative views of the high desert. If I can help readers to reform their aesthetic assumptions about this place, I might also be able to help defend it against continued use as a national sacrifice zone.

“This is not a pastoral, Wordsworthian retreat. It is a bright, hard desert environment that is forcefully shaping my daughters, even as they are also shaping me.”

Second, I hope that Raising Wild helps readers think about the relationship between children and nature in ways that differ from the usual. By the usual, I mean that many books interested in kids and nature either bemoan a younger generation’s loss of contact with the natural world, or sentimentally wax rhapsodic about the angelic nature of children. I have moments of sympathy with both of these approaches, but my own interest is in looking at what we grown-ups can learn from the sort of playful, spontaneous interactions our kids have with the world around them. Part of that story must include scorpions and rattlers, bobcats and mountain lions, wildfires and blizzards. This is not a pastoral, Wordsworthian retreat. It is a bright, hard desert environment that is forcefully shaping my daughters, even as they are also shaping me.

Perhaps most important, I hope this book makes people laugh—gives them permission to laugh, and helps them to laugh at a time when so many of us are very much in need of laughter. I’ve been discouraged that environmental writing has continued to operate almost obsessively in the territory of anger and grief. In a world threatened by global climate change and rampant biodiversity loss, there can be no question that we should be both furious and wounded. But my job as a writer is to think not only about my own feelings, but also about the feelings of my readers. And many of my readers are exhausted, discouraged defenders of social and environmental justice whose pleasure in the world is too often sapped by their efforts to defend the world. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t engage in environmental activism. We must! But I see comedy as a life-giving, community building, healthy, liberating alternative. If I can help readers to laugh, I think I’m contributing in a small way to the kind of sustainability that we need to nurture in ourselves as well as in our environmental practice. Laughter helps us survive to fight another day. I hope my work—especially my new book, Rants from the Hill—deploys humor in ways that help readers through what is for many of us a very trying time in our culture’s relationship to the natural world.

Let’s talk craft. You’re a prolific writer—you’ve published eight books, and over 200 essays and reviews. What are some ways you’ve discovered to sustain your creative practice? Writing place-based narrative seems to hinge largely on one’s capacity to notice, to be fiercely attentive. How in your hyper-engaged life do you find time for all the beautiful work you keep sharing with us?

I’m trying to figure this out myself, and I still have a great deal to learn. How do we make sure that in our attempt to be productive we don’t lose the opportunity to be creative? How do we balance writing time with family time, alone time, and outdoor time? How do we work to protect the environment while also making sure we find ways to actively enjoy it? How do we ensure that the excitement and stimulation of a busy, active life doesn’t drown out the quieter moments we need to connect with ourselves, our family, our place? That’s a constant balancing act, and not something I have a formula for. If you figure it out, please let me know your secret!

“I write about the high desert not only because I want other people to value this place, but because I’m endlessly fascinated by it.”

One thought I might share, though, is that the closer your work is to what you want to be thinking about, caring for, or aspiring to, the easier it is to be productive without feeling drained. This may sound obvious, but recognizing the wisdom of this insight and acting on it are two very different things. I write about the high desert not only because I want other people to value this place, but because I’m endlessly fascinated by it. I write about my daughters not because I have a parenting agenda I want to impose on readers, but rather because I enjoy the way writing about my kids helps me to understand and celebrate the richness of my relationship with them and the more-than-human world. And I’m a humorist not only because I like to make people laugh, but also because humor writing forces me to see the comedy in a world that is too often tragic. In my experience, the burnout we assume to be the inevitable price of productivity can be avoided if you can find a way to do the kind of work that feeds your imagination.

Who provides a guiding voice for you? Who have you sought advice and mentorship from, and what consistent attributes do those guides carry?

There are too many folks to name! The acknowledgements section of Raising Wild and also my new book, Rants from the Hill, begins this way: “Writers are very much in need of friends…” It’s true! Most important is my family, because these are the people who know me better than I know myself, who can temper my disappointments and help me remember what matters and what doesn’t. And, after all, distinguishing what matters from what doesn’t must be the chief art of a life.

Of course there are many writers, musicians, filmmakers, activists, and teachers whose work has inspired me. And many of these folks have graced the pages of Orion. But if I had to isolate one attribute that my most valued mentors—among whom I include my father—have had in common, it is an ability to not take themselves too seriously. Or, to put it another way, these mentors have helped me take myself less seriously. Caring, passionate people often feel a tremendous sense of urgency, which leads to a tendency to feel that everything is a sort of life-or-death proposition. And while that intensity can fuel good work, it can also lead to the sort of detonation we all need to help each other avoid. My best mentors have reminded me not only of what matters, but also of what doesn’t.

You were a cofounder of ASLE (the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment) and have built a robust life writing about the natural world and our interface with it. For decades you’ve seen how stories respond to and help co-create our experience of the natural world. What do you think is the future of ecological storytelling, especially given a future of runaway climate change and great uncertainty?

Having a front-row seat to what is going on in environmental politics these days is enough to make any sensible person pine for the nosebleed seat behind the pillar. It is hell out there right now. But, as always, it is also heaven. I think we have to make hard choices about how to temper our anger and grief with responses that can help us protect the world without destroying ourselves or each other. I understand why this may sound naïve to some folks, but for me there has to be hope and laughter along with the frustration and disappointment. ASLE is a good example of a community of folks that, much like the Orion community, finds ways to fight the hard fights while also buoying and supporting each other in the work. That network of mutual support is vitally important.

Our stories! We need to tell better ones, because stories don’t just express, they create. They don’t only share the experience of the past, but also imagine the world of the future. Raising Wild is full of stories, many of which are themselves about stories—about how and why we tell them, how they liberate or constrain us, how they tether us to the more-than-human world, and what they sometimes magically call into being and too often fail entirely to imagine. Because stories are the way we conceive and communicate the world to ourselves and to each other, we need stories that are more attentive, appreciative, compassionate, informed, and—I’ll say it out loud—funnier.

Learn More:

Read or listen to Branch’s Orion feature “The Adventures of Peavine and Charlie”
Visit Michael Branch’s author page
Explore more “5 Questions” Orion blog posts