Interviews & Press
Select Reviews for Here Is Where I Walk
In Here Is Where I Walk: Episodes from a Life in the Forest (University of Nevada Press), Leslie Carol Roberts deftly explores her world through the lens of daily walks in San Francisco’s Presidio: “I think of the wild and how it inhabits urban spaces, as image, memory, park, as a place for art to show ideas of our larger situation. Are city parks actually wild places? It depends on whom you ask.” – Shelf Awareness, From my shelf
“The book paints a sharp picture of the natural and historical aspects of the Presidio, which acts as platform that inspires broader consideration of the environment…. There is a certain beauty and elegance in Roberts’s words and the rhythm and cadence of her writing. All the while, her text exudes a deep love and respect for the world around her. Simply put, Here Is Where I Walk is a breath of fresh air.” — Foreword Reviews
“Roberts expertly crafts a narrative both of the places she’s traveled and the events that have shaped her own emotional terrain.” — Library Journal
… a wonderful combination of scientific thought and poetic expression. — Seattle Book Review
So Green and So Hopeful: Leslie Carol Roberts Interviewed by Louis Bury
A political eco-memoir about San Francisco’s Presidio.
Leslie Carol Roberts’ creative nonfiction combines historical research with experiential reportage to tell ecologically minded stories about out-of-the-way places and the people who explore them. Her first book, The Entire Earth and Sky: Views on Antarctica (University of Nebraska, 2008), draws on her Fulbright-funded research into the continent, as well as her background as a journalist, to portray the constellation of facts and myths that comprise the Antarctic imaginary. Her latest book, Here is Where I Walk (University of Nevada, 2019), adopts similar methods to spin associative yarns about the Presidio of San Francisco. In her telling, the Presidio—a former US military fort located near the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, which became a national park, with residences, in 1996—is a space for quotidian wonder, a pocket of nature woven into the fabric of culture. Roberts’ literary excursions, which probe the borders between public and private life, model ways that individuals can negotiate feelings of smallness within the vast systems of climate and culture in which they find themselves enmeshed. On a recent visit to San Francisco, I interviewed Roberts on a walk together in the Presidio.
Louis Bury: What’s this campsite we’re approaching?
Leslie Carol Roberts: This is Rob Hill Campground, the highest point in the Presidio, about 340 feet in elevation. It’s the only active campground in San Francisco and the site of many school trips. The Presidio and the National Park Service do a great job with school programming. In Here is Where I Walk I write about how even within this tiny seven-by-seven mile area of city, there are schoolchildren who’ve never seen the ocean. People think of San Francisco as this wealthy white, once hippie, now techie place, which is more phantasmagoria than reality.
LB: How long have you lived in the city and in the Presidio specifically?
LCR: I moved to the city right before the earthquake in 1989, after working overseas as a reporter and falling in love with someone from here. I left for several different chunks, to Iowa and New Zealand, for about four-and-a-half years total.
LB: You write about those moves in the book.
LCR: My children had to move a lot because of my research in Antarctica. Writing about something local allowed us to remain in one place. In a way, I wrote the book so that my children wouldn’t have to move anymore.
LB(Laughter) That’s a great reason to write a book!
LCR: They wanted to be on sports teams and feel settled. Children have fantastic focus on their likes and dislikes. It made me ask myself: What do I love that much? And the answer was trees. For instance, I became obsessed with the blue gum eucalyptus, a tree that a lot of people dislike.
LB: Why do people dislike it?
LCR: It’s been labelled an invasive species because it was brought here from Australia. It’s a tree that’s been successful in many environments; it organizes itself well around water resources. The other reason people dislike it is that eucalyptus wood is oily and blows up like a bomb when it catches fire.
LB: The combination makes them unpopular.
LCR: Unfairly so. The trees didn’t ask to be taken from Australia and planted elsewhere. And because I hear them and smell them and look at them every day, I got caught up in their story. I was working with the then-head of the Forestry Department, Peter Ehrlich. He was the bard of these woods; he’d take me on walks and recite Yeats. He explained that they were looking for another type of tree that could repopulate the area.
LB: Do you have a science background?
LCR: I believe we should have a close understanding of our local environments, so I’m good at identifying what’s here in the Presidio. But I don’t pretend to be a field botanist or scientist. I don’t have the gaze and disposition.
LB: Here is Where I Walk makes a case for non-expert appreciation of nature.
LCR: I believe that ordinary people are going to be the ones saving the world during the sixth mass extinction, through creative imagination. We need to start telling better stories about the present and the future.
LB: Can you say more about that?
LCR: I think a near-religious reverence for memorization of scientific fact at a young age contributes to our capacity to destroy ecosystems, because as non-scientists we don’t see or understand them in their beautiful complexity—we just know them as a bag of facts. Thus, ecologies can be ground up as part of what ecophilosopher Tim Morton calls “agrilogistics,” in which technical agricultural knowledge drives destructive growth.
LB: Can you talk about the relationship between human-built spaces and so-called wild or natural ones?
LCR: I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking about the Antarctic, which is an ice desert, a real wilderness. Even still, I chafe when people claim that city parks are not truly nature. The positive effects of being outside, around trees, is well-documented. Within five minutes, your brain starts to do different things.
LB: In your book, you discuss Roland Barthe’s line that “trees are alphabets,” a metaphor about trees’ capacity for communication that’s partly linguistic and partly aesthetic.
LCR: To me, the way we’re taught to understand ecology is flawed. We’re taught in the language of scientists—memorizing genus and phylum and so forth—who developed that language to communicate among themselves. A lot of the learning apparatus around science is designed to train people to become scientists themselves. That’s useful for that particular task, but I’m interested in exploring the stories and meanings of a place, the human response we have to it.
LB: What’s your view of nature writing in general and the eco-memoir in particular?
LCR: There’s a rich tradition of such work in the US, from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau to Thomas Merton and Rachel Carson, which also encompasses more recent work by women and female-identified writers such as Camille Dungy, Elizabeth Bradfield, and Pam Houston. These women’s work instantiates a relational identity to a particular place, often with a particular voice.
LB: How so?
LCR: From a young age, women are taught to be wary of people who might attack their bodies. This can condition us to notice particulars as part of a survival strategy. When alone in parks and woodlands, women can temporarily escape the violence and inequities we contend with in more human populated areas, while at the same confronting other types of psychic and material risk. This solitude sets off a small fire in our souls. Look at Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, or Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: their bravery and focus are inspiring.
LB: What effects has civilization’s increased awareness of climate change had on this literary tradition?
LCR: You can approach the question from the other direction, too: How has this literary tradition impacted civilization’s awareness of climate change? Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), which showed that you can identify specific human inputs’ harmful effects on the environment, was an important turning point. The book was widely read and of a piece with the consciousness-raising efforts and political upheavals of the subsequent decade, from second-wave feminism, to the civil rights movement, to anti-war demonstrations.
LB: That’s interesting because there’s a quietist strand of appreciative nature writing that gets perceived as apolitical. But there’s also a powerful, even popular, Carsonian tradition that today includes writers such as Elizabeth Kolbert and Bill McKibben.
LCR: For me, nature walking and writing both foster mindful awareness. One thing the eco-memoir does is focus attention on where the writer is located and invites readers to imagine doing the same thing where they’re located. That may not sound political, but if you can get people to be more attendant and observant, you can begin to leverage all kinds of emotional and political power to shape how things are desired to be, rather than assuming a predetermined future.
LB: Can you talk about storytelling in relation to Here is Where I Walk’s episodic form?
LCR: The book is organized into twelve episodes, plus notebooks accompanying each episode. This structure was partly inspired by David Attenborough’s The Life Collection, an episodic film survey of Earth’s systems. The episodes in my book braid together my daily forest walks with the memories they elicited for me. The notebooks are where I manage the many factual scraps and ideas that I come across. Marie Kondo would not be happy with my desk! I collect scraps. They have an erotic quality to them, in the way Lewis Hyde describes in The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (1983).
LB: The notebooks compost materials that didn’t make the final cut. What’s your research process?
LCR: Peter Ehrlich, who knew the Presidio forest perhaps better than any other single person, was an incredible resource. We went on many beautiful walks together and I learned lots from him. After gathering information from him and other sources, I had to figure out how to focus and compress it, which is where the book came together. The book explores how and why we fall in love with a place. This personal emphasis meant narrowing down the range of ecological information to the tidbits that most interested me.
LB: How did your journalistic and literary backgrounds inform this research?
LCR: When I was researching and writing my Antarctic book, I became interested in lesser known Antarctic explorers who considered themselves “simple seamen,” such as Frank Arthur Worsley, rather than better known explorers, such as Ernest Shackleton. Many famous people are connected to the Presidio. The military history here, of course, is extensive. But the military is diligent enough about recording its own history that it doesn’t need my help. I decided to make the Presidio’s ecological design, both historic and contemporary, my focus.
LB: Can you say more about that design?
LCR: When the Presidio was opened as a national park in 1996, it had a very particular mandate to be self-supporting, rather than supported by federal funds. The original plan was for all its businesses to be eco-nonprofits, but that shifted over time. There’s now a population of about four thousand humans who live here. I discuss Major William A. Jones in the book, who had the big idea in the late 19th century to crown the Presidio ridges, line the borders, and fill the marshes with trees. He was into the theatrics of it as much as the pragmatics of buffering the Pacific winds and getting rid of the stinky marshes. Aesthetically, it was performing power.
LB: That’s an interesting design choice, because trees create a shroud but don’t create an impermeable barrier in the way walls do.
LCR: I got caught up imagining Major Jones. He used a precise notation system to represent trees, shrubs, the different parts of his designed landscape. Looking at his hand-drawn designs gave me the idea to imagine him here, working on it all. It felt more like channeling him at times: the dark cold windy nights, the dreams of tree planting, his ability to see dunes and imagine this enormous wood. He also wanted it to be a place for the citizens to “re-create” on the weekends.
LB: What’s your favorite walk in the Presidio?
LCR: My favorite walk is “Ecology Trail,” which I saw develop from a path to a trail. You start at the aptly named Inspiration Point, across from Andy Goldsworthy’s Spire (2008), and then wind past toxic rock, through a gorgeous redwood stand, before arriving at a thick canopy of cypress and eucalyptus trees. It’s both beautiful and sad to see the old, dying trees culled and replaced by tiny, new ones, so green and hopeful.
Louis Bury is the author of Exercises in Criticism (Dalkey Archive) and Assistant Professor of English at Hostos Community College, CUNY. He writes regularly about visual art for Hyperallergic, and his creative and critical work has been published in Bookforum, Brooklyn Rail, Los Angeles Review of Books, Boston Review, and The Believer.
Shelf Awareness: From My Shelf
(July 9, 2019)
‘I Walk Because, Somehow, It’s Like Reading’
I’ve just returned from the hypnotic pilgrimage that is Kathryn Davis’s gorgeous novel The Silk Road (Graywolf), where the bardo somehow intersects with the Camino de Santiago: “Like the place in the dream where you always get lost, a well-traveled, well-known road shaking you loose into fear and confusion, propelling you toward that house just around the bend but there is no toward, there is no house, there is no bend.”
Walking is complicated. “For more than 15 years now I have been writing about the relationships between landscape and the human heart,” Robert Macfarlane observes in Underland: A Deep Time Journey (Norton), an extraordinary account of his own “journeys into darkness, and of descents made in search of knowledge.” Sometimes he climbs: “A cloud-sea fills the landscape below us.”
In Here Is Where I Walk: Episodes from a Life in the Forest (University of Nevada Press), Leslie Carol Roberts deftly explores her world through the lens of daily walks in San Francisco’s Presidio: “I think of the wild and how it inhabits urban spaces, as image, memory, park, as a place for art to show ideas of our larger situation. Are city parks actually wild places? It depends on whom you ask.”
“I walk because, somehow, it’s like reading,” Lauren Elkin writes in Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London (FSG). “You’re privy to these lives and conversations that have nothing to do with yours, but you can eavesdrop on them. Sometimes it’s overcrowded; sometimes the voices are too loud. But there is always companionship. You are not alone. You walk in the city side by side with the living and the dead.”
Although Erling Kagge’s feet seem firmly planted on the ground in Walking: One Step at a Time (translated by Becky L. Crook, Pantheon), he still sees the mind-bending possibilities: “And this is precisely the secret held by all those who go by foot: life is prolonged when you walk. Walking expands time rather than collapses it.”
Walking the Presidio Forest Inspires
Naturalist-Author’s New Book
By Jonathan Farrell
(July 1, 2019)
As summer goes into full swing, one of the spots people flock to is the Presidio. Warm weather and clear skies beckon crowds of people to Crissy Field, as well as the dozens of areas open to the public to enjoy for recreation.
Among those who treasure the uniqueness of the former military post is author and California College of the Arts professor Leslie Carol Roberts. Her new book, “Here is Where I Walk, Episodes From a Life in the Forest,” describes a place that is a part of nature and yet is set within a dense urban landscape.
“My book is basically a love song to the ordinary in nature,” Roberts said. “What I did over more than a decade of walks from my home in the Presidio is take many steps and many notes and many snaps with my iPhone. From the outset, I knew I was trying to make a book and I knew I wanted to get to know some of the foresters, to learn what they were doing.”
Roberts made it clear what her role was.
“Not to report on it as a journalist – which I am – but to write about it with the gaze and disposition of the ordinary citizen and as an artist,” she said. “The tree-management system was generously shared with me by Peter Ehrlich, who was head of forestry and knew more about the park than anyone.”
Ehrlich was the overseer of forestry at the Presidio in the early 2000s, after working with the SF Recreation and Park Department for many years. There are more than 300 acres of trees within the Presidio, along with an extensive biodiversity of plants and animals. He died tragically in a bicycle accident in 2017. She recognizes his work as being crucial to helping the Presidio be what it is today.
“The Presidio’s charter is unique in that it is required to pay for itself,” Roberts said. “This was very ambitious. This was accomplished through carefully rebuilding the elements of the former army post. That is, they brought public transit into the City and renovated buildings to make them hotels and offices and schools.”
Currently, there are about 8,000 people who work and live in the Presidio, enough to make a small town within the City.
“None of this is new,” Roberts said. “Back in the 19th century, civil society across the world was committed to creating accessible, green, tree-filled parks as essential parts of cities – London, Christchurch, New York and San Francisco. What the Presidio is doing in the 21st century is a reboot of an idea we already had. Nothing new going on here.”
“We already know what we have to do to better survive these current times of the sixth mass extinction,” she said. “We have already faced down horrific environmental challenges. We are not ‘riding’ our ecosystems as a wave but in it like a deep dive in the ocean. We are nature and nature is us. The only difference between you and a star is the water content. Scores of bacterium live in you. We are all one.”
While there are more than 318 million people who visit national parks nationwide, Roberts noted that there is a disconnect. She sees a gap between people and nature. Perhaps they know it scientifically, but they don’t really know it emotionally.
“I see this immense and amazing forest as a place in constant change. We are here, now, and any illusion that there’s a ‘steady state’ component to any part of life on Earth, including this park, is an illusion,” she said.
“Taking daily walks let me view the changes in real time, from the careful restoration of native wildflowers behind my house to the culling of trees that were old and sick and needed to be replaced,” Roberts said.
“I think landscape design around the Presidio and the dazzling success of the recovery of endangered species, sun-lighting creeks and restoration of the Crissy Field estuary tell a beautiful story,” she said.
“Should we be spending more money on our public space? Hell yeah! So, I am hoping more people come to the Presidio and advocate for a more green-minded federal government through voting in the coming election. We got this folks. We live in one of the world’s most beautiful cities with some of the most beautiful parks. Go there in peace and love and advocate for their health and longevity by participating and protesting,” Roberts said.
She also pointed out that with regards to science and data, it’s way too much information overload. She understands that for people to safeguard open spaces like the Presidio they must think of it not with statistics.
“Think of them in terms of beauty and peace and mindfulness and then take a walk. And then act to save what you see. We know what to do. It’s easy to find other people doing this too. The goal needs be adjusted to the local. So. Let’s get to work,” Roberts said. “Or get walking!”
“Here is Where I Walk, Episodes From A Life in The Forest” is available in bookstores now. Leslie Carol Roberts is an author, journalist and essayist. She is also a professor and chair of the MFA Writing Program at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
“ECOLOGIES BRAID INTO THE EVERYDAY” FOR LESLIE CAROL ROBERTS, AUTHOR OF HERE IS WHERE I WALK: Episodes from a life in the forest
By Martha Struitt
(May 1, 2019)
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.
Five questions for Author Leslie Carol Roberts
BY(May 1, 2019)
There is more than one way to look at a tree, or a wooded path, or a full forest. Nature has a way of stripping down our perceptions—peeling back the layers of day to day, the social contract and the other features of life that can change the way we see what surrounds us. The wilderness reminds us of a system of existence that is ancient and persistent, that has the ability to recall our parts of our memory back to our consciousness.
Zooming out to Presidio National Park, on the waterline in the heart of San Francisco, we find a particular example of this in author and professor Leslie Carol Roberts’ most recent book, Here Is Where I Walk, a meticulous examination of nature, identity and the complex relationship between them.
With 12 movements echoing the calendar year, Roberts uses the stark contrast of the protected wilderness and urban boundaries of Presidio National Park to lead readers on a walk that gives readers a glimpse at the many unique features of its ecosystem, including semi-urban animals. She uses it as a backdrop to dissect our own, human ecosystems and what they mean in context of living and surviving in the world.
Roberts will be reading at Prairie Lights on Thursday, May 2, in what will be a brief homecoming; she studied with the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program for her MFA. Here Is Where I Walk itself even touches lightly, and tragically, on her time at The University of Iowa. She now resides in California, serving as both a professor and chair of the MFA writing program at California College of the Arts, San Francisco.
Roberts spoke to Little Village about her writing, the natural world and her inspiration behind Here Is Where I Walk.
Here Is Where I Walk is your second book. How was the process of writing this set of stories different from working on The Entire Earth and Sky?
The Entire Earth and Sky started when I was a graduate student in the Nonfiction Writing Program at Iowa, working with Paul Diehl and David Hamilton and Ed Folsom — and then was more deeply researched when I was a Fulbright Fellow in New Zealand. The book had specific stages of development. This helped me develop a methodology for Here Is Where I Walk. I wanted to see what a book about everyday walks would look like, one that had a more open “brief” — that is, one that might fail because I might not find much to say.
I don’t believe in “talent” for writers. Everyone who commits to writing is talented in some way. The difference for me is whether you can figure out and commit to what you have to say. Here Is Where I Walk very quickly became a work that had something to say. So I just breathed in, walked and listened.
Much of your work can be read as deeply personal, and also very rooted in the natural world, and I hear you worked with Greenpeace during your time at The Herald. Has the protection and preservation of the natural world always been a source of information for you or was this passion sparked by your experiences as a journalist?
I actually don’t think my work is deeply personal — and deliberately not so. There are many writers who so beautifully perform the personal. My work is more about form and integrating a personal narrative with views on ecologies. How do ordinary people experience the world? In my case, through a series of lucky breaks, I wound up on a ship in the Antarctic, and it changed my life. I had the privilege of meeting women and men who were committed to saving the world.
I was young when I met them so I had no idea how far-fetched this would be for most people. Now we are all so subsumed in late capitalism, lost in what the philosopher Timothy Morton calls “agrilogistics” — the din of stats, basically. It is this din that causes all of us, right now, to fear the future as we roll into the sixth mass extinction.
My book is trying to argue for another narrative: that if we can each understand our local world, in our own way, we have a beautiful shot at creating a better imaginary of the future.
Can you define an ecosystem, especially in the context of the parts of earth that humans aren’t? With something like Presidio National Park, where urban and preserved nature interact, is this definition changed, stretched or amended at all?
I think the best way to think about ecologies — or “ecosystems” — is to look outside and then stand up and walk outside. Here is where you walk — you dig? What I love about walks with trees is the interaction of my mind with them. Why, when I walk in the woods, do I recall my beloved high school art teacher, who was an early victim of AIDS? Why do I observe some species, like the banana slug, and not others, like the robin? As we learn more about the effects of nature on the brain, we find that very quickly — I think it is in under 15 minutes in the woods — the brain begins behaving in very different ways. It relaxes and takes in more sensory experience. Who doesn’t want that?
For a number of people, descriptions of the natural world tend to be highly rooted in place and location; however, in Here is Where I Walk, you use the context of Presidio to explore other places, times and people. Can you speak to how the canvas of a natural space can encourage introspection?
All walks into nature elicit thoughts of both the present and the past. Nature will have different definitions for different people — I discuss this in the book. Wilderness and wildness are not objective. The point is, who cares what the “true wild” is? What matters is what nature is for you — not for some dude in some remote place about to dive into an even more remote corner of the ocean.
For too long, people have been invited to make this hierarchy about nature and place — I hang around with a lot of Antarctic explorers, and most places most people think of as wild nature fall short in their eyes. But wait: Is this some sort of contest? No. It is entirely personal.
If your city park meets your needs for solace and allows you to lose yourself in the sounds and smells of the trees, I don’t want you to think you are not in a version of the wild. You are. It’s all a matter of degrees. Figure out what your own nature jam is, and then celebrate it.
Finally, you imply in previews that there is a degree of communication between human and nature, and that “wild places communicate with and beckon us into their fold.” In light of April’s Earth Day sensibilities, what can people do to be more cognizant of or open to this interaction with nature?
Nature has published reports on the “world wood web,” which I discuss in the opening pages of my book. That is, how trees communicate among themselves and with other species. We are already each cognizant of this communication. It might be that lilac bush by your driveway or the blue spruce in your yard or some tree you see as you commute to work each day. You feel it. It’s there already.
My main point is this: As we head deeper into the sixth mass extinction, we have a shot at making sense of it all through better stories. Not stories of dystopian futures where we all hunt each other. That’s BS. What I want is a new creative imaginary, one where we discuss how trees talk among themselves — and in my book I extend that to the idea that trees talk to us.
Our buddy Walt Whitman said the same thing: Nothing new here! Celebrate what you see. We live on a beautiful planet.