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Q & A with LCR: Michigan Alumnus magazine

ADVICE TO MY YOUNGER SELF: LESLIE CAROL ROBERTS, ENVIRONMENTAL AUTHOR

This is an interview I did with the University of Michigan Alumnus magazine in December, 2018.

December 2018

Here_Is_Where_I _Walk_Cover
 

Leslie Carol Roberts, ’83, is a professor and chair of the MFA writing program at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Recently, she shared advice on how listening to her U-M professors inspired her to be an activist and helped shape her career as an environmental author. In her work, Roberts concentrates specifically on place, ecologies, and the implications of climate chaos. She is the author of “The Entire Earth and Sky: Views on Antarctica” (University of Nebraska Press, 2012) and the soon-to-be-published “Here Is Where I Walk: Episodes from a Life in the Forest” (University of Nevada Press, 2019). Her latest book traces her wanderings on foot through San Francisco’s Presidio National Park as well as in Tasmania, Australia; Antarctica; Italy; and Indiana and Michigan.

Find your passion. I learned about the role of activism in shaping policy and fomenting social change while I was at U-M. I studied political science and art history and had amazing professors who were doing research all over the world. They taught me how to think about complex problems more creatively. I wrote each of my books from the perspective that most Americans do not understand the perils of climate change. I have thrown my whole self at this topic during my career, which started in journalism, from covering Greenpeace as a reporter in Antarctica to my time spent as a Fulbright Scholar at Gateway International Antarctic Centre in New Zealand.

Know your skills. I don’t have the discipline of the field botanist. I don’t need to know the taxonomy of nature. Instead, by using the forms of the essayist—reportage, reflection, exposition, imaginative flights—I like to think I travel in creative nonfiction writing. My books are a collage, reflecting my curiosity for both Earth’s systems and the essential role of creativity and curation in civil society.

Think for yourself. I am forever grateful to my Shakespeare professor, who really gave it to me for blindly following the literary critic Walter Pater’s interpretation of “Richard III.” I still laugh at that young me who thought quoting other’s ideas was the same as generating ideas. That professor taught me to have the courage to create new knowledge.

Travel Around Michigan. I wish I had explored the state more. Ernest Hemingway was captivated by Michigan. There are all these lakes, big and small, around Ann Arbor and Detroit. Find classes with field trips, or visit with your friends. Places create relationships.

Engage with your professors. Now that I am a professor myself, I know how committed we are to office hours, to working with our students one to one. That is why we are here. We want to help you get traction in our fields through individualized readings and discoveries. We want to help you learn better. I used to be so terrified to meet with professors. “Get over it!” I would tell the young me.

Just do it. I also think about how we stand and sing the “Leaders and Best,” and it is really both a simple statement of fact and a throwing down of the gauntlet. Our times raise difficult questions, including how our species is apparently incapable of acting to stop our own extinction. In the end, I want to change the narrative because I want ecologies, as we know them, to survive. What U-M gave me is a healthy critical lens and the pragmatic good cheer to roll up my sleeves and get to work.

The Secret to Good Health: A Good Walk

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The view north from Emigrants Point to the Marin Headlands; photo by LCR

 

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

 

I was curled into bed on a cold San Francisco morning, reading The New York Times on my phone when I scrolled down and found Jane Brody’s article: “The Secret to Good Health May Be a Walk in the Park.” In this piece, she interviews Adrian Benepe, senior vice president for the Urban Land Institute and former New York City Parks commissioner. They then set out on a very engaging discussion of why people benefit from even short walks (10 minutes) in a park. I put my phone down and stared at the Monterey Cypress tree outside my window. It’s an old tree — many of them are here in the Presidio, having been planted via an Army and Federal government scheme to forest these dunes in the early 20th century.

Then I am up, making my bed (yes, I concur that all good days start with a made bed) and pulling on jeans and the simple barn boots and old fleece I wear for my morning walks.

(As I head out the door and up the hill to road and then trail, I see all sorts of exercisers in stretchy tights and flash jackets. Don’t know when we decided a walk required stretchy bits and coordinating hats on the body. But. Who cares what you wear. Just walk.)

When I first moved into the Presidio, I was so captivated by these trees and this place the story of the Presidio that I started taking daily walks and writing down what I saw and heard. Many days, these were just a few, scant sentences. I imagined this might be a longer work – an essay? – and over the four and a half years I worked intently on writing and shaping this material, I found it wanted to be longer. The trees had a story to tell and it needed to be a book. So. Here we are.

I sometimes hear from other urban dwellers in San Francisco that they find walking to be out of their reach — no time, no general inclination — and I always think what a pity it is to start and end each day without the solace of one’s own feet walking steadily, even for very short periods, in the company of trees. This is particularly perplexing when you learn that almost 100 percent of us in SF live within a 10-minute walk of a park.

At any rate, the sun is beginning to stretch its long arms my way from the east.  Come to me, it says, and let me wrap you in my light. Time to join the raptors and coyotes on the dawn patrol, good company indeed. Here is where I walk.