Reflections on 50 Years of Engagement with the Natural World: Interview with Robert Michael Pyle
By Holly J. Hughes
About Robert Michael Pyle
RRobert Michael Pyle is an independent, full-time biologist, writer, teacher, and speaker. He was born and raised in Colorado and has lived in the Pacific Northwest, California, New England and Great Britain. He earned a Ph.D. in Lepidoptera Ecology and Conservation from Yale University. He has been involved in numerous conservation and environmental education efforts, and in 1971 he founded the international Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
Pyle’s accolades include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the John Burroughs Medal, three Governor’s Writer’s Awards, a Pacific Northwest Booksellers’ Award, the Harry Nehls Award for Nature Writing, and the National Outdoor Book Award for natural history literature. He lives beside Gray’s River in southwest Washington.
I first met Robert Michael Pyle on the page as a receptive reader of Wintergreen when it came out in 1986, and I was captivated by his passionate, lyrical writing. In 1994, I signed up to take a nature-writing class from him at Centrum in Port Townsend. Our paths crossed again when we sailed together on the schooner Adventuress, where Bob and Pattiann Rogers were co-teaching a workshop for the Resource Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Seattle. A few years later, I had the pleasure of teaching his stepdaughter Dory in an environmental ethics class at Edmonds Community College. In 2001, I invited Bob to come to the college’s campus to give a reading and visit a class I taught with my biology colleague, Dr. Hans Landel, called “Exploring Natural History in Word and Field.”
Over the years, our friendship has grown from student-teacher to colleagues-friends, and my husband John and I enjoyed several delicious lunches with Bob and his late wife Thea at their homestead Swede Park in Gray’s River, Washington. More recently, Bob and I have read together at the annual Fisher Poets Gathering in Astoria and just celebrated the release of our respective first full-length poetry collections with another reading this past January in Port Townsend. This interview took place at my home in Chimacum, Washington, following that reading.
Terrain.org: Bob, last fall you gave a talk at the North Cascades Institute (NCI) as part of its Sourdough Speaker Series: “Reflections on Fifty Years of Deep Engagement with the Natural World.” This seems a good summary of your career as a nature writer and a fitting place to begin. Over the last 35 years, you’ve written 16 nonfiction books on subjects ranging from butterflies to Bigfoot, a series of essays for Orion magazine that were collected in The Tangled Bank, and a book of poems. What kinds of changes have you seen in our attitudes toward the natural world during those 50 years? In what ways are you encouraged by these changes? In what ways are you discouraged? Why are programs like the field seminars offered through the North Cascade Institute more essential than ever?
Robert Michael Pyle: I’m encouraged by the fact that over the 50, no, 60 years—I started around age seven—that I’ve been paying attention to natural history and conservation, both have become acceptable and of general interest in our culture. More so, at least, than they were when I was a boy or when I was a young conservationist at the University of Washington. I came out of the period of the purge of the naturalists in academia, to a time when there are some naturalists again at the universities. Natural history has recovered some of its respectability and stature since its nadir, following Sputnik and the revolution in hard sciences in the ‘50s and ‘60s. So that’s good.
I’m encouraged that people in general are birding and mushrooming, not to mention butterfly watching. We’ve seen such activities become big pursuits around the country in recent decades.
What’s discouraging to me is the growth of the human population—we’re fast approaching an unsupportable level. Also the many side effects of population that distance people from direct contact with the natural world, and the retreat of habitats from our near precincts, which makes it harder to maintain contact, especially for the young. I see a huge amount of disassociation thanks to the virtual experiences that the majority of people engage in. Also discouraging is the fact that many people take their nature in very small gulps. I don’t mean that everyone has to learn every bird on the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, but the number of waking hours people spend in direct contact with the physical world seems to have declined with so many blandishments from the electronic and entertainment worlds. Even as interest in nature has grown, intimacy with it has diminished.
The field seminars offered through the North Cascades Institute and Nature Bridge (what used to be called the Olympic Park Institute) have been very important. They offer a catalyst to help people make that connection, by drawing them directly into nature. When people finally put down their devices and come up to an NCI program, they’re going to engage at a different level. Such programs are more relevant than ever. Yet the number of such seminars offered has declined a great deal due to lack of enrollment. The adult programs aren’t as robust as they were ten or 15 years ago. People are aging in that group, and younger adults just aren’t enrolling in these kinds of classes as much. Children’s and youth programs, however—which may be more important in the long run—are vigorous and growing, and I’m very glad about that.
Terrain.org: In your memoir Walking the High Ridge, you tell us that you fell in love with words and the natural world at an early age, thanks in part to your fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Frandsen. You also attribute your love of the natural world to the influence of your mother, Helen Lee Lemmon, and give a wonderful account of her walking you home from kindergarten and pausing to investigate the life in a rotting stump. By age seven, you’d fallen in love with shells, and at age 11, switched your attention to butterflies. I’ve recently spent a week on Sanibel Island, which is known for its shells and where I know you and Thea also enjoyed time, and I’m curious to learn how you happened to choose shells?
Robert Michael Pyle: Conchology was indeed a peculiar choice for a boy growing up in Colorado! I can’t remember a specific incident that caused me to become obsessed—and it was a consuming obsession!—with seashells. I don’t know why they so caught my attention, but their form, tactile pleasure, extraordinary beauty and color, and the window that they gave me into a wider world were all very seductive to me. I do recall reading a feature in Life magazine on Darwin and evolution in which seashells played a big part. From age seven to 11, any way I could get my hands on a shell, I had to have it. I belonged to a Shell of the Month Club. My grandfather would send shells from Florida. Land snails had a particular attraction for me, even more than sea shells, but I couldn’t find many. When my grandfather drove my brother Tom and me to Missouri, I found one coiled land snail at the Big Spring, and kept it alive for the rest of the trip; and then it died.
By the time I was 11, I had begun to notice butterflies around my neighborhood. One day, my stepbrother, Bruce Campbell, said he was going out to collect insects for Scouts and would I like to come along? I remember the black swallowtails floating over me. From that day on, I threw over shells for butterflies, because they were there, and shells were not. And it’s been butterflies ever since—60 years of passion for butterflies.
Terrain.org: In rereading Walking the High Ridge, I was struck by the number of remarkable scientists and writers who served as mentors for you over the years: Charles Remington, Paul Ehrlich, Grant Sharpe, Jack Cady, Edwin Way Teale, Vic Scheffer, among others. How did these mentors influence your approach to studying the natural world and writing? How did they make it possible for you to combine your two early loves of words and nature?
Robert Michael Pyle: In your earlier question, you mentioned my teacher, Mrs. Frandsen. She encouraged us to write poetry about conservation and nature in fourth grade and she recorded our poems in a black book. I visited her at age 95, and we read my first poem together again: “In the forest lives the deer, brave, bold and sincere,” and so on. She was the author of the textbook Our Colorado, which was used in fourth grade statewide. I was impressed and became enamored of the idea of writing a book myself. Poetry, natural history and conservation, and the ambition to be a writer—Mrs. Frandsen encouraged all of these. When she died, her daughter mailed me the black book.
Then, at age 12, an extraordinary thing happened. My stepmother’s family had a cabin in Crested Butte, near the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL), the oldest independent field station in the country. My father and I would go out fishing on the local streams. He didn’t teach me how to fly fish—my life might have been otherwise if he had—and I grew bored with bait. So I put down the fishing rod, picked up my butterfly net, wandered off through the Colorado high country meadows, and experienced bliss.
One day, I headed up a ridge, and on the other side I happened upon about a hundred people with butterfly nets, including Charles Remington and Paul Ehrlich, whose names I already knew as famous lepidopterists. I was a shy kid, but I did go down to see what was going on and met the person who would become the great mentor of my scientific life, Charles Remington. That was in 1959. Later I became his graduate student at Yale, then went back to do research at the lab as a graduate student in ‘74 and again to teach in ‘84. Charles Remington’s mentorship became extraordinarily powerful in my life.
Paul and Ann Ehrlich, of Stanford, eventually became a great inspiration for our conservation lives: Stephanie Mills, Jerry Brown, and many of us at UW were much moved by the Ehrlichs’ The Population Bomb in 1968. But I had a secondary connection with him as a lepidopterist, from RMBL. He wrote the first great field guide to North American butterflies—most people don’t know this—and I wrote the next field guide. All from that chance encounter one afternoon above Crested Butte.
At the University of Washington, I managed to find my way through the biological landscape where natural history had become almost non grata because of the post-Sputnik revolution. Many nature-oriented classes lingered on, but you could take only one or two of them for dessert after you’d taken all the hard sciences. By finding cracks in the rules of the giant university, I figured out how to take many of those classes anyway. I studied with many marvelous naturalists, some of whom became personal friends and mentors, such as Frank Richardson and Art Kruckeberg. They also became the advisors for our campus conservation club.
I needed some way to put this all together. Then Dean Aldon Bell came along and created the General Studies degree, based on a similar program at Berkeley, saving my college career. “You have a whole major in Natural History here,” he said. “Take one more class in writing, and this new Nature Interpretation class offered down in Forestry.” I did, and we put it all together into a degree called Nature Perception and Protection. Fiction with Jack Cady and Nature Interpretation with Grant Sharpe gave me important tools for writing from two more extraordinary teachers.
Professor Sharpe, who headed the School of Outdoor Recreation in the College of Forest Resources, was the national guru of Nature Interpretation. I became his teaching assistant and went to work summers for resource agencies, including as a ranger-naturalist in Sequoia National Park. Grant was also the head of the Fulbright committee on campus. He showed me the ropes to apply for a Fulbright, which I got, to study butterfly conservation at the Monks Wood Experimental Station in England. Once there, I realized that I wanted to get more deeply into the biology of invertebrates, to try to develop some means for their conservation.
Meanwhile, along comes Charles Remington again, who says, “Come to Yale and do a doctorate in Lepidoptera conservation ecology.” I told him I’d never get into Yale; I’d almost flunked out of UW by bird watching instead of taking science classes. He says, “That’s all right. You’ve got a master’s in Forestry and a Fulbright. I have a joint appointment in Forestry. If you get into Yale, you can work with me in biology, through forestry,” which is what happened. Later I did go to work in biology, consulting with the government of Papua New Guinea on butterfly conservation, and working for the Nature Conservancy and IUCN. After that I anticipated an academic career in science, but that’s when the writing mentors came into ascendancy in my life.
I got to meet the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edwin Way Teale while I was at Yale, and enjoyed several fecund visits with him. He was one of the first people to intentionally become a nature writer by reading everything, not just natural history literature; by studying everything around him; and by traveling the country and writing and writing and writing. All that appealed to me, and influenced me greatly, as did meeting his friend Ann Zwinger in Colorado. Her book Beyond the Aspen Grove told me that the kinds of books I wanted to write could still be written and published. She coauthored Teale’s last book with him, A Conscious Stillness: Two Naturalists on Thoreau’s Rivers. The two of them inspired me, by their examples, to leave professional conservation and begin writing full-time in 1982.
Vic Scheffer was the great mingler of all these things. He was a superb government biologist, working on sea otter, seal, and whale research. He was also the first person I knew who not only performed very good science and activism but also wrote lyrically and beautifully—he won the John Burroughs Medal for The Year of the Whale. He showed me that one need not give up science to pursue art. Vic read my first book manuscript and helped me to see why it was not yet ready to publish.
All these mentors came together for me with their different influences. Their sum amounted to extraordinary luck in the people I met, but also an outgoing stance on my part to draw out what they had to give me. And they were generous.
Terrain.org: Vladimir Nabokov clearly had a profound influence on you, both as a scientist and writer, and he obviously inspired the title of Walking the High Ridge, where you included his words as an epigraph: “Does there not exist a high ridge where the mountainside of ‘scientific’ knowledge joins the opposite slope of ‘artistic’ imagination?” As a scientist and writer who is comfortable on both sides of that high ridge, how did these words confirm your own path?
Robert Michael Pyle: This question is a good segue from the previous one where we spoke of Vic Scheffer and how he put it all together, both science and literature. I knew Nabokov’s butterfly work, which was serious, important research on the taxonomy of the blue butterflies, but I also knew his literature, so I was asked to co-edit and annotate a huge book on Nabokov’s butterfly writings with his biographer Brian Boyd and son Dmitri Nabokov. That project became both a great joy and a great labor. I found that quotation in a review Nabokov had written of an obscure book about Audubon’s paintings of butterflies, in the New York TimesBook Review.
That had such a powerful impact on my imagination. I thought, “Yes, Eureka!” This is what I’d been looking for; this is what Vic Scheffer accomplished, and of course what others, such as Loren Eiseley and Rachel Carson, have managed to do. That high ridge is where I’ve been trying to walk ever since, and I guess long before, without knowing what to call it. As I tell students, why go through life with just one arrow in your quiver or one hand tied behind your back? Most of us have an imaginative, creative side as well as a practical side that’s necessary for keeping life together—and we can entertain both of those in the same person. For a writer, it’s necessary to have an entry point to the fog of creative engagement. If you can do that, you can come out of it for the practical bits. But if you can’t get in, it’s hard to create.
My poetic side is stronger than my scientific side. I perform science at a certain level—butterfly biogeography and a little bit of taxonomy— but I’m not a great scientist. I wouldn’t call myself a great writer either, though writing’s probably a slightly more comfortable fit for me. It’s not that I’m equally adept on both sides—or even adept on either side—but I do aspire toward walking on both sides of that ridge and sitting right at the top to look out. That’s a far more elevated and elevating way to be in life than to be mired strictly on one side or the other. Having a few mentors that did both in their own lives showed me that both approaches are worthwhile… that it can be done, and done well. It just makes life richer and a lot more fun.
One more thing about Nabokov: Charles Remington was a graduate student at Harvard in the late ‘40s who got to know Nabokov when he, Nabokov, was curating the butterflies of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Though I never met Nabokov, I felt I had a connection to him through Remington. According to Dmitri, the only two memberships his father ever accepted were in the Lepidopterists’ Society (which Remington founded) and the Xerces Society (which I founded).
Terrain.org: I’d like to hear more about the founding of the Xerces Society. You mentioned earlier that thanks in part to Grant Sharpe, you spent a year in England on a Fulbright studying butterfly conservation. Can you say more about your work with the Xerces Society? How are you involved with it today?
Robert Michael Pyle: Neil Johannsen, who was director of Alaska State Parks for 14 years, and I were graduate students together in Forest Resources at the University of Washington. He considered applying for a Fulbright, filled out the application, then threw it away. I picked it up, and thought, “Maybe this would be a way to go to England and study butterfly conservation.” I applied. Grant Sharpe was the Fulbright chair that year and was able to steer me in the right direction. That was 1970, when everything was “eco-this and eco-that.” The Fulbright people must have found my application both apt and unusual, and I had a host laboratory and supervisor there: John Heath. So I got the Fulbright.
Deep into my year of study in England, I became very concerned that I had no mechanism to carry what I was learning back to the U.S. All the conservation here was based on large-scale wildlife. I went to a lecture in London on the Large Blue butterfly. The speaker said if we lose the Large Blue, we should make it a symbol to lose no more. I thought, we’ve lost the Xerces Blue already, in the 1940s. We could have the Xerces Society. So that night, December 9, 1971, on the train home to Huntington, I said, “Let there be the Xerces Society.”
On the following day, I had postcards printed—with John Heath’s imprimatur—and started sending them out to all the lepidopterists I knew. They responded. I like to say that John Heath was the midwife and Charles Remington was the godfather, and after that, when I went to Yale, it became the incubatory for the Xerces Society. The first annual meeting took place there in 1974.
By 1985, the completely volunteer organization had enough momentum and legitimacy to hire our first staff person. At that point I resigned from the board of directors because I’ve seen too many examples of “founder’s syndrome,” which can be disastrous. I stepped back, and ever since then—for the past 30 years—I’ve just been an advisor. That’s been very comfortable, particularly in recent years. The current executive director, Scott Hoffman Black, has built Xerces into an effective organization with over 30 staff members in five states, with programs for aquatics, pollinators, monarchs and milkweeds, endangered butterflies, and others. You can get a sense of the wonderful things Xerces is doing if you check out their website: www.Xerces.org. The Society has helped to make small-scale conservation not only respectable but popular. I’m just a happy grandfather. They ask for my opinion and support and make me feel wanted, so it’s just one of the happiest stories of my life.
Terrain.org: In the last paragraph of his fine essay “Robert Michael Pyle: A Portrait,” I appreciate how Scott Slovic summarizes your work as both a scientist and a writer: “From Marsha the butterfly net to the High Line Canal, from the Willapa Hills to the Dark Divide, damaged and threatened objects and places have too few champions in the world. R.M. Pyle devotes his art and science to this work.” In Wintergreen and The Thunder Tree in particular, you remind us that it’s possible to write about endangered lands in ways that aren’t simply elegiac, that love and honor what’s left. Some—not me—might take issue with writers assuming an activist role, concerned that the writing might become polemical. What is the role of the nature writer-activist? How do you balance these roles?
Robert Michael Pyle: I became a conservation activist before I ever left high school, going to city council meetings to try to protect the habitat along the watercourse that was the birthplace of my life as a naturalist, the High Line Canal in Colorado. I write about this in The Thunder Tree. Later, when I was a student at the University of Washington, my former wife JoAnne Heron and I were among the founding members of the Conservation and Education and Action Council (CEAC). We testified before Senators Jackson and Magnuson to create the North Cascades Park. We brought Justice William O. Douglas to march with us to protest the Kennecott open pit copper mine planned for Image Lake in the Glacier Peak Wilderness.
We succeeded; we had spectacular reinforcement as activists. While others were occupying the administration building and marching to demand peace and justice during the Vietnam War, 300 of us marched down to the Montlake Fill and demanded topsoil and trees, which we got, because they were easier to deliver than peace and justice. That classic ‘60s event, the Union Bay Life-After-Death Resurrection Life-Park Plant-in, began the 40-year transformation of that wasted and filled marshland into what’s now one of the finest in-city habitats in the country. And my account of the event became my first piece of writing that appeared in a book (Ecotactics: The Sierra Club Handbook for Environmental Activists).
So activism was naturally built into my personal approach to writing natural history. It’s never been a question for me. Each person can make his or her own choice. I don’t know how one can draw his inspiration and life from the natural world without wanting to give back to it and protect it.
I don’t find it easy to perform the art when I’m agitated over roadside spraying or clear cutting. To be an activist takes a different kind of energy from art; they don’t mingle easily in life. There’s no question that activism has spoiled the art for some people, though they can be wed. Look at Rick Bass, who’s been a terrific activist for the Yaak and still writes a book every ten minutes, it seems, so it can be done.
In my case I balanced art and activism counter-intuitively, by moving to a heavily logged area. But I had a background in forestry, and I understood the complexity of forestry issues. I knew that my books were printed on paper made from wood pulp, and that the local community depended on those forests for jobs. I can live in that community with my neighbors because they know that what I want for the forest will also be good for their livelihoods and for the community.
I try to mingle art and activism first by being a communitarian member, a respectful, listening member of my own community. I don’t challenge every timber sale—I don’t have to—they’re not cutting old growth, but mostly third or fourth growth. We’ve saved almost all the old growth in the Willapa now, though it’s only a tiny percentage of the overall acreage. As I write in Wintergreen, you can’t throw away the damaged lands. You have to love them; they need their lovers and protectors, too. I choose my battles. I save my hard activism for a very few issues. One of my last big conservation objectives is to see the Dark Divide in the Cascades, the largest unprotected wildland in Washington, designated as federal wilderness—I write about this in the Bigfoot book. I continue to work to conserve the migratory monarch butterfly. I keep my powder dry. I save most of my energy for life and the arts. I give of myself as an activist where I think it might matter. But each book generates its own forcefield of new supplicants and correspondence. I often resort to a mantra given me by Gary Snyder: “That’s good work; but it’s not my work.”
Terrain.org: In Walking the High Ridge you address the issue of nature illiteracy and make an eloquent case for the value of nature writing: “I like to think that most of what I do is a blow, or at least a breath, against nature illiteracy. I tell students that a nature writer can be thought of as an amanuensis to the land: the land speaks, we take dictation, and by dint of great attentiveness, care, love, and luck, we might get some of the words right.” You follow that with a wonderful quote from Alexander Skutch: “Those who care greatly because they appreciate greatly have no more sacred obligation than to do everything in their power to nourish the kind of world that will nourish appreciative minds for countless generations. Appreciative, cherishing minds are the world’s best hope.” I love the way he states this—it is indeed a sacred obligation—and certainly you’ve done everything in your power to “nourish the kind of world that will nourish appreciative minds for countless generations” with your many books. Do you see young people responding? Are books still a good way to reach kids?
Robert Michael Pyle: I do think that as, Skutch says, “an appreciative, cherishing mind is the world’s best hope.” I do see young people responding to nature and to natural history when they’re given a chance. Given a chance to explore, they will do so. But if they’re not given a chance, they may not.
I’m not so sure that books are the best way. Children’s books are still a fine way to reach them, if the parents read to the kids at an early age so books become part of their life. Then they may develop the habit of reading, and continue into their grown years. I do know young people for whom books are important. And I get letters from people in their teens and 20s who as young readers have found my books. There’s nothing more nourishing to a writer than to hear from a reader that your book’s made a difference to her or him, and if it’s a young reader, it’s magic. My butterfly books still do that—both the coloring books and the field guides—and they reach more people than the prose books do. Once, a kid came up to me at a natural history camp—he must have been about nine—went down on his knees and said, “Emperor!” because my book had made all the difference to him. That’s about as rich as anything that’s ever happened to me as a writer.
But on the whole, I think books are almost irrelevant to many young people. They don’t know what to do with a book, and that’s a very sad thing. On the other hand, they have all kinds of ways of bringing the world to them that I don’t know very much about and perhaps are just as good. But I’d be happier if I saw more young people for whom books still do matter.
Terrain.org: As a teacher, I share your concern that so many youth today are not only nature illiterate, but they often grow up without any connection to the natural world. I’ve taken my community college students on a field trip to old-growth forest at Mt. Rainer, and for many, this is their first visit to Mt. Rainier and first experience in old-growth forest, despite having grown up in the Seattle area. I know that “extinction of experience” has long been a concern of yours. You first wrote about this for Horticulture. In that article you wrote, “Its premise involves a cycle of disaffection and loss that begins with the extinction of hitherto common species, events, and flavors in our own immediate surrounds; this loss leads to ignorance of variety and nuance, thence to alienation, apathy, an absence of caring, and ultimately to further extinction.” What, specifically, inspired you to write this in 1976?
Robert Michael Pyle: “Extinction of experience” is the phrase or idea of mine that’s been quoted most widely, sometimes attributed to me, sometimes not. In a way, it’s almost more gratifying when it’s not attributed to me because that means it’s entering the lexicon. That idea came about because of the first extinctions I experienced as a boy. The very first took place when the Lutherans paved over their parking lot and destroyed the only colony I knew of the bronze copper butterfly. The next extinction I watched was the result of my own junior high school being built. The field where I threw the discus—I was a passionate discus thrower—was put in right on top of my prized habitat for Olympia marblewings. I watched a number of other species retreat from the environs in which I grew up on the edge of Aurora, Colorado. The edge now is 20 miles farther out.
Back to your question. At Yale, Charles Remington asked me to go to Boston to speak in his stead at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, on a panel called “Wildlife in the Year 2001.” That was in 1976. I went and I thought, “What can I talk about?” What occurred to me to address was this loss of diversity in my own backyard on the High Line Canal in Colorado. I asked myself, what is really being lost? These are not national or world extinctions; these are local extinctions. The phase hit me then. It was the extinction of experience: my ability as a boy on foot to find these butterflies in my immediate environs.
I extended that to the idea of what lies within our radius of reach—and not just the reach of the Eddie Bauer-wearing privileged—but the poor, aged, and afflicted, too. That stuck. The essay was published in Horticulture magazine, which led directly to an offer from Scribner to write a book, which led to Wintergreen, which led to The Thunder Tree. My further writing and speaking career came out of that phrase, “the extinction of experience.” When I wrote The Thunder Tree in the early 1990s, I fleshed out that essay into its current, often anthologized version. It includes the sentence: “What is the extinction of the condor to a child who’s never known a wren?” No line of mine has been more widely quoted than that one.
Terrain.org: Yes, it’s one of my favorite lines; we’ve discussed it in my classes, too.
Robert Michael Pyle: I’m not a Zen Buddhist, but I appreciate a good koan when I hear it. It seems to me it’s a little like a koan, if that’s not too presumptuous of me to say.
Terrain.org: Obviously, this concern has only become more pronounced since then, as the natural world now competes with the latest technologies for kids’ attention. As Richard Louv wrote in Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, quoting a fourth-grader in San Diego, “I like to play indoors better ‘cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” This topic is clearly one that you still feel strongly about, since you addressed it in a recent issue of Orion magazine: “Free Range Kids: Why Unfettered Play Is Essential to Our Species.” The opening paragraph describes you and your brother Tom exploring the High Line Canal, having the full day to roam on your own as “free range kids.” You cite several scientists and writers —Dr. Gabor Mate, Richard Louv, Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, as well as Nicholas Carr, who wrote, “To remain vital, culture must be renewed in the minds of every generation.” I appreciated the directness of your response: “A culture of close connection to the land is not being renewed much today among the collective offspring; rather it is actively withering.” You do, however, end on a relatively more positive note (Spoiler Alert!). Your grandkids set down their phones and screens and invite you to join them on an adventure outdoors, inspiring you to write: “In the end, I put my faith in the kids themselves, and in the belief that no matter what, they won’t let go of the world around us.” What advice do you have for parents raising kids today? How do you suggest encouraging them to engage with the natural world?
Robert Michael Pyle: Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods was just the needed book for our time. He’s always been kind to acknowledge that The Thunder Tree is one of his inspirations. A number of us have been tilling that ground for a long time: Mitch Thomashow, Kim Stafford, Gary Nabhan, Steve Trimble, David Sobel, and others. I’m glad Louv’s book put it all together. He talked to the parents and the kids and the teachers. And I’m also glad that’s the book that took off as it did and not The Thunder Tree, because his life has been in thrall to the Children and Nature Network and what many people call the “No Child Left Inside Movement” movement ever since! That’s been challenging for him, to try to find his own time to be outside, and to write.
My piece in Orion takes a slight tangent to what Rich wrote about, emphasizing the need for unstructured, unsupervised exploration. Those over 50, or even 30, understand this. Most of us had time and opportunity to roam freely. And this wasn’t gendered—both boys and girls could wander. Now, as Louv says, “kids are under house arrest.” It’s extremely rare nowadays for kids to enjoy unstructured time, and that change has to have serious consequences for our culture. I have some fun in the essay speculating on those consequences in terms of our evolution as a species. I fear we’ll lose our ability to adapt, our limberness, the variety of means we have to engage with the world. We’ll become dependent on these artificial but useful tools. None of this is to decry electronic aids to our culture. They’re useful, but they can take over. But you asked my advice. Here’s my advice to parents:
1) Kick them out of the house! Our parents did this. They said, “Go outside and play, come back for supper.” Send them outdoors, if only in the back yard.
2) Take an active role in learning your nonhuman neighbors along with your kids: a bird a month, a flower a week, a cloud formation a year. Look at the actual object together. Don’t let the useful Google supplant the actual object.
3) Let the kids explore without supervision of parents. This is good for their imagination. Make sure it’s safe, then stay at the periphery and let the kids prowl on their own. You’re not going to recover what we’re losing without this. This is where a great deal of imagination can be brought to bear. Urban areas like Detroit and Cleveland are beginning to take advantage of their vast new open spaces, from cleared, blighted neighborhoods, to create kid-friendly wild-parks in vacant lots. I like to say that nothing is less vacant than a vacant lot to curious kids.
The Grange Handbook, which was written in the 19th century, has this astonishing paragraph that speaks to everything we’re talking about now:
To love the country is to gather the flocks around us and feed them from our own hands—to make the birds our friends, and call them all by their names—to rove over the verdant fields with a higher pleasure than we should have in carpeted halls of regal courts. . . . And if we desire to encourage the children to love rural life, we must remember this: what a child sees makes the most lasting impression.
That’s from the 1860s! Most of us don’t live in rural areas, as you and I are fortunate to do, but the principal still applies.
Terrain.org: Bob, on another note, I’d like to ask you about the essay you contributed to Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, edited by Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael Nelson, called “Evening Falls on the Maladaptive Ape.” It’s a powerful essay—the title clearly suggests your stance—with quotes ranging from Waylon Jennings to Rudyard Kipling. Along the way you quote Aldo Leopold’s “The Land Ethic,” a classic essay I still teach to my students.
You write, “It seems to me that such an ethic as Aldo describes would be the only sort of moral resolve that could conceivably give comfort and relief to the current crisis.” But you go on to suggest that “while the individual will, desire, skill, and devotion for doing so may all be in place, our collective power to repair the reefs and waters, currents and gyres, clouds and caps may be no more effective than the corporate effort of clams [I love that line]: not only because the task is so large and intractable, but also because the overall ethic is so feeble, and its agency so malleable. And because alongside our clear capacity for honesty, generosity, mercy and cooperation lurks our apparent imperative for power, greed, and domination.” Here’s where you quote Rudyard Kipling’s “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”:
In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all By robbing selective Peter to pay for collective Paul
We’re certainly at this point—robbing the next generation—and the outlook isn’t good. But as you remind us, evolution may still play the last card, given a chance: “Just like any other species, we are subject to natural selection of the most advantageous traits for the species in the long run. . . . Evolution never before encountered self-interest such as ours, empowered by such powerful tools for planetary alteration: the ability of the individual animal or group to frustrate the good of the whole. To my mind, the greatest reason for bringing an ethical response to bear on annealing the damaged climate is to give evolution a fair shake in the next iteration.” Can you say a bit more about this? It’s a powerful idea.
Robert Michael Pyle: When Kathleen Dean Moore asked me to contribute an essay to that collection, I said I had nothing fresh to say. I know about butterflies and climate change, but even they respond very differentially. What could be said that’s general? Not very much, from my standpoint. I asked her, “May I say exactly what I want? It might not be very cheery or nice.” She said, “Sure—everyone’s being much too polite in this book,” which is why I wrote the essay called “Evening Falls on the Maladaptive Ape.”
If we don’t do something pretty profound—not just a few carbon credits here and there—we’re very likely to end up in a situation where evening will fall on the species. We know it will sometime, evolutionarily, but we may well hasten it before its time. And it will be because we’re a maladapted species. We have not made the adaptive choices. We’re about the only species I’m aware of that’s distinctive from other animals and plants in this way, and that’s gotten us in trouble.
One way we’re distinctive is the degree that we’re able to alter the habitat and the landscape. But also the fact that we possess the will, we have the ability to alter our actions. We’re not solely influenced by instinct. Other animals make decisions, too, I know they do. But perhaps only we have the power to act on those decisions in ways that strongly affect our surroundings. If we don’t do so soon and radically, we will not only be the maladapted ape, but my final line may well come true, which is even less cheery: “Evolution will mock our tardy rage.”
As I wrote in Wintergreen 30 years ago, I’m a short-term cheery guy. I can’t help it, that’s the way I am. In the mid-term, it’s hard to sustain much in the way of outright optimism. However, in the long run, in a Robinson Jeffers way, the big wave will come, nature will be redressed, evolution will continue… it’s just that we might not be present. There’s a cold comfort in that, and it’s not misanthropic. Jeffers was misinterpreted as a misanthrope, but he was not. He just saw a different time ahead, when all of our insults to the land would be washed away. It would be a whole lot more to be desired if ongoing evolution could include us in a sensible manner. But if it doesn’t, then evolution will continue in the next iteration.
Activism remains important to maintain sufficient diversity and the least possible degree of pollution and influencing factors, so that when evolution is able to carry on, it will have the fewest impediments to increasing diversity rapidly.
Terrain.org: I’m glad you added that last point, Bob.
Robert Michael Pyle: Certainly. I don’t believe this idea gives license for nihilism. If anything, it increases my sense of our need for activism. Because if our activism is solely based on our own comfort and future, that becomes pretty selfish. I like to think that my activism is aimed toward the full community, the community of all our neighbors, not just humans.
Terrain.org: Yes, and that reminds me of a quote that I love from Wendell Berry, a response he gave in an interview with Bill Moyers: “We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not. The only question we have a right to ask is what’s the right thing to do? What does this earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?”
Robert Michael Pyle: Lovely! And it comes right back to St. Aldo and “The Land Ethic.” As Leopold said, “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” We should know that, we should recognize it, and we should act on it, regardless of whether we’ll be around to enjoy it. We cannot know that life will continue on an individual basis, we cannot know it on a cultural basis, and we cannot know it on a given species basis. But continue, it will. Why not act as if the world could be as good as it could? Because it could.
Terrain.org: We’ll wrap up with a few questions about writing and what’s next for you. First, with 18 books out, you’ve been an amazingly prolific writer. What’s your secret for your steady output?
Robert Michael Pyle: Age. I’ve spent a lot of years here. I’m not prolific, like some writers—Rick Bass and Brian Doyle come to mind—they astonish me. But I have published a lot of books, periodical pieces, scientific papers, and more recently, poems and stories, too. I have a collection coming from Oregon State University Press called By-Catch, a retrospective of selected nonfiction prose. The first piece was from 1965 and the last piece will be published in 2015. (Not the last of my life, I hope.) That’s 50 years of work. You can build a lot of cabinets or raise a lot of Holsteins in 50 years.
As far as the steady output, it hasn’t really been very steady. It’s been jerky, but it looks steady when it averages out. My secret is fairly boring and prosaic: hard work. I work very hard when I do it. The decision to go freelance in 1982 made all the difference. I couldn’t have written what I did if I’d been engaged in a working life as well. The writing doesn’t make much money, so I’ve done other things, including a lot of lecturing and teaching on a freelance basis—but never with faculty meetings. Other than one semester at a time, at Evergreen, Utah State, and Montana, I’ve never been a full-time teacher.
I cultivate modest expectations economically in myself and my students. The best thing a freelance writer can cultivate is modest expectations. As the great Korean poet Ko Un said, “The tensions in the world will never resolve until we adopt a posture of minimum ownership.” Amen! Other than books, I’ve tried to do that.
I’ve also not had children, though I do have wonderful stepchildren, who have lived with me for some years, and now have four wonderful grandchildren. But I’ve not undergone the full rigors of parenthood that a lot of writers do. I’ve also had extremely good luck with editors and agents. Opportunities have come to me and I have seized them. I’m opportunistic, I hope in the best sense of the word, not disadvantaging others, but paying attention to opportunities with respect to publishers, editors, and occasional residencies and grants that have helped my writing along.
None of this would have been possible without Thea’s support at home. Since her death in late 2013, I am finding life much more challenging. Over the past 30 years, having Thea as my mate, not to mention my constant editor of first recourse, made a huge difference. I could not have written the things I’ve written without Thea.
Terrain.org: Bob, I’ve always admired your versatility as a writer, both in the variety of subjects you’ve written about and the genres through which you’ve done so. Not only do you write lively, lyrical nature essays, but you recently published a full-length collection of poems, Evolution of the Genus Iris, which was published by Lost Horse Press. What inspired you to put this collection together?
Robert Michael Pyle: I’ve been writing poetry all my life at some level, going back to that 4th grade class: “In the forest lives the deer, brave, bold and sincere.” I wrote some poems in college that are pretty bad stuff, but we all did, I hope. What inspired me to start writing poetry more seriously was traveling with the poets of the Forgotten Language Tour of the Orion Society, an on-again, off-again road-show of nature writers. I got to travel with poets like Pattiann Rogers, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Chris Merrill, Linda Hussa, Ofelia Zepeda, Simon Ortiz, Kim Stafford, Susan Zwinger, and others. Hearing them read, their cadences and stories, and seeing the impact of the poems on the audience, made me realize that I would love to share poems, too.
I started reading some poems prior to my prose readings, and got some good feedback; then shared some poems with the extremely fine poets I traveled with. They were firm and honest, and very helpful. I also benefited greatly from the input of a fine local writer’s group for ten years. So I began sending out more and more poems, and getting some publications, which gave needed reinforcement. About five years ago, I realized I had enough poems to begin a collection. Three different writing residencies enabled me to construct, refine, and submit it. I was fortunate to have it published by Lost Horse Press. A few months ago, Alison Deming and I gave a reading in Corvallis where she read prose and I read poetry, so that was a nice turnabout. I’m working on a second manuscript now.
It was those residencies that made it possible. I have to compartmentalize a lot. I have to put the activism and a lot of other practical things aside to be able to devote myself fully to a piece of writing. That can be hard on your family, hard on your mate, hard on your cat, but if they’re supportive, you get through it. I don’t try to do everything at the same time, and that was particularly true with the poetry. As Annie Dillard said, “If you want to write seriously, you have to take a broadax to your life.” It’s a brutal metaphor but it’s absolutely right.
Terrain.org: What does poetry allow you to do as a writer that prose does not?
Robert Michael Pyle: I’d written long essays for a long time, three, four, five thousand-word essays. They, of course, allow you to do things that shorter forms don’t allow. As I began writing my column for Orion, it was trial by fire with concision. Writing the column taught me to write with substance—not sound bytes—in a short number of words. Poems are just more so. They enable you to get right down to the bone, the heart of the story, the actual image, the precise moment. That’s what poetry allows me to do that prose does not: to find the utter crux of the story—my poems are often narrative. It’s such a satisfaction to be able to capture an image of life in a few words. It’s magical.
Terrain.org: Speaking of other genres, I know that you’ve been working on a novel, Magdalena Mountain, named after the butterfly you first chased up the mountain in Colorado. Where are you with this novel?
Robert Michael Pyle: Yes, this novel has been going since 1974. It’s been an apprenticeship in fiction. I’ve written it nine times. Sometimes I’ve had grants and residencies, other times I’ve just fit it in. Mostly I’ve been reading good fiction. As I mentioned before, I studied fiction with Jack Cady and others. I’ve been writing short stories. I actually got second place in the Obsidian Fiction Contest judged by Gretel Ehrlich, so that made me feel good. I’ve been working on a collection of short stories, but I don’t have enough of a body of them yet for a book. But the novel: I wanted to do it to find out if it has any merit, if I have any reason to be writing fiction. Right now it’s in the hands of an editor I much admire at a house I much admire—and we’ll see.
Terrain.org: What’s on the horizon? What’s the next high ridge you’d like to explore?
Robert Michael Pyle: The next high ridge I want to explore? I mentioned this collection of prose, By-Catch. The second collection of poems is well along; I hope it will be accepted and published. And I’m pulling together a collection of short stories. I’m also working on a book of the writings of my late wife, Thea Linnaea Pyle, and I hope another one of her visual art. And I’m bringing books back into print. Wintergreen will have a 30-year anniversary edition coming out next year from Pharos Editions, with a foreword by David Guterson. Where Bigfoot Walks needs updating and a new publisher. Frankly, I chose not to begin another long nonfiction work right away after I wrote Mariposa Road—that was such a deeply engaging and exhausting book. But I do have another one in mind when these other things are wrapped up and put to bed. I would also like to attempt an autobiography, largely about my remarkable antecedents, with my own life as a contingent afterthought.
I want to go to South America—the only continent I’ve not yet visited—to write a book set in the Andes, not necessarily about a butterfly, though a butterfly is important to this book. Just as the Magdalena Alpine is the only completely black butterfly, this butterfly, called the silver satyr, is the only completely silver butterfly in the world. It looks like freshly minted sterling; it’s utterly stunning. I’m going to wait and find out about this novel first, because that could be a novel like Magdalena Mountain, or narrative nonfiction like Mariposa Road. I’m not sure which it’s going to be yet.
There’s plenty to do; there’s no shortage of ideas. I have other ideas for novels, including one I’ve begun that’s set in England that I’d love to return to. It’s a country pub-and-conservation novel, but I don’t know if it’ll ever happen. We’ll see if the other novel works first. Poetry just might dominate the rest of my writing career.
Finally, the freshest, newest, and most exciting thing I am doing now is an artistic collaboration with the remarkable musician Krist Novoselic–poems and finger-style guitar songs exploring themes of science, natural history, and local place.
Terrain.org: Thank you for your inspiring words, Bob, and good luck with the next 50 years!