Author Profiles 2007: WILLIAM deBUYS
(Santa Fe, New Mexico)


Photo by Steve Werblow

This Q&A will work best for people who love the American West (especially mountains and mountain cultures), introverts (we comprise the silent majority of writers), and anyone who gave up novel-writing to pursue truth-telling. Toward the end, we also cover environmental endeavors that combine activism with long-term collaboration. Our guide is academic and conservationist William deBuys. Last year, seeking to understand New Mexico, I was gripped by his Enchantment and Exploitation -- the Life and Hard Times of a New Mexico Mountain Range. The "range" is the Sangre de Cristos, a locale that shaped Bill's second book River of Traps, being reissued this year by Trinity University Press; it also shapes The Walk, his new book of essays. To see all of Bill's books in one place, click here.Thanks in part to his practice of "living alertly," Bill's work helps us grasp southwestern environmental history and the related public-policy tradeoffs. Bill's political views are strong, yet his prose is never dismissive or strident. And, if you're wondering about that last name, the way to pronounce it is de-Bweeze. When not writing or seeking the write mindset, Bill is Professor of Documentary Studies at the College of Santa Fe. Reach him there by phone at (505) 884-2732 or fax (505) 262-5595.

Parents, Three Sisters, College Experience

For readers eager to start with New Mexico, I've "hidden" this opening part of the Q&A (totaling 1,500 words). Still, for a writer, the formative years and influences do matter. At a very early age, Bill deBuys "became aware of the problem, the existential problem, of the singularity of the person. Literature helped me cope with that, and I fell in love with words [and] with story-telling." Attending college in North Carolina, he got referred to the famed Harvard sociologist Robert Coles. Coles became a key patron. In this sub-section covering his first 24 years, Bill also explains meeting future wife Anne, and photographer Alex Harris. We join the three of them in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains...

First Book and the "Questions that Really Puzzled Me"

FRANK GREGORSKY: Did you have a phone up there?


GREGORSKY: TV? Pre-cable, you might not have gotten any stations.

WdB: I think we had a TV, and if there was something really important, you could watch it through the "snow" on the screen.

GREGORSKY: With rabbit ears, or an array of tin foil up on the roof.

WdB: Yeah.

GREGORSKY: Where did you go to buy the food that you and Anne could not grow?

WdB: Well, you could get some food in Penasco [pen-yaas-co, with a slight accent on second syllable], but it wasn't very good. Mostly we drove down to Espanola or came into Santa Fe to shop. Sometimes we'd do a run up to Taos. Lots of times, in those years, we'd pack everything up for a day, come down to Santa Fe, hit the library, the Laundromat, the grocery store, and maybe see a movie -- have our day in town! Kind of an old-fashioned routine.

GREGORSKY: Could you have stuck it out without Anne?

WdB: Aaahhh, probably. I don't know. Yeah [softly].

GREGORSKY: Did your parents or siblings ever come to New Mexico, to some city or town where you could go to spend time with them?

WdB: At some point during that period, all of them got out here. I think it's the only time my mother traveled beyond the Mississippi [smiling]. Not sure about that -- well, she made another trip to New Mexico years later, after my father died. But all of them made at least one visit. They were pretty puzzled by what I was doing -- tolerant, but somewhat incredulous about this business of my writing a "book." For a long time, there wasn't much to see.

I was trying to answer questions that really puzzled me -- and working from pretty elementary questions. Enchantment and Exploitation basically is my attempt to answer, from the standpoint of being in the mountains of northern New Mexico, "where am I?"


WdB: That's pretty much it. It's a naïve book of environmental history, in the sense that I wrote most of it, and it took its shape, before I was aware that there was a sub-discipline called "environmental history." It just seemed intuitively to make sense to look at how the story of the land and the story of the people inform each other, and influence each other -- how that reciprocity of influences works out.

GREGORSKY: Now, to both prepare a new reader for your approach, and also to convey the landscape of northern New Mexico, I'd like to read an entire paragraph from page 305:

"[N]owhere can one find diversity and continuity combined as richly as in northern New Mexico. The survival of the region's unique cultures is, in part, an accident of geography. Because New Mexico possessed scant mineral resources and few attractions of any other kind, and because hundreds of miles of bleak and dangerous territory separated it from the economic centers of both New Spain and 19th-century Anglo-America, neither imperial nation undertook to colonize it with much energy or enterprise. Both Spain and the United States found that New Mexico was mostly unsettleable, at least with pre-industrial technologies. The arable lands of the territory consisted almost exclusively of narrow river and stream valleys and were too few and too widely scattered to allow the growth of large agricultural populations. Instead the landscape produced a dispersed pattern of settlement consisting of numerous small enclaves of population and culture. These Pueblo and Hispano villages became bastions of cultural preservation, for they were at once so self-sufficient that they had little need for the outside world, and yet so poor that the outside world had little need of them."

That statement struck me as profound, both for its completeness and compactness. But -- would you like to elaborate on it here?

WdB: [Laughter] I think that's pretty good! Who wrote that? Where is it in the book?

GREGORSKY: Page 305. If anyone would absorb every sentence of that [quote], and have heard just a few other things, it clicks in: They've gotten straight on some four centuries of reality.

WdB: [Awaiting next question...]

GREGORSKY: All right, you're being modest here, which is probably the appropriate response.

Here's a review of Enchantment and Exploitation in academic-abstract form:

Second Book Brings Jacobo Romero Back to Life

GREGORSKY: Jacobo and Liza Romero make a relatively brief appearance in Chapter 13 of Enchantment and Exploitation, which itself came out half-a-decade before River of Traps. But it appears to me that River of Traps, which came out in 1990 -- that whole narrative was put together from things that you mostly experienced in the middle and later ‘70s --

WdB: While I was writing Enchantment and Exploitation, yes.

GREGORSKY: Okay, we need to explain how the two manuscripts relate to each other, especially the chronology, as in: How the building blocks for each one came together.

WdB: By 1985, when Enchantment and Exploitation was finally published, I was in North Carolina, working in Chapel Hill for the Nature Conservancy. In May of that year, at the age of 87, Jacobo died of a stroke. I still regret that I did not drop everything and go to his funeral. Money and a young child and work pressures -- I allowed them to get in the way.

After Jacobo died, Alex Harris was [still spending part of each year in that area]. And he said to me: "You know, I have an enormous number of photographs of Jacobo -- and it would be great to publish them, as kind of a tribute to the old man." I replied, "Yes, that would be great." And Alex said: "Do you think you could write a text for it?" And I replied: "Man, I would love to, but I have zero time. The Nature Conservancy job is wonderful but consuming, I have to support my family" -- etc. etc.

Well, before very much time passes, Alex whispers into the ear of Robert Coles. At that time, the two of them were on the best of terms. And Coles was on the board of the Lyndhurst Foundation, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. At Coles's insistence, that foundation had initiated a grants program called the Lyndhurst Prize, in which they gave money sufficient to support a person -- a practicing artist of some kind -- for basically three years! No strings attached, no questions, no "product" necessary.

Alex had received one of these prizes [in '83 or ‘84], and lo and behold -- suddenly I got one. Basically, Coles would draw up a list, and the Lyndhurst board would approve it. Thanks to Alex and thanks to Bob Coles, I managed to stumble into the path of philanthropy. With a three-year income stream, my wife Anne and I began making plans to move back to New Mexico. And so we did, in the fall of '86. And I set to work on what would become River of Traps.

GREGORSKY: So photographer Alex Harris, who by this point had been spending part of each year in New Mexico for at least a decade, is catalyst and collaborator for the manuscript -- but not co-author of the text?

WdB: He didn't "write" any of it. But he and I worked closely on it, all the way through -- and we dedicated the book to Bob Coles. It took only about 18 months to write, and then more time for editing.

GREGORSKY: Okay, River of Traps contains a spectacular amount of quoted dialogue, the majority of it between you and Jacobo (and a much smaller share between him and his wife Liza). But, since you didn't intend to write that book when Jacobo was still alive, you didn't make tapes of him saying all those things and telling those stories.

WdB: No.

GREGORSKY: So all of the dialogue that we're "hearing" in River of Traps is recreated?

WdB: That's right. Except for one piece. I can't remember what page it's on, but Jacobo is telling a very brief story: "Was a man had a dog to herd the cows, and he go along behind those cows, and say bite ‘em, bite ‘em, and that dog sure move those cows along, to milking or back to pasture -- wherever you want to go. Then one day that dog die. But the man still walk along behind the cows, sayin' bite' em, bite ‘em -- and they move along pretty good."

I had written that down pretty much verbatim, right after Jacobo told it -- let's say, one day in 1976. And when I found that in my journals from the time, it was the key that opened the door to doing River of Traps. When I read those few lines, it triggered the "tapes of memory" that allowed me to hear Jacobo's voice again -- in my imagination. Once that got going, I could sort of have conversations with Jacobo in my mind. And I could remember a lot of stuff, and Alex could remember a lot of stuff -- but the main thing, the key, to making that narrative work was to get his voice right. That little germ of a story allowed me to hear his voice again, and it opened up the ability to hear his voice all I needed to.

GREGORSKY: That's a controversial tactic, though. Because any reader sees everything [in the book, from Jacobo] as a quote; and my reaction -- being a literal editorial type -- was: "My God, he knew he was going to write a book like this, so he was taping these stories, just the way Alex was taking photos." [Laughter]

WdB: I never knew I was gonna write a book like this! I never knew I was going to write about Jacobo.

"As a Stylist, My Model was John McPhee"

GREGORSKY: Even if you had photographic memory -- or the audio equivalent of photographic memory -- that's a hell of a lot of recreation. You had to satisfy yourself that it was "authentic" without being literally absolute.

WdB: Yes.

GREGORSKY: Did you get a hard time from the publisher about that? Or from the editor, especially about using quotes? For non-verifiable dialogue, a lot of times we use italics, as in: "I can still hear him saying blah-blah-blah blah-blah."

WdB: [Shakes his head]

GREGORSKY: So the pictures were there as a real-time resource, and the journal fragment brings back the voice.

WdB: And the journal had lots of other snippets about Jacobo -- things he said, things he did, observations he made. But not necessarily in his precise language. The thing that I needed was to hear, in my inner ear, his voice, with his diction, his cadence, his pacing, his grammar, etc. My records were pretty detailed, and Alex was a complete collaborator -- so we would talk. I couldn't have brought up from memory [by myself] as much detail.

You no doubt have had the experience, in talking with a sister or brother, [of realizing how] that person had the same experience in childhood that you did. When you're talking with that person, together you can bring up more memory of that experience than you could ever re-access on your own.

GREGORSKY: Sure, sure.

WdB: And that's how it was with Alex and Anne and me -- all three of us [during 1986-88]. We would talk about certain visits we had made to Jacobo's house; or certain events -- fighting a flood, the tragedy of the horse, doing the irrigation. Alex would say a detail and I'd "see" it -- you know, in my mind's eye; it'd kinda fall into place. The narrative would sort of build and go from there. We knew Jacobo so very well. He was like a family member. We loved him very dearly, and I think he loved us. It's like being able to say what your father or mother would've said, in a certain situation.

GREGORSKY: What genre does River of Traps fit into?

WdB: Creative Non-fiction, I guess; that's where it won its prizes. And if I had been toting a tape recorder around all that time? I couldn't have produced the book.


WdB: I think the tape recorder would've been an inhibition. Because it needed to be running even in the most casual moments -- those off-guard moments, neighbor to neighbor, "dealing with life" moments -- [rather than] "interviewing" him.

GREGORSKY: Although it sounds like Jacobo got used to the fact that Alex was always taking pictures -- [after a while, his camera] was not intimidating.

WdB: Right. And that's part of Alex's great skill -- he could just "wear" that camera, all the time.

GREGORSKY: Beyond the black and white images, certain things blow me away about River of Traps. As a statement of a personal journey, it "works" without being at all narcissistic or self-centered. That is such a hard nut to crack -- to always be talking to the reader about what I saw and what I did (what I thought, how I screwed up, how the water's flooding in, how I'm learning to fix the fence and trap the gophers). How did you pull that off?

WdB: Well, as a stylist, my model was John McPhee. I didn't want to use what e.e. cummings calls "the vertical pronoun," any more than was necessary. It took a while to realize that the real story is not just about Jacobo -- it's also about my relationship, and Alex's relationship, with Jacobo. If it's the chronicle of a relationship, then I had to be present as a character. But I didn't want the spotlight to be on me more than it had to be. I wanted to keep the spotlight primarily on Jacobo.

With permission, here are five striking passages from the second deBuys book, due for re-issue this year: River of Traps, with photography by Alex Harris...

People sometimes think that small communities are engines of conformity, but nothing could be further from the truth. In our village nearly everyone was blatantly eccentric in one way or another. Jacobo irrigated in the rain. Another man, half-blind, drove his pickup as though by Braille, and people pulled off the road when they saw him coming. Alex's peculiarity was that he took "too many" pictures and bore a camera seemingly attached to his anatomy, like a large goiter. It was bad habit, but not a dangerous one, and people forgave him for it. (page 169)

Jacobo and the horse were a partnership. They had been together since the horse was foaled on Jacobo's farm during or just after World War II, Jacobo couldn't exactly remember. Now, in their mutual old age, there was perhaps not another horse in New Mexico as slow and dependable, nor another rider for whom slowness and dependability were more important. Still, there was nothing of the pet and pet-owner in either of them. The horse glared at Jacobo with the same mistrust it glared at all the rest of the world. If the horse did not buck or bite, its restraint was due to hard lessons from the lash and, possibly, to a lack of surplus energy. For his part, Jacobo gave the horse no special consideration. He frequently left it hitched to a fence post, saddled and bridled, for half-a-day in the hot sun. Jacobo and the horse had a strictly business relationship. They did not socialize. (pages 30-31)

Calculations of production efficiency make sense only if their results can be expressed in a single set of terms -- dollars and cents. Jacobo grew up learning a simpler, more fundamental arithmetic -- the arithmetic of completeness. Is all the land plowed that can be plowed? Sown? Harvested? ... One looks out over a field or a farm and takes its measure. Where the work is complete, it is seen to be so: the parts fit together in an intact whole...
     In the old days the family might consider itself secure only if the wholeness of the home and farm were intact. With the exception of a few fruits and vegetables, notably chile, which were obtained through barter with villagers from lower elevations, the farm had to be self-sufficient. What the family didn't make or grow, it didn't have.
     And so a man like Jacobo, who grew up in the old days, under the old terms of existence, carried around in him a sense of necessity that preceded other levels of judgment. (page 97)

Nothing so teaches respect for land and weather as the mountains in winter. Snow descends, binding field and forest in a numbing embrace. The stark, overexposed days ebb to dusk before they fairly begin, then yield to brittle nights. Storms the size of continents roll in and grind themselves to powder against the peaks, leaving the slopes as white as bone and colder than the insides of stones.
     Eventually the peaks and sky reemerge, bluer than before, and high-altitude winds blow snow plumes a mile or more into space. From the valley, storm by storm, you watch cornices of snow build along the high divides, and once or twice, you might notice a break in the cornice where an avalanche had crashed free. Winter, silent and destructive, is also alluring, a seductress in ermine. You feel its pull in the dangerous cold, in the spectacle of the inviting, impassable land. There is so much to be known, yet so little you directly sense. The soul of the mountain winter is the avalanche you never heard. (page 185)

It is sometimes hard for Anglos to understand that the state's native Hispanos defy easy categorization. To focus on their Indian heritage, or alternatively, to close discussion by saying that culturally they are Spanish and Mexican, misses an important point. Something happened in the soil of New Mexico. Isolated by broad deserts from their countrymen to the south, the nortenos of New Mexico drew nourishment from the land in which they lived. People from other regions rarely appreciate that New Mexico was a frontier unlike any in our national experience. While Virginia, Kentucky, or Missouri may have represented civilization's advancing edge for two or three generations, New Mexico remained a lonely and embattled frontier for 300 years. It became una patria, a fatherland, in its own right. (page 65)

Water Ouzels and "Living Alertly"

GREGORSKY: Thanks to the Lyndhurst Foundation, you would come back to New Mexico in 1986. But this is where we talk about [the prior departure]. In explaining why you left in the early ‘80s, River of Traps calls upon a bird "that lives along the Rio Trampas known as the dipper. Smaller than a robin, it behaves like a fish, for it never leaves the ribbon of stream in which it lives. Even in the depths of winter when the river is bridged with ice, it spends much of its time not just in the water, but under it..." The dipper is a fascinating creature. I suddenly saw various situations in my own life in terms of that bird -- the tradeoff between the need for focus and "knowing your territory," versus the blindness often resulting from that concentration.

And of course you call on that bird to explain the risks of tunnel vision. "Imagine a map of the dipper's world. It would show a realm 50 feet wide by a thousand long, studded by intimately known rocks and eddies and fallen trees. To either side of the skinny homeland lies an infinite terra incognita, a wilderness unacknowledged and unexplored." I'll let our readers savor the whole two pages of description in a sub-document.

Meanwhile, what else can you say about that bird? Obviously, I'm looking for an excuse to put it in here [grinning].

WdB: [Pause] Well, I'll tell you. When River of Traps came out -- you always fantasize about the kinds of reviews you might get. And if I could've had a reviewer say one thing about the book, I would want ‘em to say that it was in part a chronicle of "living alertly" -- of really noticing. And the dipper was one of the things I noticed. A place like that is full of silences. Time moves slowly. And if you're going to be alert, you will "meditate" a bit, on all your neighbors -- the animals, the birds, all the creatures, and the plants. Metaphors are there to be found in virtually all of them. And the dipper, at that time of feeling the "cabin feverishness" [from] being in that small village for a long time, stood as a symbol of a creature who didn't look beyond near boundaries -- enough.

GREGORSKY: And you and Anne worried, quoting from Traps, "that the village was becoming for us like the dipper's patch of stream [and] we were beginning to mistake the familiar horizons of the valley for those of the world."

WdB: At the same time, I want to underscore how that village became truly home. And it still is. I'm here in Santa Fe because this is where I earn my living. But I'm in "El Valle" as much of the time as I can; when I've got time to write, I go up there, and try to be part of that community.

GREGORSKY: Does the dipper have a formal name?

WdB: Yes, it's the water ouzel. In fact, John Muir, in his book The Yosemite, writes at some length of the water ouzel. He does a wonderful job of depicting it. Ouzels are compact bundles of energy. Very smooth feathers -- and always jumping around, always kind of nervous.

GREGORSKY: I'll insert a description of it off of some website.

WdB: Well, you Republicans need to be more aware of the natural world -- you'd appreciate it [smiling].

GREGORSKY: I'm trying.

WdB: Get yourself a bird guide. Just learn the birds wherever you live.

GREGORSKY: One of the major environmental organizations endorsed Richard Nixon during his 1960 campaign [laughter].

WdB: Nixon [turned out to be] a great environmental President. The problem was he didn't have due regard for the Constitution. But yeah, we got NEPA [the National Environmental Protection Act] from him, we got the EPA, we got the Endangered Species Act, Clean Air, Clean Water -- he was truly our greatest environmental President.

GREGORSKY: Whoa -- okay.

WdB: Yeah! I have no hesitation in saying that. But I'm not a single-issue voter, Frank [chuckling].

GREGORSKY: That's good! Have you ever voted Republican for President?

WdB: For President -- I don't think I ever have.

Seeking the Moral Dimension in Things

GREGORSKY: I'm going to read 10 descriptive words -- potential self-describers -- and ask whether each one applies to yourself and your work. A very short answer is fine, or you can elaborate. Here goes. Historian.

WdB: Sure.

GREGORSKY: Philosopher.

WdB: Hmmmm -- dunno.

GREGORSKY: You approach things philosophically, though. Or do you?

WdB: I do look for the moral dimension of things. Maybe I'm uncertain what the general definition of "philosopher" is in the popular mind.

GREGORSKY: My favorite guy who sought to earn the specific title is William James [1842-1910]. His writings are absolutely fascinating. The way he could turn things inside out and make you think about everyday processes and logic --

WdB: He was a great thinker. When I think of "philosopher," the first one to come to mind is Isaiah Berlin. For me, he's a demigod -- a human being at a very exalted level. The word "philosopher" applies to him; I'm not sure it applies to me.

GREGORSKY: Why do you admire Berlin?

WdB: Isaiah Berlin believed fervently in the value of a pluralistic political system and society, and in the humanistic ideals that underpin such a society. At the same time, he was enormously broad-minded, insatiably curious, constantly looking at the other side of the [particular] argument he was advancing. He had an ideology -- a strong one. But he was not narrow-minded.

GREGORSKY: For someone who has never read [Berlin], what one book would you recommend?

WdB: The book I keep looking at over there [on the shelf] is The Proper Study of Mankind.

GREGORSKY: What a great title.

WdB: It is a great title. It is the collection of his major work. It's really a collection of essays [now he's holding the book]. Where I would begin is "The Pursuit of the Ideal."

GREGORSKY: And what you're holding there is not a rare volume -- I can get it at Border's?

WdB: Oh yes. And a guy by the name of Michael Ignatieff has written a superb biography of Berlin.

One publisher writes: "Einstein called Isaiah Berlin 'an actor in God's big theater.' But Isaiah Berlin was more than a brilliant entertainer on stage. He worked tirelessly advocating tolerance and freedom for all, thereby shaping the political and philosophical liberalism of the 20th century -- the only political theory that endures. Berlin's political ideologies were shaped by his own three competing racial identities: Russian (because he was born in Russia), Jewish, and British (because of the exile)." Here is the final paragraph (it’s from the Epilogue, page 301, with a couple of spellings changed from British to American) from Ignatieff’s wonderful, and sometimes gripping, biography of Berlin:

When he was 85, I asked Isaiah what had most surprised him about his life. “The mere fact that I should have lived so peacefully and so happily through so many horrors.” A survivor’s guilt always shadowed his happiness. How could he forget the darkness? It had claimed his very own. It had been “the worst century there has ever been,” in wanton destruction of innocent human life and in murderous unreason making itself as reason. It was this sense of ambient darkness that gave a somber eloquence to the best of his writing and passion to his intellectual vocation. Biography is the art of the singular and he was absolutely singular – the voice, the mind, the playfulness of both, the lightness of his being and the gravity of his best ideas were all one of a kind. In a dark century, he showed what a life of the mind should be: Skeptical, ironical, dispassionate and free.

Gregorsky’s view: Anyone working with or for Bill deBuys ought to read this book.

GREGORSKY: Okay, good. I prefer to start with a biography, and then sample the ideas [that grew out of the life]. Find out how they lived their life before hearing all the thoughts and theories. Back to the list of potential descriptives: Environmentalist (obviously).

WdB: Sure.

GREGORSKY: Ecologist -- and by the way, how does this word differ from the prior one?

WdB: Well, an "ecologist," properly speaking, is a scientist -- who studies the interrelations of elements of the natural world, and the systems to which they belong. (Off the top of my head, that's a pretty damn good definition...) I am not a scientist, but I am "literate" in ecology. I've also worked a lot with scientists.

GREGORSKY: And so "ecologist" implies a lot less advocacy than "environmentalist" does?

WdB: Perforce, "environmentalist" implies advocacy. An "ecologist" could be an advocate -- or might not be. It's more that he or she is a student of the science of ecosystems.


WdB: But it is very hard to be a student of the science of ecosystems and -- given the pressures on our ecosystems -- not become an advocate.

GREGORSKY: Next possible descriptive: Pessimist.

WdB: Well -- yeah, probably that. Probably optimist too.

GREGORSKY: Name one sector that makes you optimistic and one that makes you pessimistic.

WdB: I'm pessimistic about American democracy; I'm optimistic that people will continue to produce great, inspiring works of art.

GREGORSKY: Four more possible self-describers -- reformer?

WdB: [Pause, followed by a mixed groan and sigh] I have tried, but not been very successful. So I don't know that I've had enough success to earn that word.

GREGORSKY: Crusader. Actually, you're too deliberate to be a crusader.

WdB: I don't think [that one applies]. "Crusader" implies a kind of relentlessly self-confident fervency -- and I'm too much of a doubter and a questioner to fit that description.

GREGORSKY: Consultant.

WdB: Oh yeah. For most of my adult life, I have "earned my keep" as a consultant.

GREGORSKY: More so than teaching.

WdB: I only started teaching four autumns ago. Before then, I was basically a self-employed conservation consultant. But the great thing about the teaching is the time it affords for writing.

GREGORSKY: Here's the final potential self-description -- futurist.

WdB: No, I don't think so. Hearing that word makes me think of bloviators like Alvin Toffler.

GREGORSKY: You don't like Toffler??

WdB: No.

GREGORSKY: Did you like him back in the ‘70s?

WdB. No.

GREGORSKY: In person, he's a real gentleman. But you read his prose and it's sometimes bombastic.

WdB: Oh, it's just awful. To me, it's bloviation. Same thing as Thomas Friedman, whom I abhor.

Policy and Governance

GREGORSKY: Okay, this is our concluding section. I'm going to read something you wrote over 20 years ago. For me as a conservative (and a realist, a hardhead, and all those bad things), this paragraph encapsulates an unyielding tradeoff; it's a classic description of zero-sum reality. I looked for some hedges, and some soft words, that would indicate you saw an exception or two. Couldn't find [such indicators], which is why I want to press you about it now. From page 237 of Enchantment and Exploitation:

"For 75 years the Forest Service and the mountain villagers have struggled to convince each other of the validity of their respective perceptions of the land and of society's proper relation to it. And also for 75 years the management of grazing on the National Forests of the southern Sangres has posed a seemingly unresolvable paradox, which psychologists call a ‘double bind.' Protection of the land has meant injury to the village people, and protection of the villagers' cherished pastoral traditions has meant injury to the land. It has been impossible for any course of action to be kind to both land and people at once."

Let me read that flat-out declaration a second time, putting the stress on two words: "It has been impossible for any course of action to be kind to both land and people at once. Very few northern New Mexicans, regardless of ethnic group, have been willing to accept this simple though unpleasant truth." Now, I realize you were just talking about one environmental situation or locale there. Still, that's a very strong statement.

WdB: Yes.

GREGORSKY: First, given that it was geographically confined, do you stand by that perspective 20 years later?

WdB: Not completely. Because my own thinking has expanded there. I think it's possible for -- instead of one side winning at the other's expense, I think it's quite possible for both sides to lose consistently, and I'll explain what I mean.

With the paradigm that's presented [in the above quote], what's missing is a dynamic view of the landscape. The land is changing, even as the two sides are butting heads. From the mid-1930s to the mid-1980s -- though I might need to look this up [when we do the final edits] -- a 250,000-acre landscape in the Jemez Mountains (across the Rio Grande from here) lost somewhere close to 50% of the grassy element of its ecological mosaic. Now that includes the grass understory of Ponderosa Pine savannahs, grass meadows, open parks -- etc. This is stuff I didn't know when I wrote the book; the research was being completed at about the time that book came out. So what's missing from that paradigm is the knowledge that the resource over which the villagers and the Forest Service have been fighting all that time was continuously shrinking --


WdB: -- to the detriment of the diversity of the land. Even if one side could have completely overruled the other, that process of shrinking would have continued. The Forest Service didn't understand it. And the reason for it is the exclusion of fire from the landscape. Overgrazing is part of that. But it comes down to the fact that there was no fire to create the forest openings to burn off the seedlings of the forest's trees and so forth, and to encourage the reproduction of grass.

I actually started something called a "grass bank." Raised money for it. The idea was to have a place for ranchers to put their cows, temporarily, maybe just for a few years, while their home ranges -- the place where the cattle ordinarily graze -- were "rested" and rehabilitated with fire. This would open the landscape back up, get the grassy element back in there, and make possible a win-win situation for the human participants.

That grass bank is now the property and under the care of the Quivera Coalition, whose offices are on the other side of this wall. But, given the inertia of the Forest Service -- and just the difficulty of running complicated programs and raising resources for them -- we never, in our seven years of really working on that, made a big dent in getting fire back into the landscape. So, I'm pessimistic -- and that's a long-winded answer to your question.

GREGORSKY: No, that's good. And the second question following from that quote: Can you name a couple of environmental situations -- elsewhere in the U.S. -- that aren't classic "dilemma," in that you have seen some non-zero-sum treatment prevail?

WdB: [Eight-second pause] Well, I think the people down in the boot heel of New Mexico, and in far southeastern Arizona -- the ranchers who've banded together there, with a lot of assistance from the Nature Conservancy (it's a group called the Malpai Borderlands Group) -- are showing that, with collective agreement and action, people working together can improve their landscapes, and make a more sustainable future.

GREGORSKY: What was the essence of their compromise or their transcending?

WdB: Instead of diggin' in their heels and saying "no" to the gradually rising bar of environmental performance, they said: "We accept that, and we'll reach out to the environmental community and the philanthropic community for the resources to find ways to do the things we need to do." They recognized that the big threat to their way of life [as ranchers] was not environmental regulation quite as much as it was subdivision -- the fragmentation of their large landscape, through "ranchette" development and so forth. So they've worked, using conservation easements, to assure the long-term future of their land; at the same time, they've been able to get more fire into the landscape. They've been able, through unity, to present a solid point of view with the land-management agencies, and often win [those officials] over to their side.

GREGORSKY: What qualifies as a "ranchette"?

WdB: Twenty acres, 40 acres, 60 acres. When you have ranchettes with fences around ‘em (and lots of little homes), you can't run fire through a system like that -- ‘cause there's too much stuff you have to avoid.


WdB: Every house has two dogs and three cats. With so many domestic animals, the wildlife is necessarily compromised.

The Work Goes On

GREGORSKY: You mentioned in one of the early e-mails that River of Traps will be re-issued. Care to provide some details on that here?

WdB: It will be re-issued in the fall of 2007.

GREGORSKY: Same publisher?

WdB: No. The new imprint will be Trinity University Press.

GREGORSKY: And what are you working on now, in terms of the "fifth book"?

WdB: [About to be released is one on] the Valles Caldera National Preserve. That property was acquired by the federal government for $96 million-and-change in the year 2000. And at the insistence of Senator Domenici, in a deal he struck with Bill Clinton, it was to be managed not by the Forest Service, nor by any of the other established agencies, but by a largely privately or "citizen-run" trust. And the Valles Caldera Trust was created to manage the Valles Caldera National Preserve.

I was appointed to the first Board and was elected its chair -- I [served as chairman] for the first four years until my term expired. So [book #5] is a book about that National Preserve. It's mainly a photo book, to which I contributed a 17,000-word essay.

Then I've got another book, of three personal essays, looking at some of the same ground that concerns River of Traps; and that book will come out [right around the time this Q&A does]. It is my own Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, set in El Valle: