Saturday, July 14, 2018

My Favorite Book, Part 15.

Since the late nineteenth century, the American West has been an environmental battleground. At one extreme, rabid capitalists see the region as nothing more than a rich land to be exploited for personal gain, never mind the effects their profiteering has on the land and the people who live on it. At the other extreme are radicals who believe mankind has no place in the West; that it is best left to the elements and we humans should only be allowed to sneak in and take a peek every now and then, then leave.
Most folks, as is usually the case, are sandwiched somewhere nearer the center of those extremes and look to achieve some kind of balance betwixt and between. Even then, viewpoints are fervent and disagreements intense.
Although somewhat dated since its publication in 1971, Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee paints arguments between conservation and development in vivid colors. And, the fact is, the arguments have changed little since then—or ever.
The book sets the views of David Brower, outdoorsman and long-time leader of the Sierra Club and the titular “Archdruid,” against three powerful men with contrasting views. One of the encounters lies outside the West, featuring a real estate developer on Hilton Head Island off the South Carolina coast. Another concerns mineral mining in remote areas, specifically in a wilderness location in the Cascade Range. The third, and most engaging for me, pits government dam builder Floyd Dominy against Brower during a float trip through the Grand Canyon.
McPhee, a meticulous reporter and imaginative writer, allows each man to state his case during each encounter, and allows readers to take from the debates what they will. And, like all good art and literature, Encounters with the Archdruid asks a lot more questions than it answers.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

A Viewers Guide to Roadside Animals.

Few things—if anything—in life gave my Dad more pleasure than horses and cattle. He knew them well and worked them like few have the ability to do.
But even when not working, you might find him out in the corral “messing” with the horses. You’d often find him horseback in the pasture, or sitting on the tailgate of the pickup truck, or on the tractor seat after winter feeding just watching his cows, long beyond his original reason for being there.
When traveling, he always noticed cattle and horses in the pastures and on the open range flying past the windshield. He’d comment on how “slick” (or maybe “poor”) the cows looked, admire the growing calves, point out a well-made range bull, praise horses and colts.
While not as practiced at it as Dad, it’s a practice I picked up from him. Our car often hears comments about grazing cattle, usually accompanied by regret that almost all of them nowadays are black. Sighting a herd of our favored Herefords gleaming red and white in the sun is a rare and precious thing. Were you with us, you’d also hear my mockery every time we pass one of those yellow diamond-shaped roadside signs warning of livestock grazing on open range—with a picture of a dairy cow on it.
But, perhaps, my favorite remark concerning roadside animals is one I heard decades ago from a rodeo traveling pal; a comment that betrays a real love for the sport. Drive past horses in a pasture and Marlowe “Bird” Carroll would likely say, “You think those horses would buck?”
I still wonder.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Reporting on poetry.

The Spring/Summer 2018 issue of Saddlebag Dispatches is now available, and it’s a keeper. Most of its pages, rightly so, honor the late, great Dusty Richards—founder and executive editor of the publication, as well as award-winning author and all-around good guy. A car accident took Dusty’s life earlier this year, and his passing was noted in a post at the time.
But, as always, there’s more to the magazine. Including a big, colorful article about one of the world’s best Western celebrations, the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada.
I had the privilege to report and write the story, and illustrate it with photos I took (despite specious rumors and claims to the contrary) at the 2018 Gathering. Quoted in the story are first-time visitors and some who have attended for years, as well as poets.
My regular “Best of the West” column features the great Western movie High Noon.
The story—and all else in the magazine—are well worth a read. Visit Saddlebag Dispatches for online access or to order a printed copy.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 44: Editors Love Enthusiasm.

Once upon a time I wrote a short essay about passion—being passionate, following your passion, lack of passion being a fatal flaw, that sort of thing—rendering my opinion that the whole notion is overblown.
It caused something of a stir. Some agreed with my ruminations, others did not. One reader (and fine writer) opined that passion was a prerequisite and that fire and enthusiasm for the work were important considerations for editors.
Perhaps. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with being passionate about your writing if that’s what butters your biscuit.
But it ain’t necessarily so.
A reliable—but not precise—accounting of editors I have worked with includes some 15 or so with magazines and periodicals, at least two dozen on anthologies of short fiction or poetry, and somewhere north of 20 in the process of getting books, both fiction and nonfiction, into print. Some editors I have worked with on only one or a few occasions; several of them many, many times.
None ever asked about, commented on, or required enthusiasm—passion—on my part.
But I have absorbed a few notions about what seems to be widely regarded among the red pencil set. Here’s some of it.
Good ideas are valuable. Not just ideas that are good on their own, but good ideas that fit the nature of the editor’s requirements. It should go without saying that they expect quality writing—well-structured and readable and all that, with a certain amount of flair. Research—when applicable—should be thorough and your facts should be straight; even fiction should feel credible. Your manuscripts should be clean; as free of typos as possible with proper grammar and punctuation and spelling and such.
Finally, and probably most important, editors like reliability. If you meet deadlines, keep your promises, and do what you say you will—and are asked to—do, you’ll be doing everyone a favor. Including yourself and your career.
If you’re passionate on top of all that, fine. But don’t plan on enthusiasm alone getting you through.
Woody Allen is credited with this little bit of wisdom: “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” In the broader sense, that advice certainly applies to writing.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Really Stupid Words, Chapter Two

American English is a rich language. It’s always changing and evolving. New words and usages come and go. Many that come along are helpful. They clarify, they improve, they enhance and enrich.
But some are just plain stupid.
They obfuscate, they complicate, they confuse. They reveal a lack of understanding.
Think about “proactive.”
I was surprised to learn that it has been around, in a limited way, for a long, long time. Fortunately, no one used it much until, say, 30 or so years ago. Since then, it has become one of the most overused words in our language. Not only in business circles, where made-up trendy buzzwords often find a home, but by regular folks, as well.
It’s supposed to mean the opposite of “react” or “reactive.” Apparently, no one stops to think that those words are opposites of perfectly good words—act and active—so don’t really need an opposite themselves.
If “active” doesn’t seem to fit, try “aggressive” or “concerted” or “determined” or “resolute” or “take the initiative.” We could go on.
Whatever words you choose to describe an active approach to something, there’s no point, really, in resorting to a stupid, meaningless, but apparently important-sounding (to some) word such as “proactive.”
Therefore, I will be proactive in my efforts to eliminate it.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Along the Old Spanish Trail.

There’s a well-known saying about the Old Spanish Trail: it isn’t old, and it isn’t Spanish. But from 1829 until 1848, more or less, it was an important trade route linking Santa Fe to Los Angeles. Mexican traders (and others) loaded strings of pack mules with woolen goods in New Mexico, trailed them to California, and traded for horses and mules. The animals—many thousands of them—were trailed back to New Mexico then sold on to Missouri, Old Mexico, and other markets. Thieves also raided California ranches for horses and mules for the same purpose, as well as selling them to the U.S. Army for use in the Mexican-American war. Traders in Indian slaves used parts of the route as well.
Not long ago, I had the privilege of exploring the Old Spanish Trail through Utah with the Utah Westerners. Through slickrock and sagebrush, deserts and mountains, sand and shadscale, we followed the route as nearly as possible, almost from border to border. Along the way, we were guided and educated by well-informed local historians as well as members of the Westerners.
The Utah Westerners set off on such a field trip every summer, but this was my first with the group of historians and history buffs. It will not be my last.

(Thanks to Utah Westerner Steve Berlin for the photos.)

Monday, May 21, 2018

My Favorite Book, Part 14.

A River Runs Through It is a small book. Something over 100 pages in most editions. And it’s the only “book” Norman Maclean ever wrote. (There is a published but unfinished nonfiction book about the Mann Gulch Fire, Young Men and Fire, and a few long short stories, published with A River Runs Through It in some editions.)
On the surface, A River Runs Through It is a story about fly fishing on Montana rivers. I am not interested in fly fishing. What the book is really about is love—not romantic love, but the love among a father and a mother and their two sons, with a tiny bit of romance thrown in for good measure. It contains elements of some old stories. There are hints of Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, and the story of the Prodigal Son.
Unlike many books, but like many of my favorite books, there’s a lot of ambiguity in its pages. You have to pay attention. And it doesn’t end in what many readers would consider a satisfactory way.
Again, there’s some ambiguity there.
Maclean doesn’t provide many answers, but he does deliver a lot of questions. And that means the story stays with you long after you close the book. So much so that, like me, you’ll be inclined to open it again (and again) sometime to see what kinds of questions it asks this time.