David Gessner: Confessions of a Western Easterner
Twenty-five years ago I published an essay called “A Polygamist of Place.”
I stand by it.
What did I mean by calling myself a geographic polygamist?
I meant that while many of the writers I admired, from Wendell Berry in Kentucky to Henry David Thoreau in Concord, were so rooted in one place that they seemed married to it, I, by contrast, was never able to settle down in one place, having multiple places I loved and never sure which one to commit to.
The years have passed and a polygamist I remain. My life has been one of constant, sometimes frenetic, movement between east and west, north to south. I am, almost by definition, unsettled, and if forced to use the marriage metaphor I must assign it to multiple landscapes. Luckily, it is not against the law to love more than one place.
My life has been marked by three major moves, three beginnings and three endings. A move west when I was thirty. A move back east when I was thirty-seven. A move south when my daughter was born when I was forty-two.
I spent the first thirty years of my life in Massachusetts, and Cape Cod was my first love, the place where I fell hard for the natural world. But at thirty, after an operation for cancer, I headed west. In Eldorado Springs, south of Boulder, Colorado, my life opened up. I experienced the way that, in the words of Reg Saner, the man who was to become my mentor in Colorado, “our where determines our who.” It is hard to exaggerate the romance of recovery and health I experienced living in Eldorado. The West for me, as for so many people, represented a new beginning.
I wrote my first book, A Wild, Rank Place, about my love of Cape Cod while in Colorado but, when it came out I headed back to Cape Cod on a book tour. I ended up staying there for seven years and wrote my second book, Under the Devil’s Thumb, about loving Colorado, while on Cape Cod.
I was pretty sure I was going to commit to Cape Cod forever and so my third book, Return of the Osprey, ended with me saying I would do just that. But some professors in North Carolina read it and asked me to come down and interview for a teaching job. My daughter had just been born and the idea of a regular paycheck and health insurance suddenly made sense. That was eighteen years ago. I have lived in coastal North Carolina ever since.
Why bring up all my zigging and zagging? One reason is that I don’t think I am the only one who suffers from geographic confusion. And two because I no longer apologize for my polygamy. In the course of my lifetime, I have gotten to know three regions, three places, quite deeply. I consider myself very lucky. There are more ways to know a place than settling in it forever.
* * *
It turns out I took some of the West back east with me. I had learned some things in the West, and read many books, including most of those that Wallace Stegner wrote. Stegner was a master of seeing the mostly arid western landscape both intimately and through a large lens, and his vision was informed by both long acquaintance and a deep study of climate, geography, and history. I wondered whether I might be able to apply the same principles to the sandy coastal climate of the land that I had loved as a child.
While I might have left the West, it never left me. In the last few years I have published two books about the West. In the first, All the Wild That Remains, I compared and contrasted Stegner with that prototypical western wildman (who was not incidentally born in Pennsylvania) Edward Abbey. I wove the biographies of the two men with the story of a big road trip I took that included rafting rivers, interviewing old friends of the authors, and travelling the west from Yosemite to Yellowstone to Saskatchewan (where Stegner was raised). In the next western book, Leave It As it Is, I followed a similar model, only this time I wrote about the life of Teddy Roosevelt and took a road trip west that followed Roosevelt’s life from New York to the Badlands and beyond. My traveling companions were Roosevelt’s ghost and my twenty-one-year-old nephew, Noah, who had just graduated from college in North Carolina and had never crossed the Mississippi heading west before.
For these books I spent hundreds of hours in the West, but my dark secret is that I wrote them back east. At least I had a model for this: Roosevelt himself. “I am myself at heart as much a westerner as an easterner,” Roosevelt liked to say, though his grand total of time spent actually living in the West added up to just over a year. My own total came in at close to a decade, and those years changed me. One thing that had changed was my vision of nature. Born in Massachusetts, I saw the natural world as something small and private. The West had blown the doors off that old vision, teaching me about size and scope. Though I lived and taught in the East during the school year, every summer I eagerly headed back to the place where this vision first formed. My hope during the Roosevelt trip was that Noah would develop a taste for the same landscapes.
* * *
I need to add one more thing about my western books. I didn’t just write them in the East. I wrote them on a salt marsh in a landscape as humid as most of the West is dry. More specifically, I wrote them in my writing shack.
I built the shack to celebrate my fiftieth birthday. Sporting a hangover from the party the day before, I set right to work. It was a modest and inelegant project, slammed together with hammer and nails, a handsaw, and no screws, my body remembering the few skills I had picked up working as a framing carpenter in my twenties. No power tools was my rule. I bought a level for the work, but never got things quite level. The lopsided beams showed and, when I finally put roof shingles on, the nails came right through the plywood ceiling so that they pointed down at me like a hundred fangs. I have never been too keen on angles and numbers, and while a surprising number of things in the shack are actually level, there are also plenty of things that still aren’t. (For instance, that writing desk I first put in and then tore out always listed to starboard.)
The shack would die when it was flooded during hurricane Florence, but then be re-born during the pandemic. While I wrote my western books there, I filled the place with books by Stegner, Abby and Roosevelt and a hundred other writers, and tacked maps and pictures to the walls. Mementoes from my trip—arrowheads and bird feathers and rocks and a small deer figure fashioned out of coyote willow by a friend—filled the shelves. I tried, through imagination and research, to place myself where I wasn't. In this I was working within a tradition. While there is a tradition of Thoreau writing Walden in Concord there is also Hemingway writing of Michigan in Paris. Sometimes we even see a place better from arm’s length.
Mentioning the shack here might seem an unnecessary tangent and addendum to my thesis, except for one thing. Each evening as I worked there I could look up from my pages and see not just the needlegrass and winding creek and oaks on the opposite bank, but the setting sun.
That was because when I built the place I had unconsciously made a decision that I remain quite happy with.
The shack faces west.
BOOKS MENTIONED IN THIS ESSAY:
“A rallying cry in the age of climate change.” —Robert Redford
"As we face environmental dangers unimagined in Roosevelt’s day, Mr. Gessner asks what TR would do with our surviving wilderness. The impassioned response: Leave it as it is."
—Wall Street Journal
A New York Times Bestseller
An Amazon Best Nonfiction Book of 2015
A Kirkus Best Book of 2015 and best books about Significant Figures in the Arts and Humanities
The Christian Science Monitor’s Top Ten Nonfiction Book of the Year
Southwest Book of the Year
A Smithsonian Best History Book
To the Best of Our Knowledge Top Ten book of the year
"“David Gessner has been a font of creativity ever since the 1980s, when he published provocative political cartoons in that famous campus magazine, the Harvard Crimson. These days he’s a naturalist, a professor and a master of the art of telling humorous and thought-provoking narratives about unusual people in out-of-the way-places. To his highly original body of work, he brings a sense of awe for the untamed universe and a profound appreciation for the raucous literature of the West. “All the Wild That Remains” ought to be devoured by everyone who cares about the Earth and its future. “For me there is no wild life without a moral life,” Gessner writes with all the force that Henry David Thoreau might have expressed. All the Wild That Remains” offers a contemporary call of the wild that resonates loudly and clearly from one coast to the other " --The San Francisco Chronicle.
“Among the Classics of American Nature Writing.”
The Boston Globe
"Gessner's essays are on fire. He shows us that we can have delightful, imaginative and creative lives by becoming more rooted and connected to the place where we are...Wise and enlivening, provoking us into a higher understanding of both nature and ourselves."
--Rocky Mountain News
“A highly readable, disarmingly self-conscious meditation on life and nature, ancestry, and mortality…There are small surprises on every page of this touching, troubling memoir.”
--The Boston Globe
David Gessner is the author of twelve books that blend a love of nature, humor, memoir, and environmentalism, including his latest, Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight: Sheltering with Thoreau in the Age of Crisis and Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness. Gessner is a professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where he is also the founder and Editor-in-Chief of the literary magazine, Ecotone. His own magazine publications include pieces in the New York Times Magazine, Outside, Sierra, Audubon, Orion, and many other magazines, and his prizes include a Pushcart Prize and the John Burroughs Award for Best Nature Essay for his essay “Learning to Surf.” He has also won the Association for Study of Literature and the Environment’s award for best book of creative writing, and the Reed Award for Best Book on the Southern Environment. In 2017 he hosted the National Geographic Explorer show, "The Call of the Wild."
He is married to the novelist Nina de Gramont, whose latest book is The Christie Affair.