The second blessing was the gift of both time and reason to devote myself to the craft of writing. This was partly due to my receiving a reward for finding a crashed airplane containing four unfortunate individuals, three weeks dead. The reward helped sustain me at a critical time, but its amount was less important than the manner of its coming. Quite by accident, I discovered the airplane in the course of a solitary November backpack in the frozen Pecos Wilderness, a region of high, windswept peaks and forests that I was struggling to write about. The reward seemed to be a grant from the mountains themselves, and it caused me to believe that if I quit my project, which at times I desperately wanted to do, I would be breaking the terms of the grant. No one would ask that the money be returned, but I feared the karmic consequences if I walked away. So I persevered. I kept making bad sentences hoping some good ones would eventually show up. In time, they did, and the going got easier.
Slowly, books came along. Enchantment and Exploitation evolved from my effort to write about the mountains. It was mostly composed at my farm in El Valle, New Mexico. Before it was finished, I took it on a detour through graduate school at the University of Texas, Austin, where it became a PhD dissertation. It was finally published in 1985 and has never been out of print since. A revised and expanded 30th anniversary edition was issued in 2015.
In collaboration with the photographer Alex Harris, my co-conspirator in many adventures, I wrote a tribute to our El Valle neighbor, mentor, and mutual dear friend Jacobo Romero. This was River of Traps, which appeared in 1990. The book was recognized as a finalist for the 1991 Pulitzer Prize in general non-fiction. The other two finalists that year made pretty good company: John McPhee, my writing idol, and EO Wilson, who with cowriter Bert Holldobler won the prize for a giant book on ants.
Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California (1999), with photographs by Joan Myers, received several history-related awards when it came out, and it later became the inspiration for the feature-length film The Colorado (2015), directed by Murat Eyuboglu, who is now a close friend.
Seeing Things Whole: The Essential John Wesley Powell
appeared in 2004 and Valles Caldera: A Vision for New Mexico’s National Preserve in 2006. Both books grew out of my day job—I supported my growing family working for land conservation organizations. In the early 1980s I directed the North Carolina chapter of The Nature Conservancy. With support from the Lyndhurst Foundation of Chattanooga (which allowed me to write River of Traps), I moved back to New Mexico in 1986 and worked as a consultant for TNC, The Conservation Fund, and other clients. Trying to save western rivers, lands, and livelihoods led inevitably to deep respect for John Wesley Powell and his vision for an alternate West.
In the late ’90s, I became involved in the nearly $100 million federal acquisition of Baca Location No. 1 in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico. Congress renamed the 89,000-acre tract the Valles Caldera National Preserve and assigned its management to an experimental entity, the Valles Caldera Trust. President Bill Clinton, in his last days in office, appointed the trust’s first slate of trustees. I was a member of that founding board and served as its chair until my term expired in January 2005. Another adventuring friend, the writer and photographer Don Usner, and I soon collaborated on a book about the Caldera, which tells the history of the acquisition and the early years of the trust. In 2020 we updated our book, producing a new edition that documents the transfer of the preserve to the National Park System and the massive ecological changes produced by the devastating Las Conchas fire of 2011.
It is fair to think of The Walk (2007) as a sequel to River of Traps. Like the earlier book, it is set in El Valle and some of the same people, or at least the same families, appear in it. The Walk is more purely memoir than any of my other books, and it explores what I think I have learned about grief and hope. None of my books is dearer to me.
In the late 2000s I taught Documentary Studies at the College of Santa Fe, coaching students in non-fiction writing derived from field work far from home. In 2008, as the college reeled from the nation’s financial crisis (it would soon go bankrupt), I was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, which allowed me to devote myself full-time to practicing what I preached. A primary result was A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, which the Western History Association recognized as the year’s best book on the Southwest.
Mere days after I sent off the finished manuscript of Aridness, I left the US for an assignment much farther afield: a three-weeks wildlife expedition in the forests of central Lao PDR, close by the border with Viet Nam. As Aridness had explored climate change (with a deep dive into the environmental history of the Southwest), the new project targeted another plague of the natural world, the wildlife trade and its toll on biodiversity. In the course of the expedition, conservation biologist William Robichaud and I traveled into a mountainous and jungled watershed never before seen by blue eyes. Out of that journey came my eighth book, The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Creatures, which was recognized by Men’s Journal as one of the best books of 2015 and by the Christian Science Monitor as one of the year’s ten best non-fiction books.
Even before Unicorn came out, I was drawn to another unusual project. My friend David Weber, the leading borderlands historian of our time, had died. His family asked me to complete a book that he had left half-finished. First Impressions: A Reader’s Journey to Iconic Places of the American Southwest came out in 2017. Each chapter is a more or less stand-alone examination of an exceptional place, and the book is richly illustrated with images integral to its historical stories.
Last but far from least is my tenth book, Discovering Earth: Beauty and Loss in the High Himalaya. In 2016 and again in 2018 I joined medical expeditions into Upper Dolpo, a remote, ethnically Tibetan region of northwestern Nepal. Having written about climate change and species extinction, I went on those journeys seeking a kind of consolation. I needed to find a constructive way of living with the discouraging implications of what I had learned. I also felt a need to celebrate the beauty of Earth. Discovering Earth describes my pilgrimage toward those goals. It is scheduled to appear in 2021.
Meanwhile, other writing projects simmer on back burners. We’ll see which one comes to the fore after Discovering Earth is ready to serve. Stay tuned.