Pluralistic: 25 May 2022

Today's links

A photo of Kim Stanley Robinson at a conference, speaking into a microphone.

Talking with Kim Stanley Robinson about "The High Sierra" (permalink)

This month, the great Kim Stanley Robinson published "The High Sierra," an odd combination of memoir, natural history, mountaineering guidebook, and environmental manifesto. At one point, Robinson told me it would be his last book. Thankfully, he changed his mind, but I can see why he'd think of this as a career capstone.

I'm both an ardent admirer of Stan's work and an old friend of his, so I was delighted to get the chance to interview him for Fatherly magazine, as a feature in their Outside issue:

Given the magazine's parenting focus, much of our interview was concerned with going outdoors with children. Stan says that conversations with kids about wilderness and the climate should start with a personal connection: "50% of the DNA inside your body is not human DNA. You yourself are a forest. You are an amazing collaboration between literally millions of individuals and thousands of species."

He says that this sense of connection is the key to environmental advocacy, that nurturing the idea that the wild places are you, and you are part of them, is how we bring these issues into focus for kids.

But he also has a lot of practical advice for bringing kids to the wild places – especially his beloved Sierras. He is part of the minimalist camping movement, venturing out with supplies weighing in at 10% of his own body-weight on his back (no tents – just a tarp and a groundpad!). This lightness makes moving and scrambling through the high country much easier, including for kids.

He counsels buddying up, bringing another family or several families, so you – and your kids – have some playmates when you make camp. He says that even the most screen-loving kids will, if left to their own in the wild country – start to make up games, take themselves on explorations, and deepen that connection.

Stan thinks that connection can create hope, by which he means resolve. As he depicts in his 2020 novel Ministry for the Future, there are paths through the climate emergency: difficult and fraught ones, but there to be sure. Those of us in wealthy places will be the last ones swept up by the worst crises and we have a moral duty to use that extra time to fight for a sustainable future.

As he says, "Whatever can be done must be done — and the sooner the better."

Robinson's own life was transformed by wilderness. He describes his boyhood in "a white bread, scrubbed-of-all-traces-of-personality town" in Orange County, where swimming 20 yards out into the ocean transformed his life into adventure, as "Mother Nature tried to kill me." Years later, as an undergrad, he took LSD with a couple friends and hiked into the Sierras "and never came down."

He counsels parents to bring their kids on these hiking campouts, not car camping ("the worst of both worlds," where you do what you did at home, but badly, "in a little tenement of people in other cars nearby"). Bring your kids to the mountains for four days, so they end it thinking, "Damn, I could have used more."

Being outside is a big part of Stan's approach to life. He told me that for 16 years, he's worked under a tarp in his backyard, rain or shine: "There’s a lot of people who know it’s fun to be outdoors because they’re carpenters and they’re outdoors all the time, and they like it. Farmers too. But writers, not so much."

He's right. A couple years ago, we hung a hammock under the eaves of our house in Burbank and I have barely left it since. I have a shade umbrella and a power cable, and mosquito spray for the bug-months. My Zoom colleagues love it, but they've insisted that I stop rocking on calls, because they get seasick."

Stan quotes Leopold: "What's good is what’s good for the land.' It’s a deep moral orientation — like a compass north…It becomes a rubric you can follow all over the place."

If you'd like to read my interview with Stan, it's here:

and my review of The High Sierra is here:

(Image: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The cover of Kim Stanley Robinson's 'The High Sierra.'

Kim Stanley Robinson's "The High Sierra" (permalink)

One of the last friends I got to hang out with before lockdown hit was Kim Stanley Robinson, an enormously talented writer and incredibly kind and smart person. Stan told me that he'd just finished a major novel, maybe the major novel of his life, called Ministry for the Future, and that next he was going to write his "Sierra book," a book about the Sierra Nevada mountain range. He said he thought it might be his last book.

Not in a morbid sense, you understand. Rather, I got the impression from Stan that if once he'd published Ministry – a book that plots a plausible course through the climate emergency and out the other side – and the Sierra book, he'd have said everything he had to say, written all of us all the letters he needed to write to tell us all the things he wanted us to know.

Ministry was a triumph, as I knew it would be. Stan is an incredible novelist and a profound and insightful environmentalist. He'd been circling the themes in Ministry for decades and this is the book where he lands his bullseye. It's a book that's making a difference in the world. He's just come back from India, where he met with the Dalai Lama to discuss its messages.

Ministry is brilliant, in a way that I entirely expected it to be, because I know the part of Stan Robinson that produced that book pretty well. But I didn't know what to expect of the Sierra book. I knew Stan was wont to disappear into the Sierras for weeks at a time, and I knew those trips informed the lyrical – even transcendental – pastoral passages in his fiction. But I'm not much of an outdoors person. I like the wild places, visit them when I can, but it's a rare thing for me to get up and wish I was in the wilderness.

Months ticked by. Years. Lockdown, pandemic, wildfires, uprisings, political upheavals. Ministry blew the windows out. Stan and I chatted from time to time. I learned that he'd been at the bottom of the Grand Canyon when lockdown hit, didn't even know about it until he emerged from the wilderness to learn that the world had forever changed. I learned that he had changed his mind about being done with novels. It was a genuine consolation amid all the chaos and worry.

Then, the Sierra book showed up at my mailbox. The High Sierra: A Love Story, an oversized book as fat as a brick, or as one of the Mars trilogy, weighing in at 530 pages. I read it over the span of weeks, savoring it, thinking about what I was learning from it. It's hard book to describe – now I understand why Stan just called it "The Sierra Book" rather than "my nature book," or "my memoir," or "my hiking guide." It is all of those things, and it's a unique and profound piece of western literature, but it's also very, very hard to describe.

I think the key is in that subtitle: "A Love Story." I knew Stan loved the Sierra wilderness, of course, but love is complicated and hard work, and if you asked a writer as talented and thoughtful and empathic as Kim Stanley Robinson to tell you the true, whole story of why and how he loved his wife or his kids, you might get a book like this.

A true love story is complicated. It's about physical features. It's about feelings – the feelings of the person you love and the feelings they provoke in you. It's about history, long history – the person your love made of you, and the person your love was before you came along. It's a collection of moments. It's a collection of instructions – to yourself, to get along with your love (which not always easy) – and to others, who, you hope, will treat your love with care.

That's what Stan's Sierra book is: a love story. It's a memoir, of how Stan came to be a Sierra person, starting with a reckless adventure in the mountains while tripping on LSD, wildly unprepared but young and vigorous and lucky. It's not Stan's life story, not exactly – more like the impressionistic vignettes a lifelong couple might treat as touchstones, that crazy time when, that dramatic time when, that hilarious time when.

It's a love story, so it's a story about the physical being of the Sierra. The Sierra is revealed as the source of Robinson's novelistic pastoralism – the vividness of the Martian hills, of space station interiors, of Antarctica. All of those descriptions are thinly veiled Sierras, like a set of stock characters in a novelist's ensemble cast who are stand-ins for the people in his life.

Captured by a master of science fiction, the Sierras are in eminently qualified hands. Robinson's lyricism is countersunk by his scientific enthusiasms, and the chapters in this book that describe the evolution of the rocks and the planet have the technical precision of a geologist's paper at a learned conference, and the poesie of a love poem or a watercolor.

It's a love story, so it's a story about the problems of the Sierras. The colonialism. The genocide. The place-names honoring the monsters of history, butted up against names commemorating heroes and lovers of the place, some settler colonialists, some First Nations. The ecocide, going back to the drowning of the Hetch Hetchy basin, not just to create a reservoir but to demoralize the advocates for nature and wilderness, scatter them so powerful men could continue to seize and destroy wild places. The ecocide of today, the glacial retreats that Robinson can personally attest to, year after year.

It's a love story, so it's a story about living with the Sierras. Robinson recounts the history of the summer settlements – the places where First Nations people would come, year after year, for centuries, for fellowship and interchange and ritual. He tells the tale of the Sierra Club, the men – and especially the women – who loved the Sierras and whom the Sierra loved back. Robinson tells you how to camp like he and his friends camp – not with huge backpacks (he calls them "SUVs") and heavy gear from outdoor stores, but with highly specialized gear weighing no more than 10% of your body weight, all in.

The gear chapter is as science fictional as any technical passage out of a Neal Stephenson novel, an absolute geek-out revel in material science, biomechanics, praxis, and, above all, the feeling of being nearly unencumbered in the high, wild places, where the sky and the ground sometimes swap colors and the stars are thicker and brighter than any place you've ever been, and you sleep out under those stars, not even bothering with the tarp you use instead of a tent.

Even for a love story, this is a book with an odd structure. A short chapter on geomorphism. Another on big horn sheep. Another on John Muir – whom Robinson defends passionately, with a palpable fury at the misplaced and ahistorical attempt to paint Muir as a monster and an advocate for genocide. Another on Robinson's first marriage. Then a technical chapter on "scrambling" – hiking up or down loose terrain with your hiking sticks turning into forward appendages, so you can "go quadruped."

The tale bounces around in time, back to the early history of the Earth's landmasses, Robinson's boyhood as a surf-rat in a soulless Southern California beach town, his time as a faculty husband in Zurich, the early days of the Sierra Club, the events at California bookstores to commemorate the publication of an anthology of Sierra writing.

At first blush, it feels a little… unstructured. But as much as Robinson is an ecologist and a Sierra person and a father and a husband and a teacher, he's also a novelist and whether deliberately or accidentally, he has given his love story a narrative arc. This love story is a tale, and it has rising tension and urgency, a climax, a denouement. It's an arc that's only visible in retrospect, like the true character of the folded and rocky lands he traverses, only comprehensible from the high ground, when you turn and look back on where you've come.

I've taught with Robinson, at the Clarion workshop at UCSD, which we both graduated from, back when it was at MSU. I took Robinson out with my students one year, on the walk to the La Jolla cliffs that I drag them to every night for sunset, because, as busy as they are, I want to impress on them that their bodies are not inconvenient meat-robots that lug their brains around.

On that walk, Robinson told us of his grad-school years at USCD, and how he moved out of the dorms at one point and lived in a cave on that very cliffside. It was a marvellous story, of course, and it impressed on me how different the people you admire can be from your own self. I love the idea of sleeping in a cave and have no interest in ever actually doing so.

Being on the periphery of Stan's Sierra adventures – running into him at conferences just before he disappeared into the high country or just after his return – I assumed that the Stan's Sierras were like his grad-school cliffside cave. That it was something Stan loved and I loved to know about, but would never want to try.

But Stan's love story changed my mind, the way a love story can. Stan made me fall in love with a place I've never been, and miss it even though I've never known it. I've just had both my hips replaced, and I've never been much of an athlete, but despite all that, I find myself wanting to go to these places and capture the feelings Stan describes so vividly. I don't claim to know how it feels to be Stan in the Sierras – if there's one thing this book impresses on the reader, it's that a successful relationship with the Sierras is numinous and irreducible – but I think I understand the intensity of that feeling.

I had a wild place, once. Not too wild, but still. A co-op-owned education center on an island in eastern Ontario where I went to summer camp and then volunteered and then joined its board. It wasn't untamed or ancient the way the Sierras are, but it was a place where I felt something I never felt anywhere else, not before or since. We lost the island in one of the economic crises of the early 1990s, and had to sell it off, and I've been back twice since. Just thinking about it makes my chest ache a little, the way it does when I think of old loves lost and old friendships that didn't make it.

Robinson still has his love, and he wants you to love it too. His love story is, thankfully, not the end of his books, but honestly, I can see why he would have said that he might end them here. The Sierras made Stan, and The High Sierra is like a key that unlocks his entire body of work, tracing its origins and inspirations. For millennia, the high Sierra passes and valleys and basins have made new kinds of people out of their visitors – Sierra people. Stan wants us all to be Sierra people, I think, at least a little.

Hey look at this (permalink)

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Map of a notional LA subway based on the London Tube

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#10yrsago NYC lawyer loses $100K suit over healthclub that stopped supplying yogurt and cereal

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#1yrago We promised this vaccine waiver 20 years ago

Colophon (permalink)

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