Five questions with: Author Leslie Carol Roberts

Reading: Leslie Carol Roberts, Here Is Where I Walk

Prairie Lights — Thursday, May 2 at 7 p.m.

Leslie Carol Roberts reads Thursday, May 2 at Prairie Lights. — courtesy of the author

There is more than one way to look at a tree, or a wooded path, or a full forest. Nature has a way of stripping down our perceptions—peeling back the layers of day to day, the social contract and the other features of life that can change the way we see what surrounds us. The wilderness reminds us of a system of existence that is ancient and persistent, that has the ability to recall our parts of our memory back to our consciousness.

Zooming out to Presidio National Park, on the waterline in the heart of San Francisco, we find a particular example of this in author and professor Leslie Carol Roberts’ most recent book, Here Is Where I Walk, a meticulous examination of nature, identity and the complex relationship between them.

With 12 movements echoing the calendar year, Roberts uses the stark contrast of the protected wilderness and urban boundaries of Presidio National Park to lead readers on a walk that gives readers a glimpse at the many unique features of its ecosystem, including semi-urban animals. She uses it as a backdrop to dissect our own, human ecosystems and what they mean in context of living and surviving in the world.

Roberts will be reading at Prairie Lights on Thursday, May 2, in what will be a brief homecoming; she studied with the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program for her MFA. Here Is Where I Walk itself even touches lightly, and tragically, on her time at The University of Iowa. She now resides in California, serving as both a professor and chair of the MFA writing program at California College of the Arts, San Francisco.

Roberts spoke to Little Village about her writing, the natural world and her inspiration behind Here Is Where I Walk.

‘Here Is Where I Walk,’ published April, 2019 by University of Nevada Press

Here Is Where I Walk is your second book. How was the process of writing this set of stories different from working on The Entire Earth and Sky?

The Entire Earth and Sky started when I was a graduate student in the Nonfiction Writing Program at Iowa, working with Paul Diehl and David Hamilton and Ed Folsom — and then was more deeply researched when I was a Fulbright Fellow in New Zealand. The book had specific stages of development. This helped me develop a methodology for Here Is Where I Walk. I wanted to see what a book about everyday walks would look like, one that had a more open “brief” — that is, one that might fail because I might not find much to say.

I don’t believe in “talent” for writers. Everyone who commits to writing is talented in some way. The difference for me is whether you can figure out and commit to what you have to say. Here Is Where I Walk very quickly became a work that had something to say. So I just breathed in, walked and listened.

Much of your work can be read as deeply personal, and also very rooted in the natural world, and I hear you worked with Greenpeace during your time at The Herald. Has the protection and preservation of the natural world always been a source of information for you or was this passion sparked by your experiences as a journalist?

I actually don’t think my work is deeply personal — and deliberately not so. There are many writers who so beautifully perform the personal. My work is more about form and integrating a personal narrative with views on ecologies. How do ordinary people experience the world? In my case, through a series of lucky breaks, I wound up on a ship in the Antarctic, and it changed my life. I had the privilege of meeting women and men who were committed to saving the world.

I was young when I met them so I had no idea how far-fetched this would be for most people. Now we are all so subsumed in late capitalism, lost in what the philosopher Timothy Morton calls “agrilogistics” — the din of stats, basically. It is this din that causes all of us, right now, to fear the future as we roll into the sixth mass extinction.

My book is trying to argue for another narrative: that if we can each understand our local world, in our own way, we have a beautiful shot at creating a better imaginary of the future.

Can you define an ecosystem, especially in the context of the parts of earth that humans aren’t? With something like Presidio National Park, where urban and preserved nature interact, is this definition changed, stretched or amended at all?

I think the best way to think about ecologies — or “ecosystems” — is to look outside and then stand up and walk outside. Here is where you walk — you dig? What I love about walks with trees is the interaction of my mind with them. Why, when I walk in the woods, do I recall my beloved high school art teacher, who was an early victim of AIDS? Why do I observe some species, like the banana slug, and not others, like the robin? As we learn more about the effects of nature on the brain, we find that very quickly — I think it is in under 15 minutes in the woods — the brain begins behaving in very different ways. It relaxes and takes in more sensory experience. Who doesn’t want that?

For a number of people, descriptions of the natural world tend to be highly rooted in place and location; however, in Here is Where I Walk, you use the context of Presidio to explore other places, times and people. Can you speak to how the canvas of a natural space can encourage introspection?

All walks into nature elicit thoughts of both the present and the past. Nature will have different definitions for different people — I discuss this in the book. Wilderness and wildness are not objective. The point is, who cares what the “true wild” is? What matters is what nature is for you — not for some dude in some remote place about to dive into an even more remote corner of the ocean.

For too long, people have been invited to make this hierarchy about nature and place — I hang around with a lot of Antarctic explorers, and most places most people think of as wild nature fall short in their eyes. But wait: Is this some sort of contest? No. It is entirely personal.

If your city park meets your needs for solace and allows you to lose yourself in the sounds and smells of the trees, I don’t want you to think you are not in a version of the wild. You are. It’s all a matter of degrees. Figure out what your own nature jam is, and then celebrate it.

Finally, you imply in previews that there is a degree of communication between human and nature, and that “wild places communicate with and beckon us into their fold.” In light of April’s Earth Day sensibilities, what can people do to be more cognizant of or open to this interaction with nature?

Nature has published reports on the “world wood web,” which I discuss in the opening pages of my book. That is, how trees communicate among themselves and with other species. We are already each cognizant of this communication. It might be that lilac bush by your driveway or the blue spruce in your yard or some tree you see as you commute to work each day. You feel it. It’s there already.

My main point is this: As we head deeper into the sixth mass extinction, we have a shot at making sense of it all through better stories. Not stories of dystopian futures where we all hunt each other. That’s BS. What I want is a new creative imaginary, one where we discuss how trees talk among themselves — and in my book I extend that to the idea that trees talk to us.

Our buddy Walt Whitman said the same thing: Nothing new here! Celebrate what you see. We live on a beautiful planet.

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