Cool morning, and I’m out chopping wood in the empty lot behind the house. I figured if I was going to destroy my spine like this, might as well mitigate the pain with a view of the Chattahoochee River. One of the bald eagles who hangs out in a tree over the river is keeping me company.
Between chops, I see a vagrant-looking feller approaching from across the field, and I think, “Oh lord.”
There’s a homeless encampment up the river from us, so it’s not unusual for those guys to cross through the neighborhood en route to a store or whatnot — no harm, no foul — but this guy was coming for a chat.
I figured he wanted to beg a little money.
“Brother,” he says, “you’ve got the best view in the city right here.”
“Don’t I know it,” I said smiling.
He turns so he’s standing with me, and we’re both facing the river. He points to the tree with the eagle and says, “And how many people can say they’ve seen a bald eagle, here in Georgia!”
We’ve sometimes struggled to get even our neighbors juiced at the sighting of the rare bird in town, but this guy was as enthusiastic about her as Jenn and I were.
We traded a few more pleasantries, and absolutely no requests for financial aid, and the guy ambled on his way.
I thought about this meeting when I recently chatted with author and environmentalist Ken Ilgunas, whose new book, “Trespassing Across America,” involved hiking 1,700 miles from Canada’s tar fields to the Texas coast, along the route of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. (Read Jenn’s review of the book.)
Rite of way
On his trek through the heartland, Ilgunas was that wayfaring stranger to my suspicious and wary landowner. Only the landowners he faced were more likely to have guns, dogs or cows with a hankerin’ for a trample.
It was a great chat, which you can hear for yourself, embedded at the bottom of this post.
He talked about not regretting near-death at the front of a stampede, about why he wants the US to adopt a right-to-roam policy like other countries, about seeing the effects of climate change firsthand, and about why writers need to be more adventurous in life instead of just on the page. And a lot more.
Here are some highlights, beginning with where I asked him about an L.A. Times piece which criticized him for not being more confrontational with the pipeline proponents he met along the way. I empathized with him as a hiker, with a heavy pack, who could not safely escape an argument that went awry.
It’s not like you can start an argument with somebody and then can huff off to your car and drive away. You have to walk away, and slowly. So I totally understand being a little reticent to get in people’s faces about your beliefs about the pipeline, which, I think, weren’t even fully formed at the time, correct?
I certainly went into the project with strong prejudices. But as a suburbanite from New York who’d never been on the Great Plains and never really dealt with pipelines — and never really dealt much with climate change other than trusting in peer-reviewed science and reading a couple books on it — I felt like I needed to go into this project with a completely open mind, and to give prejudices a chance to either become more nuanced, or erase them, or to embolden them and to make them not just prejudices but well-informed thoughts. So, yeah, when I’m talking to these folks, at first especially, I’m just opening my mind and heart to them and just letting them speak and encouraging them to speak without getting in their face. Just think about the logistics of that. I’m wandering over this grassland. I need water, very badly, so I go knocking on a person’s door, and he asks what I’m doing, and, you know, we get to talking, and we get to trust each other. He invites me in for super, and I’m sharing a meal with his family, and then he says something about climate change denial. What am I suppose to do, say, “Hey, man, you’re completely full of shit.”? I can’t do that. I’m a polite person, but also, I know if I do that, I’m going to shut down the conversation, because suddenly I’m not just like this neutral observer gathering stories. Rather, I’m this tree-hugging, crazy environmentalist from New York, and suddenly you’re getting Donald Trump-like polarizing dynamics in which, you know, neither side is really interacting anymore. We’re both just kind of separated and angry.
Ilgunas expressed some sadness at not having a place to call home right now — which is a product of his need to find summer jobs between books, among other things. When he expressed a desire to have a more permanent home and a dedicated place to write, I countered:
There’s something to be said for a writer to take yourself away from comfort, though.
Having a space might actually hinder your progress.
Well, ideally, if they gave me a million dollars to write a book, I’d love to go on an adventure, and leave my home, and then come back and do research and write from there. I don’t think I’d be any less of a writer that way. But the two projects I’ve done, “Walden on Wheels” and “Trespassing Across America” both kind of capture the transient life, so I think there’s a lot to be said, at least for those sorts of books, for being a little unsettled. You know, when I think of young writers, I think their first instinct is to go to, like, an MFA program. And I don’t have anything disparaging to say about MFA programs. I think a lot of amazing authors have gone through them. But I think young folks should also consider the path less traveled. Think about some of our great American authors, like a John Steinbeck, or a Jack London, or an Ernest Hemingway, or Henry David Thoreau, or Herman Melville. The list goes on and on. Kurt Vonnegut. These are folks who lived their lives first, who journeyed, who took odd jobs, who got to explore America from so many different angles and got to see the country, outside their MFA program in New York City. I think that they brought all of their experiences and their breadth of knowledge and wisdom into their books, and I think a lot of young folks would benefit greatly from taking that path instead.
The cliche is “write what you know.” So if all you know is a classroom, it’s not going to make for very good reading.
I’m just so sick of picking up books that are set in upper middle class New York City or the surrounding suburbs. There’s a giant country out there. You know, there’s Nebraska, and Arkansas, and Montana, and northern California, and wherever. There’s so many stories to be told, and I think we’re just getting too many from just a few select locations in the country.
Ilgunas had an opinion piece recently in the New York Times, advocating the exploration of a “right to roam” law in the U.S., which would allow people to legally trek across private property, with some common-sense boundaries. Many European countries already have laws like these, but many (including Ilgunas) aren’t certain it would with with the American mentality of property rights.
Do you think more people would walk, if people were allowed to walk on private land?
That’s a good question. I think one reason why someone might argue no is that a lot of our places aren’t really designed with nearby green spaces. If you go into suburbia, oftentimes you’re surrounded by nothing but other suburbs and back yards, which are just not fit for walking and roaming. And certainly in cities, which most of the country is living in, they don’t have any access to farmland nearby. But certainly in small towns and mid-sized towns, there’s plenty of green spaces and I think that would certainly open up. City folk can go on little pilgrimages over the weekend and whatnot. So, yeah, I think it would better things. Would it transform the country? Would we suddenly go from being an obscenely obese country to not? Definitely not. But I don’t know. I think part of it is less about just walking and more about feeling like a country again. We are so separate and mistrusting and angry. I just look at these Nordic countries and places like Scotland, where they’re not entirely drowned in this vitriol they way we are. … I think the right to roam might bring us together a little bit. It’s not your land, it’s everyone’s land. This is our land. We’re going to share it. We’re going to walk past each other again. We’re going to say hello. We’re not going to be so individualized and polarized. I guess I kind of see it as more of a just a transformation in national psychology. I think it fits in with a lot of the democratic socialist stuff that Bernie Sanders is talking about.
One of my favorite passages in the book is where you write, “The solution to humanity’s biggest problems still escaped me, but I felt I could say one thing with confidence, especially after traveling 1,000 miles on foot: We could get by with far less.” That rang very, very true to Jenn and I, especially because we spent the last year purging belongings and kind of getting rid of junk that had been culling up in corners and closets. We did what we call The Great Purge, where we dumped a lot of stuff, and it felt fantastic. You’re living out of a suitcase, so I’m guessing you don’t have the same problem.
I’m living out of my Honda Civic, and I can move all of my belongings in that Honda Civic. So I’m traveling pretty light. This kind of goes back to the Keystone XL. This was being proposed 2010 through 2015. We’re in an age when we’re so much more aware of what climate change is doing to our planet. We’re so much more in favor of creating renewable energy infrastructure. And then the country has the gall to say, “Oh we’re just gonna throw this giant pipeline down the middle of the country that’s going to gush out 830,000 gallons of tar sands oil,” coming from tar sands — one of the largest environmental disasters in the entire world, that could very well be the worst in the entire world — and it’s just like, come on, is that what we need right now? I think that’s sort of why the country got so riled up over this one pipeline. The proponents of the pipeline were just, like, “Well, we need oil. We’re an oil dependent country.” On one level, that’s very true. However, what it came down to me was, do we need as much oil? When you look at the statistics, North Americans — Canadians and Americans, and you can lump Australians in there as well — we consume twice the amount of energy as Europe. We emit twice the amount of greenhouse gasses as Europe. And what’s the difference in standard of living between Canada, the U.S. and Australia and Europe? There’s practically nothing. So, it’s just like, why are we even consuming all this oil, when it’s not increasing our standard of living, it’s not making us any more happy? So maybe we don’t need these outmoded archaic conveyances and sources of energy in the age of the Anthropocene, when climate change is becoming more real and terrifying.
These highlights barely scratch the surface of the interview. But because we love you, here’s the entire 30-minute conversation. Stream it now or download it for listening to when you’re out for a walk.