David Gessner, II

We continue our conversation with David Gessner, the author of “Sick of Nature,” and “All the Wild that Remains.”

coverwild2_3-210The University of North Carolina-Wilmington professor urges his students to mix it up and take the “precious” out of their writing. With the acclaimed journal, Ecotone, he advocates for new voices and mediums. With his YouTube channel, he crawls in the mud, parodies his professorial self, and drinks beer.

We met in Salt Lake City and spent some time talking, hiking, birding, and quaffing before his book signing at The King’s English Bookshop. Enjoy these conversation excerpts on three UtahOutsider pages:

Read Part I

Read Part III

UO: I find getting outside provides content but it also puts me in a healthy state of mind. Does it do double duty for you, too?

DG: I think it does triple duty. I pretty much walk every day. I’m walking for exercise, obviously. And I’m a birder, so I’m birding. But more and more, my writing life is entangled with my walking life.

About 20 years ago, we were living on Cape Cod. I have a favorite place, which was the bluff where these bank swallows live and I had found a coyote that had drowned and I watched it decompose over the years. It was pretty amazing. A bird place and you’d see seals. An exciting spot. I’d known it since I was a little kid. I loved this place. It is probably the most special place for me in the world, still.

AR-704120325One day, I saw the beginning bones of this trophy house being built atop it. It became over the next couple of years, this continuing war as I tried to restrict them from doing anything with the beach. One of those first days I saw the construction, I had my digital recorder as I have now, and I started to speak to the neighbor in the second person:

‘You will be moving into your new house soon…” Pretty much wrote a whole essay, full blown, that appeared in Orion magazine… That really showed to me the voice-driven aspect of my own writing. More and more, I use this recorder.

So, I take these walks, trying to stop my monkey brain…I’m birding, but I’m also occasionally recording what will directly go into my writing.

The other thing that’s really evolved is that at the beginning of the walk, I often pose questions about what I’m working on, and then don’t think about them. Quite often, they’ll be answered by the end of the walk. That’s been an interesting development.

More and more, I think of writing as problem solving. And the walk tends to untangle them and give me answers. It’s really doing a lot of things.

Sick-210-expUO: There is such attention being paid to mindfulness, Zen thought, etc. It seems to be, however, that there are merits to a stream of consciousness. Are they opposites? And, are both beneficial?

DG: In a way, they are and in a way, they aren’t opposites. This for me is a little complicated. “Trail rhythm” is what my professor, Red Saner, called it. When you’re just in a rhythm and your brain is somewhat quieted. That doesn’t happen too often since, to me, it requires some exertion to quiet down the brain. I used to get down on myself for taking walks where I’m in my mind most of the time. I don’t anymore.

I actually just wrote a short thing in my journal called On a Particular Lie on Nature Writing. The lie is that you walk into the woods and you’re John Muir. Or, that John Muir was John Muir. It’s that the whole time you’re out looking at things and that your mind is empty.

In one of my favorite moments in literary biography, Samuel Johnson has this minister friend who comes to him and says I’m really worried. I’m having these impure thoughts. Not impure as in sexual, but just weird. Johnson replies:”four out of five of my thoughts are impure.” I think that’s fairly accurate for human beings. People shouldn’t get down on themselves if they’re not in this Zen state when they walk.

 UO: There are merits, too, for just letting the brain jump from thought to thought?

DG: I had testicular cancer when I was 29 and John Cabot Zen ****was one of the doctors at the hospital. He taught us to meditate and to be mindful. I’d actually had some struggles as a young teenager and had taught myself to hypnotize myself,

David Gessner

David Gessner

which is the same thing. basically.

So, the word mindfulness makes me want to kick back a little bit. And not kick back as in to relax. Kick back as in to object. As I like to say, cows are probably pretty good at being in the moment. Human beings not so much.

As you get older, those little thoughtless moments come less frequently…We’re worried about our kids, our jobs, that sort of thing. So, I think there’s value to them.

But there’s value in the opposite, too, which is exactly what you’re talking about. I’ve been on a huge William James kick over the last year and a half. And he, even more than David Foster Wallace, is all about the way the mind moves in that way. He has a great line. He says you can always map backward the way those jumps came, but you can never map forward. Like you can say, ‘I thought of corn chips because of that trip to New Mexico’ but you never know where you’ll go from corn chips. And that’s the fun of it. That’s how the human mind works. It’s very exciting to me.

That kind of flitting is a very healthy thing. That’s where a lot of breakthroughs happen. I try to tell my students about how reliably those words come during walks.

 UO: Yes, you answer your questions by the time the walk is over. Shifting direction a bit: Do you ever get discouraged by where we’re going as a society vis a vis the wilderness?

DG: On this book tour, I’ve been encouraged by the crowds I’m getting. I’ve been discouraged by the demographics, particularly age. Everybody’s old.

…I do think the virtual world seems to be a huge threat to the actual world, to doing the things we were just talking about, to being able to spend some time being a little bored. There’s a need for that brooding, the brain’s subterranean work.

So, I think there’s a legitimate threat there. And I think there’s a tradition in this country that’s threatened by where our focus is being directed: towards screens and information above all else.

Gessner near his N.C. home

Gessner near his N.C. home

I try in my classes to bring them to Bald Head Island, off coast of North Carolina. We go on camping trips to Mason Head Island. I try to get out on walks with them. Leave the phones at home.

Also, it never was everyone reading Thoreau. If everyone was reading Thoreau, it would have been ridiculous. So, there’s a rebellious aspect to really getting out. My old professor in college used to say, one poet looking out on the shore is sublime. Two is ridiculous.

We don’t want everyone out there in the woods. That’s one thing about Abbey and Stegner, particularly Abbey. The whole cliché of Thoreau is people reading Thoreau and wanting to live in a cabin in Walden instead of thinking, I want to live my individual life.

Abbey’s the same way. People read Abbey and want to be Abbey, not getting that the whole thrill of it is, he’s being particularly himself. So, I really believe it’s a legitimate and large problem, people focused down on the screens. But there’s got to be little bands of rebels out there who will fight back.


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