- Interview with William deBuys
“On my twenty-seven year circuit up and down arroyos and back by the river and the field, the layering of repetition and memory has so twined my sense of the land with my sense of my own past that one leads to the other and back again without the least interruption.” This is the premise underlying “The Walk,” the first of three essays in William deBuys’s most recent book, also titled The Walk. Set on a tract of land in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico, in the village of El Valle, along the Río de Las Trampas (River of Traps), the essay follows the author on a walk around the land he has worked for decades as he tries to deal with his losses—the end of his marriage, the deaths of friends. The two essays that follow “The Walk” in this small book, “Geranium” and “Paradiso,” take him further into his search for a way to find some measure of peace within himself. Together the essays offer an engrossing and moving meditation on grief and hope.
Although William deBuys was born in Baltimore and educated in France, North Carolina, and Texas, for nearly 30 years he has been associated with the American Southwest, working as a conservationist and environmental activist and writing award-winning books about land and people. He first came to New Mexico in 1972 as a research assistant to the psychologist Robert Coles, and within a few years he, his artist wife, and the photographer Alex Harris had purchased land in El Valle. DeBuys writes memorably about the region in his first book, Enchantment and Exploitation: The Life and Hard Times of a New Mexico Mountain Range (1985), which won a Southwest Book Award. A second book, written by deBuys and illustrated by Harris, River of Traps: A Village Life (1990), focused more tightly on El Valle and the friendship of the young writer and photographer with an aged farmer, Jacobo Romero, who taught them how to live on land that Hispanic New Mexicans had farmed for generations. The book was a finalist for the 1991 Pulitzer Prize, won the Evans Biography Award from Utah State University, and was listed as a 1990 New York Times Notable Book. Working with another photographer, Joan [End Page 133] Myers, deBuys also wrote Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California (1999), a book about the uses of the Colorado River for irrigation and recreation, the accidental creation of the Salton Sea in the California desert, and its devastating aftermath. The book won the 1999 Western States Book Award for Creative Nonfiction, and several other major awards for nonfiction and history. He also edited Seeing Things Whole: The Essential John Wesley Powell (2004), a selection of the writings of the major nineteenth-century explorer and environmental thinker best known for his epic exploration of the Colorado River. DeBuys also worked on environmental issues and taught; he is presently a professor of documentary studies at the College of Santa Fe. After the creation of Valles Caldera National Preserve by Congress in 2000, deBuys was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the board of the Valles Caldera Trust, which administers the preserve. He served as the chairman of the trust’s board from 2001 to 2005. With photographer Don J. Usner, he produced the book Valles Caldera: A Vision for New Mexico’s National Preserve (2006).
In June 2007, deBuys came to read from The Walk for the Rocky Mountain Land Series at the Tattered Cover Book Store in downtown Denver. This interview took place the following morning, in the backyard of the central Denver home of the editors of The Bloomsbury Review, with birds chirping throughout the interview and a squirrel snacking in the tree overhead.
Root: You said at the reading at the Tattered Cover that the first sentence of this essay sort of came to you, but you had been thinking about this kind of essay for a while. What exactly was going on when you were thinking about that essay?
deBuys: Well, I’d been thinking that there was material to write...