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  • A Quiet Lie of Nature Writing
  • David Gessner

That morning, fog had chopped off the tops of the mountains, and then the afternoon rain, spiced with hail, hammered the roof of our house. But near dusk, sun slanted down through the openings between the foothills, and I decided to accept its invitation, following its rays like a path upward. The trail into Gregory Canyon, like most of those in Boulder, Colorado, can sometimes seem take-a-number crowded, but bad weather always clears away the mob and guarantees some return to wildness, and that evening, the fact that the local mountain lions would soon be waking for dinner did the same.

To add more edge to my adventure, I decided to nibble on one of the edibles I had bought the day before at the pot store that had opened across the street from the Justice Center. “I’m sorry, but we even card old people,” said the young man in the anteroom, before admitting me into the inner sanctum of weed. There an equally young sommelier showed me his wares and described their various effects. “Would you like to be in your mind or your body?” he asked. “Body, please,” I said, not adding that I spent too much fucking time in my mind. When I left the store I was the proud owner of a Rookie Cookie, two bags of Chill Pills, and some globby thing that looked like a dollop of cookie dough, whose name I can’t remember.

With a quarter of the Rookie Cookie in my gullet, the dying sun painting the trail in Tolkien hues, and the canyon to myself, you might think I was primed for transcendence. And I kind of was. I stared at three magpies loitering on the trail, and they squawked at me before grudgingly hopping off. A mild trippiness purred through my brain, and I liked the way my legs, trained by a month of biking and hiking, were churning up the trail, marching to their own orders. I even had a little epiphany or two—scribbling down a note about how I wanted to get back to the cave-painting roots of storytelling, to start cartooning more and writing less—and maybe even laughed out loud once or twice about my good fortune at being where I was.

But I am wary of the direction I’m steering this essay. The essay is not the day after all, not the walk itself. Lately, I have come to think of genre as a kind of literary pinball machine, with bumpers that guide you in certain directions [End Page 11] no matter how much you flap your flippers. And the pinball machine of nature writing is always pointing me toward what feels like a sometimes-unearned profundity, a whole lot of oohing and aahing. From reading the work of many of my fellow nature writers, you would think that they, after heading into the woods, spent their entire walks thinking deeply about the world, aware of the names of every bird, tree, and toad while pondering the fate of climate change, wilderness, and humanity’s future. And of course those writers are also sometimes showered with ecstatic moments of thoughtless delight, moments when they reside in that near-mythic place, the present moment.

In fact, I would bet that most nature writers, like most human beings, spend the majority of their walks thinking about more-mundane things, like their plans and worries and things-to-do for tomorrow, and that they, like everyone else, have trouble escaping the spinning hamster wheels of their brains. They worry about what they are going to do at the office on Monday, even if they don’t have an office. They ruminate, and not just in the general way of philosophers and cows, thinking deeply or chewing the cud, but in that word’s more specific and less positive definition within psychology: the compulsive focus on negative aspects of the self. They turn inward as often as they turn out.

I should add that I am a daily walker and that my purpose here is not to debunk the glories of walking...


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pp. 11-13
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