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  • "The Universe is Imaginative"An Interview with David Robertson
  • Helena Feder (bio)

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Fig 1.

David Robertson at University of California's Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve. © 2015 Helena Feder.

I recently had the good fortune to sit down with David Robertson and discuss his work as an artist, scholar, and one of the first to teach literature with an emphasis on bioregion, and the enduring questions and complexities of nature-culture.

Robertson earned PhDs from the University of California at Irvine (English, 1972) and Yale University (Biblical Studies, 1966). He [End Page 243] joined the faculty of the University of California at Davis in 1971 and served as Department Chair from 2003–06. Robertson has published several books of images and text (Black Holes, Bypass Press, 1980; Real Matter, University of Utah Press, 1997; Narrow Way to Nearby, Boise State Press, 2000) and numerous articles, some creative, others a hybrid of scholarly and creative work. Robertson has participated in many two-person and group exhibitions, and thus far has had over a dozen solo exhibits at various galleries, including the Ansel Adams Gallery at Yosemite National Park, the ARC Gallery in Chicago, the Galleria at the University of California at Berkeley, the Carnegie Arts Center in Turlock, the Nathan Cummings Art Building at Stanford University, the Adell McMillan Art Gallery at the University of Oregon, the German-American Institute in Tüebingen, Germany, and a retrospective exhibit at the John Natsoulas Gallery in Davis. His photographs have also appeared on the cover of a number of books, including Gary Snyder's Practice of the Wild and The Gary Snyder Reader, and he has been awarded Artist-in-Residence at Yosemite National Park four times between 1990 and 2014, and once at the Center for Land Use Interpretation, in Wendover, Utah.

David's work as an artist and a professor, his being human in the universe, has had a profound, inestimable impact on his audience, students, and colleagues. In April of 1988, Robertson and Ted Hullar, then Chancellor of the University of California at Davis, drove up to Gary Snyder's place in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Kitkitdizze, to meet with a group of humanists from Davis (Marijane Osborn, Will Baker, Michael Smith, Scott McLean, Robert Torrance, and Manfred Kusch) at the Ring of Bone Zendo on Snyder's property to discuss their common interest in the relationships between the natural and human. The result was the ground-breaking Program in Nature and Culture, the very first of its kind.

David told me, "We did not particularly like the name, for it expressed the very dualism we opposed. But Snyder said, 'Well, Nature and Culture is everything, so this is a major about Everything.' And so the name stuck." Various scientists ended up playing a significant role in the formation of the program, including Lenora Timm (Linguistics), Mark Wheelis (Microbiology), Peter Moyle (Wildlife [End Page 244] Biology), and Eldridge Moores (Geology). The program was incredibly successful; as David put it, "the Program in Nature and Culture was the product of a time, a place, and a group of people. Over time Davis changed; the times themselves changed. People left, but the students of the Program in Nature and Culture carried a sense of the 'Everything' with them."

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Fig 2.

Nature and Culture Program founders' gathering at Ring of Bone Zendo. Left to right: Ted Hullar, Michael Smith, Marijane Osborn, Scott McLean, Will Baker, Gary Snyder, Masa Uehara, Robert Torrance, Manfred Kusch. © 1988 David Robertson.


You taught Thoreau for roughly thirty years. Do you have a favorite passage?


I like his account of climbing Mount Katahdin, and the "Contact! Contact!" passage. He's wandering around and then, all of a sudden, something happens. He's made contact with the mountain, with himself maybe. I don't think he quite understands it, which is probably true of all experiences of that sort, mystical or otherwise. What I find most interesting is he immediately realizes that it's a body-to-body contact: his body with the body of the mountain. [End Page 245]




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