I wanted to re-publish the piece I wrote about taking “The Walk” with William deBuys to celebrate his receiving the inaugural Jane Wing Petchesky Conservation Award from the New Mexico Land Conservancy. DeBuys, long a steward of the land, recently published the book, A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, Oxford University Press, made possible by the Guggenheim Fellowship he received in 2008.
Taking “The Walk” With William deBuys
“A species of hope resides in the possibility of seeing one thing, one phenomenon or essence, so clearly and fully that the light of its understanding illuminates the rest of a life.” So begins William deBuys’ beautiful book, The Walk. DeBuys had been taking this particular walk, on his land in El Valle, New Mexico, for twenty-seven years when he began writing the essay that would become the book. Recently I had the opportunity to walk with him, a privilege I am still mystified by, but grateful for nonetheless.
So we walked together, past the barren saddle:
the peeled trees:
the swimming hole:
and the ruins of the ancient mill that had been built around 1816:
And he told me how the idea for the book was born. The first notion occurred long ago, in the early 90s or late 80s. Clarissa Pinkola Estes had published her book, Women Who Run With the Wolves and, although he never read it, he noticed the title and thought, ironically, “But what about men who walk with dogs?” which made him begin thinking about this walk he takes. That was the first glimmer of the book right there.
Then, some years later, he heard Scott Russell Sanders give a “very fine” talk in Santa Fe about a long essay he’d written that, “… somehow covered a lot of ground. It was personal and yet not too personal. It probed metaphysical matters but was firmly anchored in the tangible. So I just had that in the back of my mind as something I’d like to do. And then at a certain point in my life, things got kind of rough, and I usually turn to writing as a way of processing what’s going on.” It was then he had the idea of writing about this walk he takes as a vehicle for his inner journey, but he wasn’t sure how to get started, how to get into it.
His answer came during a “rather remarkable” trip with friends to a ranch in southwestern New Mexico. He recalls sitting in the sun on the portal having coffee that first morning. “As I sat there with my mind somewhat disassembled, the first sentence of what would later be The Walk came to me, and it came all of a sudden, just like a little package, as though a bird had brought it and laid it on my lap. So I got up and got a pad of paper and a pen and wrote it down. And as soon as I wrote it down I could see how the next several pages needed to go.”
When he arrived home, to this land and cabin, he wrote those several pages and, having written those, he could begin to see how it was going to end. So he was “off and running” and he “kept on until that essay was done.” He sent it around to some friends. One of them, a former editor of his, noted that, like Dante at the beginning of his epic three-part poem, Divine Comedy, this was a man of middle age, lost in a dark wood. Dante came up with three parts (Hell, Purgatory and Heaven). It was suggested that deBuys should look for the other two parts. “So that’s what I did,” he says, “Gradually the other two essays took shape and I had a book.”
But the first two essays were written without thinking he was going to publish them. In fact it was the first sustained writing he had done without having a publication in mind. He was just writing “because it was good to write.” And perhaps that is one of the reasons this particular book ended up exploring the very personal journey of an intensely private man.
“I didn’t write about my inner feelings to get them off my chest,” he says, “I wrote about them in order to produce a narrative, the subject of which involved other things… What I’m trying to do in that book is write about the discovery of certain ideas or ways of looking at things that I arrived at with some considerable effort. And to tell the story of that discovery I have to share some of my own personal inner journey…”
He begins The Walk at his desk, in his adobe cabin, studying the wood grain of its surface, being transported to the forest where it once stood as a living tree. He gazes out the window above the desk, contemplating the New Mexico sky, which takes him to the blackness of that sky at night, its stars “… light beyond light beyond light…” He is making the point that, “Almost any object of contemplation can be the vehicle for… discovery.” And almost any stimulus, Proust’s madeleine, for instance, or the buzzing of a fly, “… may lead anywhere, including inward by way of faults, feelings, or details of personal history to take us on an inner journey of unlimited extent…. We can travel great distances on the back of a buzzing fly.”
When Bill and I set out to walk the track that inspired his book, we were joined by Wes, the one remaining border collie, from three generations of border collies, to explore this land with deBuys:
He writes, “Of 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….”
We return to the home field and pass through its gate, the gentle slope carrying us back to the cabin. “It’s very nice, isn’t it?” deBuys says, almost to himself. And, indeed it is.
The land speaks of generations of lives lived on it, of the births and deaths, of struggle and determination, success and defeat. But, mostly, it embodies hope. Here, in the depths of this dry season, in the midst of deep drought, the Rio de las Trampas still runs at the base of the arroyo. The ponderosa, pinon, juniper and cottonwood still stand. The hayfield has put up its mixture of grasses and I listen to the birds sing, as chipmunks argue with Wes.
William deBuys often returns to his desk to gaze out the window, pondering. And he writes. “The mountains rise not like a thing, but like the spirit behind things, or like spiritedness itself. They rise like meaning. They rise with purpose and clarity. They rise like a promise of understanding in an ambiguous and paradoxical world. They rise not like hope itself, but like the promise that something as grand as hope might exist. The mountains rise like meaning to the sky.”
And these peaks that have anchored me, and also caused my heart to soar, come clear. Because William deBuys has given voice to what I already knew, but had no words for. The mountains rise like meaning to the sky. A species of hope resides in that.
You can learn more about William deBuys at http://www.williamdebuys.com/
And here’s an interview I did with him: William deBuys Comes to the Truchas, NM Library.
See some other posts that quote or refer to William deBuys:
Love to you all,