Author and plant biologist Susan J. Tweit interviewed Andrea for the Story Circle Network in March of 2014. Their conversation about Between Urban and Wild the book originally appeared at www.storycircle.org.
Q: Between Urban and Wild is a collection of essays about place and our relationship to it. Did you have a collection in mind when you began writing the essays? If not, when did you begin thinking “book”?
A: Not long after we moved to our home in Fourmile Canyon outside of Boulder, I decided I wanted to get serious about my long-standing desire to write. Our new home place provided ample opportunity for natural history ruminations, so that gave my attention a point of focus. As a writer starting out, too, it seemed logical to compose short pieces that I could try to get published in journals and newspapers rather than thinking “book” from the outset (nowadays, I suppose many people go the blog route). After I’d finished a number of pieces—and succeeded in getting some of them published—I could see how they might one day live together harmoniously between covers. I work slowly though, and there were many other things going on in life, including a move to central Colorado, so it was a number of years before I got more serious about the idea of assembling an essay collection.
Q: One of the trickiest parts of putting together a collection like this, especially one that evolved over a span of time, is how to create a sense of movement with the pieces, a kind of narrative arc. How did you decide on organization? Or did the essays just fall in place naturally?
A: The book’s arrangement is roughly chronological, so the passage of time gives it logical frame. Not all of the essays appear in the order they were written, however. As the collection grew, I got a better fix on how I could approach different aspects of the modern American relationship to the land. I could eventually see where I could fill in gaps with essays written specifically to fit into the collection, which helped it work together more cohesively as a whole. There was some salvage work involved, too. In the case of “Lay of the Land,” for example, I was able to go back to an essay that I’d started and abandoned years before. I’d never been able to find a way to give the early draft the legs it needed to stand on. Within the matrix of the collection, that piece found the stability it needed.
Another aspect of the book’s structure has to do with its rhythm of longer essays interspersed with shorter ones. Partly this grows out of the topic—sometimes a short descriptive essay captures the essence of an event, while other ideas demand hunkering down and working through complexities and alternatives. But there’s also an intentional aspect to the varied length of the essays. I’ve read collections in which each essay is about the same length, and I find it tiring. This has to do with the essay form; unlike chapters, essays have a more obvious pattern of beginning, middle, and end. Even if the topics are diverse, the experience of reading them one after another can begin to feel repetitious if each essay develops and peaks in a similar rhythm.
Q: A major thread in the book is perspective, as in our perspective on the places we live and our ability to see and be honest about the impacts of our lives on the landscape. You address it most directly in “Tyranny of the Visible,” the essay in learning how to “see” and understand the impacts a huge modern gold mine that is part of your spectacular view from Cap Rock Ranch. But it’s in every essay in the book in one way or another. I have the impression that you’re very much a thinking writer, taking your time to learn and consider before writing. Did you realize you were writing a book that examines perspective from a variety of, well, viewpoints?
A: In a word, yes. The book’s title, Between Urban and Wild, emerged quite late, in collaboration with my publisher. For most of the time I was working on the book, its working title was The View from Home, so perspective was very much front and center as I was writing. Observation was the catalyst for the explorations at the heart of the book, and the notion of going out and looking around became a narrative device that allowed me to probe variations on that anchoring theme of people’s relationship to land. I’m also just plain fascinated by the neurology of seeing and the ways in which sensory experience gets knitted to thought and learning up there in our heads.
I want to digress briefly on something you said in setting up your question about perspective, that phrase about learning and considering before writing, and about being a thinking writer. I suspect it’s more true to say that I’m a writing thinker: I write to figure out what I think. Some of the longer or more complicated essays go through many drafts before I understand a topic enough to see where its going; then, once I’ve figured out what I think, I need to go back and recalibrate what I’ve written so far to make sure it reflects the topic I was trying to find in the first place—and then I have to finish the piece. I envy writers who can come up with an idea and then smoothly execute it—the notion of writing a rough, second, and then final draft strikes me as fantastically elegant—but for the most part I’ve made peace with my process, quirky and inefficient though it may be.
Q:The opening of “The View from Home,” the first essay in the book, is a great example of your wry, quiet sense of humor: “You might say it started with the bird feeder. Oh, sure, first there was the guy, the falling in love, the settling down in a house in the Colorado foothills…” Did you write the dry humor in intentionally? (It makes for an excellent opening.)
A: I think that passage was less about being intentionally humorous than about trying to find the right tone for the book. I don’t want to make light of the serious environmental issues of our day or of those issues specific to sprawl, which is, literally, where I’m writing from. But so much writing about the natural world is so heavy. I wanted to write about exploring my home ground as an exercise in the vernacular—forays into the ordinary. Between Urban and Wild is about muddling through—about bushwhacking through contradiction and floundering toward compromise, knowing that the journey on a different day would likely require finding a different path.
Q: The book opens when you and your husband lived in the foothills above Boulder, Colorado’s liberal urban center. Now you live pretty far off the beaten track—culturally and politically as well—in the high ridges “just east of Colorado’s center point,” as you write in the essay “Modern Frontier.” “You don’t move to a place like this if you’re addicted to a pizza delivered to your front door or if you need to jump-start your day with a latte served up by a chirpy barrista.” Your love of your new place shines through in the book. Is there anything you miss from your former life?
A: Oh, sure: eating out, going to movies, a quick run to the store because cilantro would be nice with that salsa, walking to the mailbox, meeting friends for a drink and an appetizer before everyone goes home for the evening… One of the things I’ve realized about the conveniences of urban and suburban areas is how much proximity affects spontaneity. Our social life has become very deliberate: seeing friends requires making plans and putting things on the calendar. In a way, I think this has made us more conscious about being present with friends and family when we’re together, so there’s an upside, but there’s no question that where we live can be isolating.
Q: You’re a professional indexer. How did you decide on creating indexes, a somewhat obscure art, as a way to earn a living? And how come there’s no index in Between Urban and Wild?
A: I first came across indexing in one of those books that promised to show you how to “Make a Living Reading Books!” When we moved to central Colorado, I got more serious about pursuing a way of earning a living that allowed me to work from home, which indexing does. I enjoy the work because I do get to make a living reading books, and each book is different. I enjoy figuring out what a reader might want to look up and then finding the most efficient ways to point them to the right place in the book.
I did toy with the idea of putting an index in Between Urban and Wild, but since it’s pretty unusual for essay collections or personal narratives to have an index, I didn’t think my publisher would be all that keen. And although an index would have been relevant in the context of my professional life, it felt like it would come off as a pretension. This is my first book: I wanted to kept the text stripped down and focused on the writing.
Q: What did you learn from writing Between Urban and Wild that you didn’t know before? What surprised you most about the book?
A: Well, I learned that I could write a book, even given my labored writing process. What has surprised me is how the book altered my ideas about environmentalism. I started out from a very angst-ridden point of view that stemmed, in part, from being a reader of the environmental/nature writing genre. In the course of writing the essays in the book, I came to believe that, although sprawl, resource extraction, and other aspects land use are deadly serious issues, they need to be appraised in a context that admits human beings as a species with a legitimate place in the environment. Do scale, rapacious appetites for stuff, ignorance, and lack of restraint endanger the world? Absolutely. But a vision of conservation that casts human beings as an irredeemable pestilence on the land is, I think, unhelpful and probably even dangerous. That view is fading, I think, but it’s still around to some degree.
Q: Do you have another book in mind? (When you’re not slammed with indexing work, that is.)
A: I am working (slowly, it goes without saying) on a book that builds on the research I did for my Ph.D. dissertation way back when we lived in Fourmile Canyon outside of Boulder. That research was focused on nonscientists’ perceptions of science, and the project I have in mind takes the topic of scientific literacy quite literally, approaching science as a genre of literature.
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