Children of the Earth
Maria's welcomes trio of environmental authors to town

Children of the Earth
Zach Hively - 10/24/2019

This week, Maria’s Bookshop welcomes a trifecta of nature writers who aren’t simply content to understand things as they seem. Like all the best nature writers, these three dig deep, climb high and venture far to comprehend human existence as part of the struggles, conflicts and tenacity of the American Southwest – and their own personal places within it all.

First up, in a twin billing, Maria’s hosts debut authors Ayja Bounous and Zak Podmore this Thursday evening, Oct. 24, to discuss and sign their nonfiction works. Then, at Pine Needle Dry Goods on Tues., Oct. 29, is an author on the other side of the career spectrum. Jack Loeffler, who has thrown monkey wrenches with Edward Abbey and played trumpet for nuclear detonations, brings his latest nonlinear memoir to town.

“These three authors speak to the love of place and the natural world, in a way that I think the Durango community can really connect with,” Evan Schertz, owner of Maria’s, said. “All three of them care deeply about the Southwest, and the people and places that make it so special.”

The first event with Bounous and Podmore – both of whom are published under Salt Lake’s conservation-minded Torrey House Press – features two similarly sized books with two wildly different topics. Bounous’ book, Shaped by Snow: Defending the Future of Winter, digs into the author’s own existence as the granddaughter of one of Utah’s founding ski families and an avid sportswoman herself. Like many people in their twenties, she’s striving to understand the relationship between her own actions (from skiing all the way to having children) and the advance of climate change. For her, these issues strike particularly close to home – she grew up in the snow outside of Salt Lake City, and that very snow looks to be one of the first casualties of our shifting climate.

“My relationship to snow is an unsolved problem,” Bounous writes. “When I ski, I participate in an industry reliant upon fossil fuels for operation and transportation. When I travel to the mountains, ride chairlifts or spend time in resort buildings, I release carbon emissions into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. ... [B]y skiing, I contribute to snow’s demise.”

Yet, her hope glistens bright as ... well, new-fallen snow. By exploring moments from her life and diving into a developing relationship, Bounous writes more than a love letter (or worse, a eulogy) for winter. Her conscientious curiosity asks more questions than she can answer, but she always moves forward, believing in a world that’s worth defending.

It might seem strange at first to partner Bounous with Podmore for this event. After all, Bounous has her head in the snow, and Podmore has both feet firmly planted in the riverbed. His book, Confluence: Navigating the Personal & Political on Rivers of the New West, is less memoir and more first-person exploration of water (from the Dolores to Washington’s Elwha River) and people (from uranium mill protesters in Utah to asylum seekers along the Rio Grande).

His style is more journalistic and, at least on the surface, less personal than Bounous.’ Yet there’s that pesky word “personal” in the book’s subtitle, and Podmore ultimately embraces the way that his mother – who essentially raised him on the river – pervades every page of the book, explicitly or not.

“My mother had just passed away from lung cancer, and I was trying, more than anything, to distance myself from that loss by reporting on environmental issues and desert rivers,” Podmore said. “As the book progressed, however, I realized that project itself was an homage to my mother. ... She steeped me in the beauty of the Colorado Plateau and taught me to appreciate what is still a centerpoint of my life – flowing water in the redrock desert.”

Ultimately, these two books dovetail together fittingly. Both bring us to question our relationships with the Earth in this part of the world and our responsibilities to it – and not just to the land, but to the people and other beings who inhabit it. For both authors, the answers about how to approach the “unsolved problems” of our way in the world are less about right and wrong and more about understanding the full, complete, paradoxical picture.

“There’s a lingering belief that wilderness rivers are somehow a world apart from the civilization beyond their canyon walls,” Podmore said. “Our demands for water in the country’s driest region; our tendency to dam, divert and dry up our streams; our history of poisoning water through industrial activity and the looming threat of climate change – all of this, I believe, needs to be taken into account alongside descriptions of canyon alcoves hanging with columbines or Canada geese honking overhead.”

Based on these writings, Bounous and Podmore may well be the Loraxes of the near future – speaking for the trees, as it were. But Jack Loeffler has been speaking up for decades, not only as a writer but as an aural historian, radio producer, jazz musician and sound-collage artist. His memoir, Headed Into the Wind, takes a meandering yet typically concise look at his life, how he came to find and love the desert, and the voices of those who shaped his existence.

“Over the last half century, I’ve been privileged to wander throughout this mythic landscape bearing a recorder, microphones, notebook and pen,” Loeffler writes in the book. “In the deepest sense, this lifetime has been a pilgrimage in quest of the Spirit of Place as perceived by those with refined sensibilities, honed consciousness. The message is clear. The Earth is a living organism and we are part of its consciousness. We are and could remain a spectacular aspect of Earth’s consciousness – if we don’t go extinct.”

It’s impossible not to find humor in Loeffler’s writing. He’s an easygoing storyteller, and each fairly short snippet of his book can rope you in like a fireside tale. His thoughts wind like a river, fed by tributaries from all directions – and the book reads like an upriver trip, where every branching stream is fair game. Yet it’s the brevity in moments, like that reminder about our all-too-possible extinction, that drives the points home.

If Bounous and Podmore and others like them are to continue revealing to us the world we live in, we must also keep listening to the relevance of those who have witnessed the changes. If we’re lucky, what people like Loeffler can share will help gird us for what’s accelerating toward us. As Bounous points out, “In my short twenty-five years of life, I had seen as much change in the snowpack as (my grandfather, Junior Bounous) had in his 90 years of life.”

In Durango, we may witness such changes as much as anyone. The classic Southwestern ecosystems balance each other out here: the high desert meets the ponderosa forests, and the river stitches us all together. Perhaps, then, it’s perfect that these three distinct voices should converge here this week. They are each worth listening to.

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