Last month, I reviewed Breaking into the Backcountry, a brand-new memoir from University of Nebraska Press that chronicles the months that Steve Edwards, a young writer from Indiana, spent–mostly alone–at a wilderness homestead high above the remote Rogue River in southern Oregon after winning the PEN/Northwest Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency. After I posted the review, I asked Steve if he'd answer some questions about his work. Over the next two posts, "listen in" as I interview Steve about his memoir, his experience living alone in a strange and wild place, and what's next for his writing.
SJT: In the Prologue to Breaking Into the Backcountry, you write that when the call came that you'd won the residency, whose prize was seven months as a caretaker of this remote backcountry homestead, "I didn't give much thought to what living in unparalleled solitude might mean or what I would have to leave behind. Honestly, I was just happy to have won something." Being so happy to have won something, to have gotten as you say "some validation" for your writing that you don't really examine what the honor means is probably a familiar experience to most writers. What interests me though is that you mention not having thought about what you would have to leave behind. What did you leave behind to take the residency?
SE: The short answer is “Everything!”–or at least that’s how it felt at the time. My grandmother was dying of cancer, a close friend was pregnant, the pleasure and challenge I got from teaching writing classes, and all the special places (creeks, meadows, trails) I used to haunt. I didn’t quite understand how much I would miss everything, and how much my home places really sustained me, my spirit. It’s funny to think: here I was on this beautiful wilderness homestead in the mountains, and I missed certain cornfields back home. Certain trees. The way old weather-beaten barns looked in spring rain. I didn’t realize how much I identified with Indiana, and the Indiana landscape, until I’d removed myself from it. I would see the peeling bark of a madrone tree in Oregon and miss my Indiana sycamores. Which is a way, I suppose, of saying that the main thing I had to leave behind was that person I knew myself as. I’ve heard it said that there are three main ways to change your consciousness in a hurry: psychedelic drugs, immersion in a foreign culture, and time alone in wilderness. I don’t know about the first two, but I can say with some certainty that, for me, time alone in wilderness resulted in a stripping away of so many layers of myself, like old wallpaper.
SJT: Before the residency, you say that your life, "at twenty-six, still living in the town where I was born, has begun to feel ordinary. Not terrible. Just sort of ordinary." In the story of how you went from ordinary to months with long stretches of solitude of the sort that might send most people screaming into the night, you display a rare sort of understated honesty, chronicling your naivete, anxiety, blunders, and fears–with, what I must say, is a great deal of humor. Is it difficult for the you who you are now to read about the you then?
SE: Sometimes I wonder: What would happen if, in our culture, we celebrated our limitations? What would happen if we approached both our successes and failures with humility? What if we could laugh at ourselves? I mean, if we allowed ourselves to be fallible, weak, uncertain, afraid–if those were okay things to be once in a while–would we come to treat each other with more compassion? Would we treat our natural world with more reverence? I think we would! So in the book I make a special effort to render moments of adjustment, times when I was afraid, times I messed up. I celebrate those times.
Is it difficult to do that? Embarrassing? You bet!
After seven months in the Oregon backcountry, I was a very different person than that scared kid starting out in Indiana. I could fly fish like a pro. I knew the phases of the moon. I’d even had a few strange moments of clairvoyance! I was pretty doggone proud of myself! But as I sat down to write, oh boy, I realized that I couldn’t let that person tell the story–that would be a disaster. Who wants to listen to a know it all? The real story I had to tell was about how that time in the wilderness changed me, softened me, worked me over, or as I say in the book, “split my heart open like a melon.” A good friend of mine likes to say you don’t judge how far you’ve come by looking ahead at where you want to go; you judge progress by looking back at where you’ve come from. That’s what the telling of this story required of me. Looking back. Looking back and honestly rendering fears that just dogged me. Strange, of course, is that even though I feel like I know so much more now than that scared, naïve kid from Indiana, I find myself envying him–he’s in for quite a ride! There’s nothing like that feeling of discovery, that feeling, say, I had the first time I saw bear scat on the trail. The way my heart just about leapt out of my chest the first time I saw an osprey. Or a steelhead. The first time I held a rough-skinned newt. The thrill was never exactly the same again. How lucky to be so naïve!
SJT: Midway through your seven-month stay, you write, "Before I got here last April, I never once thought of wilderness as a place to call home, or as a place in which to love and be loved. And now? Now I do." Do you dream of the Rogue and the homestead still? Would you go back?
SE: When my wife Rebecca and I first moved to Nebraska, around 2005, I became incredibly taken with the idea of returning to the homestead. I had to get back and reconnect. I saved up some money, bought a plane ticket, and flew out for four days in late-October. The plan was to enjoy some real solitude, to fish and hike and soak in all the goodness of that place. But when I got there, and when I looked around and smelled the familiar smells of Douglas firs and rain and mud, I became indescribably sad. Four days wasn’t going to be enough. I wasn’t going to be able to reclaim the feeling with which I’d left the place. Only seven months of solitude could get me that feeling—a long weekend couldn’t. I went to bed thinking that the feeling might just be nerves and exhaustion, but the next morning it was still there. I had to leave. Drove back to town at first light, hopped a flight home. So I’m still learning, I suppose, from my naïveté! Ha! But really it was an important lesson, because I’d been living in the past. I’d been trying to hold on to that special time in my life. Had to let go! Even of the good experiences! I remember getting home and just being so happy to spend some time with Rebecca and our little dog. We all went out to this apple orchard, picked some apples, and a feeling of release swept over me. I realized that we’d just moved our lives to Nebraska–I needed to be here as mindfully as I’d been at the Rogue! I am what you would call a slow learner!
Ah, to be a "slow learner" if it always yielded the grace of such wisdom… Thanks, Steve. Tune in Wednesday for the rest of the interview.
In the meantime, Richard and I send greetings from Carpenter Ranch, where the cottonwoods are dressed in their glorious burnt fall gold, and we're doing more gathering stories for our "re-story the landscape" garden project. Blessings to you all!