Every so often, I return to my favorite line in Joan Didion’s 1977 novel, A Book of Common Prayer. When Didion says, “You have to pick the places you don’t walk away from,” I imagine she simultaneously means that not only do you get to choose where you stay, but also what you walk toward. That you can pick both, journey and destination. I believe no other line better captures the heart of David Crews’ work better. For it is isn’t all wandering that his book of lyrical essays on the Adirondacks titled Wander-Thrush is about, it is also a text about determined exploration. 

Published by Ra Press, Wander-Thrush is a collection that thrives on the spiritual act of exploration, but also focuses heavily on the documentarian aspect that is essential to hiking. The book is as much David’s love letter to the mystique, generosity, and beauty of the Adirondack Mountains in New York, as it is a writer’s effort to document, capture, and immortalize an awe-inspiring landscape with urgency. In three essays, David captures both the communal spirit of hiking in a group, as well as the meditative therapy of being alone and cocooned by vast, bountiful nature.

Atticus Review had a chat with David about Wander-Thrush, and imbibing nature in one’s work with honesty.

First up: Why the Adirondacks?

All roads point to Neighbor Tom. Honestly, my friendship with that kid changed so much of my life. The short of it is this: he and his family had been vacationing up in the Adirondacks since he was a kid. And once we started hiking together, the Adirondacks eventually came up. He said, you’ve got to get there. So I did. And I was pretty much hooked, immediately. 

But the Adirondacks is a unique place. And since I discovered it back in 2012 I haven’t been able to stop learning and visiting and writing about the region, its history, the environmental discussions looming around it. First, it was High Peaks — poems (for the most part) about joy, about being in the woods. That collection journaled my hiking of the 46ers which is something people do — they hike all the high mountains above 4000 feet in the area.

Then, it was Wander-Thrush.Three lyric essays about history, the people, the land, presence. And I tried to say some more things (challenging at times) about the nature of our relationship to the land and to wilderness. And now, I’m writing an essay for the Northeast Wilderness Trust about how preserving old-growth forests is one of the most simple, cost-effective ways to address climate change. 

With Neighbor Tom on Dix Mountain Summit (18 May 2016), Anthony Pittala

How did your writing journey lead you to this project? Was there always an intention to work with wilderness as a subject?

Interestingly enough, I had not quite planned it. I can remember being at MFA studying with poets like Ross Gay and Aracelis Girmay and Judith Vollmer really hoping I would find something important I could write about, something for which I could write passionately. So here I was, a white suburban kid from New Jersey, about thirty years-old and wanting to do something important with this life. And I’m working with Ross Gay during my first semester,  and remember feeling this urge to write some poems about Africa. I had been going on BBC and reading so many stories about all the violence and tragedy threading its way through an entire continent, so many different peoples and cultures, and I remember thinking no one cares about this because there’s no money to be made here, and it felt like bullshit, and I wanted to be a part of a cause. So I started writing these poems in which I’d sit with an image and try to put words to it. Anyway, at one point, Ross turns to me and says, What’s up with the Africa poems? And I told him that I was looking at photographs and trying to write about some of the issues there. And he goes, Yeah, they kind of sounded like that. 

His point being I didn’t know the first thing about what the people were experiencing there. I was writing in earnest without ever even having traveled there! (That’s ego.) And the bottom line is this: until we separate from our egos as writers we will never get to what’s authentic and honest. (It’s taken me about the last ten years to truly figure this out).

And I think that’s really how a writer finds an authentic voice — through hard work and being honest. 

Our environmental issues — climate change, loss in the planet’s biodiversity, plastic pollution — these are all just as important as many of our social issues we experience on a daily basis. And yet, too often we see environmentalists off in the woods listening for birds and hugging trees. Some of my newest work is an attempt to show that our environmental issues are threaded and deeply inter-related to all aspects of modern life. 

I love that the writing shifts from environmental reportage, almost, to memoir dispatch. How did you go about achieving the narrative voice in these essays?

The lyric essay for me in the last five or so years has become near obsession. It started at MFA when Ross had me read Fanny Howe’s ”Bewilderment” from her 2003 collection, The Wedding Dress. And in the “Notes” section of Wander-Thrush I even ask people to read Howe’s essay for inspiration (the form of her Bewilderment piece directly helped me get to my voice in the “Presence” essay). The first essay, on Russ Carson, borrows a form from Annie Dillard in a piece called “Exploration to the Pole” from her 1992 collection, Teaching a Stone to Talk.  

Right now, I am kind of over the moon with Susan Griffin. I can’t believe it took me forty years of my life to find Woman and Nature. That book has kind of blown my mind, taken over my writing life, and is pushing me as a writer into some really interesting spaces. 

What’s interesting is, as people, we don’t live in isolation. We are an amalgamation of so many ideas and voices and styles and how important it is to both nurture them (in recognition and acknowledgment) as well as continually seek new ones. I always find that aspect of the writing process to be quite stimulating. 

Climbing Carson Peak with Neighbor Tom (18 May 2016), Anthony Pittala

Do you think an endeavor to write about the wilderness is a very political act, with regard to public space access? If so, how does that make its way into your writing? 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately … because I try to avoid politics as much as possible. Even before what’s been happening the last few years in this country, I have tried to stay away from the political world. It clouds my thinking and honestly I’m just too sensitive for it. 

With that said, the older I get the more I feel ashamed for sticking my head in the sand. And I often think about how so many writers and artists claim everything and anything written is ultimately political. So to address this: yes, I do agree that writing about wilderness is ultimately a political endeavor. 

Essentially, the environment is the responsibility of the commons. And I think our park system (at least here in the United States) is a great example of democracy at its best — beautiful land preserved for the use of citizens. But what many of us could agree to is that as individuals we don’t always make the best decisions for the collective good. It’s a tragedy of the commons. And so, I think we do need to re-evaluate the nature of our relationship with the land, because the planet is finite, the resources ultimately limited. We need to find a better balance, and in order to help guide people in a direction that has that sort of balance, the writing will ultimately become political because there will be a motive of persuasion perhaps to it. 

In the essay “Presence, Birding, Hiking In The Woods” you talk of your inclusion in the wilderness as an interference almost. How does that awareness engage with your work? As the observer in the text, how does your story change with that awareness? 

This essay was actually the first of the three in Wander-Thrush I wrote. I was mulling over ideas of Presence before this book was even conceived. And to address your question, it makes sense to share some inspiration behind the piece. 

Once I finished High Peaks I began an intense love affair with birds. Was reading anything I could get my hands on — Roger Tory Peterson, David Allen Sibley, of course Rachel Carson. Found this great book called The Complete Birder by Jack Connor, which was good fun at the start of my bird education. Also found a book published by Beacon Press called Thoreau on Birds, which is basically a compilation of his bird journals organized by family and species (score!)

During this time, I also met Darryl McGrath at an Adirondack Author Evening in Long Lake, New York. Darryl was sharing a new fantastic book of journalism she had written on New York’s role in saving the bald eagle and peregrine falcon during the 1970s when the spraying of DDT was killing off species at alarming rates called, Flight Paths: A Field Journal of Hope, Heartbreak, and Miracles with New York’s Bird People, published by SUNY Press and it’s totally worth every page. (Darryl and I would stay close and she even ended up writing one of the back cover blurbs for Wander-Thrush.)

Right around this time I also found J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine — and this book would prove a revelation.

It got me thinking about an idea that would take over my reading and writing life—take over my sense of self in the world — ever since. It’s the idea of Presence, what it means to be present in both mind and body. And it’s nothing new. Writers have been considering this and giving it various names and labels for who knows how long. But it still felt pertinent to me and to the place and time in which I lived. In this world of increasing connectivity and instant gratification it seemed as though we were losing something—intimacy, what it means to learn through observation, being out and experiencing the world firsthand. All of these ideas began swirling around for me and this essay came about. But what was interesting to me was the idea that my presence in the wilderness ultimately has an effect on the ecosystem that is defined by wilderness. Our presence is something we can both celebrate and speak of as a cautionary tale. (That’s some interesting irony.)

You mull over the lives of children that are divorced from wilderness. How essential was that perspective in these essays?

Not sure if I’d call it essential as much as unavoidable. I’m a high school English teacher. About to enter my fifteenth year. And so much of my reading and writing life comes back to youth, pedagogy, edification — in fact, that’s probably the greatest hindrance for me as a writer — people don’t always want to be “taught.” So I have had to learn (and continue to try and learn) to strike a subtle balance in my writing life between being persuasive and engaging versus preachy and didactic. 

Sleeping on Hough Peak (18 May 2016), Anthony Pittala

With that said, I am a thinking and feeling human being who wants to express himself, who wants to share ideas that might help the collective good. And the best way I know how to do that is to enter that caring and sensitive teacher role — it is certainly my best self. And honestly, I don’t know if as a society we ask enough how our actions and decisions today will affect future generations? 

And it’s still a good world, and these upcoming generations have important and good qualities and they will help develop our ethos in very significant ways. I am continually amazed at their willingness to come together. The world needs this. The world needs the loving, inclusive qualities of these new generations. 

But I also am fearful of some things. 

I am afraid that social media will inherently rewire people’s minds, so that we won’t know what it means to have an intimate moment with another person, or a small group of people, or even just one’s self. But I see it with my students. I see it when I try to get them to read something, or to read (hold the breath) poetry! The moment confusion sets in or ambiguity settles around the discussion, so many of my students run for the hills. And I think mystery is kind of a cool thing. It’s real. And in life, as an adult, personally, I find more questions than I do answers.

How important was the cognizance of climate change and depleting resources to your narrative? (You mention in the “Retreat and a Voice for Wilderness” that “The planet is already dying”)

This was actually something I tried to be careful about. I’m not a scientist or a climatologist or a geologist or any of those awesome sounding professions of people who are out there studying and learning at the edge of things. I’m a poet. And a teacher. So it was important to not get too deep in the science of what I could not prove or stand behind or actually knew.

Eagle Mountain Wilderness, Brendan Wiltse (brendanwiltse.com)

With that said, I did want to address many of the environmental issues we so often hear about in our news and daily conversations. This book was highly cathartic for me — to offload some of the environmental angst I was feeling. The times in the book where the tone gets heavy or challenging, that’s probably more a reflection of my own mental stability (or lack thereof). 

It might be interesting to note the cover photograph here. I’ve actually included the entire picture by Adirondack photographer, Carl Heilman II. The cover shot for Wander-Thrush comes from it. My publisher at Ra Press actually cropped the side of the photo which was kind of a neat move because the composition was cut from a vista to a more specific moment of presence in which a reader is forced to focus on a shoreline of Lake Tear of the Clouds. There are a lot of dead trees — maybe from acid rain, maybe from just being water-logged which is what happens at the edge of a pond like that. Regardless, it was a cool move Dave Donohue made because it undercut the romanticism of a vista. Since the book does attempt to capture some of the serious environmental issues currently plaguing the Adirondacks and our lives, it made sense to do this.

The epigraph to the book does the same thing: it’s a quote from New York writer, John Burroughs, talking about how Thoreau took three trips to the Maine woods and really didn’t see anything earth-shattering. But isn’t there something authentic and real in that? And it makes me think: that’s what keeps bringing a person back, right? If you plan one trip every couple of years into the wilderness and don’t see anything special, it may be a bit of disappointment. But if you trek into the woods a little bit every other day, to be truly present with it, a person is likely to see a lot of really neat stuff. 

How much did the wilderness contribute to your own literary voice?

I think a fair amount. In the last ten years I have definitely found myself in the woods quite often alone. And for me, I never stop thinking. So my mind is continually engaging what’s in the woods — moss, ferns, birdsong, the evergreens — it has become a true sanctuary as I imagine it is for so many people. 

The epiphany here is the idea that being in wilderness can truly help an individual feel connected (in mind and body) to the land. And honestly, amidst our modern lives in many ways we’ve lost that connection (thinking of Wendell Berry or Leslie Marmon Silko or Aldo Leopold, even the late and beloved W.S. Merwin). Many of us don’t grow our own food or slaughter daily an animal for dinner. We don’t need to chop wood to heat our homes. Being in wilderness reminds an individual that you are cut off from the world, that there is something bigger than yourself, and eventually, that survival instinct ultimately kicks in. At some point I started seeing things differently.

I mentioned this earlier but it finally feels like my writing life is on a path, and I realize now that path is toward preservation — land, ecosystem, species. 

I love that the work here is spiritual, is documenting, is warning us as well. What do you hope your reader takes away from this text? 

In my own writing I have been considering a lot about this word my father used to talk about: metanoia. The Greeks used it to define a profound shift in thinking. My writing life these days feels simple: share my experiences in nature — whether it’s joy, fear, wonder — and hope that people might join me on those experiences. From there, my only hope is that people might see the world a little bit different, maybe have a bit of a shift in thinking themselves. Because honestly, I think it’s ultimately vital to the survival of our planet and the plant and animal species on it (including us). We need to reconnect with the land in sincere and honest ways, and we need to retreat a little from our perspectives in order to re-evaluate what that relationship looks like. I think Darwin often gets revised by some contemporaries: it’s not about survival of the fittest—it’s about balance. We need to find a balance in which we, as a species, are living in such a way not that we choose to make the planet habitable or hospitable or comfortable, but rather, that we are living as part of it all, as part of something larger than ourselves. 

DAVID CREWS is author of Wander-Thrush: Lyric Essays of the Adirondacks (Ra Press, 2018) and High Peaks (Ra Press, 2015)—a poetry collection that catalogs his hiking of the “Adirondack 46ers” in upstate New York.