I started reading William deBuys' books about the southwest around the time I enrolled in a writer's workshop he taught in Santa Fe. I had been working on early drafts of Recovering Ruth: A Biographer's Tale and he gave me sound advice and a lot of encouragement on the book. When I read his books, I could tell that we had similar ideas about what we wanted to accomplish in our writing about place. Enchantment and Exploitation: The Life and Hard Times of a New Mexico Mountain Range (1985), River of Traps: A New Mexico Mountain Life (1990, with photographer Alex Harris), and Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California (1999, with photographer Joan Myers) were all thoroughly informative narratives of place. A Great Aridness (2011), in some ways a culmination of the earlier series of books, sweepingly surveys the effect of climate change on the American southwest. I suspect that some of my writing about place is much indebted to deBuys' books, especially Following Isabella: Travels in Colorado Then and Now, written while we lived there. During that period, I heard him read at The Tattered Cover Bookstore from The Walk (2007), his most powerfully personal book, and the next day I interviewed him for Fourth Genre.
In that interview, deBuys mentions having discovered "a certain paradox. The exploration of the familiar can lead you to surprising new places and new discoveries as easily as—or maybe more easily than—exploration of the unfamiliar. The familiar can take you into unusual personal territory faster and more deeply than the exploration of what you never encountered." The paradox arises from consideration of the opposite experience: "if I'm traveling in wilderness—that's what wilderness is, where it's really wild, where it's unfamiliar—I'm so fascinated by the newness that I don't go inside. There are so many connections to be made on the sensory surface of experience that you don't necessarily go as deeply into those senses." In his latest book he goes to somewhere unfamiliar.
I was unaware of how far he'd ventured from the southwest in his explorations and his writing until I discovered copies of his most recent books in a local library. The Last Unicorn records his search in mountainous areas of Laos for a saola, a rare, virtually undocumented horned animal. In The Trail to Kanjiroba he recounts his journey on a medical expedition to remote regions of Nepal, in the Himalaya. I started reading it on my twice-weekly library visits and, soon needing to dogear pages in chapter after chapter, I bought my own copy to read daily at home.
DeBuys tells us in his introduction that, like his books about climate change and the likely extinction of the saola, this one will "look into dilemmas posed by human transformation of the planet," but he expects The Trail to Kanjiroba to be "about preserving one's sense of joy. It is about finding grace amid the grief." The primary narrative of the book is a recounting of a "five-week, one-hundred-forty-mile medical expedition, in a remote corner of Nepal, hard against the border of Tibet, a land known as Upper Dolpo." The group he travels with, the Nomads Clinic, brings primary medical care to people who are remotely isolated from modern health care services. The route they travel takes them on a long circle, climbing to altitudes of seventeen thousand feet, where deBuys describes "turn[ing] in a slow circle, and in every direction I see the majesty of Tibet and the high Himalaya [. . .] All around me, brilliant in the light of the sun, I see the world resplendent." Kanjiroba, we learn, is "a massif cresting just shy of twenty-two thousand feet, a height taller than the highest points of Europe, Africa, and North America." They view it on their downward passage, its summit deep in clouds, aware that the glaciers of the Himalaya are shrinking and places that some people remember as having been ice-covered twenty years earlier are barren now.
At one point, deBuys wrestles with his awareness of both how magnificent the landscape is and how its remoteness doesn't isolate it from change. "Let's be real: we don't live in the gentle Holocene anymore. Alteration of the climate has delivered us to the Anthropocene, and the heat already loaded into the climate system guarantees increasing impacts for decades to come." He had been advised that "Everyday is a yatra"—a pilgrimage, and he accepts the possibility that the way past grief is to stay in motion, as the people he's been traveling with have been doing: "And always, all around us, the land presided. It contained our traveling and our living. It immersed us in an immense, austere beauty that was at once impermanent and eternal, thrilling and stern."
deBuys, William. The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth's Rarest Creatures. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015.
deBuys, William. The Trail to Kanjroba: Rediscovering Earth in an Age of Loss. Oakland: Seven Stories Press, 2021.
Root, Robert. "Interview with William deBuys," Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 10:2 (Fall 2008): 133-145.
SHELF LIFE: "Rediscovering Earth: A Conversation with William deBuys and Bill McKibben." April 21, 2022. A video recording at VaBook.org/watch.