As an environmental writer and humorist, I take pleasure in exploring the fascinating weirdness that abounds at the intersection of nature and culture. My approach is often comic, and I have reveled in poking fun at a range of topics, including rural mail delivery, the art of trundling, a drunken Mary Kay lady, useless cats, word clouds, wrecked jeeps, leprechaun traps, environmentalist bumper stickers, honeybee trapping, fancy treehouses, reading while hiking, and cell phone towers (poorly) disguised as trees. My longer comic essays examine such topics as environmental representation in terrible movie musicals, the Thanksgiving tradition of the presidential turkey pardon, and the risks and virtues of drunken gardening. I can also be serious, musing on the evolutionary marvel of pronghorn antelope, or ruminating on the wonderful, difficult decision to have children, or speculating on how best to nurture my young daughters’ connection to the natural world. Check out a selected list of my forthcoming and published essays below.
“My Children’s First Garden.” Ethical Eating: Conflicts, Conversations, Commitments. Edited by Jennifer Cognard-Black and Melissa Goldthwaite. NYU Press. Forthcoming, 2022.
In this reprinted chapter from my book Raising Wild, I tell the comical and harrowing story of trying to grow a vegetable garden with my two young daughters in the inhospitable environment of the high desert. The piece includes vegetables, ground squirrels, shotguns, and coyote piss. And a rainbow.
“Dear Matt Wolf.” Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built and Natural Environments. Forthcoming, 2021.
In this essay I respond to an email scam by conducting a sustained and very funny correspondence with the scammer, ultimately turning the tables on him.
“Tonya, I Love You.” Whitefish Review 26 (Summer/Fall, 2021).
This essay was chosen as winner of the Montana Prize for Humor, judged by late night host Jimmy Kimmel and musician Huey Lewis (stepson of Beat poet Lew Welch). In it I describe my abominable behavior at the comeback of disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding.
“On Second Thought.” Studies in American Humor 7.1 (2021): 8-10.
In this response to an essay on indigenous humor by Punyashree Panda, I pose a series of questions about how the fields of humor studies and ecocriticism can enter into a richer critical conversation with each other.
Foreword to Good Morning, photography book by Megan Berner. Forthcoming, 2021.
This short essay introduces the work of landscape artist Megan Berner in the context of the coronavirus quarantine. Her beautiful book documents over 500 unique images of the sunrise taken over a seven-year period from her apartment window.
“Crisis Comedy.“ Nevada Humanities Heart to Heart series. December 7, 2020.
Part of a series on how we nurture our creative lives during COVID, this short essay explores the value of humor in a time of anxiety, uncertainty, and instability. Includes jokes!
“Circling the Mountain.” National Parks Magazine. National Parks Magazine 95.1 (Winter, 2021): 28-37.
In 1965, Beat poets Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and Philip Whalen performed a ritual circumambulation of Mt. Tamalpais, on the Marin Peninsula north of San Franscico. This essay explores the history of circumambulating Mt. Tam, and explains how and why the ritual hike has been repeated by Bay Area walkers for more than half a century.
“Together Apart.” With John T. Price. Orion Magazine (online). June 30, 2020.
Orion Magazine invited me and my writer buddy John Price to publish the correspondence we’ve been having with each other during the coronavirus quarantine. Mostly funny, sometimes touching, this is a partial record of how good friends connect during a difficult time.
“Distance and Vision.” Double Down Blog. Nevada Humanities. May 25, 2020.
This short piece reflects on how the coronavirus quarantine, by slowing the carbon ecocony and reducing air pollution, has helped to make our views clearer and sharper than they’ve been in decades.
“Humor and Hope.” About Place Journal 6.1 (Special issue on “Practices of Hope”). May, 2020.
This essay is a contribution to a special journal issue on environment and hope. The piece argues that humor is a perennial source of energy, one that can be used both to attack environmental and social injustice, and also to help us be more resilient in the face of the continued destruction of the natural world.
“John Prine’s Surprise Gift“ CNN.com. April 9, 2020
This brief celebration of the life of American folk music legend John Prine tells the story of a kind favor Mr. Prine once did for his greatest fan: my youngest daughter.
“Closing Time.“ Dear America. Edited by Simmons Buntin, Elizabeth Dodd, and Derek Sheffield. Trinity University Press, 2020: 257-260.
This revised version of my “Letter to America,” first published in Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built and Natural Environments in 2016, points out that in this time of cultural and political stress, humor is more important than ever before. My essay joins the work of other resisting writers including Alison Hawthorne Deming, Camille Dungy, Brenda Hillman, Jane Hirschfield, Linda Hogan, Kim Stafford, and Robert Wrigley, also included in the volume.
“Made in Nevada.” Mark Twain Annual (2019): 1-10. Edited by Ben Click.
This piece reflects on the ways in which Samuel Clemens’s experience in Nevada helped to shape his humor and landscape writing, and how that experience led to the creation of Mark Twain. But if Nevada invented Mark Twain, there is also a fascinating sense in which Mark Twain invented Nevada, since Nevadans to this day understand their high desert home landscape and their regional culture in ways first celebrated by Twain.
“Pilgrimage to the Pointy-Toed Boots.” Terrain.org. June 25, 2019.
This essay recounts an epic road trip across the Great Basin Desert from Reno to Elko, with plenty of stops along the way at weird spots including prisons, mines, ghost towns, bars, and the compound of visionary madman Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder. The piece follows in the tire tracks of Hunter S. Thompson, who described crossing the same expanse of high desert in his little-known essay “Fear and Loathing in Elko.”
“Will the Real Fake John Muir Please Stand Up?” Sustainable Play: Long-form Storytelling at the Confluence of People, Planet, and Play. August 8, 2018.
This reprinted chapter from my book How to Cuss in Western tells the story of the time I was at a party with not one, not two, but three John Muir impersonators. Hilarity ensues! This piece celebrates Muir (and his greatest impersonator) while poking fun at the public humanities tradition of Chautauqua.
“The Moopets.” The Meadow (2018): 8-14.
This reprinted chapter from my book How to Cuss in Western uses The Muppet Movie to offer a comic investigation of negative perceptions of the author’s hometown of Reno, Nevada, and how those negative images might be challenged by a new way of thinking about place and identity.
“Death Valley Angst.” National Parks Magazine. 92.3 (Summer, 2018): 10-12.
This piece is part of a pair of essays, one by myself and one written by my 14-year-old daughter, Hannah. The two essays describe the same Death Valley hike, one from a father’s perspective, and one from the point of view of a teenager.
“In Search of Signs,” “Which Side are You On?” and “Naming a Place, Placing a Name.” Reading Shaver’s Creek: Ecological Reflections from an Appalachian Forest. Edited by Ian Marshall. Penn State University Press, 2018. Pgs 29-32, 53-56, 73-78.
These the essays are part of Desert Rat Parts the Curtain of Green, the manuscript I created while serving as writer in residence at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, which is part of the Penn State Experimental Forest. The Long Term Ecological Reflections Project invites writers and artists to reflect on certain sites within the forest; the record of our encounters with these places is part of a century-long attempt to record and respond to environmental change.
“Nevada: State of the State.” Pacific Standard 11.2 (March/April, 2018).
This short piece reflects on the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, and argues that those of us who are rural western gun owners need to lead on sensible gun control legislation.
“The Joys of Reading Wild.” High Country News. November 13, 2017.
I join Leath Tonino, Kathleen Dean Moore, Stephen Trimble, Emma Marris, and Seth Kantner to reflect on the joys and challenges of reading books in the wilderness.
Focusing on the role of humor in environmental discourse, this essay is part of a collaborative anthology structured around the classical Greek elements of earth, air, fire, water, and aether. The book will contain work by environmental writers including Lauret Savoy, Linda Hogan, Kathleen Dean Moore, Pam Houston, Camille Dungy, Nick Neely, and Alison Deming.
“After Ten Thousand Years.” About Place Journal 4.4. October, 2017.
This reprinted chapter from my book Rants from the Hill narrates a hike into remote central Nevada—a hike on which I encounter supersonic fighter jets. The piece considers the nuclear history of the Great Basin in the context of current proposals to make the Nevada desert the repository for the nation’s high-level radioactive waste.
“Towering Cell Trees.” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 24.3 (Summer, 2018): 561-564.
This reprinted chapter from my book Rants from the Hill tells the story of how cell phone towers came to be disguised as natural objects, like trees and even cacti, and uses comedy to reckon the environmental costs of these bizarre obfuscations.
“Thousand-Mile Walk to Home.” Orion Magazine 36.3 (May/June, 2017): 7-8.
This reprinted chapter from my book Rants from the Hill relates my decade-long bioregional experiment of walking at least 1,000 miles each year within a ten-mile radius of our home in the remote western Great Basin Desert.
“Finding Home: What Happens When a Desert Baby Visits the Meadows of Yosemite?” National Parks Magazine 91.3 (June 2018): 18-20.
This essay recalls the first time we took our young daughter to Yosemite National Park. Tuolumne Meadows was beautiful and green, but little Hannah, having grown accustomed to life in the desiccated high desert, was highly suspicious of green grass and preferred crawling around in the dirt.
“Lawn Guilt.” Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built and Natural Environments. June 20, 2017.
Audio reading of essay: http://www.terrain.org/2017/nonfiction/lawn-guilt/
This reprinted chapter from my book Rants from the Hill invokes Henry David Thoreau’s deathbed critique of the American lawn to consider the costs and benefits of non-native turf grass. Although the essay decries the environmental damage caused by lawns, it also involves an enthusiastic confession regarding my own lawn.
“Big Dan, a Couple of Beers, and Thousands of Honeybees.” High Country News 49.10 (June 12, 2017): 26-27.
This is a reprint of the chapter “Trapping the Bees,” from my book Rants from the Hill. The essay tells the story of how a colony of honeybees set up shop within the interior walls of our house, and how Big Dan, a local bee freak, helped us to solve the problem. The piece also provides practical instructions for how to conduct a “trap out” to remove a hive from interior walls.
“Time for a Tree House.” Sustainable Play: Long-form Storytelling at the Confluence of People, Planet, and Play. May 11, 2017.
This reprinted chapter from my book Rants from the Hill considers the cultural history of treehouses, and describes the current craze for luxury treehouses. The essay also tells the story of how I built a treehouse for my daughters and then appropriated it as a remote writing platform.
“Balloons on the Moon.” Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour. April 19, 2017.
This reprinted chapter from my book Rants from the Hill explores how balloons work and how they become trash. It also sings the praises of Lawnchair Larry, who made it into LAX airspace in a lawn chair tied to balloons.
“Letter to America.” Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built and Natural Environments. December 6, 2016.
In a series with work by Joni Tevis, Barbara Hurd, John T. Price, Kim Stafford, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Pam Houston, Jane Hirshfield, Robert Wrigley, Kathleen Dean Moore, Scott Russell Sanders, John Lane, Stephen Trimble, Sharman Apt Russell, Kathryn Miles, Nancy Lord, Naomi Shihab Nye, and others.
“Scout’s Honor.” Whole Terrain: Reflective Environmental Practice 22 (2016): 23-27.
This comic essay recounts my experiences as a beleaguered scout who was eventually excommunicated from scouting for a misadventure recounted in the essay. Although built for laughs, this piece also investigates how our ideas about masculinity and authority often get in the way of helping kids form meaningful, personal bonds with the natural world.
“Hillbillicus Virginianus: On the Road with Nature in the Appalachians.” Best Creative Nonfiction of the South (edited by Casey Clabough). Texas Review Press, 2016.
This exploration of place-based regional identity is presented through the comic narrative of an ill-fated book tour through the southern Appalachians. The essay includes reflection on the differences in regional landscape and identity between the rural South and the rural West. Other writers included in this volume are Tom Wolfe and Mark Edmundson.
“All I Need for a Walk is a Good Book” Readers Digest 183.1100 (June 2014): 100-03.
This little essay, which appeared in Reader’s Digest (print circulation over five million), offers a comic defense of what I call “bibliopedestrianism”: reading while walking. After first confessing that I routinely read while hiking up to 1,300 miles each year in the remote, high-elevation desert near my home, I go on to examine the perils and the pleasures of reading while on the hoof. If a book and a hike each provide a special kind of journey, why not double our pleasure by combining them into one?
“One Man’s Terrorist: Reclaiming Edward Abbey for the Post-9/11 Era” Abbey in America: A Philosopher’s Legacy in a New Century (edited by John A. Murray). University of New Mexico Press, 2015: 35-41.
This work of creative nonfiction celebrating Edward Abbey’s activist legacy in the post-9/11 era explores how we draw distinctions between activism and terrorism in a time of fear and loss. Other writers whose work is included in this volume are Wendell Berry, Bill McKibben, David Quammen, Janisse Ray, Edward Hoagland, Stephen Trimble, and Kathleen Dean Moore.
“Rip Van Winkle’s Wicked Flagon.” Nineteenth-Century Prose 42.1 (Spring, 2015): 31-39.
A comic essay that reveals, at last, the heretofore unidentified contents of Rip Van Winkle’s magical flask. Despite the light tone, this investigation of the relationship of place to booze is richly grounded in environmental aesthetics, and in the history of American alcohol production and consumption during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.
“Are You Serious? A Modest Proposal for Environmental Humor.” Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism (edited by Greg Garrard), Oxford University Press, 2014: 378-90. Itself a wry comic essay, this exploration of theories of humor investigates a troubling humorlessness in environmental discourse and argues for the value of humor in environmental literature, scholarship, and activism.
“Nothing Says Trash Like Packrats: Nature Boy Meets the Bushy Tails.” Trash Animals: The Cultural Perceptions, Biology, and Ecology of Animals in Conflict with Humans (edited by Phillip David Johnson and Kelsi Nagy), University of Minnesota Press. University of Minnesota Press, 2013: 139-49.
A comic personal narrative written in response to the infestation of our rural home by packrats, this essay ultimately describes the amazing behavioral ecology of this signature desert species and explains the vital importance of packrat paleo-middens to climate change science.
“Sticking with the Stick.” Hawk and Handsaw: The Journal of Creative Sustainability 5 (2012): 68-73.
A comic examination of the heated controversy generated when “the stick” became the first natural object to be inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame. This essay uses humor to explore the fascinating differences between how kids and adults perceive the nature-culture relationship.
“Balloons on the Moon” High Country News 44.13 (Aug. 6, 2012): 22.
This comic essay explores balloons as trash, explaining what ultimately becomes of the millions of balloons released by Americans each year. It also contains a section on the famous balloon-assisted lawn chair flight of “Lawnchair Larry” (to 16,000 feet!), and ends, ironically enough, with a family balloon launch at our rural desert home.
“Walking to California.” Whole Terrain 18 (2011): 5-7.
This place-based essay describes a walk from my home in western Nevada across the California state line, which is atop the mountain near my home. The piece contains some ecotonal montane-desert natural history, but centers on reflections about natural boundaries as compared to the artificial, invisible boundary of the Nevada-California state line. Read an early version of the essay, originally published in High Country News.
“The Hills are Alive.” Places Journal. January, 2012. Reprinted in Utne Reader (January, 2012) and The Art of the Rural (February, 2012).
A comic skewering of musicals generally and The Sound of Music specifically, this widely-read essay also investigates how film shapes environmental aesthetics, and how the cinematic pastoral ideal clashes with the realities of the harsh environmental realities of the arid West. The conclusion of the essay describes my young daughters’ Great Basin reenactment of the opening scene from the film.
“Freebirds: A Thanksgiving Lesson in Forgiveness.” Orion 30.6 (November/ December, 2011): 44-49.
Although very much a comic essay, this piece on the tradition of the U.S. President pardoning a turkey each Thanksgiving also raises serious questions about the human relationship to nonhuman animals, and explores troubling issues of judgment and forgiveness. Recognized as a “Notable Essay” in The Best American Essays 2011 and featured in nationally prominent blogs including The Daily Beast, Grist, The Washington Post Wonkblog, and Slate Magazine.
Also available as an Orion podcast.
“What Would Edward Abbey Do?” High Country News 43.7 (May 2, 2011): 23. Also reprinted in Denver Huffington Post (October, 2011). Expanded version appeared in Whole Terrain: Reflective Environmental Practice 20 (2013, special issue on “Heresy”): 53-57.
This comic essay on “trundling” (rolling boulders off mountaintops) proved controversial when first published as an entry in my Rants from the Hill blog/podcast series (where it received more than 4,000 page views). Its republication in the print edition of High Country News put the piece in front of another 25,000-50,000 readers.
“The Adventures of Peavine and Charlie: A Journey through the Imaginative Landscape of Childhood.” Orion 30.1 (January/February, 2011): 58-63. This essay was also reprinted in Journeys Magazine (Australia).
This widely-read essay focuses on collaborative storytelling with children, and particularly on the way kids, as they begin to develop their own relationship to place, inevitably complicate and challenge the environmental narratives their parents attempt to embed in their own stories about nature. This piece has a strong rural Great Basin Desert focus and also explores how kids imaginatively conceive of their relationship to the nonhuman animals that live near them.
Also available as an Orion podcast.
“Scaling Piedmonts.” Hobart Park (2009): 111-19. A section of this essay, “After Ten Thousand Years,” also appeared in Libertas 3 (April, 2009): 6-7. A version also appeared in High Country News.
This essay meditates on variations in scale between life in the small-town South and life in the expansive rural West—specifically, the high-elevation desert of western Nevada. A major section of the essay is devoted to a consideration of the Great Basin as a nuclear landscape whose natural and cultural history is deeply intertwined with the history of nuclear weapons testing in the American West.
“Ghosts Chasing Ghosts: Pronghorn and the Long Shadow of Evolution.” Ecotone: Reimagining Place 4.1&2 (January, 2009): 1-19. Received Honorable Mention for the Pushcart Prize and was recognized as a “Notable Essay” in The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2009.
This essay explains the evolutionary origins of the pronghorn antelope’s remarkable speed, and focuses on the relationship between pronghorn and their long-extinct predator, the American cheetah. Though a focused piece of natural science writing, this essay also engages questions related to activism, habitat protection, and local knowledge, and explores regional Native American practices involving pronghorn.
“Ladder to the Pleiades.” Let There Be Night: Testimony on Behalf of the Dark (edited by Paul Bogard), University of Nevada Press, 2008: 74-84. An excerpt from this essay was reprinted as the “Coda” in Orion 27.4 (July/August, 2008): 80. Also included in Wonder and Other Survival Skills (2012), an anthology in the Orion Readers book series.
As part of an attempt to value dark skies and initiatives to protect them, this widely-reprinted essay explores the science, mythology, and cultural importance of the Pleiades constellation, which exists just at the edge of unaided human vision.
“Couvade Days.” Whole Terrain: Reflective Environmental Practice 15 (2008): 44-47.
This essay explores the myth and science of “couvade syndrome,” a strange and poorly understood malady by which men are stricken with many of the physical symptoms of pregnancy during their partner’s pregnancy. This comic treatment of my personal experience with couvade also leads to sincere consideration of gender issues, especially in the context of parenting.
“My Child’s First Garden.” Hawk and Handsaw: The Journal of Creative Sustainability 1 (2008): 56-65. Reprinted in Companions in Wonder: Children and Adults Exploring Nature Together (edited by Julie Dunlap and Stephen Kellert), MIT Press, 2012: 33-50. (This book includes essays by environmental writers including Rick Bass, Alison Deming, Barry Lopez, Richard Louv, Stephen Lyons, David Masumoto, Robert Michael Pyle, Janisse Ray, Scott Russell Sanders, and Sandra Steingraber.)
A comic essay about how a father’s desire to use gardening to transmit environmental values to his daughter devolves into an armed battle against vegetable-eating rodent pests. Uses humor to question environmentalist pretentions to pacifism in our interactions with nonhuman nature. Has a strong western and Great Basin focus.
“JJ and the Buddha Pool.” Watershed: A Journal of Environment and Culture 4.1 (Spring/ Summer, 2007): 18-26.
This comic essay recounts the accidental discovery of a formal Asian garden in the heart of the inner city. The focus is on the tension between the frenetic urban environment and the quiet of the secret garden, which exists not only in the heart of the city but also at the nexus of natural and cultural production.
“The V.E.C.T.O.R.L.O.S.S. Project.” Isotope: A Journal of Literary Nature and Science Writing 5.2 (Fall/Winter, 2007): 2-9. Recognized as a “Notable Essay” in both The Best American Essays 2008 and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008 and nominated for inclusion in The Best Creative Nonfiction, vol. 3.
This essay playfully satirizes the power of science to fully account for the richness of our personal relationships to local places. The piece asks what the world might be like if we could record and map the location of each and every meaningful vernacular experience in our lives.
“Lifeblood of the Desert.” Tahoe Quarterly (Fall 2007): 55-57.
This natural history essay explains how water links the western Great Basin Desert to the northern Sierra Nevada Mountains. This exploration of the montane-desert ecotone has a core Great Basin emphasis.
“Endlessly Rocking.” Ecotone: Reimagining Place 2.1 (Fall/Winter, 2006): 20-37. Recognized as a “Notable Essay” in The Best American Essays 2007.
This comic essay describes the process of arriving at the wonderful and difficult decision to have children. The piece engages both landscape and the literature of landscape, and places issues of parenting in the context of environmentalism and environmental writing.
“Sick of Being Sick of Nature.” Isotope: A Journal of Literary Nature and Science Writing 3.1 (Spring/ Summer 2005): 42-43.
This review essay points out how clichéd and predictable environmental writing has become, and in response seeks to inspire more generic innovation and more strategic use of humor and self-deprecation in environmental discourse.
“More than Just Watching: A Minuet on Music, Dancing, and Play.” Whole Terrain: Reflective Environmental Practice 9 (2000-2001): 16-18. Reprinted as “Dance Fever” in Utne Reader March/April, 2001: 36-37.
This largely comic essay explores the cultural value of music and dancing, with ruminations on the surprising repression of dancing in public places (including concerts!). Music and dancing are also considered as environmental effects, as sonic and visceral expressions of natural rhythms.
“Finding the Forest: Citizen Activism in the Truckee River Watershed.” Orion Afield 3.4 (Autumn 1999): 10-14. Reprinted in Holding Common Ground: The Individual and Public Lands in the American West. (Edited by Derrick Knowles and Paul Lindholdt). Eastern Washington University Press, 2005: 53-58.
This personal essay offers an account of an activist forest protection initiative I helped to start in collaboration with the League to Save Lake Tahoe, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Washoe Tribe. The piece has a Tahoe Basin/ Great Basin focus but also ruminates on the value of an ethic of participation, and advocates for both the literal and metaphorical power of restoration.