When he couldn’t find a good collection of classic wilderness literature for his backcountry trips, Jay Schoenberger decided to build his own. The result is a new anthology of wilderness readings best enjoyed by the riverside or around a campfire. Schoenberger organized the selections by geography, making it easy to find an essay or quote inspired by a specific region. As we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act, the I Am Coyote collection stokes the fire that drives us to keep venturing into the mountains, across the water, and down the rivers.
Canoe & Kayak: The book is a nice, surprising mix of voices. It’s got the usual suspects – Thoreau, Whitman, Abbey – but then there are authors who aren’t in the canon of wilderness lit – John Ruskey, Morgan Hite, and some others. How did you curate a book like this?
Schoenberger: I got the lesser-known writers the old-fashioned way – from asking my friends who are into the climbing, paddling, and backpacking world. I asked what stories and writers had been passed around their campfires. I stood the more obscure writers right up next to Stegner and Thoreau. I think all the works in the book will stand the test of time and capture the universal experience people have had in the wilderness.
In a way, the book reflects that roller coaster of emotions the wilderness evokes. One minute you’re on top of the mountain, overwhelmed by beauty, then you relax and enjoy the peacefulness, then a thunderhead rears up and you’re scared. All that can happen in the span of a few minutes.
What’s your personal history with wilderness? Do you remember that “first crush” moment when you started to really engage with wilderness?
I grew up hunting and fishing around Memphis, TN, so I appreciated and enjoyed the outdoors from a young age. But it didn’t really stick until right after high school when I attended a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) course in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. I specifically remember my instructor reading Wallace Stegner’s famed “Wilderness Letter” written in support of the 1964 Wilderness Preservation Act. Stegner argues for conservation not for the typical reasons like recreation and biological and geological research but for a sacred notion he calls “the wilderness idea.” It was about the power that comes with the simple knowledge that wilderness is there. Stegner’s letter captured the way in which our character as a nation was shaped by wilderness: even if we aren’t there all the time, it remains vital. That was novel to me. I used to think of national parks and nature as a place for us to play, to recreate. Now, I’ve come to see wilderness as an essential place for reflection, meditation, taking stock of one’s life.
Which wilderness area would you most like to explore by canoe or kayak?
I grew up in Memphis, a Mississippi River town. But I was not aware of the Mississippi River as wilderness. The Wolf River gets a few people, but generally you steer clear of the Mississippi. Everyone thinks it’s dangerous, muddy, full of debris. John Ruskey, one of the featured authors, has arguably done more than any other person to show folks that the Mississippi is, in fact, one of America’s most remarkable wilderness areas. I’m a huge fan of Memphis and the culture there. So I’d love to paddle the Lower Mississippi.
How difficult was it to assemble a book and publish it? Did you enjoy the process?
This was a passion project for me, so the process, while painstaking at times, was really enjoyable. I had never been able to find a wilderness compilation of this sort, so I was motivated by the fact that what I was creating would be unique and, hopefully, of real interest to folks in the outdoors community.
Re-reading these works was an exciting experience in that I was picking up things I hadn’t noticed the first time. I’d read “To Build A Fire” a couple times in high school, and one of my buddies who is a climber in Yosemite said that was the one they always read in Camp Four. It takes years of pushing it in the wilderness to really understand that story. The brashness and the ensuing humility. So it’s nice to revisit these stories that you might have only read as a young adult.
What is something you want people to get out of this book?
The fact that the book is physical and not an e-book. When I go into the wilderness I want to draw a line between my existence in wilderness versus outside it. I hope the book gets people to think about wilderness in that intentional way — with less distraction and more reflection.
What’s your go-to riverside reading selection?
I’d generally like to read something from the geography in which I find myself. If I was on a Southwest river, for instance, it’d be John Wesley Powell or Abbey. That’s one of the reasons I put together the non-standard indices – they’re grouped together by author and regionally so you can find readings written about specific geographies.
It’s likely that people will approach wilderness differently in the next twenty years. So there are people capturing our changing relationship with nature and that could be a nice thing to gather in a collection. Even some of the writers in here – David James Duncan and David Whyte – are continuing to say interesting things that people want to read. So maybe a compilation of more modern wilderness writers.
Other Wilderness Readings in Hardcover:
The Ansel Adams Wilderness, Peter Essick, National Geographic Press
National Geographic photographer Peter Essick revisits the wilderness illustrated so famously by Ansel Adams’ cameras. Along with the giant, coffee-table-book images, you’ll find essays from Essick along with the masters Roosevelt, Emerson, and even Shakespeare.
My Story as Told By Water, David James Duncan
Duncan’s wonderful collection of essays is simultaneously autobiographical, activist, historical and lyrical. He explores rivers, dams, fishing and the human need for wild places with such humor and insight that the book is just waiting for enough time to pass before it enters the wilderness canon.
A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, Isabella Bird
I Am Coyote includes an excerpt from Bird’s epic adventure book that chronicles her solo journey across the American West in the late 1800s. Her other books about horseback treks across Hawaii, Persia, Kurdistan, Japan and Tibet are worth a read, too.