categories: Cocktail Hour / Getting Outside
Let me say this straight out: it’s not easy. You see the fame, the interviews on ET, the magazine covers, the late night chats with the President, all the trappings, and you say, “Man, I could do that, I could write lyrically about plovers and shit.” But then there’s what you don’t see. You don’t see the stress, the constant media scrutiny, the prying into your personal life, the paparazzi chasing after you as you try to take a solitary walk along the beach to contemplate sanderlings and profoundities. What you don’t see is how hard it is to focus on the sublime with all those flashbulbs flashing; what you don’t see is the mudslinging, the interviews, the fierce rivalries with the Matthiessens and Dillards. And of course the sex. A godawful lot of sex.
Perhaps I am revealing a little too much of what goes on behind the scenes in the life of a nature writer. But I do so in the name of honesty so that young people out there who are considering getting into this game will know it’s not all leaves and acorns and quoting Thoreau. Being quietly meditative is the least of it. There are the three martini lunches with Wendell Berry, the long calls on my cell with Gary Snyder. Sometimes I feel like a big phony, like I’m just playing a part. Everywhere I go people want me to wear my signature bearskin vest and that necklace with the great horned owl talons, and of course they ask me to make my signature growling, snorting noises. It’s ridiculous really. I think I know a little bit of how Madonna felt when she did that tour wearing a conical metallic bra. Barry Lopez still teases me about appearing with that stuffed brown bear on the cover of Newsweek, and I’ll admit it did look strange. These days if I so much as wash my hair, let alone use conditioner, my young fans think I’m a sell-out. I heard Dillard say the same thing on Letterman the other night. And she’s right. It’s hard, man, really hard. I never asked for this…..this wasn’t what I was looking for when I went to the woods.
People say I’m temperamental, that I’ve become a Prima Donna, that I ball out my roadies. But you wouldn’t believe the shit I have to put up with. I’ll never forget that time in the late 90s when my assistant invited John Haines to lunch instead of John Hay and I found myself across the table at Sardis from the famous Alaskan nature writer instead of the famous Cape Cod nature writer. And then there’s the envy. People ask: why should you make the big bucks just because you know the Latin name of a rose-throated becard? They act like taking walks in the woods is easy. But you know what I say to my critics? I say screw you. I say you try making people feel exalted by praising the quiet fluttering of an aspen leaf in late fall. I say, “Baby, that’s the reason I’m paid what I’m paid.”
People are quick to judge but not so quick to try and understand my feelings. Look….I didn’t ask for this gift, didn’t ask to be acutely sensitive to the natural world. Lord knows there are times I didn’t want the burden. Sure, I like the money, the starlets, the big cars, the perks, but there are times when I long for a simpler life. I’d like to be back on the pond at Concord or swaying with John Muir in the treetops as lightning strikes around us. But that’s not how it is anymore. Nature today has to be sharper, sexier, geared toward the younger demographic. No one wants to hear a story about some guy living alone.
Speaking of which, my job, as you can imagine, requires me to constantly quote Thoreau. But I doubt even Big Henry could comprehend the kind of stress the modern nature writer must endure. It’s not easy being profound all the time. There are moments when I want to chuck it all and leave the woods and get a nice apartment on the upper East side. But then I remember why I got into this racket in the first place and a little tear comes to my eye. Nature writing, I remember, is about more than money and glory. It’s about quiet moments, too. The slight trickling of the tidal creek as the water withdraws, the soughing of the wind in the marsh phragmites, the staging of swallows in early fall. And I remind myself that it is those moments of quiet exaltation I live for, and that almost no amount of money or attention can match that.
But let’s get real. Sure, I can give my fanbase quiet moments, but those moments don’t pay the bills. To make the big bucks you’ve got to throw in a jeremiad, along with a sermon or two. And it’s best to steer away from that old Thoreau chestnut of “voluntary poverty.” Who wants to hear about doing with less? We’re Americans damn it. Thoreau said: simplify, simplify, simplify. Who the hell knows what that means? I’d like to end with a piece of advice that, while not as profound as Henry’s, is more practical, and, yes, simpler. If you are feeling desperate heed my words. Take it from me. If there’s a hole inside you that feels like it can’t be filled, there’s really only one way to fill it:
Go buy something.