Photo credit: Laurette
Following the Water: A
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Meehan Crist: When
did you decide to write this book, and why?
a project begun in 1992 and finally published in 1999.
I had planned on chapter two being "Following the
Water", but as my manuscript went way beyond word
budget, and as I saw this idea and format as being different
in style and substance from the remaining chapters,
I withdrew it, thinking that I would like to do it as
a book in its own right in the future. When the time
arrived to do that, I began working with drafts that
had been written fifteen years before. I wanted to write
a book that would not have the burden of as much of
my own field work/data; review of the literature...the
more scientific, but be centered on observations, impressions,
extensions of a more intuitive or (for want of a better
word) metaphysical nature...more of a "sitting
in forgetfulness" á la the early Chinese
poet Wang Wei.
I decided to write this book in the
early years of writing
MC: How did you decide
on the structure for this book, and how do you feel
this particular form serves the book’s content
in a way other structures could not?
Journal. The way in which several illustrations
that were based on pages from my "swamp notebooks"
- with drawings and field notes combined - turned out
in that book made me want to make more use of the format,
or device. This is something with which I might want
to involve myself more fully in a future book. Another
long-anticipated approach, that of interspersing more
straightforward observations (such as "A Drink
Along the Way') with more imaginative, intuitive segments
(such as "In Memory Only") arose from such
juxtapositions in my field notebooks over the years.
Here again, the structure of this book, which
is related to but different from my previous four, began
to take shape for me as I worked on
MC: Are there any books
you held in your peripheral vision as models while you
Walden and even more so his Journal
have always been in my peripheral vision. Chinese poets—Wang
Wei in particular—and Latin American and Spanish
poets (Antonio Machado, Neruda, etc.) are also there.
(I continually think of how they wrote things, before
I was even born, that I was going to write; some 1200
years ago in the case of Wang Wei: always the anxiety
of influence.) Although terribly anthropomorphic, Crew
and Gall's Wagtail, a children’s book
published in 1932 on the life of a frog, with considerable
accurate natural history, placed a spark for my writing
and illustrating a natural history when I read it in
I suppose that almost anyone writing in the
nature genre feels Thoreau looking over his or her shoulder;
MC: What part of Following
the Water was the most thrilling to write, and
Segments such as "Dancing Tree"; "A
Day in the Shadow of a Pine"; and "Wading
Alder Brook" were the most exciting for me to write
as they represented a way of writing that appears in
some of my notebooks, jottings, and journals, sketches
for poems and such, but that I had not been able to
so purely express in my earlier books.
MC: If you could choose
one person to read your book, who would it be, and why
would you want that particular person to read it?
If I could transliterate "one person"
to "one group" or "position" I would
say the director or other principal of every land trust
and conservation group in the country; in the hope that
my appeal to move beyond stewardship and conservation
to preservation, to "leave the place alone",
might fall on some receptive and effective ears.
MC: What is the one
thing you wish people better understood about the natural
This is closely related to my response to the
previous question: its need to be left alone, be given
its own space, its inalienable right to exist far beyond
its merely serving the needs and desires of humankind;
that it is not, in fact, be here simply for "our
children’s children’s children", as
we so often hear.
MC: Following the
Water raises the question of what we mean by “wilderness.”
Some have argued that wilderness is a cultural construct,
an idea that has changed along with human society over
time, while others have argued there was once such a
thing as wilderness, but that it no longer exists on
a planet where air, water, pollutants, etc. travel fluidly
between areas both populated and unpopulated by humans.
How do you define wilderness, and how do you see this
book as a call to re-imagine how me might best protect
It is harder all the time to say what we mean
by "wilderness"; this has, of course, come
to mean many different things to many different people.
I think more in terms of "wildness" than of
"wilderness", by which I mean those places
where ecologies, any remaining semblance of a natural
landscape (another term losing meaning), and the overall
biodiversity are the primary expression of place. I
have come to see this as being inversely proportional
to human presence in, and utilization of, that space.
This lies at the heart of all my field reports, my talks,
and of course my books. I have to realize that what
I advocate is all but entirely inapplicable to the relentlessly
human-centered and overpopulated world of the day. But
- and this question raises an apt way of putting it
- I continue to call for a re-imagining of how to protect
whatever remaining essence of wildness we can, if we
are able to find it and recognize it, and to restore
whatever measure we are able of what we have so heedlessly
overrun. I am inevitably closely tied to and influenced
by my own immediate region, but clearly this is the
global imperative. I see this re-imagining, or continuing
to imagine in a way that has its roots in earlier human
cultures, as re-asserting itself in some Latin American
countries. (And here I do not refer to eco-tourism.)
At the risk of being excessively repetitive and overly
simplistic, we need to be able to leave places alone,
to be able to imagine generous spaces on this troubled
and shrinking planet without people, or at least places
that do not exist solely to serve the human species.
We are but one in how many?
Meehan Crist is
reviews editor at The Believer. She holds an
Columbia University, and her work has recently appeared
in publications such
as The Believer and Lapham's Quarterly.
Her nonfiction book, Everything
After, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.