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2009 National Book Award Finalist Nonfiction
Interview with David M. Carroll

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Photo credit: Laurette Carroll
David M. Carroll
Following the Water: A Hydromancer’s Notebook
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Interview Conducted by Meehan Crist

Meehan Crist: When did you decide to write this book, and why?

David M. Carroll: I decided to write this book in the early years of writing Swampwalker’s Journal, 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.

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?

DC: 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 Swampwalker’s 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.

MC: Are there any books you held in your peripheral vision as models while you worked?

DC: I suppose that almost anyone writing in the nature genre feels Thoreau looking over his or her shoulder; certainly 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 third grade.

MC: What part of Following the Water was the most thrilling to write, and why?

DC: 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?

DC: 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 world?

DC: 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?

DC: 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 MFA from
Columbia University, and her work has recently appeared in publications such
as The Believer and Lapham's Quarterly. Her nonfiction book, Everything
, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


More about
David M. Carroll

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