We are continuing our series of posts that will profile the authors and artists featured in our latest volume, Trust. Learn more about the Trust volume here. Click this link to order Trust and previous volumes.
by Tammy Cloutier
Whole Terrain staff
I did not want to laugh at another’s misfortune, but could not help but smile at the images conjured in my mind while reading “Scout’s Honor,” a piece of creative nonfiction by Michael P. Branch that appeared in Whole Terrain’s Trust volume. Branch, a professor of literature and the environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, often combines humor and wilderness in his writing, to the delight of readers. You’ll have to read the piece for the full story, but suffice it to say that Branch’s actions in this story, involving competitive fire starting with a little extra help, did not earn him the Boy Scout virtue of “trustworthiness.” Others may have deemed his actions “resourceful.” Regardless of the terminology, we loved Branch’s piece, and wanted to learn more about Branch, his writing, and the lasting impact of his scouting experience.
Whole Terrain: What drew you to Whole Terrain’s trust theme?
Michael P. Branch: As a writer of creative nonfiction I work constantly to discover and then build around the theme at the heart of any piece I’m writing. I like the way a theme-based issue encourages the same process of discovery, which must then be followed by a disciplined approach to organizing thoughts and experiences around a main idea. And trust is just such an expansive, appealing, embattled theme! How do we learn to trust ourselves? Our judgment? Our bodies? How do we build, maintain, or restore trust with those we love? How do we ultimately come to trust the role that nature plays in our own lives? Trust seems to me so difficult, and so necessary. I was pleased to have the issue’s theme as an excuse to think more deeply about the importance of trust in my own practices of environmental engagement.
WT: Can you let us in on what inspired this particular piece, “Scout’s Honor”?
MPB: This piece is an example of my ongoing attempt to use humor to get at important environmental issues. My own feeling is that too much environmental writing has become argumentative and polemical. I don’t mind a good polemic, but adopting a preachy or confrontational tone tends to alienate readers. Instead, I try to use humor to relax the reader, open their mind and heart a little, and then try to sneak some ideas in once I have them laughing.
I really was a lousy Boy Scout. I can laugh about it now, but when you’re a kid—especially a boy kid in a world that feels rife with high-stakes competitions of one sort or another—you worry a lot about whether you’ll be adequate to a challenge, however silly that challenge might be.
There were a few reasons I was inspired to revisit this particular misadventure I had as a scout. First, when you write about and laugh about something stressful from your past, there’s no question that it helps you to put the incident or problem in perspective and, ultimately, put it behind you. Second, as I watch my own kids’ relationship to nature develop as they grow, I want to make sure I don’t put them in the same position I was put in as a scout. It is important to me that their connection to the natural world be cultivated in ways that are less regimented and competitive. Finally, I thought the story told in this essay might offer an interesting angle on the issue’s theme of trust. Who is trusted in this story, and who should be? Whose trust is broken, and why? Should the scout trust the scoutmaster? Should the scoutmaster trust the scout? Should the scout learn to trust himself? It just seemed to be a narrative that invited some important questions about how we—especially as kids—relate to ourselves, each other, and the natural world.
WT: Perhaps you may not have been a model Boy Scout, but in what ways does this piece represent themes you often write about, and in what ways does this piece differ from your norm?
MPB: It differs in that it doesn’t feature either the high desert or experiences with my daughters, which I’d say are my two most consistent obsessions as a writer. But it is similar in that, as I mentioned, it uses humor to try to get at a serious subject.
I’m hoping the piece will encourage readers to ask themselves a few questions about why we interact with nature as we do. For example, why does engagement with nature have to be as regimented, structured, and even competitive, as it is for the kid version of myself who is the protagonist of this story? Speaking as the father of daughters, I also hope the piece helps to question our culture’s unexamined association of wilderness with masculinity of the type embodied by the scoutmaster. So while I’m playing the story for laughs, I’m also trying to interrogate some of our assumptions about nature and masculinity.
WT: What is the relationship between trust and environmental practice in your world?
MPB: Well, we all know that trust is harder to gain than it is to lose. There’s a firm foundation of trust within my family, so I’m very fortunate in that regard. But what I struggle with most is trusting that we humans will make intelligent, caring, unselfish choices in how we relate to both our local environments and to the planet at large. I just find it hard to trust that we’re going to make the right decisions going forward, when so many of the decisions we’ve made so far are dishearteningly shortsighted. So that’s what I’m working on: gaining more trust in our shared future. And what helps me most is thinking about these problems in the context of my daughters’ relationship to nature. One of the things I trust most is that these girls will have the capacity to do a much better job than my generation has done in charting the way forward to more sustainable ways of inhabiting the planet.
WT: What are some current or upcoming projects you’re most excited about?
MPB: My book Raising Wild: Dispatches from a Home in the Wilderness, which is about the experience of raising daughters in a wild desert landscape, will be published in hardcover on August 23, 2016, so I’m doing a lot of readings and other things in support of the new book. Then in June 2017, Roost Books will bring out Raising Wild in paperback right along with the paperback original release of my next book, Rants from the Hill, which will include “Scout’s Honor” along with 36 other short essays. Although it is a bit out of the flow of my creative work these days, I also have a scholarly book coming out in spring, 2017: ‘The Best Read Naturalist’: Nature Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, which I co-edited with Clinton Mohs.
So at the moment I’m working on a sequel to Rants from the Hill, a collection of essays that will likely be out in the summer of 2018. Of course I’m also working on my perennial flower garden, and chopping invasive thistle, and doing fuels reduction work in preparation for wildfire. Oh, and listening to a lot of baseball on the radio. That’s probably my most pressing and important task at the moment.
WT: One more question, for the record: did your scouting experience scar you in any way?
MPB: No, no scars at all! And I don’t have the slightest ill will toward scouts, scouting, or my old scoutmaster. But I’ve cultivated a relationship to nature that really centers me, and I don’t think I could have worked that out through scouting—or through participation in any other group. I feel that my relationship with the desert is highly individual, carefully considered and nurtured, and not very susceptible to other people’s ideas about how environmental values should be enacted. I suppose that’s one way of saying that my relationship to nature is now an essential part of my identity. In that sense I do think I’ve learned to trust myself. If there were merit badges for good parenting, self-awareness, or having a great palate for IPA, maybe I’d be interested. As it stands, though, I’m very happy to live in a world where my connection to nature doesn’t have to be mediated by awards or adjudicated through competition.
Bio: Michael P. Branch, whose doctorate is from the University of Virginia (1993), is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno. He is a co-founder and past president of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) and he served for sixteen years as the Book Review Editor of the journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. He is a co-founder and series co-editor of the University of Virginia Press book series Under the Sign of Nature: Explorations in Ecocriticism. His own books include The Height of Our Mountains, John Muir’s Last Journey, and Reading the Roots: American Nature Writing before Walden. He is the author of more than 200 articles, essays, and reviews in a variety of environmental and popular magazines, and many pieces have received awards and honorable mentions. He has given more than 250 invited lectures and readings. His essays are frequently comic and often focus on arid landscapes and on parenting. New additions to his widely read essay series, “Rants from the Hill,” were published monthly for a number of years at High Country News until April 2016. Mike lives with his wife and two young daughters at “Piedmont,” a passive solar home of their own design at 6,000 feet in the high desert north of Reno, where the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada meet. Mike’s newest book, Raising Wild: Dispatches from a Home in the Wilderness, will be available in bookstores August 23, 2016.