The mountains above El Valle amass columns of clouds, but in a low-lying pasture near the home of author William deBuys, 70, four horses graze peacefully, oblivious to the …
The mountains above El Valle amass columns of clouds, but in a low-lying pasture near the home of author William deBuys, 70, four horses graze peacefully, oblivious to the darkening sky. The whir of activity on the sleepy afternoon I show up for an interview concentrates around the bird feeders.
We watch broad-tailed hummingbirds vie for airspace. "When I first arrived here in the mid-'70s," says deBuys, "I'd hear cordilleran flycatchers singing all day long. This whole area of sky filled with violet-green swallows and nighthawks. Now, nearly none."
It's a somber note with which to begin the interview, one that will sound like distant thunder throughout the conversation.
"The rufous hummingbird is usually here by Fourth of July," he continues. "I haven't seen it yet."
DeBuys, who once served as director of the North Carolina Nature Conservancy and in the early aughts as chair of the Valles Caldera Trust, resides and writes full time in El Valle, a mountain village some 40 miles southeast of Taos. His writing studio was the first structure he built on the property. He constructed several more, including a garage, barn, toolshed and his present residence.
"I only built this house in 2007. Moved in at the very end of the year. And began to enjoy this incredible, modern innovation called indoor plumbing," he says with a chuckle. "I wanted the house to look like it had been here for a while and to blend into the landscape."
Inside we sit at a hefty, rough-hewn table with a view of the portal and the hummingbird feeder. So far, no rufous.
We're chatting about the summer writing workshop he taught (and I attended) July 12 at the third annual Taos Writers Conference, presented by SOMOS, the literary society of Taos.
DeBuys was a thoughtful facilitator and careful listener who sprinkled a generous helping of writing tips with self-deprecating humor. During the workshop he joked about his "crackpot theories," so now I ask him to elaborate on what he meant by "the fractal nature" of good writing.
"It has to do with the importance of the end of the sentence, end of paragraph, end of chapter, etc. They all resonate in different ways, so the careful writer will pay special attention to those placements, to what goes into those endings.
"And the beginnings, of course, are the second most important. And those bear close attention at all those different scales as well. And frankly, what we didn't get into in the class is the idea that the same applies to turns and pivots of action and logic, to contradictions or things that don't add up, to little mysteries, confusions, places where answers are lacking. Doubt draws us in."
DeBuys has authored nine books, including "River of Traps: A New Mexico Mountain Life," co-authored with photographer Alex Harris and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction in 1991. It was subsequently reissued in 2007 by Trinity University Press. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008.
His first book, "Enchantment and Exploitation: The Life and Hard Times of a New Mexico Mountain Range" published in 1985, launched a successful writing career. He cracks a one-liner about the 2015 revised and expanded edition: "It's very rare in life you get a chance to correct the mistakes you made 30 years ago."
His has been a life enjoyed outdoors. Recently, he floated with a group of friends 90 miles along the Hulahula River, which flows due north from the Brooks Range in Alaska and out into the Arctic Ocean.
"Quite an adventure," he says, shaking his head. "We were in the midst of the migration of portions of the Porcupine caribou herd. Saw thousands and thousands of caribou, also wolves, Dall sheep, grizzly, arctic fox. An epic journey. Tundra country is so beautiful."
Beautiful and under threat. Here are the opening sentences from his op-ed about that trip, published July 19, in The New York Times: "Many junkies, before hitting bottom, stoop low enough to steal their mothers' jewels. That's what's happening at a national scale on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska."
His group journeyed right through the portion of the refuge that Congress authorized for drilling in a rider to the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Yet, he remains hopeful the rush to drill will be slowed down by litigation and that the pro-drilling forces will be voted out of office.
Will he assume a role, either through writing or speaking, in the 2020 election cycle? "I'll have my oar in the water," he says, then gets up, walks to the sink for a glass of water.
That's when I notice a glint of copper near the feeder.
"The rufous hummingbird has arrived," I chirp.
"And so it has," he adds, staring out the window with an air of contemplation.
I tell what little I know of the rufous: "For its size, it has the longest migratory route of any bird, including the arctic tern."
In the Sonoran Desert of Mexico and the United States, its very survival is under siege by development, loss of habitat and climate change. This long-distance traveler calls to mind another kind of migration -- a human migration -- along the southern border. DeBuys writes about the work of volunteers and the humanitarian group No More Death in "A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest" (2011).
"That book," says deBuys, "deals with climate change. I'm trying to complete the trilogy that consists of 'A Great Aridness' and the book that came after, 'The Last Unicorn,' which is about extinction fundamentally. And now I'm trying to write about what we know about the very great losses being suffered by the diversity and the beauty of the world. Then, what do we do, how do we carry on, without giving up, without despairing, without shutting down?
"The narrative spine of the story comes from two long expeditions I was on in the Himalaya in 2016 and 2018 as part of a medical expedition providing primary medical care to a very remote area of Nepal."
After a pause, he adds: "It's a bit of a struggle. Every good book is."
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