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Earthworkers | Suzanne Roberts

Suzanne Roberts is the author of the travel essay collection Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel, the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (winner of the National Outdoor Book Award), and four collections of poetry. Named "The Next Great Travel Writer" by National Geographic's Traveler, Suzanne's work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and included twice in The Best Women's Travel Writing. She teaches for the low residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada University.

How did you begin working with/in response to natural environments?

I spent my early childhood in Los Angeles, in a place my dad called “The Concrete Jungle,” though between all that concrete, I managed to find the green spaces, the patches of grass and shrubbery where I would dig in the dirt and collect insects. In a very real way, that’s where my love of the natural world began.

As I got older, I begged my parents to take me to the beach and then to the mountains, where I discovered my lifelong love of hiking and skiing. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, but I did know I wanted to study the world around me, so I earned an undergraduate degree in biology. I had also always loved books and writing, and even though my father was a writer—or maybe because my father was a writer—I didn’t want to study writing, at least not right away, though I finally ended up with a master’s degree in literature (with an emphasis in fiction writing) and a doctorate in literature and the environment, bringing my love of nature and of words together.

I’ve now lived in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada for the past 20 years (with frequent trips to the ocean and the deserts, too), but it was that earliest connection to the green spaces of the urban landscape where I grew up that led me here.

They—whoever they is—say to write “what you know,” and in my case, I intimately know the natural landscape that surrounds me, so it has become one of my primary subjects.

Share with us one of your favorite creative pieces and the natural environment it responds to.

I wrote a memoir called Almost Somewhere about hiking California’s John Muir Trail right out of college. The first two chapters can be found on Longreads.

I also write more tangentially about the natural world, where our animal instincts and our bodies are foregrounded, as in sex and in death. I will link to two essays that do this.

The first, "Along the Ganges," appears in my new book Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel. It contemplates the way the rituals of death are handled in other parts of the world, and in this case India.

The second, "In Love with the World" will appear in a book I’m working on about the nature of different kinds of grief and loss, and in this particular essay, I write about the ways we sometimes mistake our love of a place for romantic love of a person; this particular theme also shows up a lot in Bad Tourist.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to co-create with the natural world?

My advice is to try to see the natural world as it is, rather than through your perception of it. Strip away the metaphors you have inherited or created, whether you see the land as glorious or scary or nurturing or mysterious, or whatever. The best way to do this is to start small, like I did when I was a child, with a little patch of land. Closely examine what’s really there. Sometimes, I like to follow an ant around—they are such amazing creatures!

Trying to see a place without the ideas you already have of it is also a great way to write about places other than home, as in travel writing. Rather than overlaying what you already think (as we so often do when we travel), let your body do the work. Try not to think about it and instead feel it. We experience the world through our bodies, so pay attention to the sensory details. What are the sounds and smells? What does the air feel like? Again, start small, focusing on one tiny thing. Instead of trying to take in a large tree, study its needles. Instead of trying to experience an entire market, talk to one vendor and study her wares. And then do some research, learning everything you can about the thing you have focused on. This will help to create new metaphors, new ways of perceiving, that are based on experiencing the place—both human and nonhuman landscapes— through your senses.

Visit Suzanne's Website
Check out Suzanne's virtual readings!
Follow Suzanne on Instagram @suzanneroberts28
Image Info: 2: Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail; 3: Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel

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