Okay, sport, hungrily scanning the menu at your favorite café, would you order the Salad Only the Devil Would Eat? Considering the Devil’s svelte figure, this recipe comes highly recommended: bitterbrush, burro weed, jumping cholla, and creosote, all sourced from California’s Antelope Valley. We might suggest a sprinkling of croutons scorched in the fires of Hades.
Forgive us our fun. Let’s dive right into this interview between Charles Hood and Kristine Morris,
who blessed Charles’ A Salad Only the Devil Would Eat with a starred review in the November/December issue of Foreword.
Thanks to Heyday for help with the author-reviewer liaison and publishing another extraordinary title.
Your book of essays, A Salad Only the Devil Would Eat, begins with a celebration of nature’s “ugly side” that is, by turns really funny, poetic, sarcastic, sad, honest, raw, self-deprecating, and awe-struck appreciative. In other words, it’s a great read! What is there about ugly nature that compels you to love it, investigate it, and share it?
I’ve just reached a stage where the High Church rhetoric of Emerson and the pristine skies of Ansel Adams are not enough. What about nature for the rest of us? There are trees (lots of them) in downtown Los Angeles, parrots in Phoenix, coyotes in Chicago, peregrine falcons in Boston. Just yesterday I saw a condor over I-5 in Gorman, which is the freeway between Los Angeles and Bakersfield. Even in my pokey little tract house on a regular street in a working-class neighborhood, I have tallied 74 species of birds. I am not trying to repudiate the Romantic Sublime—I just want to expand the conversation. In photographic terms, I guess I am asking for less Ansel Adams and more Robert Adams.
You are the first author I’ve ever read who has expressed enthusiasm for “a quick cruise through the Lancaster Sewage Ponds.” What is there about you that makes it possible for you to not only endure, but thoroughly enjoy such places, with all the discomforts they inflict upon you?
Sewage ponds are a birding thing, especially in the American West, where even a wormy puddle can attract migrant birds, and from above, a lagoon of shimmering wastewater looks like a hometown buffet. There’s an escaped capybara living in the Salinas River near the Paso Robles Treatment Plant—that is a 40-pound water rat from South America. I love that. My favorite sewage ponds were ones in New Guinea. They were known locally as the shit pits because they were basically steaming lakes of liquid poo. You didn’t want to get too close to the edge—not because of the stink, but because of the saltwater crocodiles waiting just under the surface. As I tell people on bird walks, discomfort is temporary; birdwing butterflies are forever.
You’ve had an eclectic, wide-ranging life experience so far. Known as a poet, essayist, and educator, you’ve also been a factory worker, a ski instructor, a boat salesman, a photographer, a birding guide with an enviable list of 5,000 sightings, and more adventures than I can list here. (But you can tell us about some of them!) What is there about you that keeps you moving, learning, discovering, and then sharing all this with the world? And why is writing your chosen mode of expression?
As Frank O’Hara put it, “I would rather be / a painter, but I am not.” Or a musician! How cool would that be? Wilco has a song, “One Sunday Morning (For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend),” and it is over twelve minutes long. And it has a glockenspiel! I envy that so hard. Writing has to be the worst of the art forms, since you can’t even make cab fare by busking in doorways. I write not by choice, but because language won’t leave me alone. Odd to admit, but I taste words, see the world through them, feel them burning in me when I try to watch a movie. Why language keeps picking on me, I don’t know. If there is a Midas touch that turns everything to gold, my fingers tap on a keyboard and it all turns into clichés and split infinitives. Not only is writing wicked hard, but the thing you might do to fall asleep at day’s end—read a good book—reminds you all over again how every other writer in the world is so much better at it than you are.
You didn’t mention any of the adventures.
Travel is a means to an end, and if you do enough of it, you end up with ten or twenty stories to tell at parties. So yes, I have eaten fried mopani worms in Zambia and had an AK-47 held to my head in Ethiopia and have been lost at night kayaking in the South Pacific, and I even have been charged by a musk ox, which means that I was being stupid about trying to get closer for a better picture. There is that old climbing joke, if you don’t come back cold and hungry, you took too much stuff. I don’t really buy into that, and besides, between Patagonia fleece and Cadbury chocolate, there’s no reason to be cold or hungry anyway. This is not the nineteenth century.
Please share one of your poems with our readers, and tell them about what inspired it.
I did my MFA in poetry, so shout out to teachers Charles Wright and Louise Gluck. I do wish the gods of poetry would deign to like me just a little bit, because I have twenty-two versions of a manuscript that refuses to cohere. There is one poem that I do like from it though. Once at an Earth First! rally in Utah I was sprawled on the lawn, and I would wiggle and pluck the grass and sit up and slump back. But ahead of me, a few rows up, was this one guy who had perfect attention, perfect posture. He sat upright, always focused and calm, for speaker after speaker. I realized, “Oh, Zen training! That guy must be Gary Snyder!” He later blurbed my first book, but this was the first time I had met him. I played Frisbee with his kids during one of the breaks.
My Hero Gary Snyder
once gave a reading in a barn lit by lanterns after the storm knocked out the power, and when
we sat around him on circled hay bales while he recited the Smokey the Bear Sutra from memory,
nobody held up their phones to record him—not because cellphones
had not been invented yet but because back in the Pleistocene if you disrespected a poet
everybody knew, he might turn into a bear and eat you.
You grew up near the Los Angeles River, and currently live in Antelope Valley, California. For those unfamiliar with the place, please tell our readers what the area is like, and why you chose to live in a place “where old sofas crawl to the ends of dirt roads to die.”
Aerospace and exurbia, tagging and foreclosures, that is the Antelope Valley, but you know what? You can buy a nice house on a teacher’s salary, and the museums of LA are only an hour away. This is not the same high desert where Joshua Tree park is—the Antelope Valley is more working class, less Airbnb. I always assumed I would move away once I retired, but my wife likes her job and the dog likes the yard and I have an eleven-foot-tall bookcase with two climbing walls on each side, so let’s give three cheers for high ceilings and an affordable mortgage. A great piece of art about the Antelope Valley is David Hockney’s photocollage, Pearblossom Highway, owned by the Getty. That was made ten minutes from my house.
How do those who have come to inhabit such places by choice differ from those who live there because they have no choice? What do they have in common?
Don’t you hate it when the t-shirt slogans are true, like the one that reads, “Thrive where you are planted”? As I tell my students, some of whom grew up quite poor, the question is not where you have come from, but who do you want to be and how will you get there. Obviously if you are a woman in Afghanistan or a journalist in Belarus, the possible choices differ from those available to somebody with a passport from a G20 nation. But speaking broadly, if we look at the world as it truly is, there still remain lots of ways to feel happy, to do good work, and to end up with a house list with 74 species on it.
One of the many things I loved about your book is the way a seemingly simple statement can reveal great depth and insight. For example, you quote Victor Hugo, who said, “The desert is where God is and man is not.” Having lived in the Mojave for thirty-plus years, what is there of God that you find in the desert, and why does it please you that other humans are scarce or absent?
People are annoying, plus they smell bad and spread disease. Who even invented them? There’s a C.S. Lewis throwaway line, “What rum little creatures humans are.” I am glad New York City exists since it provides the infrastructure to keep the Met up and running, but couldn’t there be some way to move the Met to someplace quieter, and with more parking? (Marfa, Texas, comes to mind, and you wouldn’t have to fly in and out of Newark to get there.) It’s a rare desert that won’t let you see the horizon, and doing that keeps you centered in the landscape, which in turn keeps you centered in your own body. Everybody should be able to point to where the sun is going to rise, where it is going to set, and which way you need to walk to reach a perfect place to take a nap. If you can’t see stars, you live in the wrong place.
You wrote that your local plant list “sounds like a salad only the devil would eat,” with ingredients like “bitterbrush, burro weed, creosote, jumping cholla, Mormon tea.” You called them plants that “must be praised for their tenacity and admired for their small, miraculous, life-affirming flowers.” What do you think might change if more of us took an interest in “ugly nature,” cast-off belongings, and the “have-nots” and homeless amongst us? What can they teach us?
If we are honest, wouldn’t we all want our kids to be the weed, not the orchid? Durability, endurance, water-thrift: the future is now and I have found it in a dirt lot. Plus, I hail from the “close reading” school of literary criticism, and so to read the landscape as lovingly and closely as one does a metaphysical poet is an act of attention that always pays off. You don’t have to be an expert tracker to spot mountain lion tracks, you just need to look down once in a while. I’m working on a book called Wild Sonoma, and in one fifty-yard section of a trail my companions and I found the tracks and scat from a raccoon, a bobcat, a gray fox, and a skunk. The raccoon droppings were full of crayfish shells; gray foxes are slim and low to the ground, and this one had left his deposit on top of a small log, right at nose level for the other foxes.
You wrote, “I have come to prefer ugly nature best: at least it’s not going anywhere. Nobody can take it away from me, nobody can ruin it or lock it up or break my heart by just not caring.” What experiences have you had that led you to feel this way, to identify so closely with this aspect of nature? What has it taught you?
Time to lay a rose on the grave of the late, great Yosemite National Park. When it’s not on fire or being bashed by floods, then under the guise of Covid management, access is limited only to the lucky few who hold reservations. That literal gate-keeping disenfranchises anybody who doesn’t have a stable work schedule, a cache of paid leave time, a good internet connection, and the mental proclivity that makes planning, scheduling, and keeping track of texted QR codes a fun and easy thing to do. A map of Nature Conservancy properties shows more preserves are fully or partially closed to the public than are open. At the ocean, the residents of Malibu are always squabbling with the surfers over who owns the low-tide half of the beach. Thanks, but no thanks. There is plenty of un-Yosemite landscape to go around, no appointment necessary.
How did the shutdown of most of society during 2020 and beyond affect you and your work? Do you see anything positive coming out of it for yourself and/or for society as a whole?
History may be a guide here. After the bubonic plague in the 1350s, the value of labor rose—peasants could command better wages and leave their villages to seek work elsewhere. As modern society emerges from shutdown, in 2021 we’re seeing multiple victories for labor. Will these victories last? Maybe not, but let’s celebrate the wins while we can. And in education I’ve seen technophobe colleagues realize that assigning no-cost eBooks or holding virtual office hours helps us serve populations of students we were not reaching before. My online students can work the night shift or be deployed overseas and yet still have the opportunity to learn how to share their voice on the page. The definition of what a “classroom” is has changed in the past two years, and I don’t see it changing back.
You wrote, “Our best action on behalf of nature may be inaction: stand back and let it do its thing, see what happens.” What led you to this idea? Why might it be better than attempts at remediation or modification?
In New Zealand, the Anglo-European colonizers missed home, so let a few rabbits loose. Then the rabbits went from ten to ten million faster than you could say “Peter Cottontail.” So then because they had too many rabbits, they let loose a kind of weasel called a stoat. The stoats don’t mind having a go at rabbits, but what they really like to do is eat baby penguins, since in New Zealand yellow-eyed penguins nest not on ice floes but in burrows along grassy shorelines. So, if the rabbits were a bad idea, the stoat thing was way worse. Sometimes it works out, and we salvage the condors or transplant the rare flower. Most other times no, we rolled a ten-sided die only to learn that, oops, the real answer was eleven. It would be like giving a drunk teenager a welding torch and a hacksaw and pointing them at your Lexus: “There’s a funny squeak in the brakes. Keep messing with stuff until it stops.” That will not end well for anybody.
What would you say to those who are concerned about the state of the world/planet but feel that there’s no hope?
Turn off your phone. Go for a walk. When you get back, put the phone in a bottom drawer and leave it there.
What does life look like for you now? Can we hope for another book?
It won’t be a long wait. If you like “herps” (snakes and lizards and frogs), I have a field guide to just that coming out from Timber Press in January, 2022. It’s called Sea Turtles to Sidewinders: A Guide to the Most Fascinating Reptiles and Amphibians of the West. Timber Press is doing that and I am really excited—we have so many killer shots for that one. Then I am back with my good and wise friends at Heyday Books for something called Wild Sonoma, October of 2022, also very nicely photographed. And then deserts after dark is next after that, and also one about California roadside ecology. Who knows, maybe the poetry book will figure itself out by then, as well.
We’ve mainly talked about what really is only the first of the essays in your book. But you also wrote about the oddities of birders and list-keepers; of natural history dioramas in Alaska’s airports that seem to say, “Welcome to Alaska. Let’s all go out and kill things!” And of LA’s palm trees that repeat the lie: “you can never be too tall or too thin.” You write of water and the many names of a river, of memory, of the loss of what was and of imagining what might replace it. It’s a beautiful, meaningful book, one that reminds us that “life is indeed enchanted” and that no matter how low we might feel, “some little surprise, some little gift” will come to tap on the door, bringing with it a “double shot of hope and joy.” Your book is one such gift. Thank you.
Thank you. I am honored by your attention. The next time I sit in the grass I will try to sit up a bit straighter, just to be worthy of so much kindness.