Mary Stuever is the state timber management officer with New Mexico's EMNRD Forestry Division. She has published essays in such works as A Mile in Her Boots and served as one of the editors for Field Guide to the Sandia Mountains. Visit her website.
Read Susan's review of The Forester's Log for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Rhonda Esakov & Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 01/13/2010
Which of the essays in your collection is your favorite? Why?
Admitting that I have a favorite piece in the book is almost like saying I love one child more than the others. I like each story, or it wouldn't be in the book. (I even like some of the writing I cut out of the book!) Still, "Reflections on a Burned Landscape" is the piece I read aloud most often. I love the lyrical cadence of the first paragraphs. I love the memories of that priceless morning out on Bear Ridge, having spent the night in our "Spike Camp" playing guitar with my crew and drinking wild tea, then getting up before dark to make bread over the camp fire, and finding myself scouting the ridge for other work sites when the sun was just peeking over the ridge. I was there with cameras, pen and journal. The essay was channeled. It speaks of the beauty of burned forests: a beauty that escapes most folks only because the shock of the devastation of catastrophic fire is so great. I worked out in the burn long enough to get over the shock and to find the inherent magic in the naked landscape.
When you were working full time as a forester and a mom, when and where did you do most of your writing? Even though your children are grown now, you're still very busy—how do you fit writing into the rest of your life?
Maybe the question should be: how do you fit the rest of your life around the writing? Do you really have a choice when it comes to breathing? Writing is like that. It comes from some instinctual place that says "put words on paper, now, NOW!" It's not a good thing to ignore those inner voices. Still, kids can be pretty insistent about getting your attention, and I didn't write that much when the twins were young. However, I think what I mostly give up to write is sleep. I do most of my best writing after 10 p.m.
I like the way you tie the essays together into interrelated sections. Each one, while complete within itself, seems to have more meaning as part of a group. Did this kind of organization work better for you than just putting it all together in a chronological sequence? (We also like the chronological list of essays that you provide at the end of the book!) As you worked with the book's organization, was it difficult to determine which essay would go into which section? How did you determine the order within the section and the order of the sections?
Thanks. The initial reviewer for the publisher suggested a chronological order, but I argued for the thematic approach. The chronological listing as an appendix was my way to honor the suggestion. I preferred the thematic organization because I could edit the articles to reduce repetition while at the same time reinforce some concepts. I wanted the organization of the chapters to build on each other.
Fire came first because fire is the natural disturbance force in the forest, and forestry followed because most of our forestry activities—like thinning and logging—are designed to mimic the role of fire on the landscape. For Fire Recovery, the third theme, the Fire and Forestry chapters needed to set the stage. Once the reader has really mastered the forest and fire ecology lessons in the first three chapters, Environmental Education becomes real, because we can't be a society that treasures our forests if we are not teaching our children to do likewise. I wrap the project up with the final chapter on Recreation starting with a quote by Edward Abbey that reminds us that it is not enough to fight for the land, but to enjoy it while we can. The same reviewer suggested that this chapter come first, because it is more personal and the reader would get a chance to know me right away. My compromise was to add the introductory "stories" at the start of the first four chapters to show "a moment in the life of this forester and mom" and reveal more of myself earlier in the book.
Within each chapter the articles are arranged thematically, and then chronologically. The point here was to show the transition in how forestry has been changing in the past quarter century.
All of these pieces were previously published in a variety of newspapers, newsletters, magazines, and websites. Can you tell us something about that process? How did you locate possible venues for your writing? How did you manage the syndication?
I'll start by thanking a nameless college instructor of my freshman English composition class. It's criminal that I have forgotten her name because she taught me the value of getting my writing published. I showed up to our second class of the semester, and she read a student essay from the first-day, in-class writing assignment. She said she hoped that all her students would be able to write this well at the end of the semester. After class I asked her what I was supposed to do, since my essay was already meeting her standards for class performance. She replied that I did not need to come to class, but I did need to work with her one-on-one to get my writing published. I learned about Writer's Market and Writer's Digest. I got published in some literary magazines. I got hooked on seeing my by-line.
When I graduated from college, I set a goal of getting published somewhere at least once a year. Soon I had started writing a column on forestry to reach landowners in the eight county district of New Mexico where I worked. Since there was no single paper that covered this region, I started self-syndicating the column to the small papers in each county. When I left the state to become a full-time consulting forester, I dropped the column at first, but then picked it up again and expanded the distribution to small town newspapers in both Arizona and New Mexico. Branching out to websites was almost automatic. When I had time, I tried to market individual articles more broadly, to reach other audiences with forestry messages. For example, the article on Single Engine Air Tankers also ran in Southwest Aviator, a magazine for pilots.
In addition to my fabulous editors of many small presses, my favorite form of distribution these days is the email list I maintain that has over 800 names on it. The list contains family, friends, co-workers, colleagues, acquaintances, and people I do not know, but who know my writing. Each month when I send out the column, I usually get feedback from five to twenty folks, and that's very gratifying.
The pieces in this collection span two-plus decades. How did you feel about your writing as you worked with some of the older pieces? Did you see a change in your writing style? In your perceptions or your attitude toward your central subjects?
I knew the rules of writing early on, and decided early on that I could break them at will. And so I started a lot of sentences back then with "and" and "but." I also had a tendency to put myself into the story when I really did not belong. Over the years I broke myself of these habits and found myself rather horrified going back to the earlier writings and seeing how repetitive and error-ridden the earlier essays were. I think the best part of compiling a book of previous writing is the chance to re-edit and polish and polish and re-edit. Meanwhile, I tried to keep the voice and thoughts of the younger Mary so the book would truly show not only how the profession of forestry had changed over the years, but how my own thoughts and beliefs developed over time.
Not all of the people who will read your book are those with a strong outdoor or wilderness focus, and some may not live in the West, where most of your writing is set. How do you think those from a city or suburban setting will connect with your book and apply its lessons?
Most of what I know of the "Big Apple" or "Windy City" is from reading writers from New York or Chicago. I don't have to live in their big cities to understand their books, yet my world is broadened because of my exposure of these places through their writing. I hope it goes both ways. Not many people will live on an Apache reservation for five years, or fight a wildfire in Alaska, or learn about Tree Spirits in Thailand—yet I hope that by reading my reaction to these experiences, their worlds are broadened as well. We all live on the same Earth, one that we are learning it is actually quite small and definitely sensitive to the way we treat the environment. Our survival depends on our people from city and country alike supporting and valuing the management of our forests.
Going forward from this book, what kind of writing do you think you will want to work on in the future? What kind of writing intrigues you? Do you think you may someday apply some of your experiences as the basis for a fiction/adventure or novel?
I start to stutter when asked what I write. Let's see: creative non-fiction, poetry, fiction, technical writing, flash fiction, journaling, and so on. Like much of my life, I am all about multi-tasking. So the fact that I have five active writing projects going right now is no surprise to my co-workers or family or anyone who has been around me for very long. The Forester's Log: Musings from the Woods is actually my ninth book-length project. My previous book projects include four field guides and four teacher guides for environmental education programs.
The reality of choosing which project to add words to on any given night often depends not so much on my heart's desire, but on what commitments I have made to others. Paying projects get priority, unless the muse has taken a tangent. The nice thing about multi-tasking is that if I hit a "writer's block" in one arena, I am usually able to push on in a different project.
So right now, my two favorite writing projects are my first novel which captures many of the trials and tribulations of life on the reservation, and a memoir I am writing with my mother about hiking the Continental Divide in 1981. The divide book may represent the pinnacle of my favorite style: it's not another trail adventure book, but it is personal. It is not pure natural history writing, but it is place-based and spans decades. It is a collaboration that tells the story from different angles—I hiked, Mother ran support. I love the synergy of writing with someone else, and finding words for the way Mothers and Daughters share the journey. In summary, the divide book is lyrical but funny; inspirational but real, and my greatest hope is that the writing touches the reader's heart and broadens the way they see the world, not to mention motivates them off the couch and out into that great big beautiful world of ours.