Inspiring Passion: A Conversation with David Guterson

David Guterson’s writing is well-known to readers in the Pacific Northwest. His 1994 novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, which won the PEN/Faulkner and the American Booksellers Association Book of the Year Award, sold four million copies and was adapted for the screen. He has written 10 other books, including novels, non-fiction, short stories and poetry, and has published numerous articles in Harper’s Magazine, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and other publications. His most recent work, Turn Around Time: A Walking Poem for the Pacific Northwest, was published in September by Mountaineers Books. In addition to writing, Guterson is a life-long hiker and environmentalist.

What prompted you to start hiking?

Family circumstances. I was born in Seattle and grew up there. Two of my uncles were trip leaders for The Mountaineers. I got to tag along on Mountaineer outings at a young age, and liked doing that from the beginning.

Where are your favorite places to hike?

I’ve lived in Kitsap County for the past 37 years, and that has oriented me toward the Olympic Mountains. Accessible day hikes for me are mostly in the eastern frontal range, so I go up its river valleys often—the North Fork Skokomish, the Hamma Hamma, the Duckabush, the Dosewallips, the Quilcene, the Dungeness, the Greywolf. Each river valley road allows access to a handful of trails, and annually I walk as many as I can. They all have their pleasures, but I especially like getting up into the Sawtooth Range at the southern end of my day hike reach, and into The Needles at the northern end.

What are the relative values of a new destination vs. returning to a familiar spot? 

A hike to a summit or lake I’ve never been to before is marked by a natural interest in the unknown. On the other hand, familiar places change from year to year as a result of water in motion, and due to fire and avalanche, and as a result offer up the interest of transformation. I’m also enthralled by visits to the same terrain in different weather and seasons.

What are the relative values of walking alone versus walking with a companion?

I love to spend a full day with a hiking partner. It’s rare to have that sort of time and opportunity for conversation, and the context of hiking seems to spur a wide ranging and easeful back and forth that I enjoy. Solo hiking, on the other hand, induces in me an intensity of thought at times marked by rabid profusion and at others by focused clarity.

Why hike? What are its deepest values, given the nature of the activity? 

On the one hand, we might properly view hiking as a pastime—something people do for enjoyment, and in that regard no different from golf or bowling. On the other, a walk can be a stimulus to thought and emotion, and to creativity and appreciation, just as it was for the poets Wordsworth and Basho, for John Muir and Henry David Thoreau, and for the philosophers Immanuel Kant and Ludwig Wittgenstein, all of whom walked inveterately, and all of whom understood the association between persistent walking and the shapes of their inner lives. 

What changes in you during a hike?

Of course we are leaving the mundane world behind, with its to-do list and demands, its obligations and responsibilities, and are set free in some fashion in wild country—which is not to say that hiking is escape, because I think we return from it with a renewed clarity that informs our lives in broad and important ways. We’re made smaller in a healthy fashion by our forays into wilderness. The sheer scope of the natural world, and the breadth of time evident in so many of its particulars, puts our lives and concerns in a useful perspective.  

Explain the meaning of your title ‘Turn Around Time’. How does this serve as your root metaphor?

My new book is called Turn Around Time: A Walking Poem for the Pacific Northwest. It includes illustrations by artist Justin Gibbens, who like me has spent a lot of time out of doors in our part of the world. The title refers in explicit terms to the mountaineer’s practice of establishing, in advance of a summit attempt, a time at which the party will return to camp, regardless of whether its goal has been reached. I make figurative use of this notion in my book, exploring how it might fit into our lives as we contend with our professional and personal ambitions. I want to suggest that if we live long enough, there comes a time when the ambitions that have driven us forward in life can imperil our well-being and the well-being of those around us.  As Carl Jung put it, “We cannot live the afternoon of our life according to the program of life’s morning, for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true at evening will have become a lie.”

What are your thoughts on conserving the territory we love to hike in?  What should we be doing to ensure that we and our grandchildren can continue to walk in the woods? 

Mountain range by Justin Gibbens

These questions are subsumed by the larger and more critical question of our global climate crisis. We can work locally for preservation, but our efforts unfold in a larger context that threatens to render them useless. That said, little work of importance with regard to conservation of any sort unfolds without the passion induced by direct experience of the natural world. I’m talking about love here, about the kind of love for this earth that derives from direct experience of it, without which we are doomed. So long as the earth remains a distant abstraction, its processes unfolding beyond the reach of our lives, we will not do enough to insure that future generations can live here without suffering and duress. What, then, can we do about this peril?   I think that each of us has a role to play, and work to do on behalf of the earth. In my own case, that means making use of the power of the written word to inspire and nurture love of nature. At bottom, this is the purpose of my book.

My Favorite Hikes 

By David Guterson

The Hoh Rain Forest. Photo by John D’Onofrio

 

My favorite hikes are on trails up the west end river valleys of the Olympic Peninsula—the two forks of the Hoh, the two forks of the Quinault, and the Queets (which must be forded at outset). All of them pass through dream-like rain forest—sometimes through spruce and maple bottoms, and sometimes through stands of quiet hemlock and cedar.

These trails are lonely in fall and winter. They lack the rigors of relentless ascent and it’s a pleasure to clock off their miles at a steady clip. They are stately at times, and for long stretches, level.

The will of living things speaks for itself along these river trails. I find myself possessed by a quiet awe while walking them, by a celebratory spirit, and by a sense of reverence. I feel at home in beauty and impermanence.

The Crux

 

At the crux we’ll have to take light’s measure

with neither guides nor verses.

We’ll turn our childhood compasses back

and read our self-made futures.

There’s an all-or-nothing pitch to our long sojourn.

 

There’s the climber who slid

into the pink crevasse

with no last chance at sunset,

the climber who pinned the Angel of Death

in a grip that became a seizure.

 

We might end in limbo.

We might free-fall snow-blind

with our lives painted on our glasses.

Let’s close a circle in this world, then:

there’s a late slant of light to get home in.

 

We’ll bring back freedom,

mingle in markets,

streams will meander,

flowers grow,

and love pour out of mountains.

Excerpted with permission from Turn Around Time: A Walking Poem for the Pacific Northwest (Mountaineers Books, September 2019) by David Guterson; illustrations by Justin Gibbens.

David Guterson is the author of the acclaimed novel Snow Falling on Cedars His book-length poem, Turn Around Time: A Walking Poem for the Pacific Northwest was published by Seattle-based Mountaineers Books last year. He lives on Bainbridge Island with his wife Robin. They have five children. Follow him on Instagram @davidguterson.

The poet Roger Gilman lives in Bellingham and can be found around the northwest along Cascade mountain streams and in Puget Sound salt marshes fly fishing and birding for poems.  Formerly the poetry editor of The Chicago Review, he is a philosopher of evolutionary ecology and restoration biology and served as dean of Fairhaven College at Western Washington University. Roger currently serves as poetry editor of Adventures Northwest.

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