Month: May 2022

Reviews

The High Sierra, A User-Friendly Wilderness

Jon Christensen

I was worried about Kim Stanley Robinson’s new book The High Sierra: A Love Story.

At 560 pages it felt like a mountain to be climbed. It also seemed to be structured like his latest science fiction novel, The Ministry for the Future, which can be a bit of a slog, though an often riveting and sometimes terrifying one. That book mixes narrative sections with expository chapters that read like scientific and bureaucratic reports, intentionally on Robinson’s part, drawing attention to how even gray literature has become dystopian in the age of climate change.

Plus, I have heard Robinson speak a few times in recent years in defense of John Muir and wilderness in ways that made me think he was wandering into terrain that could be trouble.

But Robinson has been hailed as “our last great utopian visionary” (the Los Angeles Times Book Review) and “one of the most important political writers working in America today” (The New Yorker). And I happen to more or less agree with both of those assessments. He’s a utopian at heart, but he calls what he writes about “optopia,” for the optimal or best possible world given the circumstances. That means his sci-fi novels are deeply entangled with realistic politics, even when set in outer space. The Ministry for the Future takes on the climate crisis on Earth and is, at once, the most dire and most hopeful thing I’ve read about climate change.

Isosceles Peak from Dusy Basin, Tom Killion, 2012, used with permission from press

So if Robinson is going to write a book about the High Sierra, one of my favorite landscapes, too, I’m ready to tag along, even if it turns out to be a challenge.

Besides, I like Robinson. When I was editor of Boom, we published a long interview with him entitled “Planet of the Future.” And we’ve invited him to give talks at UCLA several times. Robinson is smart, nimble, insightful, generous, and critical, all qualities one appreciates in an interlocutor, whether on stage, in a seminar, or, I now imagine, sitting around a barebones camp high in the mountains: Robinson is an ardent advocate of ultra-light backpacking.

After reading a couple of chapters of The High Sierra, I wondered how on Earth he could sustain interest and a narrative through-line with all the rapid, seemingly random switches between categories he entitles “My Sierra Life,” “Geology” and “Psychogeology,” “Sierra People,” “Snow Camping,” “Moments of Being,” “Routes,” “The Swiss Alps,” and “An Annotated Sierra Bibliography.” Several of these categories have more than a dozen numbered chapters with subtitles. There are seventy chapters in all, along with copious photographs, maps, and illustrations.

But I forged on and soon settled into a pleasing rhythm. By the end of the book, I felt like I could keep going. And it made me want nothing more than to ditch everything and head to the High Sierra to ramble and scramble around like Robinson.

Schematic of a typical Sierra basin, used with permission from press.

Robinson’s book is a kind of “dérive,” a method of drifting through urban landscapes randomly as a means of discovery that was invented by French Situationists in the mid-twentieth century. It is said to have given form to “psychogeography,” too, the study of how different, usually urban, landscapes affect observers psychologically, or how certain landscapes might have their own affect, their own emotional states. Robinson is a fan of psychogeography, which he stretches to psychogeology.

So, The High Sierra: A Love Story, it turns out, is in some ways an urban form applied to the wilderness. And, oddly, it works. His dérives in the Sierra, and through Sierra geology, history, and literature, undertaken from the time when he was an undergraduate at U.C. San Diego in the early 1970s, to today from his home in Davis, create a pleasing personal thread upon which to hang all kinds of interesting observations, critiques, and analyses.

Robinson is a magpie — of theory, science, story, scene, and anecdote. A smart bird, like the magpie, he picks up objects and turns them into tools for thinking. This book will appeal to aficionados of California, lovers of the Sierra Nevada, scholars who enjoy seeing big ideas brought down to Earth, and readers of Robinson’s science fiction, who may enjoy seeing the writer work through on his own planet ideas he has tested on other worlds.

When Robinson gets to John Muir and wilderness, I did want to quarrel with him, but in a friendly way. Robinson thinks that Muir has gotten a bad rap for racist comments in his writings. He has read everything Muir has written — published and unpublished in the archives — and argues that there are only a few passages portraying Indigenous people negatively. And Muir grew to respect Native Americans, so remarks in his early texts should not stand in for a long writing career.

I interviewed Robinson recently for High Country News. In that conversation, Robinson characterized Muir as a literary character. He exists on paper now. He is someone we read about, review, and argue about. I think that gets it just about right. Muir as problematic text is much better than Muir as patron saint.

Robinson likes theory. But he packs it lightly – like everything in this big book. He uses actor network theory, for example, to argue that the mountain range was an actor in saving itself from development, along with Muir and many others. Scholars may find his casual use of complex ideas frustrating at times. But if you keep in mind that this is all something like a conversation around camp after a day off-trail, it seems apropos.

The Sierra’s east side. Photo courtesy of the press.

Take wilderness, for example. Robinson goes on a bit of a tirade against critics of the wilderness idea, like historian Bill Cronon, who once wrote an influential essay entitled “The Trouble with Wilderness” in the 1990s. Robinson seems to think that thinking critically about the history of wilderness, as a concept and an administrative designation for some public land, actually threatens those public lands. But there doesn’t seem to be much, if any, evidence of that in the twenty-six years since Cronon’s essay was published.

Where Robinson really throws down in a way that could be consequential is on the subject of names in the High Sierra. There are many peaks named for racists, eugenicists, and assorted ne’er-do-wells. Robinson would like to change that, and he has good ideas about how it should be done, de facto if not de jure. He and a group of friends already organized an expedition to name one numbered but unnamed peak after Henry David Thoreau.

Robinson demonstrates in these ways how nature and culture are scrambled in the Sierra. Part of him doesn’t seem to like that. He seems to want the High Sierra as pure wilderness, in a way. At the same time, he recognizes the muddle. And like many of the characters in his science fiction novels, he relishes a good argument without end.

Robinson isn’t the last word. And I don’t think he wants to be. Like his renaming project, which he says should be a kind of never-ending game, he just wants to keep playing in the High Sierra. It’s a pleasure to play along. The High Sierra, it turns out, is a user-friendly wilderness, both figuratively and literally.

California is largely terraformed. That is, human beings have transformed it with massive Earth-shaping works like the California State Water Project. At the same time, the least terraformed part of California, the High Sierra, is humanized in Robinson’s book. It’s made for rambling and scrambling and thinking with. It is a good place to contemplate, from a high angle, being alive on a planet spinning in space.

In turn, the High Sierra serves, for Robinson, as a model for terraforming other off-worlds. Quite a dérive, after all. And well worth the trip.

Jon Christensen  is an adjunct assistant professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and Luskin Center for Innovation and a founder of the Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies at UCLA.

Poetry

my name is wolf (of learning to let you go)

Chiwan Choi
abducted / displaced / then / misplaced / your body an object / lost /it learns to 
breathe / differently / because you can’t / let them know you / are still alive // you learn 
histories / that were never true / nor did it belong / to you / you learn to / shape your 
tongue / into lies / until even you / begin to / believe // but pretty sounds / from your 
lips / after you tamed your howls / never were enough / for them to / love you / and the 
coldness / of the window / in an unexpected april / reminds you / how you will fight /
 now / to never belong / to them // you are born / with two things / all yours— / your 
body / of connected / imperfections / and your death / to come // they convinced you / 
one is broken / and you have failed / by loving it // the other / your greatest fear / to 
run from / everyday / for the rest of / your mortgaged life // snow / touches / 
bewildered bodies / today / the wind / sideways / like a question /forbidden: // what is 
it / that your dying / has held / so valuable / that they have / worked so hard / to steal / 
from your heart

*

daughter, it’s been months since i spoke to you / these days are covered in snow, places 
melted / hiding the cold pools of water in skies reflected / i woke up with my arms 
curled tight / clutching something i can no longer remember // yesterday we laughed on 
our walk / at the tiny footprints left on the steps of / a house around the corner / we 
wondered who lives there / what small lives // daughter, how does time work where 
you have gone / i want to say that i picture you in light / in a place more picturesque 
than this / but i only see your face surrounded by endless black air / how old are you 
now, daughter / because it’s getting harder to remember / harder to forget // are you a 
child / are you older than me / or are you still unborn / as you were when you left // it’s 
winter now / isn’t it always so? / and we are all dying // will you return then / and claim 
the life / you were meant to own // walk through this world / touch the resentful 
texture / of a leaf still green / and cry just to feel / warmth on your face // daughter, 
each day i am afraid / of learning to let you go

*

in the shower / i scraped dirt off my skin / with an old razor / and wondered if death / is 
different under hot water // but only small cuts / opened up on / my shoulder / my hip /
 my thighs / and the blood came / and then dried eventually / as day turned / into gone / 
into leaving / into promises brought / in the dark // i feel it stinging / even in places / 
unharmed / i keep reaching / for my eye / checking to see if my lid / is bleeding // i woke 
up / missing people / i woke up / loving them / but what can such / sentiment mean / in 
a snow covered forest // i hear / her voice / calling me / wolf / the outline / of my body / 
made by / her lips // little sparks / of pain / explode on the surface / of me / and there is 
/ so much more / left / to carry

Chiwan Choi is the author of 3 books of poetry, The Flood (Tía Chucha Press, 2010), Abductions (Writ Large Press, 2012), and The Yellow House (CCM, 2017). He wrote, presented, and destroyed the novel Ghostmaker throughout the course of 2015. His poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including The New York Times MagazineONTHEBUS, Esquire.com, and The Nervous Breakdown. He is currently at work on My Name Is Wolf, the follow up to The Yellow House. Chiwan is a partner at Writ Large Press, a Los Angeles based indie publisher, focused on using literary arts to resist, disrupt, and transgress, and a member of The Accomplices. Chiwan was born in Seoul, Korea, spent his early childhood in Asunción, Paraguay, and now splits his time between Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.
Copyright: © 2022 Chiwan Choi. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.
Original Art by Fernando Corona