IN ONE OF THE ESSAYS from his new book, Getting to Grey Owl: Journeys On Four Continents, Kurt Caswell finds himself in a small writer’s museum in Glasgow, where he comes across an excerpt from a travel essay by Robert Louis Stevenson, and this quote: “Desire and curiosity are the two eyes through which [a man] sees the world in the most enchanted colors.” Caswell concludes, “And so in the close rooms and passageways of the little museum, I claimed that same path for myself …”
Caswell, who teaches creative writing and literature in the Honors College at Texas Tech University, is the author of two other books of nonfiction: In the Sun’s House: My Year Teaching on the Navajo Reservation (also from Trinity University Press); and An Inside Passage, which won the 2008 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Book Prize. He is the lead editor of a book of nature essays, To Everything on Earth, and serves as nonfiction editor for the journal Hunger Mountain.
An author already known for his exceptional work in creative nonfiction, as well as his attention to craft, with Getting to Grey Owl he wanders out in even wider circles, exploring both inner and outer encounters with genuine curiosity and desire.
This interview took place over two weeks of email exchanges in late August.
JOHN LANE: Kurt, with this latest collection, you may be our current poet laureate on the subject of wandering.
KURT CASWELL: Well, I can’t say I don’t like the sound of that — but of course, a writer also has to stay put for long periods of time to get the writing done. So there is a kind of imaginative leap a reader might make when reading a book that takes on the subject of wandering, and that’s that the writer, wander as he may, also does a lot of sitting.
The 11 essays in Getting to Grey Owl range over so many landscapes — Japan, Spain, Italy, Iceland, China — to name a few. Would you feel comfortable calling this a “travel” book?
Yes, but I don’t think the book is limited by that designation. It’s also a book about ideas, and feelings, and our creature-hood.
You range freely over 21 years of travel in these essays, covering excursions from 1992 to 2013. That’s a lot to pull together between two covers. Did you worry about covering such a long stretch of time?
No, I really didn’t. Time, or the movement through time, is less a concern here, I think, than the movement through space. What I really focused on was pulling together stories that move through physical spaces that make sense to one another.
The subtitle of Getting to Grey Owl calls the travel you undertake in these essays “journeys.” Is there a difference between a trip and a journey?
Absolutely. A journey, I think, must also include an exploration of the heart.
There’s a lot of postmodern trepidation out there about travel writing. Going away from home and writing about it can be suspect. Consider the fretful voice of a recent reviewer of your book who writes, “I’m usually skeptical of the travel genre, because it sometimes implies privileged people writing about their many leisure activities.” Are we to take you, Kurt Caswell, as a man of leisure writing about privilege?
No, I don’t think so. In Getting to Grey Owl, very few of the journeys were about leisure. Most of the time I was trying to make a living, in fact. But at the same time, I’m aware that getting on an airplane comes from a position of privilege.
There’s a playful sense to this book, a sense at times that you are pulling the reader’s leg. Talk a little about the importance of humor in the contemporary essay.
I started out a very serious writer, but somewhere along my path I realized that a reader just can’t take too much of it. So yeah, I love a good laugh, and I look at the world as a humorous place. I knew a retired UPI reporter when I lived in northern California. He’d covered seven wars; he took a bullet through his hand. He was in his 80s when I met him. We talked about war and famine and climate change. I became more and more depressed, but he’d brighten up and say: “God damn! It’s a crazy ol’ world, isn’t it? Endless surprises!” Facing the kind of future we’re facing as a species, I think we need to laugh now and again.
Japan is the first of the journeys, and also the first essay in the book. What initially attracted you to Japan?
It was an accident. I wasn’t attracted to Japan at all, but I fell in love with it, with Hokkaido, especially.
Do you feel there are difficulties inherent in writing about Asia as an outsider?
No. No more than writing about any other place as an outsider. Outsiders love to look into other cultures and places, and then muse and impose and ask questions. It’s the insiders who experience difficulty — who are uncomfortable with outsiders because they are often uncomfortable with the view from the outside. But I’m not talking about Colonial history, here. That’s another problem altogether.
Am I wrong that there is an erotic charge to your first essay, the one about Japan, and the next one about the river journey in China? For me this charge comes with your relationship with the older Japanese woman, the rich, beautiful Kozuko. There’s no sense of impropriety, but there’s a sense of eros in the pieces. Is this an effect you constructed consciously?
Yes, consciously constructed, and consciously felt. I don’t want to make too much of it, but Kozuko was such an alive person, and I learned a great deal from her about being alive. In looking back on a life, we find these little lights that go on, and she was a light for me at that time.
One of the things I like most about this book is how many people are in it — friends, fellow travelers, locals. What are the limitations of trying to write about other people on a journey?
One limitation is that you have to tread lightly and remain transparent. You can’t just say anything about anyone. You want to write accurately about people, and offer them up to the reader without compromising their privacy. Often, friends and travelers you meet along the way, locals, can illuminate what a fool you are — you the writer. But whenever possible, I let people know I’m writing about them. Doing so is essential, I think — they can point out inaccuracies, and also, they get a chance to fight back.
Scottish poet and essayist Kathleen Jamie famously put down British environmental and travel writer Robert Macfarlane in a review by calling him “a lone enraptured male.” In Getting to Grey Owl, you are indeed occasionally alone and often enraptured — about literature, landscape, and culture. Any thoughts about Jamie’s criticism of solitude, enrapturement, or maleness in 21st-century travel/environmental writing?
I’m male, and I’m not going to apologize for that. As far as being a lone male, that wasn’t always my choice — I’d mostly prefer to travel with friends. And I just don’t think being enraptured is a crime. I know Macfarlane’s work, and it’s exquisite. He’s the real thing. As I see it, we’d all be much better off if we had more lone enraptured males, and fewer lone, violent males. In fact, if more people were enraptured — which is to say in love — with our world, we’d probably have taken much better care of it these past few centuries.
Your best friend Scott appears in a number of the essays. You travel with him to Spain, to England, Scotland, and Iceland. He’s a main character of these pieces. How does friendship function as a trope, and particularly what role does such a close friendship play in these essays?
Scott is an essential part of this book, which is why I dedicated it to him. I used to think that traveling alone allowed a great deal more freedom of thought and movement. It has its uses, but I think traveling with a person you trust can really inform a journey. It’s good to have someone to act as a mirror for you, or to place pressure on you here and there, or to make you laugh, or to watch your stuff when you use the commode. I’ve never forgotten the advice given to Peter Matthiessen when he made his long walk in the Himalaya: that a proper pilgrimage is made with a companion.
While in Japan you evoke Basho, and later in China there’s Auden informing you about limestone, and the Chinese poet and travel writer Fan Chengda helps you understand your river journey, and of course in the essay about Spain, Hemingway lurks in the background. Would you feel lost without this literary layer to help you understand a place?
I find it nearly impossible to travel and not feel both indebted to, and in the company of the ghosts of other travelers, especially other writers. There is such pleasure in thinking of Auden as a companion on a journey. He left a record of the place in another time, so I’m not just traveling in my own time, but also in his. That UPI reporter I mentioned knew Hemingway in World War II. He said Hemingway was an asshole, but I’d still like to spend some time with him — the only way I can do that is through his work, and by going to the places where he lived and loved and died.
I couldn’t get out of this interview without asking you about Bruce Chatwin. How important has he been to you as a writer?
I discovered Chatwin when I read an announcement of his death. I wasn’t long out of high school, and I started reading In Patagonia. Chatwin turned on a switch for me. He was instrumental in my development as a writer, in my coming to believe I could live a writing life. I could see how he did what he did on the page, and I came to believe that I could do it. And he represented so many of the energies that ran wild in me: I admired his interest and devotion to the fantastic, his hunt for human origins, and his belief in walking as a poetic activity — I saw a private part of myself in him, and realized that it didn’t have to be private, that in the writing it should sing. Loudly.
Which other travel writers should we read?
Well, those we’ve mentioned already. Also Barry Lopez, Laurens van der Post, Wilfred Thesiger, Colin Thubron, Robert Byron, Redmond O’Hanlon, Rory Stewart. You can see the British influence here. Basho. I love reading and rereading Basho. Cees Nooteboom. Laurie Lee. I’m not giving you an bona fide list, only some of my favorites, writers I’ve learned from.
If you were offered a contract to write a book-length narrative using one of the essays as a starting point, could you do it? And which essay has space in it for expansion?
I could do it. Probably I am doing it. But I think I’ll leave it unnamed.
The essay “Getting to Grey Owl’s Cabin” is partly about the moral and ethical implications of spewing so much carbon into the atmosphere in the name of adventure. Talk a little about the carbon footprint of journeying to four continents.
You’ve hit a hard note, John. This is an important ethical question, I think. Our world is changing so rapidly due to climate change, and it’s not going to be good for humans, and a lot of other creatures. So it’s more and more difficult to justify travel for travel’s sake. Do we really need to be flying down to Mexico for the weekend, or base-jumping from a remote site where no one has base-jumped before? It’s problematic. I just don’t see much value anymore in getting people to the top of Everest, for example. It’s a rich person’s tourist destination now, anyway. And it’s too expensive in carbon, I think. One very good reason to travel is science. We do need our best scientists doing science in the field. But is it ethical to vacation in distant places when such journeys help condemn future generations to a wasted planet? These are questions I’m asking myself, of course. I think very carefully now about where I go and why and how.
But where else would you like to go, if you could put the problem with carbon aside?
I’ve always wanted to travel in Mongolia, and in western China. And I would love to make a year-long journey in my truck and camper in North America. Slowly, taking my time. I’d like to travel in the Middle East. And sometimes, looking over maps, I’m caught by a stray island, say, in the north Atlantic, and I wonder: what’s out there?
John Lane is the author of over a dozen books of prose and poetry, including several volumes of essays about his journeys to three continents so far. His novel Fate Moreland’s Widow just appeared from the University of South Carolina Press’s Story River Books imprint.