In pulling together writings from Muir, Roosevelt, Thoreau, London, and just about every other outdoor heavyweight you can think of, I AM COYOTE makes a strong bid to be the ultimate campfire anthology. BACKPACKER caught up with editor Jay Schoenberger to talk about the evolution of nature writing, the joys of storytelling, and our need for wilderness.
Editor's note: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and punctuation.
BACKPACKER: Where did the idea for the collection come from?
JAY SCHOENBERGER: When my friends and I would go on backpacking or mountaineering trips together, each of us would always bring a passage to share. Eventually, I began to collect all these and would carry a stack of papers in my backpack. I wanted to figure out some sort of replacement for all those loose papers, but could not find anything of the like. This is largely what me to put all these pieces into a book.
BP: You say in the introduction that NOLS was what first inspired your love for the outdoors and thus your love for reading these stories. What was it that finally made you decide to compile and publish an anthology?
JS: The fruitless search for a replacement for my stack of papers and stories was a big part of what made me decide to publish these in a collection. I looked around for a long time trying to find some sort of book like this and surprisingly couldn’t find anything.
BP: Which are some of your favorite pieces out of the selected texts?
JS: Emerson’s writings are definitely some of my favorites. I also love “To Build a Fire” by Jack London because I think that it really counterbalances the rest of the stories. There are so many pieces that display the beauty and joy of being in nature but London shows the harsh reality of being out in the wilderness. We have to be careful not to anthropomorphize nature, and that’s part of what I love about that story.
BP: Where did the title for the collection come from?
JS: "I AM COYOTE" comes from the Morgan Hite essay "Why I Do What I Do: Reflections of an Adventure Educator." It's meant to be a proclamation of freedom and wildness. My friends would stand atop a boulder in the wilderness and bellow "I AM COYOTE!" across the landscape.
BP: Is there a preservationist/environmentalist spin intended with the book?
JS: Yes, definitely. The book goes through a series of chapters that reflect the stages people go through in their encounters with nature. The first part reflects the joy of setting out and going into the backcountry. Then it moves into the challenges that the wilderness presents to us when we encounter it. After the ecstasy is gone we begin to realize the weight and power of nature. The fourth chapter is more about maturation. There is a time when we come to realize—being out in the wilderness—that we aren’t the center of the universe. We understand the reality that nature is so much bigger than us and that we are really quite small. All of this then leads to the final chapter which is certainly a call to action. Once we have learned to appreciate these wild places, we should have the desire to respect and preserve them.
BP: Describe a bit more of the evolutionary experience of the outdoors you molded the sections of the book after.
JS: Chapter one is about what it feels like to simply set out and break free. It is about the joy of stepping into the wilderness. Chapter two is about being overcome with ecstasy by the beauty and awe experienced while out in the wilderness. This section contains a lot of writings like Muir’s pieces about Yosemite where he is simply stunned by the beauty of the valley. Chapter three is sort of the anecdote to the first two: It shows just how painful and challenging the wilderness can actually be. Chapter four is the culmination of the experience. What has this experience with nature meant to me, and what can I learn from it? Finally, Chapter five is a call to preservation and conservation. After having such meaningful experiences in the backcountry, we should have a desire to preserve and protect such beautiful wild lands.
BP: How have you seen writings such as these help to preserve wilderness and encourage a respect for nature?
JS: Speeches made by Roosevelt, or writings such as Wallace Stegner’s “The Wilderness Letter” have made a huge impact in helping to preserve America’s wild lands, such as encouraging the Wilderness Preservation Act. After all, wilderness is part of being American.
BP: What was your ultimate goal in putting this anthology together?
JS: My ultimate goal or desire for this book is to inspire reflection. I want people to pause and consider the meaningfulness of time spent in the backcountry. Getting out there—or reading stories about it such as these—really makes you think about what you actually have to do to live in the wilderness. We get out there and discover how many things we take for granted. Other than that, I simply want people to revisit or discover for the first time these authors and writings that have depicted man’s experience in nature so well.
As the foreword to the collection suggests, “put this book in your rucksack and head for the mountains. Read it tired at the end of a long day, by the light of a campfire.”