Au­thor Wil­liam deBuys


WE Amer­i­cans may be the only peo­ple on Earth who speak of a na­tional dream. There is no French Rêve Na­tionale nor a Sueño Mex­i­cano, so far as I know, nor a Sene­galese or Ira­nian or Lao­tian Dream. And there may never be,” Wil­liam deBuys writes in Salt Dreams: Land and Wa­ter in Low-Down Cal­i­for­nia (Univer­sity of New Mex­ico Press). “It took the ex­tra­or­di­nary con­junc­tion of a per­cep­tion of new lands, free for the tak­ing, with cres­cent eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal in­di­vid­u­al­ism to launch the idea of an Amer­i­can Dream. World events have not seen the like again. One won­ders whether the planet could bear it if they did.”

Those words, pub­lished in 1999, sound es­pe­cially fore­bod­ing in the late sum­mer of 2017 in Amer­ica, as hur­ri­canes and fires dec­i­mate por­tions of a coun­try in po­lit­i­cal chaos. Salt Dreams, deBuys’ third book, fol­lowed River of Traps: A New Mex­ico

Moun­tain Life, co-au­thored with pho­tog­ra­pher Alex Har­ris and a fi­nal­ist for the Pulitzer Prize, orig­i­nally pub­lished in 1990 and reis­sued in 2007 by Trin­ity Univer­sity Press. DeBuys has since writ­ten sev­eral more books on en­vi­ron­men­tal top­ics, of­ten set in the South­west and in­vari­ably fea­tur­ing the deep his­tory of its land and peo­ple — in­clud­ing Valles Caldera: A Vi­sion for New Mex­ico’s Na­tional Pre­serve (Mu­seum of New Mex­ico Press, 2006) and The Last Uni­corn: A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Crea­tures (Back Bay Books, 2015), and his new­est, First Im­pres­sions: A Reader’s Jour­ney to Iconic Places of the Amer­i­can South­west (Yale Univer­sity Press, 2017), co-au­thored with David J. Weber. All dis­play a sim­i­lar mea­sured, lit­er­ary voice and lay­ered but ac­ces­si­ble prose, and are distin­guished by deBuys’ quiet, keen in­tel­li­gence.

“Some­times I am de­scribed as an en­vi­ron­men­tal writer, but I don’t re­ally think of my­self that way,” deBuys said. “I just write about the world the way I see it. From very early on, I wanted to write sto­ries in which the land is not just a stage on which peo­ple acted out their lives, but was an ac­tor in the drama in its own right.”

Be­fore re­tir­ing to write full-time, deBuys worked pro­fes­sion­ally in land con­ser­va­tion, in­clud­ing as the founder and di­rec­tor of the Valle Grande Grass Bank. He grew up in Mary­land with a patch of woods be­hind his house, and has al­ways felt most com­fort­able out of doors — whether on a trail, on a lake, or tend­ing to his farm in El Valle, where he has lived since the mid-1970s. One pas­ture is a hay field; he rents the other pas­ture for horses to graze. Farm main­te­nance is limited mainly to ir­ri­ga­tion and fence-mend­ing, so he has time to write in the morn­ings and spend af­ter­noons out­side.

“It’s im­por­tant to have a work­ing re­la­tion­ship with the land,” he said. “That’s been very im­por­tant to how I live and my world view, and to how I un­der­stand other peo­ple who share that el­e­ment in their lives.” He is grate­ful for men­tors who have shaped his writ­ing and his re­la­tion­ship to his en­vi­ron­ment, in­clud­ing nu­mer­ous aca­demic ad­vi­sors and Ja­cobo Romero, a neigh­bor in El Valle who is the main sub­ject of River

of Traps. “But one of the great­est men­tors of all is the San­gre de Cristo Moun­tains. I’ve been priv­i­leged to have been a stu­dent of those moun­tains.”

— Jen­nifer Levin

Wil­liam deBuys

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