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