An interview with Craig Child on his new book Virga & Bone, a meditation on the beauty and value of the untouched corners of the Southwest
CATALYST: You’ve turned out two books so quickly. Atlas of a Lost World, in 2018, and Virga and Bone this year. Have you felt yourself in a particularly creative period recently?
CRAIG CHILDS: I guess I have. There are periods of gathering, of filling journals and traveling and keeping my eyes wide open, and then periods of crunching down over the computer or legal pad and scribbling and they just converge. Projects start to appear. So, yes, I think I have been more creative lately. There is a lot to be creative about, so it’s more that it’s hard to avoid writing.
I like the gathering. That’s my favorite part. The writing is wonderful but it’s so…stationary. Your head is down and you’re in your own brain exploring ideas whereas out on the ground with a journal in your hand there’s just so much more going on.
CATALYST: It seems to me that this book, Virga and Bone, returns to your roots. You started out writing about your own experiences moving through Canyonlands National Park (Stone Desert, 1995) and Grand Canyon National Park (Grand Canyon: Time Below the Rim, 1999) and desert slot canyons (Soul of Nowhere, 2003). Then your writing turned towards people and archaeology and your scope widened beyond the Southwest. And now you’ve come back to this place.
CHILDS: I’m still interested in the bigger world but I’ve never left this place. Most of the travel that I’ve ever done is here. Most of the time I’ve spent on the ground is in the Southwest.
I took questions and observations from time in the Southwest and started applying them to the bigger picture—going to Greenland and asking, how does what I’ve learned about climate and deep geologic time apply here to an ice sheet? Or how does it apply on the Patagonian coast of Chile? And it was wonderful. I enjoyed going off into the world and seeing what was out there but to be honest I always thought that there is so much more where you are familiar, where you know how to move.
There was a moment where I was flying to Tibet on assignment. I was out for a month on this project. It occurred to me that if I had a month in Utah, that would be amazing. My home landscape offers so much more because it is home.
Sometimes I think I could spend the rest of my life not just on the Colorado plateau but within 200 miles of my house and not ever need anything else. And then I go, “Well, there is the Sonoran desert, you’re going to need that….”
CATALYST: At the end of the book you write that water is the beginning, the foundation of life, so maybe that’s why you started with a chapter about virga. But I also find it really interesting that you start from a bird’s eye view. You are with a friend—you call him the pilot—and you are flying his little plane around the Southwest desert looking at canyons and mesas from above. What made you want to start in that place?
CHILDS: Every time I’m up in the air I get such a bigger perspective of a land that I know. Even flying up really high at 30,000 feet looking down from a passenger jet, you see your home landscape down there. You see how the San Francisco Peaks and Navajo Mountain are related to each other. You see parts of the landscape that from the ground seem far, far away and you realize, oh, this is just a neighborhood. This whole land is actually a very small intimate place.
Being able to see it from a plane is such a fascinating vantage. Especially from such a low, slow flying plane like we did in this book. It’s just the next level up from walking. You’re not that far up from the ground but you’re far enough that you can see the next horizon and you can interact with weather in a different way.
There are many ways of doing this. I’ve been out with people on ATVs and I go, “Okay, I see where you’re going with this.” I’ve been out with mountain bikers. There are so many different ways of approaching the landscape. I don’t want to restrict it to just the way I want to do it, on foot, which I think is the best. But that is only one way of seeing it.
CATALYST: It’s quite lucky to be able to make a living as you do writing about nature. There’s a small group of people doing that, even smaller who are writing about the desert. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to do. Do you believe there is room for new voices?
CHILDS: Oh, yeah. There should always be new voices. My voice will keep going because I can’t stop writing. Even if no one is reading my stuff any more, I’m still going to be writing notes and slipping them under random windshield wipers.
I think new voices are more important than old voices. The old voices will keep telling their stories but new generations need to be saying, “well, this is my angle on it. This is how I’m seeing it.” Because it’s an evolution. I think new voices should rise up. People should be outwriting me and I think people are outwriting me. And that’s what I hope for.
CATALYST: You say this book is not about people. It’s an ode to the arid Southwest. Why this book now?
CHILDS: For me, this book now is that I don’t want to lose connection with what is most important to me, which is this landscape. Places, especially wild places, are going to always be threatened. I think that’s just the way it goes. There’s going to be this push between industry and extraction and consumption, which is very much a part of us, and the need to protect and hold onto places—to not let them be swallowed. And right now things are being swallowed.
We have a really unique situation happening in this country where vast pieces of land are in the public trust. They are not being managed locally because I think we know what happens when you don’t let a whole country’s voice have a say over what happens to a piece of land. Look at the whole eastern side of the country. It’s consumed. When we look at the western side we say, “Huh, maybe this is of incredible value.”
To some degree that’s what I wanted to do with this book: to say, here’s this incredible value where these experiences can unfold.
Everybody here, no matter your political affiliation, no matter who you are—even if you don’t go into the wilderness— you are made by the horizons that are around you. You are made by the knowledge of dirt roads and mesas and canyons and not having them stacked with houses, not having them turned into open pit mines and roads. There’s ample defense of industry going on. So there needs to be defense of the other side.
Katherine Pioli is CATALYST’s associate editor.
Utah Humanities Book Festival
Virga & Bone: Essays from Dry Places, By Craig Childs (October 2019; pre-orders available through Torrey House Press)
October 2, 2019, 7pm
The King’s English Bookshop
1511 S 1500 E, SLC