Michael Engelhard is a writer and wilderness guide.
I first discovered storied landscapes as an anthropology student. Accompanying Native Alaskan elders on hunting and fishing excursions, I shared in the place-based experience of people who maintained fluency in nature’s idiom to an unequaled degree. Each slough, each mountain pass, each peregrine roost or bear den spoke to them of a past that is also present. The landmarks and associated stories express a worldview as much as they embody knowledge. They focus the traditions of people whose history and self-image largely reside in the land. They define homeland rather than wilderness. They endure as part of a moral universe, eloquent reminders that continue to shape the identities of groups and individuals.
. . .As a wilderness guide and writer I not only unearth extant tales but also sink roots deep into landscapes, creating new stories that drive and sustain me.
In “Marginalia: An Essay”, a trek across the Arctic, a wildlife guide’s map becomes a record of his journey.
Read Engelhard’s essay here.
Recently, the author very graciously took time to respond to Wonderlings member questions and comments. “I enjoyed the readers’ feedback very much and am glad they enjoyed the essay.”
Acknowledging the essays the group read by Mark Cocker and Robert Macfarlane, Engelhard said ” I’m a big fan of Mark Cocker also — absolutely love his Birds and People. And felt honored that he reviewed Ice Bear in The Spectator.”
“When writing about your explorations have you ever personally experienced a feeling of an ideal configuration or a kind of synchronicity in your description, a moment when you fully rendered that crossing of a threshold from “looking” to “seeing”? (submitted by Shabnam Mirchandani)
Actually, the introduction to American Wild, which addresses my love for the Colorado Plateau and the Arctic forced me to contemplate why I continue to be drawn to these two particular landscapes and I discovered commonalities I had never before seen: the long sightlines, sparse population and vegetation, even the quality of the light . . . also my deeper motivations for doing things and the “lessons” learned from an experience only truly take shape during the writing. That’s one reason why I usually have a good idea how and where an essay begins but hardly ever, where it takes me – and the reader.
Can you tell us a bit about the trip which inspired Marginalia?
That trip was about the hardest physical and mental endeavor I’ve ever undertaken. It was a project I’d been dreaming about for decades. Whenever I guided up there, I felt there was never enough time to explore all the places I wanted to see. (Of course, there never would be.) But the magnitude of it intimidated me. Plus, summers are when I make most of my living so taking a whole one off for a personal trip (and the cost of the expedition, too) was a considerable sacrifice. But ultimately, because of the wakeup-call of a client on another trip who soon after unexpectedly died of cancer and because every year you get older certain things become harder to do, I embarked.
Given the climate change facts of today, can the lyric nature essay or poem be a form of meaningful activism? What causes you to care more about climate change- a science report or a walk in the wilderness? Or a combination of both?
It’s not “activism” – it only can sensitize and alert readers to the issues. But to me, signing petitions or forwarding information on the Internet also doesn’t qualify as activism. I’m a bit of an Abbey-ite, I guess: activism is throwing a wrench into the system responsible for degrading Nature. Anything from consumer boycotts to protests, from labor strikes to eco-sabotage. Investigative journalism, in my opinion, is more a form of activism than a lyrical essay is, much as I love that literary form.
What’s next for you? Is there any place calling you?
I’d like to finish my aborted Grand Canyon hike, the 40-day adventure described in No Walk in the Park, another essay in American Wild. The falling out with my hiking buddy that ended it left a bad taste in my mouth, which I don’t want to be the defining memory. I also need this (another 20 days, perhaps) for closure. In general, I am not drawn to foreign, exotic places. So I want to explore more of my two favorite regions: Alaska’s Arctic and the Colorado Plateau. I would like to hike entire large landscape features, such as the Comb Ridge monocline – a rocky escarpment in southeastern Utah – or a Brooks Range river from its source to the Arctic Ocean.
More reader comments and responses:
Loved reading the piece…I was imagining the map “taped at the folds” his writing all over it…very evocative…it’s a beautiful piece and I wanted to read more…(Esha Chakraborty)
Thanks, Esha. There’s an abridged version of the essay here that even has some image of the maps http://www.hcn.org/issues/45.16/marginalia-an-essay
I’ve always taught that writing is communicating, that if the reader’s eyes stop because they don’t comprehend something you’ve written, then you’ve probably lost them. This concept was always directed at beginning writers who inevitably feel it’s their duty to impress the reader with their vocabulary, using a longer word when a smaller one will suffice. So I’m always enriched when I discover a writer who can use the language with such expertise and cunning. To me, this essay, so complex and demanding of the reader, is a microcosm of his journey. The complexities he suffered through must have been enormous, and this so cleverly written essay is the perfect window for that. I have yet to read his novels, etc, but after having read this, I certainly will. (Timothy Wright)
Thanks, Timothy. To me, it’s not always as simple as “a shorter word is better than a longer (or technical) one” – there is sentence rhythm (number of syllables, etc.) to consider, alliteration, or sometimes you just want to jolt the reader with the unexpected choice. I’m a huge fan of T.C. Boyle, who doesn’t mind sending his readers scrambling for a dictionary. But in general, I agree: simple is often better, and there are usually enough synonyms to find the right word without resorting to Latinate forms.
Arctic, maps, snow, ice, no trees, no people, heck at times no daylight!
But I dove in and really enjoyed the essay… I was able to read the authors funky map scribble notes “arctic walkabout” which was interesting since I’m a little familiar with the Australian Aborigine Walkabout”
After this article, I will never look at a map the same….. (photos were great)
I’m ready for my own walkabout with maps and “felt pens of various colors” to scribble my own funky notes. (Rick Williams)
Rick, when I went, in the Arctic summer, it never got dark! I love Chatwin and Songlines, and have written myself much about the “sacred geography” of the Navajo and other Native peoples. Actually, my background as a cultural anthropologist strongly influences my writing.
That is what I’d call breathing the story. Such excellent compression it seems too short and I am left wanting more of the tingling descriptors, of absence, of allness. The writing was as fresh as the terrain, clean, head turning. (David Delaney)
Interesting comment, David. Part of the reason I kept extensive notes on the trip was that I didn’t want to forget anything. (I didn’t bring a camera.) But I’d also played with the idea to turn the adventure into a book. I gave that up quickly, because, for a publisher it was not dramatic enough: no near death experience, not other people to write about. No major disasters at all really. But I think in its extreme condensation, the essay works really well and is true to the emotional content of this journey.
Loved it. The semiotic narrative of a cartographer’s mapping is a journey into a realm beyond physical features of places. It is tied with experience and an overwhelming feeling of awe at the abundance of life that brings topography to life. Engelhard’s sense of interconnectedness of seer and seen, and of a grand cosmic resonance embedded in wild places is a pleasure to partake of in this piece. The psychic import of color, texture, and sound in the memory collage in each of our minds imprints itself so vividly in our recreation of them in language.
Your luminous writing created epiphanies in me just through its cadences, and I felt trepidation mingled with excitement and freedom when you delved deep into “silence’ and “absence”, when all polarities collapsed, along with all constructs of time and space. Wow, it makes one question all assumptions behind formal cartography! (Shabnam Mirchandani)
I’m glad it worked for you, Shabnam. You should write as a reviewer! The things you describe are actually things that keep pulling me back out there and often, when everything falls into place just so, I feel it’s my true home.
As I read this I couldn’t help but think of some films I’ve seen in which the map of a journey is shown and becomes a montage of life events. The physical map became a sort of spiritual cartography…each symbol imbued with provenance. I don’t know if Engelhard received any awards for this lyric work but he certainly deserves to! Lyrical and full of internal rhyme and deeper import. (Celeste Schantz)
Every short autobiographical piece written is a montage, almost by definition. And we still think of life (and most films) too much in linear terms. But lived live (or what has been called a “flow” experience is multi-dimensional, non-directional. I like the idea of “spiritual cartography.” Every object out there is imbued with “unseen” dimensions, which we only perceive at the best of times. This is called “animism” in anthropology: the belief that even rocks and clouds have a spirit. That may sound woo-woo to some people, but certainly works for the Nature writer. (But beware the pitfalls of anthropomorphism, Ruskin’s “pathetic fallacy.”)
After interviewing Engelhard, I received this email from him, entitled “PS”:
I was just thinking about Shabnam’s question. The way it was phrased, I took it to be about the writing process. But now, I think she might have wanted to know about “looking” versus “seeing” in instants during my explorations .
Here are two examples of true seeing (which sometimes seems to occur in correlation with length of time spent “out there”):
Compelled by sudden unease, I once switched banks hiking along an Arctic creek, only to round a bend and rouse a bruin with her two cubs right where I would have been stepping. Another time, I noticed Boykinia spiking a slope. Knowing that the white flowers are catnip to grizzlies, I wondered if there were any close by. And lo, when I hollered, one popped from a ravine thick with alders I’d been about to cross.
Our sincere thanks to Michael Engelhard for his great generosity in participating in this discussion.
You can read more about Michael Engelhard and his work here.