Robert Leonard Reid is a writer and composer who has combined 19 selected essays in a new work entitled "Because It Is So Beautiful: Unraveling the Mystique of the American West." He will be at Bloomsbury Books in Ashland from 7 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 22, to read from and discuss his celebration of the splendor of the West. I touched base with Lewis at his home in Carson City, Nevada, to talk about the book and its origins.
Q: In addition to writing extensively on the American West, you've also written sacred music, as well as musical theater. Why did you decide to write "Because It Is So Beautiful?"
A: For 40 years I’ve made my living as both a writer and a composer. Along with books, articles, and essays, I’ve written a sacred mass, three song-and-dance cabaret revues, and many songs. When I dream up a new project, I just naturally flip from writing to music and back again. Not long ago, when I happened to have flipped to writing, I recalled something that Barry Lopez said, to the effect that wilderness advocates like myself must have the honesty to say that we love wilderness not simply for its recreational or scientific or historical value, but because it is so beautiful. It seemed a perfect theme around which to build a book, and that’s what I’ve done.
Q: Your publisher blurbs this book as "a response to desperate questions surrounding the protection and preservation of America’s wildlands." How do you feel that the book contributes to the conversation around those questions?
A: I take on many thorny issues in the book and try my best to offer ideas on how we might better understand and perhaps even move toward resolution of those issues. Among many topics I address are captive breeding, development of the Arctic, homelessness, zoos, the assault on wildlife, and the plight of Native Americans. While some of the topics may seem odd for a wilderness advocate like myself to take on, I find that the idea which lies at the heart of my love for wild places, namely, connectedness, is a useful lens through which to view just about any topic of importance. I’ve tried to do that throughout the book.
Q: Do you have a particular subject matter or region of the United States that has special meaning for you, and can you tell us about that?
A: When I was a teenager growing up in Pennsylvania, my brother was in the Air Force. Twice my parents and I drove to visit him, once when he was stationed in Arizona, a year later in Washington State. On those two incredible journeys I discovered the wonders of the America West. I vividly remember the Petrified Forest, and 100-mile views (about 99 more than we got at home), and snow in the summer, and bears in Yellowstone, and one magical morning, clouds clearing just enough for me to see the summit of Mount Rainier. I was hooked. Two decades passed before I came for good, and four decades have passed since then, and the wonders never cease.
Q: Where do you see the good news for this continent and its natural heritage, given the pressures of climate change, as well as major shifts in the tone and direction of the EPA?
A: I recommend to anyone who despairs at the state of our nation and the world to read Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” While in no way a denial of the monstrous problems we face today, the book provides useful reminders of how far we’ve come since we ate rotten meat for dinner, burned witches at the stake, and killed 1.5 million Africans in transatlantic slave ships. After finishing “Better Angels,” take a walk in the woods, converse with a squirrel or a pine tree, wade a stream, then go home and get on with the business of fixing the world.
—Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.