Belonging to the Land
In Conversation with Stephen Trimble
by L.M. Browning
All Photos courtesy of Stephen Trimble. All Rights Reserved.
Stephen Trimble tells stories—in words and photographs—about the land and people of the West. Trimble has taught in the Honors College and Environmental Humanities program at the University of Utah and spent a year as a Wallace Stegner Centennial Fellow at the University of Utah’s Tanner Humanities Center. Steve was born in Denver, his family’s base for roaming the West with his geologist father. After a liberal arts education at Colorado College, he worked as a park ranger in Colorado and Utah, earned a master’s degree in ecology at the University of Arizona, served as director of the Museum of Northern Arizona Press, and for five years lived near San Ildefonso Pueblo in northern New Mexico. Steve often serves as a consultant and writer for the conservation community, including a year with The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado Plateau Conservation Initiative and a collaboration with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance as editor of a white paper to support the protection of Greater Canyonlands. In a landmark effort by writers hoping to sway public policy, Trimble co-compiled (with Terry Tempest Williams) the essay collection, Testimony: Writers of the West Speak on Behalf of Utah Wilderness. On March 27, 1996, Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) read Trimble’s essay from Testimony on the floor of the United States Senate during his plea to protect Utah wilderness. Feingold concluded with, “That short piece of writing is so powerful…because it is a timeless statement about how people feel about natural places.”
L.M.: Welcome, Stephen. Thank you for making space to speak with me. If one steps back and looks at the breadth of your work thus far, the signature of your perspective would undoubtedly be rooted in the intersection of the landscape and cultural significance of the West. You speak from a place of authority on ecology and culture, yet all this must have begun with a pivotal moment or realization that made you fall in love with and find purpose in these subjects. Where did this journey into the wild begin for you?
Stephen: Whenever I trace my journey, I begin with my father. The pivotal event that propelled me on this course of engaging with the land wasn’t just a “moment” but the first seventeen years of my life.
My dad, Don Trimble, grew up in the West, in the lee of Mount Rainier in Washington’s Yakima Valley. He climbed the big Cascade volcanoes as a Boy Scout outfitted with hobnail boots and a Trapper Nelson wood-framed pack. He chose his profession—field geologist with the US Geological Survey—so he could spend time outside.
Each summer, my dad, my mom, and I would leave our home in Denver and head west for my father’s field season. We rented homes in whatever Oregon or Idaho town lay closest to the quadrangle Dad was mapping. And on these road trips, my father kept up a running commentary about what we saw out the window. The stories of Lewis and Clark and the Oregon Trail. The big-picture geography of the West. Maps—always—were guideposts to our experiences and understanding. I’ve called maps our family scripture, and it’s no exaggeration.
I grew up seeing the landscape as a place with endlessly rich content, a place to learn from, to revel in. How best to learn more? From books. For presents my father asked for Bernard DeVoto, A.B. Guthrie, David Lavender—the great writers and historians of the West. These books stayed in our home, and eventually I read them, too.
So I went off to college with a bedrock familiarity with the entire West. A checklist of national parks I’d visited. A list of unvisited parks I yearned to see. A sense that the mountain men and fur trappers had been here not so long before me. An assumption that road trips were the first choice whenever any free time came along. And a course at Colorado Outward Bound—my high school graduation present—that took me deep into the Snowmass Wilderness.
In my college years, I took all this prep and became an independent actor. Taking my father’s lead, I organized my little band of friends to venture out on trips and hikes and funky mountaineering efforts all over the West. These journeys led directly to my work as a writer and photographer.
L.M.: During those early phases wherein we are still trying to find our way and our purpose, many of us are fortunate enough to have a mentor who guides us in our convictions, be it a flesh-and-blood teacher by our side or one whose voice echoes down the ages in art and literature. Who were your mentors?
Stephen: I’ve had extraordinary teachers, generous mentors, and pivotal models. A high school English teacher who insisted we turn loose our imaginations. A Bureau of Land Management biologist who was the first true editor I encountered, the first reader to rip to shreds my wordy and passive writing and ask me to reconstruct my paragraphs with action, concision, and clarity.
My ecology professor at Colorado College, Dick Beidleman, taught me to pay attention. And this, as Mary Oliver said in her beautifully concise way, is the key to good work. This, from Oliver’s “Sometimes”:
“Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”
The great nature writer Ann Zwinger was the first writer I met on equal ground. I was a junior in college and had published only a couple of mini-essays, but Ann—a generation older than me—treated me as her peer. We remained friends for the rest of her life. In my thirties, I was privileged to spend some time with Barry Lopez, who encouraged me to take myself more seriously as a writer.
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