New Mexico Environmentalist Writer William Debuys Interviewed At His Mountain Home Near Taos
By Bill Nevins, Staff Writer
“Our relentless effort to use the world has undermined the sustainability of that world.”
-- Bill deBuys
Conservationist author William (Bill) deBuys (author of “A Great Aridness”, “Enchantment and Exploitation”, “River of Traps” and many other non- fiction books) recently published “The Trail to Kanjiroba” (Seven Stories Press), his book- length observational and meditative memoir of two circular, mostly on-foot, “care- rather- than- cure”, medical-assistance journeys he made through the mountainous Upper Dolpo region of Nepal in 2016 and 2018 as part of a group led by Santa Fe-based, social-activist Zen leader Roshi Joan Halifax and her outreach organization Nomads Clinic.
It’s a true story, told in a series of deftly-crafted short chapters, of the search for solace in this time of environmental change and human existential crisis. In “The Trail to Kanjiroba”, Bill deBuys provides a thoughtful follow- up to his classic New Mexico-focused books “River of Traps” and “The Walk” and his scholarly studies of Southwest USA environmental decline “A Great Aridness” and “Enchantment and Exploitation”. He includes reflections on the life and works of Charles Darwin and on the science of plate- tectonics, as well as references to Peter Mathiessen’s earlier Nepal journey in “The Snow Leopard”.
Bill deBuys talked with us at his home in the northern New Mexico mountain village of El Valle. While there, we strolled with deBuys over part of the circular route he describes in his book The Walk, where the stream along the way was still being cleared of debris from spring snow-melt run-off.
We asked Bill deBuys about his writing process as it relates to his travels.
deBuys: “On the first Nepal trip in 2016, I was overwhelmed with sensation, with new information. I couldn’t make much sense of it. Then I come back here to New Mexico and a year of writing, trying to order the experience. Memory in some ways is more powerful than present experience. I write as a way of illuminating things for myself.
I went back in 2018 on a second expedition that really enabled me to understand the first one. We don’t always learn that much from first experience because the sensation the stimulation is so strong that, unconsciously, we may exclude key things.
In my book “The Walk” I write about learning a landscape very deeply, about exploring the familiar. When we explore the familiar we can go deeper than when we explore the new.”
BN: “In “The Walk” you mention there is a point where places are ultimately unknowable, and mystery kicks in.”
deBuys: “It’s like when you go deep, is there a limit to how deep you can go?”
BN: “What are your thoughts about Amchi, the traditional medicine in Upper Dolpa practiced on your trip.”
deBuys: “You know, I can’t judge the efficacy of the herbs and poultices and such that were administered. I do know that perhaps one of the most curative things in the world is the relationship between healer and a person in need. The Amchi practicioner with us had an instant rapport with his patients that was the envy of the other doctors in our expedition. He could assess a person by looking deeply in the person’s eyes, touching the skin, smelling the breath, listening to the ‘many pulses’ which he said were related to different organs of the body. I adhere to a science- based view of the world but at my advanced age I withhold judgement about how other people see things.”
BN: “You explore and trace the science- based view of the world in your new book through the story of Charles Darwin. Yet, you also respectfully describe Joan Halifax’s Zen view, and the prevalent Tibetan Buddhism of Nepal. I was struck by how you are able to not judge that alternative view, but also not jump on board. You point out that Peter Matthiesen himself became a Buddhist.
deBuys: “Oh, yes Mathiessen became a serious Buddhist practitioner. Roshi Joan and I became close friends. She helped me understand why I am not a Buddhist. She said all religions are clubs and I’m really not cut out to join clubs.
As to Amchi, there is something important in that world-view. In Amchi cosmology, one quarter of human diseases are incurable because of the effect of past lives. When I reflect on that, I think of all of evolution as being the cumulative effect of past lives. It doesn’t exactly result in ‘karma’, depending on how you define that term. But it does result in our genes. It’s all the experience and learning of all those generations that have brought us to the present. There is a lot that is incurable in human nature, in our nature as animal beings. We are at pains to try to change that.”
BN: “Would that include the destructive aspect?”
deBuys: “Perhaps it was obligate that we come to this pass in the history of the earth, of the history of the world of human kind that our relentless effort to use the world has undermined the sustainability of that very world. That’s why the story of Darwin and also the story of plate- tectonics is important to this book. With those two theories of earth, human beings can now tell themselves the history of the planet without resorting to magic. At the same time the very future of the creation of which we are a part is threatened. That’s the paradox that is on my mind as a traveler on this journey on the trail to Kanjiroba. The two great theories are important to the tale.
BN: “You say that perhaps the concept of hospice which overrides much of Joan’s work could be applied to the present situation. Yet, you say the earth isn’t dying.”
deBuys: “Perhaps our creation of which we are a part is dying. But life is obligate on earth. Life will continue as long as this orb keeps doing laps around the sun.”
BN: “Did you come back from the two trips to upper Dolpa feeling better? You seemed at the beginning of the book to be on the edge of despair.”
deBuys: “I was, especially at the start of the first expedition because of the impact on me of my expedition in Laos [as recounted in his book “The Last Unicorn”] looking for an animal called the sola while confronting the gorier parts of mankind’s war on wildlife. Before that I had done a book on climate change [“A Great Aridness”]. Both experiences had really dismayed me. I was looking for rest and solace when I went to Nepal. In the two expeditions there, I think I found a way to find some resolution without succumbing to numbness or despair. I think of “The Trail to Kanjiroba as the third book in a trilogy with “A Great Aridness”and “The Last Unicorn”. It’s the book that answers the question, “When we look at the catastrophes of climate change and species loss, how do we not lose heart?” This is really a book about keeping heart. Care over cure. Warm hand to warm hand, as Roshi Joan says.”
BN: “Do you plan to write another book?”
deBuys: “I don’t really plan. I just start writing what interests me, what really concerns me. I have more that I want to write about this area, New Mexico. I am writing about my family origins, and more about my Nepal experience. Who knows what lies around the corner? When I meet with students one of the first things I tell them is to write anyway and to write any way—and to read. I was a book worm as a kid. In the loneliness of adolescence, books were my other world.”
BN: “The washing of the peoples’ feet in the villages your group visited in Nepal jumped out at me. And the people stick their tongues out at you to show they like you!”
deBuys: “There’s a peculiarity to all this that I’m sort of grappling with. Here I find myself talking about the book. There’s a paradox here. Some interviewers ask for a sound bite that sums up the whole book. But you can’t do that. The reading of the book is a journey and you have to go on the journey to get it.”
Bill deBuys’s webpage is: https://williamdebuys.com