Spring 2012

Words for the Wild

Promoting Conservation and Student Careers Through Creative Writing

Corey Lewis English Professor Corey Lewis emphasizes creative writing and environmental literature with his students.

In my field—environmental literature and writing—we commonly see a link between our love of words and our love of the natural world. This field—called ecocriticism, or literary ecology—arose during the 1990s because of the significant impact that environmental writers were beginning to exert on our literary tradition and our larger culture, and it has led to innovations in both teaching and publishing.

Although I could concoct a properly impressive, but highly fictional, story about how I came to be an ecocritic and environmental writer, the unvarnished truth is: ever since I was a little kid, I liked getting lost in the woods and coming home to tell stories about it later. For most of us who love the outdoors—whether we hunt, fish, hike, backpack, peak bag, rock climb, or bird watch—we love swapping stories about being in the backcountry just as much as we love being out there. Whether it’s sitting around a campfire, perched on a barstool, or curled up on a couch, we savor those words and stories that reconnect us with that wild world. So my most recent professional project—editing and publishing “The Pacific Crest Trailside Reader,” an anthology of stories about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail—was also a personal one, a project that has not only connected me to my own personal history but also much more deeply with the Humboldt State community.

When I came to Humboldt State in 2005, I already had established a close connection to the Pacific Crest Trail. The 2,650-mile-long trail runs from Mexico to Canada, following the high lines of the Sierra, Klamaths and Cascades through California, Oregon, and Washington. For years I had been working with trail crews on the PCT and teaching classes in environmental writing along its length, and wrote my first book, “Reading the Trail,” about these experiences. I did not, however, hit upon the idea for producing a collection of stories about the PCT until I met Rees Hughes, a colleague here at HSU, and another lover of the PCT. Rees and I worked together at the time, supervising HOWL, HSU’s outdoor orientation program for incoming freshman, when he suggested the collaboration and the idea for “The Pacific Crest Trailside Reader” was born.

The Pacific Crest Trailside Reader

Rees and I decided to organize the collection geographically, so that the stories start in the south (just as most PCT hikers do) and move north, with each story and its location on the trail identified. In order to keep pack weight down, and to follow the precedent set by the PCT Guidebooks, we decided to publish the collection in two volumes: one for California, and one for Oregon and Washington. And, in order to adequately cover the trail and its long history, we decided to include three types of stories: first, what we call boot-tested trail tales, these are real stories of people hiking the PCT, stories of hardship and rescue, and tales of wildlife and wild weather; second, historical accounts of immigrants and early explorers in the region, such as the Donner party’s ill-fated expedition or Wasco creation stories; and third, selections from well-known regional writers like John Muir, Mary Austin, Gary Snyder and others.

Rees Hughes Co-editor Rees Hughes scales the tallest peak along the Pacific Crest Trail.

We wanted to create a literary testament to the trail, something that could capture the significant meaning it has had in many of our lives. So we sent out calls for submissions to writing groups and hiking organizations; we sifted through volumes of historical accounts of exploration and regional writing. And, we identified HSU faculty and students who could contribute to the collection, colleagues such as Walker Abel, Director of the Sierra Institute, and Professor Jim Dodge, author of “Fup,” “Rain on the River” and other works. We were fortunate enough to have our own talented pool of student writers here at HSU, those with the backcountry ability and writing experience required for the project, and were able to assign each a specific section of the trail to go hike and write about. This allowed us to get better geographic coverage of every section of the trail, and to promote our deserving students and their writing through publication. Five HSU alumni have pieces in the collection: Ryan Forsythe, Mike Cipra, Chris Hall, Amanda Carter and Anicca Cox.

In addition to promoting the writing of our graduates and colleagues, we wanted our stories to give back to the trail itself, so the profits from the sales of the books are all going to the protection and preservation of the PCT. Rees and I, and all of our HSU authors, invite you to pick up a copy of “The Pacific Crest Trailside Reader” and to join us on a variety of backcountry adventures that can be taken from the comfort of your own home, and that give a little something back to HSU and the wild western mountains we all love.