Q&A with author Nathaniel Brodie

Nathaniel Brodie (Submitted photo)

Who: Portland-based author Nathaniel Brodie was announced this week as the winner of the 2019 Waterston Desert Writing Prize. When not writing, Brodie works on a trail crew for the U.S. Forest Service. He spoke to GO! Tuesday from Multnomah Falls, where he was enjoying a warm workday on a closed and therefore uncrowded stretch of trail. Brodie will read from his prize-winning submission, “Borderlands,” at the prize’s annual award event June 26 at the High Desert Museum.

Q: Congratulations on winning the Waterston Desert Writing Prize.

A: Thank you. I’m very happy about it.

Q: I understand it was not the first time you entered.

A: It was not.

Q: How many times have you entered?

A: One other time. I was a finalist. I could not even tell you what year that was.

Q: It was 2015, the first year of the prize. … If you had to condense “Borderlands” into a few sentences, could you tell me what it’s about?

A: So “Borderlands” is essentially a working title that is going to be my next book project. It is still very much inchoate, floating around in my head. This will be my second book. … My process involves diving into research and seeing where that takes me, and then trying to set a stricter schedule or outline. It’s kind of a give and take between falling down research rabbit holes and really trying to figure out what I want to say. … Nonetheless, probably what you saw in the press release about border walls versus animal migration, especially jaguars, versus borders in general in that area, the old various Apache reservations that have come into existence, including the borders of the United States. … Those kind of human-imposed lines on a geography that’s extremely fluid in a lot of ways. It’s the meeting place of three deserts — the Sonoran, the Chihuahuan and the Mojave — but there’s boundaries and ecotones from every scale going on there. You have these semi-tropical animals, mostly birds, but also jaguar and ocelots and coatimundi, all these cool semi-tropical animals. It’s the northernmost extent of their range. … You have the possibility of jaguars eating black bear, or jaguars eating elk. … That kind of juxtaposition between our very rigid political lines and the much more subtle gradations and gradients of not just ecological, but also cultural boundaries. … The food, the language, it’s very intermixed.

Q: What got you thinking about all this?

A: Honestly, I lived in Arizona for many years, and now I’m living in Oregon. Part of it was I wanted an excuse to go back to Arizona a bunch of times (laughs). I love that southern area of Arizona. There are a bunch of names for it. Sometimes they call it the Sky Islands, or the Madrean Archipelago. It’s a really interesting area that there hasn’t been much written about. And then the jaguars, I’ve been paying attention to the last 20 years. … They used to be residents and were extirpated — they were hunted out. Either they never left, or they’ve been creeping up. There’s kind of a resident population in northern Mexico. … You don’t tend to think of them as an American mammal. … The way I’m looking at the jaguar as kind of an umbrella. In conservation, if you, say, protect the wolf, like a top, apex predator, that wolf will thus serve as an umbrella species to protect everything else in its habitat. And so I’m thinking of the jaguar in … the same way. The jaguar is super interesting, and I want to write about that, but at the same time, it’s serving as an umbrella for me to explore all these other things: animal migrations, this super interesting geography, the Apache Wars. … I started thinking about this before our current presidential, political situation. … It’s not just rhetoric anymore, rhetoric of politics. Now it’s this ever-present background hum in our lives, which both appeals to me and turns me off. No doubt there’s a huge humanitarian crisis going on there at the border. I feel that this, in its own little way, can contribute to that.

— David Jasper, The Bulletin

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