Q: You grew up in the American South. What first drew you, when you were in your early twenties, to the high desert basin of northwest Wyoming? Was it the landscape or the people or the wildlife? Has that changed over your many years living in the West? A: It was the land, all the space and the ability to live my childhood dream, a life horseback. In the thirty-plus years I’ve lived in Wyoming, I’ve come to love that it’s a state where cattle and people and wildlife can migrate hundreds of miles, irrespective of roads. It’s a grand sweep of life and landscape. And my work now with the Nature Conservancy helps to protect that.
Q: What was the most frightening or surprising thing you encountered as a young sheepherder in the Big Horn Basin?
A: That I had actually gotten what I said I wanted, which was to be alone. It was very frightening to realize that I had that power, that as a grown up, no one was going to come and take me back home. It was both thrilling and terrifying.
Q: Over the course of learning to be a mother, you reference your own parents, their enduring marriage, your father’s theological training and your mother’s work with Alzheimer’s patients. How have they influenced your decision to write this memoir?
A: I really never set out to write a memoir—I mean, who would presume? But over the years it evolved into one. My parents have always been very supportive of the crooked path I’ve taken, even when they didn’t understand it. By example, they’ve shown me that it’s never too late to take something on and give it all you have. So, as I took this manuscript by the horns, they cheered me on, even when it meant seeing themselves revealed alongside me. It’s not easy, but they’ve been amazing, and the process has drawn us much closer.
People tell stories about their lives all the time. They choose a story to tell that reflects something about them. In the writing of these stories, what came out for me was the longing for love and acceptance, for belonging. And the odd thing is, I grew up with layer upon layer of community and family and belonging and still I had to search for it, had to travel a very long road to see what had always been around me.
I have a tremendous role model in my parents. My mother went back to school and graduated with a master’s degree at the age of 60. She’s 87 now and still writing books, still speaking and teaching around the world. My father is 90 and still studying and teaching, still contributing to his community.
Q: You write movingly and sparingly about the grief of suddenly losing one of your loved ones. Is there anything in the natural environment and rhythm of your life in the West that has offered a measure of solace during that process?
A: That summer after Jenny’s death I had committed to helping an outfitter friend run horse-packing trips into the backcountry of Yellowstone. That promise really shook me out of my catatonic place, and all summer I took care of people and horses, living outside, moving through beauty. I rode through places that had been torched from the big fires of 1988 and saw new growth. I heard other people’s stories and understood that life is full of loss. It’s made me a more compassionate person.
Q: You’ve been working for the Nature Conservancy for almost 10 years. How has the job of being an advocate for natural resources affected your writing?
A: Claiming Ground is the story of leaving home, of finding my place in the world, both geographically and within my family. My life and story are set so firmly inside the physical landscape of Wyoming, and I feel a deep commitment to giving back. Having spent the first half of my life growing and learning, I feel that I want to make myself of use, to be of service, to offer something back to this land that helped shape me.