Reconnecting with the landscape
Writer and activist Mary Sojourner to pay a visit to Durango

Writer and environmental activist Mary Sojourner will be in Durango this weekend to address a luncheon and conduct a writer’s workshop./Courtesy photo.

Mary Sojourner refuses to fly. Although flying is faster and sometimes cheaper, Sojourner insists on traveling by train. But it is not because she’s an aviophobe. Instead, she can’t stomach how much flying disconnects her from the earth.

A Flagstaff, Ariz., writer and environmental activist, Sojourner’s quirk truly characterizers her deep connection to the land, which is the central theme of her work. Without the land, her existence – and influence – in the West would be tentative at best.

That Sojourner landed in the West by default deepens that relationship and raises the value of her presence. Growing up in the small farming town of Irondequoit, N.Y., Sojourner – a name she took in 1972 because of her admiration for women’s suffragist Sojourner Truth – had an early yet different relationship with nature. When her parents set her off alone in a canoe on an Adirondack mountain lake, Sojourner found respite from a sometimes bleak childhood. Her mother, she writes in an essay titled “First Meeting,” suffered severe depression, undergoing stints in psychiatric hospitals and shock treatment. As Sojourner says, it was a distressing disease to have in the 1940s and 1950s because people were diagnosed as “hysterical, narcissistic, manipulative.” Her mother survived every suicide attempt.

So, when she paddled away, under the aurora borealis, Sojourner sowed the seeds of her connection with nature. The scene meshed with her passion for cowboy movies. Only nearly 40 years later did she recognize how powerfully these experiences shaped her life.

Red rock amusement

In her early adult life, Sojourner reared three of her four children alone in Rochester, N.Y. It is a city so dreary, Sojourner explains, that it intensified her own depression. She struggled to put bread on the table while working on women’s mental health issues. In 1982, a friend invited Sojourner to visit the West. She declined.

“I said, ‘No way. It’s nothing but Disneyland with red rocks,’” she says. “At the time I was just too rooted in East Coast urban culture.”

Sojourner eventually relented. The first stop was the Grand Canyon. Her friend prompted her to the edge of an overlook.

“I felt as though every cell in my body was rearranged. That’s how powerful it was.”

She returned three years later. She was alone this time, and purposely visited Flagstaff to seek a copy of Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang. She found his book – and others – which she read while traveling on a train home to the East Coast. After arriving, Sojourner hastily packed her home and pointed her Pontiac Firebird and U-Haul trailer West.

Honker SUVs

In Flagstaff, Sojourner, a short and irreverent woman who is now 63, immediately began writing – a task she had always wanted in life but was too busy taking care of others to pursue. She also quickly became active in environmental causes, which she writes about in her novel Sisters of the Dream, a collection of short stories called Delicate, and essays in Bonelight: Ruin and Grace in the New Southwest. A regular contributor to High Country News and National Public Radio, Sojourner has earned recognition as a sharp-witted environmentalist who pens passionate essays about the bastardization of the West’s open spaces. Like many others, she sees developers running roughshod over a delicate landscape that can never be reclaimed. Golf courses and gated communities drive her to the point of rage.

Sojourner is known for her extensive opposition to the Canyon Mine, which a Denver-based company proposed to open on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to extract uranium. She and other members of the activist group Earth First! were arrested and jailed during one protest. Since then, she’s devoted her efforts to defeating many more private and public developments. As most can guess, she endures the scourge of many developers and property-rights owners. Like so many others in the West, she is caught in a perpetually divisive battle among those who want to protect the land and those who want to engulf it.

Through writing, Sojourner says she’s tried to form a bond with people who believe differently about the environment. It disappoints her that she has had little success. She took advantage of her days spent working in Flagstaff’s Aradia bookstore, where she often interacted with tourists who were scarcely educated about land preservation.

“I’ve tried again and again to communicate with them,” she explains. “But they usually just climb back in their honker SUV’s and drive off.”

‘Apathists of the West, unite!’

Still a relative newcomer to the West, Sojourner does not deny her own impact here. She uses her writing and activism to awaken people to how much power they have to minimize the marks they leave behind.

“There is no way to live anywhere without having any impact,” Sojourner says. “I own that. But I work hard to soften that impact.”

In fact, Sojourner goes to great lengths. She refuses to patronize corporate retail stores. She lives in a two-room cabin in the forest, with a wood stove but no indoor plumbing. Is this extreme? Yes, she admits, though she doesn’t expect everyone to live or fight like her.

In an essay titled “Apathists of the West, Unite!”, Sojourner backs that up.

She writes: “In fact, as an American living in the inter-mountain West, it is impossible to be purely activist. To live in 100 percent alignment with awareness of the devastation of the planet would be, as Stephen Lyons has suggested, to wander quietly off, die in a nontoxic manner and hope to feed more innocent creatures.”

Still, nary a reader escapes the essay without a mark on his or her conscience. She doesn’t give readers any wiggle roomto defend their actions, whether it’s trying to explain why they paid $200 for hiking boots or why, as she writes, they don’t long for the return of the guillotine after watching a television ad for Range Rovers shot against the backdrop of red rock.

If readers are guilty of either of these things – and a slew of others she lists – they are apathists. Apathy, she eludes, is what will kill the West. And when you are apathetic, you are disconnected from the land.

Sojourner willingly discloses that she battles her own demons in living a life that is incongruent with her beliefs. For the past several years, she has battled an addiction to gambling. While she spent hundreds of hours working as a self-proclaimed “hardcore environmentalist,” she spent nearly as many in a Las Vegas casino betting up to $800 a month. The addiction was so powerful, Sojourner nearly lost sight of her purpose.

“This summer it became clear to me that it was going to eat my brain cells and keep me from writing,” she admits. “It’s nice now to be congruent with my beliefs, even though I got a lot of stories from those experiences.”

She is now recovering in an outpatient program.

Breaking hearts

“Our very racy, technified times have seduced people into forgetting about connection,” says Sojourner.

As a writer and teacher, she strives to reconnect people to land – whether it’s the backcountry or a city park. When she arrives in Durango next week, Sojourner will conduct one of her well-known writing circles at the Durango Nature Center to coach interested writers in reconnecting. She believes that story is more than just linking words; it is also about opening the senses to natural surroundings that often get sucked into the undercurrent of everyday living. But when people are able to see how their stories fit into a certain place, they are able to write about their existence with integrity.

Often, it takes drastic measures to achieve this, she adds. That’s why her activism is so integral to her writing. It involves consequence, which often acts as a motivator.

“To have that connection to place it often means we have to break peoples’ hearts and light a fire under their asses, because only then can you let things in and out of your heart.”








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