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FINDING A PLACE TO STAND
Eight summers as a land surveyor in the Utah desert during the 1970s gave John Hales a surprisingly deep sense of the universe.
Hales, who teaches creative writing and literature at Fresno State, documents and gives shape to his experiences as a seasonal government surveyor in his first book, Shooting Polaris, an autobiographical reflection on man's relationship to nature and history.
He explores the complicated role of the surveyor's relationship to Thomas Jefferson's Land Ordinance of 1785, a document that called for members of countless Cadastral Survey crews to literally scratch out straight lines over the landscape, in an effort to subdivide and impose order on the American West. The result is a narrative that poses fundamental questions about what it means to be a contemporary American, amid constantly changing terrains.
In an interview, community journalist Jefferson Beavers talked with Hales about finding perspective, connecting with landscapes both internal and external, and figuring out what's profound in creative nonfiction.
I understand that you spent parts of a decade working on Shooting Polaris. So to start, I'd like to get a brief history of John Hales as a writer.
I got started writing at an early age and I always wanted to be a writer. My first publication was a short story in high school. At that time, I thought I wanted to write short stories and novels. I did really well in academics, too. I liked cultural studies, American literature, and reading about the Enlightenment. I always resented the view that the academic writing I was doing wasn't considered creative.
I was writing papers for conferences on landscape and American identity, and I started slipping in some of my experiences as a surveyor. I got some good feedback and it seemed to work really well. What I discovered later is, I had a novel in mind based on my summers in Wahweap City. But basically I just couldn't do it. I'm not a fiction writer. So in the last five or six years, I've really turned to creative nonfiction. I believe that the genre picks you. And right now, it feels like I need the structure of creative nonfiction to convert my experiences to something creative.
How do you think time has impacted the book and affected the meaning of it, both in your own mind and for the reader? Would you have been able to make the same conclusions had you tried writing it when you were younger?
I have a lot of students who are writing about things that are literally happening right now, which is the complete opposite of my 30 years of contemplation. [Laughs.]
On one hand, I don't think I really needed to think about it for 30 years to figure out what it meant. But I'm just somebody that needs to think about things for a long time. The relationship between humans and the natural world takes a lot of perspective. It's sort of alternating between being a backpacker and being a surveyor. At first, I was disoriented. Now, I have a little more of a solid place to stand.
On the one hand, the book is about surveying and man's relationship to nature. But on the other hand, the book is about a person finding his place in the universe and figuring out his identity. When and how did you discover that these things were connected?
I loved surveying, but I had conflicted ideas about it. I also know that I was pretty screwed up. When I started writing, the connections became apparent. Surveying became unexpectedly important. It really had to do with something bigger, and it was a point of reference that allowed me to take a break from my psychological and cultural disorientation.
I also started realizing, as I was writing, what an important moment this time was. It was a cultural dislocation, 1974, the year that Richard Nixon resigned. It was kind of a watershed moment for my generation. So I feel kind of like I'm speaking for myself, but also for more.
In the book, you write a lot about figuring out what things mean while you're doing them. Do you remember actually thinking about the meaning of your actions while tromping through Utah on a surveying crew, or are you imposing that reflection in hindsight?
It's hard to say. I hope that I'm a little smarter about it now. But we were going for the easier stuff then. I think I make fairly careful statements [in the book] about what I understood then and what I understand now. In some places, I had to guess and remember, and acknowledge that. We talked about a lot of stuff, but we may not have talked about the significance of a straight line.
The fact is, I didn't know this stuff then. Graduate school was tremendously helpful. I read some huge scholars who also had conflicted ideas about nature. It's just one example of studying [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and [Henry David] Thoreau, and also doing extensive reading and writing about the American landscape, and how all those things go into the hopper. Surveying, for me, became the most useful way to talk about it all.
In the book, you draw parallels between the physical landscapes of the land you were surveying and the internal landscapes that you were learning to navigate as a young man. How has making contact with the intersection between the two affected the way you live and the way you write?
The landscape you grow up in imprints itself on you, no matter what. I have weird feelings about Utah. It feels like home. I sometimes kind of flip out when I'm in places, but knowing they're there is somehow very helpful. There are places that I've sort of attached myself to, for whatever reasons. I'm not sure why. It's what I kind of need, though.
It's like [Thoreau's] Walden Pond as a visual aid for the spiritually impaired. I need that too. I need a cabin, and a trail I can hike constantly that I've hiked many times. I need routine and structure, in the same way, maybe, that I needed the star shot. I'm one of those humans who need an artifact that can connect me with nature.
You have lived in the San Joaquin Valley for about 20 years. Do you ever ponder the irony that your writing is a lot about the impossibility of forced linearity, when you live in a region largely marked out and identified for its grid-like organization?
[Laughs.] Well, I never expected to live in California, let alone the Central Valley. But I'm definitely reminded of the Jeffersonian project every once in a while. There are surveyors everywhere on campus, students with that fancy new electronic equipment.
Every time I drive downtown in Fresno, when I hit Divisadero Street, I switch to the grid more related to nature. It's all part of my confusion, I guess. I always get lost when I cross Divisadero and vice versa. On the one hand, the Valley is nature. But it's also industrialized, with the ultimate implications of the grid. Then at the same time, we're replacing the grid with suburbs that try and have curvy streets. It's complicated.
You mention in the book that Ernest Hemingway and Edgar Allen Poe influenced your early writing, along with other canonical authors like William Faulkner and John Steinbeck. Who are the more contemporary writers that influence and inspire you?
Well, the usual suspects did inspire me, I suppose, even though I might have nothing in common with them. I like John McPhee, Tobias Wolff, Mary Karr. And I like Kim Barnes, especially [her memoir] In The Wilderness. I was proud and happy that [Barnes wrote] a blurb for my book. Her style is lyrical and poetic, and at the same time it's very literary. She's doing what all good writing should do, and that's say the most with the fewest words.
Another writer I admire a lot is Jonathan Edwards, the 18th Century theologian. He wrote prose that was amazing for its time. He explored incredibly complicated things. Edwards wrote in an American plain style, which my writing isn't, but I aspire to it. It's making words as transparent as possible, where clarity is most important thing.
Some critics have compared your work to the writing of Edward Abbey and Annie Dillard. Do you see yourself as a "nature writer" or as something else? In what category would you shelve Shooting Polaris if you worked at Borders or Barnes and Noble?
I would probably put it into nature writing, if not memoir. In most bookstores, either would be a pretty broad category. Trying to find nonfiction in [big bookstores] is really hard. Like with the latest Best American Essays [anthology] that I was looking for recently. They couldn't figure out what genre it was. One attendant even told me there's no such thing as creative nonfiction!
I've joked about not wanting to be a nature writer, mostly because there's a lot of bad nature writing. Much of it refuses to explore the relationship between the writer and what's being written about. That's the key to any great literature, I think. If Walden were only about Walden, then it wouldn't be enough. That's the thing I really love about the writers that I'm lucky enough to be compared to. If [Abbey and Dillard] are nature writers, then I'm proudly a nature writer.
Finally, you use the word "profound" a lot in the book. What does the word mean to you, and how do you think the search for something profound affects people as readers of literature?
[Laughs.] Well, to me, what's profound is what defines literature. By profound, I mean ambitious. And by ambition, I mean that literature is literature because it takes on the very biggest questions. I like to embrace the possibility of never coming to an answer. I hope that it's asking the biggest questions and not really finding one-dimensional answers.
John Hales will read from Shooting Polaris and selected newer work on Thursday, Feb. 2, for the Fresno Poets' Association's monthly reading at the Fresno Art Museum, 2233 N. First St. Visit fresnopoets.org for details.