I started paying attention to nature when I was twenty-two, when I moved to Denver. Writing was not yet on my horizon, but as I walked in the grasslands near my home or hiked in the high peaks of the Rockies, I started to jot down what I saw. Red-winged blackbirds flitting in a marsh after a spring storm. Glacier lakes glinting turquoise under the ridges of the Continental Divide. Wildflowers in the alpine tundra smaller than my fingernails, exposed to wind and snow, their roots storing food deep in the earth.
These scribblings were ordinary, in that I was simply recording, trying to make sense of the world around me, not yet trying to reach for meaning and metaphor. I was teaching myself to observe my surroundings and document what I could plainly see and feel after a childhood of silence, and I had a sense that I would find language in nature, particularly in Colorado, where the landscape is anything but ordinary: the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains that then descend into the deserts of the Colorado Plateau.
By Colorado standards, my adventures are not extreme. I prefer the quiet but vigorous meditation of cross-country skiing to the adrenaline rush of downhill skiing. I don’t climb. I hike to alpine lakes and meadows but have yet to summit a peak. The only time I have hurt myself seriously—a broken arm—was cycling in the neighborhood park. These adventures were avenues to experience nature, the way a river current bends around rocks to form strings of rapids and eddies, the way snow blankets the land in a brisk silence. I made note of these observations.
As I explored the landscape, I also began to explore its stories. This land is far from unknown, but it was unknown to me, and the stories that I found first were of white Americans trying to grapple with the wild and open spaces of the American West. How Denver tried to convince the Union Pacific that Berthoud Pass, a steep and narrow pass on the Continental Divide that holds snow deep into the summer, would be the perfect route for the transcontinental railroad.
The early attempts to climb Longs Peak, the most prominent summit visible from Denver, and how John Wesley Powell made its first recorded ascent on his way to the Green and Colorado Rivers, the descent of the Grand Canyon that would make his name. Edward Abbey rhapsodizing about the solitude of the desert as he confronted poison springs, rattlesnakes, and the encroachment of roads and tourists. These stories were within easy reach. They told me what the culture likes to tell itself, but I could also tell there was more to them that I could not yet see.
As a culture, we think of adventure as extreme experiences that involve physical endurance and serious risk. Think of the stories that get valorized: climbing Mount Everest, exploring Antarctica, and in this age when there is little terra incognita, crossing the deadly Darien Gap, a roadless stretch of jungle on the Panama-Colombia border. Adventure stories are at heart about discovery, of facing one’s limits and then pushing beyond it. The adventurer brings home an expanded sense of possibility to those of us who can only live through these stories vicariously. In telling us what they saw, they contribute to our knowledge of what is previously unknown. At the same time, adventure is also an instrument of merciless ambition, a force of colonization and conquest—as evinced by the stories I have already cited here.
I do not have the means or inclination to indulge in the fantasy of escaping into nature, into the edges of the world, and leaving society behind. My adventures have been small forays into realms just outside of my urban life. I have been looking less for the thrills of physical risk than a ground on which I could cultivate genuine ways of seeing and making meaning. Nature and the outdoors pulled me out of a life of alienation and dissociation. I was a frozen girl, caught up in the pain of denying my real self and unable to fathom what was happening around me. But as I roamed the wild spaces of the American West one footstep, paddle, or glide at a time, I learned to inhabit my body. My burgeoning practice of observing and describing nature taught me that I could trust my senses, my experiences. It was a different kind of risk, that of reshaping what I thought I knew.
I cannot remember exactly how I first learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act, but I know it was in these adventures: I must have been reading up on the stories of a place I wanted to explore. It could have been San Francisco, where I used to travel often, but in any case, I followed a trail of web searches and bibliographic citations to the Angel Island Immigration Station in the San Francisco Bay, where in the early twentieth century, Chinese immigrants were detained under the exclusion laws of the time. I went to Angel Island, of course—that weekend I hiked close to thirty miles in Point Reyes, Angel Island, and the San Francisco waterfront—where I saw the poems that the detainees had carved into the barrack walls. I was not quite a writer then. I had been making my nature observations for a few years and was just beginning to wonder if I could turn them into something more.
Angel Island was the catalyst I needed to transform observation into meaning. I started writing about this place, the way fog hung low on the bay and lifted to reveal a brilliant blue sea, but I saw too that for the Chinese who were detained on this island, the nature I described in rhapsodic terms would have heightened their sense of isolation and despair.
And I delved into this history, tracing the origins of the Chinese Exclusion Act to the construction of the transcontinental railroad and thus to the gold rush and Manifest Destiny. I followed one trail to Rock Springs, Wyoming, where in 1885 white coal miners rioted and killed at least twenty-eight Chinese men, set Chinatown on fire, and ran the rest of the Chinese out of town at gunpoint. The Rock Springs Massacre brought me to Evanston, where I found the intriguing story of an independent Chinese sex worker in this lonesome frontier.
I was on a different kind of adventure. I was roaming the land to excavate the histories of Chinese immigrants in the Old West: stories that are little-known in the wider culture, stories that complicate and repudiate our cherished myths of the American West. This was terra incognita for me, for I did not grow up in this country nor did I study history. I was pushing the limits of what I knew and rethinking the stories I had inherited. I had been raised in Singapore, where we Chinese are the dominant group, with all the delusions about nativism and belonging that it entails. I saw instead that I was part of a Chinese diaspora, uprooted from our ancestral homelands and set adrift in a world of dispossession, migration, and trauma.
I also traveled into another unknown: that of the self, the amorphous realms of desire and emotion that we are—or at least I am—taught to keep hidden. Though I was not ostensibly writing about myself, in exploring these histories in essays and poems, I had to contend with the fractures in my own psyche. I was not interested in just conveying facts and figures, but rather, I wanted to examine what they meant in the larger context of history. And history is the accumulation of individual lives, driven by the subterranean impulses of the spirit, which meant that I had to look hard at myself, the shadows I had been taught to amputate, to understand the people I was trying to write about. It was not easy, to say the least: when I began doing this work, I suffered from what I now recognize as panic attacks, my body instinctively reacting to the threat of revelation.When we express what we see in language that resonates, we can begin to make change.
These questions have fueled my writing life for much of the last decade, across three books and counting. My observations of nature sparked adventures into landscape and history, and it was in bearing witness to these injustices that I found language. Suffice it to say, the historical injustices at the heart of my writing—xenophobia, demagoguery, exclusion laws, racial violence, and in a larger sense, the politics of dominance and control—also define our contemporary moment. And observation and description are at the root of bearing witness: it is about saying, in the face of the machinations of power to twist and deny its brutality, this is what I see. It is a simple act, but also a powerful one, for it cuts through facades and illusions to assert what we can plainly see for ourselves. It affirms the truths of our lives.
I live in the city, but I engage with nature regularly, be it a long hike or skiing in the mountains or a walk in the neighborhood park. I need this to stay grounded and cope with the dissociation that creeps into my life. As I watch a flock of robins fan out into the sky, a moose grazing in the wetlands under snowy peaks, or a spring seeping out of cracks in the rocks, my senses heighten and the chatter in my mind quiets down. I turn outward instead of inward. I feel the weight on my shoulders lift. I let my guard down for a bit, crack ajar a space to stay present in the world. Even a half hour in nature helps me reorient myself. And in the immense views from the mountains to the plains, where the sky crumbles into the horizon, it is hard to take myself too seriously. Out here the landscape embodies a life much bigger than human capriciousness.
Not all my adventures turn into ideas for writing. Still, attention to nature teaches us about the entanglements of life. If we are curious about the red-winged blackbird, we might trace its migratory routes between North and Central America. We might want to learn whether its breeding grounds are still habitable, if its preferred wetlands have dried up, if the insects it eats are still thriving. We might go down the rabbit hole of studying these insects, or we might ponder the wetlands ecosystem, which might bring us to the beavers that dam these waters. We might consider how the climate is irrevocably changing as a result of our actions or wonder about the endangered species that depend on wetlands for survival, or even contend with the national borders that these birds transcend. We draw connections between subjects and ideas that may seem disparate and ask questions that enlarge our notions of what is possible.
And bearing witness is not just about speaking to the “big” subjects of power and politics. In a wider sense, it is giving testimony to the human condition in all its complexity, even and especially when it is difficult to acknowledge, when we would rather look away. It examines our inner responses as much as it channels verifiable information. In our troubled times, it is a tool of survival.
Saying this is what I see in the face of denial is the first step to claiming our agency. And much of the injustices that we face, whether it is racialized state brutality, coercive control of women’s bodies, climate disasters, or outright mass murder, destabilize the fundamental conditions of life. When we express what we see in language that resonates, we can begin to make change. The ultimate adventure is in reimagining our survival.
Western Journeys by Teow Lim Goh is available via University of Utah Press.