The Sierra Nevada mountain range rises high above the eastern boundary of California’s Central Valley. A rocky spine some four hundred miles long, its staggered peaks are wreathed with conifer forests and incised with deep glacial valleys. It is a wild landscape of granite cliffs, thundering waterfalls, rolling meadows, immense hardwoods, and cool alpine lakes.
Perhaps more than any other mountain chain in North America, the Sierra has a tendency to inspire fanatics—people who structure their entire lives as a recursive journey into its highest reaches. Accounts of their journeys can be found on online message boards, in published trail guides, in adventure narratives going back to the 19th century, and possibly even in the ancient pictographs and petroglyphs that still persist on Sierra granite.
Among these Sierra fanatics is the celebrated sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson, who has spent much of his adult life backpacking in the Sierra Nevada. His latest book, The High Sierra: A Love Story, examines the range’s history and the author’s enduring love for the high country. It’s a deeply personal work representing a culmination of Robinson’s experience and reading, mixing gear advice and route-finding tips with stories from his life and from the history of the range. We recently chatted about the book and what we can learn from other Sierra fanatics.
Daniel LoPilato: In the past, you’ve discussed the influence of the Sierra Nevada on your novels and your ambition to write nonfiction about the range. The result is a potent mixture of memoir, history, travel guide, geology, and criticism. Why did you choose to write this book now, and how did it come to take this form?
Kim Stanley Robinson: A confluence of factors made it the right time to write this book. I’ve wanted to write it for decades, and was a little scared I might never get to it; then I came to the end of my contractual obligation to my wonderful publisher Orbit Books; also, The Ministry for the Future represented a kind of summa for my climate fiction, and as such a pause point; and lastly, the pandemic had me staying home with lots of time to write. So I started the Sierra book in spring 2020, and it poured out of me.
As to its form, I had a lot of different topics I wanted to cover, and I finally decided it was best to destrand them and take them one topic at a time, then braiding them together into a kind of tapestry. It just seemed the best form for the content I had in mind.
DL: This book helped me to see more clearly a connection between nature writing and science fiction, both of which replicate worlds and landscapes with a high degree of fidelity. Since your novels are heavily researched, I wonder if you draw a firm distinction between writing about places that are principally “real” and places that are principally imagined. How does writing about a world you can walk out and see affect your approach to a project?
KSR: An interesting question. For completely imagined landscapes, as for instance my fictional moon Aurora in the novel of that name, I could only work by analogy to landscapes on Earth, or in the solar system. There’s nothing I can do in the way of research in cases like that, it’s just a matter of plausibility.Humans have been in every landscape forever, yes, and should be allowed to visit everywhere and anywhere.
Then for a place like Mars, we have—since the Viking missions of 1976—been given an immense new amount of data about that place, which we didn’t have before. It was possible when I wrote my Mars trilogy to read much of that new information and try to incorporate it into the descriptions in the book. It was much the same for the rest of the solar system, when I wrote 2312.
But then when writing about the Sierra, and also I should add Antarctica, and in my California novels, it’s been possible for me to walk on the land and sit with the living communities on that land (not very robust communities in Antarctica, of course), and write out of my own perceptions. I can write what I’ve seen and felt, and that has been a real pleasure.
DL: I’m a fan of trip reports published online by other backpackers, and it sounds like you are too. These reports convey a tremendous amount of information about trail conditions, route-finding, campsites, water sources, and the fate of the writer’s newest piece of gear. I read The High Sierra: A Love Story in part as a contribution to this informal body of writing. Are trip reports part of your writing process, and do you keep a writing routine in the backcountry?
KSR: Online trip reports by the Sierra community are a lot of fun and often inspirational. My trip reports are private and sporadic, and I haven’t done them for years; they were mainly for my own memory, and to amuse my friends who had been on the trips as well, so there was no real reason to write them. I do usually keep a daily report, written on the backs of the topo maps used on the trips, but these are just a couple lines per day.
I’ve also written some poems up there as kind of a “Buddhist daily” to mark impressions from the day; these are also on the backs of maps. When I was young I wrote a fair bit while in the Sierra; now older, I go up there in part to get away from writing.
I have to say, many nights in the Sierra, my writing would be things like “cold, hungry, tired,” and the next day, “tired, cold, hungry,” so it isn’t really the right time to write, I guess.
DL: You use actor-network theory to frame your discussion of the Sierra’s social power, showing how the range both created and was, in a sense, created by a network of social actors you refer to as “Sierra people.” In one poignant scene, you mourn the vanishing glaciers tucked in the shade of the Sierra’s highest basins. I imagine all Sierra people share in this grief as the effects of climate change on the biosphere accelerate. How do you see the Sierra’s actor-network responding to this crisis, and to this grief?
KSR: A good question. Many Sierra people are Californians, and we can be proud of California’s leading positions on climate change, as a big progressive political entity and the fifth biggest economy on Earth. What we accomplish in California in environmental terms tends to set standards for the rest of the US, and then the world. So it matters to be a world-leading progressive political entity.
But more can always be done, and one thing Sierra people can do is witness what they see. California’s glaciers are going away, but they were tiny already; more importantly, drought caused by climate change is going to wreck the state’s water supplies. And if the snow pack turns mostly to rain, this also will upset the system established, which is a kind of terraforming, really; the state is plumbed by a giant plumbing system. All good, in engineering and human terms, but without water from the skies, it doesn’t operate.
So California’s recent law SGMA, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, is very important, and under-reported: water has been turned into a commons, which has to be managed, as commons always are; but water in California isn’t private property any more.
Then in the larger picture, the whole Earth will have to decarbonize. We will probably have to return the atmosphere to something like a 350 ppm of CO2, as suggested by the name of 350.org. This is a massive project that will take decades, but every place on Earth needs it, so we may do it, or try. That’s not a specific Sierra issue, but the Sierra will serve as a kind of indicator biome, like the canary in the coal mine.
Meanwhile, the shock and grief of seeing the desiccation and heating is real. I’ve felt it myself, as I wrote in the book. But as I also wrote, the Sierra is a sky island that has endured long droughts before, and the biome up there has survived those. So there is reason for hope, over the long haul.
DL: In America, wilderness areas sometimes get mixed up with a libertarian myth, the solitary and rugged individual who goes off-grid to escape society’s reach. But by your account, the Sierra has been a friendly and communal place for thousands of years. I found your account of the first peoples’ high country summer homes, and the cultural exchange that possibly took place there, to be particularly moving. What other myths about wilderness would you dispel if you could?
KSR: Thanks for this, I would very much want to dispel the myth that John Muir ever advocated that Native Americans be removed from wilderness areas in order to make them more pure, by making them more empty. He never advocated any such thing, and in his writing he showed he was aware of Native Americans’ use of fire to sculpt landscapes, and to care for land in curatorial ways. So that’s one false myth that does damage to the environmental cause generally, and the idea of wilderness in particular.
I’d also love to reduce all ideas of purity. Humans have been in every landscape forever, yes, and should be allowed to visit everywhere and anywhere (including Antarctica which was probably out of human reach until 1896). Two points: it appears Indigenous peoples would often declare certain areas to be off-limits for hunting and occupation, in effect, like current ideas of wilderness; and also, land use practices can be defined by all kinds of variety that create healthy spaces for wild animals and biomes while also benefiting humanity, so there is not a simple either/or here, nor any need to insist on purity of any kind. It’s a mixed picture and needs to be understood as such.
DL: You defend John Muir from recent attacks on his character. These criticisms come at a time when many are reevaluating the meaning of wilderness in the context of settler-colonialism, asking what role the outdoors play in American life and for whom. What can today’s activists learn from Muir’s writing?
KSR: It’s important to read John Muir’s writing, first of all. When you read him in full, you see him always acting as a kind of enthusiastic usher, not writing much about himself, but rather describing landscapes and biomes at length, and suggesting in particular that urban Americans could live more fulfilling lives by visiting wild areas from time to time, and paying more attention to animals both domestic and wild.California is a great world culture and space, and as a writer I’m lucky to have such a place to ground my writing, also such a subject to write about.
Now, it is quite true that his audience was mostly middle-class white settler-colonialists. This was the result of the media he wrote for, but his writing endures, and does not particularize its audience in its texts, in terms of who he is speaking to. He very clearly thinks of himself as speaking to everyone, at all times.
He lived for three months with the Tlingit people of Alaska, and learned to admire them immensely: they should be missionaries to the Christians, he wrote. So a full reading of Muir’s work will lead to even more admiration for his close observations, his honesty, his defense of Native Americans, and his extremely progressive defense of animal rights. Lessons can be taken from all this, including the fact that reputations can be easily damaged by ignorant internet memes, but over the long haul the historical record can rectify such vagaries.
DL: You use the term “psychogeology” to describe the sublime effects–like alpenglow and foreshortening–that produce the Sierra’s semi-mystical sensory experience. I made my first trip into the high Sierra last summer, and your psychogeological analysis accounted for sensations that barely registered at a conscious level and yet left deep impressions in my memory. What led to your taxonomy of the Sierra’s psychogeology and how did you go about theorizing it?
KSR: It’s been a lifetime of pondering, with a lot of trail miles with time to marvel at what I was seeing and feeling. Also, when I’m home in Davis, my mind often returns to the Sierra to marvel at what happened, especially in the most recent trip.
I have to admit, I struggle to explain what remains mysterious to me, so I keep coming back to it. Why does the Sierra create the effect on me that it does? I don’t think I am at all unusual in this sense of wonder, so it seems like a general psychogeology is possible to theorize and to speculate on.
DL: I interpret your work in many ways as a celebration of California and also as a warning about its future. The rewilding of the Central Valley features prominently in The Ministry for the Future and you published a trilogy of novels set in the state’s near future. Did writing The High Sierra show you anything new about your home state? How would you situate it within your larger body of work?
KSR: I think this book is an anomaly in my career, a one-off. I’d prefer to return to novels and stay behind my characters and my stories, to get out of their way. But also, it’s as you’ve noted; I am a Californian writer, and have written about the state a lot, and of course The High Sierra is a major contribution to that part of my work. The state is worth celebrating, it is a weirdly charismatic space, for these reasons, perhaps: its long Indigenous history of multicultural coexistence, now being repeated in the modern era; the Gold Rush; Hollywood; Silicon Valley; and the presence of the Sierra, and also the coastline. All together these facts make it some kind of special combination of landscape and human history.
Of course great fame brings too much attention, and also, a reputation for spaciness that is well-deserved. So California is a great world culture and space, and as a writer I’m lucky to have such a place to ground my writing, also such a subject to write about.
As for new things, I was surprised to learn that at the end of the Ice Ages, the run-off of Sierra rivers into the Central Valley was so intense that it created deep narrow canyons across the eastern valley floor, which later filled with boulders, and later topped with soil, such that these regions in the valley can work as immense French drains; if the current spring run-off is held over these areas, the groundwater levels are likely to be replenished more than if the flood water is simply allowed to run out the Golden Gate. So there are Sierra effects downstream of the Sierra, as is only to be expected.