Nowhere to Hide When the Fire Comes Next

Rebecca Lawton discusses the origins of her new book, nature writing as a woman, and her long-term connection to water

Rebecca Lawton’s connection to water runs deep. Born in Portland, Oregon, she was raised in an outdoorsy family, so it was little surprise to those around her when she took a job as a river guide right after high school and became one of the first women guides on Western whitewater. That summer in 1972 was the first of many. She worked as an oarswoman on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park and other rivers for fourteen seasons. Over the same period, she studied fluvial geology —the examination of sediments in moving water, earning a B.S. in Earth Sciences with honors from the University of California, Santa Cruz. For many years she worked in San Francisco monitoring stream flow and sediment.

photo of superbloom in California
The Dos Palmas Preserve in California, which was established for its palm oasis and wetlands. Lawton traces the origins of her recently published book to frequent visits to a palm oasis in Southern California. Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management.

Lawton’s latest book, The Oasis This Time, explores the communities and people that rely on water in various arid regions of the US, including Sonoma County, where she was evacuated due to wildfires in 2017, and Oregon State, where she was again evacuated due to wildfire in 2018. In this collection of essays, she examines how water and water issues bring communities together to care about their local environment. Lawton — whose writing honors include a Fulbright Visiting Research Chair Award, the Waterston Desert Writing Prize, a WILLA Award for original softcover fiction, and the Ellen Meloy Fund Award for Desert Writers — has just begun a new job as the Executive Director of the PLAYA artist’s and scientist’s retreat in Oregon, on the edge of the Great Basin. 

In March, she spoke about the origins of The Oasis of Time, being a woman in a space dominated by male voices, and what she’s reading right now.  

SB: It’s so great to talk to you in person!

RL: Likewise!

What was your impetus for writing this book? What grabbed made you want to write it?

At the time I had just finished my Fulbright up in Canada and had to find a place to live before our house came open again, so I went back to my spiritual home (one of them): the Anza-Borrego Desert in southern California. I had been staying at a research station and just working from Canada, from Alberta. And while I was there [in southern California], every afternoon or whenever in the day when I needed a break from writing, I would hop in my Prius, drive to a trailhead, and walk to a palm oasis.

I was immersed in both writing and hiking to these oases that I had explored with my family as a kid, and I was pretty happy. Then a writer friend of mine sent this call for the Waterston Desert Writing Prize, which originates in Bend, Oregon, a couple of hours from here. And I just wrote up a proposal to write a book about palm oases, and then it kind of expanded into this idea of oasis as a cultural and environmental icon. And of course the water connection because that’s always in my work. And so, that proposal won the prize, and I kind of thought, Well, OK then I’ll have to write it. I only had at that point one essay, the one about 29 Palms.

photo of Rebecca Lawton

Right. So you had to get cracking!

Actually I didn’t have to get cracking too much with the prize because there was no book publishing contract with it. So there was still no deadline. But it did bring me here to PLAYA because part of the award was a stay at PLAYA residency program. So, honestly when I came here to PLAYA as a resident I was still working on the Canada work: the Alberta novel that is now done and looking for a publishing home. In this novel, professional boater Zeta Quinn is sent to Alberta during the off season to courier critical water-quality data home to California from a leading Canadian water scientist. Once in Alberta, she gets embroiled in multinational water crimes, including the disappearance of the scientist and the murder of a media activist. The novel is her journey to find the data, get it safely out of Alberta, and basically do her part for our endangered water planet.

I was gradually doing reported pieces on water issues and essays on water issues. One of them was written here on my third stay at PLAYA. And it was starting to look like the oasis book that I’d proposed to Waterston. And then Torrey House Press said they wanted to look at a proposal for it, so I wrote a bigger proposal with pieces that had been coming together — this was two years after the Waterston Prize. It took Torrey House about six months to get to the proposal because it’s a small non-profit press, but we’ve been happily working together [since].

What does the title refer to? The Oasis This Time suggests a previous oasis. What were you thinking of when you used “this time”?

You know, I was thinking about that classic, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. There’s a newer book entitled The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race and I thought it shared an urgency with The Oasis This Time. Baldwin wrote: “No more water the fire next time,” which can be read many ways: we’re not carrying your water anymore, there won’t be anywhere to hide when the fire comes next time. My title relates to all of these, maybe the last one the most. And “this time” means we’re there now, in what used to be “next time.” It did take me a long time to get the subtitle [Living and Dying with Water in the West]. Which I actually quite like. Maybe overblown, I don’t know. But I mean every one of those essays is either about life or death.

Obviously the main theme of the book is oases, but it seems to me you’ve broadened the definition of oasis to incorporate any kind of water-driven ecosystem and the kinds of people who are drawn to those ecosystems like river rafters and ornithologists. Would that be correct?

book cover

It is. That was the idea. It took me a while to make that connection in each of the essays. As we went through the second pass, Torrey House really wanted to see that connection made more strongly in some of the essays. As Kirsten Johanna Allen, editor and co-founder at Torrey House, said, “Make sure you get to the oasis payoff in each one of these.” So that was my creative impulse. Even if that did mean broadening the definition, because to me — and to lots of us — there’s water and there’s life and that is the refugia, that is the place.

You’ve always been drawn to water issues — in your career as a river guide, your scientific training, and in your writing. Why is that?

It think it was really that I was raised by a mother who was a naturalist, and who was the daughter of an Adirondack guide who rowed people in Adirondack guide boats. He was a water person. She took us all over the place on outings when we were kids. It was as though it was her mission in life to make sure we connected to the outdoors.

What audience did you have in mind for this book and what do you want them to take away from it?

I think that the audience will probably be people who already love these places. What I would love to see is if it were also read by lay people who have no clue yet about how their/our use of water impacts these things that they probably don’t think about when they turn on the tap. You and I know that that’s been going on forever — you know, Mark Reisner in Cadillac Desert wrote about it and beforehand John Wesley Powell. I want people to think about where their water comes from and what the source is [like Joan Didion in “Holy Water”]. And so that last chapter I wrote was “here are just some small ways to live more lightly.” So that’s what I’d like everyone to take away: what are two small things I can do every day, you know, and can I be mindful of my water use?

Do you feel like a climate refugee, moving from the wildfires of California — Sonoma in particular — to a new ecosystem in Oregon? Or is the Oregon ecosystem equally prone to fire?

Well it’s really interesting. I had a completely different reaction to being in the 2017 fires in Sonoma. They were terrifying, because they were so fast-moving and they travelled into populated areas. But there was such a bonding that happened over coping with them because, well, you know President Trump never sent any aid. It was all California, it was all community-based and neighbourhood-based and really people-based. Helping each other, getting closer to our neighbours and our town and our county — it was really hard to leave after that. I had the opposite feeling. I didn’t want to leave [Sonoma], I wanted to face this with people whom I’ve known for decades. But I also wanted to try this job and so we moved up here [to Oregon] and within months in 2018 we were packing up to avoid a wildfire here!

So the same thing happened — we have a lot fewer neighbours and they are more spread out, but the same kind of bonding happened, and there was the same kind of “this is what we’re all going to do and this is how we’re going to handle it” [mentality]. It’s terrifying but we’re in it together, and so I don’t really feel like a climate refugee because I’m still in it — there’s nowhere to go really. But I do feel like a climate community member. I feel more like I understand what people in the more extreme places are facing now. I feel more empathy than if the fires had not happened.

I was reading a quote from a seismologist, Dr. Lucy Jones, and she said that, if an earthquake happens, the key people you have to rely on are your neighbours and your community. The government may or may not bring aid, the army may or may not come, so ultimately you have to rely on your neighbours and your community to help you out. And that sounds like pretty much what happened during the fires.

It is, and almost all through texting. Because almost all other means of communication were down. But it’s really true, I think Jones hits the nail on the head. In a way, this is an unintended consequence of our changing planet, how we community-up or not. And if we community-up then we get the benefit of that and the unbelievably closer relationships that come from that.

Why did you decide to do a Fulbright in Canada?

I had just left a job that I’d had for quite a while and I really wanted to do something big — something big for me. And I looked at all the writing awards that there are out there like the National Endowment for the Arts, which I’m applying for now, or the Guggenheim, and every single one of them has this political process behind it – you know, a letter from someone of renown. The Fulbright is really based on merit and not on who you know. The people who vouched for me were just my friends — nobody with any national reputation.

I had heard that the Fulbright was the last of the egalitarian big awards. And so I wanted to get a big award to kind of say that, after 14 years of working for this little non-profit and no one knows my name, I want to do something big. I had always wanted to go to Canada to work on a project I had in mind. I wanted to go to British Columbia, I had an ecosystem all picked out, and I wrote my Fulbright application about the rainforest. I saw the wildest part of North America on National Geographic and I said I’m going there and I want to write about water. And they sent me to Alberta.

What a let-down!

But it was so right. They looked at my proposal and said “she’s got to go to Alberta and see the tar sands and write about the effect of water on tar sands.” I think that was in somebody’s mind, and that was what came of it. So it was absolutely the right thing. Though I did end up in Victoria for part of my research because I was looking at some iconic art that plays into the plot of the novel that I wrote while I was there and back home. So that’s how that evolved, and it was an amazing journey and an amazing bit of kismet. I was lucky to get it because I wasn’t with a university. Fulbright Canada is a fantastic organization.

I want to ask you about being a woman writing about nature. I read a lot of pieces in which people quote Barry Lopez or Henry David Thoreau or Ed Abbey or Aldo Leopold. And I don’t have anything against any of those people in particular, but I do feel that we’ve glommed onto this nature writing canon that doesn’t include key people, particularly women, who are writing in the present day. Would you say that’s an issue?

Well, I’m feeling sexism full in the face myself right now as the woman executive director of an organization. But when I did my MFA in Creative Writing I said I wanted to study the women who are writing the body of literature that I want my work to enter. I want to be one of those women. Terry Tempest Williams is the real deal, and Gretel Ehrlich — The Solace of Open Spaces was one of those books that made me want to be a writer. Ellen Meloy — too bad she died so early. That was not fair. So I wanted to be one of them. They were my role models. I get really sick of the same old people authors held up to the light. Even some of the same women’s voices, I kind of go “you know…”

What two books are you reading now that you can’t put down? I always assume that anybody normal is reading more than one book.

I just picked up Pride & Prejudice. It’s pretty wonderful. I’m about a third of the way through and all I want to do is be in that world right now. So that’s my escapist lit right in the moment. And then I’m also reading, of the many books that have a bookmark in them by my bed, Anger by Thich Nhat Hanh, and I return to it every day and learn something from it. I love being at PLAYA because a lot of writers generously donate copies of books that they’ve published, many of which they’ve worked on here. We have this library that just continues to grow so if I need something to read I just walk over to the office. It’s amazing work — I just read it and go “wow.”

Is there anything else you want people to know that I might have missed?

Just how much the places outlined in The Oasis of Time mean to me, and that I’m working on a collection of short pieces on climate fiction now. I’ve written two so far — basically I’ve started another book and in this case its water and the future. I’m letting the fiction go where it will into the climate future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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