William deBuys: ‘Our relentless effort to use the world has undermined its sustainability’

September 12, 2022
William deBuys
Inset photo: Ben Moscona/williamdebuys.com

The Trail to Kanjiroba: Rediscovering Earth in an age of loss
By William deBuys
Illustrated by Rebecca Gaal
Seven Stories Press, 2021

Conservationist and author William (Bill) deBuys recently published The Trail to Kanjiroba, his book-length observational and meditative memoir of two journeys he made in 2016 and 2018, mostly on foot, through the mountainous Upper Dolpo region of Nepal.

A Pulitzer Prize finalist, DeBuys is the author of A Great Aridness, Enchantment and Exploitation, River of Traps and many other non-fiction books.

The “care rather than cure” medical-assistance journeys were led by Roshi Joan Halifax, a Santa Fe-based social activist and Zen Buddhist teacher, and her outreach organisation, Nomads Clinic.

In The Trail to Kanjiroba, the story is told in a series of deftly-crafted short chapters covering the search for solace in this time, environmental change and human existential crisis.

The book provides a thoughtful follow-up to DeBuys’ classic New Mexico-focused books River of Traps and The Walk and his scholarly studies of environmental decline in the South West, A Great Aridness and Enchantment and Exploitation. DeBuys includes reflections on the life and works of Charles Darwin and on the science of plate-tectonics, as well as references to earlier Nepal journeys portrayed in Peter Mathiessen’s The Snow Leopard.

I spoke with deBuys in June last year, at his home in the northern New Mexico mountain village of El Valle. While there, we strolled over part of the circular route he describes in The Walk, where the stream along the way was still being cleared of debris from spring snow-melt run-off.

I asked him about his writing process as it relates to his travels. “On the first Nepal trip in 2016, I was overwhelmed with sensation, with new information. I couldn’t make much sense of it,” said deBuys. “Then I come back here to New Mexico and a year of writing, trying to order the experience.

“Memory in some ways is more powerful than present experience. I write as a way of illuminating things for myself.

“I went back in 2018 on a second expedition that really enabled me to understand the first one. We don’t always learn that much from first experience because the sensation the stimulation is so strong that, unconsciously, we may exclude key things.

“In The Walk, I write about learning a landscape very deeply, about exploring the familiar. When we explore the familiar we can go deeper than when we explore the new.”

I asked deBuys what he thinks about Amchi, the traditional science of healing practised in the Upper Dolpo. “You know, I can’t judge the efficacy of the herbs and poultices and such that were administered. I do know that perhaps one of the most curative things in the world is the relationship between healer and a person in need.

“The Amchi practitioner with us had an instant rapport with his patients that was the envy of the other doctors in our expedition. He could assess a person by looking deeply in the person’s eyes, touching the skin, smelling the breath, listening to the ‘many pulses’ which he said were related to different organs of the body. I adhere to a science-based view of the world but at my advanced age I withhold judgement about how other people see things.”

DeBuys explores and traces the science-based view of the world in his new book, through the story of Charles Darwin. Yet, also respectfully describes Roshi Joan Halifax’s Zen view, and the prevalent Tibetan Buddhism of Nepal.

“Roshi Joan and I became close friends. She helped me understand why I am not a Buddhist. She said all religions are clubs and I’m really not cut out to join clubs,” said deBuys.

“In Amchi cosmology, one quarter of human diseases are incurable because of the effect of past lives. When I reflect on that, I think of all of evolution as being the cumulative effect of past lives. It doesn’t exactly result in ‘karma’, depending on how you define that term. But it does result in our genes. It’s all the experience and learning of all those generations that have brought us to the present. There is a lot that is incurable in human nature, in our nature as animal beings. We are at pains to try to change that.”

On the question of human beings’ destructive power, deBuys said: “[O]ur relentless effort to use the world has undermined the sustainability of that very world. That’s why the story of Darwin and also the story of plate-tectonics is important to this book. With those two theories of Earth, human beings can now tell themselves the history of the planet without resorting to magic.

“At the same time the very future of the creation of which we are a part is threatened. That’s the paradox that is on my mind as a traveler on this journey on the trail to Kanjiroba. The two great theories are important to the tale.”

DeBuys seemed to be on the edge of despair at the beginning of his book. I asked him if he came back from the two trips to Upper Dolpo feeling better. “I was [on the edge of despair], especially at the start of the first expedition, because of the impact on me of my expedition in Laos [as recounted in The Last Unicorn] looking for an animal called the sola while confronting the gorier parts of mankind’s war on wildlife.

“Before that I had done a book on climate change [A Great Aridness]. Both experiences had really dismayed me. I was looking for rest and solace when I went to Nepal. In the two expeditions there, I think I found a way to find some resolution without succumbing to numbness or despair.

The Trail to Kanjiroba … is the book that answers the question: ‘When we look at the catastrophes of climate change and species loss, how do we not lose heart?’ This is really a book about keeping heart. Care over cure. Warm hand to warm hand, as Roshi Joan says.”

On whether he plans to write another book, deBuys said: “I don’t really plan. I just start writing what interests me, what really concerns me. I have more that I want to write about this area, New Mexico. I am writing about my family origins, and more about my Nepal experience.  Who knows what lies around the corner?

“When I meet with students one of the first things I tell them is to write anyway and to write any way — and to read. I was a book worm as a kid. In the loneliness of adolescence, books were my other world.”

Two things that jumped out at me from The Trail to Kanjiroba were the customary washing of peoples’ feet in villages the group visited and locals sticking out their tongues to show they like someone. DeBuys wouldn’t be pressed to talk more about the book, only saying “The reading of the book is a journey and you have to go on the journey to get it.”

[Visit Bill deBuys’ webpage at williamdebuys.com.]

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