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Zen In The Mountains: Bill Nevins Interviews William DeBuys

With a Covid-era book out, the New Mexico writer and thought leaders reflects on search for meaning, Peter Matthiessen and mountain sacredness

Two primates: conservationist William deBuys and a friend he met in Asia. Photo courtesy Bill deBuys
Two primates: conservationist William deBuys and a friend he met in Asia. Photo courtesy Bill deBuys

by Bill Nevins

Conservationist-author William "Bill" deBuys recently published The Trail to Kanjiroba: Rediscovering Earth in an Age of Loss (Seven Stories Press) amid the Covid pandemic. His book is a meditative memoir based on two circular, mostly on-foot, “care-rather-than-cure” medical-assistance journeys he made through the mountainous Upper Dolpo region of Nepal in 2016 and 2018.

He made the treks as part of a group led by Santa Fe-based Zen leader Roshi Joan Halifax’s Nomads Clinic.

The Trail to Kanjiroba is a book seemingly custom made for these times of angst, in which all of us are searching for firmer footing as many things in the world seem to be falling apart. His memoir is a beautiful true story, told in a series of deftly-crafted short chapters, about a quest to find solace in the face of environmental change and human existential crisis.

deBuy's book is a thoughtful follow up to his classic New Mexico books River of Traps and The Walk and his scholarly studies of climate change and environmental decline. He includes reflections on the life and works of Charles Darwin and on the science of plate techtonics, as well as references to Peter Mathiessen’s earlier Nepal journey described in The Snow Leopard.

Bill deBuys talked with us at his home in the northern New Mexico mountain village of El Valle. While there, we strolled with him over part of the circular route he describes in his book,  The Walk, and noted that the stream along the way was still in process of being cleared of debris from a snow-melt run-off. Here's part of that conversation about his new book, life and seeking Zen in the mountains.

: Please explain the writing process as it related to your lived experience and travels.

BILL DEBUYS: When I went to Nepal on the first trip in 2016, so much was new that I was overwhelmed with sensation in a way, with new information. So much so that I couldn’t make much sense of it. Then I come back here and I have a year of writing about that, trying to order it, all that kind of stuff.  

For me, writing is a way to process experience, so I can take a walk through a place and sense it to some degree. But if I then write that walk, I sense it so much more. I experience it more. You know, memory in some ways is more powerful than present experience. 

NEVINS: Expand on that.

DEBUYSI like to write about things as a way of illuminating them for myself. And then having done that, I went back in 2018 on a second expedition that really enabled me to understand the first. We don’t always learn that much from first experience of anything, you know, because the sensation the stimulation is so strong. Unconsciously we exclude so much that is there. And maybe unconsciously we exclude the key things.

So, by writing and by revisiting you can get back to the key thing. That’s why in one of my books, The Walk,  I write about learning a landscape very deeply, about exploring the familiar. And one of the ideas in that book is that when we explore the familiar we can go deeper than when we explore the new.”

NEVINS: And in The Walk you talk about a circular walk you have done many times.

DEBUYS: I joke about it with friends that we have the walk 1, 1point 5, 2 point 5, 3 point 5 etc. So when somebody wants to go for the walk, I give them options, you know. How long do you want to be out?

NEVINS: Someplace in the walk you mention there is a point where places are ultimately unknowable, and mystery kicks in.

DEBUYS: It’s like when you go deep, is there a limit to how deep you can go?

NEVINS:  You mention being known by a place.

DEBUYS: Yes. Here in the mountains we have no rattlesnakes, very few mosquitoes, no chiggers, hardly any briars. Nothing nasty. When my kids were growing up we’d be up here on most weekends and my wife and I would just hand them a referee’s whistle. Hang that around their neck and say if you get in trouble blow the whistle, and just go out.  And they never blew the whistle. There was nothing really to get in trouble with.  No water deep enough to drown them.

There are bears, but only people who don’t know bears are afraid of bears. Every now and then I see bears here but they are completely non- aggressive.  One time I came home and there was a bear asleep at the foot of the apple tree in my yard. It had been eating apples.  I watched it wake up and kind of clamber back up into the apple tree and start eating apples again.”

NEVINS:  What are your thoughts about the medicine the traditional medicine in Upper Dolpa and in Nepal? It’s practiced on your trip.

DEBUYS: You know, I can’t judge the efficacy of the herbs and poultices and such that were administered.  I don’t feel any need to subscribe to the cosmological view of life that structures that approach, but I do know that perhaps one of the most curative things in the world is the power of the relationship between the healer and the person in need of healing.  And the traditional healer, the Amchi practicioner who was with us he had an instant rapport with his patients that was the envy of the other doctors in our expedition.

NEVINS: How does the relationship work?

DEBUYS: There is something really wonderful in the way 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 in his way of thinking to different organs of the body.

I am very much an adherent of a science-based view of the world but I hope that at my current advanced age I have learned enough to withhold judgment about how other people see things.

NEVINS: I found it very interesting that you explore and trace the science- based view of the world especially through the story of Charles Darwin, which is a major part of the book. The science- based view is presented at the same time as Joan Halifax’s view. She is a Zen Buddhist and many people there in Nepal are Tibetan Buddhists.  I was struck by how you are able to not judge that alternative view, but also not jump on board. And you point out that Peter Matthiesen himself became a Buddhist.

DEBUYS: Oh, yes, Mathiessen became a very serious Buddhist practitioner. Roshi Joan and I became close friends.  She read early drafts of this book, and she helped me get to an understanding of why I am not a Buddhist. She basically said all religions are clubs and I’m really not cut out to join clubs.  And I’m content to leave it at that.
Bill deBuys and Jeannie Allen in El Valle, New Mexico. Photo by Bill Nevins
Bill deBuys and Jeannie Allen in El Valle, New Mexico. Photo by Bill Nevins
NEVINS: Earlier you mentioned an Amchi practitioner.

DEBUYS: As to Amchi’s teaching, there is something important in there that I took away from that world view that I think is useful for me.  In Amchi cosmology, one quarter of human diseases are incurable because of the effect of past lives. And 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 and trial and error of all those generations that have brought us to the present. And in all that there is a lot that is incurable in human nature. That is in our nature as animal beings and that we are at pains to try to change to try to adapt or alter.

NEVINS: Would that include the destructive aspect?

DEBUYS: That’s part of the reflection of the book. Perhaps it was obligate that we come to this pass in the history of the earth of the history of the world of human kind that our relentless effort to use the world has undermined the sustainability of that very world. And that really is the situation where the book begins.  And that’s why the story of Darwin and also the story of plate tectonics is important to it.  With those two theories of earth, human beings can now tell themselves the history of the planet without resorting to magic.

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

NEVINS: You say that perhaps the concept of hospice which overrides much of Joan’s work could be applied to the present situation. And yet you say the earth isn’t dying.

DEBUYS: Perhaps our creation of which we are a part is dying. But life is obligate on earth. Life will continue as long as this orb keeps doing laps around the sun.
"I had done a book on climate change and [it] had really dismayed me. And I was looking for rest and solace when I went to Nepal. And between the two expeditions I think I found a way to find some resolution without succumbing to numbness or despair."  —William deBuys

NEVINS: Did you come back from the two trips to upper Dolpa feeling better? You seemed at the beginning of the book to be on the edge of despair.

DEBUYS: I was, especially at the start of the first expedition because the impact of the expedition I went on in Laos looking for sola and confronting the gorier parts of mankind’s war on wildlife [recounted in deBuy’s book, “The Last Unicorn, a Search for one of the Earth’s Rarest Creatures”] had really dismayed me. And before that I had done a book on climate change [The Great Aridness] and both had really dismayed me. And I was looking for rest and solace when I went to Nepal. And between the two expeditions I think I found a way to find some resolution without succumbing to numbness or despair.

NEVINS: Your books carry on themes introduced in earlier works.

DEBUYS: I think of this book as the third in a trilogy with The Great Aridness and The Last Unicorn. This is the volume that answers the question: When we know all that, when we look it squarely in the eye—the catastophes of climate change and species loss, then how do we not lose heart?
And this is really a book about keeping heart. Care over cure. Warm hand to warm hand, as Roshi says.

NEVINS: Well that’s encouraging. Do you see yourself writing another book soon?

DEBUYS: I don’t really plan that way. I just start writing what interests me, what really concerns me. I have more that I want to write about his area, New Mexico. I am wiring 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. But the other thing I tell them is to read. I was quite a book worm as a kid. You know in the loneliness of adolescence, books were my other world.

NEVINS: The washing of the peoples’ feet in the villages your group visited in Nepal jumped out at me. And the people stick their tongues out at you to show they like you!

DEBUYS: Incidentally, I took the episodes involving foot washing and put them together in an article which appeared last month in The American Scholar—“Foot washing in Dolpo.” In a way it’s a summary of the whole book. But there’s a peculiarity to all this that I’m sort of grappling with.  Here I find myself talking about the book. There’s a paradox here. Some interviewers ask for a sound bite that sums up the whole book. But you can’t do that.  The reading of the book is a journey and you have to go on the journey to get it.” 

NEVINS: Is there a book tour?

DEBUYS: I have a couple of book events but that’s it.  In these Covid times not many people are doing much touring. I have reached out to people I know in academia who teach in the environmental humanities, trying to get the book into their hands to consider this book for a course or for me to do a classroom appearance via zoom or in person.  That’s the main outreach.

Bill Nevins
About Bill Nevins

Bill Nevins, who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is a poet, writer and adjunct instructor in the Land of Enchantment. He teaches writing, literature and public speaking at the University of New Mexico-Valencia. He grew up near New York City, graduated from Iona College and writes cultural journalism for The Celtic Connection, Local iQ, RootsWorld, An Scathan Celtic Mirror, Z and other magazines; He has published poetry in Malpais Review and many other anthologies.
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