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I wrote this book for three reasons:

I wrote this book to show the dangers of using silicone injections so that no one else has to suffer injury or even death. If I can prevent one person from using these, I’ll feel that it was worth writing.

I wrote it to show how tragic Joi’s life was because of her vulnerability and fragile self-image and how it changed when she found someone who loved her for who she was, a gentle and sweet woman.

I wrote it to show the love that can exist between two human beings, regardless of sexual orientation. Joi loved men the majority of her life. She was “straight.” When we met, we connected as soulmates with a love that evolved into an all-encompassing committed relationship. This is not just a lesbian story. It is a love story.


Chapter 5 • Go-Go

I had told some of the girls at the Studio Club that I’d been trying to find work. One of them worked occasionally as a go-go dancer in a nightclub, but had plans one evening and wondered if I’d like to fill in for her. When I said that I didn’t have a costume, she offered to let me wear hers, a hot little red bikini covered with sequins. We wore the same size, which was really fortunate for me. I already had the white cowboy boots so my ensemble was complete. She gave me all the information I needed and I was ready to go-go.

It was 1969. Joi and I had spoken daily since the last day we shot Bigfoot. Our conversations were light and fun and revolved around when we would next get together. The moment I found out about my dancing gig, I called and asked her if she’d like to come and keep me company. She said that she’d love to and might bring her friend, Sid Caesar.

During our conversation, Joi told me that she and Stan were legally separated, but remained the best of friends. He reminded her of the dearest man in her life—her grampy, Ray Shupe, who had helped raise her. When Ray died a few years before, it left a terrible void in her life. Stan had been a good friend, was there when she needed him, but was a terrible husband. She said she’d explain more later and left it at that.

This helped to fill in the blanks. I started to understand her better and could tell she was hurting deeply. I hoped I might be able to help by being a good friend to her.

I was so excited that Joi would be coming to my big debut as a go-go dancer. I arrived at the nightclub and spoke to the manager, asking him to reserve a place at the base of the stage for Joi and her guest.

I was on an elevated platform in go-go style, dancing and swaying to the music when Joi walked in the room. She was dressed like a movie star, wearing her full-length blonde mink coat that matched the color of her hair. She was dazzling—and alone. She sat at my feet and watched my every move. I’ll never forget when “My Girl” by the Temptations started to play—our eyes met and I danced for her and only her.

After the set, I sat down at her table. She looked at me with a concerned expression and said, “You don’t belong here. C’mon.” She didn’t have to say another word. Still in costume, I smiled and followed her back to her place.

Joi was living in a lovely high-rise on La Cienega and Fountain in West Hollywood, just down the hill from Sunset Boulevard and the Playboy Club. She lived alone on the fourth floor in a spacious and elegantly decorated one-bedroom apartment with a nice den/TV room. A fireplace with electric logs was in the center of the living room, controlled by a switch on the wall, and she turned it on as we entered the room. The flames lit up the room, and her apartment became cozy and warm. She made us coffee and a salad, and, while we sat on the sofa chatting and eating, time passed so slowly it seemed we were in a time warp.

I had hoped for a moment like this … time alone with her in a setting exactly like this ... and had fantasized many times how this might play out. I knew I would not do anything to jeopardize our friendship nor make any moves that would ruin something so wonderful in my life. She didn’t know I was attracted to women, and I had not said one word about it. I had decided I would keep my thoughts and feelings to myself, because I couldn’t bear to lose this magic or to have her think less of me. And since I had no way of knowing how she’d react if she knew, I would just have to love her from afar.


Chapter 6 • Falling in Love

We spent the evening talking as if we’d known each other for a hundred years. The more we spoke, the closer we sat to one another. She would reach out and touch my arm or gently brush her hand against my face. Her life had been filled with many men and brief affairs, and she expressed how sad and alone she had felt for too many years.

Joi had been involved with Sid Caesar for a while, and before him it was Frank Sinatra. She had really liked Frank, but said he was quite troubled. The time they spent together was interrupted by his sadness at the loss of one of his friends. He would cry, and his depression destroyed any intimacy they had. That was the end of their affair.

The relationship with Sid, who was married, was a dead-end street. She knew he was a temporary suitor and realized exactly what it was about—sex for him and a momentary end to loneliness for her.

She told me about the creeps and the scum in Hollywood—the producers and directors who demanded favors for work in a film. The casting couch was alive and well, and she was one of its beautiful victims. Talking about her experiences made her start to cry—she had been holding in the pain for too many years. I held her close and she sobbed for hours.

Time passed and she was finally comforted. She felt safe and, at this moment, she knew she was loved.

Finally, though no words were spoken, she took my hand and we lay down, side by side, in front of the fire. There was silence and peace between us when she slowly raised herself and, resting on her elbow, looked down at me with those beautiful green eyes. My heart started to pound and then, unexpectedly and with a passion I had never known, she kissed me!

Joi kissed me with an intensity that almost stopped my breath. She seemed as surprised as I was and told me she had never felt this way about a woman before. Her kisses were like lightning in a thunderstorm. She took me by the hand and led me to her room. Wanting nothing more than to make her happy, I took her in my arms. Thus began a night I had dreamed of from the first time I saw her.

The morning light awakened me, and at first I thought it must have all been a dream. But there, beside me, she lay. She was sleeping like an angel with our bodies just barely touching. She began to wake and, as her eyes slowly opened, she looked deeply into mine and smiled a smile that I’ll never forget.

The day passed as we kissed and cuddled and made love and laughed. By the end of it, we were both spent … physically and emotionally. It had been heaven on Earth, and two souls had merged into one. Looking back, I realize this was when we fell totally in love. That date, Feb. 17, 1969, became our official anniversary.

For more information, visit www.facebook.com/JoiLansing.ABodyToDieFor. Below: Alexis Hunter, in a modern photo, with Jimmie Rodgers. Photo courtesy of Kate Porter.

Published in Literature

“Every story might seem unique and particular, but is actually recurring, in conversation with others,” observes a man in Oregon-born writer Benjamin Percy’s third novel. “We’re all characters caught in a cycle of ruin and renewal.”

What if a global flu pandemic resulted in nuclear war? The Dead Lands begins 150 years after such a catastrophe occurred, at a time when the people living inside a walled enclave known as the Sanctuary, formerly the site of St. Louis, have finally begun to wonder whether anyone else exists in the land that used to be America.

When a strange young woman named Gawea appears on horseback at the Sanctuary’s gates—speaking of a lush green land across the country in Oregon, where a kind of civilization has managed not just to survive, but, apparently, thrive—the Sanctuary’s loathsome dictator orders her execution. But others—including a bold woman named Mina Clark, a security agent for the Sanctuary, and an antisocial man named Lewis Meriwether, who runs a museum of the past—decide to save Gawea and set out Westward across the American wasteland.

Percy, who made his name as an award-winning writer of literary fiction, has recently incorporated more elements of science fiction, fantasy and horror into his writing. (His last novel, Red Moon, concerned werewolves.) The Dead Lands features some of Percy’s finest work to date; it is a tale that doesn’t skimp on rich characters, language and setting, complete with a suspenseful, anything-might-happen plot. Percy’s prose has grown more subtle and beautiful, full of evocative descriptions. Describing Gawea, for example, he writes: “The girl appears so thin, like a piece of wood somebody whittled and gave up on.”

Percy has always set his fiction in the West, and here, he plays with the notion of what heading Westward means to the American spirit, even when the landscape is no longer recognizable. “They are the same,” Percy writes about two characters seeking to upend the standard order in this post-apocalyptic world, “both refusing to acknowledge that they live in a place where fantasies must be discarded.” Even readers who lean toward realism ought to welcome Percy’s turn toward fantasy. The Dead Lands shows what can happen when a talented, disciplined writer gives his imagination free rein.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Dead Lands

By Benjamin Percy

Grand Central

416 pages, $26

Published in Literature

William T. Vollmann’s striking new novel, The Dying Grass, chronicles the shameful events of the Nez Perce War of 1877, when the United States Army tried to prevent several bands of Native Americans from fleeing to Canada after miners and settlers encroached on tribal lands in the Northwest, in blatant violation of an earlier treaty.

Much of the tale—and it’s a long one, north of 1,200 pages—is told from the perspective of Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, who led the campaign.

Howard personifies a troublesome wrinkle in American history: the near-simultaneous fights to emancipate slaves and obliterate Native Americans. Unlike many of his fellow bluecoats, Howard was fiercely opposed to slavery; in fact, he founded Howard University, a black college, in Washington, D.C., in 1867.

Vollmann uses Howard’s memoirs to create internal dialogues that show him wrestling with the injustice of American Indian policy. Howard was acutely aware of the fact that settlers were willfully encroaching on treaty land in the Wallowa Valley. He sees his government as terrorizing the Nez Perce people: “He feels for them, of course. He disapproves not only of our national Indian policy, but also of Wallowa’s heedless seizures.”

Yet he still leads the campaign against the Nez Perce and several other Indian tribes. Why? Howard himself struggles with the question: He’s a soldier; he needs the money; he’s proud to serve his country. When all else fails, he reasons that “Washington has given instructions, and there must be an end.”

Howard is a tragic figure whose self-deception becomes painfully obvious as the long march carries on. In him, Vollmann finds a clear historical allegory for America at large—a nation keenly aware of its principles even as it fails to live up to them.

Vollmann is notorious for writing tomes that are overly long, but something must be said for the book’s word-to-word beauty. He has a tendency to fall into near-verse when describing a scene. Early in the novel, he flashes forward to his own visit to Chief Joseph’s grave on the Colville Indian Reservation near Nesplelem, Wash., where the surviving members of Joseph’s band were eventually placed, years after their surrender. Standing in the cemetery, Vollman forms something like a High Plains haiku from a simple inscription on another gravestone:

My precious little girl

Haylee Roxanne

June 5 2004

Oct 6 2004

“— my heart is good;

my heart is grass;

graves in the gravel and golden grass.”


This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Dying Grass: A Novel of the Nez Perce War

By William T. Vollmann

Viking

1,376 pages, $55

Published in Literature

In Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America's Most Select Airborne Firefighters, veteran firefighter Jason Ramos chronicles the history of the elite group of airborne firefighters who attack blazes in some of the West’s most remote and rugged country.

Smokejumpers are equipped to handle any situation, in any terrain, at any time, and since 1939, they have battled wildfires from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Silver City, N.M. Ramos calls his comrades “the Swiss Army knives of firefighting,” justifying that moniker with an array of colorful anecdotes. At the same time, he explains the ecological importance of wildfires, pointing out the natural regenerative role that they play.

Ramos worked his way up the ranks, starting as an adolescent municipal firefighter in California. His knowledge of the firefighting community is impressive, and even after 16 years, he says, “I’m still learning new things all the time.”

Smokejumpers have to be tough, and so their rookie training school must be even tougher—it’s comparable to the Navy SEALS program. Despite a serious leg injury, Ramos passed. Ramos’ instructor was unsympathetic: “‘I’m pushing as hard as I can,’ I said. His answer was brutal in its honesty. ‘I don’t care,’ he said. ‘You better pick it up. On a fire, it doesn’t matter if you’re hurt.’” Ramos eventually parachuted into some of the biggest fires in recent history, including the devastating 2014 Carlton Complex in Washington.

Ramos describes historic fires and assesses recent beasts, including the 1994 South Canyon Fire, the 2001 Thirtymile Fire, and the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire, explaining how these turned so deadly and noting the lessons that firefighters learned from them. He jabs at the way bureaucracy often hampers missions; some fire chiefs hesitate to call in jumpers, hoping to save taxpayer dollars. Unfortunately, the problem is larger than local municipalities—Congress doesn’t allow the Forest Service to draw on disaster funding outside its normal budget for firefighting, and the agency already spends almost half of its entire budget fighting fires. That takes money away from other programs, including those that might prevent fires or mitigate their impacts.

While it’s clearly an ecological mistake to fight every blaze that erupts, allowing massive fires to burn toward neighborhoods can be deadly. Finding a balance is tricky, and Ramos’ narrative will surely spark hearty debate. Even after battling wildfires for nearly two decades, he remains captivated by them: “There’s something about fire that touches something deep and hardwired in the human soul. … There’s a reason why the ancients considered fire one of the four elements.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America’s Most Select Airborne Firefighters

By Jason A. Ramos and Julian Smith

William Morrow

233 pages, $24.99

Published in Literature

Heading into his sunset years, Louis Waters doesn’t ask for much. “Hell,” he says, “I just want to live simply and pay attention to what’s happening each day.”

He quit teaching years ago. Cancer killed his wife, and his daughter has moved away. He’s resigned himself to a lonely end in small-town Holt, Colo., the fictional setting of all of the late Kent Haruf’s quietly sweeping novels. (Haruf died after completing this book, Our Souls at Night, and before its publication.) But Louis’ neighbor, Addie Moore, has a different idea.

“I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me,” she asks him. “I’m lonely. I think you might be, too.”

She’s not talking about sex, but about companionship: a hand to hold, a body to warm and, most of all, someone with whom to share her thoughts. “The nights are the worst,” she says. “Don’t you think?” After dinner, Louis takes the alley to Addie’s house, where he changes into his pajamas and slips into bed beside her. They ask each other questions in the dark—questions about their children, their previous marriages, the sins of their past and the regrets of their present. As this pocket-sized yet profound novel unfolds, Louis and Addie reach for a second chance at companionship, something neither has known for decades.

“Who does ever get what they want?” Addie asks. “It’s always two people bumping against each other blindly, acting out of old ideas and dreams and mistaken understandings.”

Tension arises when the town starts gossiping—especially when the grown-up children disapprove. But the real emotional tightrope is strung between Addie and Louis’ newfound happiness and the unpredictable clock of a human life: How long can this last? Who or what will step in the way? And how much happiness does a person deserve?

For a book so filled with heart, Our Souls at Night appears largely uninterested in love—at least not in the traditional sense. At this stage in their lives, Addie and Louis seem to know better. In fact, the word “love” is used sparingly in this novel, if at all. What forms between these two lonely people transcends any abstract term; it is, instead, a simple understanding, the acceptance of two flawed souls and the fate that awaits us all.

Our Souls at Night

By Kent Haruf

Knopf

192 pages, $24

Published in Literature

Extreme behavior inspires Santa Barbara-based novelist T.C. Boyle, whether it’s the megalomania evinced by brilliant men such as Frank Lloyd Wright (The Women) and Alfred Kinsey (The Inner Circle), or humanity’s dismaying readiness to revert to animalistic behavior (When The Killing’s Done).

In his 25th book, The Harder They Come, Boyle finds hard-charging drama in the lives of Westerners whose beliefs and delusions push them toward destructive actions.

Two real-life news events sparked Boyle’s imagination. In 2007, a 70-year-old Vietnam veteran on vacation in Costa Rica killed a would-be robber with his bare hands. Then, in 2014, authorities captured a California fugitive who’d been surviving in the Utah wilderness for years, robbing cabins and hunting animals.

In The Harder They Come, Sten Stenson is the strapping veteran and retired school principal who saves his fellow elderly tourists during a stickup. He’s treated as a hero after the incident, but the killing makes him uneasy, as do his constant worries about his mentally ill grown son, Adam.

Adam is living in his deceased grandmother’s house in Mendocino County, Calif., training as a survivalist and raising poppies in the woods for an opium harvest. Obsessed by the exploits of the legendary mountain man John Colter, he is spinning out into what seem to be schizophrenic delusions.

Out hitchhiking one day, Adam is picked up by Sara, a middle-age farrier who is vehemently anti-government. She initiates a fling with Adam that culminates in a spate of law-breaking.

Writing in close third-person that switches between the three characters’ perspectives, Boyle captures the runaway train of their thoughts. “Seatbelt laws were just another contrivance of the U.S. Illegitimate Government of America the Corporate that had given up the gold standard back in 1933 and pledged its citizens as collateral so it could borrow and keep on borrowing,” Sarah rails.

The reader is carried along on the rushing stream of their perverse logic and intermittently feels sympathy for them. The Harder They Come reminds us of an uncomfortable truth: As much as we might want to dismiss violent people who hold extreme beliefs as isolated, deranged kooks, they’re as human as the rest of us. They’re also living among us—and as recent events have painfully proven, some of them might be ready to blow at any moment.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Harder They Come

By T.C. Boyle

Ecco

400 pages, $27.99

Published in Literature

Each chapter of Contenders—Colorado writer Erika Krouse’s sharp, fresh debut novel of love, street fighting and deep-rooted disaffection—begins with a brief parable from martial arts lore or Asian folk traditions.

In one, a squirrel tells a bird that he knows 15 ways to escape a fox. The bird, however, knows only one way: He flies. When a fox appears, “The fox’s jaws closed on the squirrel as it was trying to decide which of the 15 things it should do. The bird had already flown away.”

Krouse’s protagonist, Nina Black, is a woman who knows one thing, and that is fighting. As a teenager in Grand Junction, Colo., she escaped an abusive father when she began to get serious training in martial arts from a gifted Vietnam veteran.

Now in her late 20s, and having left her family with no forwarding address, Nina leads an isolated existence in a run-down apartment in Denver, earning a precarious living by going to bars, approaching men she suspects are cads, and then—when they make a move on her—beating them up and stealing their wallets. “Nina thought of herself as a kind of pool shark,” Krouse writes, “except she didn’t play pool. … She was an enforcement officer, collecting small fines from men who violated the social contract.”

Nina’s secret collection of purloined wallets is nearing 100 when she beats up a steroid-fueled man named Cage—a crooked cop who was once a mixed martial arts champion. She ends up not only with his money, but also with his badge, and he responds by pursuing her in a seriously menacing way. All this happens just as her childhood crush, Isaac, turns up in Denver with the 8-year-old orphaned niece Nina never knew she had, the daughter of her dead twin brother.

Isaac is a successful actor in commercials who is as well-meaning as Nina is dangerous, and as responsible as she is unreliable. Still, love begins to grow between the three members of this off-kilter family, just as Cage threatens to destroy Nina for good.

With its tough one-woman-fighting-machine protagonist and its radical upheaval of expected gender roles, Contenders veers far from standard patterns and continually surprises the reader. Krouse’s wit, erudition and precise language make Contenders a pleasure to read even when it achieves stark darkness before—finally—lifting its head toward the light.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Contenders

By Erika Krouse

Rare Bird

280 pages, $15.95

Published in Literature

In his heartbreaking new book, Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese-American Internment in World War II, California writer Richard Reeves reminds us that wars have a frightening tendency to spawn racial prejudice.

The incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans has been relegated to a footnote in U.S. history for 70 years. Infamy is a not-so-gentle reminder of that tragedy.

Backed by a wealth of research, Reeves documents the systemic racism behind internment, the military and political leaders who launched it, and the massive toll it took on immigrants and their children in the wake of the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

“Soon after Pearl Harbor,” Reeves writes, “Caucasian shopkeepers joined the farmers in outspoken hatred, with signs saying ‘This restaurant poisons both rats and Japs’ and ‘Open hunting season for Japs.’”

Infamy generally portrays first-generation Japanese Americans and their immigrant parents as patriotic U.S. citizens who happened to have the “wrong” physical features. The campaign to evacuate them from the West Coast was led by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, future Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, generals and other prominent officials.

Reeves was inspired to write Infamy, he explains in the introduction, after he drove through a desolate area of California and passed a sign that read, “Manzanar War Relocation Center.” This relic of the past haunted him: “I finally decided to write this book when I saw that my country, not for the first time, began turning on immigrants, blaming them for the troubles of the day.”

Xenophobia reigned then much as it did after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Horrific scenes in California, Oregon, Washington and Arizona mirrored events in Nazi Germany: FBI agents barged into private homes, and soldiers herded Japanese Americans into railroad cars bound for 10 relocation centers, located primarily in the West, ranging from Heart Mountain in Wyoming and Topaz in Utah, to Amache in Colorado, Gila River in Arizona, and Minidoka in Idaho. Barbed wire and machine gun-toting guards kept them imprisoned until the war was almost over. More than 1,800 died in the camps.

The epilogue notes that, almost 50 years later, the U.S. government paid $1.2 billion in reparations to the survivors. “The money was a pittance compared to the billions in 2014 dollars American Japanese had lost, but in the end, it was not about money,” Reeves concludes. “It was about getting a formal apology from the government for stealing liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese-American Internment in World War II

By Richard Reeves

Henry Holt and Co.

368 pages, $32

Published in Literature

In Leaving Before the Rains Come, her fifth nonfiction book, Wyoming writer Alexandra Fuller traces the unsteady arc of her marriage, from its shaky foundation in southern Africa to its final unraveling in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Fuller’s readers will recognize characters and events from her traumatic (and comic) childhood in war-torn British Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, which she wrote about in the best-selling Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. Although her new book covers some of the same terrain, this memoir unspools in a steadier, wiser voice. Fuller reflects on how her chaotic early years, rife with loss and disease, created a deep craving for stability, calm and safety, which she attempted to satisfy as an adult by marrying an American named Charlie Ross.

After she nearly dies of malaria in Zambia while caring for her newborn daughter, Fuller and her family move to the United States. There, in the shadow of the Tetons, she finds herself swept into American life, with its surfeit of security and predictability: “Americans were not expected to encounter unexpected, surprising hazards. … Mile markers along trails reminded us … how far it was back to the car.” Fuller marvels at those around her who take up outdoor activities just “for the adrenaline,” a sharp contrast to her life in Africa: “Most people I knew, myself included, had been saturated by enough of that hormone by early childhood to last a lifetime.”

The differences that at first provide relief eventually drive a wedge between Fuller and her husband. “He saw the world in concrete terms, rationally, as if the place were solid and the systems … were dependable,” she writes. “I saw the world as something fluid; I expected irrationality and mild madness, and most of the time, I did not think the gap between the two was important.” Fuller digs into both the long line of instability in her own extended family and the legacy of buried suffering in her husband’s family.

When her marriage finally frays, and she embarks on a solo life, she finds unexpected comfort in the wry humor and unflinching stoicism of her parents. “What I didn’t know (as a child) is that the assurances I needed couldn’t be had,” she writes. “I did not know that for the things that unhorse you, for the things that wreck you … there is no conventional guard.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Leaving Before the Rains Come

By Alexandra Fuller

Penguin

272 pages, $26.95

Published in Literature

At the age of 6, Bryce Andrews sat at his family’s kitchen table in Seattle, listening to rancher/artist Pat Zentz talk about building sculptures—and pulling spotted knapweed.

Art and agriculture went together, the boy assumed.

The next year, curators at the University of Washington’s art museum installed “The Myth of the West,” an exhibit his father organized. Young Andrews stood wide-eyed before Albert Bierstadt’s painting “Yellowstone Falls,” then turned and practiced his quick draw facing Warhol’s “Double Elvis.” That same year, his family visited the Zentz Ranch in Montana, in a pilgrimage that would become an annual event. Sixteen years later, Andrews himself began living the myth of the West, when he became an assistant livestock manager on a different ranch.

Andrews’ first book, his award-winning 2014 memoir, Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West, begins with his journey from the “damp claustrophobia” of Seattle to the 20,000-acre Sun Ranch in remote southwest Montana. “I had practiced this departure many times,” he notes. “I was headed away from my youth.” The Madison Valley opens before him, peaks rising like “glinting canine teeth,” the Madison River drawing “a golden line through the heart of the valley,” which is home to two small towns, Ennis and Cameron. Intrigued by the ranch owner’s mission to reconcile the needs of wildlife, livestock and the land, Andrews gives narrative weight to all the members of this community—not just people and cattle, but wolves and grizzlies as well. “One of our great failures,” he believes, “is that we do not allow animals to be individuals. When gritty struggles play out on the landscape, it matters which wolves, which people, and which cattle.”

But not everyone in the community views wolves as individuals, and gritty struggles soon erupt. “The choices made at Sun Ranch about living with wolves,” says Andrews, “boiled over onto the rest of the landscape. If one ranch has wolves, that policy impacts neighbors.”

The Sun Ranch was a transformative experience, a proving ground that began shaping a three-pronged life as writer, rancher and conservationist. Afterward, Andrews continued working at the confluence of agriculture and conservation, managing multiple ranches in Montana, co-founding the Oxbow Cattle Company (a grass-fed beef ranch near Missoula) and consulting on land stewardship. When not on horseback, he wrote; in 2014, he sold his half of the grass-fed beef operation to concentrate more fully on writing and consulting.

The co-existence of aesthetics and manual labor is a major theme in Andrews’ life. Figuring out how something works, whether a landscape or a novel, is a hands-on process.

“Right now, I’m framing my first gable roof over a little wood-fired pizza oven,” he says, “and writing a collection of linked short stories about drought, ranching, neighbors and the contemporary West.”

Drawn to places where people are practicing agriculture in the context of wilderness, he is fascinated by the delicate balance that lets people ranch and farm among wild creatures, in wild landscapes. He and his girlfriend recently spent a month in Costa Rica in the largest remnant of old-growth coastal rainforest north of the Amazon, working with scientists at a remote research station at Osa Conservation. The nonprofit group’s vision closely aligns with Andrews’ own: the desire to see communities thrive through increasing engagement with the natural world.

“The Osa Peninsula is as different from Montana as any place I could imagine, but it’s like you picked up the resource issues of Montana, and dropped them into a jungle,” he says. “We talked about cattle ranching, co-existing with jaguars, banana farming, oil-palm farming, water and subdivisions.”

All undeveloped land, he believes, is forgiving, resilient land. “A rancher can make a decision that turns out not to be the best, but if the ecosystem is intact, the land will recover. Spring will come around. The Montana landscape, like Costa Rica’s, is infinitely complex and interesting. I want my writing to be a little bit like that, too.”

Andrews also wants to move deeper into the world of art and community—not to join the ranks of the new agrarians, but to help inspire young people to be creative thinkers in the context of practical work.

“Perhaps someday,” he says, referring to an idea currently simmering on his back burner, “there’ll be a ranch-based apprenticeship program combining agriculture with a curriculum in ethics, aesthetics, science and writing.”

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Literature