My guest today is Sharman Apt Russell, emeritus professor of Humanities at Western New Mexico University and associate faculty at Antioch University in Los Angeles. Her 2014 book, Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging in the World, was
deemed one of the top ten nature books of the year by The Guardian. She also previously wrote When the Land Was Young: Reflections on American Archaeology. Her current book for young adults is about the fictional daughter of Cabeza de Vaca.
Welcome Sharman! Tell us about your latest book Teresa of the New World.
Hello, Mary! This novel begins in 1534 near present-day Galveston Island, Texas, with four-year-old Teresa listening to her father, the Spanish conquistador Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, telling the story of how he came to be shipwrecked in the New World and rescued by her mother’s tribe. Later, when Cabeza de Vaca leaves the tribe to walk west to outposts in New Spain, he takes Teresa with him—and changes her life forever. She grows up estranged from the magic she knew as a child, when she could listen to the earth, to all the animals and plants around her. As a kitchen servant in a Spanish household, she experiences the plagues—measles and smallpox—sweeping through the native populations of the sixteenth century. She befriends a shapeshifting jaguar and a Spanish war horse and starts her own journey to reclaim herself, to find the connection she once had to the trickster earth, and to come to some peace with her father, negotiating his love and his betrayal.
What made you decide to write about Teresa?
I have long been fascinated by the story of Cabeza de Vaca, living for eight years as a slave, trader, and healer among the tribes of coastal Texas, walking with three other shipwrecked companions or “Children of the Sun” to reach northern Mexico—accompanied at times by thousands of Native Americans who orchestrated this traveling medicine man show and who used the Spanish for their own purposes of trade and ceremony. When Cabeza de Vaca finally returned to Spain, he wrote and published a report to King Charles which still sells in bookstores today, full of anthropological detail about the New World—our first glimpse of these tribes at the moment of First Contact. I have read that report a dozen times in half a dozen different translations. For me and others, Cabeza de Vaca is a kind of American Odysseus, adventurer and mystic, practical and intellectual, an indomitable force. His ideas were influential in “reforming” the Spanish treatment of natives; at the same time, he could be easily seen as betraying some of his ideals, as reverting to conventional Spanish ideas about conquest.
So why Teresa? Archaeologists speculate about the native descendants of this conquistador. He was eight years, after all, among native tribes. When I imagined a daughter, the story started taking shape as a fabulist one about earth magic and our connection to the land, about loss and betrayal, about the epidemics of that time, about the collision of two worlds. Teresa is formed and overwhelmed by her famous father; yet she learns, eventually, to reclaim her power and find herself in the New World.
You have several other books of cultural history or historic fiction. Tell us about them.
My first collection of essays, Songs of the Fluteplayer: Seasons of Life in the Southwest (Addison-Wesley, 1991), was about being a back-to-the-lander in rural New Mexico in the 1980s, living on land where I would find exquisite, black on white pot shards from the Classic Mimbreño period and hiking to archeological sites with petroglyphs of the humpbacked fluteplayer. Those personal essays were a social history of that time and place—hippies and Quakers, Anglos and Hispanics, ranchers and environmentalists—mixed with a sense of New Mexico’s deep cultural roots. That book led to my next book, Kill the Cowboy: A Battle of Mythology in the New West (Addison-Wesley, 1993), about the clash between rural ranchers and rural environmentalists, which was based on the idea that each group had a connection to the land: this was truly common ground. After that, I wrote When the Land was Young: Reflections on American Archaeology (Addison-Wesley, 1996) which used the lens of the Native American Graves Repatriation Act to explore the field of archaeology in America and changes in theory and practice.
I think all these books gave me the courage to write The Last Matriarch (University of New Mexico
Press, 2000) about a tribal group living in the Mimbres Valley 11,000 years ago. How does one dare imagine a culture or people from such a different time? My inspiration has always been Reindeer Moon by Elisabeth Marshall Thomas who wrote about Europeans 25,000 years ago. I also drew heavily from Cynthia Moss’s work on elephants since mammoths are major characters in The Last Matriarch, which is partly about extinction. We lost 80% of our large land mammals at the end of the Pleistocene, probably through a combination of hunting and climate change. But really, for me, writing this book was a wonderful experience of living in a world of animism, living in this belief system where willow and lion and rock and root all had stories and are constantly talking and telling stories.
Animism is a big part of Teresa of the New World, too. She also lives in that richness of voice, that sense of connection and relationship.
Why do you think people should know about the past?
My interest is in the deep past, partly because I believe we still carry within us that Paleolithic heritage. We were shaped by wilderness, by walking through wilderness, by hunting and gathering, by tribal life. A planet less dominated by humans and filled to the brim with animals—plains of grazing herds, charismatic predators, the sun blocked by flocks of birds—is very appealing to me. Those images tug at my heart. I know we can never get back to that. I have explored in myself that “Paleoterrific” nostalgia and romanticism. But as an environmentalist, I believe that this nostalgia also has a purpose in today’s world. We need to wake up to the changes and diminishment we are causing in the natural world. We need to reconnect to the natural world.
How do you manage your many writing interests and still have time to hike and teach?
For me this is about writing every morning that I can. I don’t stop writing because it is a weekend, for example. I sometimes write, quite happily, during a vacation. I like to wake up and think—oh, yes, there’s that story or essay to work on! That’s what gets me leaping out of bed. I don’t usually have time or psychic space to write for too long. But an hour, two hours, three hours. It all builds. The rest of the day is for the business of writing, the business of life, for my teaching, for friends and family, for running or bicycling or hiking. It’s a pretty balanced life. But the key to me feeling balanced is that morning time.
Where is your favorite place to hike? What do you find fascinating about it?
I live less than two miles from the boundary of the Gila National Forest, hills of mesquite and prickly pear rolling down to the Gila River, a green line of cottonwood and sycamore and willow.
Craggy bare-boned mountains rise above the river, conical peaks, the shapes of a Stetson hat, and in two more miles as the crow flies I can be in the Gila Wilderness. This dirt road and trail is a pretty regular walk and run for me, down Box Canyon Road to the campsite where Mogollon Creek meets the Gila River, and on up to a mesa overlooking the entrance into three million acres of national forest. Often I see the tracks of bear and raccoon and fox and coyote. Occasionally I cross paths with a coati, that long nose and long tail and insouciant personality. Sometimes I see a family group of javelina—wedge-shaped and kind of adorable. Mountain lions go up and down the river corridor. This is their back yard. Vistas of grama grass and juniper. Great white-barked sycamores with the white limbs of a goddess. Rattlesnakes suddenly buzzing from the brush. This is wild country, tangibly wild, and the thrill of that never gets old. I never take any of this for granted.
Many thanks for joining us today!
You are welcome. It has been such a pleasure!