We arrived back in Raleigh late Friday from our whirlwind trip to Asheville to present the RANGER project at the Association of National Park Rangers (ANPR) annual meeting - the Ranger Rendezvous, held at the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly in Black Mountain. The meeting was held in an immense 1910 building on a large campus with a spectacular view of the Black Mountains in full autumn color, crowned by Mt. Mitchell, highest point east of the Mississippi River. The old school porch festooned with rocking chairs brought me back to my "dirty dancing" job in the Poconos at Mo-Nom-O-Nock Inn, where a very similar porch with rockers opened to a view of three states. Only in my dreams did the actual experience mirror the movie, but I was amazed at this large YMCA facility that I never knew existed. They were expecting 1000 guests across the several buildings on the campus for the peak leaf-peeper weekend weekend here in the Southern Appalachians.
See the introductory video for the presentation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mo-PrOGCTn0
We presented in a small room, that happily was packed with all seats taken. We talked about why we were pursuing this project, about the rangers we have profiled so far, about ourselves and our hopes for the project going forward. Lucky for us, people were very willing to talk and we had a lively conversation about the project. Important takeaways for me were that personal stories can maybe be too personal - we need to emphasize the connection of people and place and not allow people's compelling personal narratives to distract too much from the connection with the parks. I think that is the advantage of narrative - it allows a richer relationship to develop between the two. The short 3-minute videos we used to introduce our audience to the people we have profiled so far are effective, but make it harder to make this connection in such a short time. We also talked about who a "ranger"is. There are different opinions in the Park Service about this, but I'm hoping to keep the definition broad - people who have administrative and facility responsibility are fair game for profiles as well as the traditional protection, resource and interpretive rangers are. We also talked about the importance of ensuring that rangers are not exploited in a headlong pursuit of profit. I think with the economics of a book project there is very little danger of that to start off with ;), but I understand the concern, and agree that it's critical that this be a celebration and elevation of rangers, not a vehicle for commercialization. It's not why we set out on this and I'm confident we'll be pushing this in the right direction.
Our next step is pursuing a non-profit partner to join with as we seek funding to produce the rest of the book. I think this can be a win-win-win for our partner non-profit as well as a major contributor looking to give an important gift to the parks or rangers in the Centennial year. Our concept is to engage a contributor to give a gift in the form of the production cost of the book to our partner non-profit, who will contract with us to complete and print the book. The proceeds from the sale can then be cycled back to the non-profit as a revenue stream for as long as the book sells. That's the objective, and with luck we can be successful at finding the right partners.
Being among rangers in such a beautiful place reminded me why we started this - fascinating people wholly engaged with the magnificent places that have such rich meaning for all of us. It was a great day, made greater when, on the way back, we chose to drive a long ways on the Blue Ridge Parkway, ultimately standing on the highest point east of the Mississippi, to look down in 4 directions at the magnificence of the Southern Appalachians, from Mt. Rogers to Clingman's Dome, in full autumn blaze.
Simon and I leave for Asheville today. We are presenting on Friday at the Association of National Park Rangers (ANPR) annual meeting - the Ranger Rendezvous - about the book project. Our hopes for this trip are (1) that we get good feedback from the ranger community about the book project, (2) we get a number of suggestions of rangers we need to profile around the country, and (3) we get the chance to see some fall color, since we'll be in the NC mountains in peak fall season. If eyes are glazing over during our presentation and we hear a lot of "good luck with that" comments we'll have to regroup, but as an optimist I'm hoping for encouragement. I want to find out where we might be going into sensitive territory, where we might not be touching on important aspects of living life as a ranger, where we may be bordering on the trite. I realize rangers themselves are not the only audience for this book, but it's important to us that we respect the reality of their lives, and understand what is important and not important to them. I feel that the sum of these profiles will add up to a story in itself - a story that's still a bit of a mystery - and so, to do a good job with these individual stories, I feel Simon and I need to understand more about the overall culture and context within which these individual tales emerge.
This also starts the public phase of this project. To this point I've had a number of phone calls with people across the country, consulted my friends here, worked hard on the 4 profiles we've completed in two parks, and worked with Luke McMahon, Jenn Bird, Simon Griffiths and Marc Harkness, our Asheville designer, to craft the material you see here on the web site and in the presentation we'll be giving to the ANPR. After Ranger Rendezvous we intend to start building support for the project, advertise the web site, get onto social media and begin looking for a publishing option. I recently had the opportunity to spend time with Justin Martin, author of Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted. Justin was a great help, and his understanding of the publishing and writing industry was invaluable. Gratifyingly, Justin seems to think a publisher would likely be interested in this book. Up to this point we had held the traditional publishing model as "Plan B", while thinking about self-publishing or partnering with a parks-related non-profit, but now I'm mulling working both sides at the same time. We'd still love a partnership that would result in some of the proceeds of the project going back to the National Park Foundation, the National Park Conservation Association, or the ANPR. But, ultimately, we want the book to be out there so people can read it and see Simon's photographs.
I'm admitting also to a bit of concern about defining myself as a "writer". I have been a number of things - a planner, a landscape architect, a bureaucrat - but now as I enter the "third third" of my life I find what gets me up in the morning is crafting these stories. I am lucky to have as my closest friend a real writer, David Brill, who also happens to be the person I shared by through-hike on the Appalachian Trail with. He is the rare author who has found a way to really live the life - working as a free-lancer out of his incredible cabin in East Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau. Dave's always been an inspiration to me in many ways he probably doesn't even know about, and I am grateful for his support. I think I'd make a lot more money being a development consultant or even an organizational consultant for governments, but my passion is getting ideas down on paper (or in the word processor). I remember spending probably absurd amounts of time in my prior career crafting memos to be succinct, to lay out clear points of decision for elected officials without overloading them with detail, to frame an issue with many facets in a short document. I also remember spending a lot of time trying to listen well enough to get what people were (fill in your emotion: angry, frustrated, excited, worried...) about. I hope if I match the listening with the telling in an effective way I might sometime be a little more comfortable calling myself a writer. For now, I am on a steep learning curve, and I appreciate having as accomplished an artist as Simon as my partner in this project, and truly great writers like Dave Brill and Sylvia Adcock (my Pulitzer-Prize-winning neighbor and friend) helping me out. For at the end of the day what we are seeking to do is art. This isn't a report, it's a tale and needs to hit you on the right side of the brain, in a place where your senses and emotions are in control.
Embarking on a journey into the dark valley of web site design, what you see here is the first message from the wilderness. There will be quite a bit here in this blog over the next few months about a book project, RANGERS - Personal Stories of National Park Rangers and the Landscapes They Protect and Preserve, which I am undertaking in partnership with my friend (and neighbor, and bicycling buddy) Simon Griffiths. So far we have interviewed four people in two National Parks. I admit to being a little bit of a junkie about all things National Park, but even considering that predisposition to love this stuff I am finding that these people blow me away. They are smart, articulate, dedicated, and despite a lot of personal challenges have built a unique and rich relationship with the place that they work in - a marriage of person and place. This is what the book is about.
To this point we have done all this on the cheap - driving to Florida and staying on Jay Johnstone's floor in Homestead (Thanks, Jay!) - taking the long drive to Morgan County, Tennessee (twice!) to spend time with Matt Hudson, and hang there with my Tennessee guru, David Brill, who is himself an accomplished writer. We stayed at Dave's cabin (probably a misnomer - it's bigger now than my house in Raleigh) on the Cumberland Plateau high above Clear Creek. In two weeks or so we will make a presentation to members of the Association of National Park Rangers (ANPR) in Asheville, NC. I am excited about presenting to this community. It is my hope that we will solicit some useful feedback and with any luck a long list of people we will "need to talk to" in the Parks. This also begins our fundraising effort, and over the next few months we'll be reaching out to organizations, individuals and companies who many want to make a Centennial gift to the National Parks in 2016 in the form of a contribution toward the production cost of this book.
Thank you for visiting the site and reading this. In order to put a presentation together for ANPR I tried to weave Simon's excellent photos, Luke McMahon's video and the Rangers' individual stories into a multimedia presentation, and it quickly morphed into this entire site, with some text, some video and some photography for you to peruse. Let me know what you think. This is my first effort...please be kind. Hopefully I can continue to refine and make this a better platform not only for the Ranger project, but for the wide variety of things I am interested in. I'll look forward to hearing suggestions!