Contributor Profile: Gregory McNamee

Originally posted on January 11, 2013

by Caroline Ailanthus


In the fall of 2011, Gregory McNamee, author or editor of 35 books and countless shorter works, received an invitation to contribute to Whole Terrain’s Net Works volume. The timing, McNamee recalls, was perfect. He had been thinking about the same topic, “connecting the natural networks of energy flow and biological information with the human networks of education and activism….” He had also been thinking about the Rosemont Mine, a proposed open pit mining project near Tucson, Arizona, an ancient landscape dear to his heart. The result of McNamee’s thinking, the incandescent piece, “The Worth of a Mountain,” is as gritty and silken as the land itself.

In his writing, McNamee describes the ancient cultural and biological richness of the Cienega, a rare year-round wetland in the heart of the desert, and how the hydrology that feeds it could be permanently disrupted by the proposed mine. He points out that the worth of this place is not the type typically recognized in court or valued by accountants and that the money realized from the mine would not stay in the area, anyway. The mine would make its far-away owners rich, leaving nothing to recompense the local people for the loss of their water.

“The Cienega watershed offers a story that is just one of countless many in the arid West,” McNamee says, “a tale in which something other than water is taken as the thing of primary value, when of course water is the most precious resource of all. But then, that’s true of other parts of the country: everywhere the future ghost of Dick Cheney roams in the form of fracking, killing water sources as it tramps upon the land, we see that lesson playing out.” But La Cienega has captured his attention and he has been following the issue carefully. A book may come out of this interest, McNamee’s third book about Western water.

“It turns out that it’s a very old [story] in a new guise: the history of the West is a history of economic colonialism, with people out here only too happy to sell out to the colonists for a mess of pottage, and with resources flowing by the boxcar and tanker truck load to distant places—in this case, very likely, China, while the money will flow to Australia, Canada, England, everywhere but Arizona.”

McNamee has what he describes as a “convert’s love of the cause of the desert, and a non-native’s appreciation for why this place is different from greener, softer, easier places.” He is originally from Virginia, near Washington, DC. After watching so much of his home landscape being paved over, he relocated to the Southwest. “I thought I’d go someplace that valued its history and was less inclined to growth for its own sake—the ideology, my old friend Ed Abbey used to point out, of the cancer cell.” He says his logic was flawed. Either that, or his timing was bad. “Alas, no sooner did I arrive than did Tucson explode: when I moved here [in 1975] the population was about 300,000, and it’s now more than a million, and much of the best of this place was torn down long ago.”

Yet McNamee remains loyal to his adopted home. He is a research associate and lecturer at the University of Arizona, as well as a member of the Speaker’s Bureau of the Arizona Humanities Council. He is a prolific writer and editor, and the Southwest, both the land and its people, appear again and again among his literary works. He puts it, “every time I travel—and I’m always going somewhere or another—I find myself missing this dry, hot, spiky, spiny country.”

Readers interested in following the story of La Cienega and the Rosemont Mine will have to “dig deep,” as McNamee puts it, to get really good information. “The issue is surrounded by lots of emotion and a fair amount of misdirection. The Arizona Daily Star and Tucson Weekly have done good work in covering the above-the-ground facts, though, not surprisingly, without much historical context. A reader would do just as well to look at the question of resources and their use and abuse in the West generally, for which I’d refer him or her to Charles Bowden’s Killing the Hidden Waters, Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire, and William DeBuys’s A Great Aridness for starters. Going deeper, Tom Sheridan’s Arizona: A History turns out to be a history of the race to extract as many resources as possible from this place, a story that begins long before the arrival of Europeans.”

In addition to offering suggestions to readers, McNamee also wanted to give some advice to writers, beginning with a plea for solution-based environmental writing.

“In my view, large segments of our desired audience tune environmental talk out because it’s descriptive instead of prescriptive: we offer Cassandra cries, but too often not much direction or encouragement.” Ideally, he’d like the world of environmental literature to include “lots of specific suggestions for ways in which to improve our condition, and lots of alternatives.” The world does need more of this.

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