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The City and the Writer: In Cambridge, Massachusetts and Boulder, Colorado with David Gessner

By Nathalie Handal

Special Series/Nature Writers 2015

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities



Can you describe the moods of Cambridge and Boulder as you feel/see them?

Cambridge is all bustle; the fun is in the foment. Boulder has that, too, but a more relaxed foment since it is required by law to work out for three hours a day if you live there. A lot of smart people live in both places and both are often referred to as “The People’s Republic of ——.”  Cambridge is more diverse but both are stuffed full of food, art, beauty, angry drivers (a mellower anger in CO). Both, in their own way, are forever stimulating.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Boulder: the death of our dog Zeke on the grass near the irrigation canal, that death made more poignant by its resemblance to my father’s, both curmudgeonly males whose last breaths shook me to my core.

Cambridge: Not heartbreaking, really, but troubling. My week in the college hospital after fracturing my skull after jumping out of a building. I will suddenly think of it and wince, knowing that all the years that came after might not have.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Cambridge: the birds’ nests in the gargoyle-like statues that jut from the Harvard Buildings and the nesting night herons in the trees along the Charles.

Boulder: the Stellar’s Jays, which are common to the point of nuisance to a western eye but a beautiful surprise to an eastern one. 

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Cambridge: You can read William James, who had the least static mind in history, and walk over to his house, then dip into Houghton Library to see his writings (and doodles). And you can read the biographies (Keats, Johnson) of the great Walter Jackson Bate, then walk over to Emerson Hall, pat Emerson’s shiny bronze knees for good luck, and go see the hall where Bate lectured.

Boulder: Reg Saner. Like a lot of Boulder residents, he sees the town as both itself and a jumping-off point, and his beautiful essays explore not just Boulder but the whole interior West.

Is there a place here you return to often?

The River.

The Mesa Trail, especially the unofficial spur end of the trail, which I lived next to in the town of Eldorado Springs.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Cambridge: Houghton Library holds the journals of Emerson and the notes of James. They come up to you from the bowels of the library, riding their private elevator, and you place them on foam holders and open the pages, looking down at the notes the actual writers scribbled.

Boulder: I know of nothing comparable.  Maybe Mork and Mindy’s house.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Cambridge: crossing the bridge and heading toward Watertown it seemed you could always find hidden spots along the river. And hidden in plain view: the Frisbee Golf course that winds through the law school, with holes that required hitting the Discus Thrower, a bronze replica of the Vatican sculpture by Jonderia Chiurozzi, that stood in front of the Hemenway Gymnasium, and another that had as its target Bessie, the three-ton bronze sculpture of an African Rhino that was created by the American artist Katharine Lane Weems and that, along with its twin rhino, Vicky, guarded the door to the Bio Labs. Oh, and one more: inside the Lampoon building, which like Snoopy’s doghouse contains much more than it could, complete with a banquet hall and a secret passage behind the bookcase.

Boulder: No other place I have lived has such easy access to other worlds, and in minutes you can hike, bike or run up into the mountains. To call these worlds secret is wrong, however, since it is a town full of hikers, bikers and runners who are not dissuaded by that usual maker of secret worlds: bad weather. For me the secret world of Boulder is one I found during the end of my time there: the eastern sections of the creek, a world of beaver dams and prairie dogs and spots you can get to where others don’t go.  

Where does passion live here?

Cambridge: In its river and its books.

Boulder: In the mountains that stand above town and the creeks that run down from them.

What is the title of one of your works about Cambridge/Boulder and what inspired it exactly?

Cambridge: My Green Manifesto. I had always known the Charles from its Cambridge banks but in this book I go back to its source.

Boulder: Under the Devil’s Thumb. The Devil’s Thumb is a great roseate (and phallic) rock that juts beyond the flatirons. I got healthy again in its shadow.  

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Cambridge/Boulder, does an outside exist?”

Cambridge: Yes. Head out on Route 2 and you’ve got not just Walden but waldens. Or head down the Charles to the ocean.

Boulder: Dear god yes. Backyard = Rockies.

Where does nature exist within the city?

Cambridge: The river. “A river touching the back of a town is like a wing,” Thoreau tells us. “It may be unused as yet, but ready to waft it over the world. With its rapid current it is a slightly fluttering wing. River towns are winged towns.” Cambridge is a winged town.

Boulder: Everywhere. Typing this I am wondering why I have ever lived anywhere else. Oh yeah: money.

Is writing from a city somehow different than writing from natural landscapes? If so, how?



David Gessner is the author of nine books, including All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and the American West, Return of the Osprey, Sick of Nature, My Green Manifesto, and The Tarball Chronicles, which won the 2012 Reed Award for Best Book on the Southern Environment and the Association for Study of Literature and the Environment’s Award for best book of creative writing in 2011 and 2012. He has published essays in many magazines, including Outside magazine and the New York Times Magazine, and has won the John Burroughs Award for Best Nature Essay, a Pushcart Prize, and inclusion in Best American Nonrequired Reading.  He recently appeared on MSNBC’s The Cycle to offer his take on the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. Gessner taught Environmental Writing as a Briggs-Copeland Lecturer at Harvard, and is currently a professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where he founded the award-winning literary journal of place Ecotone. He also puts a lot of energy into blogging for Bill and Dave's Cocktail Hour, a website he created with the writer Bill Roorbach.

Published Jun 30, 2015   Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal

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