BEHIND THE BOOK
A CONVERSATION WITH BETSY GAINES QUAMMEN
author of American Zion: Cliven Bundy, God & Public Lands in the West
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Betsy Gaines Quammen is a historian and conservationist. She received a doctorate in Environmental History from Montana State University in 2017, her dissertation focusing on Mormon settlement and public land conflicts. She has studied various religious traditions over the years, with particular attention to how cultures view landscape and wildlife. The rural American west, pastoral communities of northern Mongolia, and the grasslands of East Africa have been her main areas of interest. After college in Colorado, caretaking for a bed and breakfast in Mosier, Oregon, and serving breakfasts at a café in Kanab, Utah, Betsy has settled in Bozeman, Montana, where she lives with her husband, writer David Quammen, three huge dogs, an overweight cat, and a pretty big python named Boots.
So far, what’s been the most surprising (and/or difficult, and/or enjoyable) part about writing your book?
Writing a book is a humbling experience. I’d finish a chapter, feel great, reread it and be mortified. To create a book is to edit, edit, edit and edit again. It really keeps your ego in check! I’m lucky that my husband is a writer—David read my dissertation, that is now book, many times. So did my Dad. And my former editor at the Telluride Times Journal, Marta Tarbell, provided a really hard and helpful edit. I had help and support, but at the end of the day, writing is a solitary endeavor. As someone who is extroverted, I found the hours alone to be very hard. I loved the interviews and the research, especially when I got outdoors, but writing is lonely.
American Zion looks at the religious roots of Cliven Bundy’s standoff with the government over public land. How did you come to be interested in the intersection of conservation, religion, and government?
I ran an organization for eight years working with religious leaders who were interested in conservation. I am very curious about sacred texts, and religious ethics and what they say about science and global responsibilities. I left my beloved organization to finish my dissertation on Mormonism, land use, settlement, and the emerging American conservation movement. When the Bundys became involved in the standoff I got very interested in what their faith said to them and how it informed their actions. I went to visit them in 2015 and our conversation became a section of my dissertation. On my bookshelves sit two books signed by men that I have met—both drive the narrative of my book—The Monkey Wrench Gang signed by Ed Abbey and the Book of Mormon, inscribed by Cliven Bundy.
Tell us about your dream book launch party.
My dream book launch party would be at Bozeman’s Country Bookshelf with my family, my pals and my community. And it's happening in March 2020, thanks to Torrey House Press and the amazing Ariana Paliobagis, the beloved Bozeman’s bookstore’s proprietor. I am so excited to go out and talk about this book and help people fall further in love with western public land. I’m also eager to tell the very strange tale of the Bundy militia. Americans need to know western history to understand our relationship with lands, but we can’t use its history as a template for its future. Radical change in public land use, not the same old ranching and mining stories, is an imperative.
"Americans need to know western history to understand
our relationship with lands, but we can’t use its history
as a template for its future. Radical change in public land use,
not the same old ranching and mining stories, is an imperative."
Describe one of your favorite places. What makes this place special to you?
I love Gold Butte National Monument, in Nevada, the site of the 2014 Bundy Standoff. It’s a gorgeous area with tons of history—from the Southern Paiute to the conquistadors to the mining boom at the turn of the century to the Battle of Bunkerville. It’s so beautiful—a desert where the sun plays off deep red rock formations and folded stone crevasses hide ancient petroglyphs.
What are you most looking forward to in 2020?
A new administration!
Why Torrey House?
I love the mission of Torrey House Press and its emphasis on conservation, education, entertainment and taking action. I’m for all of that! I think Torrey House is vital in the American West—it offers diverse voices about cultures layered across this land. Plus, I love the people involved in the operation. Writing a book is hard and they make it so worthwhile. What a supportive, creative, compassionate and innovative group of people! I’m really lucky this is where American Zion found its home!
Favorite Torrey House titles?
I have been reading Seasons by Ellen Meloy and Mostly White by Alison Hart. I love that THP publishes so many women’s perspectives. In Seasons, Meloy gazes at the changing contours of western landscape; writes witty observations on human understanding of wildlife; and manages to mention Elvis, Godzilla, her Toyota and the difficulties of getting bread dough to rise all on one page of one essay. Hart writes of intergenerational trauma within four generations of a family in poetic and raw prose—conjuring the brutalities of forced Native assimilation schools, to the struggles of being mixed race in western society, to the perseverance of the human spirit in a sorting out and embrace of cultural identities.
Help bring American Zion by Betsy Gaines Quammen to the page.