A Conversation with Elizabeth Hightower Allen
A century after Aldo Leopold proposed the Gila as the first designated wilderness in the United States, First and Wildest (March 2022) delivers passionate prose from writer-activists who celebrate this vast, rugged landscape—and argue for its preservation.
Elizabeth Hightower Allen is a contributing editor at Outside Magazine, where she spent twenty-plus years editing award-winning features and writing columns and book reviews. A transplanted southerner turned westerner, she lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she edits books and articles about public lands, memoir, and adventure, and serves on the advisory board to Writers on the Range. She and her husband and daughter spend as much time as they can exploring the rivers and mountains of the West—while also making it back to Tennessee fairly frequently for ham biscuits. Her mind is blown by the rugged vastness of the Gila.
READ: Tell us about a book that shifted your perspective in some way, and/or made an impression on you.
I recently edited a book called Seeing Silence: The Beauty of the World’s Most Quiet Places (Rizzoli Press, 2021). It’s actually a photography book—a collection of essays and images by Pete McBride, who has traveled on assignment to some of the world’s most remote places, including stretches of our own Colorado River that rarely see visitors. What he found, however, was that when he got home and looked at his images, they never quite captured the sense of awe he felt in those wild spaces. He finally realized what was missing: the silence he’d experienced in the wild, whether loud with wind or penguin squawks or hushed, like the Grand Canyon at night.
This has really changed how I experience nature. I too always felt that the majesty I experienced in the woods or on a mountaintop was mostly visual. But I’ve been tuning into the landscape of sound. It’s been a real balm.
REVEAL: What was revealed to you in the process of working on your book?
First of all, just gratitude. These anthologies are not huge paydays for writers, and yet everyone I approached was not only willing but also excited to contribute. This applied not only to the wonderful group of writers who call the Gila area home, but also to a much wider range of novelists, public figures, activists, academics, and naturalists from outside the community.
The second thing that struck me was just how good all the pieces were. Only two of the essays in the book had been previously published: Aldo Leopold’s and Phil Connors’. The rest were commissioned for this anthology. I really did not want any canned essays full of talking points about the importance of wilderness, so I urged each writer to make their essay as personal as possible, full of anecdotes and rough edges. And I found that when people—even senators and scientists—pour their hearts into a piece of writing about a wild place they care about, it makes for compelling reading.
Third, I loved how all those voices, arranged together, amplified the others. I had never edited an anthology before, and I surprised myself with the power of that combined chorus. Because of all those different voices, the book really sings.
REEMERGE: What is feeding/nurturing you these days? What are you looking forward to or stepping in to?
Professionally, I am editing several memoirs right now. They are all completely different—one is by a surfer, one by an explorer, one writer is eighty, another is in her twenties. But what I’m finding is that they all seem to come back to the power of time in nature to sculpt our lives. It feels pretty great to help them each take the next steps to get their stories out into the world. And it’s empowering me to take my own next steps.
Personally, I am writing this as the leaves peak in Santa Fe and the fall farmer’s market winds down. Our family just went on a river trip on the Colorado River with a bunch of local farmers, and I was inspired by the food they brought—fresh-grown plums, oyster mushrooms sauteed on the camp stove. I’m imagining a fall and winter of soups and root vegetables, though I am sure the odd takeout pizza will make it into that mix! But I like to go real slow in winter, so I have a big pile of books and recipes, and am looking forward to skiing up in Taos and taking long snowy walks with the dogs.
Why Torrey House Press?
Our souls live in wild spaces, and Torrey House Press knows this. It’s great to have such a thoughtful publisher so committed to exploring the West and all its threats and potential. Also: the conversation about wild places is shifting and opening up. It would be easy to publish dozens of environmental books by old white guys. (Older white women, too!) But Torrey House is expanding that conversation and inviting in more voices with a lot of wisdom to share. I like that as well. Finally, the team is so dedicated and fun to work with—I have had a great experience working on this book, and hopefully more to come.