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A Conversation with R. E. Burrillo

Throughout personal essays spiked with humor and natural science, archaeologist R. E. Burrillo excavates his past, examining what it means to be a local, Indigenous and tourist cultures, and the complexities of American archaeology in The Backwoods of Everywhere: Words from a Wandering Local (June 2022).

R. E. Burrillo is an archaeologist and conservation advocate. His book Behind the Bears Ears: Exploring the Cultural and Natural Histories of a Sacred Landscape won the ForeWord INDIES Editor's Choice Prize in Nonfiction. Burrillo’s writing has appeared in Archaeology Southwest, Colorado Plateau Advocate, the Salt Lake Tribune, and elsewhere. He lives in Flagstaff, Arizona.


READ: Tell us about a book that shifted your perspective in some way, and/or made an impression on you.

Inspiration can come from some unexpected places. I’m not a cultural anthropologist, nor a botanist, nor am I in the habit of taking drugs since I achieved full-fledged adulthood—but Wade Davis’s opus of ethnobotany, One River, was probably still the book that made the biggest and most formative impression on me in the last twenty years. I was in my early twenties when I found it, already fascinated with the “really cool things” aspect of archaeology and already heavily into hiking, but I’d never encountered a book that shied so heavily away from typical fun-and-excitement outdoor writing and/or typical go-find-the-treasure archaeological writing to tell the story of two generations of academics working with Indigenous people to help them preserve their own culture and protect their sacred homelands. It was the first time I encountered an academic being viciously critical of other academics for things like studying or appropriating Indigenous cultural knowledge for their own gains, at the same time presenting the results of good research and knowledge freely shared, all couched in writing that is actually fun to read!

REVEAL: What was revealed to you in the process of working on your book?

The forthcoming book is a collection consisting of musings, anecdotes, bits of research, and other scribblings going back pretty deep into my childhood. Where the last book told a lot of the tip-of-the-iceberg high points about how and why I ended up living in the Southwest and involved in public lands advocacy, this one provides more of the gritty details and underwater bits that hold those higher but smaller points above water. Pulling the material together meant traveling down some rather unsettling roads to find it, and realizing just how many cherished mentors, friends, and family members I’ve lost within just the last few years. I don’t think we often realize how much grief or loss we’ve been carrying around until, for whatever reason, we pause long enough to unsling the pack from our shoulders and take a good look inside. Those moments can be pretty jarring.

REEMERGE: What is feeding/nurturing you these days? What are you looking forward to or stepping in to?

I wish I knew. Probably the fact that I’m not dead yet and there’s places still to explore. I recently relocated to southern Arizona and have found that the Sonoran region is really extraordinary. At the same time, having not been born into an overabundance of wealth or privilege, the pressures of skyrocketing rent, skyrocketing healthcare costs, and skyrocketing level of drought have me thinking the good times are soon to be over—as, indeed, they already are for many people. Good thing I didn’t quit my day job to become a writer.

Why Torrey House Press?

The folks at Torrey House Press really believe in what their peddling. They’re not looking to cash in on current trends and make a quick buck. When the ever-fickle attentions of American mainstream culture inevitably shift away from public lands and Indigenous sovereignty to whatever cause du jour attracts them next, I am confident that THP will still be sticking to what they believe, and still be cranking out material that aligns with those beliefs. That’s all I really want in a partnership.


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