Interview: Meera Lee Sethi, author of Mountainfit

Reading is — has always been — a deeply important part of my life. Books connect us to other people and places, real or imagined, to other minds; they introduce us to new (and old) ways of thinking; through them, we explore and learn and love and become more fully ourselves. They teach us that, however different our experiences and perspectives and values, we have much in common.

Last year I had the pleasure of reading Meera Lee Sethi’s Mountainfit: Fjällsommar, Fjällsjälv, a self-published, pocket-sized sliver of science and magic made with Kickstarter, birdsong and dreams. Don’t let that description give you the wrong impression — Meera’s book is earthy and insightful, personal and practical, providing readers with a fascinating glimpse into the world of fieldwork. I wrote an enthusiastic Goodreads review and later named Mountainfit one of my favorite books of 2012.

Happily, in June of this year the very savvy publishing wing of the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography gave Mountainfit the chance to reach a wider audience by publishing a new edition. You can read the free ebook or purchase a beautiful handmade physical copy. Call it a simple memoir of a summer in Sweden, or a collection of essays on home and identity and nature; call it whatever you like, so long as you read this remarkable book, and fall for Meera’s way with words and way of being in the world.

Curious? By way of introduction, Meera has kindly answered a few questions I posed on nature, storytelling, bird-skinning, inspiration and how the donkey got its bray. Read on…

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You’ve mentioned that nature wasn’t a significant part of your experience growing up. When did that change? How would you describe your relationship with nature now?

When did it change? My first week in Sweden. I know it sounds weird, but every extraordinary experience that fed into Mountainfit came from nothing but a hunch. I’d always loved things of the city. When I traveled I wanted museums, libraries, cafes, concert halls, architecture tours. I’d never even learned to enjoy taking walks without a specific destination or a practical purpose. But I had been quite unhappy for a long time, and had felt like I was searching for something I just couldn’t name. By this time I’d begun birding, and for whatever reason I just had this feeling that the thing that was missing was being outside in the world. Of course I didn’t have to travel to a Swedish village of fewer than 40 residents just to be outside in the world, but at the time I think I wanted to replace my life as I knew it, at least temporarily.

And then I got there, and my mouth stayed open for the next nine weeks. The area around the observatory was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen, and because I was working off-trail, at least partly during the off-season for mountain tourists, I was very often completely alone in the landscape. That was a huge part of it; I felt free to stumble, to make mistakes, to get lost and fail and be graceless, and no one ever saw but mountains, lakes, tundra, and the occasional reindeer. And they didn’t give a damn. Cities are full of eyes watching you; or they fool you into thinking they are; or maybe it’s that you’re always watching everybody else. It’s much easier to really let yourself be an idiot on the side of a mountain than walking down on Michigan Avenue. And being an idiot is a really important first step in becoming less of an idiot.

I would describe my relationship with nature now as the kind of relationship you have with your sister’s cool best friend when you’re nine years old. You try to spend as much time hanging out with her as possible, and when you’re with her all you do is watch and try to keep quiet and hope to be as much like her as you can.

I love that you refer to yourself as a “part-time skinner of birds.” Why birds? How did you come to this type of work? Scientific language, technical details, exhilarating updrafts and clumsy landings all welcome.

Ha! I don’t include that line in my bio anymore, but being a volunteer study skin preparator is still a big part of my life; after four years and over 400 specimens at the Field Museum in Chicago, the prep lab honestly felt as much like home as my apartment. (When we moved last year I started prepping at Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, which is a very different environment — it’s not a public museum, and most of the birds I work on here are collected specimens rather than window-kills.)

Anyway, how I came to it still feels sort of topsy-turvy to me, and at first it had nothing at all to do with birds and everything to do with bodies. I used to spent a lot of time thinking about death (which I think is a fairly instinctive human obsession), and out of that emerged a strong interest in bodies — how is it that they are the vehicle that conveys life, manifests life, makes life possible, and yet they continue to exist as separate entities after life ceases?

Then serendipity stepped in, and I happened to see two paintings of birds at a tiny art exhibit in Chicago. In the pictures, the birds were bodies preserved as scientific specimens, and the images exemplified that contradiction I’d been thinking about for so long — how inanimate remains can still manage to communicate something, even if not everything, about the life that once inhabited them.

Of course the paintings were by Diana Sudyka, who later did the wonderful cover of the first edition of Mountainfit. And thank goodness for me, she’d written a little statement that explained how she volunteered behind the scenes at the Field Museum preparing these specimens. So I emailed Dave Willard, then the collections manager in the bird division, and less than a month later I was sitting in the prep lab skinning my first bird—a starling. (I did a terrible job, though eventually I got better.)

Mountainfit began life as a Kickstarter project called “The Language of the Birds” that I am proud to have supported. The finished product changed to reflect your experiences in Sweden while remaining true to your original vision. What inspired you to put your adventure into words? Can you tell me a bit about the writing, editing and revision process?

I started the Kickstarter project because I knew I wanted to write about that summer and I also knew I might never do it. And as it turned out, the fact that I had made a promise to a hundred people — crazy, wonderful people who had sent me money and warmth and totally unsolicited emotional support — was probably the only reason the book got finished.

You asked about the writing, editing, and revision process: Editing and revision were relatively painless. I had the help of a friend who happens to be an incredibly skilled editor (seriously, email me if you need a book doctor), and she was the first and only person who saw any part of the book before it was finished. Among other things, she arranged the pieces in an order that made sense — something I couldn’t see clearly to do.

The writing process, on the other hand, was pure pain. Writing is excruciating anyway, but this was the most complicated and personal project I had ever embarked on, and because of Kickstarter I had made its timely completion a matter of public record. I think at one point I actually said to someone, “This is the worst thing I have ever done to myself.” (Spoiler: It wasn’t.) Here is a series of totally angsty tweets I posted while I was writing Mountainfit:

I have hated every word I’ve written for the past seven weeks. I feel like I have an inner ear problem. I’ve lost my rhythm. I can’t hear.

Instead of writing, you put a herring gull feather inside a hollowed-out hemisphere of kiwi.

Instead of writing, you think about what it would be like to track fish up a river, antenna in hand.

Instead of writing.

Sometimes the next thing to do is simple. If your eyes burn, step away from the words. You cannot help them. Save yourself.

I could write a thousand first paragraphs. #fuckingmiddles

The middle is the hardest part.

I take it back. What you leave out is the hardest part.

Fingernails bitten down to nubs.

I feel like finishing this book is like running with weights on. I’m achieving something for my legs, but the run itself suffers.

19,929 discrete units of what reads to me like dross. Maybe I should try putting this into a snow globe and shaking it.

Finally I went to Arizona, where my dear friend Sarah lived at the time, and forced myself upon her for a few weeks. She was finishing her library science degree, and so she would work on classes and I would sit with the desert sun streaming through her windows and force myself to write. It still felt like speaking with my jaw wired shut, but amazingly, it worked.

“The Language of the Birds” borrowed its name from a myth. What childhood stories, myths, folk or fairy tales resonate with you most today?

Maybe it’s predictable, but I love Just-So Stories. Not just Kipling’s; I love any myth that tells how a creature started out in one form and came to have the particular character we now think of as inevitable. It’s a self-centered thing; I feel, like everyone else, that I am a work in progress, that I’m in a process of constant change. But against my better judgement I also sort of believe that there is some version of me that will one day seem inevitable. When I studied Children’s Literature in grad school we had to write and illustrate a picture-book in one of our classes, and mine was called How the Donkey Got Its Bray.

I think I’m still waiting to see what my bray is.

Mountainfit is the tale in vignettes of a summer in Sweden, but it is also a beautiful expression of, well, you. How does it feel to offer up such a personal work of art to a wider audience, to the wider world? (I can’t help but picture a mama bird watching her chicks attempt flight for the first time.) Does it feel different than when you self-published?

It does feel different, and thank goodness. Putting the book out into the world the first time felt totally, completely raw. I took every response — and every lack of response — personally. This time I’m pretty relaxed. Don’t care to read my book? No problem. Downloaded the free copy and didn’t think it was good enough to come back and pay for? Well, that neither means you’re a terrible human being, nor that you’re judging my entire being to be worthless. Of course it still makes me incredibly happy for Mountainfit to be read and enjoyed. I just see it as its own entity now, and not as hundreds of copies of my heart floating around in the world for people to crumple up.

Whose writings would you recommend to someone who loves Mountainfit and wants to read more in a similar vein? What contemporary writers inspire you most of all?

This is a delightful question to answer, ignoring the fact that it would be ridiculous to compare my work to any of the following people’s. Please, read Bernd Heinrich on ravens. Read Rick Bass on wolves. Read Amy Leach on things. (Amy Leach is, sincerely, my heroine in terms of her almost alchemical synthesis of the literary and the scientific, which come together and are changed into something new entirely in her hands. This is the first piece of hers I ever read.)

Finally, I am quite sure that if you liked Mountainfit, you will be very, very happy to pick up Chris Clarke’s book Walking With Zeke — which I’ve written about here and which shares with Mountainfit the character of being both a naturalist’s notebook and a meditation on what it means to live well in the world.

What are your plans for 2014? Can we look forward to another book with your name on the spine?

When I got back from my second big field volunteer gig in Alaska last year, I had every intention of writing a book about the research we’d been doing there on these magnificent birds, bristle-thighed curlew, and about what it was like to be in the wilderness for nine weeks with your entire world shrunk down to four people and this extraordinary beauty all around. Then, to be perfectly honest, the melancholy that I’d been carrying around for years — something readers may or may not notice running underneath all of the joy and wonder in Mountainfit — caught up with me, and I fell deep into a hole. Lots of things helped, including my wonderful husband, my family, my friend Sarah, whom I mentioned above — she wrote me typewritten letters every week — and modern medicine.

But one of the biggest decisions that came out of that hole with me was that I wanted to make fieldwork my real life, not just a fantasy. Mountainfit begins with a passage about Anaïs Nin traveling back and forth between two completely separate existences, and for a very long time I labored under the mistaken belief that I couldn’t integrate my settled, urban, married life with the roaming, disconnected life of the field. I felt like I needed to sacrifice everything to the field, including my affections and my loyalties, in order to be rewarded with happiness.

I don’t believe that anymore; or, at least, I’m willing to test the notion that it’s not true. So I’ve been taking basic science prerequisites since the spring, and in 2014 my biggest goal is to get myself ready to apply to graduate programs in ecology. But I do want to write that second book, particularly since Kristine Sowl, the terrific FWS biologist who hired me to go to Alaska, is one of only a very few people advocating for bristle-thighed curlew in the crowded world of bird conservation, and I promised her I would help to get their story out. So things are delayed, but it’ll happen — it’ll just have to happen in between chemistry and statistics and all that. I’d also like to finish 366 Days in Science, another beloved project that got sidelined when I went to war with my brain. I’m not sure if anyone would sign it, but I’d love to see that become a book.

Finally, a bit of fun: imagine you’re a non-human, living part of nature. Tell me about yourself and the reasons behind your choice. What if you were a non-living part of nature?

Oh, dear. To tell you the truth, for much of my life I think I’ve been like a peak-year lemming: easily offended, but totally runty, with very few resources for backing myself up when I’m in high dudgeon. These days I’m working on becoming more sanguine. Living in northern California helps.

A non-living part of nature? Some kind of metamorphic gem. Garnet, or jade, maybe. Something worth having around, but by god it takes a lot of heat and pressure and a hell of a long time to get there.

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If you’ve already read Mountainfit, get thee next to Meera’s blog, Dispersal Range, part of the Coyot.es network.

Many thanks to Lori Hettler of CCLaP Publishing for asking me to participate in the Mountainfit blog tour, and to Meera for writing, sharing and inspiring.

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One Response to Interview: Meera Lee Sethi, author of Mountainfit

  1. Pingback: Guest Post, Meera Lee Sethi on Migrating from Self Publishing to Small Press | s [r] blog

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