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An Interview with John Gifford

with Assistant Editor Sarah Osman



I had the pleasure of chatting with John Gifford, whose essay Running Through the Seasons appears in Chautauqua’s latest digital issue, Rooted and Growing. Based in Oklahoma City, Gifford’s work explores the natural world and our relationship with it. In addition to being a prolific environmental writer, Gifford is also a photographer.

 

We chatted about his work, writing, and his latest book.

 

Sarah Osman (SO): You published a short essay, “Running Through the Seasons” in Chautauqua’s most recent digital issue. Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired you to write that piece and your process?

 

John Gifford (JG): This essay was inspired by a lifetime of running, both as a meditative outlet and as a means of environmental immersion, like fly-fishing, gardening, or birdwatching. It’s the result of reflecting on how running has carried me through life and into the present day. It’s a short essay, as you note, and was a brief diversion between more sustained projects. Recalling my experiences through these many seasons reminded me of other runs over the years which I didn’t write about but which were pleasant to recall. As for process, I rise early, have a cup of coffee, and sit and write. I’ve been an early riser all my life. Mornings are prime time for me. I love watching the sun come up and listening to the birds singing.

 

SO: You have a book coming out in 2025, Landscaping for Wildlife. Can you tell us a bit about what this book concerns and how you went about writing it?

 

JG: Struggling to keep my lawn alive through another drought and heat wave a few years ago gave me an opportunity to reflect on our obsession with yards and landscaping. Our lawns feature an aesthetic value that often extends from home to neighborhood to community, and this helps form environments that many find appealing. And while maintaining our yards can be a source of pleasure for many, and though it can help support local economies, the monocultures we strive to create in having the perfect lawn are unnatural, environmentally intensive, and by all accounts unsustainable. They require chemical inputs and

lots of supplemental water, a resource we’re struggling to secure even as we continue to squander absurd amounts in order to keep our lawns green. The experience inspired me to write an essay exploring this concept of landscaping and its environmental costs. Gradually, it expanded into a book-length manuscript of creative nonfiction essays exploring other types of “landscaping” practices involving forests, grasslands, wetlands, and even our night skies. All of this is juxtaposed against the highest and most beneficial form of landscaping, wildscaping, which is managing land in such a way that it promotes biodiversity and species interaction. Sometimes you’ll hear it referred to, particularly in Europe, as rewilding because it seeks to replicate nature. We like to believe that we live apart from nature, that our lives are insulated and somehow elevated from the natural world, that the environments that matter most are those we construct. We’re terribly mistaken here. When we create monocultures in our yards or parks or agricultural fields, it has negative repercussions in the form of reduced biodiversity, fewer pollinators to work their magic on our plants, compromised soil health, carbon sequestration sacrificed, and other problems, all of which undermine human health and quality of life.

 

Landscaping for Wildlife reminds us—as much as a work of creative nonfiction can remind us, particularly one that uses concepts such as “landscaping” and “wildscaping” metaphorically and in such a way that challenges and seeks to expand our conceptions of them; all of this to say that the book is not meant to

be prescriptive and it’s not as practical as it might sound given its title—that we as humans do not live apart from nature, but rather as one link in a complex global ecology. What happens to the birds and the bees happens to us eventually. Let’s recognize this and calibrate our minds to the realities of our time. Let’s fix what’s broken and use our ingenuity to protect our home planet, our air, water, and lands. And let us live in such a way that respects the needs of our wild neighbors. We’ll all live better lives for it.

 

SO: You are a prolific environmental writer. What do you think of the recent uptick in fictional environmental writing? Have you read any standout environmental novels?

 

JG: I think any literature or art form that explores some element of our environment can be beneficial in bringing awareness to an issue, by offering a fresh point of view, and helping us understand we’re all in this world together.

 

A few years ago I had the opportunity to travel to Cuba. Prior to visiting here I reread Ernest Hemingway’s famous novella, The Old Man and the Sea (El Viejo y El Mar, as it’s offered in the Cuban shops and markets, in the Spanish edition) and was reminded of its simplicity, power, and beauty. And while this story is so often cited for its portrayal of courage and endurance in the face of adversity, it’s also a valuable reminder of just how closely linked we are with the natural world.

 

Also, not a novel, but with Scott Momaday’s recent passing I revisited his classic book, The Way to Rainy Mountain, and was moved by his descriptions of a landscape—that I, being a native Oklahoman, happen to know very well—that means so much to the Kiowa people. This story is a powerful and poetic example of the profound influence the environment has on culture and identity.

 

SO: When we discuss the environment and climate change, people often become overwhelmed. What actionable advice do you have for us to help protect the environment that isn’t too overwhelming? How can we not completely lose hope?

 

JG: It’s easy to lose hope because climate change is the most significant threat we’ve ever faced. But we have the ability to make adjustments in our daily lives that, collectively, and over time, can have a significant impact. Since we all have to eat, and since most of us do this several times each day, and since agriculture is one of our most vital and yet environmentally intensive industries, it’s helpful to think about the foods we consume. Where does this food come from and how is it produced? We need to understand these things to know what kind of environmental impact we’re having and to know whether this is something we want to support. As much as possible, support your local producers, not only because so many of them operate small enterprises that desperately need our support, but also because it’s good to know the names of those who produce your foods. Also, local production greatly minimizes the logistical and environmental costs of getting food from the field to your plate. And food produced down the road is likely fresher and more nutritious than something shipped from across the country or the other side of the planet. Support organic agriculture. Support sustainable farming and ranching, which are agricultural philosophies that emphasize soil health and biodiversity. Use less plastic. Plant a garden. Plant a pollinator garden. Plant a tree. Most importantly, use plants that are native to your specific geography. Advocate for our grasslands. They are beautiful and they’re one of our planet’s most important and yet imperiled ecosystems. Pay attention to what our politicians are discussing and get involved. Write to them. Ask them to support environmentally responsible legislation. Ask them to protect our air, water, and soil. Insist that they support legislation that protects wildlife. Our politicians need to understand that their constituents care about these things. As an environmental advocate and conservationist, I do this regularly. My forthcoming book Landscaping for Wildlife includes several examples. Find out what works for you and then share it with your network, neighbors, and your local community.

 

SO: Much of your writing focuses on your homeland, Oklahoma. What drives you to write about the environment of Oklahoma?

 

JG: Oklahoma, being my home, is the land I know best. It’s also a place that I find endlessly beautiful and fascinating. One of my primary influences and inspirations as a writer is the 18th-century English naturalist Gilbert White. His book The Natural History of Selbourne, published in 1789, introduced us to nature writing and ecology, and it helped us understand that humans are part of the natural world. One of the things White advocated for was a monographer for every district, every province. He believed that a person writing about his or her home district could know far more about that locale and its natural history than someone trying to cobble together facts or observations from a broad area. Of course, he was correct. If we all study our backyards, our collective observations will be much richer and more insightful and beneficial than a distant and impersonal view. Gilbert White was the inspiration for my book Red Dirt Country, which has been described as a literary mediation on the Oklahoma landscape and the rich biodiversity of the southern Great Plains. I was raised to value and respect the natural world. White’s writing taught me how to observe it and how to be present in an environment.

 

SO: One of your books, Pecan America: Exploring a Cultural Icon, focuses on pecans, which you note are uniquely American. Why did you decide to research pecans? What about them intrigued you?

 

JG: It began with my interest in pecan trees and pecan ecology. Pecans are an important tree in Oklahoma and Texas, and they’re native to this part of the country. Most of the literature I encountered during my research, however, focused on the pecan industry, which is based primarily on cultivars—pecan

varieties that have been developed for the commercial market. Wild pecans are much more interesting to me. They’ve been around for thousands of years. Unlike “improved” varieties, they require no human inputs or management to survive. And the nuts they produce, native pecans, are tastier and feature a

higher oil content than their cultivated counterparts. I spent three years researching for this book, much of it studying the pecan industry. But I spent just as much time exploring wild pecan ecosystems and even the pecan’s health benefits and its influence on our folk art and culture. This is a fascinating tree that’s also surprisingly symbolic of our nation.

 

SO: What advice would you give to environmental writers or those interested in writing about the environment?

 

JG: Find something that interests you and learn all you can about it. Strive to become an expert in your local area. Document what’s happening today in your own backyard, neighborhood, or community. Talk to people. Learn the history behind your area of interest. Find out how the larger environmental narratives unfolding elsewhere in the world are reflected in your community. Show us what it means to live in your part of the world. Beyond this, I think it’s vital for writers to get out into the world and have experiences that have nothing to do with writing. You need something to bring back to your work. Our world is a fascinating place and there is so much out there to be discovered, witnessed, observed, things you’ll never learn sitting at your desk in front of a computer.

 

SO: You are also a photographer. How do you feel photography and writing overlap? How do they differ?

 

JG: They’re both forms of storytelling. While I often write essays or, occasionally, book-length works of nonfiction, I am fascinated by abbreviated or compressed forms of writing of all kinds. I see photography as an extension of this, the next level so to speak, a form of storytelling but one involving no words. The image can be a landscape or cityscape. It can be an environmental portrait. It can be an action scene. The best visual storytellers in my opinion are the street photographers. I used to do street photography. It’s difficult to do well. Those who are best at it understand that you have to get close to your subjects. An image of someone walking across the street is one thing. But capturing an image of that same person walking past you on the sidewalk, close enough that you can see the lines on their face or the expression in their eyes or what they’re holding in their hands, that’s something very different and that’s when photography can shine as a form of storytelling. Trying to tell a story through such a visual means, using no words, is what really interests me about photography.


SO: Finally, what is one important lesson you’ve learned as a writer that you wish you’d known earlier?

 

JG: I began writing professionally nearly 30 years ago. This led me to explore everything from science and technical writing to magazine journalism, advertising copywriting, and writing for radio. It wasn’t until

the editor of a prominent journal accepted a literary essay I’d written on an environmental issue that I realized what I should be doing. At this point, I rededicated myself to creative nonfiction writing on nature and the environment. What I have realized over the years is that my best work always results from being myself and trusting my instincts. Interestingly, most of my subjects today are things I was interested in

when I was growing up: nature and environment, wildlife, agriculture, rural life, ecology. I think it was Frank O’Connor who observed that everything that’s natural must be learned. This has been the case for me. Would it be helpful to have embraced my background and personal interests earlier in my career? Certainly. But I might have arrived at this point a different person had I not had all those learning experiences trying to do so many other kinds of writing. We’re products, I believe, not only of our talents but also our personal interests and the people who’ve encouraged us along the way. For this, I have to say, once again: Thank you, Dr. Kates, Ms. McCune, Dr. Spiegelman.


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