Michael Branch — a desert-dwelling and award-winning environmental essayist who "writes like a drunken professorial hillbilly" — shows us that humor can, and should, have a place in communicating conservation's weightier issues. (Photo courtesy of Michael Branch)
Environmentalist breaks conventions with comedy
Michael Branch isn’t funny.
“If you’re hanging out with me, I’m not going to strike you as a class clown,” says the Pulitzer Prize-nominated environmental writer. “Despite my political convictions, I suffer from a case of good manners.”
That seems contradictory for someone a literary agent once said “writes like a drunken professorial hillbilly,” but Branch insists that is the voice he’s cultivated for his writing – his “narrator.”
“My narrator is more fun than I am, more irreverent, more energetic,” he says. “It’s amazing how often people will mistake me for my narrator and assume I want to stay up all night partying with them.”
An English professor at University of Nevada, Reno, Branch has published eight books; more than 200 essays, articles, and reviews; and has given more than 300 invited lectures, readings, and workshops around the theme of environmentalism. His work has been taught in creative writing and environmental literature courses around the country.
What sets him apart in a field often characterized by messages of doom and gloom, however, is his expert use of humor. His latest book Rants From The Hill, shows off this uncommon ability.
For example, in the chapter “Lawn Guilt” – a nearly 2,000-word diatribe against the front lawn – Branch uses a trademark curmudgeonly style to argue the financial and environmental impracticalities of the “exotic, barren monocultures” and also bemoan his own “dual status as arid lands environmentalist and lawn-watering dolt.”
While lawns are sometimes referred to as “ecological deserts,” he writes, “this characterization is an insult to deserts, which are remarkably biodiverse ecosystems.”
“I think the conventions of any genre can ossify over time,” he says. “With nature writing in particular, we’ve sort of indulged too much in writing that’s either driven by anger or sadness and I think that’s really fatiguing for our readers.”
The problem with such levity, he says, is that “humor is seen as antithetical to serious work rather than potentially an agent of it.”
That has not always been the case. “There have been plenty of periods in world history where humor was thought of as one of the greatest vehicles for conveying the most important information that a culture had to express,” he says. “Nobody says that because Shakespeare wrote comedy, he was a lightweight writer.”
But even though the scientific community has yet to fully embrace this method, Branch has enough reason to believe that the public is hungry for it.
“In terms of connecting with other folks, the humor is what worked best,” he says of his early forays into comedic prose. “It was proving to be the most powerful tool in my bag.”
How the humor started
“Humor came first through just trying to be honest about my own failures,” Branch says.
In 1995, he and his wife Eryn moved from Virginia to the high cold desert of Nevada. “We wanted to be in a wide open space with lots and lots of critters and opportunities to be outside,” he says. “We designed and built a passive solar house on 50 acres out here in the middle of nowhere.”
Their property, located at 6,000 feet on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, is just a lot away from public land that stretches all the way to California. The “vast sagebrush ocean” is home to rattlesnakes, bobcats, vultures, pronghorns, and all other manner of fauna. “It was going to be a flawless pastoral retreat and I was going to escape the vices of over-civilization and blah blah blah, right?”
But at some point during their move, Eryn became pregnant with their first daughter Hannah – a milestone for which they had been hoping for more stability.
“Life has a way of not really respecting your plan,” Branch jokes.
The first-time “desert rats” found themselves tackling not only the unforgiving landscape, but also the challenges of parenthood. Branch thought the trial and error of raising a family in such non-traditional circumstances so peculiar, he began to document his life unfiltered.
“When you see yourself fail at things, you only have a certain number of choices on how to respond,” he says. “You can pretend you’re not making mistakes and cover it up, you can beat yourself up about it, or you can learn from it. I learn best when I laugh at myself.”
When he’s home, you can find Branch “walking around the desert reading stuff aloud like a madman.”
Ten years ago, he set a goal to walk 1,000 miles a year – a target he’s about doubled.
And while he walks, he writes.
“For me, walking and writing are part of the same motion,” he says. “I print manuscripts and read them aloud. I really believe in editing by ear and not just by eye. And I’m too restless to just sit around and do it.”
He says others question is ability to walk the same landscape every day without getting bored. But to him, it’s different every time he ventures out.
“When you walk the same territory at all times of the year, it’s amazing how different it is,” he says. “Even when the landscape doesn’t change, my way of seeing it changes as I change.”
The land in Branch’s work is more than a setting. It is a writer and a central character. It opens the door and invites his survivalist neighbors. It teaches his daughters to avoid scorpions – despite putting them there in the first place. And most importantly, it supports him during the most precious and vulnerable moments of his life.
The environmentalist Aldo Leopold once wrote, “When we see the land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
Humor is a bonding agent. It brings loved ones and strangers closer together simply through the shared experience of laughter. When we laugh, we open ourselves up to new people, new ideas and new experiences.
Branch offers us exactly those – with the land at center stage. And after he’s had the last word, we might find ourselves using the land with the love and respect Leopold predicted.