Power of Story
In the late 19th century a publisher named Robert Underwood Johnson set out from Boston by train to California in search of a new writer who could make an impact. When he arrived in San Francisco he began asking around for where he might find a man by the name of John Muir. He was directed toward a remote valley to the east in the Sierra Nevada mountains where he set out by horse and wagon. He found Muir in Yosemite Valley, camped with him and invited Muir to start writing articles for Johnson’s Century Magazine. Johnson was understandably inspired by both the valley and the man. A powerful and effective friendship ensued. Johnson was well connected, introducing Muir to such names as Theodore Roosevelt, John Burroughs, Nikola Tesla, Mark Twain, and Rudyard Kipling. Muir’s articles captured the nation’s thrilled attention and Johnson began to turn them into books. Johnson then took Muir to Washington D.C. were both men successfully lobbied Congress to create Yosemite National Park. Muir subsequently founded the Sierra Club.
In June of 1962 Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was first published in three serialized excerpts in the New Yorker. Publisher Houghton Mifflin brought the book out in September of that year and the impassioned outcry that followed spawned the worldwide environmental movement. Although dying from breast cancer, in 1963 Carson put on a dark brown wig to hide her baldness and testified before President John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee and subsequently before the U.S. Senate. Silent Spring made a powerful case for the idea that if humankind poisoned nature, nature would in turn poison humankind. Today the effect of the book is attributed to the formation of the Clean Air and Water Acts, the establishment of Earth Day and to President Nixon’s founding of the Environmental Protection Agency.
My son Nick earned a degree in 2009 in Environmental Studies at Prescott College. He now likes to say that I am following in his footsteps. Indeed, in the founding of Torrey House I have been hugely influenced by one of Nick’s college texts, Max Oelschlaeger’s The Idea of Wilderness. Today my copy’s binding is falling apart from overuse and in my numerous re-readings I have used five different colors of pens to highlight, underline and make notes on perhaps more text than I left alone. In the book’s last chapter, “Cosmos and Wilderness,” Oelschlaeger suggests that we could be entering a new cultural paradigm. He argues that culture is changed through conversation and that philosophy and literature are the cutting edge of conversation. If we are going to have a new idea of wilderness then “nature’s experiment in humanity” will need some fresh literature.
Ask a modern conservationist how they got their start and you will very likely hear about what books they read. Emerson and Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson are the giants in the literary canon. In the West names like Jack London, Bernard De Voto, Willa Cather and more recently Wallace Stegner, William Kittredge, Vine Deloria Jr., Edward Abbey, Ivan Doig, Mary Sojourner, David James Duncan and Terry Tempest Williams have inspired passion, activism and even careers.
Wallace Stegner wrote about the West being the native home of hope. His hope was that the culture could evolve to where, “. . . it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery.”
How is culture changed? Nothing is as persuasive as a powerful, well told story.
How, then is culture changed? Nothing is as persuasive as a powerful, well told story. It is how we survive as a species. In ancient times as humanity evolved hunters came back to the cave and told the story around the fire of how a saber-tooth tiger attacked them bringing home their kill and how they managed to survive. Young hunters listened wide eyed and learned. As a result they knew how to survive to become your forebear and enable your existence.
My wife, Kirsten Johanna Allen, and I were camping with a volunteer group of the Grand Canyon Trust when we decided to launch Torrey House Press. The group was inspecting the health of the world’s largest living organism, the thousand year old Pando aspen clone, 9,000 feet high in Utah’s Fishlake National Forest. At first glance the Pando is stunningly beautiful, particularly in the bright yellows and oranges of the aspen leaves that fall. But we were learning why Aldo Leopold lamented the result of learning to see. In A Sand County Almanac Leopold wrote that, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.” We were receiving and ecological education and learning that the Pando is dying. It is a village of elders with no youth or children. Young aspen on the public lands of the National Forest were being grazed into oblivion by domestic cows, cows owned by private industry, before they could grow enough to be “recruited” to the forest.
The Trust’s scientist Mary O’Brien, whom we began to call the Jane Goodall of the southern Utah forests, was having us lay down transects, 100 yard tapes where we got down on hands and knees and counted the browsed aspen shoots for three feet on either side. We entered our count on clipboard and that night, in a nearly freezing drizzle, hooked our PC’s up to car batteries around the campfire, and entered the data.
As commendable as these efforts were, and Mary must have run a thousand miles of transects by then, we didn’t think creating the data alone was going to make a difference. Mary was not going to get anywhere without public support. But conservation issues can be arcane and far away in insignificant to the public in general. How then to get them to care about the management of our remaining natural places when we could see with our own two eyes and the with the data we created, that the land was being grievously mismanaged?
The only approach we knew of that was proven to create awareness and empathy of that kind was that of story, of literature, of the venerable power of the pen.
Inspired by the need and by the possibilities, Kirsten and I launched Torrey House Press in the fall of 2010. Soon we hired Anne Terashima who was integral in the early days in helping us figure out the publishing business, acquire national and international distribution, and get Torrey House Press positioned as a literary publisher of books about the land, particularly the West and with conservation themes. Anne left for awhile to gain a masters degree in writing and publishing from DePaul University in Chicago. Meanwhile we converted the company to a nonprofit 501(c)3 and were able to garner the funds to entice Anne back to Salt Lake City and Torrey House Press and to begin to expand. At the conversion to nonprofit, I stepped back Kirsten and became publisher and executive director. Kirsten hired Rachel Davis who had first shown her sparkling promise as an intern. Kathleen Metcalf, co-founder of Black Diamond Equipment agreed to join the staff as artistic director with her newly minted masters degree in Environmental Humanities from the University of Utah. And from the same program Torrey House Press now has Michelle Wentling on the staff as a fellow in the Environmental Humanities program. Along with committed interns the staff is today a team of six along with other outside freelancers with previous associations with the company. It is notable and pertinent that the team is all women.
Torrey House Press titles are distributed throughout the U.S. and Canada and made available internationally by Consortium Book Sales and Distribution, recently acquired from Perseus Books Group by Ingram Content Group. Books are printed by an outside printer, typically McNaughton and Gunn in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Titles are acquired both from unsolicited manuscripts and by direct commission.
The only literary nonprofit book publisher in the Intermountain West, Torrey House Press has nearly 50 titles in print and is ramping up to publish eight to ten new titles every year.
Torrey House has partnered with other similarly interested organizations such as The Wilderness Society, The Nature Conservancy, Patagonia. Utah Humanities and numerous others to publish and present new titles, authors, and ideas. Publishing with Torrey House Press creates authors with the authority to speak publicly, in the same manner that John Muir and Rachel Carson got started and gained their prominent voices. Book readings and events are held in the West and around the country. Last year several thousand folks were counted in attendance.
In June of 2016 Torrey House Press publisher Kirsten and writer Stephen Trimble took boxes full of Red Rock Testimony, a chapbook, to Washington D.C. to deliver to Obama Administration officials and every member of Congress. Decision-makers deliberated between a destructive public lands bill and a national monument proposed by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. On December 28, 2016, President Obama established Bears Ears National Monument, and in June 2017, this historic collection was expanded and published as a trade book, Red Rock Stories, in celebration of protecting exquisite and sacred landscapes. After President Trump drastically shrunk the Bears Ears National Monument, this chapbook became a book of defense and inspiration to protect these and other public lands.
Through the power of pen and Torrey House Press, Kirsten Johanna Allen is becoming conservation’s Robert Underwood Johnson of the 21st century. The best is yet to come.