Humor in Environmental Storytelling: A Conversation with Michael Branch

Cirrus clouds streak across the sky above a sage steppe landscape.

Irreverence can be a potent form of political subversion, yet it remains strikingly absent in contemporary environmental rhetoric. Instead, common tropes often evoke anger and grief in grappling with the bleak prospects of mass extinctions, climate change, and industrial landscape transformation. Writer and scholar Michael Branch offers humor as a solution.

He asks, what would it mean to expand the emotional range of how we describe attachments to the non-human world? In what Branch calls a “Nevada trilogy” of new releases—Raising Wild (2016), Rants from the Hill (2017), and How to Cuss in Western (2018)—he writes from the remote high desert of western Nevada, where he and his wife raise a family in an omnipresent, and omni-funny, wild-domestic interface.

An image displaying the covers of three recent books by Michael Branch.

Michael Branch’s “Nevada Trilogy.” The books are distributed by Penguin Random House.

In a conversation ranging from the packrats living in the wall of his home to wildness within our own minds, we discussed how to reach wider audiences through mediums like book trailers, the limits of humor in a world where environmental harm is borne unevenly, and the inevitable un-funniness of trying to dissect and analyze why things are funny.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights follow.

Interview highlights:

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Daniel Grant: You’ve written what you call a “Nevada trilogy,” three books all about your time living on the edge of the Great Basin. Raising Wild (2016), Rants from the Hill (2017), and How to Cuss in Western (2018), which will be out later this year. But you’ve also recently edited a scholarly book, called The Best Read Naturalist, about the life and work of Ralph Waldo Emerson. What drew you this variety of projects?

Michael Branch sits at the base of a tree.

The author Michael Branch. Image courtesy of Michael Branch, 2018.

Michael Branch: The main emphasis of my work these days is place-based creative nonfiction about the high desert, often involving issues of family and often using humor.

I started writing these essays because I wanted to capture the experience of raising kids in a really wild place. We live at 6000 feet in the Western Great Basin Desert, on the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It’s a really remote area with really extreme conditions. Wildfire, blizzards, flash floods, etc. And it’s a neat place to live, but it’s also a fascinating place to raise kids.

There’s a lot of writing about parenting in nature, Richard Louv-style books that say we need to get our kids in contact with the natural world. I admire that work, but often it’s sort of romantic and Wordsworthian, like kids have this innocent view of the natural world and we’re purified by our time with them in nature.

I found that, as a father, every day was this humbling series of failures. It occurred to me that parenting and living in the high desert were really similar. They both involved getting up every morning and trying your best, and they both involve going to bed every night realizing you didn’t get it done. That you were somehow humbled by those circumstances. So I got interested in the possibility of talking about what it’s like to parent and what it’s like to be humbled by a landscape together.

The sunset reflects pink and yellow hues on the clouds.

Sunset over the Great Basin. Image courtesy of Michael Branch, 2018.

Also, both of my kids are girls and I’m interested in the way the American literary tradition tends to feature men in exile from adult respsonbility, from jobs, families, and communities. One of the oldest and most compelling American narrative forms is the retreat narrative. We’re going to get out of dodge and get out on the raft with Huck Finn or be out at the pond with Henry Thoreau or go up to Alaska with Chris McCandless. So, I started thinking a lot about gender and wilderness, too. I’m not a man alone in the wilderness. I’m with my family, and I’m the father of daughters.

DG: Your work uses first-person narrative, ecocriticism, and also landscape observation and natural history. Why have you chosen creative nonfiction as your form now?

MB: I love scholarship and I love natural history. But, I started to feel an increasing gap between the way I communicated with my students in the classroom and the way I communicated with my colleagues through scholarly books and articles. I’m not cynical about the value of scholarly work, but the more urgent issue seems to me to develop forms of communication that can connect the ideas I care about with a larger and more diverse audience.

How do I communicate issues I care about in a way that’s not going to seem alienating, condescending, or abstract? And creative nonfiction is one of the most plastic forms in the world. It’s so flexible. It allows for so many different kinds of approaches. I found that when I did environmental storytelling I was able to communicate with people better than when I used scholarship.

I sneak in lots of scholarship in my work, but I package it differently. My goal is: when you’re done with an essay of mine, you’ve learned something, but you don’t know it yet.

Two juniper trees grow on a hillside.

Juniper trees are one of the dominant species in many Great Basin ecosystems. Image courtesy of Michael Branch, 2018.

DG: I imagine that many of your readers find you relatable not because they too live in a remote solar-powered home, but because they recognize the inevitable complications that arise from trying to make a domestic life work when things don’t go the way one expects. Why is the domestic-wild interface particularly funny?

MB: Humor is often generated at sites of failure. We laugh at things that go wrong. If Charlie Chaplin walks down the street, it’s not funny. When he trips and falls, it is funny. It’s when things go wrong that we laugh or cry. To the degree that my narrator is accessible, it’s because we all get up every day and try our best, and we all fail every day.

I don’t enjoy reading the work of people whose starting move is to impress me with their expertise. I’m more interested in hearing stories from people that help me understand their humanity and their resilience. How do you get up and try again?

Humor has special value in helping people to build that kind of resilience. Think of how often we find a way to laugh at something that’s tragic or sad or frightening. There’s power in that form of laughter, and it’s not just pressure relief. A laugh is a gesture of survival; it’s proof that we’re going to make it to the next day.

So, my narrator makes lots of mistakes and is honest about them, but also laughs about them. We all want to believe that we can live in the world, make a lot of mistakes, laugh about it, and get up and try again tomorrow morning.

DG: How can humor be used to promote resistance or resilience in the face of ecological crisis? How is humor such a powerful antidote to those grim circumstances?

Fog fills a mountain valley while peaks rise in the background.

Fog fills the valley. Image courtesy of Michael Branch, 2018.

MB: Humor plays a double function. In terms of resistance, humor can be a powerful mode of striking back. We’re entering a new age of satire right now. With the circumstances that we’re faced with politically, we have to fight back. And humor in the form of biting critique can be a real weapon. Systems of power can be effectively attacked using humor. George Orwell famously said that “every joke is a tiny revolution.” Humor is fundamentally anti-authoritarian.

Then there’s the issue of resilience. For environmentalists in the age of climate change, it’s a hard place to keep doing the work every day. We all know environmental activists work really hard and then burn out. There’s not a sustainable trajectory for that kind of work. It’s so discouraging and exhausting and dark. If we in the environmental community can engage more with humor, it lets some of that pressure out, let’s us relax a little bit, and it also bonds us with other people.

Environmentalists, in the wider culture, are often viewed as smug, angry, alarmist, lots of things people don’t have an appetite for. The Anthropocene requires new techniques to reach wider audiences in new ways. Humor is not the only tool, but it’s one that environmentalists have radically underutilized.

Featured image: Clouds streak across the sky above the sage steppe of the Great Basin. Photo by Fred Moore, 2014. Photo has been slightly cropped.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Michael P. Branch is Professor of English at the University of Nevada-Reno, where he teaches American Literature, creative nonfiction, environmental studies, and film studies. He was co-founder of the UNR Graduate Program in Literature and Environment and co-founder and past president of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE). He has published eight books, most recently Raising Wild (Roost Books, 2016), Rants from the Hill (Roost Books, 2017), and How to Cuss in Western (Roost Books, 2018). Website. Contact.

Daniel Grant is a PhD candidate in the UW–Madison Department of Geography. His dissertation is a social and environmental history of American reclamation in the Colorado River borderlands since 1878. It explores how hydraulic engineering was also a project of social engineering that met resistance through entangled lines of race, ethnicity, class, and nation. Contact. Twitter.

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