Gnarly Girls & Oil Fields: Jack Clinton's Environmental Novel
"The mountains have an intrinsic value: hunters, fisherman, hikers, and people that just want to drive by and see them out of their window. The mountains have this aesthetic protection but the desert is much more fragile and much more under siege by mining companies and petroleum companies. . . " -- Jack Clinton
The following highlights are from a conversation with Jack Clinton about his environmental novel, Clovis. To hear the full conversation, click the link above or subscribe to our podcast.
Can you describe the Clovis point you found and your reaction to it?
You know I never found a full Clovis point, and I would really love to, but I was on my way out of the mountains in Central Wyoming and I stopped at a friend’s ranch—he had just bought a small ranch at the foot of the mountains out in the sagebrush. I was walking down a two-track road and there in the dirt was the base of a Clovis point. It wasn’t black obsidian, it was a green stone called oolitic chert—and that was rather odd because oolitic chert is finely speckled. I picked it up and it took me a while. At first I thought it was a flake or a scraping tool, but the more I handled it, the more excited I got because I realized it was the base of a Clovis point.
And for those of us listeners who don’t know what a clovis point, can you just describe it?
A Clovis point is from the Clovis culture and the Clovis culture is approximately 13,000, perhaps 15,000, years old. It’s the first culture in North America, and it’s rather perplexing because as a culture it exploded coast to coast. As soon as they were here---you find them in Virginia, you find them in Southern Canada, New Mexico, of course, Clovis, New Mexico, is what the Clovis point is named after, that’s where they were first found.
One of your characters says, “I worry more for the desert than the mountains.”
Yeah, and that’s true. The mountains have an intrinsic value: hunters, fisherman, hikers, and people that just want to drive by and see them out of their window. The mountains have this aesthetic protection but the desert is much more fragile and much more under siege by mining companies and petroleum companies, and it has no value. But ironically the value of the desert is its entirety—animal populations and migration routes through the desert. They need the entire desert for them to exist, so the desert is a very unique situation.
Because I live in a mountain town, or mountain culture, the other theme in the book that really stuck out to me was human mastery of things whether it’s mastery over oil extraction or mastery over climbing routes. I was wondering, how do we reconcile this impulse to master things as humans, whether it’s for recreation or industry?
I know. That’s funny that you picked up on it because that sticks with me all the time and it really bothers me that people, they just have to master everything. Oh, and a character Dean says that in a section of the book--that they would go out there and tear it all up just so that there’s nothing left to fight over. I know there are many people who wouldn’t do that, but there are people that would do that, that just have to control everything. It’s like the small indigenous cultures that are left--they just can’t be left alone. People cannot just leave that tiny corner of the Amazon alone or that tiny corner of the Kalahari. They have to control it. And that really haunts me and bothers me to no end, and I did put that in the book.
And you’re a climber yourself.
How do you approach these two worlds?
As far as climbers go I think that whole conquering thing is largely blown out of proportion. As a climber I just feel like I’m passing through and in 95% or 98% of the routes I do, there’s no sign I was there. There’s no equipment left behind. If things go wrong, sometimes we have to leave some equipment behind to get down, but as far as conquering, I don’t conquer anything. I’m just passing through. I just want to be there and remember it, I don’t even take pictures as a climber. I just go and do it and it was great and just move on to the next thing.
About the Book:
In the opening pages of Clovis, Hanna traverses an ancient glacial moraine at the edge of an American desert, to revisit the obsidian Clovis point (Spear point) that she had found and hidden on a previous archeological survey. She feels a fundamental attraction to the point, and as she contemplates it she can envision the ancient race that left it for her there on the vast sage steppes at the foot of the Rockies.
Hanna lives briefly out of a hotel while she completes an archeological survey on the multi-state, CanAm gas line. It is here that Hanna reunites with Tim, Hugh, Dog, Gina, and Paul. While running in the desert alone, two men attempt to rape her. She escapes by dousing them with mace and flattens the tires of their truck.
The attempted rape forces her to go to the northern camp where she finds chaos and filth. The ever-faithful Paul is there and he helps her through the reorganization of the camp. It is the damaged and angelic Paul whom she dotes over. It is Paul who tells her the unspoken histories of America. It is Paul who steals the most controversial artifact in North America.
Although Hanna harbors a deep affection for Paul, she gravitates towards Tim in the field camps, the deserts, and to climb challenging routes in the mountains. Her liaison with Tim forces her to face the contradictions of her life: She is a vegetarian surrounded by carnivores. She is a marginalized environmental regulator against a Goliath of a gas industry. She is a transcendentalist who can’t catch the wave of nothingness. She is the guardian of Paul, who she loses in the mountains. And finally, Hanna is a lesbian, but she cannot deny that she also loves Tim.
After Paul’s death in the mountains, Hanna comes unhinged. Then CanAm belligerently bulldozes a culturally rich valley, and Dog retaliates by burning two of their vehicles. Hanna senses the impotence of the act and realizes that all the work they do simply facilitates the power of such companies. She leaves and she drifts towards the magnetism the mountains where she runs a mountain route that challenges her to the very limits of her endurance. On her rest day, she joins a small party for dinner and is assaulted by a man from a petroleum company and she stabs him. This sends her head long back to the desert to answer the sirens’ song of the Clovis. She goes out to desert for lack of any other plan and climbs the distant desert buttes that seem to hold her in their orbit. It is here, in the vacuum of a high desert night, during a long, nightmarish epiphany that the cicadas sing out their perspective of her tribulations.
About the Author:
Jack Clinton lives in Red Lodge, Montana and works as a Spanish teacher. Jack spent most of his adult life living in Wyoming, working as kitchen help, laborer, carpenter, and mountain guide. He earned his undergraduate and graduate degree in Spanish at the University of Wyoming, in Laramie, Wyoming. During these University years, Jack started writing freelance, covering environmental news. His work regularly appeared in the Caspar Star Tribune, and in diverse periodicals such as High Country News, Western Horseman, E-magazine, Rock and Ice, and Climbing. During his years at the University, he also won the Neltje Blanchan award for fiction.
After a long hiatus from writing to engage in raising his daughter, Emma, he has returned to writing and produced a new novel. Clovis, an environmental novel, is a fictional composite of many of the stories and people who filled those Wyoming decades.