‘Like Floating Through a Library’: An Interview with Nick Paumgarten

Big Bend National Park (Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

For a recent issue of The New Yorker, staff writer Nick Paumgarten floated the rugged canyons of the Rio Grande to witness the irreplaceable wilderness that Trump’s proposed border wall would destroy. A native New Yorker, Paumgarten fell in love with whitewater on Idaho’s Salmon River as a kid. Paumgarten’s feature, “Water and the Wall,” takes readers through the riparian heart of Big Bend National Park, in a flotilla that includes Teddy Roosevelt’s great-grandson and New Mexico Senator Tom Udall. Damming, diversion, pollution, and overpumping have long degraded the state of America’s rivers, reducing clean rushing waterways into canals with as much wildness as a pet store. Paumgarten’s story shows how heightened border enforcement poses a new environmental threat.

You mention you hadn’t given much thought to the Rio Grande before you began your reporting. Did that lack of knowledge vacuum hinder or help as you started examining the river? 

There’s something slightly Trumpian to the presumption that one’s own ignorance of a subject extends to the rest of the world. In this case, the knowledge vacuum lured me in, got me curious, and made the thing seem worth doing.

It’s always great to have people who know their way around a subject or a place and can fill you in. I was fortunate here to be on a trip with a handful of such people. It was because of them that I went on the trip, really. They had done the work so I wouldn’t have to. It was like floating through a library. I just had to pay attention and jot it all down in my waterproof notepad. (I learned pretty quick that it’s hard to take notes and steer a canoe at the same time.) On the other hand, I knew a little bit about rivers in general. I’d been on a bunch of float trips, paddled kayaks here and there, and had passed hours upon hours talking about rivers with other boaters. I’d read and loved Cadillac Desert and Desert Solitaire. So I brought something to this one. I usually like to have some point of contact, some toehold, when I set out to report a piece.

This boat trip let you return to the whitewater kayaking you did in your youth, and to make good on a promise you made to yourself about taking a rafting trip later in life This was a small personal thread in your article, but a powerful one. What was your logic for including a bit of the story of your life as a river runner?

No logic. Pure narcissism. Well, okay, maybe there’s a reason or two. As I said before, I like to have some kind of connection to a story. Sometimes that connection is personal. I read somewhere recently that John McPhee once tallied up all his stories and discovered that almost all of them had something to do with subjects he’d been interested in before he even went to college) This story was a mix of things and one of them was that it’s an ode to river-running.

A quiet theme here is that the impetus to protect rivers usually arises out of spending time on them. This seems true in a broader sense. (The demise of, say, the Great Barrier Reef is more painful to contemplate if you’ve been there to see it.) Many of the people in this story got religion on a river, and so maybe it made sense for me to describe how I had, too. Likewise, you can’t quite appreciate how absurd the idea of a wall is until you’ve spent some time in some of the places where one might go. Donald Trump and his cabinet ought to float the Rio Grande.

People need the chance to contemplate their existence in what you call nature’s “prehistoric hush,” to experience the cosmic out by a campfire. And yet, new sections of that absurd wall are being considered that would destroy that hush. How do you think of your role as a journalist to help stop these things?

I don’t really ever think of myself as an advocate for a point of view when I’m reporting and writing pieces. In this particular instance, that I think the wall’s a lousy idea. I also think rivers deserve as much protection as we can muster. But I didn’t take the assignment in order to advance those arguments.

Maybe I wound up doing it subconsciously, but my role, as I see it, is to bring things to light, and to present them in a way that makes you see those things in a new and different way. To the extent that there’s guile in the structure or in the emphasis, it may have more to do with keeping the reader interested, or maybe creating moments of insight and delight.

Did you read any classic river books before starting this trip? John Graves’ Goodbye to a River or Mary Morris’ The River Queen: A Memoir?

When I got out of college, I thought I’d be doing what we used to call “nature writing.” I’d been reading a lot of Edward Abbey, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, John McPhee, Peter Matthiessen Gretel Ehrlich, Barry Lopez, Norman MacLean — all that stuff, which either was a thing in the early 1990s, or was a thing in the intermountain west, where I’d gone to live for a time.

Twenty-plus years back in New York City had beaten some of that out of me, or at least had caused me to forget that that’s what I was into. I have not read the two books you mention, though the Graves came up on the Rio. Add it to the list! To be honest, on this one, in the time allotted, I could barely take a big enough bite out of Paul Horgan’s history of the Rio Grande. I also had in mind my colleague Ben McGrath’s forthcoming book about Dick Conant, an itinerant vagabond canoeist and latter-day Huck Finn, which I’d seen some early chapters of. It captures a workaday riparian America that I hardly knew existed.

As a New York City native, what had urban life beaten out of you that the nature writing revived?

Returning to New York as an adult really just diverted me from thinking, writing, or reading about the outdoors, the American West, and the natural world. It was hard to get out.

I got a job at a weekly newspaper in Manhattan, the New York Observer. The focus was on people, the machinations and ploys of city dwellers. Culture, politics, business. The whole circus. Editors and readers generally didn’t seem to care much about timber rights or water flows or endangered species, or nights out under the stars. I got re-urbanized. I grew cynical about a certain kind of writing — overly poetic evocations of natural beauty, pat epiphanies out in the bush.

Meanwhile, as you get older, maybe you get more interested in questions of money and class, in the way generations rise and fall, who’s screwing over whom and how. But in the last couple of years, I’ve been on a few assignments and trips that have reminded me about what excited me when I was younger, and I’m sort of trying to figure out a way to get back to it. This Rio Grande trip was one of these.

Can you reconcile your interest in the West with your current location? How about a Talk of the Town department for a town on a trout stream?

Whenever I do the where-from-here math, I find that I still love this town, and for that matter the whole tidewater east. But who knows what tomorrow will bring. One thing it won’t bring me is new shoulders, so big-water kayaking ain’t in the cards.