Artists, Authors and Makers Volume 13: Chris Dombrowski
“We are matter and long to be received by an Earth that conceived us, which accepts and reconstitutes us, its children, each of us, without exception, every one. The journey is long, and then we start homeward, fathomless as to what home might make of us.”
Author, teacher, philosopher, guide, husband, father. Chris is all of these things. His new book, The River You Touch, is profoundly personal, hits deep with insights that only come from being truly present in a place, and is delivered with the lyrical prose of a practiced poet.
The River You Touch opens with a question that sets the stage for what follows: “What does a meaningful, mindful, sustainable inhabitance on this small planet look like in the anthropocene?” Within the chapters that follow, Chris answers this fundamental question of our time initially by listening lovingly to rivers and the land they pulse through in his adopted home of Montana.
Together with his wife, spending time in wild places with their children, he learns that their youthful sense of wonder at the beauty and connectivity of the more-than-human world is not naivete to be shed, but rather wisdom most of us lose along the way—wisdom that is essential for the possibility of transformation.
I was honored to have the opportunity to interview Chris, talk a little bit about his writings, his life, and his passions.
I think you'll really enjoy this one.
Q: “What does a map of Montana and its rivers look like to the young angler who, a day prior, was navigating Chicago’s man-made canyons, but now stands sipping camp stove-made coffee at the tailgate of his used pickup truck near the mouth of the mighty Madison River? The brown swaths of wilderness land, the green swatches of public forest, the blue pupil-size dots that stand for high mountain lakes from which vein-like blue lines curl down and through drainages – unfolded on the pickup’s hood, the map looks like a wide doorway, each winding body of water a hallway leading to some room even more stunning than the last.”
This is a paragraph from your book Body of Water and one that, I would assume, signals the major transition point in your life – or at least one of them.
Can you give me a little of your background? I know you are a Michigan native, and that you received your MFA from University of Montana. In Body of Water you cover a bit of the in- between from a dedication to your father who took you fishing, “even in the rain,” to Professor Penrose and Fly-Shop Tom. Can you give me a little more and help fill in the blank spots on my map?
A: You bet. I was born and raised in the Lansing area, and high-schooled at East Lansing High. I spent a lot of time in those middle and high school years plunking around on the post-industrial rivers and golf course ponds. My dad, who actually learned to fish from me, would take me fishing because he could see that it had struck a chord with me, but I mostly fished with a band of young responsibility-shirking friends. After high school I went to a small college in west Michigan where I played soccer and studied poetry with the legendary teacher Jack Ridl. After freshman year I landed a summer job in Bozeman, Montana, which opened the door a few years later to my first guiding gig. My history professor Penrose was summering out there then, often camped for weeks on end on the Big Hole, and he taught me how to row a drifter—or tried to, as I was hopeless at the start. My first summer guiding (for the late Tom Harman) was 1997 or 1998. By 1999 I was studying poetry in the University of Montana’s storied MFA Program and guiding in the summers. My math is bad but I think by this summer I’ll be closing in on a quarter century of guiding. Poems and articles and children and books fill the gaps like light through the trees in a grouse woods—hardly linear though the world would like to make us think that way.
Q: Your latest work, The River You Touch, published by Milkweed Editions in October 2022, feels intensely personal and soul-baring…meaning you talk about your wife, and your kids, and your finances, and even some struggles. Was it hard to write all of that–it must leave you feeling completely exposed?
A: During the early stages of developing the manuscript, the struggles were all technical, artistic, so I was able to ignore the existential muck I was digging up. It wasn’t until the book was finished that I comprehended the work as an act of survival, or perhaps receiving survival instructions from the landscape and our wonder-filled children.
Q: There’s quote in The River You Touch, one from Milan Kundera, that I think speaks to “being present” it goes like this “There would seem to be nothing more obvious, more tangible, more palpable, than the present moment. And yet it eludes us completely. All the sadness of life lies in that fact.” Your writing, to me, reveals the mind of someone very much present in the moment, in the environment, in the details. How would you explain it? And is this something that comes naturally for you or something you work at?
A: In many ways I think the construct of a nonfiction narrative creates that effect, but let it be said that I bump into doors while scrolling through my Instagram feed on the regular. But yes, to your question, attention begets attention. It’s a practice like any other. The practice of writing feeds it, just as the practice of guiding feeds the fine art of observation.
Q: How would you describe The River You Touch?
A: The book could be described as a chronicle of wonder, a story about how deep attention to the natural world can help deliver us from the most dire of straits. And how the faculty of wonder, often sacrificed to adulthood and what passes for society, can be revivified in us by our children.
Photo by Chris LaTray
Q: You turned down a lucrative insurance career and decided to bring what would come with the life/career you wanted. You go on to say that “staying outside, living at the oars instead of inside a cubicle is a luxury.” Can you talk about that?
A: It is a luxury—our lives are what we do—but it’s a trade like any other. I’ve never been to a regional sales conference, but I don’t have a 401k either.
Q: There were a couple of ideas of yours that really stood out to me from a previous interview. The first is this one:
“I determined that I wanted to be a writer who fished and not a fisherman who wrote about fishing.”
Can you elaborate on that? How do they relate or perhaps complement each other?
A: At a certain point, you must choose to value one craft over the other. There’s only so much time in the day. For me it was either “learn how to write a better sonnet” or “learn how to throw a tighter loop on your back-hand double-haul.” However, as you suggest, the discipline required of an angler, the hours one spends observing, “doing nothing,” does indeed inform the practice of writing, because there are many days where productivity – whatever that means – is a far, far country. Hours spent fishing, however, teache us that the hatch will eventually start, the fish will take their stations, and the run will light up with rises.
Q: The second is this one:
“In that experience came the realization that my experiences in the physical world could be completely re-enacted in language. That was a magical experience. And with it came also a kind of charge. Suddenly it’s not just enough to exist in the physical world, I have to find a way to reconstruct the experience in language. Or re-live experiences, which is what writing is. It’s a second life.”
This is an incredible paragraph. How do you personally go about reconstructing the experiences in language? Notes? Pictures? Etc?
A: I often start with notes, with phrases and images that I’ve jotted down. For poems, I nearly always start with a sound. For prose, it’s with what a novelist friend calls 'an incision point' – where can I most tangibly begin? How can I, with clarity and tension and voice, put the narrator and reader in direct contact with the physical world? (Or as close as the written word can come to 'direct contact.')
Q: Your friendship with Harrison is well documented. I’ve often heard that one thing about Harrison was his incredible gift of perception. In “The Gospel According to Jim” you say: “He’s practicing what I’ve long thought of as “Jim Yoga,” focusing his attention alternately skyward (mountains, birds, clouds) and at ground level (dogs, trout, plants). It’s a ritualistic way of moving through the world that’s revivified him, of seeing through eyes other than his own — and those of us who’ve read his books have been revivified as well.” Then you go on to share a quick story, one that has really stuck with me:
“Driving home on the Burma Road, we pass an old dilapidated house — doorless, windowless, roof caved in by a windfall cottonwood — home, if you ask the locals, to one of the largest, most seething dens of rattlesnakes in the valley.”
“Son, do you see that old house?” Jim says.
“Sure I do.”
“Good. Do you know what it says?”
“No, what does it say?”
“It says, don’t let your life become the sloppy leftovers of your work.”
Can you walk me through that moment and also expound on this perception Harrison possessed and how important it is to the writing process?
A: This scene, or some version of it, appears midway through 'The River You Touch', so I don’t want to reveal too much. His advice is better contextualized in the chapter called “High Water Rising,” which is a nod to a Bob Dylan song, by the way.
Q: Like Harrison, you started in poetry and then moved on to other genres. How are these art forms different – say poetry versus non-fiction – and how are they similar?
A: This is a great question. So good that I want to dodge it like I did the last one, but I’ll give it a go this snowy Missoula afternoon. In terms of similarities, they both ask the writer to wield “the best words in the best order,” as Coleridge defined poetry (or did he mean Poetry?). Beyond that, the longer I practice both, the fewer similarities I find. Is poetry bow-hunting and nonfiction rifle-hunting? Or is poetry bird hunting with a pointing dog and nonfiction duck-hunting over decoys? I’m mashing up all my metaphors, throwing roses at the dartboard. Regardless, the disciplines indeed inform and feed off one another. For instance, poetry, which is ultimately a bodily art because we feel it first through its focalized rhythms that are accentuated through line breaks, and which aspires “not to mean but to be,” values an economy of language and potency of image, both of which can improve the nonfiction writer’s craft. Let me mull this one further and get back to you.
Photo by Erik Peterson
Q: In addition to guiding and writing, you also teach. Obviously, each is a passion in its own way. I especially enjoyed a quote in which you stated that if you had a roadie, you’d guide forever (hilarious). Can you talk about each and what role they each play in your life and if/how they feed each other?
A: Teaching and guiding require a certain readiness of mind and depend on one’s ability to communicate with efficiency and clarity one’s perceptions, but both disciplines benefit from knowing when to step back and let the river (or the work on the page) speak for itself. You can’t say everything, after all. God is the friend of silences, or so someone said.
Q. Favorite artists. I’m always curious to know who inspires those that inspire me. So, who are some of your favorite artists (writers or otherwise) and what are a handful of “must read before you die” books you would recommend and why?
A: Recently I’ve been on an Annie Dillard kick ('Holy the Firm' and 'For the Time Being'), also Patti Smith ('Just Kids, again'), and Debra Magpie Earling ('Perma Red)', whose forthcoming novel 'The Lost Journals of Sacajawea' altered my cosmology. Must read before you die? Impossible to say. But I’ve been reading as much Italo Calvino as I can get ahold of and rereading, as I try to do each fall, James Welch’s transformative novel 'Fools Crow'.
Q: You feature a quote from Ortega y Gasset in the opening of a chapter in Body of Water entitled “The Hunt” that goes like this: “Man cannot re-enter Nature except by temporarily rehabilitating that part of himself which is still an animal. And this…can be achieved only by placing himself in relation to another animal.” What primal need to you think hunting and fishing stir in us and why is that important?
A: I believe it stirs in us not necessarily a primal need but a primal recognition of our interconnectedness with all living things, the land especially. It may be that the recognition of such interpenetration is a prerequisite of our species’ survival.
Q: In Body of Water you say this:
“On steeds named Delta, American and Virgin, we angling noblemen journey to the East End of Grand Bahama and establish an immense sense of wonder at our surroundings; we hone our instincts, reconnect with vital wildness, engage with the simplicity of the senses, which Blake called “the chief inlets of the soul, reorder our priorities – but after a few days we return to our cubicles, to our old habits of excess, our daily, albeit unintentional, shunning of the natural world that, a short time ago, so thoroughly quickened us: wondering if our lives are what we have loved the most or what we have done the most.”
I read it and found myself nodding but also hopelessly wondering…but how can we, how can I, break this cycle? Any sage advice?
A: Oh man, you and me both. I think excursions that heighten our sense of wonder and appreciation for the world are a call to focus that same level of wonder and attention on our daily lives, not simply to see those trips as escape. What did the Psalmist say? Teach us, O Lord, to number our days. When we’re on an immersive trip like one to the Bahamian flats, we know to “number our days,” right? Arrive Monday, plane home leaves Friday. So we scrape the marrow out of the days. But when we return home, we often leave that level of attention in the duffle. I like what poet Ted Kooser says: “If you can awaken in the familiar and discover it strange, you need never leave home.”
Q: Another line from Body of Water that grabbed me was this one:
“If attentiveness leads to gratitude, and gratitude to “reverence,” as Milton had it, then perhaps reverence leads to mystery, which wends toward a deepening of our precious but treacherous relationship with Earth, this palace of ordinary people”
You also quote Thoreau in saying “Music is perpetual, and only hearing is intermittent”
So maybe the answer to my previous question lies here, in these words, in attentiveness. In being present or is that a gross oversimplification?
A: I’ll buy that. The wonderful writer Peter Heller recently told a group of UMontana students that his writing mantra was, “Don’t think, don’t think – just listen.”
Q: Without giving away too many secrets, what is YOUR favorite body of water and why?
A: I discovered a little spring the other day while hunting birds with my beloved setter Zeke. It was way up a draw I’d hunted before, just not all the way up. Zeke was on a scent so I followed him and followed him, and eventually there it was: the spring head, just burbling out of the side of the hill. We were four or five miles from the car, which is to say I don’t know if any other human has stumbled on it this year. So: secrecy, hiddenness, that’s why.
Q: What's next? What's on the horizon that you can share?
A: I promised myself a little time afield when The River You Touch was finished, by which I mean both exploring extensively with my dog, but also getting back to the desk with no "project" at hand, no manuscript due. I want to be as much like my dog casting in a sea of long grass with as decent a wind in his nose as possible"
Q: Where can folks learn more about you and find your books?