Rick Lamplugh, Worshipper of Nature.
Rick Lamplugh is non-fiction author and “worshipper of nature” currently living in Corvallis Oregon, home of the OSU beavers. While not home in Corvallis, Rick spends his winters in remote portions of Yellowstone National Park working and writing about the flora and fauna around him. One of his accounts of this interaction with nature, Vanity at Trout Lake, can be read in No 11 The Wild, and many more stories and photos (such as the one above) can be found on his blog Yellowstone Stories and Images or through his Facebook.
Recently, Rick and I were able to exchange emails discussing his love of nature, his past life working in employment rehabilitation, and our ever present mortality.
Composite: You currently live a rather fitting dream life for many readers of The Wild, bouncing between State Parks when not at home in Corvallis, Oregon. What draws you to living closer nature, rather than a more urban area? You’re recently retired, has this location change been a part of that life change, or have you always been living outside of cities?
Rick Lamplugh: I remind myself most every day that I am lucky to be able to live where I want and write what I want.
Since retiring, my wife Mary and I have lived and volunteered during the winter at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch in the remote northeastern corner of Yellowstone National Park. I love awakening to the howling of wolves, watching a herd of bison meander past our cabin window, cross country skiing in a snow storm, or enjoying how sunlight plays with clouds. In the winter of 2012 we were there for three months, in 2013 for another month. These blocks of time in one of the most complete ecosystems in the U.S. allow me to immerse myself—as do many writers of creative nonfiction—in my subject, winter in Yellowstone.
But I also love coming home where I can write, and relive, those Yellowstone experiences. Starting with my journal entries and research, I write five hours a day, five days a week. And I make sure to get out in nature while I’m home: working in the garden, riding my bike, running in the forest, or floating a local river. These times in nature recharge me and often help me solve writing problems. The structure of a story, for example, may still elude me at the end of a long day of writing, but when I return to writing after a day in nature—even though I did not think about the problem—the solution appears. It feels quite magical, really.
C: During your aforementioned pre-retirement life, you focused a good amount of your career within Career Development, Vocational Rehabilitation specifically. What drew you to this type of work, both career development as a whole and specializing in a topic like unemployment / re-employment of disadvantaged populations?
RL: I was first exposed to the field of vocational rehabilitation while earning my undergraduate degree in Psychology. But I worked many jobs before and after college: ditch digging, working in a factory, serving in the army, installing telephones, remodeling homes, crafting stained glass, waiting tables, and managing a restaurant. Finally, I used my decade-old degree and settled into a twenty-six career as a vocational rehabilitation counselor.
That parade of jobs had been my unintentional apprenticeship so I could help clients—mostly men—retrain for new careers after being seriously injured on the job. What drew me to this work was counseling and supporting tough guys from hard jobs—construction workers and cops, loggers and fishermen, truck drivers and freight handlers—as they overcame confusion, fear, loss, and disability and moved forward into school and new jobs.
This work challenged and rewarded me. And taught me lessons. One of those lessons—how to deal with rejection—helps me now as I submit to journals and contests. I often find myself thinking about how I helped clients deal with the rejection inherent in job search. I advised them to keep going, to see each “NO” as moving them one step closer to “YES.” I also encouraged them to find a way to physically and emotionally deal with rejection. That same advice helps me handle rejection today as a writer.
C: During your career you worked on a few successful books and even public radio concerning the field. An attraction to Media and storytelling has always been there for you and obviously continues, but what came first, the desire to write/produce or work within the field?
RL: I wrote my first book as a matter of necessity. At the start of my counseling career, my job was to help injured workers find new jobs. Most of my clients had a high school diploma or less. I looked around for a book they could use to help them in job search, but found nothing written for people with their educational background. I wrote and self-published Job Search That Works almost twenty five years ago, when self-publishing was not so well thought of. Within a year the book had been picked up by a traditional publisher. I see a similar pattern now, when I read about editors tracking sales of self-published e-books looking for ones they can publish.
The public radio series and the second book were offshoots of the success of the first book. Writing for radio helped me develop as a writer. Each week for three years I wrote and voiced a 700-1000 word piece. I learned about writing to deadline, the importance of a good lead, and using strong sensory language.
C: You spent the last winter in Yellowstone where you and your wife volunteer in the Lamar River Valley. What does the day to day of your time up there look like? When and how did you find time/prioritize your writing?
RL: The work days at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch vary, but a long day can begin before sunrise and in below-zero temperatures when I scrape the ice from the windows of the 14-passenger bus that I drive. By sunrise, the bus is loaded with visitors who want to watch wildlife—especially wolves—and an instructor to help us find the animals and understand what we are seeing. Once I drive the bus where the instructor directs, I help visitors set up spotting scopes and spot wildlife. We often stay out until sunset and then I drive us back to the ranch for dinner and an after-dinner speaker on a topic related to Yellowstone.
A day like that can stretch from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. And for all those hours I’m happily immersed in Yellowstone and the teaching of world-class instructors and speakers. I carry a small digital voice recorder and make notes all day long. I take photos to capture images that I may want to write about later: the sun rising from behind a ridge; a wolf pack playing; ravens, magpies, and bald eagles scavenging a carcass. I write notes while listening to evening speakers. On my days off at the ranch, I transcribe and use the extensive ranch library to research.
When I go on an adventure alone or with friends, I carry that recorder and make notes of what I see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. That’s how the essay that you published—Vanity at Trout Lake—began.
C: You’re working to compile your essays from your time working at the Buffalo Ranch into a book this fall as both an E-reader and paper back. As someone who has been in the publication world for a while, how do you feel about the move towards the E-reader? Does the ability to take your kindle/iPad out on camping trips in the snow excite you or do you still romanticize over the dog eared, well-traveled paper back at the end of a long hike?
RL: I am excited about e-readers and self-publishing. I bought an iPad mini to use as an e-reader. I download many self-published books as a way of learning how other self-publishers are laying out, publishing, and marketing their books.
I am happy to see attitudes about self-publishing changing. Twenty years ago, when I told people that I had self-published my first book, their looks or comments said that a self-published book was not a “real” book. Now, when I tell people that I’m going to self-publish, many say, “What a great idea!”
The iPad is not much use outside in the winter in Yellowstone. The touch screen doesn’t respond to a gloved hand, and constantly taking gloves off and putting them back on is a chilling inconvenience. I do have a number of dog-eared paperbacks, and a few of them go with my wife Mary and me when we backpack. In our tent in the evening, we read to each other from books by Edward Abbey, Gary Ferguson, Sebastian Junger, and Jon Krakauer.
C: You’ve mentioned in your writing, in our conversations, and on your blogs the reality of life and death, mortality, both within yourself and the wild natural world around you in your remote locals. What draws you to this topic, and what perspectives have you learned through your thoughts and investigations there?
RL: Aging drove me to these topics. It took me sixty-one years to finally face some facts: my body is changing with age, I can’t do what I once did, and I will surely die. While I know these sound like realizations I should have had long ago, I spent my first year of retirement exploring and writing my thoughts and feelings about these topics. I read what other had written. I emerged from this cathartic writing with a much clearer sense of who I am, what is important to me, and how I want to spend my remaining years.
I realized that I worship nature in the same way that many people worship a god. My time in nature—whether that’s in our backyard or deep in the back country—replenishes me and puts me in touch with something much bigger than myself. I have learned that I am a tiny part of a huge web of life and that others in that web—whether they are beetles or bison, backyard lavender or giant redwoods, rounded river rock or massive mountains—are important and have stories too. I try to find those stories in my writing.