Meet the Author: Rebecca Lawton
Posted by on February 20, 2014

Photo credit: Krista Preston


From paddling the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon to investigating surface water pollutants in the Sonoma Creek watershed, Rebecca Lawton has explored, written and studied rivers for decades. Her deep connection to Western rivers is evident in her forthcoming collection Steelies and Other Endangered Species: Stories on Water. (For more about the book, including the book trailer, check out the crowdfunding page here.)


The outdoorswoman turned author, instructor and natural scientist has won the Ellen Meloy Fund Award for Desert Writers; residencies at Hedgebrook Retreat for Women Writers in Langley, Wash. and The Island Institute in Sitka, Alaska; Pushcart Prize nominations in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction; as well as other honors.


Other books by Rebecca Lawton include Reading Water: Lessons from the River, a collection of essays about whitewater guiding, which was a San Francisco Chronicle Bay Area bestseller in 2008 and ForeWord Nature Book of the Year finalist in 2003; and Junction, Utah, her debut novel that explores the impact of oil exploration on American community and wilderness (van Haitsma Literary, 2013). She also coauthored four additional books on creativity and the outdoors.


She is currently on the Board of Directors for Friends of the River and an external advisor for the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Program at Sonoma State University.


Here’s a little more about her:


What’s your hometown?

Camas, Wash., just upstream on the Columbia River from Portland, where I was born. Now I live in Sonoma Valley, Calif., although the river that flowed past my childhood home fills some of my earliest memories.


Dog or cat?

My husband, musician Paul Christopulos, and I live with G.P. the cat. She’s the perfect companion—loves bird watching but not bird catching, keeps household mice away, likes to go on short walks to our creek, and communicates all without saying much. A small being with a huge persona.


What’s your favorite endangered species?

It’s a tie between steelhead trout, who inspire me with their journey, their courage, and their compass for home waters, and mountain lion, whose need for large, open, connected, wild lands symbolize much that’s good or has been good about the West.


For how long were you a whitewater rafting guide?

Fourteen seasons professionally, in Arizona, Utah, Colorado, California, and Idaho. Ten of those years in Grand Canyon (on the Colorado River). My love affair with boating has lasted much longer than my commercial relationship with it (though 10 years seemed respectably long at the time): I’ve run rivers under my own oar and paddle power since 1972.


Your books, including Steelies and Other Endangered Species: Stories of Water, are all set around Western rivers. What is it about Western rivers that you find compelling?

Rivers and creeks carry the lifeblood of our homes. We all live in watersheds, drained by the streams for which they are named. To me, rivers equal life, as water equals life, because rivers are the arteries for our most vital fluid.


From being a rafting guide to a geologist, you seem to have loved your careers on the water. What made you want to start writing books?

I always wanted to live an artist’s life—at first I worked toward a career in playing classical music, then evolved toward writing classical music, then gradually wrote music with words about place. When my first jazz guitar teacher observed, “There’s poetry in your music,” I knew the writing part of my creative life would always carry weight. That it took over for music as my daily creative practice came as a surprise to me, although I still play music and write songs.


A friend of mine who is a musician, who has played music professionally since the days I knew him in high school, claims that for one short period of his life he was depressed and sought counseling help. He was told, “You just need to be playing more music”—which advice he followed—and he soon overcame his slump. For me, it’s the same—if I’m far from the water for too long, or not writing about it, I’ll feel I’m not connected to the source that keeps me healthy.


California is experiencing the worst drought in recorded history, and you’ve been advocating for water conservation. How can we make water conservation and river preservation a priority across the West and the country?

Here the river is its own best advocate. Get out on a river, and you get the point that water isn’t just for people. When we visit water in its own home, we know where our water comes from, and we come to care about treating it with respect and conservatism. It’s very tough to let the faucet run or put in new landscaping when we have the awareness that the price we pay is a drained river. Where I live, Sonoma Valley, drained rivers for urban use and irrigation are absolutely a reality: water comes from the Russian River to the north and the Eel River to the farther north. Those rivers run through wild forested watersheds with ecosystems whose foundations are their signature well watered big trees and fish populations. The sense that we have the right to use all the resources for our selves, without a care for the other lives that also depend on water—that is, use without diligence and mindfulness—has to come from ignorance and lack of awareness of place. Even if a person doesn’t know or care for rivers for their own sakes, surely there is a care for allowing their children to know rivers in their wildness. I think the mental health of our society depends on that wildness.


To find out more about Rebecca, check out her website. To find out more about her forthcoming book, check out our announcement blog post here.

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  • Photo by Tyler Malone