Nick Offerman’s deadpan rambles with Jeff Tweedy, George Saunders and other animals
On the Shelf
Where the Deer and the Antelope Play
By Nick Offerman
Dutton: 352 pages, $28
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In his latest book, “Where the Deer and the Antelope Play,” Nick Offerman describes a number of memorable nature rambles: hiking Glacier National Park with a couple of pals who happen to be Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy and Booker Prize-winning author George Saunders; pitching in on an English farm with shepherd-turned-author James Rebanks; roaming the Southwest with his wife, actress Megan Mullally.
But the book is more than a name-droppy road trip. It’s an exploration of our relationship to the land and the creatures that inhabit it — what it is now and what it should be — often incorporating the ideas of two different naturalists, John Muir and Aldo Leopold.
“My books are usually an excuse to work out the life questions that are concerning me in the moment,” Offerman says. His discursive style also enables him to take on everything from Kit Carson’s reputation to a personal philosophy of mask wearing and his disdain for guys whose vehicles “growl, roar or vroom in any way louder than is necessary.”
In a recent phone conversation about the book, Offerman explained that it’s all connected to his outlook on life: “The way we treat one another with social and cultural issues is directly applicable to the way we treat the rest of nature.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nick Offerman is a romantic.
You’re a humorist with a political bent. Was it difficult to find the words to convey your earnest communion with nature?
I’m such a fan of beautiful pastoral writing, from the Romantics up through modern day, so this is a particular challenge. I want the reader to know what I felt on this trail or in this pasture, but I’ve seen this done so beautifully dozens of times that I’m not going to try to come up with the lyrical sequence of adjectives and nouns. Instead I get into the personal experience and find the emotion that way.
When I’m bounding across the hillside with my shepherd friend, it isn’t my panache in describing the plant life or the burbling stream that makes it work so much as the joy I felt mending his stone wall. I aspire to conveying that emotion more than to matching what Wordsworth might have had to say.
Much of the humor is self-deprecating; you acknowledge that it’s odd to deliver an environmental message by driving an Airstream around the country. Is this guilt or a way to let readers know they don’t need to be perfectly virtuous to fight for change?
I was brought up Catholic, so I’m hard-wired to feel guilty. But it’s important to be culpable and to comfortably admit that to one another. I’m inviting everyone to be self-deprecating and say, “Let’s roll up our sleeves and see if we can do better tomorrow.”
You also tease Jeff Tweedy for his outlandish claims of heroism. There’s the rafting trip where he miraculously saves George Saunders’ glasses, then a dramatic fall (really a slip) down a mountain. Is Jeff really that much of a drama queen?
Jeff is such an incredible songwriter and musician that it irks me a little bit when he’s as funny as he is — he’s devilishly hilarious. But the stuff with him was not much exaggerated; he was killing us by making fun of himself for essentially just scraping his knee. His riffs on his heroic actions were a highlight of the trip.
I’m aware of the rancor that seeps into my work. It’s my opinion that’s because I’m not as good a writer as them. And I’m OK with that. We need all the colors to make a proper painting. But after the four tumultuous years of the last presidency and the pandemic, I think my tone became more measured. I looked at the messaging of the people I admired and said, “Let’s just take a deep breath here.” Funny mean tweets don’t seem to be bringing us around.
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We’re all opinionated, incredibly subjective animals, and we need to be accepting of one another. My wise friend John Hodgman always says, “Everyone has to be allowed to like what they like.”
That’s a great place to start. I quit making fun of my sister’s love of new country music and found that we get along much better ever since. But I would add to his quote, “within reason.” You can’t say, “I only like the white race,” for example.
And while I did try to tone things down, there’s a point where I say some not nice things about the current governor of Texas. When I was editing the book I was wrestling with taking it out. Thankfully, he then did a few even more incredibly heinous things which made me say, “Oh, I was on the right track.”
It’s hard to imagine a Republican reading this book. Do you worry about preaching to the converted?
There will be some singing to the choir, but I hope to convey my own confusion in life — that’s our natural state — and the ways I have been enlightened slowly and — what’s that beautiful word, sorry, I just woke up — inexorably. Slowly and inexorably. So I’m saying, here’s some stuff I learned, and maybe if I can drag a few of my readers along, slowly but surely I’ll bring us all around to being a little more decent to one another and the planet we live on.
Even as a backlash brews over teaching America’s racist history, ‘Forget the Alamo’ and ‘How the Word Is Passed’ tell of the full, inglorious past,
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