Michael Branch has many gifts as a Professor of English and as a writer.
In front of a class, he's magnetic, inspiring and interesting. His command of his subject matter, which is often about the natural world, is laced with a specific intimacy with what it all means - to his students, to their personal history and to the history of the world around them.
As a writer, his essays, stories and books have an encompassing and sometimes humorous truth to them. While writing about the natural world and our interaction with it can sometimes be presented in somber tones, Branch often takes a different approach.
Take his life in the high desert as an example. Branch, his wife and their two daughters have lived for 15 years far off from Reno and the Truckee Meadows, in what he refers to as a "true wildland interface" on a hill in a passive solar home with a half-mile-long driveway near some Bureau of Land Management land not far from Red Rock Road.
The area at first glance is about as inhospitable as land in the 21st century can get. It's seemingly stark and wind-troubled, sagebrush-laden and dry as a cracking whisper. Yet Branch has never seen his home in those terms. He thinks of it as the kind of place that the writer Wallace Stegner might have had in mind in his 1972 work, "Thoughts in a Dry Land," when Stegner wrote, "You have to get over the color green; you have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns; you have to get used to an inhuman scale; you have to understand geological time." Or, as Emerson noted in "Nature" in 1836, "The ruin or blank that we see when we look at nature, is in our own eye."
It's the kind of place, Branch said during an interview this summer in his office on the second floor of Frandsen Humanities, that's perfect for a writer who seeks to write about the less-obvious in an effort to find the more important truths.
"We don't know what to think about it," he said during a conversation that started generally about the prevalence of wildfire in our wildlands, then moved to the Great Basin, then hopped to the meaning of the high desert and then quickly pivoted to Branch's own home, which in some ways encompasses all of the above. "The high desert and where I live is misperceived. That's what I've tried to do with some of my writing - I want to move you past your immediate pre-conceptions and show you how cool this place is."
And then, as he often does, Branch smiled. When he smiles, Branch basically looks the way he writes - his narrow face starts to glow with a generous curiosity, seeking to understand and connect with the person (or reader) with whom he's visiting (or who is reading his stuff). As much as he would like to be known as the way he is described on his personal website (www.michaelbranchwriter.com) as among things, a "curmudgeon," there is a sincerity and sweetness to Branch in conversation that makes what he has to say all the more inviting.
"And one of the techniques I use is humor to open peoples' minds to it," he said. "I write about the high desert because I'm endlessly fascinated by it. I want others to feel the same way about it as I do. But let's face it: This a landscape that makes you look like a fool. You can't get a garden to work. When the weather gets bad, and snow hits, you can't leave your home unless and until you clear your driveway. When you go for a walk, you might see a mountain lion.
"It's a place where you don't have control. It has a power over you. This is a landscape that makes you laugh at yourself ... because you fail constantly."
Failure, however, is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Branch and his career at the University.
Since coming to campus more than 20 years ago, Branch has helped the more than 2,000 students who have taken his classes better understand American Literature, the environment, the craft of writing, and how the tools involved with effective writing, including awareness and reflection, are all indispensable pieces in our understanding of the world around us and our place within it. His teaching and advising awards include the Alan Bible Teaching Excellence Award (presented to the top teacher in the College of Liberal Arts), the Tibbitts Distinguished Teacher (given to the University's finest teacher) and the Vada Trimble Outstanding Mentor Award.
As a writer, Branch's body of work is equally impressive and noteworthy. He's written eight books, which range from the Pulitzer Prize-nominated "John Muir's Last Journey: South to the Amazon and East to Africa" to his most recent books, "The Best Read Naturalist: Nature Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson," "Raising Wild: Dispatches from a Home in the Wilderness" and "Rants from the Hill: On Packrats, Bobcats, Wildfires, Curmudgeons, a Drunken Mary Kay Lady, and Other Encounters with the Wild in the High Desert."
From 2010-2016 Branch was a regular columnist for High Country News. His column, called "Rants from the Hill" featured approximately 2,000-word-long essays. There were 69 "Rants" in all, and Branch never once missed his monthly deadline while writing for High Country News. The subject matter, some of which was included in his "Rants" book that came out this year, ranged from how Branch walked 13,000 miles within a 10-mile radius of his home over the course of a decade to our area's sand dunes, dry lakes, flash floods, blizzards, wildfire, harvester ants, pronghorn antelope, local real-life inhabitants of Branch's home environs, including "Mr. Grumbledumps" (a local curmudgeon) and "Femailman" (an irritable post office delivery woman), as well as somewhat embarrassing admissions such as Branch's ongoing fascination with the figure skater Tonya Harding.
Throughout it all was the participation and reactions of his young daughters and wife in a life where the goal seems to be, as the poet Richard Wilbur once suggested about honest art, "not to make things look nicer than they are, but to face up to things, to clarify."
"When we see the Sierra or the Rockies, we know instantly that it's beautiful," Branch said. "The high desert is different. We don't know what to think about it when we first see it. One of my techniques, and I think you see it very clearly in my 'Rants' column, is to use humor to open people's minds to it."
It's for this wide range of work that Branch will receive the "Silver Pen Award" from the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame on Nov. 16. The Silver Pen, established in 1996, recognizes and encourages excellence among emerging or mid-career writers. The Silver Pen comes on the heels of another important award Branch received in 2017, the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award, which is helping fund Branch's research for his next book, the in-progress "Hunting for Jackalope."
Branch's two books "Rants" and "Raising Wild" point to the evolution of his career, and how his writing, while often personal, carries with it a greater significance. Through deft description and humor often woven into a tapestry of failure that could have been avoided if not for Branch's entirely human and often headstrong ways, Branch's writing is highly accessible.
For a writer who started out in the world of critical assessment of 19th century American Literature, then Environmental Literature, the writing world he inhabits now - that of creative non-fiction - might seem like a bit of a stretch. Yet the scholarly foundation he built from his early years, which included intense periods of research and the painful and painstaking process of laboring over dozens of drafts to get things just right, is integral today to his success as a writer.
"I'm all in as a creative writer now," he said, "even though it wasn't even the faintest glimmer in my mind when I first started out. It hasn't turned out according to a specific plan, but it's been fun and productive and immensely gratifying. At the end of the day, it's still about teaching and writing for me. So in the sense that my greatest ambition was to teach and write and have a lot of contact with the wilderness, maybe things did turn out to plan."
Though somewhat unplanned to this point, Branch is excited about what the future will bring. His daughters, who are 10 and 14, are growing and still putting up with their Dad's strange ways. He's justifiably proud of the way Hannah and Caroline have been raised, and how they've played such a prominent role in his understanding of the type or writer he is. His wife, Eryn, who was a patiently long-suffering character in Branch's "Rants" column in High Country News, continues in a generous and sensible way to point out the foolishness of many of her husband's actions.
He said he was already experiencing nature with his daughters prior to the start of his "Rants" column in 2010, and those early times together out on the 49 acres he owns (and the many square miles of basin and range that envelop it) helped him realize that "I needed to find a way to record it more than with a bunch of photos. I was learning so much from my daughters, and I remember being so profoundly humbled when I realized this was happening to me. Writing has come to mean to me a way of not just recording an experience with my family, but of processing it and understanding it more fully."
This is at the center of many of Branch's "Rants" book as well as the "Raising Wild" book, which point to something that might be termed Branch's anti-thesis to the long-held mythology that Americans go into the wilderness to escape and retreat and to find solitude. As he's walked his own land and as he's seen his family grow up in the same environment that is indeed harsh, but also seductive in its stark beauty, Branch has matured as a writer. Over the past decade and a half, he's found personal validation to the idea that not only is there meaning in experiencing the wilderness, but that its meaning and its special place in memory is enhanced when a father takes his two children and his wife along for the adventure as well.
"American literature says wilderness is where we go to get away from responsibilities and the people we know from everyday life," Branch said. "I want to retreat into wilderness as much as the next person, but what if we re-conceive that narrative a bit? What if it's not necessarily about retreat for some of us ... what if it's not to get away, but to take others with us, and to share the experience with them? I guess in some small way I'm trying to get people to have contact not only with wilderness, but to have contact with the people who are important to them."
Branch's new project, the "Jackalope" book, could in some ways be his most challenging and rewarding effort yet. It's a mix of humor, history, science and of course, the natural world, a sort of Mark Twain meets David Quammen look at a mythical animal from North American folklore that is a cross between a jackrabbit and an antelope and its profound meaning to the health and well-being of young women throughout the world.
"There is definitely a humorous part of the Jackalope story as a kind of humorous talisman of the West," Branch said.
Yet horned rabbits, Branch noted, with carcinomas resembling horns, have been linked to the Shope papilloma virus (SPV), which is also known as cottontail rabbit papilloma virus (CRPV). SPV and CRPV have been used as a model for human papilloma viruses (HPV), with perhaps the most notable example being the development of the life-saving HPV vaccine. It is estimated that as many as 500,000 women die each year from cervical cancer - cancer that can usually be prevented at age 12 or 13 with inoculation from the HPV vaccine.
Who could've imagined?
"Funny-looking rabbits saving women's lives," Branch said, smiling.
Branch will no doubt make people laugh as they learn about the history of the Jackalope. And, as he done throughout his career, he will also no doubt illuminate an essential truth - that disease can be prevented through knowledge and a greater understanding of medicine.
"This is a Mike Branch special," he said. "One, to make people laugh about the Jackalope, but then come to understand that Jackalopes aren't simply magical creatures from mythology. Jackalopes prevent cancer. I hope the greater message is we just have to do the right thing as parents."
In the end, Michael Branch is doing what he does best. Whether it's Jackalopes, his daughters, or life on the high desert, there are few better at finding a slightly-off-the-beaten-track subject, enlivening and texturing it with sharp-eyed description and equally sharp-edged humor, and then leaving the reader with an accumulation of images and ideas that in a small, yet important way, help the reader answer the questions of who they are and why they live where they do.
In pausing to tell a story and in helping us understand what has happened, Branch has shown that although his career as a writer "has not played out exactly the way I expected it to," he's nonetheless found the best place imaginable for any writer.
"I feel like in some ways I've started over and I'm learning new things," he said. "This is an unusual thing. I've produced four books in two calendar years. It's been a brisk time for me, and I'm extremely grateful for how things have played out.
"After years of trying creative non-fiction and not knowing that world and not having a lot of traction, I did what I always tell my students to do. You keep writing. You keep trying. And you know what? It did come around for me."