As visitation to the Colorado Plateau increases, it’s becoming particularly important to examine how education, storytelling, and media impact people’s behaviors and the landscape.
This week, Science Moab speaks with author and storyteller Morgan Sjogren about writing guidebooks, immersing oneself in place, and telling stories about a landscape in a responsible way. Sjogren, known online as “The Running Bum,” is the author of three books, including “The Best Bears Ears National Monument Hikes” and “The Best Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Hikes.”
Science Moab: How did you start writing guidebooks?
Sjogren: I had been out in the Bears Ears backcountry working on several stories and really immersing myself in place, and a friend asked if I would be interested in writing a guidebook for the monument. I just stared blankly at my inbox and was like, “I don’t think so.”
But we talked about the issues Bears Ears was going to face with increased awareness, and the potential for the monument to be reduced, which it was. That pushed me towards providing a visitor-ready resource that can educate anyone on how to visit the area with respect and how to get involved with protecting it.
Science Moab: You said you were hesitant at first to get into guidebooks because of pushback. Did you feel any pushback?
Sjogren: Before the book was published, I actually got quite a bit of hate mail. I don’t want to shy away from that, because it’s fine for people to not agree with everything that’s published. When it actually came out, many people who were wary about the project came to me really surprised and relieved, and understood the vision, which was not to create this book of secrets to Bears Ears or Grand Staircase, but rather to home in on the most heavily visited hikes and areas and address the needs of those hikers.
Science Moab: What principles do you think people need to understand as respectful visitors?
Sjogren: I don’t necessarily view going outside as different than anything else you would do in life; there just needs to be a great deal of respect when you set foot on the soil and to be mindful of what you’re doing as if you were visiting somebody else’s house.
That means leaving as little impact as possible, staying on trails, not touching artifacts and rock art. It means not geotagging pictures, and being mindful of what information you’re sharing on the internet. This is not to keep people from coming, but to retain some mystery and wonder while also protecting the place. It means packing out everything that you bring.
Science Moab: A lot of stories about this place have been written by Western white men. How, if at all, do you think being a woman has changed the way you approach writing about this place?
Sjogren: When I came to the Colorado Plateau, I went down the rabbit hole of reading anything I could get my hands on about this area. So much of it has been written by white men, many of whom are well-meaning and care greatly for this place.
But I’ve since had a great shift in the voices and people I read. A few of my favorite authors in this region are Ellen Meloy, Ann Zwinger, and Terry Tempest Williams. I’m starting to see that in this female tradition, there’s a sense of understanding that you’re a part of this ecosystem, that you are not separate from this place. This isn’t to say that male authors don’t have this perspective, but it comes through quite strongly in those other women writers’ works. It’s something I really find myself meditating on, especially when I’m alone in the wilderness.
Science Moab: What have you learned as you delve further into this place?
Sjogren: I’m coming to understand the responsibility that comes with learning about this place. So much of that responsibility is not just sharing what I learned, but being receptive to hearing the stories of others and helping share those perspectives with a broader audience.
I’m realizing more and more that it’s a way to help facilitate the shift from a world of white-male-dominated voices to the inclusion of more perspectives about this place. It’s a huge responsibility, along with efforts to use anything I learned for good: to help educate future visitors about these places, to instill and inspire others to care.
Science Moab is a nonprofit dedicated to engaging community members and visitors with the science happening in Southeast Utah and the Colorado Plateau. To learn more and listen to the rest of Morgan Sjogren’s interview, visit www.sciencemoab.org/radio. This interview has been edited for clarity.