Burns turns green writing on its ear with, gasp, humor
Literature about the outdoors isn’t known for its sense of humor. And that goes triple for writings about environmental and energy issues.Cameron Burns is on a mission, quixotic though it be, to change those perceptions.A Basaltine who works as a staff editor at the Rocky Mountain Institute, the Old Snowmass-based energy efficiency think tank, Burns is in as good a position as anyone to inject humor into the heretofore dry fields of energy and adventuring writing.From his frequent forays into cross-dressing – a Halloween tradition, but not restricted to that holiday – to his formation of the Basalt Bigfoot Coalition, Burns demonstrates a twisted comic take on the world.After retiring from a short stint as an Aspen Times reporter, Burns kept in touch with his former colleagues here mostly through a series of hysterical, perverse postcards called “Scenes From a Little Town Called Basalt.”The 37-year-old Burns’ efforts to coax some laughs from readers of energy and outdoors publications are actually paying off. Most notable has been “The Shoes of Kilimanjaro,” a short story about the footwear seen on those climbing Africa’s highest peak.The story, based on a climb Burns and his wife of nine years, Ann, made in 1997, has been reprinted in nine magazines and journals around the world. It was named the best back-page story in the five-year history of Blue magazine. Last year, the story turned up again as the lead piece in “The Shoes of Kilimanjaro and Other Oddventure Travel Stories,” a collection of short pieces by Burns that feature the writer’s typical humorous slant. (Another good example of his work is “Dribbling Across the Elk Mountains: The Wilderness World Cup,” about Burns’ failed attempt to kick a soccer ball across 15 miles of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area.) Burns self-published the book, just as he self-drew the art and self-designed the jacket. The book has been remarkably well-received: Burns has nearly sold out his first printing of 500 copies, and “The Shoes of Kilimanjaro” was named 2002 Book of the Year by the North American Travel Journalists Association (beating out, Burns gleefully notes, “Chicken Soup for the Traveler’s Soul”).”Take Time to Watch the Bugs,” a story about Burns’ insect-plagued honeymoon in Costa Rica, was the opening story in the 2001 anthology “I Really Should Have Stayed At Home.” Burns has also been writing a monthly column for the British magazine Climbing for the past five years.Burns assures that the writings, under the heading “Postcards From the Trailer Park,” are not the usual fare for an outdoors periodical. “It’s not my climbing ability that landed me the column, it’s the humor,” he said.Not that Burns is devoid of climbing ability. He has successfully ascended Alpamayo in Peru and Cerro Aguja in Patagonia. But Burns, now the father of 2-year-old Zoe, has no ambitions to join the ranks of climbers who bag the world’s highest peaks. Instead, he prefers to do his week or so of annual climbing on lesser-known, lower-traffic routes. And he regularly practices on the climbing wall of his family’s Elk Run townhouse – which he built while his wife was away for a weekend.Burns tracks his love for climbing to his parents. His father was in the second party to cross Patagonia’s Darwin Ice Cap. Burns’ youth, in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia, was filled with outdoor adventures; he made his first rope climbs before he was 10. Also thanks to his father, energy issues were like second nature to Burns. When he was 13, his family moved to upstate New York, where his father took a job in geological science. In 1981, the family moved to New Mexico, where Burns’ father worked in geothermal energy at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Burns himself graduated from the University of Colorado, Boulder, with a degree in environmental design. More attracted to the film industry than to environmental work, Burns worked in film production first in Denver, then Los Angeles. He never quite reached the heights of the film business; most of his work was on B-grade action and gang films. (“And a bunch of vampire movies. There were a lot of them being made in the late ’80s,” he added.) But Burns had plenty of fun – never much of a problem for him – in the film world. And the experience inspired a book – 1998’s “How to Get a Job in the Film Industry” – which is only incidentally comical. Burns, who moved to the Roaring Fork Valley in 1992, has made a reputation with his nonhumorous books. He self-published his first book, 1991’s “California’s Fourteeners” (co-written with Stephen F. Porcella) after getting the book rejected by several publishers. The book sold so well that two expanded versions have been published by established companies. Burns has also written books on ice-climbing in Colorado and mountaineering on Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya; his latest book is the just-published “50 Hikes in Colorado.” In addition to the books, he has written numerous articles and book chapters on the outdoors, for publications based from Japan to Tanzania to Poland.But humor is where Burns seems most likely to make his name. His next book is another “Oddventure” collection. And humor just comes naturally to him. His sense of humor, he says, is “completely off the wall. It’s typically Australian.” He considers this a moment before concluding, “Well, it’s not typically Australian.” It’s not typically anything, but is completely off the wall. Take his formation three years ago of the Basalt Bigfoot Coalition. Burns tried to run for mayor of Basalt, a quest shot down before he could even begin campaigning. As a noncitizen of the U.S., he was ineligible to run for mayor. When he tried, instead, to put his dog Lefty on the ballot, the canine, too, was disqualified for the same reason. “So I formed this Basalt Bigfoot Coalition, and we endorsed this slate of candidates,” said Burns. “We picketed. We ran ads in the paper. Generally, we just had fun. I got a bunch of signatures, but most of those people would deny they had anything to do with it. It was basically just me and Lefty.”Somewhat obscured was the environmental message the coalition was trying to put forth. “It was to preserve primary Bigfoot habitat,” said Burns. “Bigfoot is an indicator species.”Like all causes he is associated with, Burns’ environmental stance is mixed with skewed humor. He frets somewhat about publishing, due to the amount of paper involved. “That’s what publishing is – going through paper,” said Burns, who printed “The Shoes of Kilimanjaro” on recycled paper. “I wish they’d use more recycled paper. It drives me crazy that they don’t.” At times Burns, who has worked at the Rocky Mountain Institute since 2000, can sound like an energy policy geek. At the end of a recent interview, Burns makes sure to inform the reporter of the odd (and, for most, entirely useless) tidbit that two-thirds of all electricity in the U.S. is devoted to pumping things from one place to another. But Burns is determined to find the humor and levity in the energy speeches and articles he writes and edits.”My next big challenge is to make this, not humorous, but at least entertaining and enjoyable to read,” he said. “That’s my goal. Environmental stuff is very heavy stuff that doesn’t make you smile at the end of it. The stories may not be happy, but you can make delivering it a pleasurable experience.”Explore Booksellers will have a book-signing with Cameron Burns today, Thursday, May 15, from 5-6 p.m. The last remaining copies of “The Shoes of Kilimanjaro” will be available at the event.
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