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Putting the human in nature

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Having worked for 12 years as a Newsweek journalist, seven of those as a Colorado-based correspondent whose territory encompassed the Rocky Mountain states, Daniel Glick covered more than his share of stories that touched on the natural world. Along with reporting on the JonBenet Ramsey murder and the Columbine High School shootings, Glick wrote about mining, logging, development and the effects of the ski industry.

Through those journalistic efforts, Glick has come to an unhappy, though hardly surprising conclusion: The natural world is in real danger.

“It’s the biggest question of our era,” said the 47-year-old Glick, a 10-year resident of the Boulder area. “Will we continue to destroy the planet? Will we make it uninhabitable or at least unrecognizable to our children and our children’s children? I’m absolutely convinced that we’re not paying attention. And it’s my niche in the ecosystem to write about these concerns.”



Echoing the late American wildlife pioneer Aldo Leopold, Glick says his main interests are twofold: man’s relationship to other people, and man’s relationship to the land. Glick, who opens the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Winter Words series with an appearance Thursday, Jan. 15, at 5:30 p.m. at the Given Institute, has spun those interests into two very different, but also thematically connected books.

Glick’s first book was 2001’s “Powder Burn: Arson, Money and Mystery on Vail Mountain,” a wide-screen examination of the October 1998 arson fire on the Vail ski area that caused $12 million of damage. Last year came the publication of “Monkey Dancing: A Father, Two Kids, and a Journey to the Ends of the Earth,” a first-person memoir of Glick’s six-month trip with his 9-year-old daughter Zoe and 13-year-old son Kolya.



On first glance, the books seem to be distinct reflections of Glick’s stated interests. But the writer has made both books multifaceted efforts that combine his concerns about the natural world and his fascination with human dynamics. “Powder Burn” is written almost as a whodunit, laying out the potential arsonists and the multitude of plausible motivations for the still unsolved crime against the corporate behemoth that Vail has become. “Monkey Dancing” starts with the upheaval ” divorce and death ” in Glick’s personal life. But when Glick decides to handle the situation by embarking on an around-the-world journey, his focus turns toward exposing his children to the realities of the imperiled natural world.

The biggest difference between “Powder Burn” and “Monkey Dancing,” said Glick, was the jump from third-person observer to first-person participant. “In 13 years at Newsweek, I had used the pronoun ‘I’ twice,” said Glick. “I had no first-person narration experience. So to do something that was not just first-person, but so intensely personal, professionally, it was the scariest thing I’ve ever done.”

Glick had actually eased his way into the use of the first-person voice. After turning in his “Powder Burn” manuscript, his editor convinced Glick to add an epilogue that offered the author’s thoughts about the crime and the investigation. “That was the transition from having a journalistic voice to an authorly voice,” said Glick.

Before they’re gone …

Still, it’s a huge leap from the “I” of the “Powder Burn” epilogue ” used to sprinkle personal perspective and opinion on a crime story ” to the “I” of “Monkey Dancing,” as intimate a narrator as one could imagine.

The prologue to “Monkey Dancing” spells out the situation in which Glick found himself in the first year of the millennium. His wife of 15 years, having already left him, announcing she was a lesbian, took the further step of moving to California. The children, she had decided, would stay in their father’s care. Topping the emotional tumult, Glick’s older brother Bob was diagnosed with breast cancer months after the separation and died soon after Glick became a single father.

Under the circumstances, Glick might have been excused had he ditched the kids and hit the road in an attempt to escape what had become of his life. But Glick had another idea: Inspired by a news article on disappearing coral reefs, he decided to take the kids around the world so they could experience, as a family, a series of endangered natural wonders while there was still time. “‘Before they’re gone,'” wrote Glick, “became my mantra for this trip,” and Glick spells out that the phrase had multiple meanings: before the wildlife was extinct, before the kids were too old to allow such an adventure, before tragedy came knocking again.

As the Glick family set out to redefine itself in places like Australia, Borneo, Vietnam and Nepal, the paterfamilias put aside most of his professional considerations. “I didn’t want to be obsessed with the idea I was working,” said Glick. “Apart from a few magazine articles I had lined up to defray costs and open a few doors, I wasn’t working. I did have a laptop. I did write. I journaled, with intent to book. But the short answer is no, I didn’t have a book contract and had no reason to think I would get one.”

The family was thus free to roam from adventure to adventure. They encountered Australia’s cuddly koalas and threatened Great Barrier Reef, Vietnam’s perishing rhinos and pervasive poverty. Along with the exotic, Glick details the common: parent-child battles, sibling conflict, personal demons. Glick poignantly weaves memories of his deceased brother into the narrative, adding emotional weight to the story; his reporting on the various natural disasters-in-waiting lend a broader scope. “Monkey Dancing” rings with the alternating sense of discovery and dreariness that comes with long-term traveling. Glick is satisfied that he captured the essence of the trip in all its dimensions.

“It had to be honest,” said Glick, whose book was selected one of Amazon.com’s 50 best books of 2003, but who is most gratified by the handful of e-mails each week from strangers who find resonance in the story. “And to be honest, I had to be vulnerable.”

‘Burn’ and the bigger story

“Powder Burn” offered a different set of challenges. Accustomed to writing short articles, Glick had to find a way to spin the story of the Vail arson fire into a sustained narrative. Glick opted to tell the story with an emphasis on characters ” small-business owners, ski bums, neighboring townsfolk, and even Vail corporate executives ” who might have reason to torch a set of buildings and lifts. Glick still had to locate those people, and when he found a young ski bum/snowcat driver named Roby Peabody, he knew he was on the right track.

“The hardest part of writing ‘Powder Burn’ was finding those characters,” said Glick. “When I found Roby at the bar, celebrating his 24th birthday, he could barely stand up. I thought, ‘I found him! This is the prince of the ski bums.'”

Beginning with individual characters and their distinct perspectives, Glick spun “Powder Burn” into a cautionary tale about greed, community and the unique tensions of the American West. “Once I found what the story was, this small town in the Rocky Mountains that had everything ” wealth, politicians, the fire ” I also saw it as a larger story.

“That’s what we’re trained to do as journalists. We search and search and find the strand that tells the bigger story. Our goal is to tell a universal story through a very personal story. In ‘Powder Burn,’ it’s not just Vail, it’s what’s happening throughout the West. In ‘Monkey Dancing,’ it’s not just Nepal or Borneo, it’s the whole world.”

The West and the world

Glick’s sojourning ways were adopted before he could walk. He was conceived in Philadelphia, but Glick’s parents moved to Southern California before he was born. “I had my first transcontinental journey in utero,” he laughs. Even more formative was his the family’s move ” “a lark,” Glick calls it ” to Uganda when Daniel was 11.

“That certainly opened my eyes to the world,” said Glick, who at 14 biked from San Francisco to Los Angeles accompanied only by a slightly older friend. “I’ve always had something of a precocious or independent streak and started wandering. And my parents let me have as much freedom as I wanted.”

For all his wandering ” a teenage hitchhiking trip across most of Canada, a three-year “honeymoon” stint in Asia ” Glick has settled into the skin of a Coloradan. His concerns with the natural world and with the social and economic shifts taking place in the West reflect a distinct perspective.

“I definitely feel aligned with the West,” he said. “I was born and raised in California back when you could arguably say it was part of the West. I feel at home here and some of the sensibilities of the West are ingrained in me. I lived six years in D.C. and I never felt like the landscape there was home to me.”

Glick’s latest project is a continuation of his focus on man’s relationship with the natural world, and his most universal story yet. He’s working on an article for National Geographic about global climate change, and he hopes to find a way to spin that subject into a book on climate-change science and humankind’s contribution to the alteration of ecosystems. If it’s anything like his past books, Glick will manage to provide an urgent warning while giving the scientific subject a personal touch and a sense of humor.

“I was not a green activist ever in my life,” he said. “I liked the outdoors, but I was never political about it. But I’ve done enough stories about logging and mining and the skiing industry, and whether you ask a geologist or a climatologist, the trend lines are going in the wrong direction. I challenge anyone to find an earth scientist who says things are getting better here.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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