Inside These Impossible Mountains, Alone in a Sub-Zero Desert

Craig Childs is the only two-time winner of the Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award, and the bard of a world where buildings and fences are ephemeral.

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| Source: Southern New Hampshire University MFA and Creative Writing
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MANCHESTER, N.H., Feb. 14, 2014 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- As a child, the only two-time winner of the Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award used to pretend that he was even more singular than that—the only person in the world, in fact.

"I'd erase any buildings or fences in the way," said Craig Childs. "Sometimes I'd look up at the cottage-cheese texture sprayed on the ceiling of my bedroom, and I'd imagine I was very high up looking down at an enormous mountain range. There were no roads or towns. I'd place myself anywhere inside these impossible mountains, and there I would begin my journey."

Not so far-fetched, really, since this Arizona native was living a childhood with buildings and fences largely erased. When he was with his mother, she would take him on hikes throughout the mountainous Four Corners region of that state. When he was staying with his father, they would hunt together for quail and rabbit, fish for trout.

Childs tried once to grow up and work inside. He went to a job fair for positions at K-Mart and realized he was in very much the wrong place. "That's not when it started," he wrote on his website, "but it was one of those turning points where yet again the obvious became painfully clear to me. Roads diverge in the wood and I start climbing trees."

Since then Childs has climbed high enough to become—besides a faculty member in Southern New Hampshire University's low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction program—one of the most acclaimed nature writers and environmental journalists in America.

Last month, for the second time, he was called to Wisconsin's Northland College, home of the Sigurd F. Olson Environmental Institute, to accept that institute's prize for the best nature writing of the year. In 2008 Childs was honored for "The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild" (Little, Brown), a collection of essays on the author's face-to-face encounters with all that lives outside our buildings and fences.

This time it was for "Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending World" (Pantheon), a globe-spanning inquiry into the various ways the earth's environment has been made, unmade, and reconstituted over the eons.

The book, said the Olson Institute, "is a combination of science and adventure that reveals the ways in which our world is constantly moving towards its end and how we can change our place within the cycles and episodes that rule it. Mr. Childs delivers a sensual feast in his descriptions of the natural world and a bounty of unequivocal science that provides us with an unprecedented understanding of our future."

And it was a good time for Childs to be in Wisconsin. From there it was only a hop-step to the endless ice plain of Lake Superior. Childs' current book project—another marriage of science and adventure, this one titled "First People, First Prey"—is about the human colonization of the Americas, and the pursuit of a deeper understanding of our past.

"I needed to look at some Ice Age sites near the lake," Childs said. He also needed to go on a three-day trek across the ice onto the lake, pulling a wooden sled and building a snow shelter in -25 degree temperatures.

"That was to get a personal sense of what conditions were like 12,000 years ago, when this whole continent was in the grip of polar winter," he explained.

By now Childs is the author of a dozen books that deal, in various ways, with what he described as "the relationship between humans, animals, landscape, and time." Besides these two Olson Awards, Childs has won the 2013 Orion Book Award, the 2011 Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award, and the 2008 Rowell Art of Adventure Award.

"His colleagues on the faculty refer to Craig as their 'Desert Father' partly because that's how the New York Times has described him," said Richard Adams Carey, assistant director of Southern New Hampshire's MFA program and himself an environmental writer. "But it's also in recognition of the fact that no one else out there goes so far over the horizon in pursuit of his stories, nor returns to tell them so well."

Three nights out alone in an ice desert, as if he were the only person in the world—it was pretty much as Childs imagined it once in his dreams, and by now just another step in the journey.

Photos accompanying this release are available at:

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Richard Adams Carey

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