Press "Enter" to skip to content

Q & A with Gunnison author George Sibley

Colorado Central: How did you end up in Gunnison?

George: Have I ended up here? Well, I probably will. Can’t imagine where else I would go now. I came to the Upper Gunnison to be a ski bum, after flunking out of the Army, but despite my best efforts I began gravitating toward respectability. Got into the newspaper business – starting out as editor because anyone who knew anything about newspapering was too smart to try it here; went from that to freelancing and odd jobbing; tried to leave the Upper Gunnison but it didn’t take; and was lucky enough to slip into a position as academic odd jobber at Western State College. There, I finally fell into a full-time year-round job for the first time, at about age 46. Now, I am back to writing, when I am not trying to figure out the water-energy nexus. And I really can’t imagine being anywhere else: there’s something about the valley that makes me keep believing that it might be possible – not probable, but possible – to err and fumble our way into a society that at least approaches matching our scenery …

Colorado Central: Where were you educated?

George: Let’s see – first, am I educated? I think I’m getting there. I prepared for my education in Western Pennsylvania where I spent the first 23 years of my life; my prep schools were an elementary and secondary school in Rocky Grove, PA, which you won’t find on the map, and Carnegie Institute of Technology and the University of Pittsburgh where I got a degree in English. Then I came to Colorado and began my real education. First in the U S Army, where I flunked obedience schooling; then here in the Upper Gunnison River Valley where for most of the past 45 years I’ve been studying “Living intelligently in a place that deserves better,” doing about “C” work. (Maybe “C-” if I’m honest about it.) So, still getting educated.

Colorado Central: Tell us something about your experiences teaching at Western State.

George: I felt very lucky to have been Western’s most durable temporary faculty member, since I lacked any serious academic credentials – even my English BA from the University of Pittsburgh was suspect since I managed to get it without ever taking British Literature. (I’ve since tried to make amends by watching Jane Austen movies). But I had some talents and ideas that were as good for the college as the college was good for me.

I got in at all because they needed some low-pay grunts who were broadly interested in everything rather than narrowly expert in one thing. I was invited in to teach in an inter-disciplinary program the college had instituted, under pressure from the Colorado Commission on Higher Education – a program that took regular faculty out of their comfort zones, but was made to order for a generic ignorant American like myself. I learned an incredible amount from an interdisciplinary course called “The American Experience,” designed by a philosophy professor and a political scientist. It was like working with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. I also got handed a couple of freshman composition classes, and so finally learned how to punctuate.

When they came up shorthanded in journalism, they figured that my “life experience” as a bad newspaperman in Crested Butte and a failed freelance writer qualified me to to teach the introductory course in that program. I looked at the journalism text with horror, realizing it was trying to teach a dark art as bad science. Objectivity?! So I prepared my own manual (cost the students $5 rather than $25) and gradually taught them and myself some analytical tools that led me to see how thoroughly and efficiently I have been manipulated by the careful but enthusiastic manipulation of Walter Lippmann’s processes for “manufacturing consent” in a mass society.

Eventually, through a string of coincidences and rationalizations too complex to explain here, I – who had gone all the way through 17 years of public education without ever hearing the word “environment” – found myself teaching the introductory course in the college’s new Environmental Studies Program. Another wonderful learning experience. And I was getting paid for all this learning!

That was only half of what I did at, and for, the college though. I developed the college’s Headwaters Project, which was part of its (also CCHE-mandated) effort to become more integrated into the life and the challenges and opportunities of its region. That program will be in its 21st year this fall, and has brought an array of really interesting people to the college, from county commissioners to poets to really well-known people like Patricia Limerick, John Nichols and Linda Chavez. I also worked with Dr. Mark Todd at the college to develop some “Community Journalism” workshops, bringing journalists in, not from the city papers but from the “post-urban” communities like Salida, Gunnison, Aspen, et cetera – places that present really interesting journalistic challenges that the mainstream media is generally too big and smug to acknowledge. And for five years, I piloted the college’s well-known and well-regarded “Colorado Water Workshop” – I think it was still well-regarded when I left three years ago.

I did reach a point at 19 years, however, where I felt I was mostly just teaching what I knew, rather than learning as I went along, and figured it was time to hang it up. So I did.

Colorado Central: How did you become interested in Colorado water issues?

George: The short answer is, the winter of 1976-77, one of the worst years for snowfall in the recorded history of the Colorado River – no one was able to open for Christmas season; some never opened all year. Whew, I thought (as did we all), the climate can do this to us? But my easily distractible attention span would probably have moved on, had I not received an invitation from Harper’s to “write something about the drought.” Sure, I said, of course – but had the good sense to ask when the story would come out; in the fall, I was told. But the drought will probably be over by then, I said (as it in fact was). So I proposed instead that I do a story about the only western river basin not seriously impacted by that winter of drought – which was historically the driest river basin in the West.

That was about all I knew about the Colorado River at the time, but Harper’s bought me the time to learn a lot more about it. Enough so that my interest was permanently aroused and I continued to keep up with developments in the highly developed waterworks that is now the Colorado River, long after the article came out. I wrote a few more articles about the Colorado River and other western water-resource issues after that.

Then I was given the Water Workshop to conduct at the college, and I learned a lot more about water. After leaving the college (well, a little before that) I put my name in for the Board of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy because I thought I knew enough to be useful there. Once I got on, I began to learn the remaining dimensions of my ignorance – I can’t do better than to remind you of a poem of Keats’, where he has Pizarro, or was it Picasso, coming over a hill and seeing the Pacific Ocean. I didn’t of course let that stop me; I also got myself onto the Gunnison Basin Roundtable, perceiving that that was as much about democracy as water. So I am now in the position described by Alexander Pope: “A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.” I may be moving into the hangover phase there.

Basically, water in the American West is a tremendously interesting study in a lot of things besides just that stuff without which we all perish in a matter of days. Democracy vs. technocracy (and sometimes, technocracy in support of democracy), aesthetics vs. utility (and for weird minds like mine, the beauty of some utilitarian objects like Morrow Point Dam), the limits of wealth and power as manipulators of everything, the limits of nature, the limits of quantification as a measure of everything – et cetera. “Touch water, you touch all.” Wayne Aspinall told me that John Gunther said that.

Colorado Central: Where else have you/do you publish?

George: I get a lot of things in the Mountain Gazette; I’ve been having a pretty good run with the Headwaters Magazine published by the Colorado Foundation for Water Education; I occasionally get something in High Country News; I write for local newspaper when they’re short handed, in exchange for the privilege of using the op-ed page occasionally to sound off about something; there are a couple local glossy tourist magazines (the magazines, not the tourists) I write for; I’ve occasionally had something find its way into the national media – had a cover article in Harper’s once (see water question above), my five minutes of fame. I also got a couple books published – one long out of print, the other – Dragons in Paradise – not yet out of print because I bought up the stock from the publisher when it went out of the book business.

Colorado Central: You’ve been writing for Colorado Central Magazine since 1994. How did that come about?

George: I knew Ed Quillen, first from reading his stuff in the Post, then from inviting him to speak at Headwaters and journalism conferences at Western. He said at one of the conferences that, if he were to institute a paternity suit on behalf of Colorado Central, he would probably name the Headwaters conference as defendant. After that – how could I not write for him and Martha? Actually, I enjoyed the magazine so much that I wanted to be part of it. So I offered them a deal they couldn’t refuse: I’d either write short columns at a nickel a word, or long ones at a penny a word. I find it really hard to write short things. I’m still enjoying the magazine, so the same deal applies. I hope I give as good as I get.

Colorado Central: Any thoughts on the future of the print publication?

George: I’ve thought a lot about this, since my days at Western, 10-15 years really (ever since I first saw the Pacific Ocean that is the internet). I think there will always be a place for good magazines that speak to their community and carry its discourse and dialogues – whether it be a “community of place” like central Colorado, or a “community of interest” like Old West history buffs or gun collectors. I frankly think we might be better off if the metropolitan mainstream media (MMSM) – daily newspapers but also radio and television – just die off. Drown in the tide of their own bile, spleen and neurotoxins. Under their guise of objectivity, the mass media have invented the presidency of Saint Sarah Palin, for no reason other than that it was easy, and they will try to see it to its consummation for the same reason that Dr. Frankenstein created his monster – to see if they can. They have also invented the benevolent legacy of Saint Ronald, whose mantle she is to assume … We would be better off without their mischief. Good magazines, it seems to me, produce the best journalism; there is nothing that the rare good newspaper journalist couldn’t do as well – maybe better in a good magazine, and the ones who are not good would do better to get an honest job, or go on welfare. I’d rather pay to support some of the intellectually impoverished than have to deal with a world they misshape …

Colorado Central: You are very involved with energy efficiency issues. What is currently happening in the Gunnison Valley, and what could easily be improved on?

George: To be honest about it, not as much is happening in the Gunnison Valley as should be, certainly nowhere near as much as could be, and needs to be. We aren’t out to save the planet (although that of course would be a nice side benefit); we’re just trying to impress on people that $80 million goes out of this valley for energy resources every year, and probably 10-20 percent of that is just wasted – literally blown off into the air from leaky homes, cars driven five blocks to the store, etc. We are trying to convince the valley that a) a Saturday afternoon with a caulk gun and some weather stripping, and b) just rescheduling your life to allow five more minutes to get to a meeting or the store or whatever so you could bike rather than driving would, if everyone in town were to do a) and b), be the equivalent of bringing in a good “light industry” (whatever that is) in terms of economic development, new money in the local economy rather than going out to energy distributors. But it’s an uphill struggle. Last week the paper printed a story – front page! – about a study from the college showing how a 20 percent reduction in energy consumption is probably impossible. Or at least possibly improbable. I personally don’t think it is any more impossible than getting a man on the moon was in 1960, but I do agree that, in the current state of the national psyche (as represented by such articles), it is highly improbable …

Colorado Central: Who are some of your favorite authors?

George: For my “personal reading” (as opposed to the kinds of things I need to read for my “semi-pro” life in water, energy, et cetera), I am pretty undisciplined; I just go two blocks to the library and see what’s there on the “New Fiction” shelves. As a result, I read a fair amount of trash (although I’ve weaned myself pretty much from thrillers and mysteries, except for Hillerman), and we don’t seem to get the kind of New Fiction they write about in the NY Times or NY Review. John le Carre is the only contemporary writer I can think of right off whose next book I can’t wait to read. Although he has never reached again the peak he touched with The Little Drummer Girl – one of the most poignant (and increasingly relevant) books I’ve ever read. I find myself looking forward to what ever Chris Bohjalian will come up with next – The Double Bind, a recent one, is a beautiful sad book. There are others whose names I recognize when I see them, but I can’t think of them offhand …

And if there’s nothing intriguing on the “New Fiction” shelf, I go to the regular stacks for – Hemingway. Fitzgerald. Gardner (although I’ve got my own “Grendel” now). Dos Passos (but I’ve got my own USA Trilogy too). Walker Percy (but the library doesn’t have any). Dickens, believe it or not. I took the unabridged Tale of Two Cities Book on CD on a trip to Wisconsin autumn before last – crossed into La Crosse in a mist of emotion as Sidney Carton thought his last thoughts: who could read or hear that and not wish they lived in a better world?

I was sorry to see John Gardner die so relatively young – although his late books were not even close to Grendel, The Sunlight Dialogues and Jason and Medea. But what the hell – three like that, and he never had to do another thing to be immortal in a Homeric way, so far as I was concerned.

Arlo Guthrie is a sort-of contemporary writer whose series of novels beginning with The Big Sky moved me – not just emotionally, but intellectually in the way I thought about the West. Although the last couple novels in that series got really depressing. Once his pathfinder guy disappeared from the novels, it was like he got depressed himself …

There are a number of writers who are like landmarks in the geography of my mind – people I find myself quoting often, and too often the same quotations … Thoreau, even though I mostly argue with him. Whitman, even though I’m often impatient when his effulgence drops a notch into bombast. Emerson, whom I occasionally comprehend in Nature, but also argue with. Kerouac when he is burning rather than burnt. Daniel Boorstin whose Americans trilogy has some of the most thoughtful American history I’ve found. Abbey, whose Desert Solitaire has some of the best and worst western writing ever.

But mostly I sit here trying to write, and hardly seem to ever get around to reading as much as I ought to, or would like to. I need to work out a better schedule.

One Comment

  1. Bill Patterson Bill Patterson March 17, 2011

    Very good interview, got to send to him an email asking for an edition of “Dragons in Paradise now…thanks!

Comments are closed.