Books » Book Features

Jay Schoenberger’s Great Outdoors

“I Am Coyote” is wilderness writing just right for your backpack.



Jay Schoenberger, who lives today in San Francisco, didn't grow up hiking the Sierra Nevada. In grade school, then in high school at Memphis University School, he stayed closer to home: Shelby Farms, the Mississippi and Wolf rivers, east Arkansas, and north Mississippi.

As a student at Vanderbilt, he started mountaineering in East Tennessee. But after college (and before graduate school at Stanford), Schoenberger headed to Wyoming to participate in the National Outdoor Leadership School. It's where he gained some solid wilderness training, and it's where he realized his life's work: preserving the natural environment. Inside his backpack during all these years was a loose-leaf stack of noteworthy wilderness writings meant to inspire and designed to share.

Jay Schoenberger
  • Jay Schoenberger

I Am Coyote: Readings for the Wild (foreword by Bill McKibben; illustrations by Peter Arkle) is Schoenberger's collection of those scattered writings, and among the authors, you'll find Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, John Darwin, Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Gilbert, Mark Twain, Robert Frost, and Edward Abbey. But there are surprises here as well: among them, Albert Camus, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and, from our own neck of the woods, Mississippi River guide John Ruskey.

Schoenberger, who works for a group that invests in wind energy development, calls I Am Coyote his "passion project."

"I've been kicking the idea around for a while," Schoenberger said. "And what really initiated the book was when I started going to outdoors shops looking to replace my loose collection of papers. But the books I found weren't what I was looking for. I found books about male bravado, of proving yourself on adventures. Other books described the beauty of nature, but there was no compendium of the great wilderness writings — writings that friends and members of the outdoors community could take with them on their journeys. I could have compiled the works of John Muir or an anthology of the works of the transcendentalists, but nothing for this specific audience. So I did it myself.

"The book is not intended to be man-sees-mountain-and-climbs-it. It's about not only nature and the variety to be found there but a lot of things that are related to the wilderness: reflection, meditation, and general awareness. But what resonates first and foremost throughout the book is a focus on people living vigorously and authentically — people deeply engrossed in the experience, immersed in it, grappling with all that that experience entails, including the joys and the struggles."

The book is divided into five parts and consists of fiction and nonfiction, poetry and essays: from pieces that describe the excitement of setting out, to the awe and tranquility that nature inspires, to descriptions of the great outdoors at its most powerful and punishing, to nature as a means to self-discovery, to nature in need of preserving. Among the classics included, there's "To Build a Fire" by Jack London, one of those stories, Schoenberger said, "you kind of remember forever" and a favorite among backpackers to read at the end of a long day.

But the piece in I Am Coyote perhaps closest to Schoenberger is Wallace Stegner's powerful, eloquent argument for conservation, an essay Stegner presented to the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission in 1960: "Wilderness Letter." It's a document Schoenberger first read when he was in Wyoming and one he always kept in his backpack. It's also a landmark document, written in 1960, that was key to establishing the Wilderness Act, which has its 50th anniversary this year.

Schoenberger wants Memphians, especially, to look locally: to recognize — and respect — the nature preserves and wilderness around them. Shelby Farms, for example, he called "a treasure." And the river at the city's doorstep?

"A lot of people grow up thinking of the wilderness as the Rocky Mountains or Glacier National Park," Schoenberger said. "But there's a fantastic wilderness right in the middle of the country. When you're out there on the Mississippi River, north or south of Memphis, it's basically you and passing barges and tugboats and some guys fishing. It's still pretty much wilderness, and that makes it a remarkable thing."

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