Hello, Chautauquans! We're starting off our blog with profiles of some of the authors that we have featured over the years.
To many, nature folds into whatever is leftover past the world of brick houses and computer screens. To Mark Liebenow, nature is much more than a convenient background: it is something sacred.
Growing up in Wisconsin, Liebenow was an avid outdoorsman. As a child in a farming community, “the world was [his] backyard.” He credits his time in the Boy Scouts of America with teaching him survival skills and instilling within a great love for nature. He also loved to read. While he favored books like the Hardy Boys series, he also read “anything that had words—magazines, cereal boxes, [and] the warning labels on pillows.” At the age of 10, he began to summarize his Boy Scout troop’s meetings for the newspaper. He quickly discovered that the meetings sounded similar, and so he attempted to find new ways to make the material sound interesting. In high school, he discovered journalism and poetry. In his sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Liebenow changed his major from pre-med to journalism and never looked back.
“Writing,” he explains, “is how I have always understood the world.”
Liebenow first discovered Chautauqua during college. His grandmother nominated him for a scholarship to act as the Wisconsin representative over the summer. That year, he attended as many seminars, classes, and workshops in literature and writing as he could at the Chautauqua grounds. After one memorable event, he even spoke with acclaimed broadcast journalist Ted Koppel, who said that a journalist “needed to be a specialist in one area of knowledge and be able to write.” As a journalism major with an interest in nature and religion, Liebenow took this advice to heart. Liebenow pondered Koppel’s words while exploring the lake and woods of Chautauqua and found that he felt called to go to seminary.
For Liebenow, nature, writing, and spirituality are linked.
“Nature is where I go when I feel disconnected… I feel the presence of the Other, the Power that flows through the Universe. Hiking… renews the creative spark inside and shakes me out of the boxes of complacency I’ve settled into.”
In 2001, Liebenow’s family suffered a terrible blow. His wife died, suddenly and prematurely, and he could not find any books that rang true in terms of his feelings about his loss. To cope, he threw himself into writing. Prior to his wife’s death, Liebenow had written three books on theology. Now he tried something different. His fourth book, Mountains of Light: Seasons of Reflection in Yosemite, is an exploration of the nature activist John Muir’s interpretations of the park. It features “geology, botany, and biology” of Yosemite while trailing a steady thread of Liebenow’s grief over his loss.
While researching the Yosemite book, Liebenow spent a lot of time hiking alone. That way, he kept himself free from distractions and was able to “listen to nature.” The process, he says, “added a measure of danger,” but opened his mind to the sanctity of the natural world. A chapter from the Yosemite manuscript went on to win the Chautauqua Prize for Nonfiction, be named one of Best American Essays 2012’s notable essays, and receive a Pushcart Prize nomination.
Liebenow also worked on a second manuscript alongside Mountains of Light: a grief manuscript about his late wife. An essay from the work, “Tinkering with Grief in the Woods,” won the Literal Latte Essay Award in 2012.
Nonfiction is not Liebenow’s only genre. He is also an accomplished poet and beginning playwright. His poetry has been adapted into song by composers like John Orfe and Stephen Heinemann. He even worked as a lyricist for jazz musician Robert Levy.
“Where all this will lead, I don’t know,” he admits, in keeping with his adventurous spirit, “but it’s exciting.”