Annie Proulx does not love the Red Desert in southern Wyoming. That's what she says, anyway, though she's spent the last six years writing and editing a nonfiction book about the place.
"I think it's dangerous to love the desert," says the writer, who is known for telling brutal stories about rough, out-on-the-edge places and the people who live in them. "Because it's a heartbreaker to see what's happening to it. You know -- to watch its destruction."
We are sitting at a narrow table in her living room, two coffee cups on saucers between us, Wyoming sun bending through a wall of windows that look out on the North Platte River and a limestone cliff that captures each day's shifting light. Proulx breathes, taps her fingertips, and leans back.
The Red Desert, which lies just west of her home, is a 6 million-acre swath of federal, state and private land generally left off lists of the state's scenic highlights. To most people, it's just the Big Empty that flanks Interstate 80 for a hundred miles or so between Rawlins and Rock Springs -- a sagebrush ocean where the wind blows hard enough in winter to overturn semi trucks. From the road, it appears poorly named. There is little red to be seen, especially during the long hours of Wyoming's midday, when the sun flattens everything from here to the horizon into shades of brown and gray-green.
In recent years, a fever for oil and gas drilling has gripped the region. Roughly 5,000 wells have been drilled here, according to conservationists, but in the last four years, the Bureau of Land Management has approved or begun the approval process for 15,000 more. Where once there was wide quiet space and herds of cows and sheep and antelope and elk, now there are three-story drilling rigs and squat well pads, half-dug pipeline ditches snaking off to the horizon, invasive weeds, truck traffic, dust plumes.
There may be no better place than this one -- stark, little-known and shaped by a long human history of work and habitation -- in which to reconsider what makes a particular piece of land worth saving. And there may be no more fitting writer to do that reconsidering than the fierce and unsentimental outsider, Annie Proulx.
Proulx, 73, writes about rural people and places with spare language and severe grace. She started her career late, publishing her first book of stories at 56 and almost immediately winning literature's biggest honors, including the PEN/Faulkner Award (for her first novel, Postcards) and the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize (for her second, The Shipping News).