In 1973, Proulx had passed her comprehensive exams at Montreal's Sir George Williams University, now Concordia, and was well on the way to earning a doctorate in history when she dropped out in favor of a life in rural Vermont. There, she raised three sons (she has married and divorced three times) mostly on earnings from freelance writing, including how-to books like The Fine Art of Salad Gardening and Making the Best Apple Cider.
In those years, Proulx, a lifelong, voracious reader, wrote fiction when she could, publishing a story or two a year in magazines like Gray's Sporting Journal and Esquire. "I did it in snatched moments, working on a paragraph while sitting in the dentist's waiting room, stuff like that," she said in a 1993 interview with The Independent. When one of Proulx's magazine editors took a new job in book publishing, he encouraged her to write a collection of stories and helped secure a contract. The result, Heart Songs and Other Stories, published in 1988, earned critical praise and marked the start of Proulx's life as a full-time fiction writer.
But she never lost her academic undergirding and her interest in the intersection between ecology, economy and history; even now, asked to name writers she admires, she plucks a decidedly scholarly volume from the thousands of books in her home library.
"This is a hugely important book," she says of History and Ecology: Studies of the Grassland, by James Malin, a Kansas historian. "It's badly written -- he wasn't a writer -- but the information in it and the outlook is first-rate." Malin believed a region's human history was largely determined by the environment, and so he wrote as much about rocks, insects, fire, weather, animals and plants as he did about people. "An ecological approach to history -- I'd have to say that's my approach, too."
She's working on what she calls "a little book about this place," her home -- "a mix of history, bird and animal observations, soil and water, rare plants, archaeology, fence problems, the rigors of house construction, things that went right and others that did not, conservation efforts -- something between a memoir and a close examination of place."
But she's not part of what she calls the Annie Dillard school of writing. (Dillard is the author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and other lyrical, eco-spiritual books.) "I don't see nature as a healing force," she says. "I'm probably more objective than that."
It is an unromantic way of interpreting the world and is, perhaps, what has allowed Proulx to live alone for years in far-off spots without succumbing to solitude. "Women generally spend most of their lives in other people's company," she says. "First, you're a child with your parents and siblings, and then you're married with children of your own. Eventually, in some cases, that all goes away, and then you're either free to do something or you're lonely. And I'm not lonely."
That toughness is a hallmark. So is a certain clear-eyed honesty, says prominent Western historian Patty Limerick, a friend of Proulx's. Limerick's husband died four years ago. "When you are widowed," she tells me, "people are in varying degrees of comfort in your company because you represent everything that people don't want to be thinking about. She would be on my short list of people you want to be with in that situation. Sometimes you find yourself trying to be reassuring to the people you're with. With her, you are just an afflicted human being, but also a human being who's moving on."
It's a sort of generosity -- that unvarnished, unsentimental version of things. The same generosity, perhaps, that permits Proulx to find value in and anticipate heartbreak for a place she doesn't love.
Days after talking with her, I drove through black night past a lit-up drill rig a few miles south of Wamsutter, a center of Red Desert drilling. Countless other rigs were strung like Christmas lights along the horizon, and then, through my car window, a different and sudden sort of light: the green trail of a shooting star.
My eyes fixed there, on the glowing blackness left by a far-off burned-out meteorite. And then I looked back at the rig, heard the generator's hum.
Proulx won't plead for conservation, but her documentation of the Red Desert is one long and quiet argument for recognizing what is here, the whole bruised entirety of it. The desert is a place complicated by history -- at once ruined and beautiful, worth defending from change and yet always changing.
When the gas is gone, there will be wind. Companies are already planning turbine farms in the desert -- which will kill birds and bats, which will need roads, which will give southern Wyoming a sudden space-age skyline. This is how it's always been in the Red Desert: one industry after another, booming and then busting, leaving behind its scars and artifacts.
"It's not going to be saved. It's not possible to save it," Proulx says, matter-of-factly. "This is Wyoming; it's an energy state. The best we can hope for is that part of it not be given over to oil and gas extraction. We'll see how that one goes," she says. "I'm not holding my breath."