September 2008

The Wright Stuff

Durango author advises, 'Want less, do more'

By Connie Gotsch

Some people howl that we must give up our modern comforts to save the earth.

Durango freelance journalist and Fort Lewis College instructor Ken Wright believes the rescue starts with another idea: Lead less-complicated lives by choosing what is important, working for that, and letting the rest go.

He says that if he could make a bumper sticker — which he just might one day — it would read, “Want Less and Do More.” To him that means spending fewer hours working, buying fewer material things, and spending more time with family, neighbors and friends.

“Go out and do things in town, in your community, and on the land,” says the wiry, soft-spoken Wright. “That doesn’t mean traveling to the nearest beautiful national park. What’s down the street and over the hill by the house?”

Wright practices this philosophy, and over the years has put the experience into articles for magazines such as Inside Outside, and Paddler. He has written for the environmental page for the Farmington Daily Times.

Recently, he reshaped 42 of the pieces he’s written into short, snappy creative non-fiction essays and put them into a book called “The Monkey Wrench Dad,” published by Raven’s Eye Press in Durango.

While he claims that mid-life — ”what else? — motivated the project, a deeper reason also gave rise to the collection.

As a journalist, he found himself fielding a tough question from readers: How could he claim to have strong environmental ideals, and still live what he described as “that lovely West Slope lifestyle” in Durango? How could he desire changes in mass culture and still be a father, own a house, and have a job in Modern America?

“I wanted to look at the idea that you don’t have to pack up your kids and move to the outback of Alaska to be living true to some really valuable and important and valid ideals,” he says.

These ideals began developing in Wright’s mind during the 1980s. Brought up outside Boston, he attended college, became a technical writer, and took a job in the city. It didn’t make him happy. A friend invited him to come to Colorado and ski.

He did, and also became a river guide, traveled, lived in tents during the warm months, and eventually discovered the writings of novelist and environmentalist Edward Abbey.

Abbey’s life philosophy resonated with Wright and eventually became the jumping-off point for ‘The Monkey Wrench Dad,” a title which plays on Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” a satirical tale of four environmentalists trying to blow up Glen Canyon Dam.

“Monkey-wrenching is taking back the parts of your life you can, and making them yours.” Wright’s soft voice rises in excitement. “Taking your life back from the culture that is surrounding us.”

Abbey defined heroes as people who worked, raised decent children, and built a community with a minimum of material goods. The defense of and survival of the earth depended on the integrity of how people lived.

Wright thinks balance is the key to finding this integrity. He does not believe in giving up electricity or air- conditioning to do it.

“We can build a culture based on using technology well rather than having it enslave us. That’s the point of ‘The Monkey Wrench Dad.’ Everybody’s got the plan for the big things, but what are the little things we can do?”

He has spent his life trying to answer that question. When he married, he bought a van and took his family exploring along Forest Service roads and “in nooks and crannies 20 minutes from home.” Soon they spent one night a week sleeping and eating outdoors, and most importantly talking to each other. His wife shopped locally.

Now teenagers, his kids use computers and watch TV, but also go out, dig deep into their surroundings and discover the small things that familiarity might make them miss if they didn’t look hard for them.

Wright believes his son and daughter like the life he’s offered them. “We camped out last night. What 13- and 15-year-old [usually] wants to hang out in the backyard with Dad?”

From his experience living in cities, Wright believes that both rural and city dwellers can apply “Monkey Wrench Dad” ideas to their situations. Urban areas offer much within walking distance or by public transportation, provided people get out, discover their neighborhoods, become a part of them, and above all, improve them.

Wright learned a lot about himself putting together his book. “I think I was really troubled by my lack of ability to nail down a career or a single job. I’ve been a failure at trying to hold a 9-to-5 for any great length of time,“ he says, though he does enjoy part-time employment and its flexible hours. “The thing that came out of writing this book is: That’s me. It’s not a mistake.”

He doesn’t expect to change the world or his children with “The Monkey Wrench Dad.” Rather, he wants to point out the modifications he’s made to his lifestyle,and what he got out of making them. He also hopes that others will find ways to make adaptations which are right for them, and that he has given his children something to think about as they reach adulthood.

If people think hard about how they live, and make careful choices, the big environmental changes will follow.