David Robertson, an English professor at UC Davis, is a big fan of Yosemite National Park and the natural world. That being so, he has managed to focus his career as a teacher and writer on "real matter" and the title of his latest book, which focuses on the natural world, is "Real Matter." His mantra might be: "The closer you get to real matter, the more spiritual the world is."
"The book is an exploration of the idea that matter and spirit are not separate, as is so often the case in American religious practice, but are in fact are one and the same," he said.
The book is connected to literature, too, in that Robertson chose to literally follow in the footsteps of literary trailblazers like Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder. He follows the trails taken by Snyder and Kerouac and Philip Whalen to gain insight into Buddhism and its connection with the natural world. And he visits the Mesa Trail in Death Valley to understand what Mary Austin, a writer Robertson greatly admires, called "the soundness of nature."
The book also contains descriptions of his own trips and many of his unique, whimsical black and white photographs, in which he makes frequent fuzzy appearances.
"Many of my photographs and I think much of my writing communicate a kind of ambivalence about all of this involvement in the natural world," he said.
"That is, in some ways I like to describe myself as a true believer and a true skeptic at the same time and I found through the photographs a way of doing both of those using humor to undercut the message that the photos seem to want to say. The photos in the book remind the reader that I'm pretty self-conscious about what I'm doing."
Robertson earned a traditional Ph.D at Yale in religious studies and then his beliefs began to transition from a fairly orthodox Christian orientation to a more liberal orientation to something that he now says is outside the pale of Christianity and better fits the natural world.
"What in essence I have done is change a lot of the details of my religious belief but I don't think I've changed the fundamental orientation in that direction. I have turned to the natural world as the content of my belief as opposed to a more traditional Christian approach," he said.
This transition began before the move to Davis when he and his wife, Jeannette, lived in Texas and then Southern California.
"She got me into camping and into backpacking, she was the one who was really enthusiastic about it and the more I did it the more I liked it," Robertson said. "Then we moved to Davis in 1971 and started going to places two to four hours from here and Yosemite is the place we liked the best." Robertson came to Davis knowing that he wanted to research writers who lived in Northern California. He got interested in the San Francisco literary renaissance and taught several courses in the early '70s on that subject. "But I quickly found out that I was really interested in the writers among that group like Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder who were interested in the natural world," he said. This began a longterm interest in Snyder and his writings and "Real Matter" came out of that association.
For instance he wrote about climbing the Matterhorn peak in the Sierra with Snyder in 1986. This was a repeat performance for Snyder who made the climb in 1955 with Kerouac. Robertson had tried to climb Matterhorn once before, too, but failed due to altitude sickness. The second time around, he made it, although not without considerable pain and discomfort due again to altitude sickness.
"As in many cases, things that are discomforting at the time turn out to be good things to write about. So I wrote it up and published it in the magazine published by the Yosemite Association and didn't really think much more about it until a graduate student and my wife, Jeannette, suggested that I make this and other trips I had been taking into a book. I wasn't sure it was going to work but I tried it and indeed 'Real Matter' is the result."
"Real Matter" is available at local bookstores, published in trade paperback by the University of Utah Press.
Robertson also has been active bringing the study of nature to English department classrooms and was instrumental in starting a new academic major at UC Davis, the Program in Nature and Culture, an innovative, interdisciplinary major that began offering degrees in 1994.