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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   November 2009

River of Dreams

Catron County author Uncle River doesn't have to look far to find alternate universes.

By David A. Fryxell



Behind owlish glasses, a twinkle comes into the eyes of the man with the white beard and floppy hat, wearing a "Pie Town, New Mexico" T-shirt. "If I had known any of this would happen," he says, patting the pile of books beside him like an adoring father, "I wouldn't have adopted a funny name."

Uncle River
Uncle River in Mogollon with his 1963 Ford truck.
(Photo ©Kelly D. Gatlin/La Luz Photography)

That "funny name" is "Uncle River," the nom de plume of Catron County's most famous ex-Jungian analyst, hermit, science-fiction writer and soon-to-be EMT.

"This" refers to a burst of newly and soon-to-be published books by Uncle River, including: a collection of his "Mogollon News" columns; Counting Tadpoles, a short-story collection; a novel, Camp Desolation and the Eschatology of Salt; a re-issue of his "autobiography" of Prometheus; and stories in a batch of new anthologies. He'll be signing copies of The Mogollon News and some of his science-fiction books on Saturday, Nov. 21, from 1-3 p.m. at the Silver City Museum Store.

Although the Mogollon collection has the most obvious local interest, much of River's science fiction — including half the stories in Counting Tadpoles — has a New Mexico setting. Confessing that he only "marginally" fits into the science-fiction genre, River prefers the term "speculative fiction," which better suggests the paucity of rayguns and starships in River's tales about places such as "Becky's Ham," his fictional analog of Silver City.

Becky's Ham is a town on the border between this world and the dream world — which, he adds, also explains "why Silver City is the way it is." (The name "Becky's Ham," he reveals reluctantly, owes its origins to a devout but illiterate character's spelling of "Bethlehem.")

"When I have plans in Silver City, it's always a rolling agenda," River says with a beatific smile. "Whatever I planned doesn't happen, but something else becomes possible that I couldn't have planned. It's something you learn to live with or run screaming.

"Up in Catron County, although the world has impinged there more in recent years, it's still more in the dream world. It's enough different from the rest of society, with its own structure. It's more like traditional societies where life depends on local circumstances and the will of the spirits."



The Mogollon News collects a decade of River's writings about Catron County, 1985-95, centered on the isolated Gila Wilderness ghost town where he lived for most of that time. As he was preparing to move to Mogollon, the editor of the weekly Silver City Enterprise asked him to write a column reporting the news from the little town.

River agreed to give it a try, but soon hit a snag: "I realized I would either bore everyone or get myself lynched. If there was anything interesting in Mogollon, people probably didn't want it written about."

He had another revelation while on a sunny mountain slope in January 1986. Mark Twain, he recalled, had gotten his start as a fiction writer filing imagined dispatches for the Virginia City, Nev., newspaper. "If it was good enough for him." So River wrote "a piece of balderdash" about winter in Mogollon: "At last measurement, the snow on the shady side of the street was 18 feet deep. This measurement was taken by having Joe Malloney, who is six feet tall, stand with a surveyor's stick on his head. Unfortunately, Joe froze stiff, and while the local rescue crew was digging him out, the surveyor's stick got lost in the snow. It is probably deeper by now, though no further measurements have been attempted."

The Enterprise published it, and the yarns that followed. It wasn't until River came into Silver City for a visit four months later that the editor asked, "Are these stories fiction?" By then, however, "The Mogollon News" was too popular to pull the plug.

The postmaster in Glenwood, which serves Mogollon, was fooled, too. River recalls, "She asked me, 'Is this fiction?' She'd wondered why she didn't know any of these people. That confirmed I'd caught it right.

"I started when I was pretty new to Mogollon," he adds. "As it became more real to me, the characters came alive. They were all fiction, but not all of the incidents were fiction."

River happened to begin chronicling Catron County as it was becoming a flashpoint for controversies over the management of public lands. "I didn't want to write about politics," he says, "so I wrote personal stories of characters where this outlook was coming from — social commentary that portrayed the worldview of a particular kind of place. I tried to portray little events so the experiences people have there become real."

River's "news" about the Bloated Goat Saloon, the Silver Creek Temperance Society, Bulldog the mechanic and his wife Petunia, the eternal campaigners for office (often against each other) Jim and Melissa Farnsworth and the other denizens of Mogollon continued in the Enterprise until its abrupt closing in November 1987. By that time, though, the column had also become popular with KRWG-FM radio listeners. It kept going in print in a variety of small papers as far away as Utah, as well as in the British speculative-fiction magazine BBR, until 1995.

By then, River had moved to a remote dwelling on the Blue River — his most hermit-like phase — and, he says, "I felt like I was losing my feel for Mogollon. It was time to stop."

The new collection from LBF Books brings nearly 400 pages of "The Mogollon News" back into print. A back-cover blurb by Colorado science-fiction author David B. Riley perhaps describes it best: "It's like Lake Wobegon meets New Mexico."



The difference, of course, is that "A Prarie Home Companion" radio host and author Garrison Keillor celebrates the "Lake Wobegon" he left behind in rural Minnesota, whereas Uncle River's life ran in reverse: He left the intellectual haven of Boston, where he'd grown up as Stephen Kaufman, to live in the wilderness of Catron County and chronicle its sometimes-peculiar characters.

River/Kaufman still vividly recalls the moment he first imagined a life beyond the Boston suburbs, on a 1962 canoe trip to Maine at age 14. Camping on a lake in country populated more by moose and mosquitoes than people, on "the most glorious day of the whole summer," suddenly four fighter jets in formation zoomed overhead. Someone in the camping party wondered aloud, "What if a war has started?" The future Uncle River had his answer immediately: "I'd stay right here!"

He remembers, "It was the first time it had ever entered my head that I could live in nature. In that moment, that was the beginning of how I ended up here." Much later, he would take out his fifth-grade atlas and pinpoint "the least-populated place in the US with a nice climate" — which turned out to be Catron County, NM.

Before arriving here in the fall of 1977 — impelled, as with most of the major changes in his life, by a dream — or settling down to stay in 1982, however, River would embark on a long odyssey that ranged from Switzerland to Oklahoma. A year-abroad program in 1968-69 while studying at Goddard College in Vermont took him to the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich, where analysis sessions "unlocked a flood of dreams" and he began to study psychotherapy. After Goddard, he would earn a PhD in "the Psychology of the Unconscious" (his own label for the degree) from the Union Graduate School, a consortium of experimental colleges.

On a cross-country trip to assemble his graduate committee, however, a blizzard stranded him in Tahlequah, Okla., where a former fellow student was teaching at Northeastern State University. That student had been doing readings of an epic poem River/Kaufman had written as a senior project at Goddard, "The Cosmic Cycle" — a poem whose beginning and ending, significantly, describe a river. It turned out that he had a following as a writer in Oklahoma.

River and his friend, whom the university was trying to oust anyway, would go on to found the Flaming Rainbow (from a phrase in Black Elk Speaks) University Without Walls Center. After returning to Switzerland and practicing as an analyst in rural Massachusetts for three years, River/Kaufman had a dream that sent him back to Oklahoma. "It was the center of the universe," he says, "where I needed to be."

His modest fame as a writer there had grown, with his first publication in 1976 under the byline "Uncle River" — a pseudonym he'd used for some fiction and poetry written in Zurich — in The Wellspring, a little periodical launched by friends in Oklahoma. His dreamt-of career as a psychoanalyst in Oklahoma, however, was aborted when the state refused to recognize his degree. Soon after, the bite of a copperhead snake added injury to insult.

"My identity as Dr. Stephen Kaufman, Jungian analyst, completely melted away," he recalls. "But people knew and respected Uncle River, the writer. I didn't know who else to be."



By the time another set of dreams drove him to Catron County to do "the work that was mine to do," Uncle River's writing career was slowly getting traction. "I'd been writing all along, and people who knew me had published me," he recalls, so he figured writing must be that work he was meant to do.

"I began submitting stories blindly. I bought a copy of Writers Market, and sent stories to literary and science fiction magazines. Only the science fiction magazines showed any interest, so I kept trying there."

He broke into the "semi-pro" ranks in the pages of Tales of the Unanticipated, and began getting personal rejection slips from Gardner Dozois, editor of Asimov's science-fiction magazine, and Stanley Schmidt, editor of Analog Science Fiction and Fact (who wrote the introduction to River's new Counting Tadpoles collection). Finally, in 1994, Dozois bought a story. Because of page cutbacks at Asimov's, however, Uncle River's first professional sale didn't see print until 1997 — by which time Schmidt had also bought a story, which ran in Analog two months later.

Uncle River burst upon the science-fiction scene just as he was beginning a seven-year stint living on the Blue River. "The owner of the land let me live on it until he was ready to move there. It was ideal for me, a third of a mile from the nearest neighbor. I was very much a hermit there."

Those years were productive for writing, but when the owner of the land was finally ready to occupy it, another dream told River, "I'd written everything I could without new learning. I was stagnating."

He spent a year teaching at Western New Mexico University, where he met and befriended Jack Ellis, of WNMU's theater faculty. Ellis first came to campus for a science-fiction convention, GilaCon, that River organized, and River has since appeared in several WNMU plays. River moved back to Catron County, first to Reserve to try to set up a WNMU program there, and then to Pleasanton, where he wrote Camp Desolation.

His latest move, in 2006, took him farther from Silver City friends, to Pie Town. He still has no telephone and drives a battered 1963 Ford pickup he bought in 1984. But the erstwhile hermit does now have Internet access — courtesy of a neighbor who's seldom in Pie Town and likes having River check on the place while he checks his email. And his home smack dab on the Continental Divide boasts an emergency radio from the local volunteer fire department.

"That's because I always said if I moved close enough to town to walk to the fire department, I'd volunteer," River explains. True to his word, he's become a First Responder, and plans to take the state EMT licensing test in December.

Since moving to Pie Town, he confesses, he's written almost no fiction. Maybe it's the interruptions by that radio, an unaccustomed noise for a former hermit. Or perhaps Uncle River has finally settled into Catron County and become one of his own characters, like those in The Mogollon News.

Indeed, when asked how someone coming from Boston by way of the Jung Institute and Flaming Rainbow University could write so sympathetically about the fiercely individualistic worldview of folks in Catron County, River pauses for a long beat.

"Well," he says at last, giving the brim of his floppy hat a tug, "it's not just their worldview to me any more. I'm really very much a part of living in Catron County."

At least, that is, until Uncle River's dreams tell him someplace else is the center of the universe. And then, who knows?

"Some people have good luck. Some people have bad luck," Uncle River says with a shrug that ripples the P I E T O W N letters on his shirt. "I have weird luck."



Uncle River will sign The Mogollon News and other books on Saturday, Nov. 21, 1-3 p.m. at the Silver City Museum, 312 W. Broadway, 538-5921.

 

David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.






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