Wednesday, December 6

The Crestone Eagle is a nonprofit monthly newspaper serving Crestone and the San Luis Valley

Who We Are: Peter Anderson: Exploring the “scripture of place”

For many years Peter Anderson wasn’t sure whether his earliest recollection was real or if he had made it up. The memory was of a moment in time at about age two: He was sitting on what seemed like a huge, moss-covered boulder as shafts of sunlight filtered through trees near his family’s Long Island, New York home. Years later, he saw an old family slide from that time, and indeed, there was that big rock. His memory was real. And the boulder that made such an intimate impression on his young mind turned out to be a forerunner of countless hills and mountains that would shape his life in the decades to come.

Peter was 13 when another harbinger of his future passions took place. His Mississippi-born grandmother was visiting, and he showed her a poem he’d written, which he now describes as corny. But his grandmother, a natural storyteller in the old Southern tradition, read the poem, looked at him, and said, “You know, you’re going to be a writer someday.” Smiling, he says the prediction was “not based on any evidence that I could write.” But it planted a seed.

These two threads, the outdoors—especially mountains, wilderness, and rivers—and writing, have interwoven throughout Peter’s adult life. While delving into the aspects of place that give it meaning, in particular the confluence of the natural, human, and spiritual, he has published numerous books, poems, and personal essays. He has earned awards, edited anthologies, and founded the Crestone Poetry Festival. For 10 years he penned monthly reflections in a column titled “Dispatches from the Edge,” which appeared in the Crestone Eagle and Colorado Central Magazine.

Tracks west

Peter has long been intrigued by both silent stillness and the journey of life. His childhood home sat beside railroad tracks, and nearby was an old Quaker school and meeting house. When he asked about it, his parents explained that Quakers sit together in silence and occasionally someone says something. Years later he would attend a Quaker seminary in Indiana, in a program called the ministry of writing. He also muses that hearing trains rumble by every day as a boy contributed to a sense of restlessness—he left his hometown immediately following high school, headed West.

At Colorado College in Colorado Springs, he took an anthropology course that blew open his vision of the world, both present and past. It was a monthlong Santa Fe-based field course in which the students met individuals steeped in centuries-old Native and Spanish Colonial cultures he had no idea existed. He became an anthropology major, finishing his studies at a small college in Maine where his self-designed curriculum focused on humans interacting with nature.

And interacting with nature is what he has done—as a boatman on Grand Canyon river trips, a rafting guide on the Arkansas River, a backcountry Forest Service ranger in Utah’s Uinta Range, and always, still today, getting onto rivers and into mountains whenever he can.

Becoming a writer

In 1978, when Peter began the Arkansas River gig, he drove up Chalk Canyon outside Buena Vista looking for a place to live. He happened upon a scattering of old cabins rented by hippies, one of whom was Kizzen Laki, who later settled in Crestone and founded the Eagle. After meeting Kizzen and some of her friends, Peter drove farther up the canyon. He rounded a bend and came upon the mining ghost town of St. Elmo, some of whose intact but empty 19th-century buildings still contained old furniture and other left-behind belongings. “Wow,” he thought, “I just drove back in time!” He found an old cabin to rent and became one of St. Elmo’s handful of inhabitants for a few years.

In non-rafting seasons Peter worked construction, but after a few years he realized he had no desire to be a carpenter and rafting guide the rest of his life. At 28, with no clear direction, he was seized by the existential questions of life: Why am I here? Who am I? What do I do? Eventually he remembered a professor’s praise for his writing. Thinking about authors like Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder passionately advocating knowing the place one lives, he decided that would be his path.

He dove into research about St. Elmo, hunkering over old microfilm in the Salida and Buena Vista libraries, and produced a book, From Gold to Ghosts: A History of St. Elmo, Colorado. He got a job writing for the Mountain Mail newspaper in Salida, the Pueblo Chieftain, and after moving to Durango, as a stringer for the Denver Post. Then one day, a calloused old-school newsman assigned him to write about the heart-rending experience of a family awaiting news of a loved one buried in an avalanche. “I realized I wasn’t that kind of journalist, I wasn’t an ambulance chaser,” he says.

The heart’s journey

Instead, after earning a master’s degree focused on literature of the West, he turned to writing and editing about natural history for National Parks. He wrote a series of children’s books, taught literature and writing, and attended Quaker seminary. Gradually he gathered the experience and awareness to express what he calls the “scripture of place.” His book, First Church of the Higher Elevations: Mountains, Prayer, and Presence, was completed and published after he and his wife Grace settled in Crestone in 2000 with their then-baby Rosalea. Their younger daughter Caroline was born four years later.

Peter recently stepped back from the board of Crestone Eagle Community Media (the nonprofit that purchased the Eagle), where he served for almost four years, three years as board president. Now, at his writing desk with views of mature piñon and juniper trees surrounding his Baca foothills home, his projects include another children’s book, a mystery, and more poetry and personal writing. Look for his latest book at the Merc, an anthology of Colorado writers called Reading Colorado: A Literary Road Guide. He also hopes to establish a micro-press for publishing short volumes by regional authors.

After decades of attuning to the inner and outer experiences that define place, Peter believes he has found his true home. “It’s the contemplative life, the silence, space, and incredible geography here,” he says, “and a community that understands and values that way of living.”

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