Connecting to Places and Pasts
How historian Leisl Carr Childers sees the West to tell stories of it
This bonus newsletter is a monthly feature for paid subscribers, the fifth in the series. These extras showcase edited interviews with someone whose work intersects in some way with this newsletter’s focus—place, history, writing. I hope you enjoy this one and those to come.
I met Leisl Carr Childers at a history conference about 15 years ago. Over the years, our academic interests grew closer together. I respect no historian of public lands more than Leisl and have learned a tremendous amount from her. Our intellectual common interests grew into a strong friendship. And that friendship not only survived but strengthened through a collaborative essay we wrote that you can find in Wallace Stegner’s Unsettled Country: Ruin, Realism, and Possibility in the American West.
Leisl is an associate professor of history at Colorado State University. Her first book, The Size of the Risk: Histories of Multiple Use in the Great Basin, earned the 2016 Spur Award for Contemporary Nonfiction. She also has been involved with numerous public and digital history projects from the Nevada Test Site Oral History Project to an Art of Ranching project. And, as you’ll see below, she’s deeply thoughtful.
(NOTE: the following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
How do you describe yourself and your work?
Leisl Carr Childers
That's the question I like the least, Adam. I knew it was coming, and I still don't have a good answer to it. I don't really feel like I have very good intellectual boundaries if that makes sense. A lot of scholars focus deeply on one thing, and I really can't seem to do that. My work seems to come from a place of just looking at the world around me and wondering why things are the way they are.
My work seems to come from a place of just looking at the world around me and wondering why things are the way they are.
When I was in Nevada in grad school, I looked around at some of the things I was doing with the Nevada Test Site Oral History Project. I wasn't particularly interested in Cold War nuclear testing, but it was kind of fun to be part of that project and talk to people about their experiences. I just ended up doing whatever Mary Palevsky, the director of the project, told me to do, which was going out into the middle of Nevada and talking to people who are really hard to get a hold of and also really hard to get to for their interviews. I'm like, “Sure, I'll do that. Why not? I can change tires on dirt roads.” So I did.
That interview that I did with Gracian Uhalde that opened my first book was kind of a wake-up call. There was a lot I didn't know. I didn't know that when I was out in the middle of nowhere in Nevada between Reno, Salt Lake City, and Las Vegas with no cell phone service that there was actually a lot things going on. I just didn't know how to read the landscape or understand what I was seeing. And Gracian helped me understand what I was seeing.
Then I became obsessed with: How did it get this way? How come I didn't know?
So that seems to be the driving force behind my work: I'll find something. I'll latch onto it, and I'll just not stop asking questions about it until I have some answers.
Following up on that, at least part of what you do is look backward. You are, after all, historian. And, to my knowledge, all of your work has been on the West. I'm curious how you got interested in the past as a way to understand the present (because there are other ways), and why the US West?
It wasn't at first. I was supposed to do something else. I was supposed do engineering and art or something along those lines. Because that's where my family's talents lie. I grew up in a household with a pilot and a preschool teacher. My maternal grandmother was a watercolor artist; my paternal grandmother was a cosmetologist. The only consistent thing was that no one did history ever at all!
But I think my family culture just sort of approved of thinking about the past, probably because one of the major threads in my upbringing was the stories of my Armenian family surviving the Armenian genocide. And I was so tired of those stories growing up. But that's the culture that I grew up with that always dragged the past out in full view so that we could appreciate it. So I think some of that got embedded in my psyche a little bit.