MSB: You penned a phenomenal piece that the New York Times Magazine published in April, titled “Gun Culture Is My Culture. And I Fear for What It Has Become,” in which you deftly disentangled the complexities of gun control on a personal, communal, regional, and national level. Are there other elements of Appalachian culture that you’ve struggled to fully embrace, but still recognize as defensible or vital to existence?
DJ: I don’t know that anything I was writing about in that particular essay feels like an Appalachian issue to me, maybe more of a matter of a rural-urban divide, but regardless I think there are definitely things I struggle with here. Race, for example. I think when we talk about Appalachia, or when we talk about rural working class people in general, there’s an overwhelming assumption that we’re talking about white people. I think we need to work harder to get the voices and stories from other groups in this region heard. There are some great people who’ve busted their ass to do that, people like Frank X Walker and Crystal Wilkinson and Nikky Finney and Ricardo Nazario y Colon, but we need more of that, and we need more stories that capture the complexities of this place. I think another thing I struggle with, especially here in Jackson County, is the influx of outsiders, the sort of gentrification that’s taking place all across Appalachia right now. I have a tremendous fear of what’s going to be lost, and how close we are to losing it. I think we’re within a generation, maybe twenty years, and a lot of this place and its culture will be gone.
MSB: People may be surprised to discover that you adopted a vegetarian diet for a period of your life. What prompted you to do so? Did the absence of hunting during that period alter your connection to the land?
DJ: I was lacto-ovo vegetarian for three or four years, and ultimately that was just a matter of health. For whatever reason, my body wasn’t processing meat very well and so I quit eating it. Eventually I started working some lighter meats back into my diet, fish and chicken, and then went back to eating some red meat. The biggest thing that changed over that period was that I just became a lot more aware of what I was putting into my body, what I was eating, where it came from. Those are things I’m still really tied to now, knowing where what I’m eating came from. That’s something that’s absent from a lot of people’s minds. They don’t have any idea where their food comes from. There’s no connection between their food and the land. I think that’s been detrimental to us as a culture, getting away from the land. As far as whether the absence of hunting during that period affected my connection to the land, not at all. I was still fishing. I was still spending a lot of time in the woods. I’m just more comfortable in the woods. I’ve always been just sort of landscape-centric, I guess. That’s the way it’s always been and I don’t see that ever changing.
MSB: If forced to choose between only hunting or fishing for the rest of your life, which would you choose and why?
DJ: I think fishing is probably the one thing I’m best at. Put me near water, any water, and I’ll catch fish. Period. That said, and this is a bit surprising, but I think if I could only choose one for the rest of my life I’d probably hunt. There’re a couple reasons for that, one being that I’m just not near as good at hunting. I think I’m a decent woodsman and I can read sign better than most people, but I’m not anywhere near where I’d like to be. Some of the hunters I really admire are just ghosts in the woods. They put themselves in the right place and they disappear. I’m not there yet. I still make a lot of mistakes. There were things I did in the woods just last month during turkey season that I’ll do my damnedest not to repeat next year. That learning curve and how much more time I need to get to where I want to be, that makes the sport more appealing to me. The other thing about it is that hunting just seems more philosophically rewarding. There’s so much that goes on there, with the mind, with the woods, and that’s not to say that those same things don’t happen on the water, but it just feels bigger maybe. More significant. I think over the course of my life, the most important ideas, the most meaningful insights have come while I was holding rod or rifle.
MSB: It’s no secret that you’re not keen on book tours, far preferring the life you’ve so intentionally built for yourself in the quiet mountain communities of NC to the fast-paced, people-filled chaos of a tour. How do you keep yourself sane during these periods?
DJ: The first book tour I ever went on, it was something like 19 cities in 21 days, and I remember coming home and I remember standing in the doorway of the bathroom at my parents' house and my mother was asking me something and I was just looking at her and my brain was empty. I could see her mouth moving but she might as well have been speaking in tongues. I finally just had to tell her that I couldn’t understand what she was saying, what she was asking. I was that tired. I got in my truck and I drove home and I remember just as the mountains came into view I pulled over on the side of the road and I just cried. As silly as that may sound, I was that worn out. I was that emotionally wrought. This goes back to that idea of introversion and just the simple fact that people drain my energy. I probably say more words over the course of a two week book tour than I say in the other eleven months of the year combined, and that’s not an exaggeration. I read a lot of Thich Nhat Hahn when I’m on the road, and I try to stay focused on the end game, but to answer your question, I don’t know that I do stay sane during these periods. I think it’s more likely I lose my mind and have to come home and get off in the woods to find it.