Couch and Conservation

Katie Lee secures a comfortable seat at the top of today's eco-writing world

How many 80-year-old women out there begin an essay with the line, "It was hotter'n a fresh-fucked fox in a forest fire"?

I know one. Her name is Katie Lee, and she used to entertain TV and radio audiences back in the '50s with sassy folk tunes satirizing modern life. Her albums (Life Is a Just a Bed of Neuroses, Songs of Couch & Consultation) showcased quirky songs like "The Ballad for Group Therapy" and "Repressed Hostility Blues," and she gained a small degree of fame from her appearances on The Milton Berle Show.

Lee started out a Hollywood pretty, but once she explored Glen Canyon, she expanded her resume to include river running, filmmaking and writing. In addition to making the documentary The Last Wagon, Lee has published several books, including Ten Thousand Goddamn Cattle: A History of the American Cowboy in Song, Story, and Verse and All My Rivers Are Gone. Her latest, Sandstone Seduction: Rivers and Lovers, Canyons and Friends, offers more of the same spunky, impassioned writing that has made her the foremost figure in the effort to restore Glen Canyon to its pre-Lake Powell condition.

As far as environmental scribbling goes, anger and righteousness come with the territory. But Seduction is more ... well, seductive than your run-of-the-mill propaganda. It's due to Lee's style, which truly can be called her own, whether she's evoking the folly of Hollywood or describing her narrow escape from a canyon flood. Her rich language and sparkling word choice--no doubt honed by more than 50 years of singing and songwriting--keep you hooked and happy to be along for a ride that gets wilder even as Lee gets older.

The opening three-part essay, "Tucson Trilogy," will interest Tucson Weekly readers with a glimpse of life here in 1941, when 22-year-old Lee plays tomboy with two local military recruits, Juan and Rojo, whom she often accompanies on deer hunts. They evade game wardens and narrowly escape a mountain lion. But it's in the Nogales brothels, las casas del noche, where Lee learns to perform mariachi, with Juan and Rojo at her side to keep her from being sold into slavery. Later, after gaining a foothold in Hollywood (and after the war), the trio of friends lights out to the Catalinas. Older now, they come to the sad realization that their lives are veering off in different directions. So they spend one last night together, singing sad Mexican songs, drinking, recalling the hunting they used to do and watching as "Tucson flips her neon switch and from the city several miles away rises a murky pinkish glow."

Like a cross between Annie Oakley and Thoreau, Lee proves herself to be as feisty a memoirist as she is an environmentalist. Other great essays include "Bittersweet Bridges Uncrossed," in which she looks back on her difficult relationship with her mother, whose values often clashed with Lee's. Meanwhile, "Hol-l-lywood!" chronicles her fish-out-of-water feelings inside the entertainment machine, and "The Race-Car Driver" is a lighthearted elegy to one of her deceased husbands, Brandy--an energetic if somewhat distracted soul. Even more moving is "His Heart to Hawks," a tribute to Edward Abbey consisting of correspondence between the Father of Southwest Environmentalism and his younger protégé.

Midway through Seduction, things take a sensual turn. "When Rivers Sing" captures the beautiful sounds of the Southwest, particularly the desert:

"Deserts hum. Oh, yes. They whistle and toot and click. Rustle, scratch, and thump the tabla. In our western theater of sound, deserts provide the percussion. Under stormy heavens they vibrate the snares across their taut skins, playing strident Sousa marches. Another day, another theater, and we're given soft fripps of the brush across their sounding skins in rhythm with the wind."

Indeed, it's Lee's musical background that gives her the vocabulary to conjure the Southwest's aural qualities. And her sensual exploration of the natural world reaches an (ahem!) apotheosis in the title essay, one of the most erotic pieces of environmental writing you'll ever read. It's a breathy (and breathtaking) masterpiece.

But the funniest essay is "The SCUD," an account of Lee's misadventure through Glen Canyon on board an on-loan Army surplus life raft that wasn't made for the shifting, silt-heavy waters of the Colorado River. Urging on her novice crew, our fearless heroine quips, "I'm grateful nobody's here to see this ungraceful landing. After all, I'm a performer, have a reputation of sorts, and like to give a good show."

In Seduction, Lee does more than give a good show. She gives us a great book.

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment

Tucson Weekly

Best of Tucson Weekly

Tucson Weekly