Nick Offerman is a busy man.
He’s perhaps most widely known for his acting roles, like Ron Swanson on “Parks and Recreation”; or his comedy tours; or his woodworking business; or his previous four nonfiction books, spanning topics from boatbuilding to historical figures and marriage.
No matter how, you probably know Offerman — and the man behind the beard now has a new book, “Where the Deer and the Antelope Play: The Pastoral Observations of One Ignorant American Who Loves to Walk Outside.” In it, Offerman reflects on aspects of American history and culture as they relate to the outdoors and the land.
From a trip to Glacier National Park, to building a rock wall on a farm in the English countryside, to a pandemic road trip across the United States in a silver airstream with his wife, actress Megan Mullally, Offerman brings dry humor and a reverence for nature and physical labor to his growing understanding of capitalist and colonial horrors, all while maintaining hope for the future.
Ahead of the book’s launch, The Seattle Times spoke with Offerman over the phone about land stewardship, agriculture and sunset runs.
The book starts out with the agrarian poet Wendell Berry posing a riddle of sorts to you. Can you describe how that riddle frames the book, and how it shaped your thinking as you embarked on the journey of writing the book?
I am such a disciple of the writing of Wendell Berry, and the other many writers that he’s turned me on to over the years. When I’m writing my own books, I always say that I’m trying to serve my readers the most delicious pizza I can concoct while sneaking as much broccoli into the pie as possible. That involves the frame of mind that Wendell’s writing has put me in. So, when he posed that question to me, I was grateful for the assignment, to take what I knew already about John Muir and Aldo Leopold and say, “OK, I think I can wrap my head around what you’re getting at here, but let me head out into the field, and gather some evidence, and do some research, and see what I can put together.” I’m not a great brain for big ideas. I don’t think I’ll ever create a television show. I can’t think of big stories or casts of characters, but I love serving under a great leader who can think that way. I’m not going to sit down and write a masterful piece of nonfiction that’s the definitive, go-to book on any of these topics, but I can serve under these great brains and try to palatably regurgitate their teachings for my readership, who happen to, hopefully, get a chuckle out of the way I present information.
How has your relationship to land and to the United States changed over the course of writing this book, and researching the history of the conservationist movement and land stewardship in this country?
It’s the continuation of the way my relationship has changed in adulthood. I grew up in a farming family, and they continue to farm in Illinois, but it never occurred to me to pay attention to the land itself or to ask these questions of us — what kind of stewards of the land are we? When I first read Wendell’s work in the ’90s, it awakened that side of me. It’s an ever-continuing field of study for me. And that’s what I’m trying to suggest to my readers, is something we should all be, just like we should care about raising our kids or maintaining our municipalities. What Wendell refers to as the great economy is something we’re all a part of, whether we like it or not. So we should pay attention to what’s happening.
I live in a very nice neighborhood in the hills of Los Angeles. Los Angeles is not really a place we ever should have built a city. It doesn’t have a water supply, if for no other reason; it should not be the biggest urban sprawl in the United States by any means. Just looking around my neighborhood, it’s easy to see the folly of mankind, and say, “How are we maintaining the health of this place or not?” It’s a project that never ends. Looking at it on a bigger scale, I have an awareness of how our government treats our public lands, as well as how our government treats our farmers. In other words, how the government treats the ambassadors to Mother Nature and the stewards of our natural spaces. That’s something that I think we, as voters, really need to be educated about, because I think the food corporations have happily put us all to sleep in terms of understanding what they’re doing and how they’re sourcing the food that we eat.
Was there anything that surprised you to learn about while you were researching the book?
The thing that surprises me most often is how stupid I continue to be. My dad once said to me, when he was turning 50 himself, and I called him from college and said, “Happy birthday. How do you feel?” And he said, “Well, I feel just about as ignorant as I did when I was 49.” That always really stuck with me, because I say in the book, when I’m hiking in Glacier National Park, “Wow, I can’t believe this pristine beauty,” and then I start digging into the history of the place, and come to learn that it’s so pristine and beautiful because we literally scraped the Indigenous people out of the acreage. So the surprise is that I’m astonished to be reminded that we’re capable of this and that we’re actually still fully engaged in that kind of discrimination and in the unfair treatment of groups of people. Hopefully, on one hand, the older I get, the less surprised I’ll be at humanity’s cruelty. But at the same time, maybe I can be gently surprised at our ability to improve those relations or make reparations one day soon.
In what ways are you connecting to nature recently?
Right now I’m working on a film job that’s pretty intense. I try to run 4 to 5 miles a day, which keeps me feeling good physically and mentally, and works out stress I might be carrying. I run in the hills near my house, and just getting outside, breathing the air, seeing the plants around me … I’m often finishing around sunset, which is a beautiful dessert to the meal of every day. Part of the message we’ve been sold is the idea that simplicity is boring. But watching the sunset on a run is more wonderful than any video game or overstimulating entertainment.