Nick Offerman—gruff, soulful ambassador of all things outdoorsy—didn’t set out to write a book about the benefits of nature immersion during a global pandemic. The last 18 months had a way of changing just about everyone’s plans, however.
Where the Deer and the Antelope Play: The Pastoral Observations of One Ignorant American Who Loves to Walk Outside, which is out in stores this week, was always going to be a literary ode to the wonders that await beyond one’s own four walls. After the onset of COVID-19, though, it ultimately became something else: a timely hybrid travelogue/manifesto about the utter importance of touching grass, and so much more.
“I definitely ended up bringing to the book some lessons of the pandemic, which include slowing down and paying more attention to actual nature, specifically where we live,” Offerman says. “So many people walked out of their houses and for the first time said, ‘Oh, wow, there’s some really cool shit outside on the way to my job. Look at these birds and plants and weather!'”
Offerman had the general overview of the book laid out for years, inspired by the writings of his favorite agrarians. He’d also already visited Glacier National Park for a week with famous friends Jeff Tweedy and George Saunders, an adventure that readers will find out all about in the book. But then, in March 2020, like everyone else, Offerman suddenly found himself exploring the great indoors. After some time spent working in his woodshop, and eventually filming his hit crafting competition show, Making It, with Amy Poehler, he and his wife, Megan Mullaly, decided they absolutely had to hit the road, even if they had to turn down some juicy acting roles to do it.
“We both were suffering from this sort of malaise and depression that so many people were feeling being stuck at home during the pandemic,” Offerman says. “And we just were able to work that out in this beautiful way, exploring the Southwest of our country across to the Midwest, and visiting our people.”
The time the couple spent in an Airstream, navigating their way from one RV park to another, ultimately ended up comprising the final third of Where the Deer and the Antelope Play. While not everybody has the means to spend two months hitting the open road, Offerman and his book are bursting with accessible insights for anyone feeling squirrelly after too much time inside.
Nature is not a theme park
The difference between nature parks and theme parks should be self-explanatory. However, some people need to actually remove themselves from the modern world and all distractions to experience the soul-enriching beauty that nature has to offer.
“My mom and dad showed me, you can get yourself to these places that are being maintained as public lands that are so gorgeous and astonishing. All you need to do is walk through them,” Offerman recalls of childhood trips to the Badlands and Yellowstone. “You don’t need a roller coaster. You don’t need a billboard or fireworks. Just go look at the way this rock ended up, and it’ll blow your mind. So I always had a thing for nature in that way. The creek and the forest near my home was my favorite place to just go hang out. And to this day, I could sit and watch running water all day long. It’s just as good as any TV show I’ve ever seen.”
Self-reliance is a way to take back control
There’s a power that comes with having packed the right equipment for a camping trip that feels like you’re ready for anything. That feeling can be a great balm during a pandemic, when it feels as though we have so little control over our fate.
“The older I get and the deeper into the city I get, the more I realize that the majority of people are no longer self-sufficient in any way,” Offerman says. “It’s almost to the point where people can’t change a light bulb on one’s one, let alone change a tire. And so, the skills that my family instilled in me—whether it’s sewing on a button, cooking a meal, building stuff out of wood, electricity, plumbing—I’m a jack-of-all-those-trades. I can constantly navigate the world in a way that I think so many other people can’t, which I think creates fear. It creates insecurity where you depend on others to maintain the nuts and bolts of the world. But when you have to pack gear for yourself before going on a trip in order to be sure you’ll even make it through, that kind of challenge forces you into having some self-sufficiency.”
Reestablishing your relationship with risk is its own reward
“I’ve never found a better representation of the danger of this great softening of the American adult than that great Pixar movie Wall-E,” Offerman says. “Those fat baby-like adults that float around in lounge chairs, where every physical act is taken care of for them, and their food is all blended into a smoothie. When the shit goes down and they’re suddenly under attack and they need to get up and fly their ship and take action, there’s the danger of, ‘Oh, no, we’ve lost the ability to even sustain ourselves.’ That just really hit home with me.
“In the pandemic it was especially important that everybody buckle down and took shelter as best we could during the last couple of years,” he continues. “But it’s important then, once the danger is passing and it’s safe to get back out, to reassess our ability to push the envelope and say, ‘Okay, now how far can I take things? What kind of risks are acceptable when it comes to where I hike? What rocks can I climb? What rivers can I raft? Whatever that means to each and every person, because it’s important to understand the boundaries of what we can do personally to maintain our own mental and physical health, and also to maintain the health of the natural areas, whether that means the national parks or the rivers flowing through our cities.”
Spending more time outdoors can be quietly subversive
If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that the future is not promised to us. Of course, the future isn’t promised to our natural resources either, which is why it’s best to start keeping better tabs on them.
“The capitalism and the consumerism under which, and within which, we are all furiously dancing, one of their goals is to isolate us from one another, but also from knowing our natural resources,” Offerman says. “The less we know about our forests and our fossil fuels and our oceans and so forth, and the less we’re maintaining an awareness of them, the more they can be exploited and desecrated. I think that’s part of what I’m trying to turn our heads around toward with this book.
“Look around,” he says. “See what’s going on in your town. What is your river? Where’s your water coming from? How is your soil? Is your soil healthy? Do you know how to even answer that question? Ultimately, that’s the most basic answer we will always need because when the soil is dead, then so will we be.”