Nick Offerman is probably best known for his role as Ron Swanson on TV’s “Parks and Recreation,” but over the years he’s become a writer, too. “Where the Deer and the Antelope Play: The Pastoral Observations of One Ignorant American Who Loves to Walk Outside” (Dutton) is Offerman’s fifth book. It chronicles three trips to the great outdoors: in the first, Offerman goes hiking in Glacier National Park with friends Wilco singer/guitarist Jeff Tweedy and writer George Saunders; in the second he visits farmer friend James Rebanks; and in the third Offerman and his wife, the actor Megan Mullaly, go road-tripping in an Airstream trailer. Along the way, Offerman riffs on the value of being outside and the lessons you can only learn when nature (with an assist from poet Wendell Berry) is your teacher. Offerman will chat with Tweedy and Saunders at 8 p.m. Thursday in a virtual event hosted by Brookline Booksmith.
Did you know you were going to write about these three journeys — hiking with Jeff Tweedy and George Saunders, visiting the Rebanks farm in England, and embarking on an Airstream tour with your wife — before you went on them?
No, I didn’t. I just had the general notion of the book — it came originally from my love of the writings of Wendell Berry and other agrarian and conservationist thought. When I discovered that I could tour as a humorist and then write books and that I had a bit of a readership, the question always remained, what do I want to pass along to my readers? And so I had that idea that I’ve been awakened to our relationship, our flawed relationship, with Mother Nature. And hopefully I can bring a few other people around to pull their heads out of their video games and [instead look at] the Sycamore leaves in the yard.
A lot of people know you first as an actor. But I’m curious, which bug bit you first: acting or writing?
I came to reading first. I grew up in a cultural vacuum: small-town Illinois in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I had no channel of culture outside of the three TV channels and popular radio. My cousin and I desperately wanted to become breakdancers in the mid-’80s. We had to stay up very late on Saturday night to tune into a radio station from Chicago to get early hip-hop, Grandmaster Flash and stuff. My aunt, who was a librarian, gave me “Lord of the Rings,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” and Madeleine L’Engle and the like, and that was definitely the wellspring of my imagination and my sense of creativity and storytelling. But when I went to college and was trying to figure out the trajectory of my adult life, I learned that what I want to do is take those funny faces I’ve been practicing in the classroom, and people will pay me to make them on a stage. And so that’s always felt like my thing. And getting to write books has been an incredibly lovely surprise.
You’re well known as Ron Swanson, and the character does share a lot of your passions, from woodworking to camping. How much did the show’s creators take from your own life to create him?
When they were researching the idea for the show, they met a local official in Los Angeles, a woman who was a libertarian who wanted to bring the government down from within. So that was the seed of the character. And when I auditioned to play Ron, that’s what he was talking about: capitalism versus the government. Mike Schur and I agreed Ron would have a big beefy mustache. And as brilliant comedy writers always do, they looked at the toolbox that I brought to the job. If you’re lucky enough to develop a character over 125 episodes, smart writers will then use those tools in such a way that the audience suspects it was my idea all along.
It’s interesting because you don’t share his politics. Your admiration for some of the products of FDR’s New Deal, like the WPA and the CCC come through in the book. Have your own politics been shaped by your reading about agrarian ethics and the natural world?
When I step back and try to squint through my woodworkers’ goggles, I see corporate finance as a huge source of power being a massive problem. I’ve read a lot of the writings of Theodore Roosevelt and he [essentially] said 120 years ago, if we ever let corporations get their money into politics, we’re screwed. I have a refrain in the book where I loosely detail the ways we’re going south in terms of our relationship with nature, and the reason every time is money. When I look at our two-party system, both sides are lousy with flaws that are fueled by that. I often cite Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, [who] are the two most vocal politicians saying all of these politicians are on the take from corporations. Like how can we expect them to make the right decision in regards to fossil fuels, when they’re all being paid by fossil fuel companies? I think that’s worth examining, folks.
What’s the solution?
I think just like many, many things that have seemed impossible in our lifetimes — same-sex marriage, incredible advances for rights for people of color and women and LGBTQ folk, the legalization of marijuana — I think our treatment of our natural resources is heading this way as well. I think the same way that we now say, “Can you believe we used to smoke in restaurants?” Once we realize we have to let the oil companies stop running our relationship with Mother Nature we’ll one day say, “Can you believe everybody used to have an SUV?”
What does getting outside into nature do for you, and why should we all do it more often?
Two nights ago, I finished a long day of filming and I was tired and — I usually try to run four or five miles a day — but I said, “Maybe I’ll just put my feet up instead.” And then I said, “No, you know what? I know how this works.” And I threw on my stuff and I went out running and within a minute my body felt so good to be outside. There’s just something about the pace, the simplicity of getting out into the elements. It requires no distraction. And soon enough I got on top of the hill and the most beautiful blazing sunset in a cloudy sky almost brought me to tears. And I thought I’ve just had the most beautiful part of my day just by ambling myself to the top of this hill. Wendell Berry and Rebecca Solnit have spoken very eloquently about the value of walking and the pace of walking; when we speed up, which capitalism and consumerism tells us we should do, we then miss everything that nature is offering us because we’re trying to get to the mall to pick up the latest pair of Air Jordans. If you slow down and get out and walk, you might find you don’t need to buy anything at all.
Visit brooklinebooksmith.com to register for this online event. Tickets cost $28 and include a copy of the book to be picked up at the store; a $37 ticket includes having the book shipped to you.
Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.