Sherri Harvey came into sharp focus for me last summer when she won the big photography award at the Travel Writers & Photographers conference at the Book Passage bookstore in the Bay Area. Her winning photos of cruise ship scenes were a great combination of color, composition, and a little wink of humor. I later was lucky to spend a few days with her at my home in southern Oregon where she generously snapped a few photos of my property and moments with my dog. What I noticed is that she stayed completely present while always having her camera on hand should a magic moment arise. Cameras can be disruptive and take people out of the moment, but Sherri wields hers like a natural extension of her arm.
She is a teacher at San Jose University, has written books, and published many articles and photos. Her passion for animals shines in her work (and made her completely empathic with my obsession with my poodle, Guapo!). I love how she combines her passions–animals, writing, photography and teaching– into a life path.
She will be heading to Borneo on assignment in February, but before she does, we get to hang out with her in Yelapa, Mexico for Tim Cahill’s upcoming workshop. I took some time to interview her about how she created a life of travel, writing, and photography. She also spoke a bit about structuring her book, Drink the Moon–“a raw, punchy mother-daughter love story that explores the grey area between social drinking and alcoholism.”
DEEP TRAVEL: Tell me about why you chose to headline your website with the Mary Oliver quote: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I love this quote! I wonder how you found your answer to this question. How much of your path was planned?
SHERRI: How mapped out is any life, really? And even when we have a plan, do we always stick to it? I have always been a teacher and a lover of words, and those two things have lined my path. I am not really a very linear thinker. The chaos and noise in my mind is wonderfully cacophonous and discordant, and I am happy with that. I thrive on chaos and random chance, and I welcome all the pandemonium.
DEEP TRAVEL: What are your influences?
SHERRI: Reading, travel, gratitude and my mom. From early childhood, I have always loved reading because stories have granted me access to so many different viewpoints, snapshots, perspectives on life. Additionally, I have always been a traveler. Growing up, we didn’t have a lot of extra money, but we had the gift of free airfare. My mother worked as a ticket agent for Delta Airlines in Indianapolis. Before Uber and AirBnB, moneyless travelers would often end up stranded at the airport, and my mother would bring them home with her for the night and then take them back to the airport with her the next day to catch their flight. We met so many people this way, and we would often end up visiting them, perhaps in another part of the country or another part of the world. By sixteen, I had been all over the US and to several places in Europe.
Additionally, at sixteen, my best friend was murdered and that experience made me realize how valuable and precious each and every day is. To this day, I live with the fact that there are no guarantees that we will even wake up tomorrow. All we have is RIGHT NOW. In honor of my friend, I vowed to make the most of every moment, every opportunity, every day because my friend did not get to. So I ask my students, my friends, and now you:
What will you do with your ONE WILD AND PRECIOUS life? Each of us has a responsibility to be true to ourselves, and it’s our responsibility to figure out what that means.
DEEP TRAVEL: You have written a memoir called Drink the Moon and are now working on another book. Although I’ve written many articles and essays, I struggle to write a book length manuscript. Can you describe what your writing habits are like? How do you sustain a narrative over many chapters?
SHERRI: So Drink the Moon is a kaleidoscopic approach to looking back at my own life and trying to figure out who I am in response to the people and the things that shaped my childhood. It’s a raw, punchy mother-daughter love story that explores the grey area between social drinking and alcoholism. It weaves together some of my major influences of growing up.
The idea of “narrative arc” is such a funny thing to think about because our lives don’t really follow that neat little pattern. Think about it: does a human life really have a single narrative arc? A “ narrative arc” is a contrived thing used to commercialize and sell books. It makes the reader want to keep reading to find the answer. But really, each day has so many highs and lows, moments of failure and success, happiness and sadness–set only to the rhythm of the sun rising and setting. By looking back on where we have been and reflecting on where we are going do, we start to “make meaning.” Through the process of looking for an agent for my memoir, one of the pieces of feedback I have received is that it needs a more definitive “narrative arc.” Probably, if it’s a memoir, it does. But is it a memoir with a through-line or is it more of a short story collection? I’m still asking myself that. Maybe it would be more marketable with that shape, but it keeps wanting to bounce back to a collection, so I may not be the best person to ask about that.
As for writing habits, I don’t really think that I’m a very methodical person, but most days, I write early in the morning. And, really, I write often, and fast and am grateful for GoogleDocs on my phone, for talk-to-text options, for my laptop because I take many notes on things that I want to write about. I’ve been spending a lot of time sending out queries for the stuff that I’ve written. I think when you, Christina, have all the pieces–you know, articles and essays and poems and stories–and even photographs–you might be able to look back and think about the ideas of constructing a cohesive story with a beginning, middle, and end. The thing is, the act of writing is also such a personal thing. And I think oftentimes, people’s writing habits reflect their personality.
DEEP TRAVEL: Tim Cahill will be proud of your note-taking habits! He sees it as an art unto itself and essential to good writing. About your photography: I love photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s idea of the “decisive moment”–that instant where the photographer and scene merge and in a “click” a story is captured. Can you sum up your approach?
SHERRI: The definition of a great photograph has a lot to do with personal style and personal interests. I am quirky: I like quirk. Annie Leibovitz’ portraits have quirk. They highlight idiosyncrasies. I like that. I’m so lucky that I’ve gotten to work with Catherine Karnow, Andrea Johnson, and Bob Holmes because they’ve had such an influence on how I make a picture. But for my work, I love action. Even as a writer, I love being “in scene.” I like photographs that capture a moment with lots of detail and movement because that’s how my brain works. Always moving. On the go. I spend a lot of time outdoors and my daily routine includes a lot of motion–and a lot of animals. So a lot of my photographs have animals in them because those animals are a part of me, of my consciousness.
Animals have always been a staple in my stability. They are my best teachers. I like taking photographs of them. I like telling a story that way. I like making someone laugh of just allowing someone to pause for a moment and take a little break out of their daily lives to be still and to imagine what was happening when that photograph was taken.
I think photography and writing are both examples of the notion that art is created out of the need to bear witness. When we take a picture or tell a story, we are saying “I was there. I saw that.” And I think all of us could take a little bit of time to reflect on what touches us or moves us and try to figure out why. The world is better for sharing that. We all owe it to ourselves to be present and aware of the events happening in the NOW right around us.
DEEP TRAVEL: I’m a huge lover of animals and have done some advocacy for them through my writing and through fundraising. I once donated money to the animal vet in Yelapa, (Mexico where we will be going together this January!). Someone critiqued me for not donating that money to the medical clinic that serves the villagers. Have you ever encountered criticisms like this? How do you respond?
SHERRI: When I told my mother that I was going to Borneo to photograph and write about orangutans, she was less than thrilled. First, she asked me why I couldn’t just go visit “monkeys” in the zoo, and then she asked if this was a dangerous trip (but she always asks me this because I have a tendency to court danger.) Then when I asked her to donate money to orangutans, she told me that she has so many people in her daily life that need help before the “monkeys” do. I get it. Humans all have different interests and passions. Each of us gets to choose what we’re passionate about. Each of us gets to make a choice about how we make a difference in the world but we have an obligation to try–that’s what humanity is all about.
Animal Advocacy found me. Animals have had such a huge impact on so many facets of my own life. I have three rescue horses, and keeping them keeps me moving forward and active. I have a rescue dog from Taiwan–but in reality–they have all rescued me. When another living being depends on you for food and exercise, you have to get out of the house, you have to move your body. You can’t just hole up on the couch for days on end and wallow in self-pity or depression. Animals take me out of myself. All my life, animals have taught me to be present. When you’re riding a horse, you can’t afford to spend time worrying about bills or laundry. They also have taught me to be aware of the thoughts that I am putting out into the world. For example, something as simple as my breathing becomes a conscious effort when I’m around my horses. Being still. Listening to them. Bearing witness. And horses have this weird gift of absorbing energy. Dogs do, too. And the animals have made me super conscious of what type of energy I put out into the world.
DEEP TRAVEL: Your next book is relevant to this connection between animals and humans.
SHERRI: My next book, Accidental Advocates, focuses on the symbiosis between animals and humans. Since Animal Advocacy has just sort of crept up on me, looking back on my life, I can understand the important relationship between animals and humans and between animals and the environment. For example, did you know that we have lost over 40% of our mammal population in the past twenty years? And did you know that elephants have a carbon storage value that helps with climate change? They have the power to increase carbon storage by changing the forest structure. There is no doubt that we all need each other for the long-term health of our planet.
In fact, animals hold the key to the survival of the planet. In a time of increasing divisiveness, separation, and polarization, advocacy of any sort, but especially animal advocacy, can help highlight the issues of conflict in order to serve the bigger picture needed to begin addressing climate change, habitat loss, and deforestation, not only to save animals but to save humans. To save nature. To save our world. Realizing the symbiotic relationship between humans, animals, and our environment is an essential step forward for the health of the world. Accidental Advocates shares stories about travel and animals that highlight our need for each other
For me, animals have allowed me to me sob into their fur, carried me for miles, walked beside me as I have run away from the burdens of daily human misunderstanding. They have made me realize the symbiosis of the entire natural world. They have been my teachers, my omens, my insight into my own self-understanding, and have shown me that I am an Accidental Advocate.
DEEP TRAVEL: You mention that your life adventure “all started in a high school journalism class.” A lot of kids dream of doing what you are doing. As a teacher, what do you tell them to help them make this dream a reality?
SHERRI: I’d like to go back to that Mary Oliver quote “What do you plan to do with your wild and precious life?” It’s so important to encourage my students to find their own voice to advocate for themselves in order to create a life of meaning that’s important to them. I hate the thought of anyone having a job that they feel obligated to have or living a life that they feel obligated to live. That thought just saddens me. In my own life, I have spent a lifetime working to understand the things that I need to do in order to be productive, in order to be present, in order to find a balance in my life. We owe it to ourselves to live a life we love. To thine own self be true said Shakespeare. Live a life that you want to live. When you put your head down on your pillow at night, and you think back on your day, were you kind to others? Were you excited and grateful and appreciative to be alive? Because in the end, that’s really all that matters. Each of us has an opportunity to live our best wild and precious life. Are you living yours?
DEEP TRAVEL: You are heading to Borneo soon to do some advocacy photography about orangutans. How can we follow your work on this trip?