I spent the first ten years of my life in Maple Heights, Ohio, a suburb to the southeast of Cleveland. The poet Mary Oliver was also from Maple Heights, and in 1979, she wrote, “The Cleveland suburb of Maple Heights was still semi-rural in the 1930s, a pastoral environment in which a future poet could develop a strong bond with what would eventually become her principal subject—the natural world.” I’m younger than she and grew up there in the Fifties, but there were still significant patches of woodland that had not yet been developed. My friends and I explored those woodlands ceaselessly, and that is when I developed a strong connection to the natural world. Much of my writing is about nature and the environment. When I was ten years old, our family moved to Chicago, and there I continued to explore the outdoors.
What is the greatest thing about the place you call home?
I currently live in Highland Park, north of Chicago. But before that, we lived in the Chicago suburb of Evanston for many years. Both are unique and very interesting cities. Evanston is one of the oldest suburbs around Chicago and is where Northwestern University is. It is home to many writers and artists and has a real intellectual tradition. It is also one of the most diverse suburbs around Chicago, which is one of its greatest strengths. Highland Park is a graceful suburb along Lake Michigan. It’s in Lake County, which has a tremendous forest preserve system. Tragically, Highland Park was the site of a horrible mass shooting on July 4, 2022. The way the community has responded to that tragedy has been nothing short of extraordinary. It is truly a remarkable place.
What turns you on creatively?
As I talked about in answer to the first question, nature has been a primary source of inspiration for me since I started writing in my twenties. I’ve written two books and many essays and articles about nature and the environment, but even much of my fiction is about nature and the outdoors. Many of my short stories revolve around young people’s experiences in natural settings and how those experiences present challenges and opportunities for kids to grow and find themselves. I’ve written a novel on this theme titled The Woods and am currently in the process of looking for a publisher.
What is your favorite word, and can you use it in a poetic sentence?
The word ancient is my favorite word–to the extent that I have to watch myself from overusing it. The word comes from the Middle English auncyen and, before that, from the Old French ancien. When I was growing up, I loved tales of the ancient world of King Arthur and Ivanhoe and, later, of J.R.R. Tolkien. The word conjures a romantic past that somehow serves as a model for our better selves. My sentence is:
“The White Mountains of northern New England are as ancient as time itself, built through the millennia, slowly eroded by the millennia, and holding secrets as impervious as the granite.”
What is your pet peeve?
I’m an old guy, so I am really sensitive to drivers on the expressways around Chicago who go 90 miles an hour and weave in and out of traffic. I’m not alone in my pet peeveness. Apparently, during the pandemic, when traffic was lighter, drivers picked up speed in urban areas. According to an economics professor who studies traffic patterns in California, the average speeds increased during the pandemic, leading to a 25% increase in severe crashes. I get more startled than I used to when drivers rush right up to my rear bumper out of nowhere before passing me. I know it’s kind of a stupid thing, but it really annoys me.
What defines Christopher Johnson?
I’m a bundle of contradictions. I’m a late bloomer as a writer. I write to discover myself and to discover what I believe. I’m easily bored. I love nature and the outdoors. I’m a little suspicious of new people I meet. I view writing, especially fiction, as standing at the edge of a precipice and jumping. I hate and love the unknowingness. I value my family and friends tremendously but don’t always tell them so. When I worked in publishing, I was a good manager who listened to the editors in my department. But now I’m more self-absorbed. It took me a long time to learn to follow my instincts, and maybe that would make for a good story!
I’m a writer based in the Chicago area. I’ve done a lot of different stuff in my life. I’ve been a merchant seaman, a high school English teacher, a corporate communications writer, a textbook editor, an educational consultant, and a free-lance writer. I’ve published short stories, articles, and essays in The Progressive, Snowy Egret, Earth Island Journal, Chicago Wilderness, American Forests, Chicago Life, Across the Margin, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Blue Lake Review, The Literary Yard, Scarlet Leaf Review, Spillwords Press, Fiction on the Web, Sweet Tree Review, and other journals and magazines. In 2006, the University of New Hampshire Press published my first book, This Grand and Magnificent Place: The Wilderness Heritage of the White Mountains. My second book, which I co-authored with a prominent New Hampshire forester named David Govatski, was Forests for the People: The Story of America’s Eastern National Forests, published by Island Press in 2013.