Woman-Made, Nature-Inspired: Tammy York

In honor of Women’s History Month, Great Parks is celebrating seven local women writers who find creative inspiration from the natural world around them.

Tammy York

Meet Tammy York, non-fiction author

Great Parks: Can you tell us a little about you and your work?

Tammy York: I grew up in Indiana, and my background is basically farting around on a farm. Going for hikes, avoiding chores by disappearing into the woods. That translated into going into natural resources as a field. I went to Purdue, and studied pharmacy there, and then wound up managing to get into wildlife management from pharmacy.

It was mainly because I had a recommendation from a teacher to take a wildlife history class. I did, and that changed the trajectory.

GP: So when did you first want to become a writer?

TY: I have always been a writer; I just didn’t know it was something that you could get paid to do. It was a long time before I realized that it could actually be a career. I took communication classes in college mainly because they were really easy A’s for me. I didn’t realize that they weren’t easy for everybody. I have notebooks going back to when I was scribbling on pages and telling stories.

GP: What inspired you to write a hiking guide? Who would you say is your target audience?

TY: What inspired me to write a guide? Let’s start with that one. I worked for the state and we did a lot of marketing research. One of the data points that kept popping up was that people typically do not travel more than sixty miles or sixty minutes from their home to do anything. They tend to stay in the sixty minute/sixty mile radius of where they live.

I had just moved to Cincinnati, so I had to buy hiking guides, and this is before the internet had everything. I had to go buy gazeteers for Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio. Then I went and bought guide books for hiking in Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio, and of course there are multiple guide books that I wanted to get. By the time I was done, I had spent close to $100 on books just so I could figure out where to hike in this new area that I moved to.

Why on earth are there no hiking books that are specific to a region that somebody lives in? People in Cincinnati are not going to travel all the way to Cuyahoga for a hike, for a weekend. That is too far.

So, I wrote my little query letter. I studied my writer’s digest on how to write query letters. I did all the stuff you are supposed to do, and I sent my idea out to all the publishers and every single one of them said, “You are a really good writer, but that’s never going to fly. Hiking books are not made like that, they’re made by state.”

Every single one turned me down. I was really so sad. I was like, “But I have a really good idea!”

I kept pitching it. Every time there was a new publication that was coming out with hiking books, I would be like, “Hey here’s my idea.” Every single time I would get turned down.

Fast forward to when I was out on my own doing freelance writing and I wound up talking to an editor. While we were talking, he mentioned that they had a line of books coming out. I said, “Really, what’s it about?”

He said, “We are going to start doing hiking books based on region, and I think you might be really good at that.”

I’ve never typed so fast. I was trying to search in my files the query letter I had put out, because all the data points were in there, and they really hadn’t shifted that much. I sent that to him, I had a meeting later that week, and I wound up having a book contract out of that. It took about seven years to get from point A to point B, but eventually I got there.

The book is written for a wide range of people, but basically the overall rule I had was, “Would I feel comfortable sending a mom and two children on this hike?”

If I didn’t feel comfortable for whatever reason, then I didn’t include it in the book. Some of them were that the trails were too treacherous, or the neighborhood was too treacherous. Parking was an issue with some. But that was my overarching thing: Would I send a mom and two kids on this hike, and feel comfortable doing so?

GP: Its crazy how long it took you to get from point A to point B. Have you hiked every trail inside the book?

TY: Oh my gosh why do people ask this? Yes! Not only have I hiked every trail, but I’ve hiked more trails than are in the book. Every time a new edition comes out, I try to diversify the book by 20 percent. I try to drop out 20 percent of the hikes and add in 20 percent new hikes. Given the region that we are in it is kind of hard to do that, because there are only so many places to go hike that have trails that are longer than 2.5 or 3 miles.

At this point, the new trails have all been hiked at least three times, and the older trails that are in the book have been hiked nine or 12 times.

To create just one chapter of the book is talking to a whole bunch of naturalists and land managers and finding out where do they like to hike? Why so? We basically pick their brains. Then I actually go out in the field and hike the trail. That hike consists of bringing all my gear with me. That’s camera equipment, GPS equipment, notebook pencils, because they actually write in the rain and ink doesn’t. The Garmin GPS with the little horn on it because you actually get reception when you’re really bad areas.

Then it’s the process of going and getting all the trail maps and everything from the parks department, talking to a land manager to find out if they are planning on changing the trails or if there are any recent changes to the trail, then going out and actually hiking the trail and taking notes. That consists of taking GPS notes: if there’s a bridge, I do a way-mark on the bridge and note its condition, if it’s a foot bridge, if it’s slippery, if it’s going to be a treacherous bridge in winter or fall when there are leaves on it, stuff like that. I include any natural resources that are kind of cool to the area. So, any geology that’s neat, any plants or trees that are unique that people might want to be interested in.

In a chapter, just the description part is between 1,500 to 2,000 words. I’ll usually leave a hike with about 3,000 to 4,000 words of information. That’s not including all the photographs and all the mapping data that’s included. When I finish the hike, I come back home, and I go over everything that I did. I’m usually way over my word count. As you can tell, I tend to like to talk.

Once I have that rough draft, I hike it again as if I’ve never hiked the trail before. I double check all my data points. If I’m saying you take a right and head east: one, is it really east? And two, are they going to be able to see that when they’re on the trail? Some trails, especially when you get into Kentucky, and some of the trails in Indiana, it can be kind of confusing because they’re almost like a spider web.

I try to clarify points of confusion as much as possible. And then it’s a process of coming back and going through—now it’s time for the red pen. That means sitting down and going through and marking it all up. Like what needs to come out? What needs to stay? Then you have to let it sit.

I come back to it again and go over it one more time, and I do what’s called a read aloud. It’s really easy to catch words that don’t work well together.

Then I think my baby is done, and I send it off my editor. If you have a really good editor, they make you sound absolutely brilliant. Then the proofreader goes over it, and a copy editor goes over it. Then it’s actually in the final print form. Once you get it in the final print form, the manuscript, and that’s like the one last chance. Everybody goes over the book.

But yeah, every trail is hiked multiple times, and I think people don’t realize how much data is behind each component of it. The geological survey, division of wildlife, division of natural areas and preserves: each hike has a paper file that’s about an inch and half or so.

So many hiking books are just, “Go here. Start here. End here.”

That doesn’t tell you anything about the area, the trail, the history. We have such a cool area here being part of the Cincinnati arch, having the Teays River, the settlement history of the area. I think it’s really important to share that with people and let them have that knowledge too.

GP: Sounds like quite the process, but I’m sure it definitely pays off and it’s very helpful for hikers.

TY: Yeah, the first edition of any book takes about two years to do. Follow-up editions take about probably around 9 to 10 months from start to finish. Going out, re-hiking everything, making sure the trials haven’t changed, and then putting all the material together.

GP: Speaking on that a little bit, your background spans many professions: naturalist, professional speaker, writer, and you started your own communications firm in which you officially serve as the ”Person Who Gets to Do Everything,” which I really think is a good title. So our question is, how has your professional career or your professional journey helped fuel your writing career?

TY: They’re kind of the same. I wouldn’t have one without the other. The professional career is because of the writing and the communication ability that I have. I would probably be counting pills in a pharmacy if I hadn’t taken a class in wildlife management and hadn’t realized I was really good at writing. It’s two different sides of the same coin, because they fuel each other.

One of the things that I wanted to share was if somebody wants to be a writer, the process is sitting down and writing. That is the hardest thing to do because you can think it to death in your head and then you can have a lot of self-doubt. And what you actually have to do is just sit down and slog it out on a page and just get it down.

And once you, once you hit that flow state, you’re actually able to get through the really good stuff that you have to share, but you can’t get there if you don’t start, if you don’t sit down and start writing.

GP: How has nature shaped your career as a writer?

TY: It shaped my career in that I use nature as a way to reset and think through processes. One of the crucial parts of writing is once you have it written and you think it’s done, is to set it aside and not touch it. Just forget about it. Go for a hike, reset and then you come back, and you read it, and you realize all the mistakes you’ve made. Without that break and that reconnection, it would be impossible for me to do my job.

GP: Do you think writing in general has much of an impact on the world of conservation, especially if you’re writing a hiking guide? Do you think that could help others protect the planet and help conservation?

TY: That’s a heavy question. With the hiking guide, what it gives people is an opportunity to have a friend take them on a hike and it lowers that anxiety of going and doing something for the first time that they haven’t done. They could be a seasoned hiker but going to a new place and hiking is kind of intimidating, even for me! The what-if scenarios come into mind.

If you’re like me and you have ADHD, if you guys haven’t figured that one out yet, having the knowledge of what to expect reduces that anxiety. So when I’m able to provide that to people, that is really beneficial and it gets them out more.

I know that the book has gotten a lot of people out there. They do challenges with each other to see if they can do all 60 hikes within a year. You know, they hike all the trails in an area. It has brought groups of people together. There’s a Facebook group that I have for the book and people talk about what hikes they went on for the weekend and what gear they take out with them. It’s a friendly group.

People who write about nature help shift the narrative on what’s actually going on. Somebody like Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, is able to make the connection between yourself and nature and the importance of understanding nature to understand yourself better. Somebody like Rachel Carson, her stuff is sounding the alarm on Silent Spring. She was the canary in the coal mine, saying, “Hey, this is coming up.” If you move to somebody like Jennifer Pharr Davis, with Becoming Odessa, she wrote a memoir about hiking the Appalachian Trail. She brings you along the trail with her and her evolution as a person. All of those voices, they make a connection that some people would have never been able to go experience for themselves. People aren’t going to be able to go out and go study birds on the high-intensity scale that Rachel Carson did. How many people are going to be able to hike the entire Appalachian Trail? And the writers are the ones who are able to connect dots for people. They’re able to pull people into the world.

Going back to that 60-mile bubble. Most people are never going to go see a gorilla that’s not in a zoo. They’re never going to go to a desert, and it’s the writer who is able to make that connection.

GP: Are there any other projects that you are currently working on that you are excited about?

TY: Yes. I am working on a project called Nature Art Peace and it’s peace in, peace out. This is my brand new baby project. It is going to be a blog/social media channel that talks about traveling in nature. It’s brand spanking new. If you go to the website, it’s going to be coming soon.

It’s going to be a travel guide for people. Like a travel blog but focus mainly on nature and art.

GP: Thank you for so much for joining us.

TY: I do recommend writing for anybody who has ADHD, because you can study whatever you want and people are like, “Oh, that’s fascinating.”

Tammy York is one of the local artists whose artwork will be on display at Instinct: Woman-Made, Nature-Inspired, a nature-themed art show happening March 22 & 23 at Fernbank Park.

Jack Fogle
Nature Interpreter, Miami Whitewater Forest