Oregon’s Best Writer: Robert Leo Heilman, Part I

By Friday, July 3, 2009 5 0

The Pacific Northwest where I live is a rich, complex environment so fertile that it gave rise to the coastal Indian custom of potlatch, a gift-giving ritual in which the more you gave away to others, the more status you had. (Hmm . . . what could we learn from that?)

In modern times, my home state of Oregon is not known for economic prosperity (our unemployment rate, for example, is often highest in the nation), but is richly colonized by the creative class, i.e. writers, artists and all types of innovators. Among Oregon’s writers, the best-selling author is Jean Auel, of prehistoric fiction fame. Oregon’s best writer, though is arguably Robert Leo Heilman, a soft-spoken, intensely literary man who has worked all his life at physical labor and never darkened the doors of a college classroom.

I talked with Robert on the phone recently, having read his award-winning book Overstory: Zero: Real Life In Timber Country. He’s lived in Myrtle Creek for 31 years, a small town in rural Douglas County, Oregon, with his wife Diane. Overstory: Zero tells in first-person essays of life there and larger truths, of loving land that is being torn apart, of baseball and community, of laboring and being laid off,  of Reagonomics and how the alleged trickle-down played out in rural America. Mr. Heilman’s prose is highbrow and grounded. It’s open-hearted yet pointed, politely forcing us into clearer thinking about our lives and our nation.

Am I the only one who thinks this guy is brilliant? Well, Overstory: Zero has five-star ratings from folks who voluntarily reviewed it on Amazon. If I were you I’d buy a copy to read this summer (he did not ask me to say that :).

Robert Leo Heilman seems to me like a distillation of Oregon itself: rich in the things money cannot buy, like relationships, connection to nature, honest work, a creative inner life, community and sense of place.

Come to think of it, that’s also a description of what I call a diamond-cut life.

Having introduced you to Robert Leo Heilman, in Part II I’ll write what I learned in my conversation with him and print, with his permission, a choice anecdote  from a recently written, unpublished piece.

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  • Jim Nice
    January 21, 2013

    I am a friend of Bob from past Douglas County. Best writer and man and neighbor and husband and father I know. You have good taste to recognize his specialness, especially as a writer. I haven’t seen or heard from him in over 30 years. Overstory Zero is news to me. Soon to be owned. Would you please give me information to reach him by letter, email, or phone. I would deeply appreciate this.

    • Alison
      January 22, 2013

      Jim, I called and spoke with Robert as soon as I saw your comment yesterday. He’s doing well, was happy to hear from you, took your email address and said he’d get in touch. Robert’s been penning letters lately to the editor of the Douglas County area newspaper in an effort to keep the county’s libraries open in the face of deep budget cuts. I agree with you that he’s a great all-around person as well as writer.

      • Alison
        July 25, 2013

        Update on July 25, 2013 for Robert Leo Heilman fans who’d like to find him: He reports that he is the only Robert Heilman in the phone book — he lives in Myrtle Creek, Oregon.
        And he has a website now for his excellent writing: http://robertheilman.wordpress.com/

  • Austin
    January 29, 2011

    Checked that book out from the medford public library while fighting fire ten years ago. Meant a lot to me then. Beautiful writing.

  • Thea Hayes
    November 13, 2010

    Hello Allison:

    I read Leo Heilman’s book Overstory Zero years ago, and as a science teacher and graduate of Yale Forestry School I was enthralled and inspired. It is still one of my favorite books. And as that is so, I have tried to locate other books by Mr. Heilman (who I wrote to, and who responded via snail-mail) in the past few years with no luck. Are you aware of any others? Are you in touch with Mr. Heilman to ask him if any others are going to “emerge?”
    Thanks so much!

    Thea Weiss Hayes

    P.S. My sister has been in the legal dept. of PGE for the past 20+ years, so probably knows your husband.