Our Wisest and Surest Way: An Interview with Scott Russell Sanders
By Simmons B. Buntin
About Author Scott Russell Sander
Scott Russell Sanders was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1945. His father came from a family of cotton farmers in Mississippi, his mother from an immigrant doctor’s family in Chicago. He spent his early childhood in Tennessee and his school years in Ohio. He studied physics and English at Brown University, graduating in 1967. With the aid of a Marshall Scholarship, he pursued graduate work at the University of Cambridge, where he completed his Ph.D. in English in 1971. Since 1971 he has been teaching at Indiana University, where he is a Distinguished Professor of English.
He has received the Lannan Literary Award, the Associated Writing Programs Award in Creative Nonfiction, the Great Lakes Book Award, the Kenyon Review Literary Award, and the John Burroughs Essay Award, among other honors, and has received support for his writing from the Lilly Endowment, the Indiana Arts Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 2006 he was named one of five inaugural winners of the Indiana Humanities Award. The Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature recently named him the 2009 winner of the Mark Twain Award.
His writing examines the human place in nature, the pursuit of social justice, the relation between culture and geography, and the search for a spiritual path. He and his wife, Ruth, a biochemist, have reared two children in their hometown of Bloomington, in the hardwood hill country of Indiana’s White River Valley.
Terrain.org: Since 1971 you have taught English at Indiana University, but have also held writer-in-residence, visiting scholar, and workshop instructor positions at other schools and programs. How important is it to have a teaching “base”—a position, location, and perhaps a kind of routine—you can return to? How do extracurricular teaching activities—such as instructing at the Wildbranch Writing Workshop at Sterling College in Vermont, which mostly serves an older group of aspiring writers—support your teaching of college students? Or vice versa?
Scott Russell Sanders: I’m grateful to have had a teaching base at Indiana University since 1971, for this has provided me not only with steady employment but also with a home ground. Because I’ve earned a paycheck all these years, I have been able to write only what I was moved to write. I’ve never had to pay the bills with my books. (And a good thing, too, or my family would have been hard up.)
In Staying Put, I explained why it has been important for me to put down roots, to become intimate with a local geography and culture. My place happens to be the hardwood hill country of southern Indiana, which suits me well. But had employment or marriage set me down in some other place, I would have had the same impulse to commit myself wholeheartedly. At the same time, I welcome the chance to lecture, give readings, and lead workshops away from home. These journeys take me to colleges, libraries, community centers, national parks, and wilderness areas from coast to coast, from Alaska to Florida, and even occasionally to Europe.
I have misgivings about the ecological cost of this travel, and I have made efforts to reduce that cost. And of course being on the road so much disrupts my writing. At the same time, such journeys enlarge my vision, bring me into contact with some remarkable people and places, and feed me insights that I can take back home. By traveling, I also hope to serve the causes I believe in, and to nurture other writers.
Terrain.org: Speaking of Wildbranch, in 2008 you taught with David Abram, Janisse Ray, and Sandra Steingraber, who like you write passionately and distinctly about community, environment, and spirit. Though I realize you probably don’t share your draft work with these writers, is there nonetheless a kind of “writer’s community” or continuing conversation among the Wildbranch writers, or the broader spectrum of writers actively writing about community and environment? Does an organization like The Orion Society, with Orion magazine—the sponsor and organizer of Wildbranch now—facilitate ongoing conversations? What is the overall importance of community for writers—connections among writers and, more broadly still, connections between writers and the people of the places they write about?
Scott Russell Sanders: Friendships with other writers have been vital to my own development and to my sense of purpose. And not just any writers, but specifically those whom I have met through Orion, Wildbranch, the Sitka Symposium, the Trust for Public Land, the Spring Creek Project, the Center for Whole Communities, and other organizations devoted to caring for the earth and caring for people. I could name 50 writers whose conversation, correspondence, and example have been instructive for me. The value of these friendships is not so much practical as intellectual and emotional: We challenge one another to think more deeply about the human place in nature, about the role of art in fostering cultural change, and about the way of life we should work toward.
Among the general run of American writers, as in our society as a whole, there is relatively little regard for other species, little awareness of the dire condition of the planet, little concern with envisioning a more humane, peaceful, conserving, and spiritually rich alternative to our consumer culture. So anyone who sets out to challenge the reckless binge known as the “American way of life” is apt to feel mighty lonely, unless he or she can find allies. The most important of my allies I have come to know through Orion, which has sponsored gatherings for writers, national and regional conferences, reading tours, and other activities aimed at building up this community. I’m deeply indebted to their work.
Terrain.org: In Hunting for Hope, you write that students “are asking me if I believe we have the resources for healing the wounds, for mending the breaks. They are asking me if I live in hope.” In A Private History of Awe, as you began teaching during the Vietnam conflict and just after the civil rights movement, you note how students asked the same question: What hope can we have in such troubling times? Hunting for Hope explores that fundamental question, but how have the students themselves changed in the three decades since then? Are students today more or less oriented toward action? Has technology made a difference? Is hope more difficult to instill now for young people even though it is as essential as ever (and perhaps more so)?
Scott Russell Sanders: Two years ago, I might have answered this question differently; I might have lamented the widespread apathy toward social and environmental challenges on the part of young people. Now, however, I see signs everywhere of a new engagement and a renewed idealism, and not only among the young. The shift has been due in part to the words and example of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton during the 2008 presidential campaign, and to Obama’s success in the election. My students and my own children, who provoked me to write Hunting for Hope, have been inspired to believe that we can address our challenges in a spirit of cooperation and compassion, bringing to bear the best of science, public policy, creativity, and intelligence.
The shift toward hopefulness, I believe, is also part of a spontaneous worldwide uprising of efforts aimed at restoring the earth and alleviating human suffering—efforts chronicled recently by Paul Hawken in Blessed Unrest. While technology has contributed to our current dilemmas—automobiles, nuclear weapons, toxic chemicals, on and on—it has also provided us with tools for monitoring the condition of the earth, for modeling global systems, and for communicating our findings around the planet at the speed of light. I don’t believe that the Internet is a panacea—it’s mostly used for merchandising and pornography and gossip—it does offer a powerful medium for thinking collectively about our common concerns. No one with access to the Internet need feel isolated or helpless. Whether we as a species are capable of changing our ways fast enough and radically enough to avert disaster is still an open question for me. No matter how long the odds, however, I know the sort of future I wish to serve, and I know that countless others, across our nation and around the world, are serving a similar vision. That solidarity gives me hope.
Terrain.org: From Staying Put and A Private History of Awe, we learn how your family is not only subject matter but also the impetus for reflection—your inspiration. Who are your literary influences and inspirations? Do you have any political influences? Teachers who made the largest impact in your life? What about place as inspiration, and specifically—as in Hunting for Hope with hiking trips to the Rocky Mountains and Great Smoky Mountains—place as an impetus for change?
Scott Russell Sanders: There are more questions bundled together here than I am going to be able to answer adequately, I’m afraid. It’s true that my kinfolk—my parents, my wife, my children, my in-laws—have often moved me to write. I have traced some of that influence in A Private History of Awe. I’ve also been inspired by ongoing conversations with friends, and in gratitude I’ve dedicated books to a number of them. In Awe, as well as The Country of Languageand Staying Put, I’ve written about some of the teachers who’ve inspired me. It’s likewise true that I have often been moved to write by encounters with natural lands—the Ohio River, the Boundary Waters Wilderness of Minnesota, Glacier Bay in Alaska, the coast of Oregon, the limestone region of southern Indiana, Mt. Saint Helens, and the Rocky and Smoky and Cascade Mountains, but I’ve also written, if less often, about cities, such as Cambridge, Providence, Chicago, Memphis, and my own hometown of Bloomington. Wild lands give me a measure of what healthy places might be like, and vital cities give me a sense of the sort of communities we should create.
Terrain.org: In Hunting for Hope, you write, “Asking what good are eagles and owls, or ebony spleenworts, or black-footed ferrets, or snaildarters, or any other of our fellow travelers, is like asking what good are brothers and sisters, or children, or friends. Such questions arise only in the absence of love.” Later in the book, you note that “In order to live in hope we needn’t believe that everything will turn out well. We need only believe that we are on the right path.” Both of these eloquent verses remind me of strong passages in Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. Has Leopold been an influence on your work? When did you first read his classic book?
Scott Russell Sanders: Aldo Leopold has been a strong presence for me, ever since I first read A Sand County Almanac in 1978, in an edition that included the Round River essays. Since then, I have returned to that work many times, often in conjunction with my teaching, and I have read additional essays as they have been published. I wrote a foreword for one recent collection, For the Health of the Land, edited by J. Baird Callicott and Eric T. Freyfogle. And in the summer of 2009 I will be teaching in a National Humanities Institute devoted to Leopold.
I value the way he combines a scientific outlook with literary skill and practical work on the land. He didn’t just study nature as an ecologist, and didn’t just write about nature as an essayist; he rolled up his sleeves and worked on the land, striving to restore fertility to a farmed-out patch of Wisconsin, guiding the preserve in Madison, advising hunters and farmers about best practices. He was a good enough scientist, and humble enough, to change his mind in light of experience—to realize that forests are not merely standing “timber,” that predators such as wolves play a crucial role in the web of life, that wilderness embodies irreplaceable values, that all animals and not merely those hunted for “game” are worthy members of the land community, and that even the lowliest plants deserve our attention. He enabled us to think of ourselves as members of the land community, members who happen to be endowed with cleverness and tools, and who are therefore all the more responsible to act as caretakers. He framed our abuse of the land as a cultural problem, one that requires us to enlarge the scope of our ethics, to challenge an economic system based on perpetual growth, and to live more conservingly.
Terrain.org: Whether literary or visual, performance or two-dimensional, in art we often speak of the pursuit of truth, and how truth may be acquired through beauty. Or perhaps they are the same? In Hunting for Hope, you write, “A universe so prodigal of beauty may actually need us to notice and respond, may need our sharp eyes and brimming hearts and teeming minds, in order to close the circuit of Creation.” Could you please elaborate on this idea? Is that need original or evolved, or both? Is art but one of our responses?
Scott Russell Sanders: Certainly art is only one of our responses to the universe—although it is a precious and versatile one. We respond to the majesty and mystery of the universe through science and mathematics, through storytelling, through every medium of expression, from language to architecture. What I offer in that passage from Hunting for Hope is only a wild conjecture. In using the word “Creation,” I beg the question of who or what might have created the cosmos, and might therefore feel some curiosity about what two-legged mites on a dust mote of a planet make of the whole show. Talking about such a possibility inevitably requires the use of human analogies—such as “feel some curiosity”—and it risks smuggling an anthropomorphic God back into the equation.
Although I was reared in a branch of Christianity that envisions the world as governed by a benevolent, omnipotent deity who cares personally about human beings and who guarantees our immortal life, I have long since given up believing in such a potentate. However, I still suspect—and maybe this is only a stubborn theism—that the universe is not an accident, that the existence of life reveals something profound about the nature of our grand home, and that the emergence of consciousness, in other creatures as well as in humans, may be essential to the unfolding story. Essential how? I don’t pretend to know. The cosmos seems to me more like a mind than like a collection of material objects. If the tangible world is a manifestation of some all-embracing consciousness, then what we call “mind” is fundamental and what we call “matter” is derivative. And if that is the case, then the products of mind—science, music, literature, painting, speech—may be our way of participating in the self-awareness of the cosmos.
Terrain.org: In May you will be awarded the 2009 Mark Twain Award for “distinguished contributions to Midwestern literature,” which has been previously awarded to Toni Morrison, Ray Bradbury, Gwendolyn Brooks, and others. Do you consider yourself a Midwestern writer, an American writer, an Earth writer? How has your work been received beyond North America? And how do you think your time in England, beautifully detailed in A Private History of Awe, lends to where you are “from” and what places you represent?
Scott Russell Sanders: I think of myself as a writer grounded in southern Indiana, with a lifelong connection to the Midwest, and with interests and concerns that span the continent and the planet. Despite those planetary concerns, I wouldn’t claim to be an “Earth” writer. I’m not cosmopolitan enough to wear such a label. I treasured my four years in England, which taught me a great deal, especially about the influence of history and long-term human inhabitation, and I have learned much from other travels abroad, mainly in Europe.
Although portions of my work have been translated into half a dozen languages, and I receive a modest stream of email from readers in other countries, my knowledge and affections attach to places within the U.S. I’m certainly an American writer, in the sense that my language, my geographical references, and my primary influences are very much “in the American grain,” as William Carlos Williams defined it. The “Midwest” is a vast and varied region—stretching roughly from the Allegheny Mountains in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west, from the Great Lakes in the north to the edge of the glacial plain in the south—and ranging from dense hardwood forests through rolling grasslands to high plains and desert. Nobody can speak for such an immensity.
Still, I feel at home in this sprawling, low-lying, often neglected heartland. Like other writers in the Midwest, I suppose I have paid a price for living far from the cultural power centers on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. But in compensation I have had the opportunity to write about a region that has been largely absent from our literature.
Terrain.org: In May 2008 you provided “A Citizen’s View on the State of the Union” in a lecture in Bloomington, Indiana, as a kind of response to the President’s State of the Union Address. Though it was an endorsement for Barack Obama for President, it was more basic, less overtly political. “I speak as an ordinary citizen who loves our country and believes we ought to be behaving far better, as a nation, than we have been doing over these past seven years,” you said. What has the response to your State of the Union been? Your writing has long addressed issues of morality, integrity, and community—issues that for better or worse are finding themselves in the political arena—yet has the reaction to “Citizen’s View” differed from reactions to your other recent work?
Scott Russell Sanders: I know from correspondence and anecdote that my “Citizen’s View” has been picked up and passed along through the Internet, duplicated and handed out at meetings, and otherwise distributed fairly widely. While I supported Barack Obama in the recent election, in my talk I was, as you say, concerned with issues that transcend any particular candidate, party, or campaign. I was offering my own vision of the state of our Union, a vision far less sanguine than the one offered by President Bush. Because America has such a powerful influence on the rest of the world—through our economy, our mass media, our military, our diplomacy—the priorities and behavior of our nation have a disproportionate impact on the whole planet.
If there is a tone of urgency in “A Citizen’s View,” it is because I feel we face grave choices as a people, and we have little time left to choose a less destructive way of life. I suppose you can hear the same urgency in the title of my next book, A Conservationist Manifesto, which is to be published by Indiana University Press in spring 2009.
Terrain.org: Flannery O’Connor said, “No discovery in the writer, no discovery in the reader.” In responding to a question about creative nonfiction in a recent interview in The Writer’s Chronicle, you said, “Facts are data; truth is the sense we make of the data. And the sense we make should always be open to revision, to new evidence, to further discovery.” Talk a bit about discovery as it applies to your writing, your observing. Has your sense of discovery, perhaps the “process” for discovery, changed as you’ve become a father, a caregiver of aging parents, and a grandfather—and as you’ve written more? Is a certain amount of experience, or time or patience or contemplation, required for discovery to take hold?
Scott Russell Sanders: I believe that the act of writing, in any genre, is a process of discovery. This is especially true of the essay, which, as I understand it and try to practice it, is a medium for asking questions of experience, for investigating some aspect of the world, for exploring. The more experiences you’ve lived through, the more material you have to draw on, and, you hope, the better informed your judgment; and as you age, those assets help compensate for the decline in energy and the dimming of imagination. The writer is drawn on through the hard labor of writing by the prospect of making discoveries, which may occur at the level of language—in an image, a metaphor, a turn of phrase—or at the level of insight, idea, form, or meaning. Writing filled with such discoveries conveys a sense of adventure and excitement to the reader.
Terrain.org: In that same interview, you note that “… the more deeply one reflects about one’s own life, the more one realizes one’s connections to other people, other species, other times.” In an age in which it seems there’s precious little time to reflect on one’s own life—let alone deeply reflect—how do we find that time? What role can literature serve in helping with our deep reflection? As a teacher, how do you encourage students to seek that reflection?
Scott Russell Sanders: I do fear that we are losing the capacity, in our wired age, for deep reflection, for patient observation, for thoughtful action. Thoreau wrote that he set up house for a spell beside Walden Pond in order to live deliberately—to deliberate about the meaning and conduct of his days. By contrast, we tend to live hectically, racing from one activity to another, hustling from sensation to sensation, everything speeded up by technology and an excess of money. Readers might balk at the claim that too many of us have too much money.
But consider for a moment. Could we drive, fly, jog, shop, log-on, plug in, eat out, move house, go to meetings, and take part in a host of other frenetic activities if we were genuinely poor? There is excitement in this frenzy. I often give into it myself. But when I emerge from a flurry of activities, I feel jaded and blank, as if for a spell I had become a puppet jerked around by distant powers. It’s also clear that the earth is paying a huge, unsupportable price for our mania. Along with many other observers, over the years I have noticed a decline in reading by students.
It’s not just that many students never read books, magazines, or newspapers for pleasure or illumination; increasing numbers of them can’t read anything that requires sustained attention and extensive memory. They have become accustomed to taking in words, lyrics, images, and scenarios in bits, and few of them seem able to combine those scraps into coherent wholes. I worry about the decline in reading not only because I love books, but because I’m convinced that we need the kinds of knowledge that can only be delivered in a work as large and complex as a book. One can’t understand or respond to global climate disruption, for example, or the erosion of civil liberties in America, or the causes of our war in Iraq, or the texture of life in an age and a place quite different from one’s own merely by reading factoids and isolated paragraphs.
When I’m asked, as I often am, how we can “find the time” to live more reflectively, I urge people to wean themselves for some part of the day from electronic media.
Terrain.org: Along with Alison Hawthorne Deming, Rick Bass, Lauret Savoy, and others, you have an essay in response to the Earth Charter in the new book A Voice for the Earth. How did you get involved with that project? The Earth Charter, which has the mission of addressing the economic, social, political, spiritual, and environmental problems confronting the world, is now more than eight years old; in your personal experience, how is the Charter addressing its mission?
Scott Russell Sanders: I wrote “Wilderness as a Sabbath for the Land,” my essay in A Voice for Earth, as a defense of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other wilderness areas, which are under constant pressures from the various extractive industries. The essay was originally published in Arctic Refuge: A Circle of Testimony, edited by Hank Lentfer and Carolyn Servid. A significantly expanded version was then published in a journal called Spiritus.
When I was invited by Peter Blaze Corcoran, one of the editors of A Voice for the Earth, to contribute an essay to that volume, I revised “Wilderness as a Sabbath for the Land” yet again, this time including references to the Earth Charter. I was drawn to the project because I regard the Earth Charter as one of the most hopeful expressions of our collective intelligence yet to emerge. It’s not perfect, of course. But within a short space it goes a long way toward integrating a concern for the wellbeing of people with a concern for the wellbeing of other species and the planet. Of course, words alone are not enough to bring about the necessary change. And yet, by articulating ideals of peace, justice, and stewardship, the Earth Charter may inspire millions of people to work toward those ideals.
Terrain.org: You’ve said that nature is everything in the universe that humans didn’t make, and also the raw material for everything that humans do make. “At its simplest,” you said, “it means the out-of-doors.” What about the built environment—a barn or house, farm or neighborhood, a city? How do you see human-created places as a part of nature, even if not a part of “wildness?”
Scott Russell Sanders: The nature of “nature” is an ancient puzzle, which has stumped writers far more philosophically astute than I am. I’ve done my share of puzzling in several books, including novels such as Terrarium, The Engineer of Beasts, and Bad Man Ballad, and in nonfiction works such as Hunting for Hope and A Conservationist Manifesto. Here I’ll just acknowledge the dilemma.
If we define nature as wild animals and plants, forests and rivers and mountains—everything out there—then we set humankind and its works apart, and that is a damaging illusion. If we define nature as the whole evolving cosmos, with us as a part of it, that comes closer to the truth, but it creates a dilemma for ethics. If humans are simply nature, then everything we engage in is natural, including rape, murder, incest, and war; everything we make is natural, including plutonium bombs and Styrofoam and Hummers. I’m not willing to give up making ethical judgments.
But where do my ethical standards come from? A Private History of Awe offers an extended answer to that question, by tracing the development of my values in relation to personal and public history. Loving the “natural” world does not prevent one from loving much of the human-fashioned world. I say “much,” because I don’t love our works uncritically. I admire human artifacts that show great skill and elegance, that serve real human needs (including the needs of the spirit), and that cause little or no damage to the earth—Shaker furniture, Zuni pots, post-and-beam barns, four-square houses, tools for carpentry and masonry and cooking and sundry other crafts, certain towns, countless books and paintings, scientific instruments, bicycles, stories, on and on.
Terrain.org: Your newest book, A Conservationist Manifesto, publishes in April. Tell us about that book.
Scott Russell Sanders: The book addresses what I take to be the single greatest challenge facing our society, which is to shift from a culture based on consumption to a culture based on conservation, from recklessness to caretaking. At present, merchants and mass media, politicians and pundits, agree in defining us as consumers, as if the purpose of life were to devour the world rather than to savor and preserve it. What I propose instead is that we imagine ourselves as conservers, as stewards of the earth’s bounty and beauty. However appealing consumerism may be to our egos, and however profitable it may be for business, it’s ruinous for our planet, our communities, and our souls. The book argues that a conservation ethic is crucial to addressing such threats as the disruption of global climate, the tattering of the ozone layer, the clear-cutting of forests, the poisoning of lakes by acid rain, the collapse of ocean fisheries, the extinction of species, the looming shortages of oil and fresh water, and the spread of famine and epidemic disease.
A Conservationist Manifesto seeks to extend into our own time the tradition of thought we associate with such visionaries as Carson, Leopold, Muir, and Thoreau. It also seeks to honor and uphold the heritage of restraint we can trace back through the frugal habits of the Depression and wartime rationing, through agrarian thrift and frontier ingenuity and the prudent advice of Poor Richard’s Almanack; back through the Quakers and Puritans, with their emphasis on material simplicity; and even farther back to the indigenous people who inhabited this continent before it was called America. I want to show that the practice of conservation is our wisest and surest way of caring for our neighbors, for this marvelous planet, and for future generations.
Terrain.org: After your work to promote A Conservationist Manifesto, what’s next for Scott Russell Sanders?
Scott Russell Sanders: I’m working on two book projects. The first is a novel made up of linked stories, a return to fiction after more than fifteen years devoted exclusively to nonfiction. It’s liberating for me to give my imagination free rein, and to take a respite from brooding on the world’s ills. My characters brood, as well, of course, but their concerns are more personal to each of them, and generally less public and calamitous than the ones that keep me awake at night. I’ve just begun sending out stories; a few are forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Seattle Review.
For the other book, I’m making notes and sketching exploratory essays about contemporary efforts to “design with nature”—in agriculture, architecture, manufacturing, ecological restoration, education, and other domains. Writing this book will require me to wrestle with the vexed question of what “nature” means. It will also require me to be less of a stay-at-home essayist and more of a traveling journalist than I have been in the past.
Whether through fiction or nonfiction, I’m seeking to understand our perplexing species more fully, and to honor this life, this planet, more deeply.