Scott Russell Sanders’s Earth Works: Selected Essays
Reviewed by Simmons B. Buntin
There is an ongoing conversation that those of us in the place-based writing arena just can’t seem to get away from, and it centers on the question of “nature” writing. Am I a nature writer? the author asks. Am I a publisher of nature writing? the journal and the press ask. No doubt it’s an engaging discussion—check out David Quammen’s biting response in a Terrain.org interview five years back, or Kathryn Miles’ response in this issue. But it’s also a frustrating argument, one that I often counter with another question: Why does it matter? Or: What isn’t nature? Why must we categorize any of it, other than for the purposes of determining which shelf (the old way) or which Amazon.com category (the new way) or which hash tag (the newest way) is best for marketing the writing?
Ask Scott Russell Sanders, whose newest collection Earth Works: Selected Essays spans his nonfiction writing career, and you’ll get the response included in the book’s preface:
I am sometimes asked if I am a “nature” writer, as if paying attention to our membership in the web of life were a specialized interest, like following sports or fashion or cuisine. What I am is an Earth writer: I’m interested in life on this planet—all life. Since I know most about my own species, I think mostly about human affairs, but I do so while seeking to understand how our kind arises from and affects the living world.
If you were familiar only with Sanders’ recent work in such magazines as Orion, or his previous book, A Conservationist Manifesto, you might want to further press his writing into a sub-category of Earth writing that we might call We Better Get Our Act Together, and Soon Like. That seems to be the category of most writing about the environment these days, and for good reason: we live in a time of manmade global change that is unprecedented. We all know this, and I figure anyone who reads the entirety of essays like those is already on board and tackling challenges as best as possible. And that’s all good and fine and important. And overwhelming.
Fortunately, the essays in Earth Works are anything but overwhelming, anything but pigeonholed into some endlessly debatable category of writing. What they are, rather, is a rich mix of beautifully crafted and progressive pieces that engage the reader in a long conversation. They are best read slowly, providing time to consider Sanders’ propositions, his keen insight and lessons, his critical questioning. Indeed, I read the book over several months, taking it with me for life’s little windows of reading opportunities—a blood pressure checkup, waiting for the car’s engine mount replacement—as well as slow Sunday afternoons and the handful of minutes before drifting off to sleep.
“You sure have been reading that book a long time,” my older daughter said as I grabbed it before taking her sister to an orthodontist appointment some weeks ago. A long time well spent, I’d say.
Taking such a long time to read Earth Works was not my intention, I admit, but early on I realized these essays not only deserve but also invite deliberate reading. From the get go, I felt like I was in a dialogue with the author, who begins the book with an essay on essaying—an examination of why this literary art form above all others speaks for us in general and for Sanders particularly. “In this era of pre-packaged thought,” he writes, “the essay is the closest thing we have, on paper, to a record of the individual mind at work and play.” And the essential parts of an essay? “[E]ach doggy sentence, as it noses forward into the underbrush of thought, scatters a bunch of rabbits that go bounding off in all directions.”
More than an ongoing conversation, however, the experience and wisdom in Sanders’ essays—that bounding off in all directions, the returning to a home again and again—created a kind of mentoring for me. I wouldn’t argue that every reader will reach this level of discourse, but as a father with a passion for community broadly defined, who like Sanders questions the guiding force of the universe and our place in it, it’s an apt term. In the essay “Honoring the Ordinary,” for example, he writes:
Many in our culture would call the source God, but this word carries a vexed history, and an otherworldly air, that I wish to avoid. I prefer the Buddhist term emptiness, which does not mean nothingness, but rather undifferentiated wholeness, fecundity, the brimming, inexhaustible, undifferentiated fullness of being that perpetually casts up new shapes and dissolves them again.
More than any other writer I can think of, Sanders speaks eloquently to the relationship of landscape, spirit, and personal engagement and responsibility. I’ve compared his work to that of Aldo Leopold before, and it remains a reasonable comparison. But Sanders has taken the question of a land ethic farther, continuing Leopold’s conversation in ways that serve the original question well while broadening the audience and deepening the examination.
That’s writing I’m familiar with, and in many cases have read in source publications before. But what I find most delightful particularly early on in Earth Works are Sanders’ earlier essays, work I hadn’t read before and work that places him among our finest essayists, categorized or not. Of these, I may be most smitten with “Doing Time in the Thirteenth Chair,” which first appeared in North American Review in 1983. It recounts Sanders’ experience as an alternate juror for an Indiana trial, told in present tense. In the invaluable notes at the end of the book, Sanders writes, “The weighing of evidence and searching for patterns in a trial is akin to the inquiring method of the essay.”
Inquiring is the central purpose of essaying, and the central approach of the essays in this collection, as well. Not all of the pieces in this collection are personal, however, which we might expect given the broad time period and evolving writing of Sanders, or any essayist. I’m thankful for that, because while I’m moved by Sanders’ personal essays, including “At Play in the Paradise of Bombs” and “Buckeye”, I find myself both moved and inspired by more “public” essays such as “The Mystique of Money,” which is the most direct and imperative essay in the collection. It’s also the essay that convinced me to purchase a copy for my politically conservative father. While my arguments for a more empathetic and less consumerist world don’t seem to hold much water with him, my hope is that Scott’s eloquent, well-reasoned writing in this outstanding essay will. No report back just yet, but considering it’s the first book (other than my own) I’ve sent my dad in a decade, I suspect he’ll give it the attention it deserves.
But here we go with categorizing again: “personal” versus “public.” The truth is, Sanders’ essays are nearly all an elegant dance of both. Take, for example, “Voyageurs,” set in the middle of the collection. The lyrical essay begins and ends in the wilderness, on a canoe trip with his daughter and others in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota and Ontario. Sanders moves between personal, touching moments with his daughter—including a harrowing moment or two aboard canoes—and an examination of wilderness and biophilia, including the risks inherent in nature, in cities, in civilization. “Beyond our campfires, beyond our tents, beyond our makeshift structures,” he writes, “the whole universe is wild, from quarks to quasars, from black bears to black holes, but far from being disorderly, it follows intricate, exquisite rules that we have only begun to decipher.” But also more intimate moments like this:
“I was terrified,” I told her. “Weren’t you?”
“No,” she said. “It was kind of fun.”
“What if you had gone under?”
“I didn’t go under.”
“But what if you had?”
“I would have washed up again sooner or later.”
Recalling those fierce waters, those indifferent rocks, again I lost my voice. Eva frowned at her alarmist father, and we both returned to our work.
How difficult not to be an alarmist—as a father, a community member, a writer. And some might argue that there is more than a tinge of the alarmist to many of these essays, a kind of preaching about why we need to change. Sure, there is. It’s a fine line between engagement and evangelism, and it’s a line Sanders crosses on occasion. But it’s never so intrusive that it turns the reader off—not this reader, at least, and I read a lot of Earth writing, so I’m deep in it.
Sanders’ is a measured evangelism, for sure, but there’s much more at work: a fiction-writer’s knack for storytelling, a wonderful sense of imagery and metaphor, a placing of self within the context of essay as literary art form, and an understanding that we cannot, after all, understand everything. But we can and must continue to seek. In a word, I call this craft. Scott Russell Sanders is a master of the craft of essaying, and more broadly—if these fine essays serve as any indication—a master at living with passion and purpose, with a gift for encouraging his readers to do the same. “So engaged,” he writes, “we are more likely to experience openings, to cleanse the doors of perception, rub the gum from our eyes, and glimpse the true nature of things.”
Whether you engage with Earth Works: Selected Essays as mentor, friend, or casual visitor, you’ll put it down refreshed and rewarded—just one of the pleasures of this long and gratifying conversation.
Simmons B. Buntin is the founding editor-in-chief of Terrain.org. His first book of poetry, Riverfall, was published in 2005 by Ireland’s Salmon Poetry; his second collection, Bloom (also from Salmon), was published in 2010. With Ken Pirie, he is working on a new book of Unsprawl case studies to be published by Planetizen Press this year. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.