Englewood Review of Books (February 2012)
An Interview with Scott Russell Sanders
[back to "About SRS"]
1) Earth Works is a wonderful representation of your non-fiction work, from personal essays on your childhood, to pieces on writing, to essays on deeply ecological themes. If I were going to recommend your essays to someone who wasn’t familiar with them, this is the volume to which I would likely point him or her. Can you talk a little bit about the process of how you went about selecting these particular thirty essays for this new collection?
I picked twenty-one of them from earlier books of mine that appeared over the past quarter century, to represent what I regard as my best essays from that period. They are the essays most frequently used in classrooms, most often cited in critical studies and bibliographies, and, I suppose, the ones that taught me the most as I was writing them. I did not draw any pieces from In Limestone Country or A Private History of Awe, because those books were made up of chapters rather than free-standing essays. Nor did I draw any from the book I published most recently, A Conservationist Manifesto. The other nine essays in Earth Works are appearing here in a book for the first time, reflecting my newest work.
2) I love how you narrate your own story of “Staying Put” in the Bloomington, Indiana area. The virtue of staying put, what the Benedictines call stability, is essential for us at Englewood Christian Church and we highlight it whenever possible here in The Englewood Review of Books, through works like Kathleen Norris’s Acedia and Me, etc. I’m curious, it’s been twenty years since the essay “Staying Put” was originally written and published, what have you learned over these additional two decades of staying put in a place?
I greatly admire the Benedictine commitment to stability, as I admire any commitment that is freely chosen and faithfully maintained. I moved around a fair amount while growing up and pursuing my formal education—probably about the average number of moves for an American of my generation. Only when I settled in Bloomington with my wife, became a father twice over, and devoted myself to the profession of teaching, did I realize how deeply satisfying and nourishing it can be to put down roots and to invest oneself in a place. “Staying Put” is a record of how I came to that recognition. It is also an examination of the cultural forces that encourage the almost frenetic mobility so common in the United States. Since writing the essay, I have paid more attention to the involuntary forms of mobility—people moving because of divorce, job loss, home foreclosures, environmental degradation, crime, poverty, and other such causes. I have also written in A Conservationist Manifesto and some of the newer essays in Earth Works about the way consumerism—the addiction to novelty, trendiness, and material acquisition—tends to erode our relationships with one another, with our communities, and with nature.
3) One of the essays that appears in Earth Works that hasn’t appeared in a previous collection, is one that actually lent its name to an earlier collection: “A Private History of Awe.” I deeply appreciate the reverence you describe for this richly inter-connected web of life in which we find ourselves. Such awe is in short supply these days. Can you describe, for readers who might not be familiar with your work, why this sort of awe has been so essential to your life?
I believe we all experience awe—those moments in our lives when we feel a profound sense of wonder and amazement coupled with an equally powerful sense of fear or dread. As the title suggests, A Private History of Awe is a record of such moments from my own life, drawn from my early years, beginning at age four when my father was holding me in his arms during a thunder storm and a bolt of lightning shattered a grand oak tree just beyond the porch where we were standing, and continuing up to the birth of my first child when I was twenty-seven. In between, there were dozens of moments that revealed the mysterious depths and vast power of the universe. I wanted to write about such experiences not simply because they are mine, but because I believe they point to the ground of being, which many would call God. We so easily get caught up in the routines and trivia of our daily lives, and forget how astounding it is to be alive, how vanishingly small and ephemeral we are compared to the age and size of the cosmos, and what a great gift it is for us to be able to witness and respond to this enveloping mystery.
4) The essay “The Mystique of Money,” one of the most recent pieces in the collection, challenges the overwhelming power that money has in our lives. The boldness with which you challenge the power of money here is not only particularly timely given the sad state of the American economy and the greed and abuses that launched us into this mess, but it also challenges the trajectory that the American people have been on for most, if not all, of our history. Can you give our readers a snapshot of what you describe in this essay as “the spell of money” and how we can begin as a people to break this spell?
Despite the claim that most Americans make of being religious, we are among the most materialistic people on Earth. By that I mean we devote more of our lives, our television channels, our public discourse, our conversations, and our private thoughts to money and the things money can buy than we devote to good works, spiritual practice, or any other matter. We fret constantly about prices, taxes, salaries, investments, pensions, and markets. We measure “success” by the amount of money a person or corporation has piled up, no matter by what means that money was acquired, no matter who or what might have been damaged in the process. We speak about the economy as though it matters more than anything else—the environment, our health, our schools, peace, justice, or happiness. This is peculiar behavior for people who claim to follow the teachings of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets. The Bible warns us repeatedly about not devoting our lives to the pursuit of money and the accumulation of possessions. It calls us to lead lives of material simplicity and spiritual richness. And it instructs us to share such wealth as we do acquire with those most in need. How to turn away from this? We could begin by taking seriously the religious teachings we claim to follow. We could quit watching commercial television and stop going to stores or browsing on-line merchandise unless we actually need to buy something. We could ask ourselves what actually makes us happy, and in answering that question we would be led to realize, I suspect, that once we have the basic necessities for living, our happiness derives far less from money than from the richness of our personal relationships, our creative activity, our service to others, and our contact with nature.
5) There are three essays here that pay homage to the specific writers whose work has been influential in your life: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wendell Berry and Aldo Leopold. Over the course of the collection, you honor many writers and thinkers who have guided your work, but only these three are highlighted in their own essays. Can you speak briefly to why you have featured the work of each of these three men in this collection?
I have many literary heroes, but these three have been especially important to me as I’ve tried to understand how to live as well as how to write. Emerson was a large-hearted soul with an openness to ideas from many sources—the European Romantics, Asian philosophers, Native Americans, theologians, scientists, novelists, poets, farmers, and wide-eyed dreamers, among many others. To those rich sources, he added his own original ideas, and created the first profound body of thought that is distinctively American. He also has the distinction of being the mentor for Henry David Thoreau, who is still, I would say, the most influential interpreter of nature in our literature. Aldo Leopold was a rare combination of scientist, wilderness enthusiast, grassroots organizer, and first-rate writer. His book A Sand County Almanac sets out clearly and cogently the need for a land ethic—an ethic that embraces not only other human beings, but also the Earth itself and all our fellow creatures. Wendell Berry has written distinguished poetry, short stories, and novels as well as essays, and through all of those genres he has articulated for our own day the concern voiced by Emerson, Thoreau, and Leopold about how we should inhabit the Earth; and he has written more extensively than any of them about the meaning of community and the importance of place.
6) There are several superb essays in Earth Works that explore the craft of writing, particularly “The Singular First Person” and “Letter to a Reader.” What one or two pieces of essential advice would you give to someone who aspired to be a writer of essays?
First, read widely, and read the best quality work you can find—not only essays, but also poetry, fiction, history, philosophy, any kind of literature that interests you, on any subject that interests you. But, again, seek out the best, because you train your ear for language primarily through reading. Secondly, keep a journal—not a diary, but a notebook in which you record ideas, images, vivid passages from your reading, overheard bits of conversation, interesting words, dreams, anything that might later become material for your writing. The notebook is also a good place to practice framing sentences and paragraphs, articulating themes, sketching scenes. Third, treasure your questions, because in pursuing them, you are likely to do your best writing. Think of the essay not as a way of delivering knowledge you already possess, but as a way of discovering new knowledge, a way of coming to understand something for the first time, a way of revealing connections and meanings that had been hidden. If you make discoveries, the writing will be fresh, and the reader will be attracted by the resulting energy.