Interview of Scott Russell Sanders by Bill Tydeman
Iron Horse Review (Lubbock, Texas 14 November 2001)
[back to "About SRS"]
Bill Tydeman: I'll begin with the term nature writing. Is that an accurate characterization of your work?
Scott Russell Sanders: Im uneasy with that label. It implies that paying attention to natureacknowledging that we dwell on a planet alongside millions of other species, within a universe of billions upon billions of galaxiesis a specialized interest, like writing about sports or food. But we are embraced by nature. We are made of nature. Its the ground of our existence, the source of our bodies, our language, and our inspiration. Yet a great deal of contemporary literature manages to ignore everything outside the world that humans have manufactured, the artificial world of rooms, screens, vehicles, and gadgets. Thats the specialized writingwhat Gary Nabhan suggests we call urban dysfunctional literature. So John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, and Philip Roth are urban dysfunctional writers. By contrast, Wendell Berry, Terry Tempest Williams, Barry Lopez, Pattiann Rogers, Peter Matthiessen, Gary Snyder, and Gary Nabhan himself are just writers, alert to the planet and the universe; what they make is simply literature.
BT: Somehow, that covers it. Like you, Barry Lopez and others that weve talked to have made that point that the term nature writers confines their writing to a genre, some lesser form.
SRS: The label also arouses in some peoples minds a genteel, nineteenth century image: a gentleman takes a walk in the countryside, sees a woodchuck or a daffodil, and scribbles his impressions. Whereas, in fact, whats called nature writing today is far more searching and varied. It may reflect on how ones identity is shaped by place, how the human community is interwoven with the natural community, how cosmology informs our imagination. Whether in essays, stories, or poems, heres a literature that understands we are biological creatures, wholly dependent for our existence on a living planet.
BT: That is a lead into something I was going to ask you. In your writing, you have said unless we acknowledge our biological inheritance, were trapped by it.
SRS: Yes, yes.
BT: And I wondered if you would expand on that a little more. To what extent must we come to terms with our biological nature?
SRS: Well, Im not a determinist. I dont believe that everything we are and everything we do is determined by our genes and our environment. At the same time, I recognize that we are profoundly influenced by our genetic make-up, not only in terms of eye color and other physical features, but also in terms of qualities such as aggression, compassion, and sexuality. Our notions about gender roles, for instance, have been shaped by a long evolutionary history. I dont mean to say were doomed to repeat that history. If men have been brutal toward women, that doesnt mean we have to continue being brutal. If humans have been aggressive, that doesnt mean we cant curb our aggression. But it does mean we must reckon with those evolutionary biases. We need a realistic notion of the effort required to overcome those biases or to channel them into new directions. Margaret Mead said that every society has to figure out what to do with the tumultuous energy of fifteen to twenty-five-year-old males. Over hundreds of generations, males have been selected for a propensity to take risks and to fight, especially in that age bracket. If we just pretend thats not true, or wish it werent true, we delude ourselves. We need to figure out how to cope with that biological inheritance, not simply ignore it. One of the people who has been most thoughtful in writing about these matters is E. O. Wilson, who calls his theory sociobiology. As a philosophical materialist, hes more of a determinist than I am. Im a theist and a transcendentalist, which means I believe there is a spiritual dimension to reality, which gives us the power to change our behavior.
BT: So in some respects, the theory of sociobiology makes sense.
SRS: Taken with a few grains of salt, it makes sense to me. We dont like to think that certain flaws in our behavior, such as racism and sexism, might be an evolutionary legacy. Racial discrimination, for example, is really a form of tribalism, which divides the world into us and them. Ugly though it may be, this strategy worked quite well through much of our evolutionary history. Tribalism can seize on any observable traitskin color, religious practice, accent, social class. It identifies the in group as deserving of ethical treatment, and everyone else as beyond the pale. Jesus and the Buddha challenged us to stop drawing that line. Embrace all people, they said. In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold challenged us to enlarge our circle of ethical concern even farther. He called on us to feel a moral responsibility not only for all human beings, regardless of race or gender or religion, but also for the land itself. By land, he meant the soil, water, and air, as well as plants and animals. Thats still our greatest challengeto take moral responsibility for the health of that larger community.
BT: Do you think that is why experience with and descriptions of native cultures has a great appeal in the literature of place?
SRS: Certainly. We mustnt romanticize indigenous people. For one thing, theres no single native way of living and thinking. There were hundreds of different cultures in North America when Europeans arrived. They were not one homogeneous mass. And there was a similar diversity of cultures in Central and South America, in Australia and Africa. In spite of this variety, virtually all these cultures shared a sense that humans are part and parcel of the natural world. They all developed ways of showing reverence and restraint toward the Earth. Any culture that failed to respect its land base, that ignored the signs and seasons, soon perished. They died outas we might, in our technological arrogance, if we dont learn that lesson ourselves. It is not because indigenous people were inherently wise or noble that they recognized their kinship with other creatures or their dependence on the land. They didnt possess the technology to dramatically transform their environment. They could alter it to some extent, but they couldnt make it over to suit their needsthe way the Texas panhandle, for example, has been made over.
SRS: They couldnt divorce themselves from nature. They couldnt think of themselves as a species apart. So their practices, their rituals, and their stories embodied a deep understanding about their place on Earth. And therefore many of the writers in our day whove paid close attention to nature have also taken a lively interest in Native American cultures. Theres a risk, of course, in transferring insights from one cultural context to another. You have to be respectful. You have to listen carefully and learn as much as you can about the people from whom youre borrowing. Bearing those cautions in mind, I think the First Peoples of North America can teach us a great deal about living on this continent. For instance, when the Iroquois leaders are sitting in council, they are supposed to consider the effects of their decisions seven generations in the future. They are not to think simply of whats expedient right now. Rather, what are the long-term effects? What a powerful idea! Imagine our politicians or executives thinking seven generations into the future!
BT: That makes me think of a corollary question when we think of seven generations or posterity. Can we fashion a literature like that? Is it possible to create a literature that exists in service to community?
SRS: I believe many writers aspire to serve the community. Certainly I do. I wont pretend that anything I write, and perhaps anything my contemporaries write, will survive seven generations. But we may articulate certain ideas, values, and hopes that will outlast us, gradually permeating the culture, like a spicy flavor, long after our individual works of literature are forgotten. Its as though, in writing our books, we are building arks. In the Biblical story, Noah was ordered to put a pair of each species on the ark and carry them through the flood. I sometimes think thats what Im doing, and what many of my colleagues are doingbuilding our own little vessels to preserve certain values and skills that our descendants are going to need after the floodwaters recede. The flood Im thinking about is not just the literal rising of sea level from global warming, but the whole pandemic of extinction, pollution, and devastation that humans have loosed on the world. While millions of other species will perish, ours is likely to survive, because were clever and adaptable. But it will be a diminished life on a depleted world. However grim or bright that future may be, our descendants will need the visions and tools that many people are now putting into their books.
BT: Do you think that were at a point, with the beginning of a new millennium, that the United States and other Western cultures are searching for a new way of seeing themselves in relation to the world?
SRS: I cant speak about whats going on in other countries, but theres definitely a ferment of new thought in America. You see it in the efforts at ecological restoration, organic farming, communal living, alternative energy sources, co-op housing, recycling programs, bicycle routes and greenways, and so forth. These are all efforts at finding ways of living that are less destructive, more respectful of people and nature, more joyful and peaceable. I see the evidence everywhere I travel. In 1996, the Orion Society estimated there were about 1,500 grassroots environmental organizations in the country. By 1999, that estimate had grown to 5,000. Thats a reflection of this burgeoning effort to find new ways of thinking and living. People everywhere are recognizing that their home places are endangered. So theyre joining together to protect open space, clean up rivers, restore wetlands and prairies, replant forests. They also seek to relieve the suffering of their neighbors, figuring out ways to help the poor, to house the elderly, to nurture children. This reimagining of our communities and our place in nature is going on all across the country. You dont see it in Congress or the White House, rarely see it in the corporations or the media. By and large, the people whove risen to positions of power acquired their values decades ago, in the heyday of the industrial dream. They can still do a lot of harm, but in the long run theyre irrelevant. Their looters approach to the Earth is a dead end. Its over. Outside the centers of power, millions of people are rethinking our place in the natural order. So Im quite hopeful about this fermentation. The question is, of course, whether change can come fast enough.
SRS: For instance, we are told by our government that we cant possibly meet the Kyoto Treaty goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to below the 1990 level without wrecking our economy. Well, the city of Seattle, through political leadership and citizen support, decided about three years ago that they wanted to meet those goals for their region. And they have already surpassed the Kyoto targets. Theyre projecting that by the year 2010, theyll have reduced their emissions by some 20% below the 1990 figure. And their economy is flourishing. So the point is, while the pundits and the media tell us we cant survive without consuming the planet, millions of people are changing to a simpler, saner way of life.
BT: In this rethinking this fermentation thats going on, you mentioned earlier your philosophical predispositions to theism. To what extent do you think spirituality is playing a role in this?
SRS: For me, spirituality plays a very large role. But I would say that my use of religious language to speak about our place on Earth puts me in a minority within the community of nature writers and conservationists. I know many writers who are atheists and philosophical materialists, while they are passionately committed to honoring and protecting the natural world. They dont require a belief in the divine or the sacred in order to be loving, compassionate, and upright people. So its clear to me that one can be ethical, and committed to conservation, without believing in a spiritual order. But my hunch is that, in the culture as a whole, were not going to bring about a change of consciousness toward a more loving and conserving way of life without tapping into the profound religious sentiment that is especially strong in American society. Any change of consciousness is going to have to be tied to peoples deepest beliefs. And the fact is that most Americans still operate in a religious universe. They believe in a divine Creatorand that belief, to my mind, is the clearest reason for honoring and protecting the Creation. So the spiritual search is at the heart of my work as a writer. I believe thats also true of Pattiann Rogers, Wendell Berry, Terry Tempest Williams, Peter Matthiessen, John Elder, and, more recently, Barry Lopez.
BT: Your work as a writer includes, and Im going to shift a bit here, a concern with the education of young people and children. In the interviews or the writing thats been done about your work, very little has been said about your work for children.
BT: Id like to explore how writing for children satisfies the form and larger objectives of your writing.
SRS: People rarely ask me about the connections between my childrens books and my books for grown-ups. And so I welcome the question. Much of my writing, especially in books such as Staying Put and Hunting for Hope, has been inspired by my own children. Since the day I found out my wife was pregnant with our first child, Ive thought hard about the sort of world were leaving for future generations. Becoming a father turned me toward the future in a new and urgent way. Because I grew up in the country, I had access to creeks and fields and woods. Would my children be able to play outdoors? Would they be able to breathe the air, drink the water, or go bareheaded in the sun? I began to ask myself what I wanted to teach my children, what legacy of values and skills I wanted to pass on to them. Those concerns prompted me to begin writing essays in the late 1970s, because fiction seemed too roundabout. As my daughter and son grew up, alongside the novels and essays for adults, I also began writing storybooks for children. Ive done eight of them so far, and they all deal in one way or another with family, settlement, and nature. Several of them trace the movement of settlers into the heart of the country, down the Ohio Valley, into the Midwest. What fascinates me is the encounter between people and wildernesspeople whose views had been formed primarily in New England. They brought to the frontier the attitudes and expectations of a long-settled country. What was the psychological effect of plunging into this wild country? For people brought up in the towns and farms of the East, the heartland was unfamiliar and unforgiving. In spite of the American myth of rugged individualism, its clear that our ancestors on the frontier survived because families and neighbors helped one another. The key was community, not individualism. That was true in my part of the country and I expect it has been true in Texas as well. Those interests in wilderness and community are among the impulses that led me to write for children. My own children have made their way into my essays for twenty years now. My son Jesse, who turns twenty-four today, first shows up in an essay of mine when he was eleven months old. The very first essay I wrote was about carrying him in a backpack up a mountain in Oregon. When I wrote the story of that outing, I didnt even have a label for what I was making. I thought of it as a sort of letter, as if I were telling a friend about something important that had happened to me. Ever since that time, my children have been a major inspiration for my writing. And, of course, as theyve grown older, the issues have changed. Hunting for Hope was set in motion by a quarrel with my son, who was on the threshold of college, and by conversations with my daughter, who was on the point of becoming engaged. Im always asking myself: What do we say to the children? What is our legacy to them, in our way of life, in our values, and in the condition of the Earth?
BT: And beyond your writing, you take these issues out into the elementary school classrooms, dont you?
SRS: Yes, I go to elementary schools, but Ive had to cut back, because its exhausting work. Maybe six or eight times a year I spend the day in a grade school. Typically, Ill talk with children in kindergarten through fourth grade. Ill tell stories and read to them. Ill talk about how books are made, how I became a writer. But mainly I talk about reading and writingwhy those are pathways to freedom and excitement.
BT: Do you think that in this context, and I think Barry Lopez has talked some about this, we are struggling with an issue of spirituality without the icons? Do we wind up watering things down to the point that it will not have the symbolic or ritual association that perhaps we need?
SRS: Thats another vital question. The risk with any kind of ritual or symbol is that it becomes fossilized. Through repetition, through habit, its drained of meaning. You remember the Zen teaching that all spiritual practices and doctrines are fingers pointing at the moon: its the moon that matters, not the finger. But what happens, unfortunately, with every form of institutional religion I know about, is that people tend to get caught up in perpetuating the institution itself. They tend to think of the building, the ritual, the creed, and the scripture as the ultimate reality, when these are only fingers, pointing at the ultimate reality. I was raised as a Methodist and I was quite serious about religion as a boy and young man. I read the Bible a number of times, front to back, and I brooded on the parables and psalms and prophecies. A great deal about that traditionthe music, the prophetic speech, the call to social justicestill speaks to me. But Im dismayed by much of what happens in the name of religion in this country and abroad, because of the tendency toward bigotry, arrogance, and empty ritual. From my twenties onward, the Quakers have been more appealing to me because they follow virtually no ritual, they practice group mysticism, and they are committed to simplicity, equality, community, and peacemaking. But Quakers can be just as stuck in their ways as anybody else. Theyre not perfect, but at least theyre open to correction from the spirit, and they dont pretend to have a corner on the truth. Zen Buddhism attracts me for the same reason. While Im troubled by the way that rituals and creeds become fossilized, I also recognize that human beings need some way of embodying their spiritual insights. As a writer, I find myself working on the border between religious and secularespecially scientificworlds. I draw on spiritual traditions, but I avoid conventional religion. In Hunting for Hope, for example, there is a chapter called The Way of Things, which is the fullest expression Ive ever given, in print, to my deepest beliefs. Could you build a church on the basis of that chapter? I hope not. When Ive given readings from that book, occasionally a person in the audience will stand up and say, well, Mr. Sanders, if youre looking for hope, just believe in Jesus. And I say, with all due respect, if that works for you, fine, but it doesnt work for me. Ive seen a lot of good done in the name of Jesus, but Ive also seen a great deal of cruelty, mayhem, and waste. So I stay on the boundary between those who are true believers in one religion or another, and those who have no use for religion whatsoever.
BT: Ill ask you a question I think thats related, but its more personal. I am intrigued by your analogy about tools, about carpentry, your skills in home repair and construction. Is that part of trying to find balance in the world? Providing a way of offsetting the intellectual thought process and the uncertainty of creation?
SRS: It is partly that. Doing carpentry, fixing up an old house, refinishing furniture, and gardening are all welcome alternatives to the work with language that I do most days. After hours of staring into a computer screen or poring over a book, Im hungry for contact with wood, dirt, and tools. So, yes, Im seeking a kind of balance. But Im also returning to old loves, because I dreamed of becoming a carpenter or a farmer long before I thought of writing books. I wanted to make things out of wood because my father did. I wanted to grow things because my mother was a keen gardener. Watching the two of them work in the garden or the shop was my first introduction to crafta skill in using tools, a respect for materials, a pride in doing something well. I learned from my parents, and from the country neighbors whom I knew in childhood, to take pleasure in using my hands, to make things and repair things for myself. So today, when I hammer or dig, its partly to counterbalance my intellectual work, but its also a going back to root pleasures.
BT: You modestly make reference to being rather a slow-footed guard recruited to play basketball at Brown and then giving that up before you finished your undergraduate years. Im always intrigued by the issues of whether sports shapes values, whether it forms us in certain ways. I wonder
SRS: The essay of mine that most squarely speaks about this is called Reasons of the Body, in Secrets of the Universe. In that piece I say that I used sports as a language for talking with my father. Playing sports was our way of conversing through our bodies, without much need for words. My father taught me how to play baseball, basketball, and football, the way he taught me how to saw a board square or curry a horse. He also tried to teach me boxing, but there he failed. He wasnt one to speak about his feelings. He was a great storyteller, but you had to guess what was going on inside him. I went on to play team sports, and, for those little rural schools in Ohio, I was a pretty good athlete. The competition wasnt very stiff. At the end of my freshman basketball season, the golf coachwho was also the basketball coachsaid, Sanders, youre coming out for golf. And I said, Ive never even held a club. Well, he said, we need six people to field a team and only five came out, so youre on the team. Playing sports was also a way for me to be a regular guynot just an egghead who was nuts about science, who read constantly, who got straight As. I saw the same thing in my son. Jesse graduated at the top of his class in high school, as did my daughter, Eva. She was pushed to the margins as one of the odd kids, because she was so bright, she did ballet dancing, she enjoyed learning, and she didnt play sports. Jesse earned the same grades as Eva did, but he was also a star in soccer. So he was okay. He was cool. Maybe the most important thing a child can learn from sports, even more important than teamwork and self esteem, is a delight in the body. I see a lot of kids growing up in front of computers and televisions, using their bodies only to haul themselves between the table and the couch. Theyre fat by the age of nine. I look at them and wish they were out running around, climbing trees, chasing fly balls or butterflies.
BT: I have another question that I dont think youve talked about in other places. It concerns John James Audubon and the challenges of the form when you chose to fictionalize his life. I wonder if youve had thoughts about returning to that form?
SRS: I have, and it raises an interesting issue. The little novella, Wonders Hidden, is the opening of what I had projected as a novel about Audubon. This portion covers his life up to the age of eighteen, when he came to the United States in order to avoid Napoleons draft. The hitch was for 25 years, so I cant blame him for fleeing France. Audubons early years were tantalizing for me because so little was known about them. For example, scholars only figured out for sure in the 1960s that he was born illegitimate in Santo Domingo. Writing about his early years, therefore, I could respect the few known facts and still have great leeway for invention and imagination. That was exhilarating! But from the moment Audubon reached the United States, the documentation got denser. As I worked my way through his life, I felt more and more constrained by facts, and the writing lost its excitement for me. One day I might go back to it, because Audubon still fascinates me. He combines so many archetypal American roles. He was an immigrant, a frontiersman, a naturalist, an artist, a showman, a salesman, something of a charlatan. And he was also a businessman, who failed at one get-rich-quick scheme after another, until he hit upon Birds of America. When he visited the parlors of rich people in England, selling his great book, hed wear fringed buckskin jackets and break out in Indian war whoops. He was like a combination of Barnum and Bailey, Natty Bumppo, and Rachel Carson, even a little bit of Thomas Edison.
BT: Right, the entrepreneur.
SRS: The entrepreneur, yes.
BT: Well, one final question, Scott. The need that youve spoken about to find a new or truer stories that renew and refine our vision, the ferment we spoke about earlier, does the work of the Orion circle of writers speak to that need?
SRS: It definitely does. The Orion Society is trying to foster conversations among those thousands of grassroots organizations. Its also seeking to articulate a vision of a more conserving and loving way of life. Orion is helping people everywhere imagine their own local work within the context of a larger, cultural shift. Each of the writers youve brought to read here at Texas Tech, and the writers whose papers youve been gathering in the Special Collections Library, begins from a strong sense of his or her home place, but also addresses the larger change in our ways of thinking and living. I write out of the hill country of southern Indiana, but I speak about a revolution in thinking and living that is going onneeds to go onacross the country and around the planet. Im in the very early stages of work on a book that Im thinking of calling A Fleet of Arks. Its about the countless efforts, large and small, to create alternatives to our ruinous way of life. Theres much to be discouraged by in our society. But I see hopeful efforts going on all around us, and I want to help record and celebrate this work. I want to help imagine and bring about a way of life that is gentler, kinder, more compassionate, more peaceable, and more joyful.
BT: Thats the task.
SRS: Yes, it is.
BT: Scott, thank you so much.
SRS: Its been a pleasure.