Sunday, March 23, 2014
Scott Russell Sanders
I got an e-mail the other day from the best writer in northern California, Jaime O'Neill, stating that he thought that I should read a nature writer by the name of Scott Russell Sanders. Well, when O'Neill suggests an author to me, I tend to listen to him; Jaime's knowledge and breadth of writers is first rate. Of course, I couldn't remember which book by Scott Sanders O'Neill recommended, so I went on Amazon and simply bought his latest work with the best overall reviews.
Sanders is an English professor at a university in Indiana. When I think of nature writers and where they live, I hardly think of a small city in Indiana. I think of Abbey's Utah. I think of Mathiessen's Nepal; I think of Barry Lopez and the arctic (and wolves). Nature writers tend to live in places that evoke the images that they seek to describe, hence Doug Peacock and Montana (and the GRIZ) or Joseph Wood Krutch and the Sonoran desert. Even Bill McKibben and that quaint little college town in Vermont seems like a good place for a nature writer to hole up and write books. Indiana certainly would not be on my horizon as a place that would create a nature writer.
Sanders writes about a sense of place. In a way, the sense of place of Indiana, has worked its way into Sanders. How so? He writes with a humble, accessible--yet professorial style. His essays are better on the second read---there is so much depth and sheer talent with the English language within them.
Most writers when they put a book of essays together that have been published in magazines or snobby literature reviews, you can pretty much bet that the first essay will be the best. Writers like to grab hold of you, sort of like a gripping lede, which entices you to read more. This isn't the case with A Conservationist Manifesto. Sanders' essays get better the deeper into the book you read.
Honestly, there isn't much about Indiana that I like. The place is totally domesticated; not much left that is wild there. Sanders' acknowledges that, and he writes two mournful, but hopeful essays about a few efforts to rewild Indiana.
The best essay is about Henry David Thoreau: Simplicity and Sanity. If you've been teaching about Thoreau for forty years, and you've been thinking about Walden for that long, I would want to hear how living and teaching Thoreau has impacted you. Sanders does that within the context of this, at times, preachy essay. Yet Sanders can pull off being preachy because of his overt humility and honesty which gushes from every essay. You get to know Sanders by reading this book: it is intensely personal. Manifestos should be preachy--they almost have to be by definition.
Yet when I hear the word Manifesto, it is hard not to be reminded of that great, small book written by Mr. Whiskers himself. "There's a spectre hanging over Europe". Sanders essay which gives the title of the book doesn't have quite the immediacy of Karl Marx---but that doesn't mean it is no less important--or revolutionary. Within this essay, Sanders gives 40 thesis in support of his point. It is a Wittenberg Door expression of the hopes of one kind and sane man's desire for all of us, human and non-human, who share this planet.