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Interview with Scott Russell Sanders, The Sun Magazine

Interview with Scott Russell Sanders, The Sun Magazine

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Published by Renee Aron Lertzman

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Published by: Renee Aron Lertzman on Oct 25, 2011
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10/25/2011

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wo
o
n
Res
i
stin
g
Des
p
a
.
I
r
 
ScottRussellSanders
overpopulation,theillsofconsumersociety.Buthislamenta-tionshadinadvertentlysentJessethemessagethatthisterriblesituationwasonlygoing
to
getworse.Jesse'saccusationledSanderstospendseveralyearswriting
HuntingforHope:AFather'sJourney
(BeaconPress).Though
in
thebookSanderswritesprimarilyaboutthesourcesofhope,heseeshopeanddespairasnecessarybedfellows."Nomatterhowmuch
I
writeaboutthepossibilityofpeaceandcommitmentandlove,"hesays,
"I
bear
in
mindthethreatofcruelty,thecertaintyofpainandloss.
I
ritealways
in
thefaceofgrief.
I
writeabouthopebecause
I
wrestlewithdespair."Despair
is
hardlyanewconcepttothosewhocareabouttheenvironment.Thepriceofanecologicaleducation,asSandersremindsus,
is
often
to
feelasifoneis"diggingahole
in
thesand,
in
whichsandkeepsrunningback
in."
Yetacloserelationshipwithourimmediateenvironment,hesuggests,canbeourgreatestsourceofhope.
A
professorofEnglishatIndianaUniversity,Sanderswriteseloquentlyofwhat
it
means
to
livewithattentivenessandcompassion.
Heis
theauthorofmanyworksofnonfictionandfiction
on
thethemesofplace,home,andbelonging,including
StayingPut:MakingaHomeinaRestlessWorld,TheParadiseofBombs,
and
SecretsoftheUniverse:ScenesfromtheJourneyHome
(allBeaconPress).Sandersfindsglimpsesoftheextraordinary
in
andaroundhisseeminglyordinaryhometownofBloomington,Indiana,wherehelives
6THESUNFEBRUARY2000
withh(swife,Ruth,
in
asmall1920sbrickhouseshadedbytrees.
As
heexplorestherockylimestonebluffsandprairiesoftheregion
in
hiswriting,theboundariesbetweenhumanandnaturebegintoblur.This
is
whereSanderspartscompanywithsomeothernotablewritersofplace:withhisgentleinvitation
to
makehumanrelationshipsasimportantasthefeaturesofthelandscape.
I
metSandersforthisinterviewlastsummerattheOrionSociety'sFireandGritMillenniumConference,held
on
a
540
acrefarmborderingthePotomacRiverinShepardstown,WestVirginia.Thoughhe
is
soft-spoken,thereisintensityinhiswordsandgestures,thewayhelistenscarefully
to
eachquestionandpausesbeforean-swering.Wetalkedwhilesitting
on
thegrass,surroundedbyseveralhundredenvironmentalactivists,educators,andwriters.
Lertzman:You'vewrittenabookon"stayingput"-notonlystayinginoneplacebutknowingthatplaceintimately.Doyouthinkstayingputisessentialforanenvironmentalethic?Sanders:Ithinkit'sessentialthattherebemanypeoplewhoaredeeplycommittedtotheirplaces.Ibelieveeverycommunity,everywatershed,everybioregionneedsacoreofpeoplewhoseethatplaceastheirhome.Theymightnothavebeenbornthere-inmostcases,peoplecannotstaywheretheywereborn;lifetakesthemelsewhere-butatsomepointtheyhavedecidedthatthisiswheretheyaregoing
to
investthemselves.Lertzman:Thisseemsincreasinglyrare.Whyisitim-portant?Sanders:It'scrucialforthreereasons.Oneisthatplacesneedkeepers-peoplewhoknowhowthingsarechanging,whetherfrombadtogood,orviceversa;peoplewhohavetheireyesontheplaceandtheirheartsinit.Thelanditselfneedspeoplewhoknowit,careaboutit,keeptrackofit,andworkonitsbehalf.Second,weneedsuchpeopleforthesakeofourhumancommunities.Weneedpeoplewhocarewhattheschoolsarelike,whatthelibrariesarelike,whetherthere'salocalhistoricalmuseum,whetheroldbuildingsaretorndownorrestored.Thesepeopleknowthehistoryoftheplace,andtheyseehowtheirownlivesareintertwinedwiththathistory.Thethirdreasonforstayingputisforourownsake.Iamnotsayingthatcommitment
to
aplaceshouldbepracticedbyallpeople,butmanyfindthatitgivesthemananchor-holdintheworld.Insteadofbeingconstantlyblownaround,hankeringforsomesupposedlybetterplace,theyacceptwheretheyareastherightplaceforthem.
If
everycommunity,watershed,andbioregionhadacoreofpeoplewho'dmadethatcommitment,thenotherpeoplecouldmovearound.Infact,placesalsoneedpeoplewhoaremovingaround,peoplewhobringinnewideasfromoutsideandbreaktheethnicorreligiousoreconomic
 
pattern.Theproblemisthatourentirecultureencouragesustomoveratherthantostay.Allthevoicesweheararesaying,"Change,move,seeknovelty."IfIlivedinaculturewhereeverybodystayedput,Iwouldprobablyhavewrittenabookcalled
MovingOn,
becauseforwholeness,youneedboth:peoplewithcommitmenttoaplace,andpeoplewhobringnewideasfromelsewhere.Lertzman:Ofcourse,therearethosewhodonothavetheluxuryofstayingrootedtoaplacethattheylove.Manypeoplefindthemselveslivinginaplacethattheywouldnotchoose,orbeingforcedtorelocate.Sanders:Irecognizethatmanypeople,especiallyinpoorercountries,havenochoiceoverwheretheylive.Inthiscountry,too,peopleareoftenforcedtomoveforeconomicreasons,ortoseekeducation,ortostaywiththeirmate.Noteveryonehastheprivilegeofpickingoutaprettyplaceandsettingupahome.ButIaminvitingpeopletothinkaboutwheretheyareasapotentialplaceworthyoftheircommitment.Poorpeoplecananddocommitthem-selvestotheirneighborhoodsjustasfullyastherichestsuburbanites.Idon'tseeanyreasonwhypovertywouldpreventpeoplefromfeelinganeedtotakecareoftheirplace.Thebiggesthurdle,Ithink,isthefeelingofpowerless-ness:"Thisismyplace,butwhatcanIdoaboutit?Thegarbageisn'tpickedup;theschoolsarecrummy;thestreetsaredangerous."It'snotthatpoorpeopledon'tcare,butthattheyoftendon'tseeanywaytomakeachange.Lertzman:Itseemsharderforyoungpeopletorelatetotheethicofstayingput.It'susuallynotdesiredorevenpossible.Sanders:Ithinkit'simportantforyoungpeopletofeelfreetoexploretheworld,butmyhopeisthattheywillfindahomebaseatsomepoint.Havingaplacethatyoufeelinyourgutsistherightplaceforyoudoesn'tmeanyoucan'tjourney,onlythatyourjourneysalwaysendathomebase,andyoubringthebenefitsofyourtravelsbackhomewithyou.There'saquotefromLakotamedicinemanBlackElkthatIusein
SwyingPut:
"Amanwhohasavisionisnotabletousethepowerofituntilafterhehasperformedthevisiononearthforthepeopletosee."Bywhichhemeantthat,nomatterwhatgoesoninsideofyou,untilyouhaveactually
enacted
itforaplaceandapeoplewhomattertoyou,itisn'treal.It'sjustaphantominyourhead.Ibelievethatverydeeply.Ithinkonethingthatdrivesthemindlessconsum-erisminoursocietyisahungerforconnectedness-toabodyofpeopleandtoaphysicalplace.Lertzman:Yourmostrecentbook,
HuntingforHope,
isoneofthefewenvironmentalbooksI'vereadthatacknowl-edgethedespairoftenfeltbyyoungpeopleinthiseraofrapidglobalizationandecologicaldegradation.Sanders:JustasIwroteabookaboutstayingputbecauseIunderstandrestlessness,Iwroteabouthopebe-cause,likesomanyofus,1amnibbledatbythedark,deepfishofdespair.IfIdidnotfeelrealdespairandseeplentyofreasonforit,Iwouldnothavebeendriventoputuphopeagainstit.AndIamfarfromaloneinthis.Hopeisaconcernformanypeople,especiallyyoungones,becausewefacereal,gravedangers:conflictsbetweenclasses,betweenraces,andcertainlybetweenusandthenaturalworld.Thesourceofourdespairisthebrokennessandthewoundednessoftheworld.Overcomingthisdespairisnotonlyamatterofhealingourselves,butofhealingourcom-munitiesandbeginningtorestorewholenessandhealthtoourplanet.Lertzman:You'vesaidthat
HuntingforHope
cameoutofaquarrelwithyourson,Jesse.Sanders:Yes,hetoldmethatIhaddeniedhimhope,becauseIhadconveyedtohimafeelingofdespairabouttheworld,largelywithtalkofecological,political,andsocialdisasters.It'struethat1wasunconsciouslyexposinghimtoagreatmanyworriesthroughconversation,travel,andbooks.ButJessewasalsosayingtomethatourwholeculturehadgivenhimasenseofhopelessnessaboutthefuture.Becauseonceyoungpeopleseethroughtheglitteringve-neerofconsumerism,theybegintoaskwhatlifeisreallyaboutandwhatourprospectsareforcontinuingtolivethiswayanafiniteplanet.Jesse'saccusationtroubledmesodeeplythatbythenextdayIhadalreadybeguntothinkhardaboutwheremyownhopecomesfrom:whatgivesmefaiththatwecanrestoretheplanetandliveinharmonywiththeearth?Iwasalsowritingthatbookformydaughter,Eva,whogotmarriedwhileIwasworkingonit.Herweddinggavemeoccasiontothinkaboutwhatsortoflifesheandherhusbandmightlead,andwhatsortofworldtheirchildrenmightinherit.AndIboreinmindmystudentsattheuniversity,manyofwhomfeeldeeplydiscouragedbythedriftofthings.Lertzman:Doyouthinkyousucceededingivingyouraudiencehope?Sanders:Manyyoungpeople,includingmyson,havetoldmethattheyfoundthebooktremendouslyencourag-ing.ButIwouldliketoemphasizethatit'snotjustyoungpeoplewhoneedhope.It'salsotheirparentsandgrandpar-ents,andpeoplewhomayhavenochildrenbutwhothinkabouthow,attheendofthebloodiestcenturyinhumanhistory,wecanimagineachievingapeacefulandecologi-callywisesociety.Idon'tpretendtohaveablueprintforthis.I'mmerelymeditatingonmyownsourcesofhopeandrenewalanddeterminationtoworkforabetter,moredecentwayoflife.Lertzman:It'seasytoforgetthegravityofwhatweareteachingchildreninenvironmentaleducation.Youngpeoplemaynotbeemotionallyequippedtodealwiththecurrentecologicalproblemswearefacing.Sanders:1agree.It'sanalogoustowhathappenedtomygenerationwithregardtonuclearweapons.Iwasbornin1945,twomonthsaftertheatomicbombsweredroppedonHiroshimaandNagasaki.OneofthefirstheadlinesIcanrememberseeingasachild-Imusthavebeensixorseven-wasaboutH-bombtesting.IrememberaskingmymotherwhattheH-bombwasandhertellingmetoaskmyfather.Hetoldmethatitwas"avery,verybigbombthatcandestroyanentirecity."Atthetime,Ididn'tknowexactly
FEBRUARY2000THESUN7

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