“A good book appeals to what is best in us,” Scott Russell Sanders has said, and his many fiction and nonfiction titles certainly call to our better angels. In his recent books — A Private History of Awe, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and A Conservationist Manifesto — Sanders examines such issues as environmental responsibility, social justice, the interrelatedness of geography and culture, and spiritual yearning.
Born in Memphis and reared in Ohio, Sanders is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at Indiana University, where he taught from 1971 to 2009. The recipient of numerous awards, Sanders is slated to headline this year’s Wendell Berry Lecture Series, an event on April 13 at Montgomery Bell Academy designed to raise environmental awareness and support urban forestation, sponsored by the Nashville Tree Foundation.
Chapter 16: Your work comes highly recommended by noted environmentalist Wendell Berry, for whom this event is named. Aside from the environmental concerns you share, how do you see your literary mission as overlapping his, if at all? Do the two of you know each other in real life?
Sanders: Wendell Berry’s writing has been nourishing me for 40 years. I’ve known him in person for nearly that long, since working up my nerve to ask if I could visit him at his home on the Kentucky River with my wife and our young children in the summer of 1975. Wendell and his wife Tanya received us graciously and talked with us through most of a Sunday afternoon. My only claim on their hospitality was that Wendell’s essays, stories, and poems had given me a clearer sense of my own calling as a writer. He helped me to see the importance of community and place, the role of culture in shaping our treatment of the land, and the power of literature to illuminate our lives. He also demonstrated that it is possible to make important art without living in one of the celebrated centers of cultural and economic power.
In what ways does your environmental activism inform your fiction writing?
In books such as Wilderness Plots and Bad Man Ballad, I have sought to understand how the history of American settlement — including the displacement or slaughter of native people, enslavement of African people, wholesale killing of animals, and the transformation of the continent through deforestation and plowing and industrialization — has shaped our attitudes toward the land. In books such as Terrarium and The Engineer of Beasts, I have projected current technological trends into an imagined future as a way of speculating about the environmental and social consequences of our present way of life. Right now I am at work on a novel, set in our own time, that features a protagonist who aspires to help restore damaged ecosystems and to save endangered species through work as a conservation biologist.
With the media providing what seems like round-the-clock bad news, I hear more and more people choosing to turn a deaf ear to such reports, or to ignore the urgent need to change that such stories imply. What do you say to people who have reached this state of hopelessness?
I understand despair, because nearly everything I love in the world is under assault. That’s the reason I wrote a book called Hunting for Hope. If hope were easy to come by, one wouldn’t need to go looking for it. One antidote to hopelessness is to do something useful — for your family, your neighbors, your community, or the Earth. No matter how dire the news may be, good work is always possible. Plant a garden or a tree; take a child for a walk; make music or bread; study nature; volunteer for a local organization; help an illiterate person learn to read. We’re not called to solve all the world’s problems; we’re called to act in light of our deepest values, to protect and nurture the things and places and people we love.
Some critics have observed that parts of A Conservationist Manifesto seem to be aimed at conservative Christians. What links do you see — or would you like to see — between faith and conservationism?
I do hope that A Conservationist Manifesto speaks to Christians and other people of faith. That is why I wrote about the ecological implications of certain Bible stories and teachings. That is why I framed conservation as primarily an ethical issue. There are Christians who focus entirely on personal salvation, ignoring the needs of their neighbors, and dismissing earthly life as a husk to be cast aside. But that seems to me a tragic betrayal of the instruction to love God — and therefore God’s Creation — and to love our neighbor. A faithful person realizes that we are guests in this life; we are not the owners or rulers of Earth. Of course we need to use the things of the Earth in order to live, but we should do so lovingly, carefully and respectfully.
In your 1991 book, Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World, you argue for a life “firmly grounded in household and community.” Twenty years later, do you still see the traditional family as a viable model for stability and growth?
Households may consist of a husband and wife and their offspring, as mine did while my children were growing up. My wife and I both grew up in such households, and our two children have married and brought their own children into the world. But households — and families — can take many forms, including same-sex couples, childless couples, single parents, roommates sharing expenses, elderly friends, numerous relatives, and so on. I don’t believe there is only one true or right form of the family. What matters is that it provides love and nurture. Humans are social animals; we need one another in order to be whole and healthy and sane. Family — in whatever form it may take — is the first community that most of us experience. It is where we begin to learn to be human. But the family in isolation from larger social networks may become pathological, or at least impoverished. So I do not draw a sharp boundary between the household and the community.