When Scott Russell Sanders went camping in the Colorado Rockies with his teenage son, Jesse, he was hoping for reconciliation. Lately, he and Jesse had been falling into arguments, and the source of this tension had eluded him. A few days into the trip, yet another argument erupted between them, but this one, at least, revealed the source of the friction: Jesse felt his father had robbed him of hope for the future. “Your view of things is totally dark,” Jesse snapped. “You make me feel the planet’s dying and people are to blame, and nothing can be done about it.”
As a writer, teacher, and father, Sanders is concerned about the world’s problems: the destruction of the environment, overpopulation, the ills of consumer society. But his lamentations had inadvertently sent Jesse the message that this terrible situation was only going to get worse. Jesse’s accusation led Sanders to spend several years writing Hunting for Hope: A Father’s Journey (Beacon Press).
Though in the book Sanders writes primarily about the sources of hope, he sees hope and despair as necessary bedfellows. “No matter how much I write about the possibility of peace and commitment and love,” he says, “I bear in mind the threat of cruelty, the certainty of pain and loss. I write always in the face of grief. I write about hope because I wrestle with despair.”
Despair is hardly a new concept to those who care about the environment. The price of an ecological education, as Sanders reminds us, is often to feel as if one is “digging a hole in the sand, in which sand keeps running back in.” Yet a close relationship with our immediate environment, he suggests, can be our greatest source of hope.
A professor of English at Indiana University, Sanders writes eloquently of what it means to live with attentiveness and compassion. He is the author of many works of nonfiction and fiction on the themes of place, home, and belonging, including Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World, The Paradise of Bombs, and Secrets of the Universe: Scenes from the Journey Home (all Beacon Press). Sanders finds glimpses of the extraordinary in and around his seemingly ordinary hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, where he lives with his wife, Ruth, in a small 1920s brick house shaded by trees. As he explores the rocky limestone bluffs and prairies of the region in his writing, the boundaries between human and nature begin to blur. This is where Sanders parts company with some other notable writers of place: with his gentle invitation to make human relationships as important as the features of the landscape.
I met Sanders for this interview last summer at the Orion Society’s Fire and Grit Millennium Conference, held on a 540 acre farm bordering the Potomac River in Shepardstown, West Virginia. Though he is soft-spoken, there is intensity in his words and gestures, the way he listens carefully to each question and pauses before answering. We talked while sitting on the grass, surrounded by several hundred environmental activists, educators, and writers.
Lertzman: You’ve written a book on “staying put” — not only staying in one place but knowing that place intimately. Do you think staying put is essential for an environmental ethic?
Sanders: I think it’s essential that there be many people who are deeply committed to their places. I believe every community, every watershed, every bioregion needs a core of people who see that place as their home. They might not have been born there — in most cases, people cannot stay where they were born; life takes them elsewhere — but at some point, they have decided that this is where they are going to invest themselves.
Lertzman: This seems increasingly rare. Why is it important?
Sanders: It’s crucial for three reasons. One is that places need keepers — people who know how things are changing, whether from bad to good, or vice versa; people who have their eyes on the place and their hearts in it. The land itself needs people who know it, care about it, keep track of it, and work on its behalf.
Second, we need such people for the sake of our human communities. We need people who care what the schools are like, what the libraries are like, whether there’s a local historical museum, whether old buildings are torn down or restored. These people know the history of the place, and they see how their own lives are intertwined with that history.
The third reason for staying put is for our own sake. I am not saying that commitment to a place should be practiced by all people, but many find that it gives them an anchor-hold in the world. Instead of being constantly blown around, hankering for some supposedly better place, they accept where they are as the right place for them.
If every community, watershed, and bioregion had a core of people who’d made that commitment, then other people could move around. In fact, places also need people who are moving around, people who bring in new ideas from outside and break the ethnic or religious or economic pattern. The problem is that our entire culture encourages us to move rather than to stay. All the voices we hear are saying, “Change, move, seek novelty.” If I lived in a culture where everybody stayed put, I would probably have written a book called Moving On, because for wholeness, you need both: people with commitment to a place, and people who bring new ideas from elsewhere.
Lertzman: Of course, there are those who do not have the luxury of staying rooted to a place that they love. Many people find themselves living in a place that they would not choose, or being forced to relocate.
Sanders: I recognize that many people, especially in poorer countries, have no choice over where they live. In this country, too, people are often forced to move for economic reasons, or to seek education, or to stay with their mate. Not everyone has the privilege of picking out a pretty place and setting up a home. But I am inviting people to think about where they are as a potential place worthy of their commitment. Poor people can and do commit themselves to their neighborhoods just as fully as the richest suburbanites. I don’t see any reason why poverty would prevent people from feeling a need to take care of their place. The biggest hurdle, I think, is the feeling of powerlessness: “This is my place, but what can I do about it? The garbage isn’t picked up; the schools are crummy; the streets are dangerous.” It’s not that poor people don’t care, but that they often don’t see any way to make a change.
Lertzman: It seems harder for young people to relate to the ethic of staying put. It’s usually not desired or even possible.
Sanders: I think it’s important for young people to feel free to explore the world, but my hope is that they will find a home base at some point. Having a place that you feel in your guts is the right place for you doesn’t mean you can’t journey, only that your journeys always end at home base, and you bring the benefits of your travels back home with you.
There’s a quote from Lakota medicine man Black Elk that I use in Staying Put: “A man who has a vision is not able to use the power of it until after he has performed the vision on earth for the people to see.” By which he meant that, no matter what goes on inside of you, until you have actually enacted it for a place and a people who matter to you, it isn’t real. It’s just a phantom in your head. I believe that very deeply. I think one thing that drives the mindless consumerism in our society is a hunger for connectedness — to a body of people and to a physical place.
Lertzman: Your most recent book, Hunting for Hope, is one of the few environmental books I’ve read that acknowledge the despair often felt by young people in this era of rapid globalization and ecological degradation.
Sanders: Just as I wrote a book about staying put because I understand restlessness, I wrote about hope because, like so many of us, I am nibbled at by the dark, deep fish of despair. If I did not feel real despair and see plenty of reason for it, I would not have been driven to put up hope against it. And I am far from alone in this. Hope is a concern for many people, especially young ones, because we face real, grave dangers: conflicts between classes, between races, and certainly between us and the natural world.
The source of our despair is the brokenness and the woundedness of the world. Overcoming this despair is not only a matter of healing ourselves, but of healing our communities and beginning to restore wholeness and health to our planet.
Lertzman: You’ve said that Hunting for Hope came out of a quarrel with your son, Jesse.
Sanders: Yes, he told me that I had denied him hope, because I had conveyed to him a feeling of despair about the world, largely with talk of ecological, political, and social disasters. It’s true that I was unconsciously exposing him to a great many worries through conversation, travel, and books. But Jesse was also saying to me that our whole culture had given him a sense of hopelessness about the future. Because once young people see through the glittering veneer of consumerism, they begin to ask what life is really about and what our prospects are for continuing to live this way on a finite planet.
Jesse’s accusation troubled me so deeply that by the next day I had already begun to think hard about where my own hope comes from: what gives me faith that we can restore the planet and live in harmony with the earth?
I was also writing that book for my daughter, Eva, who got married while I was working on it. Her wedding gave me occasion to think about what sort of life she and her husband might lead, and what sort of world their children might inherit. And I bore in mind my students at the university, many of whom feel deeply discouraged by the drift of things.
Lertzman: Do you think you succeeded in giving your audience hope?
Sanders: Many young people, including my son, have told me that they found the book tremendously encouraging. But I would like to emphasize that it’s not just young people who need hope. It’s also their parents and grandparents, and people who may have no children but who think about how, at the end of the bloodiest century in human history, we can imagine achieving a peaceful and ecologically wise society. I don’t pretend to have a blueprint for this. I’m merely meditating on my own sources of hope and renewal and determination to work for a better, more decent way of life.
Lertzman: It’s easy to forget the gravity of what we are teaching children in environmental education. Young people may not be emotionally equipped to deal with the current ecological problems we are facing.
Sanders: I agree. It’s analogous to what happened to my generation with regard to nuclear weapons. I was born in 1945, two months after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One of the first headlines I can remember seeing as a child — I must have been six or seven — was about H-bomb testing. I remember asking my mother what the H-bomb was and her telling me to ask my father. He told me that it was “a very, very big bomb that can destroy an entire city.” At the time, I didn’t know exactly what a city was, never having been in one. I just knew it was a big place full of people and that somehow this bomb could make it all go away. My father wasn’t trying to scare me. On the contrary, he was probably saying the least frightening thing he could about this terrible weapon.
I actually spent the better part of my childhood, from age five to age seventeen, living on or near a military base in Ohio. It covered about twenty-five thousand acres filled with deer, foxes, wild turkeys, and beavers, but also laced with bomb-filled bunkers and big gray buildings where munitions were manufactured. There were fields full of wrecked bombers. When Jesse told me he felt despair about the world and saw no source of hope, I flashed back to my own childhood, growing up in that military environment in the depths of the Cold War and coming of age during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when we were literally minutes away from a nuclear war. Growing up in that time and place, I had a sense that there was no escape, no way humans could get out of this fix.
Throughout my adult life, I have battled to overcome that fatalistic sense, which leads to nihilism, cynicism, and despair. When I realized that what had happened to me was being repeated in my children, it redirected me as a writer and as a teacher. It didn’t transform my beliefs or concerns, but it clarified for me what I needed to do at this point in my work.
Lertzman: How can we educate young people without driving them into despair?
Sanders: We all need to know about the huge, global problems, but we have to focus our efforts on local issues, whether it’s restoring a watershed, or establishing a garden at the grade school, or cleaning up a river. We have to focus on local issues because those are the only ones we can know in real depth, and because, with them, we can see tangible results from our efforts. Seeing results helps to keep up our courage and determination. We also get pleasure and satisfaction from working alongside others to clean up a river, for example, or from being with a child who sees a bean sprout break through the ground, and the child feels that extraordinary power issuing from the earth, from this little seed he or she has put in the soil. Children need that feeling of having an effect, need to see and experience this bond with the natural world. But preaching to children about ecological disasters is absolutely wrong.
Lertzman: Do you think a childhood relationship with the natural world is essential to developing an environmental ethic?
Sanders: I think it’s vital. But I have known many people who, as children, led indoor, urban lives where there was little opportunity for contact with the natural world, yet who came to love nature later in life. Maybe they read a book that made them think about the environment, or maybe they started taking walks in the park, and then moved on to backpacking. So, obviously, it is possible to establish this bond later in life, but it’s harder and rarer.
If we live entirely inside human enclosures, I think we go a little crazy, because we feel a profound absence in our lives. As I was saying earlier, people turn to consumerism to fill that emptiness. The malls are stocked; the gas station is always open; their bank balances are growing. Three-quarters of the American population enjoys a standard of living comparable to that of the monarchs of the past. But all the gimmicks, the spiritual fix of the week, the media, the entertainment — all of it finally fails to satisfy the craving to feel a part of the greater order revealed in the natural world.
Lertzman: This kind of avoidance is pretty understandable, given the overwhelming nature of ecological problems.
Sanders: Yes, it is utterly understandable. It’s no fun to think about these things. Life would be much more pleasant if I didn’t have this knowledge, if it would just go away.
The other mistake that we can make, though, is to dwell on loss so much that we become paralyzed and numb. If all we feel is grief, then a time will come when we can no longer bear it, and we will simply stop feeling. There is a passage in Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” That’s the price of attentiveness: you see the woundedness in the landscape. You also see the hurt in people on the streets; you see the poverty, the brokenness. And if you open yourself to history and really attend to it — whether it’s the genocide against Native Americans, or the Holocaust, or the massacres going on in other countries right now — it can numb you and even paralyze you. It can cripple your spirit.
The challenge is to carry on and do the necessary work, and also to feel joy amidst catastrophic loss. Too often, we just feel despair.
Lertzman: What makes you feel despair?
Sanders: Obviously, the loss of people and places that I love. The flattened bodies of animals on highways. The fact that I can’t live in this world without, as the Inuit say, “eating souls.” The suffering of the poor and abused. The squandering of the enormous gift of Creation, a squandering in which I participate. It’s not just those other folks over there who are wasting the world; I am wasting the world, as well. Those are the things I grieve over most.
The destruction of places and creatures is happening on a scale and at a speed that is unprecedented since humans have existed as a separate species. The only other extinctions to which we can compare it occurred millions of years ago and were brought about, as far as we know, by meteor impacts and volcanic activity and other global-scale disasters. The current global-scale disaster, unfortunately, is industrial civilization.
Lertzman: How do you experience this loss?
Sanders: In two ways: directly and indirectly. Directly, I experience it from having lived in and visited many places that are now being obliterated, paved, poisoned, and eroded, and where the decline of other organisms is perceptible. For example, songbird populations in the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys are about 20 percent of what they were fifty years ago, and I can literally hear the absence. I have seen valleys flooded so that motorboats and water-skiers can skim on top of them. Other places that were once quiet and serene are now filled with the roar of jet skis and snowmobiles and chainsaws. I have walked among the ancient trees, and now, when I walk among the stumps and the slash and the eroding soil, that loss becomes an emotional fact for me.
I have also experienced the loss indirectly through reading. I am persuaded by the scientific findings that identify global warming as a reality and that calculate the current rate of extinction as on the order of one species every twenty minutes. Sitting here, I can’t personally prove that those studies are true any more than I can prove that China exists. But I believe China exists because many trustworthy people have seen it. And in the same way, I believe that global warming and mass extinction are real, because many trustworthy people who have devoted their lives to studying these phenomena have testified to the fact.
Lertzman: How, then, can we face with open eyes what is going on around us without falling into a paralyzing despair?
Sanders: I think compassion is one key: to feel along with the other. Humility is also necessary: to recognize that one cannot solve the enormous problems of the world on one’s own; that, insofar as they can be solved, it will require the cooperation of many, many people. Being attentive to one’s surroundings also requires patience, the understanding that significant change is going to take a long time, perhaps lifetimes. So compassion, humility, and patience are necessary qualities to help one maintain openness while living through the grief and sense of loss that come with it.
Cutting oneself off is a short-term solution that we all lapse into at one time or another. I know the city-street glaze that comes over people, and I understand that. People who walk by tremendous hardship every day cannot remain open to everything they see, or it would tear them up. They’d never get to work or to the store. So the glaze comes over their eyes, and they turn inward and focus on their destinations. I don’t condemn people for this, because it makes perfect sense as a psychological defense mechanism. And yet, if we permanently retreat inside that glaze, then we’re not fully alive. We’re cut off, living inside a bubble, floating apart from the rest of creation.
Lertzman: How else do you personally deal with despair?
Sanders: When I feel so much grief over the woundedness and brokenness of the world that I lose the power or the desire to go on, I turn to members of my family for consolation. Another thing that moves me out of a state of grief is beauty, in all its forms: in nature, in the face of someone you love, in music, in language, in scientific formulas, and in images of remote constellations beamed down from the Hubble space telescope. Beauty reminds me that all the grief, all the loss, all the sadness that is terribly meaningful to me, personally, is just a dust mote in the grand scheme of things. It’s tiny, ephemeral. To take my grief and sadness as the whole of reality would be delusional. It’s real — I don’t discredit it or dismiss it — but seeing the beauty around me puts it in perspective, reminding me of how tiny a fraction of reality we occupy.
Lertzman: I have heard you speak of “taking the risk to talk about the soul and the spirit.” Why is it a risk?
Sanders: It’s a risk to talk about spirit and soul in the context of environmentalism, because I’m often among people trained in the natural sciences who are basically secular and see the universe as a grand, complicated machine. Many of them will immediately suspect that I’m going to spout dogma or try to get them down on their knees to pray to a God they don’t believe in. In other contexts, however, talk about spirit and soul might be expected. So it’s a matter of where this conversation occurs.
Lately, I find myself returning to an earlier, and perhaps truer, awareness of the need for spiritual grounding in life. As a boy, I was a devout Christian, raised in the Methodist Church with a conventional religious upbringing. After college, I drifted away from religion, as many young people do, to a large extent because I felt the church was shamefully silent on the Vietnam War and civil rights. Gradually, however, I came to feel that, whether or not I ever join another church, I have to find a community of belief, a spiritual grounding for my existence. In many ways, the community of nature writers and activists is the closest thing I have to a community of belief. We couldn’t write up a credo, but we certainly share underlying values.
That’s the personal reason for my writing explicitly about spiritual matters. There’s also a practical reason for it: I am convinced that the environmental movement will not fundamentally change our way of living, our economy, and our political system until it enlists the energies and visions of religious believers in all traditions. I don’t mean to imply that religion is a tool that we can pick up and manipulate; that would be arrogant and self-deluding. But we need a genuine reaching out to people who identify themselves as members of a religious tradition. And there are increasing numbers of people within Judaism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Islam, and the evangelical movement who have formed organizations with ecological visions.
The religious concept I feel uneasiest about articulating is what I call “the way of things” — that is, the concept that we participate in a vast, complicated, mysterious order, which we understand only glimmers of through science, art, and philosophy. Most of it is a deep mystery to us, and we are never going to understand it all. But insofar as we do understand it, it seems to me that the work we do on behalf of healing, nurturing, and love is in keeping with the order of the universe. In traditional theological language, we might say we have “God behind us,” but I am uncomfortable with that language, because it’s so anthropomorphic, and because I don’t think it’s as simple as that — as if there were this one big power in the sky that gives us strength if we do the right thing. I think it’s a matter of aligning ourselves with what I would call “the grain of the universe.” If we can do that, we will have more strength simply because we will not be pushing against the grain.