When John Elder arrived at Yale University in the early 1970s, he intended to stay in New England only long enough to complete his PhD in English literature. Having grown up in California, where he’d hiked the Sierras and explored the old-growth redwood groves, the young scholar didn’t know what to make of the green bumps his Yankee peers called “mountains.” But after graduating, Elder didn’t immediately return home. He took a job at Middlebury College in Vermont’s Champlain Valley. Again, for him and his wife, Rita, a fellow Californian, this was supposed to be just a temporary arrangement until they headed back to their beloved American West.
Elder is now sixty-six years old, and he and Rita have lived in the same house in Bristol, Vermont, for more than three decades. He’s recently retired from thirty-seven years teaching English and environmental studies at Middlebury and is close to finishing his fifth book. If this new volume is anything like his past efforts — Imagining the Earth, Reading the Mountains of Home, The Frog Run, and Pilgrimage to Vallombrosa — it will combine memoir with discussions of literature and descriptions of Vermont’s countryside. More specifically, it will map the intellectual, ecological, and physical landscape of Hogback Ridge, a heavily forested spur of the Green Mountains that rises from the end of Elder’s street.
Elder grew up in a very religious household. His father was a Southern Baptist minister and seminary professor. The family went to church twice on Sunday and every Wednesday evening, and they read the King James Bible at meals. Elder learned the twenty-third Psalm by heart before he could read. His delight in literature arose from that biblical foundation, he says. The book of Genesis, the Psalms, and the parables gave him a sense of the power of language.
When Elder was in the third grade, the family moved to the San Francisco Bay Area so his father could teach at a seminary there. Their new community was cosmopolitan and liberal, and from an early age Elder was exposed to writers like Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Edward Abbey, and Rachel Carson. Their work struck him as complementary to the religious view of nature as God’s creation. “I was born into the Southern Baptist Church,” he says, “and was nurtured at the bosom of the Sierra Club.”
Elder is a nature writer who’s found his place in the world. Vermont is not as vast as Abbey’s desert Southwest, nor as monumental as Muir’s Yosemite, but it still inspires him, because it’s a state where the stories of the land and its human inhabitants are intertwined. Over the years Elder’s notion of nature as something “out there” — stowed away in some alpine hollow or redwood stand — has changed into a vision that includes humans as a part of the environment.
Elder developed and investigated this idea of nature with students in his Middlebury classroom and at the affiliated Bread Loaf School of English, where he taught English Romantic poetry, Japanese haiku, and Robert Frost. He’s written essays for such magazines as Orion and the now-defunct Wild Earth, and he coedited The Norton Book of Nature Writing. He also lectures across the country to audiences of foresters and farmers, academics and activists.
Elder is part scholar, part teacher, part naturalist, part poet, part outdoorsman. He wears bluejeans and flannel shirts and manages a maple-syrup operation with his wife and their two sons’ families. He’s active in conservation organizations such as the Vermont Land Trust and Vermont Family Forests.
I grew up a half-hour north of Middlebury and often hiked the Hogback Ridge as a kid. So I felt at home with Elder’s writing and, more recently, with the man himself. We met at the Middlebury College library on a sunny morning after a week of rain. Although he’s retired from teaching, Elder still keeps an office there. It was early October, and orange maple leaves drifted past the single large window. Canada geese honked in the distance. One wall of the office was lined with books, and during our discussion Elder sometimes stared hard at a shelf, as if turning pages in his mind.
Tonino: The late British author Roger Deakin has been referred to as “an explorer of the undiscovered country of the nearby.” I think the same could be said of you.
Elder: “The undiscovered country of the nearby.” That’s a lovely thought. It speaks to a quality of close interaction between humans and nature here in Vermont. In California I could hop in the car and go to the desert or the High Sierra for the day. There are no wildernesses that vast, no mountains that high, here. But in Bristol, where our family has lived now for thirty-seven years, I can walk out my back door and see bear tracks in the mud. I can climb the little Hogback Ridge east of our village and get lost every time. It’s hard to know what your elevation is in those thick forests. You don’t have much of a view. But I never worry about starving to death, because sooner or later I can spot Lake Champlain and figure out which way west is. I’ve often wandered aimlessly for two or three hours in those woods, but I tend not to miss supper. I discover amazing rock formations there. I see lots of wildlife and beautiful trees. There’s a kind of thickness and intricacy to New England. It’s a corduroy terrain.
In Reading the Mountains of Home I write about how, when I first came east for graduate school, a fellow student from the West said that living in New England is like “living in a teacup.” And I thought, Yeah, small. But then I began to realize that the ground beneath my feet here — the richness of decomposition, the density of growth — had much more to it than the bare, arid ground where I’d grown up. I continue to discover more and more within a smaller and smaller radius of home.
Tonino: You’ve written a lot about the “thickness” of the Vermont landscape. What does it feel like to live here day after day?
Elder: I just mentioned the richness of decomposition. We have a mixed northern hardwood forest here. We have deciduous trees growing all the way up to the tree line. We have paper birch at the summits and maples well above two thousand feet. So there are a lot of leaves. When the snow is off the ground, you can see three seasons’ worth of leaf litter underfoot at any time: the newly fallen leaves of autumn, the leaves from the previous year — which have been buried in snow for a while and are more skeletal — and scraps from the year before, already turning into sweet black soil. Our mountain topsoil is not very deep, but it gets a little deeper every year.
There’s also historical thickness. Not only is New England a long-settled landscape, but it’s unusual in that it was clear-cut early on and then abandoned, because the soil on the hillsides would not sustain farms. The deforestation was as harsh as anything outside of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Zadock Thompson’s Natural History of Vermont, published in 1853, describes a sort of wasteland where the streams were clogged, the slag was piled up, and the soil was thin. Farms had failed. Villages were depopulated. Vermont lost many men in the Civil War, and half the soldiers who came back left again within ten years, going to places like Ohio, where the soil was rich.
There was a sort of tidal phenomenon in Vermont: the trees were swept away, and then the trees surged back. Amid the forests here you’ll find stone walls and cellar holes and botanical evidence of human settlement — lilac bushes and apple orchards right in the middle of the woods. I look at this thick forest and think of those struggling hill farmers. Those people broke their backs and their hearts, and still they failed. It’s sad, but it’s also exciting the way the woods have flooded back. As [Vermont author] Bill McKibben says, we live in an “explosion of green.”
While I’m happy about the reforestation of Vermont, I also feel compassion for our human forebears in these mountains. I admire what they did and sympathize with the challenges they faced. These emotions, too, make this landscape thick, layered, symphonic: so many tones, so many harmonies.
Tonino: The two stories really can’t be separated: the natural thickness and the historical thickness.
Elder: They are one story. Because of them Vermont makes a unique contribution to the national debate about conservation. It helps us think about wilderness as more than just vast, pristine, and untrammeled places with little human presence. Those roadless expanses out west are great. I love them and am grateful for them. But we also need to have harmony between the human world and the “more-than-human” world, as [cultural ecologist] David Abram calls it.
I used to get a magazine called Not Man Apart. The name comes from a Robinson Jeffers poem about the need to love the earth and “not man apart from that.” It’s an interesting point. He doesn’t say love the earth and not humanity. He says, Don’t separate them; don’t love man apart.
Tonino: In the foreword to your book Pilgrimage to Vallombrosa, historian David Lowenthal says that you show us “how to delight in messy wilderness.”
Elder: Muir Woods, a redwood forest just north of San Francisco, was within a bike ride of my childhood home. Redwood trees create a mildly toxic environment, and little grows under them except redwood sorrel and a few other small herbaceous plants. Mostly it’s a clear forest floor. That’s one reason a stand of redwoods is often compared to a cathedral.
When I first moved east, I took some hikes around southern New England and thought to myself how messy the forest floor is here. There are twigs and bushes and decomposing logs everywhere. I had to lift my feet to move through it all. It was so different from the woods I was used to.
Messiness helps us avoid simplistic thinking. Instead of wanting everything neat and smooth and clear, we remember that a healthy forest has all stages of growth in it. One problem we have in Vermont, with our post-clear-cut forests, is that too many of the trees are within ten years of each other in age. A healthy forest has seedlings and young trees and adult trees with full canopies and dead trees that haven’t fallen yet. This reminds us that our simple intentions and generalizations have no correlation in nature. Nature is complex, and its complexity can help us to be more complex in our thinking.
I love Robert Frost’s poem “Dust of Snow,” in which he writes, “The way a crow / shook down on me / the dust of snow / from a hemlock tree / has given my heart / a change of mood / and saved some part / of a day I had rued.” You’re walking through nature, and you’re brooding about something, and then a big crow jumps on a branch and drops snow on your head. Suddenly you’re back in a world that is not aligned with your intentionality. That’s a redemptive fact. It opens you up.
Tonino: In your work you seem to shy away from capital-W Wilderness — a chunk of land fixed in time and space — in favor of a more dynamic, always-becoming, always-losing-itself type of wilderness.
Elder: This New England landscape makes it easier to think about wilderness not as an artifact but as a process of which everything, even a stone, is a part. [Mathematician and philosopher] Alfred North Whitehead tells us, in Process and Reality and Science and the Modern World, that the world can be understood as a vast electromagnetic equation. Every object has gravity, and therefore every object has a relationship to every other object. You can pick any aspect of the world — a fallen tree, a book on a shelf — and make it the reference point for that vast equation. Whitehead talks about the fallacy of misplaced concreteness: “This chair is an object,” we say. “It has its integrity! It’s stable! We can leave the room, and it won’t change!” But that’s not true. Everything is awhirl.
The implications of this for wilderness are many. For one, it’s not enough to pass legislation that sets aside vast tracts of land. If you’re interested in a wild place that has brown bears in it, say, you’ve also got to think about the corridors along which the bears travel. You’ve got to think about creating a breeding population that will be ecologically viable over the long haul. When you look at it this way, there’s no wilderness area big enough. We’re forced to go beyond designated wilderness areas in our thinking.
On a cultural level, the legislation that preserves wilderness isn’t stable unless there’s an ongoing engagement between the citizenry and the place. If opinions and circumstances change, even sweeping acts like the Wilderness Act of 1964 or the Endangered Species Act can be reversed. All it takes is for someone to come along and say, “We’d like to go in and exploit this area for its minerals and oil. Why shouldn’t we?” More important than the law is the climate of public opinion. We need more Americans to engage with wilderness, and not just by visiting national parks, because many can’t afford to vacation there. We need people to appreciate nature where they live, so they’ll see the importance of preserving it everywhere.
Even in places where the natural world seems overwhelmed by human habitation, it’s still there, and it can come back. In The Frog Run I talk about the concept of aji, which comes from the Asian game of Go, in which opponents take turns putting down black or white stones on the board, trying to establish territory. Often some of your stones become surrounded by your opponent’s stones, and it’s not looking good for you on that part of the board. But sometimes those stones in the middle of your opponent’s territory can leap to life and provide support for your other pieces. This is aji, literally a “lingering taste,” like a hint of wasabi on the back of your tongue. Aji is a way of talking about the potential in situations that might seem hopeless.
In Vermont, before the Civil War, the trees were all burned to make potash and charcoal for the iron industry. But in those woods was what forest ecologists call a “buried seed pool.” The kernels of native hardwood trees can endure underground for a long time and then sprout again under the right circumstances. Vermont is now about 85 percent reforested — not because we decided it would be a good idea to have forests again, but because this is a place in which forests could reassert themselves. It’s quite encouraging.
Our society is like an heir to a fortune who is also an alcoholic. He drinks his way through each day, but he can’t go on forever. There are only three possible outcomes: he’ll drink himself to death, he’ll run out of money, or he’ll sober up.
Tonino: Maybe conservation, in the broadest sense, should be thought of as a strategy of keeping the stones on the board. We have to preserve the aji, the possibility.
Elder: [Environmental ethicist] Aldo Leopold said that “the first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts.” For example, the point of the Endangered Species Act is not to consign any species to extinction. We have sparse information about the ways in which individual species contribute to the larger web of life. To say that we have the wisdom to decide which ones are unnecessary would display horrifying arrogance.
But we need to go beyond keeping all the stones on the board. We have to think about the systems and natural patterns on which living communities depend. For instance, there is an evolutionary affiliation between certain plants and their wild pollinators. The pollinators in North America, both birds and insects, move north and south across the continent in regular migration cycles. But as the seasons are thrown out of whack by global warming, the pollinators may not be in the right place at the right time to pollinate the blossoms. Though we haven’t eradicated either the plants or the pollinators, we may have inadvertently made it impossible for them to find each other.
Tonino: So we need to preserve the relationships between the parts as well. There has to be some continuity or remembrance.
Elder: And also a commitment. Writer and farmer Wendell Berry has an expression he uses for his community in Port Royal, Kentucky. He says it’s a “membership.” That’s a lovely way to put it. I also like the word affiliation, because it points to a conscious connection and participation. If I’m affiliated with a college, I’m loyal to it and stick close to it, because I find my identity there. Marriage and family are forms of affiliation too: we belong to these other people, and they belong to us. A team is an affiliation. A nation is an affiliation. Why not build affiliations around regions? To be a resident of the Champlain bioregion or the Hogback Ridge community is to take delight in the other people who live here, to enjoy the local foods, to know the trees and animals, and to serve the community economically, socially, and otherwise.
Climate change is a global challenge — as global as a challenge can get — but we express our affiliation with the health of the planet through the choices we make daily and how we live our lives locally.
Tonino: It’s becoming rare for people to stay in one place for as long as you have: nearly four decades. Might modern mobility be devaluing the idea of putting down roots?
Elder: I feel privileged to have led my life in Bristol. When you read American nature writing, quite a few books could be seen as love letters to a place: Thoreau’s Walden, Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge, Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra. Some, like Walden and Refuge, are about the places the authors grew up. They’re like a hymn to the parents and the family home. Others, like My First Summer in the Sierra, or Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey, are about places the writers went to and fell in love with, the way we do with lovers or spouses. The latter is how I feel about Vermont. I’ve been lucky enough to find a “mate.”
I think it’s natural for people, at some point in their lives, to say, “We love it here, and we’re going to stay.” Now that Rita and I are retired, we’re never going to leave Bristol. Of course, not everybody falls in love. Not everybody gets married. There are lots of ways to be a human being. If I had neighbors who needed to leave Vermont, I would miss their company, but if they were going to seek love or fulfillment elsewhere, I’d wish them well and hope to hear about their adventures. And I would never say that, unless you find a place to fall in love with, you are not fully grounded in nature or that your experience of place is not valid. I don’t believe that.
When I was teaching at Middlebury, my students and I talked a lot about the sense of place in Vermont, studying the geology and forest history and so forth. But I knew that relatively few of my students would end up staying here. Within a year or two they’d be in Seattle or New York or Boston. So was I preparing them to feel like traitors for leaving? Obviously not. I was teaching them the principles of paying attention to a place so that they could carry those principles with them wherever they went.
It’s been important for me to learn about the geology of Vermont, how the soil was built by the prehistoric lakes and seas that followed the melting of the glaciers. It’s been important for me to reflect on the dramatic seasonal changes here. My love of Robert Frost’s poetry has also helped me find a sense of place. But there are parallels wherever you go. If I were to move to Seattle, I would want to learn about the geology and the legacy of the indigenous people in that area. I’d want to know about the Northwest’s forest history and agricultural history. I’d read great Northwestern poets, such as Theodore Roethke and William Stafford.
I hope that, after hanging around Middlebury College for a while and talking with duffers like me, my students were prepared to ground themselves in the basic realities wherever their relationships or jobs led them. You don’t need to stay put and never move — though that’s worked for me — as long as you pay attention to what [poet] Gary Snyder called the “lineaments of the land.”
Tonino: It does seem as if somebody needs to stay in one place, though. If everybody is coming and going, who will stop a corporation from barging in and pillaging the natural resources?
Elder: Obviously you have to have local people who can stand up to outside interests. The only real business of extractive industries is managing and moving money. The big timber holdings in Maine were sold off to corporations that did the heavy cutting, resold the land, and took their capital someplace else.
Here in Vermont the culture has long had a deeply conservative tone — conservative in the sense of conservation, not in the laissez-faire, exploitative sense that’s become commonly associated with the word. The old-timers here know what’s precious and what the resources are and what’s great to eat in season and where to hunt and fish and start a farm. But the newcomers have some insights too. Maybe there’s an ecological principle at work here: just as you want diversity in a healthy ecosystem, you need a healthy mix of old-timers and newcomers in a community.
Tonino: With so much online communication, is there perhaps a new definition of community emerging in the modern world?
Elder: Yes, people are increasingly identifying themselves as members of online communities. On the one hand, this is a good development: They can interact with others around the world while they stay in one place, reducing travel and migration. And people in remote places have greater access to educational and artistic resources.
On the other hand, I think that an online community is very different from a group of people who live close to each other. With the Internet you make contact mostly with people who share your interests: the work of a certain poet, say, or Doberman pinschers. But if you live on North Street in Bristol, as we do, there are going to be people on your block, maybe even next door to you, who are at the far end of the political or religious spectrum. And that is a great gift too, because it expands you. There’s value in committing yourself to a community that includes people you might find disagreeable — but who, by that same token, challenge you to grow and to reconsider your values.
Tonino: What are some activities or practices that contribute to your sense of place?
Elder: Something that’s been important to me in Vermont has been sugaring — extracting sap from maple trees and boiling it into syrup. Sugaring forces you to pay close attention to the transition between winter and spring. There’s a period around the end of February and the beginning of March when the temperature gets stuck between twenty and forty degrees, and there’s patchy snow on the ground, and you’re just waiting it out. We call it “mud season.” What sugaring does is get you unstuck. When the days are above freezing and the nights are below, the sap will run, and then you’re in business. You boil it in the sugarhouse all night.
Early Vermont farmers depended on sugaring for one month of income. They couldn’t do anything in the fields at that point. They were just watching the thermometer and listening for the drips. For my family, too, sugaring offers a more intense relationship with the temperatures and seasons in our part of the world.
Getting the winter wood in — if you burn wood — and poring over the seed catalogs are two more seasonal activities in rural New England. But if I lived on an island off Seattle, I might find myself sailing, and that would connect me with the social and natural patterns there.
We probably experience climate disruption most sharply in relation to our experience of a place. Sugaring brings climate change into focus for me, because the transition from winter to spring has become erratic, and winter in Vermont has grown shorter — as much as a month shorter since I came here in 1973. My affiliation with our seasonal rhythms makes climate change more distressing for me and gives me an urgent desire to take action.
Tonino: Sometimes the goal of developing a “sense of place” can feel too abstract. You’re advising people to find an interest that makes their connection to a place more concrete.
Elder: Yes. Gary Snyder wrote a wonderful book titled The Practice of the Wild. A practice is a repeated action that helps define who we are. You might meditate or play music every day or climb a mountain and watch the sun set once a week. Your identity is related to those activities. If your practice is specific to your place on Earth, the way sugaring is, and it gets disturbed by changes in the seasonal cycles, then that puts you in an existential crisis. It’s not an abstract problem for you; it’s a direct threat to yourself and your values.
We sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that environmentalism is a kind of altruism: “OK, I guess I’ll get out of my chair now and do something good for the planet.” A much deeper motivation comes from the understanding that we need a healthy environment to live. It’s not a sacrifice; it’s self-preservation.
Tonino: What are some of your other personal practices?
Elder: My wife and I have a practice of playing music together. She’s a trained pianist, and I’m a French horn player, but we decided, just for fun, to learn new instruments in our retirement and start playing Celtic music. She has been playing the concertina, and I’ve been playing the wooden Irish flute. We play almost every day, often after supper. It’s been a great joy. In fact, I’m writing a book called Picking Up the Flute about learning this new instrument and how it relates to the adventure of retirement.
I’ll probably never have the level of skill on the Irish flute that I once had on the French horn, but I can love the flute more because I loved another instrument first — just as my Middlebury students could go on to love California, or wherever, because they’d learned to love Vermont, and just as parents and children who love each other are also practicing loving other people in the future. We’re broadening the circle.
But to find the sacred only in the wilderness would be like finding it only in a beautiful church on Easter. Unless the sacred is imbued in your day-to-day life, in your work, in the food on your table, in the attitude you take toward the health of your own community, its value is limited.
Tonino: In the poetry of Robert Frost, Gary Snyder, Japanese haiku master Bashō, and others, you find a classic theme repeated: the smallness of humans within the great scheme of things. Why is it important that we look at our lives, at least occasionally, from this broad perspective?
Elder: Snyder talks about the “Main Flow.” We each have our own little trajectory. We go through the day, motivated to accomplish certain tasks. We have a life cycle of three score and ten. That’s all good. But everything we do looks different if we relate it to the Main Flow.
For instance, look at our present moment in history. Since World War II the U.S. has gone wild with fossil fuels and piled up carbon in the atmosphere and destroyed habitats and created toxic sites. If you focus only on that, it’s discouraging. But Snyder would say this is just a brief moment in time. We can’t continue this way; nothing that is not sustainable will be sustained for long.
Our society is like an heir to a fortune who is also an alcoholic. He drinks his way through each day, but he can’t go on forever. There are only three possible outcomes: he’ll drink himself to death, he’ll run out of money, or he’ll sober up. It’s the same for us with petroleum. We’re running out of resources; we’re fouling the nest: we’re poisoning our natural systems, throwing them off kilter; and we can’t do it forever. I once heard Snyder predict that not much is going to get better in fifty years or even two hundred years, but several hundred years out we may begin to see some progress. That’s a strange thought, because we’re always focused on the next quarter’s earnings or the next election cycle. There is comfort to be found, however, in the fact that balance has to be restored eventually. It might not happen in our lifetime. It might be restored cataclysmically. It might not look so good for our government or our economy. But one way or the other there is a flow toward balance, and if we align ourselves with it, we’re assured of being on the winning side.
Tonino: It’s like a game of Go played out over thousands of years: that “lingering taste” will surge back.
Elder: Exactly. Nothing’s lost. But if you insist on triumph in your lifetime, you’ll be disappointed.
Tonino: How can we loosen the grip of that insistence?
Elder: I think we’re called on to have a kind of double vision: a relative view and an absolute view. The relative view is that we live in this historical moment and have relationships and responsibilities and jobs. If you’re a teacher, try to be a good teacher. If you’re a parent, try to be a good parent. If you’re living in a time of turmoil and war, try to be a good citizen. At the same time, it’s possible to think far beyond yourself, from a perspective in which the universe flows toward balance. This helps us avoid feeling downcast when we don’t succeed politically or personally.
Snyder is a countercultural person in many respects. He has lived his life and forged his art in ways that separate him from mainstream culture. At the same time, he has cultivated serenity. He doesn’t have to prevail. He has to do what he calls the “real work”: going to school-board meetings, taking care of the maintenance on his car, and so on. But even as he does all that, he looks beyond.
I heard a talk this weekend by a college president. He said that when we’re driving down the road, we have to look at the dashboard sometimes to see if we’re running out of gas or if the oil light is on. But we also have to look through the windshield so that we don’t run off the road and into a tree. I thought that was a down-to-earth way of saying that our attention has to flicker — up and down, long and short. We can be serious about the challenges of our time but also take joy in the beauty of the world, which will outlive us.
Tonino: One could argue that the planet’s growing population is at the root of all environmental problems. Where do you come down on the cold, hard fact of overpopulation?
Elder: Looking at United Nations demographic surveys, I get the impression that some of the original “population bomb” projections did not come true. Scientists are currently projecting the beginning of a long decline in human population, starting about a century from now. Still, in this century, we’re going to see it go over 10 billion. How much past 10 billion it will go is hotly debated. The greatest population growth is going to occur in some of the poorest countries. Excluding immigration, the populations of North America, Western Europe, and China are stabilizing, but in places like east Africa, India, and big parts of South America, numbers of people are going through the roof. I think of population growth in part as a reflection of the gross inequity in the distribution of the world’s goods.
So we have an uneven population explosion with a lot of human suffering built in. The question is, can we make it through however many decades it will be before the inevitable decline and still have compassion for the poor and also maintain wildlife populations and the health of the seas and so forth? My sense is that the single best way to control human population is to increase women’s access to education and the social options that go with that. Education and employment among women lowers birthrates decisively. At the same time, we need to bear in mind the cost of consumerism in the most-affluent nations. A baby born in the U.S. today will consume many, many times the natural resources used by one born in Bangladesh, and will contribute far more to global warming.
Between population growth and climate change, which are closely associated, we’re looking at some daunting challenges that will call upon us to be wiser than we’ve been up until now. Americans will need to redirect resources away from our privileged and unsustainable society.
Tonino: You’ve written that “we live in a day when love of the earth can feel like a long grieving.”
Elder: By “grieving” I don’t mean lamentation. I don’t mean woe, woe, woe. I mean coming to the point of active relinquishment. Grieving is a way of talking about the loss of people and things that we don’t know whether we can do without: neighbors, Vermont winters. When we’re not denying the loss, and we’re not blaming it on somebody, and we’re not trying to make it go away, then we may come to the place where we have to affirm it: That person is dead. That part of my life is gone. Actively relinquishing that which we can’t keep opens doors for us. If you’ve lost your job, or your spouse, or your health, and you grieve that loss deeply, then you can ask, “Where do I go from here? What do I do now?”
Whenever we suffer a great loss, there is an opportunity to create something substantial and meaningful and beneficial, not only for ourselves but for others. I say “opportunity” because it doesn’t have to happen. It’s possible to feel so overwhelmed that we just give up. One can die of grief, you know. One can also try to numb it or escape it. But it is an opportunity.
The world we love is becoming visibly damaged by humanity’s collective actions. This is a cause for grief. At the same time, it’s an invitation to change: To change the way we act. To change our goals. To change our expectations. When we in the affluent societies — North America, the Pacific Rim, Western Europe — look at the environmental crisis, we’re seeing the price of our own unrestrained appetites. That calls upon us to change.
Tonino: But to feel the grief, you have to know you’ve lost something, and there’s a lack of awareness about the environmental costs of climate change. Some people experience a vague grief but are unable to connect it to its source.
Elder: Weather is unpredictable. We’ve always had strings of warm or cold years. That makes climate disruption easier to miss or to deny. The denial is fueled by oil companies, which have poured many millions of dollars into advertising to convince people that the atmosphere is not getting warmer due to human activity.
Denial is persistent even in the face of obvious evidence. Many of the presidential candidates last year had made public commitments to combat climate change. Newt Gingrich had. Mitt Romney had. Then, when they saw which way the political wind was blowing, they came out and denied those commitments.
It’s hard to change, to sacrifice, to move forward and leave some things behind. But it’s not just about sacrifice. The Canadian environmental writer and TV personality David Suzuki gave a talk at Middlebury College some years back about sustainability. At the end somebody in the audience asked if he really thought the prosperous citizens of North America would be willing to lower their standard of living, and he said, “I’m talking about raising our standard of living!” If we live together in multigenerational households and grow more of our own food and make more of our own entertainment; if we move across the land by our own muscle power; if we live closer to where we work — these changes significantly elevate our standard of living.
We can reimagine the American suburban household: the distant job to which the breadwinner commutes, the expensive electronic gadgets to entertain us. That’s not necessarily the most gratifying life. In The Unsettling of America Wendell Berry says the main product of television advertising is hysterical dissatisfaction. It tells us: You’re not enough. You don’t have enough. If you have this product, you’ll be much happier. People will love you more.
You don’t have to visit Gates of the Arctic to be attuned to nature. New York City has the East River and the Hudson River. It’s got the monarch butterflies that migrate down Fifth Avenue just above the heads of pedestrians.
Tonino: How do we promote a more inviting model than consumerism?
Elder: For one, we had better not forget the importance of our national history and religious heritage. Both have a strong influence on the way people think and act. We have to participate in the interpretation of these legacies. That’s something environmentalists have not done well enough: reclaim those bedrock values of patriotism and awe and obedience to something larger than ourselves. The religious Right has seized the flag and the Bible as part of its vision of the good life, which rarely addresses the challenges of our day.
Tonino: Some environmentalists trace our current problems back to the biblical notion of man’s dominion over nature. You’ve criticized this analysis as a “transparent attempt to exonerate our own generation for the wastefulness of our practices.” How so?
Elder: The authors of Genesis, where the “dominion” verse appears, lived long before the first internal-combustion engine. Dominion, in their day, meant having all your sheep accounted for. To blame Genesis for the problem of fracking is a grotesque anachronism.
The Bible is also full of exhortations to modesty and reverence and care. The detail with which God’s creation is related in Genesis shows that the Bible does not view nature as just a big jumble. It’s an orchestrated, harmonious work of art. A number of religious groups are becoming engaged in environmental stewardship because of how they interpret the Bible. Some American Evangelicals are emphasizing what they call “creation care.” That’s an interesting complement to a more scientifically informed ecological awareness.
Instead of tracing our problems back to something written thousands of years ago, we have to take responsibility today. The gravest ecological impacts of human behavior stem from changes that have occurred in my lifetime. The rapid development of new chemical compounds, the incredible escalation of fossil-fuel consumption, our refusal to think seriously about climate and population issues — it’s on us.
In his book Enough Bill McKibben identifies the defining ecological problem of our time as the ungoverned appetite of people in more-prosperous nations like ours. Not that everybody in this country is prosperous, but many of us are, including you and me, sitting here in this pleasant library. The damage is closely associated with our practices.
Tonino: You’re saying it’s not enough to analyze where things went wrong. What really matters is how we bring it back to our own actions right now.
Elder: Yes, but it’s still good to look back sometimes and draw the connections to the scientific breakthroughs of World War II, the artificial fertilizers that came out of the armaments industry, and so on. We can take it farther back to the birth of the Industrial Revolution in England almost two centuries earlier. In a sense our problems began when humans learned to harness fire.
There’s a wonderful Gary Snyder poem called “For the Children.” It describes a graph, a sort of logarithmic curve going upward that represents the human era. The line is almost vertical now. What’s going up? Our capacity to consume fuel. Our population. The force of our armaments. The rates of extinction. It’s all in that soaring curve. And the line begins in the distant past of our Cro-Magnon ancestors, perhaps even our hominid predecessors.
Tonino: Environmentalist Paul Shepard analyzed the early roots of where we went wrong.
Elder: Shepard was a fantastic writer. A lot of his colleagues say we’re not “good animals,” that it’s just our big brains that allowed us to make tools and dominate, but Shepard says we are impressive animals. We can’t run as fast as a lion in the short run, but over a day or more we can outrun our prey, if we don’t lose track of them. Furthermore, we can throw a spear, we can climb a tree and look around, and we can swim across a river. When you put all those traits together, that’s an impressive animal. Shepard says we’re the product of evolution and adaptation, as natural as any other creature.
I don’t see much advantage in castigating ourselves: “Bad animal, bad.” That doesn’t take us anywhere. Instead we need to seek out continuities and connections. The book I’m trying to finish up right now is a move away from a kind of moralizing environmentalism and toward what I call an “invitational model” of environmentalism.
The environmental movement needs to stop saying, “Step out of the SUV, and keep your hands where I can see them,” and instead say, “Here, taste this tomato. Taste this cheese. Taste this microbrew. It’s delicious. What do you have that’s good?” It’s not just that we need to become a more diverse movement; it’s that we want diversity. We want to throw a better party. We want to have more music, more food, more people.
Mardi Gras is central to my new book. It’s the celebration at the beginning of Lent that, especially in Latin cultures, prepares us for a long period of fasting and austerity and self-discipline. We need to restrain our appetites as a nation, but we also need a celebratory, inclusive, joyful energy behind that effort.
Tonino: The developed nations need to make big strides toward sustainability and responsibility, but should there be a “sliding scale” for poorer countries?
Elder: I’m not an expert on policy and economics, but my broad sense is that the wealthiest countries do have more responsibility. At this point China is passing the U.S. in the shameful race to put the most carbon into the atmosphere, but we have been number one for a long time. We have built a culture of middle-class affluence that is extremely attractive to people around the world. The problem is we would need multiple earths to allow everybody to have our level of material wealth. We can’t say, “Let’s all just stop developing now and keep what we have.” That’s not going to convince anybody. We have to reduce our own consumption substantially and at the same time support other countries that have a legitimate desire to increase their standard of living.
As I said before, reducing consumption doesn’t mean a reduction in quality of life. American middle-class comfort is isolating. Everybody is inside his or her air-conditioned house instead of out on the porch. Often there aren’t even sidewalks in the suburbs, because people drive everywhere. And when they come home, they pull straight into their garages, never stopping to talk with their neighbors. The emphasis on speed — fast food, fast transportation — makes us nervous and enervated. It’s not good for our health. I believe we can use less of the world’s finite resources and do so in ways that make us less isolated.
Tonino: You’ve taught Thoreau for many years. He didn’t live in total hermit-style isolation at Walden Pond. Rather he was at the edge of town and went back to his mother’s house now and then for lunch. Some people get upset when they learn this. It’s as if, for them, Thoreau’s work is less valuable because it isn’t derived from pure solo immersion in nature. What do you make of this?
Elder: It’s true. I’ve had many students triumphantly declare Thoreau a hypocrite: He was eating pie at his mother’s! He had dinner with Emerson! But Thoreau was clearly writing about the advantages of solitude within the larger community. He writes about seeing his neighbors. He talked with the Irish railroad laborers. He was sometimes a bit of a superior Yankee, but he wasn’t a hypocrite.
Bashō, too, wasn’t always sleeping in grass huts or under bushes in the rain. His companion’s journal reveals that Bashō sometimes stayed with noblemen in their palaces. When this news came out, people accused the poet of hypocrisy. But Bashō, like Thoreau, was trying to convey a vision of what is essential to living an awakened life, to reaching beyond our mundane experience. I’m not troubled that he was occasionally someone’s overnight guest.
That said, there is a powerful emphasis in Thoreau’s writing on solitude, and this has influenced the form that our wilderness movement has taken. I continue to be an advocate of preserving wilderness, but most, if not all, Native American writers I’ve read have at some point critiqued the wilderness movement for its focus on solitude and vast, unpopulated areas. Native peoples who have lived for many centuries in one place are deeply affiliated with their local landscapes. There’s a wonderful essay by Leslie Marmon Silko called “Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination,” in which she says that the stories her people tell are so closely related to particular places that they function like maps. Through the stories, her people know about the movements of mule deer. They know where the drinkable water is. They know landforms where you can be ambushed if you’re not careful. If you call the vast desert where they live “wilderness,” then you don’t know those stories. Her people and her place go together.
Years ago I was teaching at the Bread Loaf School of English, and one of my students was an Alaskan Yupik. We were chatting one day, and she said that, until she’d read Thoreau, she’d never thought of solitary experience in the wilderness as a way to learn about nature. I asked how she learned about nature, and she said something I’ve never forgotten: “The way to learn about nature is to follow the old people around and see what they do.” This is such a contrast to the way we think. But if your people have been living in relation to the seasons and trees and plants and animals for centuries, then your elders will be attuned to natural patterns. They will know how to make a tough cord from spruce roots, and where the animals pass through, and the attitude of humility required for sustainable hunting.
Thoreau was striving for an awakening of sorts, but the solitude he yearned for, which resonates with me, is not all we need. We also need a kind of social, integrated approach to nature, and many traditional native communities exemplify that.
Nature has a way of taking over. We put up these magnificent buildings, and we move around in our remarkable machines, and we think we’re so dominant. And in a lot of ways we’re too dominant. But the fact is, we weren’t always here, and we won’t always be.
Tonino: Speaking of teaching, what are your thoughts on teaching stewardship of the earth in schools? How can we instill a sense of environmental responsibility in the next generation?
Elder: That’s a crucial question. We’re not doing it well right now. Over the last several years civics has gotten short shrift in U.S. high schools so that other subjects can have more space in the curriculum. But if you want to have a functioning democracy, people need to think about the rights and privileges and responsibilities of citizenship. That’s a first step toward thinking about our responsibility to the earth.
To be a good environmental steward, you also have to understand natural systems and the principles of biodiversity. There’s science involved. If we talk the language of science as opposed to activism, many schools have an easier time dealing with the subject of the environment.
Of course, our country is so politically polarized right now that just using the word environment in discussions of school curricula is controversial. A lot of ranchers feel that environmentalists are opposed to their way of life. We need to be mindful of what words will raise people’s suspicions about our motives and what words might be more open and invite conversation. Buddhists talk of “skillful means.” If you’re trying to convey the Buddha’s teaching, you’re aware that each person needs to hear it in a different way. Knowing the right way to tell it to somebody — that’s skillful means.
Tonino: How else can we be good environmental stewards?
Elder: First you need to care about the health of the environment and everything in it. If you’re sugaring in the woods, for example, you don’t just cut down everything but the sugar maples. It’s the same if you’re farming or hunting or gardening or hiking. To preserve Vermont forests, you need species diversity and age diversity in the trees. You need to prevent erosion. You need to keep the forest healthy enough that it will have natural resistance to tent caterpillars and exotic invasive species. And you need to thin out the woods so that they can have a higher, more spacious canopy.
The word stewardship comes from the Old Norse word stivardr, which means the “guardian of the household.” And the word ecology, from the Greek oikos, means the “science of the household.” If you think about nature as our household, then the other creatures in nature, people included, are our family. The ethics of the marketplace — in which everybody is looking for a competitive advantage and grabbing all within reach — do not prevail in a household, unless it’s a dysfunctional family. Rather the parents have a responsibility to make sure that everybody gets enough to eat.
Tonino: What are you doing right now to practice good stewardship in your community?
Elder: I’m active in Vermont Family Forests, a sustainable-forestry organization. I’m also on the Bristol Planning Commission. We’ve come up with a new town plan that will be voted on this Election Day. It’s been challenging, because we’ve had to struggle with a proposed gravel pit quite near the center of town. Feelings ran high about that. Some were outraged that we would even consider it, and others were outraged that we would restrain the landowner’s right to do what he wanted with his land. It was a fiery and difficult debate, and it was what Snyder would call the “real work.” We had a public process that let the community reach a resolution so we could move on.
Tonino: What is your spiritual life like now?
Elder: I’ve had a serious interest in Zen and have practiced in several Zen communities. My wife is Catholic, and I often go with her to church. At various times I’ve been closely associated with the Quakers.
I remain grateful for all the religious communities to which I’ve belonged, but at this point I would describe myself as Wendell Berry describes himself: as a “forest Christian.” I read the Bible, I pray, I love Jesus, but I don’t feel that Christianity has any exclusive validity. It is one path toward the holy, and most traditions offer equally valuable paths, as well as having their own pitfalls along the way. I think there is sacredness in the world, and no one religion has a patent on it. Furthermore, you don’t need a religious practice to experience it. Many people feel closest to the divine when they’re in the woods or the mountains or by the sea or looking closely at a flower. This is the primary experience of the sacred, even for many who would consider themselves members of organized religions.
Tonino: Where do you experience the divine most directly?
Elder: I feel it in places like Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite or Gates of the Arctic. For me those places are like cathedrals. It would be hard for someone not to be overwhelmed by the beauty of such grand landscapes.
But to find the sacred only in the wilderness would be like finding it only in a beautiful church on Easter. Unless the sacred is imbued in your day-to-day life, in your work, in the food on your table, in the attitude you take toward the health of your own community, its value is limited. I think the heart of the environmental movement today is the effort to tie ecological health to human health and social justice — areas that the early environmental movement ignored. Now we’re looking at equity, sustainability, and inclusiveness. Yes, we need to care about endangered species, but we also need to care about urban food deserts and the health problems of fast food and the need for schoolkids to have nourishing lunches.
Tonino: You’ve written, “All the hikes one undertakes along a given trail flow into one composite experience.” I think I agree, but I can’t quite grasp how it actually works. How do all those hikes flow together?
Elder: Think of this watershed, where the tributaries flow into brooks, and those flow into rivers, which flow into Lake Champlain. In a similar way, everything we’ve done has flowed into us. We’re our own Lake Champlain. We’re the watershed in which the tributaries of our experiences gather. And our life is flowing into something else, the way the lake water flows into the Richelieu River and eventually reaches the ocean. All the earth is a single watershed.
My religious background is Evangelical, and though I’m not an orthodox believer anymore, I still find some of that language meaningful. A book reviewer once took exception to my use of the word providence, but I continue to like that word. At the end of Paradise Lost, when Adam and Eve are being expelled from the garden, John Milton writes, “The world was all before them, where to choose / Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.”
It’s not as if I believe that everything works together to bring us to a particular predestined point. But I do believe that everything we experience can be seen as related, if we are open to something beyond our original intentions and are paying attention to the myriad possibilities. All the walks I’ve taken, all the experiences I’ve had, including the devastating ones, are part of who I am. Insofar as I have the capacity to take another walk, or to respond with a whole heart to the beauty of the world, or to engage with a person who has a different perspective, then there is something in life that I can affirm.
When Thoreau speaks of “awakening,” he means being present to the moment. In Walden he writes, “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.” Wildness is not about millions of roadless acres. Wildness is a quality of awareness that millions of roadless acres may help us to achieve. And if we do achieve it, we’ll be thrilled by those acres. But that awareness can also be cultivated in the middle of the city. In fact, you’d better look for it in your city, and your home, and your office.
You don’t have to visit Gates of the Arctic to be attuned to nature. New York City has the East River and the Hudson River. It’s got the monarch butterflies that migrate down Fifth Avenue just above the heads of pedestrians. It’s got the migratory-bird routes that come down over Staten Island and the Meadowlands. It’s got an incredibly dynamic, fast-moving sky. When Bob Finch and I were working on The Norton Book of Nature Writing, we went to the publisher’s headquarters in Manhattan to celebrate the completion of the book, and we climbed up to the roof. Standing there amid the bodies of water and the birds and the clouds, I thought, This is a really exciting place on the surface of the earth! There’s a kind of convergence or vortex of energy there.
I went to a conference in Detroit a couple of years ago. After the riots in 1967 many neighborhoods there burned down and were cleared out. Now the city is filled with urban grasslands where foxes and wild turkeys roam, some of them just two blocks from Tiger Stadium. Los Angeles is home to coyotes. They’ll look you in the eye, and they are not tame animals. It’s not as if the cities of the U.S. were brought here from outer space, or as if the residents didn’t all evolve from hominids in the savannas of Africa. We’re all in the thick of it.
Tonino: I just read an article about coyotes in San Francisco. A woman tagged a couple and found that they were crossing the Golden Gate Bridge from Marin. I love the thought of them trotting across the bridge.
Elder: Journalist Alan Weisman wrote a book called The World without Us in which he asks: What if there were no people? He’s not saying we deserve to die out or imagining a nuclear apocalypse. It’s just a thought experiment: Suppose one day there were no people. What would happen? He describes which parts of civilization would disappear the fastest, what species would reemerge first, the rate at which glass and cement erode.
Nature has a way of taking over. We put up these magnificent buildings, and we move around in our remarkable machines, and we think we’re so dominant. And in a lot of ways we’re too dominant. But the fact is, we weren’t always here, and we won’t always be. We need to understand that. This is not a perpetually human world we’ve moved into. This is our moment, but the world is larger than us.