Earth Works: Selected Essays

Earth Works: Selected Essays

by Scott Russell Sanders


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In the hands of award-winning writer Scott Russell Sanders, the essay becomes an inquisitive and revelatory form of art. In 30 of his finest essays—nine never before collected—Sanders examines his Midwestern background, his father's drinking, his opposition to war, his literary inheritance, and his feeling for wildness. He also tackles such vital issues as the disruption of Earth's climate, the impact of technology, the mystique of money, the ideology of consumerism, and the meaning of sustainability. Throughout, he asks perennial questions: What is a good life? How do family and culture shape a person's character? How should we treat one another and the Earth? What is our role in the cosmos? Readers and writers alike will find wisdom and inspiration in Sanders's luminous and thought-provoking prose.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253000958
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 02/01/2012
Pages: 376
Sales rank: 838,483
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Scott Russell Sanders, Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Indiana University Bloomington, is author of 20 books of fiction and nonfiction, including A Private History of Awe, Writing from the Center (IUP, 1995), and A Conservationist Manifesto (IUP, 2009). Among his honors are the Lannan Literary Award, the John Burroughs Essay Award, and the Mark Twain Award.

Read an Excerpt

Earth Works

Selected Essays

By Scott Russell Sanders

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2012 Scott Russell Sanders
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00712-4


The Singular First Person

The first soapbox orator I ever saw was haranguing a crowd beside the Greyhound station in Providence, Rhode Island, about the evils of fluoridated water. What the man stood on was actually an up-turned milk crate, all the genuine soapboxes presumably having been snapped up by antique dealers. He wore an orange plaid sport coat and matching bow tie and held aloft a bottle filled with mossy green liquid. I don't remember the details of his spiel, except his warning that fluoride was an invention of the Communists designed to weaken our bones and thereby make us pushovers for a Red invasion. What amazed me, as a tongue-tied kid of seventeen newly arrived in the city from the boondocks, was not his message but his courage in delivering it to a mob of strangers. I figured it would have been easier for me to jump straight over the Greyhound station than to stand there on that milk crate and utter my thoughts.

To this day, when I read or when I compose one of those curious monologues we call the personal essay, I often think of that soapbox orator. Nobody had asked him for his two cents' worth, but there he was declaring it with all the eloquence he could muster. The essay, although enacted in private, is no less arrogant a performance. Unlike novelists and playwrights, who lurk behind the scenes while distracting our attention with the puppet show of imaginary characters; unlike scholars and journalists, who quote the opinions of others and shelter behind the hedges of neutrality, the essayist has nowhere to hide. While the poet can lean back on a several-thousand- year-old legacy of ecstatic speech, the essayist inherits a much briefer and skimpier tradition. The poet is allowed to quit after a few lines, but the essayist must hold our attention for pages and pages. It is a brash and foolhardy form, this one-man or one-woman circus, which relies on the tricks of anecdote, conjecture, memory, and wit to enthrall us.

* * *

Addressing a monologue to the world seems all the more brazen or preposterous an act when you consider what a tiny fraction of the human chorus any single voice is. At Boston's Museum of Science an electronic meter records with flashing lights the population of the United States. Figuring in the rate of births and deaths, emigrants leaving the country and immigrants arriving, the meter calculates that we add one fellow citizen every twenty-one seconds. When I looked at it one day in 1987, the count stood at 249,958,483. As I wrote that figure in my notebook, the final number jumped from 3 to 4. Another mouth, another set of ears and eyes, another brain. A counter for Earth's population, somewhere past five billion at that moment, would be rising in a blur of digits. Amid this avalanche of selves, it is a wonder that anyone finds the gumption to sit down and write one of those naked, lonely, quixotic letters to the world.

A surprising number do find the gumption. In fact, I have the impression there are more essayists at work in America today, and more gifted ones, than at any time in recent decades. Whom do I have in mind? Here is a sampler: Edward Abbey, James Baldwin, Wendell Berry, Carol Bly, Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, Stephen Jay Gould, Elizabeth Hardwick, Edward Hoagland, Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiessen, John McPhee, Cynthia Ozick, Paul Theroux, Lewis Thomas, Tom Wolfe. No doubt you could make up a list of your own—with a greater ethnic range, perhaps, or fewer nature enthusiasts—a list that would provide equally convincing support for the view that we are blessed right now with an abundance of essayists. We do not have anyone to rival Emerson or Thoreau, but in sheer quantity of first-rate work our time stands comparison with any period since the heyday of the form in the mid–nineteenth century.

Why are so many writers taking up this risky form and why are so many readers—to judge by the statistics of book and magazine publication—seeking it out? In this era of pre-packaged thought, the essay is the closest thing we have, on paper, to a record of the individual mind at work and play. It is an amateur's raid in a world of specialists. Feeling overwhelmed by data, random information, the flotsam and jetsam of mass culture, we relish the spectacle of a single consciousness making sense of a portion of the chaos. We are grateful to Lewis Thomas for shining his light into the dark corners of biology, to John McPhee for laying bare the geology beneath our landscape, to Annie Dillard for showing us the universal fire blazing in the branches of a cedar, to Peter Matthiessen for chasing after snow leopards and mystical insights in the Himalayas. No matter if they are sketchy, these maps of meaning are still welcome. As Joan Didion observes in the title essay of her collection, The White Album, "We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience." Dizzy from a dance that seems to accelerate hour by hour, we cling to the narrative line, even though it may be as pure an invention as the shapes drawn by Greeks to identify the constellations.

The essay is a haven for the private, idiosyncratic voice in an era of anonymous babble. Like the blandburgers served in their millions along our highways, most language served up in public these days is textureless, tasteless mush. On television, over the phone, in the newspaper, wherever humans bandy words about, we encounter more and more abstractions, more empty formulas. Think of the pabulum ladled out by politicians. Think of the fluffy white bread of advertising. Think, Lord help us, of committee reports. By contrast, the essay remains stubbornly concrete and particular: it confronts you with an oil-smeared toilet at the Sunoco station, a red vinyl purse shaped like a valentine heart, a bow-legged dentist hunting deer with an elephant gun. As Orwell forcefully argued, and as dictators seem to agree, such a bypassing of abstractions, such an insistence on the concrete, is a politically subversive act. Clinging to this door, that child, this grief, following the zigzag motions of an inquisitive mind, the essay renews language and clears trash from the springs of thought. In his first book, a slender volume entitled Nature, Emerson called on a new generation of writers to cast off the hand-me-down rhetoric of the day, to "pierce this rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things." The essayist aspires to do just that.

As if all these virtues were not enough to account for a renaissance of this protean genre, the essay has also taken over some of the territory abdicated by contemporary fiction. Whittled down to the bare bones of plot, camouflaged with irony, muttering in brief sentences and grade school vocabulary, peopled with characters who stumble like sleepwalkers through numb lives, today's fashionable fiction avoids disclosing where the author stands on anything. In the essay, you had better speak from a region pretty close to the heart or the reader will detect the wind of phoniness whistling through your hollow phrases. In the essay you may be caught with your pants down, your ignorance and sentimentality showing, while you trot recklessly about on one of your hobbyhorses. You cannot stand back from the action, as Joyce instructed us to do, and pare your fingernails. You cannot palm off your cockamamie notions on some hapless character.

To our list of the essay's contemporary attractions we should add the perennial ones of verbal play, mental adventure, and sheer anarchic high spirits. To see how the capricious mind can be led astray, consider the foregoing paragraph, which drags in metaphors from the realms of toys, clothing, weather, and biology, among others. That is bad enough; but it could have been worse. For example, I began to draft a sentence in that paragraph with the following words: "More than once, in sitting down to beaver away at a narrative, felling trees of memory and hauling brush to build a dam that might slow down the waters of time ..." I had set out to make some innocent remark, and here I was gnawing down trees and building dams, all because I had let that beaver slip in. On this occasion I had the good sense to throw out the unruly word. I don't always, as no doubt you will have noticed. Whatever its more visible subject, an essay is also about the way a mind moves, the links and leaps and jigs of thought. I might as well drag in another metaphor—and another unoffending animal—by saying that each doggy sentence, as it noses forward into the underbrush of thought, scatters a bunch of rabbits that go bounding off in all directions. The essayist can afford to chase more of those rabbits than the fiction writer can, but fewer than the poet. If you refuse to chase any of them, and keep plodding along in a straight line, you and your reader will have a dull outing. If you chase too many, you will soon wind up lost in a thicket of confusion with your tongue hanging out.

* * *

The pursuit of mental rabbits was strictly forbidden by the teachers who instructed me in English composition. For that matter, nearly all the qualities of the personal essay, as I have been sketching them, violate the rules that many of us were taught in school. You recall we were supposed to begin with an outline and stick by it faithfully, like a train riding its rails, avoiding sidetracks. Each paragraph was to have a topic sentence pasted near the front, and these orderly paragraphs were to be coupled end to end like so many boxcars. Every item in those boxcars was to bear the stamp of some external authority, preferably a footnote referring to a thick book, although appeals to magazines and newspapers would do in a pinch. Our diction was to be formal, dignified, shunning the vernacular. Polysyllabic words derived from Latin were preferable to the blunt lingo of the streets. Metaphors were to be used only in emergencies, and no two species of metaphor were to be mixed. And even in emergencies we could not speak in the first person singular.

Already as a schoolboy, I chafed against those rules. Now I break them shamelessly, in particular the taboo against using the lonely capital I. Just look at what I'm doing right now. My speculations about the state of the essay arise, needless to say, from my own practice as reader and writer, and they reflect my own tastes, no matter how I may pretend to gaze dispassionately down on the question from on high. As Thoreau declares in his cocky manner on the opening page of Walden: "In most books the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well." True for the personal essay, it is doubly true for an essay about the essay: one speaks always and inescapably in the first person singular.

We could sort out essays along a spectrum according to the degree to which the writer's ego is on display—with John McPhee, perhaps, at the extreme of self-effacement, and Norman Mailer at the opposite extreme of self-dramatization. Brassy or shy, stage center or hanging back in the wings, the author's persona commands our attention. For the length of an essay, or a book of essays, we respond to that persona as we would to a friend caught up in a rapturous monologue. When the monologue is finished, we may not be able to say precisely what it was about, any more than we can draw conclusions from a piece of music. "Essays don't usually boil down to a summary, as articles do," notes Edward Hoagland, one of the least summarizable of companions, in The Tugman's Passage, "and the style of the writer has a 'nap' to it, a combination of personality and originality and energetic loose ends that stand up like the nap of a piece of wool and can't be brushed flat." We make assumptions about that speaking voice, assumptions we cannot validly make about the narrators in fiction. Only a sophomore is permitted to ask how many children had Huckleberry Finn; but even literary sophisticates wonder in print about Thoreau's love life, Montaigne's domestic arrangements, De Quincey's opium habit, or Virginia Woolf's depression.

Montaigne, who not only invented the form but nearly perfected it as well, announced from the start that his true subject was himself. In his note "To the Reader," he slyly proclaimed:

I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice; for it is myself that I portray. My defects will here be read to the life, and also my natural form, as far as respect for the public has allowed. Had I been placed among those nations which are said to live still in the sweet freedom of nature's first laws, I assure you I should very gladly have portrayed myself here entire and wholly naked.

A few pages after this disarming introduction, we are told of the emperor Maximilian, who was so prudish about exposing his private parts that he would not let a servant dress him or see him in the bath. The emperor went so far as to give orders that he be buried in his underdrawers. Having let us in on this intimacy about Maximilian, Montaigne then confessed that he himself, although "bold-mouthed," was equally prudish, and that "except under great stress of necessity or voluptuousness," he never allowed anyone to see him naked. Such modesty, he feared, was unbecoming in a soldier. But such honesty is quite becoming in an essayist. The very confession of his prudery is a far more revealing gesture than any doffing of clothes.

Every English major knows that the word essay, as adapted by Montaigne, means a trial or attempt. The Latin root carries the more vivid sense of a weighing out. In the days when that root was alive and green, merchants discovered the value of goods and alchemists discovered the composition of unknown metals by the use of scales. Just so the essay, as Montaigne was the first to show, is a weighing out, an inquiry into the value, meaning, and true nature of experience; it is a private experiment carried out in public. In each of three successive editions, Montaigne inserted new material into his essays without revising the old material. Often the new statements contradicted the original ones, but Montaigne let them stand, since he believed that the only consistent fact about human beings is their inconsistency. In "Why Montaigne Is Not a Bore," Lewis Thomas has remarked of him that "he is fond of his mind, and affectionately entertained by everything in his head." Whatever Montaigne wrote about—and he wrote about everything under the sun: fears, smells, growing old, the pleasures of scratching—he weighed on the scales of his own character.

* * *

It is the singularity of the first person—its warts and crotchets and turns of voice—that lures many of us into reading essays, and that lingers with us after we finish. Consider the lonely, melancholy persona of Loren Eiseley, forever wandering, forever brooding on our dim and bestial past, his lips frosty with the chill of the Ice Age. Consider the volatile, Dionysian persona of D. H. Lawrence, with his incandescent gaze, his habit of turning peasants into gods and trees into flames, his quick hatred and quicker love. Consider that philosophical farmer Wendell Berry, who speaks with a countryman's knowledge and a deacon's severity. Consider E. B. White, with his cheery affection for brown eggs and dachshunds, his unflappable way of herding geese while the radio warns of an approaching hurricane.


Excerpted from Earth Works by Scott Russell Sanders. Copyright © 2012 Scott Russell Sanders. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

The Singular First Person
At Play in the Paradise of Bombs
The Men We Carry in Our Minds
Doing Time in the Thirteenth Chair
The Inheritance of Tools
Under the Influence
Looking at Women
Reasons of the Body
After the Flood
House and Home
Staying Put
Letter to a Reader
The Common Life
Mountain Music
The Force of Spirit
The Uses of Muscle
A Private History of Awe
A Road into Chaos and Old Night
Words Addressed to Our Condition Exactly
Honoring the Ordinary
Speaking for the Land
The Mystique of Money
Buffalo Eddy
Mind in the Forest
Notes and Acknowledgements

What People are Saying About This

Kathleen Dean Moore]]>

Like the building stones of his beloved limestone country, Scott Russell Sanders's enduring essays are beautifully carved from the material of the Earth and its layered lives. The reach of Sanders's incandescent mind will remind readers of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The fierce eloquence of his defense of what is right will remind them of Thoreau. The warmth of his open heart is signature Scott Russell Sanders. This collection of Sanders's finest work will become a classic of American thought.

Kathleen Dean Moore

Like the building stones of his beloved limestone country, Scott Russell Sanders's enduring essays are beautifully carved from the material of the Earth and its layered lives. The reach of Sanders's incandescent mind will remind readers of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The fierce eloquence of his defense of what is right will remind them of Thoreau. The warmth of his open heart is signature Scott Russell Sanders. This collection of Sanders's finest work will become a classic of American thought.

Orion - H. Emerson Blake

More than any other writer of his generation, Scott Russell Sanders has consistently, and insistently, asked his readers to consider what it means to be a citizen of the Earth.

Lewis Hyde

The many things that Scott Russell Sanders cares about—social justice, family, our place in nature, the ways in which culture and place reflect one another—are all woven together wonderfully in this collection of essays. Here is a voice to dispel confusion and keep us well rooted.

Lewis Hyde]]>

The many things that Scott Russell Sanders cares about—social justice, family, our place in nature, the ways in which culture and place reflect one another—are all woven together wonderfully in this collection of essays. Here is a voice to dispel confusion and keep us well rooted.

From the Publisher

An "Englewood Review of Books" best book of 2012 Author Scott Russell Sanders is the national winner of the 2010 Indiana Authors Award


Works serves here as both noun and verb. Like all works of art, my essays are products of Earth, as are you, as am I, and we are able to wonder and sing, to spend our brief time under the sun, only because Earth works miraculously well,
providing us a benign habitation in the void of space.Scott Russell Sanders, from the Preface

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