(Following is a short 10 minute paper that I delivered at AWP some years back on a panel about literature and the environment. The “easy-reader score” that comes with this WordPress program tells me it’s not easy reading–which is part of the point of the paper.)
I think of the word solastalgia, and though I don’t always embrace neologisms, this word sticks: “The pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault…a homesickness that one gets when one is still home.”
It sticks because I—like many of us—have watched the semi-rural home of my youth transform into a strip mall, a golf course, a covenant controlled suburb; I’ve watched glaciers on the mountains around my home turn to bare granite under the effects of climate change. But solastalgia also resonates because, as John Fowles has said in his brilliant essay, “The Tree,” “The danger in both art and nature is that all emphasis is placed on the created, not the act of the creation.”
If the natural world is understood as a vast region of relatively unaltered ground unknowable in its totality, then, as Fowles points out, the creative process and nature share at least this: Neither can be fully defined or reduced, in the case of nature, by science, or in the case of writing—by formulas and methods. Today, the process of writing is as much under assault as nature is, and the two are intrinsically connected. As more and more end-oriented MFA programs come into existence, and more and more books that follow a formula hit the bestseller list, the emphasis on the created, not the act of creating, intensifies. As writers are increasingly expected to promote and sell their finished products, thus focusing on the created, not the act of creation, the same displacement occurs.
For me, home is two places: externally, it is Colorado. Internally, it is in the process of writing. I feel solastalgia for both. For now, I want to focus writing. I’d like to suggest that—regardless of content—the very process of writing is an act of environmental advocacy that can deepen our understanding of and compassion for the natural world. Likewise, to somehow shift our readers’ focus from formulaic works to works that challenge audiences to peer into and appreciate process is an equal act of advocacy. As Fowles says, “It is far less nature itself that is in danger than our attitude toward it,” and it is far less writing itself that is in danger than our attitude toward it.
The process of writing and the natural world share certain commonalities: we can take each of them apart, piece by piece, and we can analyze those pieces. But those analyses never render a complete understanding of how the works came to be. If we take a computer apart and put it back together again, we know exactly how it works. But ask a scientist how a tree grows from a seedling to a sixteen foot giant, and she can no more answer your question than Virginia Woolf—if she were still living—could tell you how the grace of a certain sentence fell to the page, or how a collection of those sentences came together to create To The Lighthouse. While some readers may be struck with awe by Woolf’s words, others are left alienated. They look for a purpose to those words, an immediate graspability, something tangible they can take away from the book: entertainment, information, distraction.
This sense of purpose is antithetical to a sense of wonder. Explanation is the thief of awe, and usability justifies destruction. As Fowles points out, “This addiction to finding a reason, a function, a quantifiable yield, has now infiltrated every aspect of our lives—and become effectively synonymous with pleasure. The modern version of hell is purposelessness.” And he reminds us:
The subtlest aspect of our alienation from nature, the most difficult to comprehend, is our need to use it in some way—to derive personal yield. We shall never fully understand nature (or ourselves), and certainly never respect it, until we dissociate the wild from the notion of usability—however innocent and harmless the use.
Part of the magic of Seth Kantner’s Ordinary Wolves is that the wolves live their lives out on the tundra, unobtrusive, unapologetic, uninvolved in the world beyond. And the deep solastalgia illuminated in Ann Pancake’s Strange as This Weather Has Been, derives from the usability of the mountains that literally long for alienation from our human greed.
The content of these books, and scores of others like them—Louise Erdrich’s stunning novel LaRose; Per Paterson’s Out Stealing Horses; Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce and The Orenda—ask us to raise our ecological consciousness. But equally as important, the language itself asks us to pay attention to and stand in awe of something equally sublime: the process of writing. These books are not particularly easy to read. They ask us to be utterly present not only in the narrative arc, the story, but in the language itself, something that, like nature, is inexplicable in its beauty.
Our cultural resistance to process in creative works is self-evident. We don’t need to hark back to Athene leaping fully formed from Zeus’s head for that. Jesus was conceived in a flash and born without a pregnancy; the process of his life made no difference. We celebrate his birth and his death, nothing in between. Whether we are believers or not, the mythology of Christianity haunts our bones.
But how does this shunning of process relate to advocacy for the natural environment? Nature never is; it is always becoming. The only end to nature is when we ascribe to it a use. A tree becomes a table. A rock becomes a garden path. As Fowles observes: “’Thing’ and ‘then’ attract each other. If it is a thing, it was then; if it was then, it is a thing.” Nature never exists in the past, except when it has been modified by tools, and art becomes lifeless when it becomes an easy commodity, laden with formula.
Likewise, the degree to which prose or poetry is layered and therefore becomes something different upon each read is the degree to which the author has imbued the words with an authentic process that requires inner-action, not mere technique. In essence, this practice of honoring the process of writing and asking readers to envelop themselves in the ever-becoming lushness of language has the power to subtly shift our consciousness, to slow us down, to make us all better readers and better environmental advocates all in one brushstroke.
The ecopsychologist, Peter H. Kahn, speaks of rewilding the mind. Just as biologists seek to restore ecosystems by reintroducing lost species, rewilding the mind seeks to reintroduce the psyche to choices that are not limited by the parameters set by a culture that has gone beyond the domestic into something completely docile and unquestioning. In other words: what is it like to swim in an icy pond in the wilderness, and what is it like to swim in a chlorinated pool regulated by heaters and chlorine? Both have their merits. But the icy pond makes your body ache. It forces you into a state of utter presence, and a mind that is more present is the foundation for the creative process.
To stand enshrouded in the mist of a redwood forest and feel the salty air of the nearby ocean entering your nostrils; to let the bite of an arctic wind redden your face in a wintry wilderness—these are the same as entering a book and letting the language fall around you with awe, with a certainty that the process of art can never be yours, but its existence affirms you constantly: these are one in the same. When you enter a book, when you are in the process of writing a book; when you enter a wood, and allow—simply allow—the beauty there to envelop you, these are powerful acts of advocacy that shape your consciousness, your mind, your heart. They combine to create a tectonic shift that makes us all better writers, better readers, better humans.