I once was lucky enough to share breakfast with Scott Russell Sanders and another writer who hailed originally from New York City. I admired both men, not only for their art, but for the lives they lead. The New York writer had traveled over the years to a number of feverish locations and written powerfully about the violence and corruption he had seen. Scott Sanders, on the other hand, wrote with great clarity about what it meant to be part of a family and community, to put down roots and try to abide by the imperatives of one’s conscience.
So I was knocked a little sideways when, as the meal was ending, the New Yorker leaned over to me and muttered, “That Sanders, I want to hit him!”
Writing is always about finding an order for things, feelings, events, ideas. For some writers, especially those with a certain competitive and macho streak, this means losing control of everything else in your life, then finding the words to put it back together on the page.
Scott Russell Sanders, though, has followed a different path. For him, the open sores of conflict are symptoms of a greater loneliness troubling our souls. The spiritual battlefield is anywhere, even — maybe especially — a college town in the middle of Indiana.
“What I feel is not exactly panic, because I’m spared for the moment the chill of knowing I will die,” writes Sanders in an essay called “Force of Spirit,” one of 30 in Earth Works, a selection of essays spanning his career. “What I feel right now is amazement that anything lives, fly or hawk, virus or man.”
In language that’s patient, probing and precise, Sanders, who is based in Bloomington, has, over the past 30 years or so, built a body of work articulating what it means to live during this time on planet Earth and, particularly, that part of the planet called the American Midwest.
Although he has written short stories and novels, Sanders’ specialty has been the personal essay, a form he has not only mastered, but energized. “The writing of an essay usually begins for me in a state of strong emotion and equally strong puzzlement,” he writes in the Preface to Earth Works. “Some event, recollection, journey, or notion bewilders me, distresses me, fascinates me, or otherwise provokes me, and sets me asking questions that drive the writing forward.”
In these few lines are found at least two characteristics that occur again and again in Sanders’ writing. First, the love of language; not so much a search for the right word, as a joy in finding all the words that count. And then there is the open desire to use writing as a way of finding out not only what is thought, but how thinking works. Sanders’ essays model his mind’s architecture.
As the book’s title indicates, Sanders’ concern is for the Earth — how we live on it, what we do to it — and our moral relationship with it. Grief and grieve are variants of a feeling often expressed in these pages. Sanders is not comfortable with the way things are going.
But it is hard to think of a writer today who is better at finding and expressing the profound nature discovered in such simple gifts as a shared meal or a walk in the woods. This is not to imply that this writing is the prose equivalent of chicken soup. Sanders, at times, can be bracingly hard-edged. What’s more, the breadth of his knowledge, especially in the sciences, is formidable, investing his awe with a well-earned rigor.
“The greatest theme in American literature,” writes Sanders, “is the search for right relations between humankind and nature, between civilization and wildness.”
For some, Sanders’ attention, affection and yes, grief, for places and people that tend to be overlooked in the larger American drama can seem like a kind of provocation. Here, in the Midwest, Sanders seems to have found a key to first principles that argue for a reordering of priorities before it’s too late.
Though humble, his prescription is daunting, it means turning what’s left of our consuming culture upside down. But Sanders is as much about the quality of mercy, learning ways of forgiveness, as he is about accusation and blame. It’s enough to make a gnarly New Yorker want to deck him — then think again.