An Interview with John Elder
John Elder fulfills many roles in the field of Nature Writing: as well as an author of such titles as Reading the Mountains of Home, a nonfiction journey grounded in the Vermont landscape, he is also a prominent Robert Frost scholar, ecocritic and has co-edited of The Norton Book of Nature Writing. Here, he talks to Isabel Galleymore, whose current research explores how nature writing is taught, about his role as such a teacher. In particular, Elder draws from his extensive career at Middlebury College and the Bread Loaf School that has attracted students such as the now well-known writer, Rick Bass.
In your essay, the ‘Poetry of Experience’, you draw attention to Robert Frost’s line ‘one had to be versed in country things/Not to believe the phoebe wept’. Referring to a species of bird related to the flycatcher family, Frost’s line indicates that only an intimate understanding of the phoebe can allow us to judge whether or not the literary representation of it is honest. How important is authenticity in nature writing and how might it feature?
My sense of the word ‘authentic’ has been influenced by an essay written by Barry Lopez, called ‘Landscape and Narrative’. He talks in it about the distinction between authentic and inauthentic stories, taking as his example a group of native people in Alaska who describe a situation involving a wolverine. Lopez told their story to another group of native people (who were unaware of the first group) and they recognised that in the light of their own experience of wolverines it could definitely have happened – they recognised it as authentic. So authenticity in this case had to do with knowing and understanding natural patterns. Lopez goes on to say that an authentic narrative is one that allows you to live sustainably in place, while an inauthentic narrative has the opposite effect.
The epitome of an inauthentic narrative might be a typical television advertisement. The conceit of the advertisement might be, say, buy this cellphone and immediately have fascinating conversations with new friends around the world. This is a fantasy concocted to make a sale—in short, a lie. Wendell Berry writes, in The Unsettling of America, that the main product of television advertising is in fact ‘hysterical self-dissatisfaction’. Authentic narrative, by contrast, can be instructive, nourishing, and, in the case of nature writing or ‘the poetry of earth’, grounding.
Your analogy between advertisements and inauthenticity is an interesting one. Do you feel there is a particular literary style that suits authenticity and that other styles might be symptomatic of inauthenticity?
The word authenticity has something to do with accuracy but it’s not quite the same thing. If you’re writing about the natural world, its definitely good to have your facts straight! But the ability to see larger patterns, and to register their intellectual and emotional resonance, is also crucial. Such perceptiveness can be as important for a reader as it is for a writer. Ever since C. P. Snow, we’ve spoken of the widening division in academia between ‘the two cultures’. One consequence of this gap is that literary critics don’t always know much about natural science. Thus, when they read poets who are themselves strongly oriented toward science, they may miss vital dimensions of a work. I collaborated on an essay entitled ‘Robert Frost’s Ecosystem of Meanings in “Spring Pools”’ with the ecologist Glenn Adelson. It pursued an extended reading of Robert Frost’s poem ‘Spring Pools’, with a special focus on Frost’s keen ecological insights. A failure to recognise these insights may leave Frost’s poem feeling like only a lamentation in the face of natural transience. But because it is remarkably attuned to a particular northern New England landscape in a certain season, this lyric also establishes a rich dialogue between the speaker’s emotions and the vast natural cycles that surround them. The human experience and what David Abram has called the more-than-human speak to each other in ways that complicate, and open out, nature’s significance.
Writers can move past too narrow and conventional a mode of self-expression through cultivating knowledge of their home-terrain’s geological background, its forest history, and the wildlife that it supports. It’s similarly productive to pay respectful attention to the ancient human communities affiliated with a landscape, the cultures and perceptions that recent immigrants may have brought into that swirl, the ways in which people support themselves there at present, and the impacts of climate change on all these patterns of relationship. Such information is vital—if not always expressed directly in the writing, then at least residing in the mind of the writer.
Do you use particular exercises or prompts when teaching nature writing?
Prompts can help people plunge into writing without too much anxiety about where it may be headed! Beginning with an open-ended topic can both catalyze close observation of a landscape and propel writers into connections they never expected to be making. It’s a headlong, exploratory way to write—the opposite of reporting on something you’ve already thought through or bolstering a preconceived argument. Rather than working with a standard list of prompts, I try to suit them to a particular group or setting. But there are certain themes that recur. For instance, I might ask students to sit at the edge of the woods and describe something, without further elaboration about what ‘description’ means. As volunteers then take turns reading what they’ve written we can consider various definitions of that term for ourselves. A number of people will describe visually while others will measure some object or tally its features. Some students may pursue personal narratives about how, for instance, a certain woodland tree recalls a tree in a childhood garden. Yet others may be fascinated with a web of images, or focused primarily on their own feelings. Such diverse approaches can stimulate conversation about what it means to describe, and can liberate people to experiment with different voices and styles. Quite often I follow up on a discussion of description with a drawing exercise. I’ve been helped in this regard by the artist and teacher Clare Walker Leslie. One of the key points Clare makes is that drawing is not about making a beautiful picture: it’s about seeing. Similarly, an impromptu piece of writing that responds to a prompt nay not lead initially to an orderly or unified piece, but may nevertheless spark insights that would otherwise have been unrealized.
When students first come to these courses, do they hold any particular preconceptions of nature writing that you have to challenge?
We all have to be on guard against the kind of voice dominated by the litany ‘I think, I feel, I remember’. When I teach workshops on nature writing, I sometimes propose technical moves to escape from such self-absorption. One of these is consciously to shift scales, both temporally and spatially. For example, in our Vermont landscape it’s possible (and refreshing) to reimagine a local setting when the Wisconsin glacier rose a mile above it, or when a willow and fir forest was edging back into New England after the glaciers melted. Spatially, too, one’s frame of reference can descend to the microscopic or expand toward the interstellar and cosmic. Many of the most powerful writers strategically shift their attention in these ways in order to invigorate their awareness.
In your book, Imagining the Earth, you draw attention to poetry that moves ‘from estrangement to reconciliation’ with the natural world. Can you say something on the importance of connection in nature writing?
This relates to your previous question about prompts. I often ask my students to write about a vivid experience of the natural world in childhood. Articulating and reflecting upon such experiences can in fact encourage an ethical perspective on one’s own actions. Often when we act wastefully or ignore the destruction of local habitats it’s because we simply don’t feel any connection with them. Wordsworth helps us understand how childhood memories can revive and restore a passionate sense of affiliation with nature. Writing can be a vehicle that renews the feeling of belonging and of loving connection.
Can you say something about the important of first-hand experience of environments to the writing practice?
It can be extremely exciting and productive to teach and write in the field. In one class the students and I walked from Canada to Bread Loaf along the Long Trail: a ridge-top way in the Green Mountains. For three weeks we were out there together in all weathers with our tents, sleeping bags, stoves, and journals. In the course of our walking we learned the trees of the northern hardwood forest, as well as the distinctive ecological communities associated with them. Such growing knowledge helped our writing navigate past solipsism. But it was also associated with experiences of physical discomfort and personal vulnerability fostering remarkable depth in people’s entries and essays. Outwardly and inwardly alike, the process of writing can unfold as a process of discovery. In one letter Robert Frost wrote, ‘No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader. No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader’. A personal, narrative essay, while polished and unified in its final form, can also incorporate and convey an authentic experience of discovery.