Reviewed by: Brigette Bernagozzi
Scott Russell Sanders
Indiana University Press, 2012
“I am sometimes asked if I am a ‘nature’ writer,” Scott Russell Sanders writes in the preface to his newest book, “as if paying attention to our membership in the web of life were a specialized interest, like following sports or fashion or cuisine. What I am is an Earth writer: I’m interested in life on this planet—all life.” Labels notwithstanding, when an essayist as impassioned as Sanders publishes a new book, people usually take note. The aptly titled Earth Works is the latest from the award-winning writer and indeed features several classic and uncollected essays built around the concept of place—and in particular, the natural world.
Throughout his writing career, Sanders has published eleven books of non-fiction and eight books of fiction. He and his wife currently reside in Bloomington, Indiana. As place is one of the common themes in his non-fiction work, his essays often focus on the land itself, or on the various aspects of community and family that have permeated life in his various hometowns.
Clocking in at nearly four hundred pages, Earth Works is a pretty handy tome for a nature-lover’s home library, as it includes many of Sanders’ best-known essays, such as “Buckeye” and “Staying Put.” Yet even if you are not a member of Greenpeace with a few environmental protests on your résumé, perhaps you consider yourself to be a reflective thinker when it comes to the big questions in life: how to relate to the opposite sex (“Looking at Women” and “The Men We Carry In Our Minds”), for example, or how to talk to your angsty teenage son (“Mountain Music”) and foster male bonding through a game of catch (which is a “dialogue carried on with muscle and bone,” as Sanders writes in “Reasons of the Body”), how to observe one’s patriotic and moral duties as an alternate juror (“Doing Time in the Thirteenth Chair”), or even how to navigate your father’s alcoholism with the kind of grace and candor that comes only with hindsight (“Under the Influence”). Earth Works remains a thing of substance for readers who want to consider the intricacies of our social networks and family dynamics, in addition to the larger implications of our current environmental climate and responsibilities to the planet. Sanders has been considering such weighty family and community-oriented issues throughout his long writing career, and he is very good at it.
“Buckeye,” a piece that is perhaps most representative of the reflective tone and natural setting that appears in this collection, also happens to be one of my favorite essays in Earth Works. As a reflection on the legacy of his father, Sanders introduces the essay with a description of the pair of buckeyes that keep residence on his desk—brown seeds that his father was known for keeping in his pocket for years before his death. In a flashback scene, Sanders’ father instructs him as a child about the trees that would become such an important part of his life later on:
‘[T]he old-timers called it stinking buckeye,’ he told me. …You see where it got its name?’ he asked.
I saw: what gleamed in my hand was the eye of a deer, bright with life. ‘It’s beautiful,’ I said.
‘It’s beautiful,’ my father agreed, ‘but also poisonous. Nobody eats buckeye, except maybe a fool squirrel.’
The portrait of this father—revealed through his quirky habits and colloquial speech—and of his son’s love is so beautifully drawn that it even sustains the surprising conclusion, in which Sanders admits that he once saw a hawk in the sky that reminded him of his father. Not just reminded him, I should say, but seemed to be his father: “The voice of my education told me then and tells me now that I did not meet my father, that I merely projected my longing onto a bird…yet nothing I heard in school, nothing I’ve read, no lesson reached by logic has ever convinced me as utterly or stirred me as deeply as did that red-tailed hawk.” He does his level best to convince the reader of his own conviction in this spiritual experience, and though it is for each reader to judge, I found his conclusions to be powerful ones.
“Under the Influence,” one of Sanders’ best-known works, first appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1989 and offers a different portrait—that of a childhood profoundly disturbed by his father’s heavy drinking. “My father drank,” it begins. “He drank like a gut-punched boxer gasps for breath, as a starving dog gobbles food—compulsively, secretly, in pain and trembling.” Here, Sanders explores the physical symptoms of his father’s addiction, the shame that kept him separated from his religious Ohio community, and his own road to forgiveness and acceptance. He confides in his Acknowledgments: “I wanted to record what it felt like to be the child of an alcoholic while placing that experience within larger cultural and social contexts.” Thus, while looking back to his childhood, Sanders employs a youthful perspective for much of the piece, explaining his grudge against the winemakers, “whose faces shone from the labels of their wine,” for their poisoning of his father’s body and mind: “I noted the Gallo brothers’ address, in California, and I studied the road atlas to see how far that was from Ohio, because I meant to go out there and tell Ernest and Julio what they were doing to my father, and then, if they showed no mercy, I would kill them.” “Under the Influence” reveals the author’s struggle with the overwhelming emotions caused by the shameful family secrecy that bound him as a child, making him an accomplice to his father’s addiction—and yet, Sanders is clearly writing from a place of acceptance instead of bitterness, a distinction that makes the piece all the more powerful. “I hope it is clear,” he writes in the Acknowledgments, “that I do not regard myself as a victim of my father’s illness. His illness affected me, along with my entire family, but the healthy rest of him shaped me more profoundly.”
In Sanders’ best essays, there is a mix of the meditative and the spiritually-minded. While those who are not inclined to love the earth as he does may at times find his reasoning to be dogmatic,the spirited nature of his explorations and his willingness to ask the hard, human questions about life and to share his struggle with their answers on the page more than compensate for any intermittent issues of tone.
Among the thirty essays it contains, Earth Works offers a thought-provoking mix of old and new. The nine new pieces included in the back of Earth Works—in this case, “new” means unpublished in any of Sanders’ other books, though all have appeared in print elsewhere—are themselves worth the sticker price. Its catalog of well-chosen selections spans the many decades of its author’s inspiring career and reveals what appear to be Sanders’ twin passions in life: ruminating on life’s meatiest conundrums and delighting in the bit of the earth that rises up to meet him, wherever he might stand.
Brigette Bernagozzi is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Whenever she puts her pen down for a spell, she teaches creative writing at the local jail, works as a freelance editor, and composes place-based blog posts centered on her own Pittsburgh backyard. Her writing has been featured in Coal Hill Review.