Vermont Interlude: “Environmental” Writers at Bread Loaf Orion
One day after my return, I can imagine no adequate way to articulate the full gift that was the Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writers’ Conference, a week-long gathering of writers (you might picture a sort of “camp” for grownups) to come together for workshops, readings, lectures, and craft classes at the Bread Loaf Mountain Campus of Middlebury College, up in the Green Mountains. So, I’ll offer none of that. But I can at least speak to a couple of the not-so-original reflections — just a bit of wind and weather — that this interlude caused in my summer of research and writing: reflections about what it means to be a writer, particularly an “environmental” one.
The morning of our first day, after trekking from the Gilmore house where I had my bed close to a half-mile up a gravel road from the rest of campus, most of us (for we had not yet racked up the string of long nights, and we could all still eagerly attend to such early morning matters) gathered in the legendary Little Theater to hear John Elder, Middlebury professor and nature writer par excellence, give the conference’s first morning lecture. These lectures, by a different member of the conference’s writing faculty each day, would frame the conversations that emerged around the dining hall tables and on the house porches that we shared throughout the week. John’s lecture specifically asked us to consider what we mean by “environmental writing,” the unifying thread of the conference. He offered the concept of the ecotone, a term from ecology that has become increasingly popular among ecologically-minded creative types (like those at Ecotone Magazine), as an apt metaphor for what environmental writing is today. If you have ever noticed, on a hike up a mountain for instance, a gradual change in vegetation from pine forest, say, to the gnarled and low-grown scrubby trees and bushes of a higher elevation, you have passed through an ecotone. You may have even noticed some surprising flowers or other plants or animals growing only around the transition zone from one ecosystem to the other. An ecotone is just a region of convergence where two ecosystems meet, and where new organisms often evolve in order to survive in the peculiar conditions created by the confluence of these disparate land communities. They also represent, therefore, many of the most biodiverse and biodense ecological zones in the world, John explained.
Environmental literature represents something like an ecotone in literature generally, according to John Elder, due to its tendency to represent convergences rather than exclusions. As a distinguishable genre, to the extent that it can be, it has evolved immensely since the “narrow band” of nature-writers that he attributed to the tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold — authors he loves, but a “narrow band” nevertheless. Environmental literature has expanded, for instance, beyond the nonfiction nature essay or “natural history.” Today we have poems, short stories, plays, novels, and generically experimental writing that are all trying in some way to engage and/or challenge our assumptions about “environment” and the natural world. It has also expanded beyond the narrow purview of a selective cannon of white men and their privileged assumptions, in order to engage such fields of inquiry as environmental justice, ecofeminism, environmental racism, and imperialism. In fact, I am tempted to take off the “environmental/eco” qualifiers from those first three terms altogether — in the era of climate change, it’s clear that all of our human institutions are deeply embedded in our more-than-human ecosystems.
The other lectures, from Camille T. Dungy, Joe Wilkins, Ross Gay, and Robin Wall Kimmerer, demonstrated this expanded scope of the environmental in literature, covering such topics as the “liberation of uncertainty,” “speaking as the ‘other’ in environmental writing,” the charge of aesthetic wonder and of racial pain embodied by trees, and the animacy of language and the violence of the English pronoun “it,” respectively. These big concepts and questions colored our conversations in workshop, on the porch, and over drinks in the barn. And perhaps the enthusiasm with which the lot of us, coming from wildly different places and backgrounds, engaged in these questions, indicates what I think I liked most about the “environmental writers” attending the conference along with me: they all cared about something bigger than themselves, and that’s not always to be expected at a writers’ conference.
This conference came as a particular pleasure in the midst of my summer of research and writing toward the first chapter of my dissertation, which deals largely with the work Liberty Hyde Bailey (the subject of previous posts), because the piece I presented for workshop included the prologue and part of the first chapter of the book project about Bailey that I began in my MFA program six years ago, titled (for now) Havening. On the one hand, it was a bit thrilling to reenter the world of my old thesis, which I hope to begin to rework into a viable book in the coming years. I could approach words written three, four, and maybe in the case of some early surviving remnants even five years ago with less attachment and more curiosity once it came time to workshop my piece. Poet, memoirist, novelist, and incredibly generous human Joe Wilkins led our discussions of each other’s work over the course of four workshop sessions, each two and a half hours long, in a little white classroom in the barn that, by the week’s end, had begun to take on the warmth of something like home. The relationships that grow out of a good workshop — and by “good workshop” I mean one in which every member wants to see the others succeed, wants to understand what it is they are trying to accomplish in their engagements with the magic of language, and wants to help imagine the authors’ individual ways into that further engagement — these relationships have the potential to outlast the short period of our actual work together. I thought this was especially true in our group this year.
But the conference was also special from a Bailey angle (my angle of choice) because Bailey himself represented so much of the “ecotone” sensibility of the modern environmental writer. True, he was to some extent a product of his time and of his white American male identity. But, as a young academic he brought together the science of botany with the art of horticulture, throughout his life he brought together the experience of the farmer with the democratic potential of the university, and again and again he brought together literary genres that were supposed to be kept separate. In my favorite series of his, called The Background Books: The Philosophy of the Holy Earth, he follows his opening manifesto, The Holy Earth (1915), with a full poetry collection, Wind and Weather (1916). Then came the twin books of political philosophy, Universal Service (1918), which begins with a fictional prologue following a mythic farmer named Jasron, and the fierce jeremiad What is Democracy? (1918). After a five years’ break from the Background Books, when Macmillan agreed to take up the series (which Bailey had been self-publishing since 1918), Bailey suddenly produces the strange fictional allegory The Seven Stars (1923), followed four years later the memoir-cum-rural sociology treatise The Harvest of the Year to the Tiller of the Soil (1927), and finally the quietly meditative appreciation titled simply The Garden Lover (1928) to round out the series.
All this generic experimentation also seemed to relate to Bailey’s higher goal, which he gives in dialogue to his character Questor in The Seven Stars as “the artistic expression of life” — wording similar to what he used in a late interview to describe his reason for starting his farm, Arbutus, along the shore of Cayuga Lake. Such expression branched from horticultural text (think of the outburst, in the introduction to his manual on Garden-Making , that “Little children love the dandelions: why may not we? Love the things nearest and hand; and love intensely”) to philosophical manifesto to poetry to fiction, but it also spread right into his garden, his farm, and his vast network of friends and colleagues.
The artistic expression of life. When I had my individual meeting with Joe Wilkins after our class had workshopped the excerpt from my piece, I told him that I loved what he got to do with his life: writing from the depths of experience, helping students learn to do the same, and hanging out at cool conferences like this from time to time. It’s a lot of work, and it kills some people — the effect of spending so much time in your own head. But with just a week of experience, I think any of us in the workshop would agree that Joe has also pursued the entire artistic expression of life. This must, in part, mean caring about that which is beyond us. And as Bailey argued in The Holy Earth, “If it is beyond us, so is it divine.”
I know I need to grant myself more time to write, if I ever want to develop the projects that keep brimming over in my head. But I’m trying to remember, too, that all of that work, like any work, can be eclipsed by a failure to recognize the divinity of the everyday, to care about that which is bigger than us, and to enter into the beloved community of our neighbors on this Earth and into the gracious responsibilities that such community implies.
My deep thanks and appreciation goes to Joe Wilkins and to the members of our incredible workshop group: Joanna Campbell, Paul Corrigan, Paula Daniels, Linda Gibson, Peter Gurche, Susan Hirsch, Richard Kientz, Ina Leonard, Clare Walker Leslie, and Marco Wilkinson.