Scott Russell Sanders, A Conservationist Manifesto

You know, sometimes a book just doesn't work out the way it should for you. Your friends think there'll be some chemistry, it looks like your type, the wine's excellent -- but you stare at each other over dinner and wonder what the hell your friends were thinking. Things weren't quite so bad with Scott Russell Sanders' A Conservationist Manifesto, but much to my surprise, they weren't much better, either.

And I mean it when I say I was surprised by this. Scott Russell Sanders is deeply committed to ideas of place and environment and ethics, and his Writing from the Center was one of my favourite reads of 2006. These two things should mean I'd love this book, since it's a collection of essays exploring ideas of home and place and being, and anyone who's visited this blog more than once will have noticed these are three of my own obsessions. But no. Love this book, I did not. I did appreciate sections, and I'll get there by the end of this post, but I find myself so worked up by the frustration of NOT loving it altogether that it's not easy to talk about what I appreciated.

I had enormous trouble finishing this book, and in a very bad sign for it, I didn't feel badly that I was letting other books jump the queue. After all, back on September 15 (in the context of whinging about how horrifyingly poor was the editing of bell hooks' Belonging: A Culture of Place), I mumbled something about getting back to Sanders' book. And it took until the day before yesterday before I picked it up again.

One reason for this is that I don't enjoy essay collections that cover the same ground too often. Returning to the same interests, using the same metaphors, sure, these are signs of focused attention. Here, some of the essays repeat each other so closely that I just don't think they belong in the same book. (The essays touching on the Limberlost Swamp, in particular, are what I'm thinking of here.)

Another reason (danger! ranting atheist!) is that I have no faith that Christianity can be much help, environmentally speaking, and Sanders does. I share his anxiety that we will not stop ourselves and allow the world to remain habitable for humans (a story he affectingly tells in "For the Children"), but I do not share his sense that Christianity can be repaired and called back to its spirit in order to promote the planet's ongoing inhabitability. I don't trust its spirit, and I don't think it's a question of repair. Once you remove the non-existent God from the mix, Christianity is no different from Rotary or the Elks or Kiwanis, no more than a group of people trying to do their best. Except that in the case of religion, there's a vast amount of wasted energy, wondering about a God that has never existed. (Should I temper that? Hmm.)

And in a more petty vein (danger! ranting academic!), I got cranky when Sanders talked about literary theory. Either he's deliberately misrepresenting the work of people like Timothy Morton and Dana Phillips (though without mentioning them), or he legitimately doesn't understand their work. Neither one is a flattering prospect, so I hope there's a third way. Perhaps deliberate hyperbole, I don't know. Until I figure it out, then the presence in this book of "The Warehouse and the Wilderness" is in my eyes a fatal flaw.

Still reading, are you?

Here's the key to my reading of this book. The ecological potential of A Conservationist Manifesto was massive, and it only lived up to a small part of its potential. That small part, it does really well: I can see with great clarity how it is that Sanders has come to love Indiana as he has, and I can genuinely imagine changing my own life so that it more closely mirrors the way he lives in Bloomington. I adored numerous fragments of this book, and I dogeared more pages than I'm comfortable admitting in the potential presence of librarians. But it's a true essay collection, without the seamlessness I'd like to see that blends the pieces together, after their initial publication.

Nobody out me me to him until after ASLE 2011 in Bloomington, OK?


Thanks for the review on Sanders' book, Richard -- and personally for me to check back on your blog more often! As a person who's also not a Christian, though not atheist, Scott's direction toward that audience has at times also disrupted my really getting into an essay. But in America, at least, these are the folks who most need his gospel, if you will, so I not only forgive but praise his focus.

Hope all is well up in BC, and I look forward to seeing you -- I hope -- up in Bloomington in 2011.

All best.
richard said…
Hey, you're welcome, Simmons, and it's always good to hear from you. A new semester here, with all that that brings, but things are indeed well. I'm almost feeling rested again -- almost -- and I do plan on coming to Bloomington.

I hear you about the religion issue in the US. Scott's (can I call him Scott, I wonder?) Christianity disrupts my reading pretty heavily, though I'm a lot more tolerant than some of my friends are. Maybe it's a better and more important book for believers than it is for me -- I hope so, but I don't think I can judge it adequately on that basis.

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