The Undiscovered Country
John Elder on the Wild Places Close to Home | The Sun Interview by Leath Tonino | Issue 450 | June 2013

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When John Elder arrived at Yale University in the early 1970s, he intended to stay in New England only long enough to complete his PhD in English literature. Having grown up in California, where he’d hiked the Sierras and explored the old-growth redwood groves, the young scholar didn’t know what to make of the green bumps his Yankee peers called “mountains.” But after graduating, Elder didn’t immediately return home. He took a job at Middlebury College in Vermont’s Champlain Valley. Again, for him and his wife, Rita, a fellow Californian, this was supposed to be just a temporary arrangement until they headed back to their beloved American West.


Elder is now sixty-six years old, and he and Rita have lived in the same house in Bristol, Vermont, for more than three decades. He’s recently retired from thirty-seven years teaching English and environmental studies at Middlebury and is close to finishing his fifth book. If this new volume is anything like his past efforts — Imagining the Earth, Reading the Mountains of Home, The Frog Run, and Pilgrimage to Vallombrosa — it will combine memoir with discussions of literature and descriptions of Vermont’s countryside. More specifically, it will map the intellectual, ecological, and physical landscape of Hogback Ridge, a heavily forested spur of the Green Mountains that rises from the end of Elder’s street.


Elder grew up in a very religious household. His father was a Southern Baptist minister and seminary professor. The family went to church twice on Sunday and every Wednesday evening, and they read the King James Bible at meals. Elder learned the twenty-third Psalm by heart before he could read. His delight in literature arose from that biblical foundation, he says. The book of Genesis, the Psalms, and the parables gave him a sense of the power of language.


When Elder was in the third grade, the family moved to the San Francisco Bay Area so his father could teach at a seminary there. Their new community was cosmopolitan and liberal, and from an early age Elder was exposed to writers like Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Edward Abbey, and Rachel Carson. Their work struck him as complementary to the religious view of nature as God’s creation. “I was born into the Southern Baptist Church,” he says, “and was nurtured at the bosom of the Sierra Club.”


Elder is a nature writer who’s found his place in the world. Vermont is not as vast as Abbey’s desert Southwest, nor as monu¬mental as Muir’s Yosemite, but it still inspires him, because it’s a state where the stories of the land and its human inhabitants are intertwined. Over the years Elder’s notion of nature as something “out there” — stowed away in some alpine hollow or redwood stand — has changed into a vision that includes humans as a part of the environment.


Elder developed and investigated this idea of nature with students in his Middlebury classroom and at the affiliated Bread Loaf School of English, where he taught English Romantic poetry, Japanese haiku, and Robert Frost. He’s written essays for such magazines as Orion and the now-defunct Wild Earth, and he coedited The Norton Book of Nature Writing. He also lectures across the country to audiences of foresters and farmers, academics and activists.


Elder is part scholar, part teacher, part naturalist, part poet, part outdoorsman. He wears bluejeans and flannel shirts and manages a maple-syrup operation with his wife and their two sons’ families. He’s active in conservation organizations such as the Vermont Land Trust and Vermont Family Forests.


I grew up a half-hour north of Middlebury and often hiked the Hogback Ridge as a kid. So I felt at home with Elder’s writing and, more recently, with the man himself. We met at the Middlebury College library on a sunny morning after a week of rain. Although he’s retired from teaching, Elder still keeps an office there. It was early October, and orange maple leaves drifted past the single large window. Canada geese honked in the distance. One wall of the office was lined with books, and during our discussion Elder sometimes stared hard at a shelf, as if turning pages in his mind.

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Tonino: The late British author Roger Deakin has been referred to as “an explorer of the undiscovered country of the nearby.” I think the same could be said of you.


Elder: “The undiscovered country of the nearby.” That’s a lovely thought. It speaks to a quality of close interaction between humans and nature here in Vermont. In California I could hop in the car and go to the desert or the High Sierra for the day. There are no wildernesses that vast, no mountains that high, here. But in Bristol, where our family has lived now for thirty-seven years, I can walk out my back door and see bear tracks in the mud. I can climb the little Hogback Ridge east of our village and get lost every time. It’s hard to know what your elevation is in those thick forests. You don’t have much of a view. But I never worry about starving to death, because sooner or later I can spot Lake Champlain and figure out which way west is. I’ve often wandered aimlessly for two or three hours in those woods, but I tend not to miss supper. I discover amazing rock formations there. I see lots of wildlife and beautiful trees. There’s a kind of thickness and intricacy to New England. It’s a corduroy terrain.


In Reading the Mountains of Home I write about how, when I first came east for graduate school, a fellow student from the West said that living in New England is like “living in a teacup.” And I thought, Yeah, small. But then I began to realize that the ground beneath my feet here — the richness of decomposition, the density of growth — had much more to it than the bare, arid ground where I’d grown up. I continue to discover more and more within a smaller and smaller radius of home.


Tonino: You’ve written a lot about the “thickness” of the Vermont landscape. What does it feel like to live here day after day?


Elder: I just mentioned the richness of decomposition. We have a mixed northern hardwood forest here. We have deciduous trees growing all the way up to the tree line. We have paper birch at the summits and maples well above two thousand feet. So there are a lot of leaves. When the snow is off the ground, you can see three seasons’ worth of leaf litter underfoot at any time: the newly fallen leaves of autumn, the leaves from the previous year — which have been buried in snow for a while and are more skeletal — and scraps from the year before, already turning into sweet black soil. Our mountain topsoil is not very deep, but it gets a little deeper every year.


There’s also historical thickness. Not only is New England a long-settled landscape, but it’s unusual in that it was clear-cut early on and then abandoned, because the soil on the hillsides would not sustain farms. The deforestation was as harsh as anything outside of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Zadock Thompson’s Natural History of Vermont, published in 1853, describes a sort of wasteland where the streams were clogged, the slag was piled up, and the soil was thin. Farms had failed. Villages were depopulated. Vermont lost many men in the Civil War, and half the soldiers who came back left again within ten years, going to places like Ohio, where the soil was rich.


There was a sort of tidal phenomenon in Vermont: the trees were swept away, and then the trees surged back. Amid the forests here you’ll find stone walls and cellar holes and botanical evidence of human settlement — lilac bushes and apple orchards right in the middle of the woods. I look at this thick forest and think of those struggling hill farmers. Those people broke their backs and their hearts, and still they failed. It’s sad, but it’s also exciting the way the woods have flooded back. As [Vermont author] Bill McKibben says, we live in an “explosion of green.”


While I’m happy about the reforestation of Vermont, I also feel compassion for our human forebears in these mountains. I admire what they did and sympathize with the challenges they faced. These emotions, too, make this landscape thick, layered, symphonic: so many tones, so many harmonies.


Tonino: The two stories really can’t be separated: the natural thickness and the historical thickness.


Elder: They are one story. Because of them Vermont makes a unique contribution to the national debate about conservation. It helps us think about wilderness as more than just vast, pristine, and untrammeled places with little human presence. Those roadless expanses out west are great. I love them and am grateful for them. But we also need to have harmony between the human world and the “more-than-human” world, as [cultural ecologist] David Abram calls it.


I used to get a magazine called Not Man Apart. The name comes from a Robinson Jeffers poem about the need to love the earth and “not man apart from that.” It’s an interesting point. He doesn’t say love the earth and not humanity. He says, Don’t separate them; don’t love man apart.


Tonino: In the foreword to your book Pilgrimage to Vallombrosa, historian David Lowenthal says that you show us “how to delight in messy wilderness.”


Elder: Muir Woods, a redwood forest just north of San Francisco, was within a bike ride of my childhood home. Redwood trees create a mildly toxic environment, and little grows under them except redwood sorrel and a few other small herbaceous plants. Mostly it’s a clear forest floor. That’s one reason a stand of redwoods is often compared to a cathedral.


When I first moved east, I took some hikes around southern New England and thought to myself how messy the forest floor is here. There are twigs and bushes and decomposing logs everywhere. I had to lift my feet to move through it all. It was so different from the woods I was used to.


Messiness helps us avoid simplistic thinking. Instead of wanting everything neat and smooth and clear, we remember that a healthy forest has all stages of growth in it. One problem we have in Vermont, with our post-clear-cut forests, is that too many of the trees are within ten years of each other in age. A healthy forest has seedlings and young trees and adult trees with full canopies and dead trees that haven’t fallen yet. This reminds us that our simple intentions and generalizations have no correlation in nature. Nature is complex, and its complexity can help us to be more complex in our thinking.


I love Robert Frost’s poem “Dust of Snow,” in which he writes, “The way a crow / shook down on me / the dust of snow / from a hemlock tree / has given my heart / a change of mood / and saved some part / of a day I had rued.” You’re walking through nature, and you’re brooding about something, and then a big crow jumps on a branch and drops snow on your head. Suddenly you’re back in a world that is not aligned with your intentionality. That’s a redemptive fact. It opens you up.


Tonino: In your work you seem to shy away from capital-W Wilderness — a chunk of land fixed in time and space — in favor of a more dynamic, always-becoming, always-losing-itself type of wilderness.


Elder: This New England landscape makes it easier to think about wilderness not as an artifact but as a process of which everything, even a stone, is a part. [Mathematician and philosopher] Alfred North Whitehead tells us, in Process and Reality and Science and the Modern World, that the world can be understood as a vast electromagnetic equation. Every object has gravity, and therefore every object has a relationship to every other object. You can pick any aspect of the world — a fallen tree, a book on a shelf — and make it the reference point for that vast equation. Whitehead talks about the fallacy of misplaced concreteness: “This chair is an object,” we say. “It has its integrity! It’s stable! We can leave the room, and it won’t change!” But that’s not true. Everything is awhirl.


The implications of this for wilderness are many. For one, it’s not enough to pass legislation that sets aside vast tracts of land. If you’re interested in a wild place that has brown bears in it, say, you’ve also got to think about the corridors along which the bears travel. You’ve got to think about creating a breeding population that will be ecologically viable over the long haul. When you look at it this way, there’s no wilderness area big enough. We’re forced to go beyond designated wilderness areas in our thinking.


On a cultural level, the legislation that preserves wilderness isn’t stable unless there’s an ongoing engagement between the citizenry and the place. If opinions and circumstances change, even sweeping acts like the Wilderness Act of 1964 or the Endangered Species Act can be reversed. All it takes is for someone to come along and say, “We’d like to go in and exploit this area for its minerals and oil. Why shouldn’t we?” More important than the law is the climate of public opinion. We need more Americans to engage with wilderness, and not just by visiting national parks, because many can’t afford to vacation there. We need people to appreciate nature where they live, so they’ll see the importance of preserving it everywhere.


Even in places where the natural world seems overwhelmed by human habitation, it’s still there, and it can come back. In The Frog Run I talk about the concept of aji, which comes from the Asian game of Go, in which opponents take turns putting down black or white stones on the board, trying to establish territory. Often some of your stones become surrounded by your opponent’s stones, and it’s not looking good for you on that part of the board. But sometimes those stones in the middle of your opponent’s territory can leap to life and provide support for your other pieces. This is aji, literally a “lingering taste,” like a hint of wasabi on the back of your tongue. Aji is a way of talking about the potential in situations that might seem hopeless.


In Vermont, before the Civil War, the trees were all burned to make potash and charcoal for the iron industry. But in those woods was what forest ecologists call a “buried seed pool.” The kernels of native hardwood trees can endure underground for a long time and then sprout again under the right circumstances. Vermont is now about 85 percent reforested — not because we decided it would be a good idea to have forests again, but because this is a place in which forests could reassert themselves. It’s quite encouraging.


Tonino: Maybe conservation, in the broadest sense, should be thought of as a strategy of keeping the stones on the board. We have to preserve the aji, the possibility.


Elder: [Environmental ethicist] Aldo Leopold said that “the first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts.” For example, the point of the Endangered Species Act is not to consign any species to extinction. We have sparse information about the ways in which individual species contribute to the larger web of life. To say that we have the wisdom to decide which ones are unnecessary would display horrifying arrogance.


But we need to go beyond keeping all the stones on the board. We have to think about the systems and natural patterns on which living communities depend. For instance, there is an evolutionary affiliation between certain plants and their wild pollinators. The pollinators in North America, both birds and insects, move north and south across the continent in regular migration cycles. But as the seasons are thrown out of whack by global warming, the pollinators may not be in the right place at the right time to pollinate the blossoms. Though we haven’t eradicated either the plants or the pollinators, we may have inadvertently made it impossible for them to find each other.


Tonino: So we need to preserve the relationships between the parts as well. There has to be some continuity or remembrance.


Elder: And also a commitment. Writer and farmer Wendell Berry has an expression he uses for his community in Port Royal, Kentucky. He says it’s a “membership.” That’s a lovely way to put it. I also like the word affiliation, because it points to a conscious connection and participation. If I’m affiliated with a college, I’m loyal to it and stick close to it, because I find my identity there. Marriage and family are forms of affiliation too: we belong to these other people, and they belong to us. A team is an affiliation. A nation is an affiliation. Why not build affiliations around regions? To be a resident of the Champlain bioregion or the Hogback Ridge community is to take delight in the other people who live here, to enjoy the local foods, to know the trees and animals, and to serve the community economically, socially, and otherwise.


Climate change is a global challenge — as global as a challenge can get — but we express our affiliation with the health of the planet through the choices we make daily and how we live our lives locally.

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The complete text of this interview is available to The Sun subscribers in print and digital editions.