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A Conversation With John Daniel

The following article is based on an interview with John Daniel at the Art of the Wild Conference for writers and poets, formerly held each summer at Squaw Valley, California. An earlier version appeared in Timeline, the publication of the Foundation for Global Community.

On a Sense of Place

My place on the ground is a plain frame house that I share with my wife on one acre of Douglas firs and stream bottom in the Coast Range foothills west of Eugene, Oregon. I have lived in Oregon for most of the last 40 years, including nine years east of the Cascades in the sage and juniper country of the south-central portion of the state, which is still the landscape of my heart. I feel so lucky to live in Oregon that I fly the Beaver Flag over the back deck of my house.

I have also lived in the San Francisco Bay area for various intervals, and so it's the area from San Francisco to Seattle, extending inland over the Cascades and Sierra to the drier reaches of the Northwest, that feels like my home region. It has more beauties and secrets than I could hope to discover in several lifetimes. In whatever political writing I do, I try to speak responsibly about my home state and region.

I also think of the universe as my place. All of us are children of the cosmos, a mysterious cosmos that we'll never completely grasp in conceptual terms. We're beginning to see, though, that its most essential nature is evolutionary. It's a form-seeking universe that has produced us and the entire array of things and beings and orders of which we know only a fraction. That draws up in me a sense of awe and a sense of place. I get a pretty good view of the Milky Way where I live. I know I'll never understand it, so I'm trying to apprehend it emotionally and intuitively, in all the ways my psyche makes available to me. I've written about my evolutionary sense of art and existence in "The Poem of Being," one of the essays in The Trail Home, and in the final section of Winter Creek: One Writer's Natural History.

We in America need to learn what it means to live in place, to live of the land and not just on it. Though I've taken only baby steps toward this kind of belonging, I believe that healing for the land and ourselves lies in that direction. At the same time, though, I also find myself arguing for some of the joys and virtues of rootlessness, and noting some of the less salutary aspects of living a long time in place. It can lead to conventional thinking, in-group values. The dynamic of place has to include the flux of wildness, which is essential to our health. Just as the molecular constituents of life may have arrived on Earth in comets or meteors, we need the fertilization of those in our culture who come from far places—the hobo, the minstrel, the stranger who might appear at dinner and tell stories that no one in the family or community is capable of telling. We need to be rooted, and we need to be open to the new. My views on this are in "A Word in Favor of Rootlessness," an essay collected in The Norton Book of Nature Writing.

On Economy and Population

Overpopulation concerns me, but not in a primary way. The quality of our living is more important immediately than our quantity. If we keep up our devoted belief in unlimited economic growth and the unlimited development of technology, it doesn't matter if our numbers level off where they are or even drop. We'll still trash our continent and the planet. The logical conclusion of the global market economy is to turn all the world's peoples into consumers of all the world's places.

As Wendell Berry has been arguing for decades now, we need to restore and revitalize local economies in which people are responsible to one another and derive their sustenance from as close around as possible. We need to live our allegiance to our communities and landscapes in ways that big timber corporations and agribusinesses haven't and won't. If we can do that, and accept the limits that come with it, it may be that the population problem will sort itself out—in this country, anyway. Globally I don't know. There are a lot of third-world countries whose most intense interest—understandably—is to become like us. I'm looking at us and thinking we're not very healthy, but that's not what they see.

Responsibility, I think, is the chief quality we lack. We of the modern technological world are the most passive beings on the planet. For us, bread appears on the shelves and gasoline flows from the pumps (though at an increasingly unpleasant price) as if by incantation. We take little responsibility for where our sustenance comes from and how it is derived. We know the price of bread but have little idea of the costs to land and people of the high-yield agriculture that produces it or the transportation systems that distribute it. The average article of food in this country travels 1,300 miles to reach the consumer. That's unsustainable and insane.

On Mystery

I'm trying to learn to welcome mystery, to accept unknowing as a necessary and fertile and perhaps beautiful condition. I think I have a fair bit of the feminine principle, and I think that's helped me as a writer and poet—helped me welcome some possibilities that many men don't. To be receptive, to be able to give oneself to darkness as well as to light, to be cooperative with the influences of Nature, to value logic and conceptual thinking a little less and intuition a little more. To not have all the answers and accept that that's okay.

I think mystery is the basis of all religion. Einstein, who I don't believe had a church, had a highly religious sensibility and spoke in the most reverent terms of mystery. He saw science as describing only a very small part of the largely unknown and perhaps unknowable nature of being. The impulse of much science is to penetrate mystery with light. I respect that impulse. I like to know things about Nature in that way. History shows, though, that we don't seem to be able to peer into natural mysteries without trying to manipulate them, to splice genes or split atoms. We allow the good curiosity of science to become a kind of rational imperialism over all that is not us. We dress this up as heroism, but what we really need is the heroism to recognize and abide by limits. I don't know if we're capable of it; I don't know if we're capable of separating the science of inquiry from the science of control. I hope we are. Somewhere along the line I hope we can acknowledge that we belong to mysteries that do not belong to us. A lot of happiness could come with that.

On Humans and Nature

I started out in the 1970s to be a fiction writer, but after a while I realized that the best passages I was writing had less to do with characters and plot than they did with landscape and wild creatures. It came to me that I didn't want to create human worlds out of words—I wanted to touch with words the beauties and mysteries of the natural world. And so my short fiction died and poems grew out of it, poems of the kind I would eventually collect in Common Ground and All Things Touched by Wind. In the Stanford writing program in the 80s, as short lyrics came to feel too confining, I began also to write personal essays—narratives, arguments, meditations—on Nature, some of which would later go into The Trail Home.

One of my favorite poets is Robinson Jeffers. He spent too many words complaining about the sick microbe of humankind, but he did show us better than anyone else that our human affairs are very small on the cosmic scale and that we spend far too much time and energy absorbed in our own doings, both worthy and worthless. We're obsessed with ourselves, and there's a real sickness in that. The way of health is to turn our attention outward and open ourselves to the natural universe. Not merely as an escape from our banal and bloody doings, but as an act of renewal. I believe there's a primal redemptive integrity in the heart of Nature. Our rational-technological road has taken us far away from it, but it's there, always.

In my twenties, when I was first hiking and climbing in California and the Northwest, I knew exactly what was natural—the wilderness areas where I was reveling—and what was not: any place where people lived or cars could drive. Now, though I still like to go to wild places and believe in their protection, I'm more interested in the Nature I live in, the Nature around me every day, than in the Nature I go far from home to visit. I've written in Winter Creek about trying to learn from my acreage of one how to live with it responsibly, and about the problems that face rural landowners and resource workers as the traditional extractive economy of the American West changes around them. I think environmentalists have been insufficiently attentive to those problems, and to their own economic implication in the environmental injuries they decry.

On Hope

In my rational mind I'm a pessimist. Not a cynic. It's all too easy to say, "Nothing matters because it's all going to hell anyway." A Romantic fool has more integrity than a cynic—it takes some energy and commitment to be a fool. I'm a pessimist in my rational mind because it's the mind that thinks about Iraq or global warming or poverty in America and sees us a long way from solutions. The news is miserable and it isn't new.

I'm an optimist in my soul, my unconscious. I'm an optimist in the way the Transcendentalists were; I share a birthday with Ralph Waldo Emerson, and he and Thoreau have always felt like kindred spirits. I feel an irrational sense of good news from within my own being, from the stars, the wind in the trees. I go to the mountains or desert or coast to clear the noise and clutter out of my head, to hear again what's deep inside me and deep inside the land. That's what I went into Rogue River solitude for—to live in the presence of renewing silence for a long stretch of time. Once I got over my loneliness, I was very happy. I recommend taking time off from news of the human world (not necessarily for four and a half months) and tuning in to the current events of Nature. There's a great serenity in it.

I'm an intuitive optimist, I guess. And my optimism tells me that if we could just stop running around like rats in a maze pretending that the world of CD-ROMs and mutual funds and the rest of the stuff that goes with modern living is all there is, if we could look at the Milky Way or a sandstone spire or Pacific surf storming the headlands and really see it—then we might understand that this miracle we're given for a very short time is something we need to honor and nurture, and that we have the soul and the courage to do that.

On Writing

For me, writing poetry or prose is a way of groping toward clarity about what's on my mind. Something's there, incompletely seen, and I set out in language to discover it. Or not to discover it but to sense it more intensely. Words are pretty blunt instruments, yet they can point to truths beyond their power to express. Look, they say, look this way… Writing a meditative essay feels much like writing a poem to me, the same sense of seeking, the same attentiveness to language, the same pleasure, when it goes well, of seeing a little more than I did when I began the process. In poetry and prose I try to create something accessible to others. I'm not interested in cultivating obscurity or language special-effects for their own sake. I agree with William Carlos Williams that a piece of writing should speak to us in a language we can understand. I also agree when he says to the reader, "but you got to try hard."

Over the last twelve years or so, during my forties and into my mid-fifties, my focus has shifted from the nature essay to book-length reflective memoir. This began to happen while my mother was living with my wife and me in Portland, during what would be her last four years of life. As she lost her memory with Alzheimer's or a like dementia, I became intensely interested in my own memory, as if to compensate for her expanding deficit. I also felt new stirrings in my spiritual life in the time my mother was with us and after she died. The result was Looking After: A Son's Memoir, about the burden and blessing of caring for my mother and a meditation on memory as well.

Rogue River Journal in a way is a companion volume, a popoir to go with the momoir. My father kept trying to take over the story in Looking After. He was a hard character to hold down, and I realized that I needed to write about him, too, to come to such understanding as I could about who he was and what he meant to me. I was blessed with interesting parents.

I don't look at my forays into memoir as a significant departure from my work in nature writing. My sense of Nature informs my three books of memoir and is the explicit subject of Winter Creek. The human animal is an interesting species, one I've had considerable experience with and for some reason feel particularly close to. Wyoming poet and author C. L. Rawlins once wrote that the phrase "nature writing" makes about as much sense as "water swimming." Nature writing, human nature writing, poetry, prose—it's all part of a conversation humankind is having about who we are, where we are and where we have come from, who our neighbors are, and how our lives should matter. I'm grateful to be involved in the conversation.

At present I'm working on a volume of new and selected poems, a new collection of essays, and, having done by now a good deal of nonfictional story telling, I'm thinking about writing a novel.