This collection of essays by Scott Russell Sanders is called Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World. Sanders has lived in Bloomington, Indiana, in the same two-story house, on the same street, with the same wife, since 1974. In this rootless and restless country, he says, that’s come to be unusual. What effect does it have on a person’s mind, heart, and body simply to stay put, to be committed to one home, one neighborhood, one person, one landscape?
Sanders makes the case that lack of committment to a place can be damaging, both personally and environmentally, since he makes no great distinction between the geography of the land and the geography of the spirit. His account of the history of the Ohio River, in “The Force of Moving Water,” is a familiar-enough story of the brutal overharvesting of abundant natural resources; if people had intended to live on the banks of the Ohio, asks Sanders, and not use it simply as a means of transportation or food or fuel for the next destination, would they have behaved in the same way?
Sanders claims that belonging to a place, learning its animals and plants and soil, knowing its topography, its body, is as necessary to us as knowing our own body, or our partner’s. How should we go about that? His essays are a mix of memory and narrative about the work it takes to be committed, the rewards and dangers of the natural world, a new notion of neighborhood and citizenship that includes putting down real roots with land and people, and a sense of the encompassing order of the universe, to which he does not attempt to attach a name.
Nothing less than the undivided universe can be our true home. Yet how can one speak or even think about the whole of things? Language is of only modest help. Every sentence is a wispy net, capturing a few flecks of meaning. The sun shines without vocabulary. The salmon has no name for the urge that drives it upstream. The newborn groping for the nipple knows hunger long before it knows a single word. Even with an entire dictionary in one’s head, one eventually comes to the end of words. Then what? Then drink deep like the baby, swim like the salmon, burn like any brief star.
As I read, I was reminded at once of Wendell Berry and of Annie Dillard, but in the end, Sanders has his own tough and lovely voice. These essays are thoughtful, mingling vision and nature, managing to be as much about mind and spirit as they are about earth and sex. They are strong and calming. I plan to read more, and I recommend you do, too.