by Tim Hillegonds
In November of last year, my wife and I decided to renovate the master bathroom in the brick-and-timber loft we’d purchased four years earlier from a Chicago couple who’d grown out of it. To save on cost, I decided to tackle the demolition myself. For about a day and a half, I took apart the plumbing and disassembled the vanity, chiseled up tile and ripped down drywall, pried up quarter-round and peeled off baseboard—all the while breathing through the only mask I’d worn that year for something other than protection from Covid. After, when I’d carried the last bag of construction debris to the dumpster, I stood in the bathroom covered in sweat and drywall dust, holding the Estwing hammer I’d owned for nearly twenty years loosely by my side, surveying the work I’d done with weary satisfaction.
It was precisely then that I found myself thinking about Scott Russell Sanders’ essay called “The Inheritance of Tools,” which I’d first read years before when I was a thirty-five-year-old graduate student at DePaul University in Chicago. The essay, which is about fathers, and grief, and work, and men, and the objects we cherish and infuse with meaning, is one that I’ve returned to many times over the years. Sanders’ words, which he wrote when he was forty-two, the age I am now, continue to speak to something deep within me in that mysterious and wonderful way all those who’ve read good writing will know.
Sanders, now seventy-five, wrote more than twenty books of fiction and nonfiction in his years as a writer and educator. The latest, The Way of Imagination, came out in August 2020. The book, published by Counterpoint Press, is a quiet yet affecting collection of essays that begins with a rather unsettling proclamation: “We are in trouble,” Sanders writes in the first essay’s opening line. “By we, I mean all of us—every tribe, every nation, rich and poor, old and young, human and nonhuman. Every species on Earth is at risk, but only one keeps increasing the danger day by day.”
If it wasn’t for the fact that The Way of Imagination was conceived and completed long before the coronavirus pandemic gripped America, one might suspect that Sanders is speaking to our immediate reality. However, he’s speaking to something else entirely, what we might call our other immediate reality, the one that will remain with us long after a Covid vaccine has been distributed and Americans return to some version of pre-pandemic life: climate change. “Humans are degrading all systems that support life on this blue planet…,” Sanders warns. “Deserts are spreading, glaciers are melting, seas are rising, fisheries are collapsing, storms and floods and wildfires are increasing in frequency and destructiveness.”
If one were to stop reading there, one might be inclined to think that Sanders believes we’ve gone too far down the path of devastation to turn back. Yet, it would be a mistake to say The Way of Imagination is simply one more book sounding the alarm on climate change, or to lump this collection in with books like Kerry Emanuel’s What We Know About Climate Change and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. What makes this collection unique is that Sanders argues, convincingly I might add, that we just might be able to imagine our way out of this problem. “Imagination breaks the shell of the status quo,” he contends. “Summoning up objects that do not yet exist, actions that no one has yet performed, and wiser ways of living that have yet to be realized…Time and again, bold acts of imagination have given rise to profound shifts in our ethical views and social practices.”
In late November, I had a chance to connect with Sanders over Zoom for a satisfying conversation about The Way of Imagination, his career and evolving approach to the essay, and the first lines of “The Inheritance of Tools.”
TH: If I’ve got my facts correct, Scott, The Way of Imagination is your tenth essay collection. Tell me a little bit about how it came together and why it felt important to write. When did you know it had transformed from an idea to work-in-progress?
SRS: Tenth sounds about right. I’ve been at this work a long while. The idea for The Way of Imagination arose from the incident I recount in the title essay—meeting a retired banker who had decided to invest some of his fortune in purchasing cutover timberland, having it planted with the species of trees that would formerly have grown there, and arranging for it to be protected beyond his own lifetime, with the aim of restoring old-growth forests for future generations to enjoy. Each step in his plan required a leap of imagination. The more I thought about this mysterious power, which allows us to envision things not present to our senses, things that don’t yet exist, the more I realized that imagination is vital to all fruitful human work—not only to artists and scientists, but also to social reformers, such as those who have imagined an end to slavery, votes for women, marriage rights for gay people, and the abolition of war. Imagination also gives rise to compassion, making the needs and feelings of others present to us. So I set out to explore this extraordinary power.
TH: That impactful story, which appears in the essay the book borrows its name from, allows readers to journey alongside you while you begin to explore the idea of imagination—and the imaginative leaps it took for this businessman to come up with his grand idea—and lay the groundwork for the rest of the collection. Tell me a little more about this idea of imagination and how it informed both the writing process and the structure of the book.
SRS: Every sentence I write must first be imagined—often numerous times—before I type it onto the screen or scribble it on paper. I conjure up a string of words, revise it, perhaps discard it, searching for a sentence that sounds good to my ear while conveying the meaning I’m after. On a larger scale, as I advance through an essay paragraph by paragraph, I’m pursuing ideas, recounting memories, telling stories, making arguments, all of which exist in my mind before they’re expressed in words. So imagination is constantly at work in the process of writing, not only of this book, but of any book. What’s distinctive about these essays is their emphasis on the way imagination might enable us to understand and address a wide range of seemingly disconnected issues, such as the racist legacy of slavery, global heating, species extinction, loss of community, economic inequalities, and religious tribalism. As I reflect on such issues, I’m also appealing to the imagination of readers, inviting them to reflect on why we find beauty in nature, how empathy moves us to relieve the suffering of strangers, how art can help us heal a damaged world.
TH: One of the many things I love about you as a writer is that you’re an essayist’s essayist. The writing in The Way of Imagination feels very Montaignian. You’re not afraid to address the reader directly, to say to her, “Don’t look there, look here.” I’m thinking in particular about, “At the Gates of Deep Darkness,” which is a powerful, heart-wrenching essay partly about your son’s cancer, where you write, “In sharing this personal story, I do not mean to impose my grief on readers…”
Will you tell me more about how, when, and why you make those choices? How do you approach making the decision to simply say the thing you came to say directly, to “tell,” if you will, as opposed to “showing” through scene or dialogue?
SRS: I make extensive use of dialogue when writing fiction, but I use it only sparingly in essays, for two reasons. First, in composing an essay I’m never working from recordings but only from memory. So instead of pretending to reproduce a spoken exchange verbatim, I tend to paraphrase or summarize speech. My second reason for using dialogue only sparingly is because it’s an inefficient way of telling a story, making an argument, or pursuing a question.
As for addressing the reader directly as you, I do that because I think of the essay as a personal letter to strangers. As in a letter, I am trying to convey something I’ve seen, recalled, lived through, thought about, or wondered. If I were writing to a friend, I could assume that he or she would already know certain things I need not explain. I could refer to Ruth, for example, without explaining that she is my wife, or mention Jesse without saying that he is my son. But in writing to a stranger, I can’t make such assumptions. So I must lay out the circumstances, identify the people, and provide other information that a friend would already know. Even in writing to a stranger, however, the tone would be personal. Unlike formal scholarship, the essay can convey a sense of intimacy, something closer to direct conversation. At least that’s the effect I’m after. I don’t mean to be chummy with the reader, but to be open and direct.
TH: Switching gears, as I was preparing to chat with you, I read all the reviews of the The Way of Imagination I could find on the internet and came across this line from Bill Lueders at The Progressive: “Sanders is part of a rich vein of American writers, from Henry David Thoreau to Leopold to Wendell Berry to Annie Dillard, who promote preservation of the land by expressing a love for it.”
Do you agree with Lueders’ sentiment? If so, where did this love for the land come from and when did it begin?
SRS: I don’t claim to rank among the luminaries whom Bill Lueders names, but I’ve certainly learned from their work, and I see myself as part of the American literary tradition that they exemplify. The tradition is commonly referred to as “nature writing,” a label that suggests it’s concerned with one subject among many, like writing about travel or sports or food. But nature isn’t just another subject: it’s our home. It’s the matrix that gives birth to us, nourishes us, and eventually reclaims us. When I’m asked if I consider myself a nature writer, I reply that I’m an Earth writer. My subject is life on Earth, human and nonhuman, along with the conditions that enable all creatures to flourish. Everything I write is informed by an awareness that we inhabit an exceedingly rare island of life in the vast expanse of largely empty space—a four-billion-year-old globe where we can breathe the air, drink the water, harvest food from the soil, and revel in beauty. As for my own awakening to Earth’s glory, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love the land, the creeks and clouds, the woods and frogs and hawks. I spent much of my childhood outdoors, unsupervised, just poking around, climbing trees, turning over rocks. If we fully recognized how precious, indeed miraculous, our planet is, we would take much better care of it. We would all be conservationists.
TH: Indeed, we would be. But there’s also a counterpart to that beauty, right? Another side of nature that isn’t celebrated quite as much? I’ve heard you speak about nature’s opposing forces, the tension that exists between humans and the natural word. Explain what you mean by that.
SRS: Nature is creative, constantly generating new structures and creatures, but it is also destructive, eventually unmaking everything it has made, including us. I’ve known this since I first realized, in childhood, that animals and plants die, and that one day I will die. Through most of my life, however, I’ve been able to celebrate the creative dimension of nature without paying as much attention to disease, decay, and death. But as I tell in the book, two serious illnesses in my family have shifted my attention to nature’s destructive side. Five years ago, my wife was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which progressively destroys the brain’s ability to produce and use dopamine, a neurotransmitter necessary for controlling muscles along with many bodily functions. Three years ago our son, at age 39, was diagnosed with a rare form of thyroid cancer, which is now in stage four, having spread into his bones and liver. I still delight in nature’s generative power, but my pleasure is tempered by daily reminders that everything nature weaves together will unravel, including everyone I love.
Humans exhibit the same opposing impulses; we are at once wonderfully creative and tragically destructive. We build cities, write symphonies, invent religions, send probes into space; but we also wage war, clear-cut forests, destabilize the climate, pollute rivers and seas, and drive countless other species to extinction. So far as we know, nature makes no choices; it just rolls along. But within certain limits, humans can choose how to act. Right now, our own fate, along with the fate of countless other species, depends on which of our drives prevails—whether we give in to aggression, selfishness, and greed, or we embrace compassion, cooperation, and creativity.
TH: On the subject of creativity, in the essay “A Writer’s Calling,” you unpack some of the reasons why you continue to write. Do you feel a call to write or a call to write about nature? Is there a difference for you?
SRS: I began writing because I loved reading, not because I felt drawn to any particular subject. I wanted to tell stories before I had lived any stories worth telling. Many writers begin the same way, I suspect, and only gradually discover their material as they mature. In my case, before I had any stories of my own, I began fictionalizing anecdotes that I had heard from my father and mother, for their life experience seemed richer than my own. Then I began composing tales inspired by my readings in history and science, which led to books such as Wilderness Plots, Bad Man Ballad, and Terrarium. While nature figured in most of this early writing, if only as background to human dramas, it first became a principal subject for me when I began writing essays in my early thirties—essays that were eventually collected in a series of books beginning with The Paradise of Bombs and Secrets of the Universe. All along, and right up to the present, I have also been concerned with war and peace, racism, poverty, gender equality, and other social issues. I don’t make a distinction between humans and nature, between our own wellbeing and the health of the living world.
TH: One of the things I love about your essays is how they so effortlessly take the reader’s attention and gently turn it towards an idea or object, on which you focus your literary microscope. In thinking about this, I found myself returning to your essay, “The Inheritance of Tools,” which is of course about tools, and also fathers, but I also found this line hiding in there: “As the family grew to four, six, eight, and eventually thirteen, my grandfather used this hammer to enlarge his house room by room, like a chambered nautilus expanding his shell.”
The chambered nautilus is the subject we explore in your essay, “Useless Beauty,” which makes me wonder if there are objects that have stayed with you, like the nautilus—objects that serve as touchstones, or perhaps even a Rosetta Stone, in your writing.
SRS: That chambered nautilus shell, sawed in half to reveal two elegant spirals gleaming with mother-of-pearl, has been on display in my home for many years, reminding me of how gorgeous natural patterns can be. Among other objects that have played a significant role in my writing, I think first of the buckeyes that were in my father’s pocket when he died; I keep them near my desk in a walnut box he made, and the box itself is a reminder of lessons he taught me about craftsmanship. Among his tools, his hammer is the most evocative for me, with its sweat-darkened hickory handle and its scarred steel head. From my mother, I keep polished stones and painted china plates, among other reminders of her love for both natural and handmade beauty. I’m reminded of friends by a weaving, a hand-carved bowl, a fossil-encrusted piece of limestone, a ceramic pot. “Touchstone” is a good metaphor to use for such objects, because they invite the hand as well as the eye. These and other mementos link me to people I love, places I’ve visited, passions I’ve followed.
TH: One of the epigraphs in your book, from Jack Turner, holds: “Old ways of seeing do not change because of evidence; they change because a new language captures the imagination.”
In what ways do you hope that this work contributes to that new language and captures our collective imaginations?
SRS: I don’t have any illusions about my work transforming how we see the world, but I hope to suggest the sort of vision we need. We need to recognize that we’re woven into the web of life, and that our actions are tearing that web apart. We need to see that perpetual economic growth is not possible on a finite planet. We need to realize that true wealth has less to do with money or private property than with the shared natural and cultural resources on which our wellbeing depends. We need to pay more attention to the needs of others and less to our own appetites. We need to break free of tribalism and recognize our common humanity. We need to be kinder, humbler, and wiser. All of this may sound unrealistic, even naïve, but I believe such a change in outlook offers us the only way through the troubles we’ve brought on ourselves. Like all breakthroughs in human understanding, it begins with acts of imagination.
TH: You’ve had a writing career that’s lasted more than four decades. I’ve heard you say that writing now is in many ways harder than it used to be, in the sense that the questions you’re asking are bigger and more difficult (if not impossible) to answer. Say more about this. How has your relationship to writing changed throughout your career? How has your approach to writing—and specifically writing essays—changed?
SRS: When I visit colleges, students often ask me if writing has become easier for me over the years. They hope I’ll say yes, because writing is hard for them, and they would like to look forward to a time when their words will flow more easily. But the honest answer is that writing has become harder for me. One reason is that my standards are higher; I’ve read more, thought more, traveled more widely, talked with many accomplished writers. So I’ve raised my expectations. Another reason is that I’ve written a great deal already, and I’m wary of repeating myself. I don’t want to draw on the same story again or to voice the same ideas. And as our society has become more richly diverse, I’ve had to question what I might contribute to literature as a white, straight, non-urban, middle class, midwestern male—the profile of a person whose stories have supposedly already been expressed.
As for how my approach to the essay has changed, I would say that I rely less on narrative and more on reflection. I’ve grown more patient, allowing an idea or question to ripen before I begin writing, and then allowing the composition to stretch over weeks and months, and in some cases even years, before I send an essay out for publication. In part, I suppose, this deliberate approach is a reaction to the haste and shallowness I find in so much journalism and in most blogs. These days, I’m also more likely not to seek publication at all unless I feel what I’ve written might be useful to readers other than myself. For example, I’ve been thinking lately about my religious upbringing and my lifelong enthusiasm for science, and how my adult life has been shaped by these twin passions, aware that whatever I end up writing about these matters may not be of interest to anyone but myself. Perhaps this reticence is another reaction to contemporary media, which are thronged by attention seekers. I shy away from exhibitionists and have no desire to become one.
TH: I’ve heard you talk about how the work of other writers informs your work, both consciously and subconsciously. Recently, I was rereading James Baldwin’s essay, “Notes of a Native Son,” and I was struck by the similarity of the first line of that essay and the first line of “The Inheritance of Tools.” Was that similarity a conscious decision?
SRS: I appreciate the question, because it gives me a chance to acknowledge a few of the writers whose work has inspired and instructed me. In no particular order, I think of Thoreau, Emerson, Virginia Woolf, Rachel Carson, Wendell Berry, Loren Eiseley, Edward Hoagland, Wallace Stegner, Annie Dillard, Thomas Merton, Kathleen Dean Moore, John Hay, Peter Matthiessen, Primo Levi, John McPhee, Jorge Luis Borges, Barry Lopez, Italo Calvino, and Terry Tempest Williams, among others.
I’ve certainly admired and learned from the work of James Baldwin. If his “Notes of a Native Son” influenced my writing of “The Inheritance of Tools,” it did so unconsciously, as any powerful piece of writing impressed into memory might do. Here’s how Baldwin’s essay opens: “On the 29th of July, in 1943, my father died. On the same day, a few hours later, his last child was born.” And then a paragraph below: “The day of my father’s funeral had also been my nineteenth birthday.” Here’s how my essay opens: “At just about the hour when my father died, soon after dawn one February morning when ice coated the windows like cataracts, I banged my thumb with a hammer. Naturally I swore at the hammer, the reckless thing, and in the moment of swearing I thought of what my father would say: ‘If you’d try hitting the nail it would go in a whole lot faster. Don’t you know your thumb’s not as hard as that hammer?’” I can see the resemblance, but it wasn’t deliberate.
TH: Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask this last question: what’s next for you?
SRS: I wish I knew. Since the publication of The Way of Imagination, I’ve been casting about for a new direction, waiting for the spring of creativity to refill. I may turn to a pair of nearly-finished fiction projects, both of them utterly out of fashion but of interest to me. I’ve been reviewing notes for a long-delayed project with the working title of Common Wealth: Living in a Shared World, which is meant to counter the radical individualism, consumerist ideology, and money-worship that are blighting our society and devouring the planet. I’ve been reading philosophy, cosmology, and theology in an amateur way, pondering the unanswerable but inescapable questions about suffering, mortality, and the meaning of existence. I’ve been buffing up on botany and math and physics, also in an amateur way—which is the way I do everything, I suppose, including writing.
Timothy J. Hillegonds is the author of the memoir The Distance Between (Nebraska, 2019), which was a finalist for the 2020 Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award. His work has appeared in the The Guardian, the Chicago Tribune, Salon, The Daily Beast, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Assay, Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, River Teeth, Baltimore Review, Brevity, Under the Gum Tree, Hippocampus Magazine, The Fourth River, Midway Journal, RHINO, Bluestem Magazine, r.k.v.r.y. quarterly, and others.
In 2019, Tim was named by the Guild Literary Complex as one of their thirty “Writers to Watch.” He earned a Master of Arts in Writing and Publishing from DePaul University in Chicago and currently serves as a contributing editor for Slag Glass City, a digital journal of the urban essay arts.
SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 7 · February 2021