Interview Picture

The Essential Strangeness of the World - 2007-02-15

Interviewer: Jeremy L. C. Jones
Interviewee: Franklin Burroughs

Throughout his youth, Franklin Burroughs explored the woodlands and swamps of Conway, South Carolina. In his books “The River Home,” “Billy Watson’s Croker Sack,” and most recently, “Confluence: Merrymeeting Bay,” he has continued to explore landscapes, in his words, “full of hiding places, where potential surprises lurked.” Burroughs, who has lived in the Merrymeeting Bay area of Maine for more than thirty years, discusses the south, nature writing, and the essential strangeness of the world.

Jones: What is Southern nature writing?

Franklin Burroughs: First, about the term Nature Writing: I don't much like it, because it lumps so many writers together and implies that they should all be read in the same way, or share a perspective, not only with each other, but with a fairly wide constituency of people who would describe themselves as Nature lovers.

Speaking for no one but myself, I would say that writing essays, which is what I do, is quite different from writing editorials or sermons, and quite different from journalism. It is more personal, and therefore more idiosyncratic; and it is much more a matter of exploration--of finding out what one thinks, at least provisionally--than of working toward a preconceived idea, thesis, moral, literary form, or purpose.

Southern Nature writing, within the broader history of American literature, does not yet have the status of northeastern and western nature writing. Nor does it have the status of Southern Fiction. The reasons for this aren't clear, and everybody will have a different view of them. My own view is that the tradition of Nature writing that descends from Emerson and Thoreau (and came to them via Wordsworth and European romanticism) emphasizes nature as an IDEA: that is, as something that evokes or corresponds to the unchanging, transcendental properties that could be attributed to the human soul, or mind, or imagination, or whatever. I had to move to New England to get a proper appreciation of transcendentalism. The world here, particularly in winter, does have a clarity, an intimation of permanence, a horizon that suggests vastness. Compared to the nature I grew up with, this one seems dominated by geology, as opposed to biology. It is more obviously photogenic, because you CAN see the forest for the trees.

And photographs have an affinity with transcendentalism: they achieve the stillness, the intimation of peace and permanence, that we Euro-Americans have long imagined, in terms of a variety of creeds and ideologies, as the proper home and resting place for the spirit, imagination, mind, soul, or whatever you want to call it--for the part of us that seems to exist outside of biology.

Southern Nature writing is more in terms of EVENT than idea. The great classic is “Go Down Moses.” When Isaac McCaslin revisits the grave of Sam Fathers and Lion at the end of "The Bear," he pauses to consider all the myriad and invisible life that surrounds him, a seething process of microbiological degeneration and regeneration that does not pause, and encompasses everything. That to me is the great statement of Southern Nature.

In terms of nonfiction, I think the greatest Southern Nature writer is the entomologist E. O. Wilson. His autobiography “Naturalist” makes it clear how much his whole illustrious career was rooted in his boyhood knocking around with snakes, bugs, and fish.

Jones: If Southern nature writing is more about event, which is to my thinking more active and less static, why isn't it more popular than idea based writing?

Franklin Burroughs: Popularity is a totally unpredictable thing in general, and especially with regard to books. Dogs are more popular than horses. But a book about a horse—“Seabiscuit,” for example--may be vastly more popular than any recent book written about a dog. That might be because “Seabiscuit” also had a lot about America during the Depression, a lot about the difficulties of being a jockey, and an exceptionally interesting cast of characters. In other words, because it was a better, more comprehensive, more informative book. The same is true of books written about ideas and books written about events. No subject or "approach" guarantees popularity, and none precludes it.

It is also true, of course, that popularity is ephemeral. Walden sold very few copies; Thoreau had to buy most of them himself, under the terms of his agreement with the publisher.

I think this question follows up on an answer I gave earlier. Let me clarify. New England nature writing--the tradition that descends from Emerson--owes a lot to European romanticism and to transcendentalism: to an intellectual movement. That movement enormously influenced what the eye--which is always the mind's eye--saw.

After Emerson, many of the great New Englanders wrote at least as much against the reassuring assumptions about man and nature that are implicit in transcendentalism as wrote in support of it. That would be true of a good deal of Thoreau, all of Hawthorne, all of Melville, most of Frost, etc.

There are a whole lot of reasons why transcendentalism did not catch on in the south. Its primary proponents were often abolitionists, and almost always took the City-on-a-Hill view of America vis-à-vis Europe. Southerners, whose antebellum energies were so wholly concentrated on the defense of slavery, viewed transcendentalists the way evangelicals view liberals.

I think also that southern nature itself is less suggestive of transcendental verities, less easily equitable to the immutable perfection of Idea. It is teeming, fecund, invasive. And, in the 19th century, it was also quite unhealthy. You did not get the open air enthusiasms; you did not have genteel people setting up their easels to paint the salt marshes of the Edisto. The yellow flies, horse flies, sand gnats, mosquitoes, etc. would have driven them off. Unless they succumbed to sun stroke first.

Aldous Huxley has an essay called something like "If Wordsworth Had Lived in the Tropics." A good deal of what AH says about tropical nature could be said about southern nature.

So the point is that there were not the intellectual underpinnings or the political predisposition to establish a tradition of nature writing. I think the intellectual underpinnings are there now--biodiversity, biophilia are big, important notions in our lives, and they should be bigger than they are in our politics and what you might call our religion. The south has a richness in regard to those things unrivalled within the US.

Jones: Why is Southern Nature Project an important organization?

Franklin Burroughs: The southern project, to the extent that it is rooted in broader intellectual currents of the present time, would appear to me to be rooted particularly in the notions of biodiversity and biophilia--this latter word being an invention of Wilson's and defined as our innate affinity for, and attraction toward, animate life and life-like processes.

I have, for the sake of simplicity, made a pretty crude opposition: geology vs. biology; Nature as idea, intimating permanence vs. nature as ceaselessly metamorphic process, intimating no conclusion or "Higher Truth." It is easy to pick holes in my dichotomy--for example, we find wonderful descriptions of nature as organic process (as fine as anything in Faulkner) in Thoreau. But I think the general dichotomy is at least worth taking as a point of departure.

The south does not have a tradition of landscape painting or of Nature poetry (e.g. Frost, Mary Oliver) anything like as rich as that of the north. Some of this was simply because the antebellum South devoted very little of its time to the arts; its most privileged members and its educated elite were too busy with the intellectual defense of slavery, or were too inhibited by the formidable, unofficial censorship imposed by a ruling class that feels itself beleaguered and, intellectually speaking, on the defensive. What the south does have that the other regions of the country do not is an extraordinary tradition of what we could call landscape music, in terms of gospel, the blues, bluegrass, country western, etc. It's mostly a music of yearning for the old folks at home or the old Kentucky home or moonlight on the Georgia Pines, etc. That theme translates easily into nostalgia, which is, I believe, a hazard for any writer, and especially for anyone who could in any way be called a nature writer.

Jones: In what ways is nostalgia a hazard for a writer? Couldn't appealing to a nostalgic fondness for disappearing ecosystem be one way of getting people to care more actively about a place?

Franklin Burroughs: I want to go back to something implicit in what I said above. I don't think a writer should have one eye on the ball and one eye on the grandstand. I don't think a writer should confuse marketing--something that happens after the book is written--with writing itself.

Nostalgia has many forms. But I think they all have two things in common. With regard to the past, nostalgia is a form of selective amnesia. With regard to the present, it is a form of selective denial. I say this as someone who constantly feels the pull of it, and also as someone who thinks that a sense of the local, as well as the larger, past is one of the things that makes us human. But I do not think that writing is feel-good rhetoric or sentimental escapism.

There are much better reasons to be fond of a landscape than nostalgia. Landscapes, ecosystems, etc. are what we as a species grew out of; we have an opportunity to know ourselves in different ways within them. A man who drives to work past industrial wastelands, landfills, and septic rivers may be a wonderful human being, and one who drives past salt marshes, cypress swamps, and big open stands of longleaf pine may be a perfect bastard. But the former man receives no reinforcement from the landscape. The latter man receives no encouragement from it. I do believe that. I do not think that my believing that makes me a transcendentalist or a mystic. After all, everybody agrees that advertising is effective; that "image" is what sells everything from underwear to presidential candidates. We are subliminally influenced by what we see, what we are tuned into. A good writer may help the commuter tune into what is around him, and be moved to indignation or appreciation, depending on what his surroundings are.

Jones: Janisse Ray describes you as the spiritual center of the Southern Nature Project. What would you say is at the heart of the project? What is its purpose?

Franklin Burroughs: I appreciate Janisse's kind words, and am very ready to volley compliments with her until the cows come home. But I don't think that I, or anybody, is the spiritual leader of the Southern Nature Project at present. It has created an energy by bringing people together and getting them talking, on quite infrequent and wholly informal occasions. That has been consistently convivial, and provides a wonderful charge of oxygen to the brain. Then one goes back to the writer's life sentence, which is solitary confinement.

My great limitation is that I don’t live in the south, and haven't for more than forty years. And, if I am a southern writer, it is not by design, by conscious imitation or emulation of southern writers. It is because my first two decades were spent there, and those are probably the decades in which one's sense of the essential strangeness of the world is most acute, and therefore one sees most originally.

Jones: Could you describe a few of the Southern landscapes that inspired your sense of the "essential strangeness of the world" when you were younger?

Franklin Burroughs: A lot of them would be high on anybody's list: blackwater hardwood swamps: gum, tupelo, cypress, the riverbottom oaks. Salt marshes, with that astonishing teeming life that makes the water boil. Flowing water, from headwaters to river mouths. Some of them would be particular to my boyhood: for example, the "branches"--strips of untended woodland between fields, with a small, pulsing stream of water flowing through them--one of the capillaries that fed into swamps and creeks that fed into rivers. The land would slope gently down. The primary vegetation would be hardwoods along the field edge--a lot of it pretty worthless stuff, like sweetgum or sycamore, then usually a few old and big loblolly pines mixed in as you sloped down to the branch. Along the branch itself, bays would predominate. The water in the branch was jet black, and the surface of it had the wrinkled look of old glass, because of the tiny turbulence of its flow. This to me was a landscape at its best in winter, with leaves off the trees, except for those, like the bays, that were evergreen, and caught the winter sunlight beautifully. As did the rich browns of the pine needles and dead leaves underfoot.

But I suppose that it was the swamps and marshes that most struck me and stuck by me. There was a sense of things hidden; if you pulled a seine or threw a cast net into a small inlet, you never knew what you might find; if you turned over a half rotten log in at the edge of a swamp, you had no idea what sort of critter might be under it. Suspense is what life is. That is why the landscapes I like most have always been full of hiding places, where potential surprises lurked. A sand beach, an unlimited horizon, even purple mountain majesties across the fruited plains are all very well, but my mind tends to wander away from them.

Jones: What do you enjoy most about writing?

Franklin Burroughs: 1. The feeling that I am calling my own bluff, telling myself to put up or shut up. And then, if all goes well, and the job satisfies me, the discovery that maybe I wasn't just bluffing.

2. The last sentence if it does what I want it to do. I think of a gymnast dismounting: you want to nail the landing. When you do, you know it, and it is a great hotDAMNit! moment.

3. The enjoyment is concentrated and rare. The actual experience of doing it, day after day, is a combination of clammy anxiety, claustrophobia, and boredom. It is the sort of job that you interrupt in order to do some recreational vacuuming or dishwashing.

Jones: How much of the South is there in your most recent book, “Confluence: Merrymeeting Bay”? Or, put another way, in what ways is the book Southern?

Franklin Burroughs: The book is about a place in Maine. Any mention of the south in it is of course going to be incidental. If you mean "southern" as a quality of sensibility, prose style, historical outlook, etc. (as opposed to the actual subject matter of the book), then about all I can say is that it is as little southern or as much southern as my other writing. I don't think of my southernness, such as it is, as being something that I can, as a writer, turn on or off, turn up or turn down. I think the way my mind works, the way I think about things and express them is pretty consistent from one essay to the next, from one book to the next. I do not see writing as an effort to claim, establish, or exchange my "identity"--who I am. I assume that I am stuck with myself as I am. My being southern has something to do with it, but I expect, for example, that my education, which is ongoing, has a great deal more to do with it.

Jones: Which you would consider yourself, "Old Growth" or "Understory"?

Franklin Burroughs: Understory, any way you look at it. Grateful for the giants that shade and shelter me; nourished by the accumulated humus of their centuries and millennia of growth; fearful of the leveling ideologues who don't see forests or trees, but only planks, pulp, cellulose, and timbers. Also, not inclined to take a lofty or sweeping view of things. Fond of indirect illumination.