The Ecotone Interview with Reg Saner

A longtime Coloradan, Reg Saner first saw mountains during military service when he was sent to Big Delta, Alaska, for alpine and arctic survival training. After combat duty as an infantry platoon leader in the Korean War, he studied renaissance culture at the University of Illinois, and as a Fulbright Scholar in Florence, Italy, at the Universitá degli Studi. Among other honors, his previous writings, all set in the American West, have won several national prizes, including the first Walt Whitman Award as conferred by the Academy of American Poets and the Copernicus Society of America. His second book was a National Poetry Series “Open Competition” winner selected by Derek Walcott, later a Nobel laureate. He has won an NEA fellowship, the Creede Repertory Theater Award, the State of Colorado Governor’s Award, and the Wallace Stegner Award conferred by the Center of the American West. His nonfiction books include The Four-Cornered Falcon: Essays on the Interior West and the Natural Scene (Johns Hopkins, 1993; Kodansha paperback, 1994) and Reaching Keet Seel: Ruin’s Echo & the Anasazi (Utah, 1998). In spring 2005 the Center for American Places published The Dawn Collector: On My Way to the Natural World. His prose and poetry have appeared in more than 50 anthologies.

David Gessner: I don’t know of a contemporary essay I admire more than “Technically Sweet.” It is common enough to create an essay with two or three subject threads, but in “Sweet” you weave at least six distinct themes. Within the essay you discuss the purely technical pleasure that Oppenheimer and others took in building the Atomic bomb. Did you take some technical pleasure in creating this essay? Can you describe how you built it? Was there a sense of challenge? Of play?

Reg Saner: Yes, the challenge was deliberate enough, though the parallel never occurred to me. I’d already written quite a few essays using straight-ahead, linear sequence. They found takers without much trouble, but I remember telling myself, “You’ll never improve if you don’t try something you’re not sure you can do.”

In poetry the sestina form had always interested me, though not enough to write them. They’re too much like playing the piano with the backs of your fingers. The instant a reader sees, “Oh, this is a sestina,” poetry gets upstaged by the parlor trick of recurrent line-endings. My material for “Technically Sweet” embodied a half-dozen themes, so I thought, “It’s true, all but a handful of sestinas tend to become a mere juggling act, but in a long prose piece the scheme wouldn’t be nearly so visible. Since I’ve got themes enough, maybe I can bring it off.”

I guess you’re right about challenge. Ending with an essay instead of a mess was technically sweet.

Gessner: I remember something you said during a talk in Colorado two summers ago: “I haven’t been changed one fraction as much by writing poetry as by my creative nonfiction. Or by all my other learning it seems . . . .” You irked a couple of poets in the audience, but the idea stuck with me. That by throwing yourself into your essays, by doing the work of learning and observing they required, you were expanding, even re-creating, yourself.

Saner: Well, irking poets isn’t hard to do. Kenneth Rexroth once said, “Ninety-eight percent of the worst people I’ve ever known have been poets.” Don’t their first wives almost always divorce them? I’m the only one-wife poet I know. Marcia Southwick was having dinner with my wife, Anne, and me out on our patio shortly after she and Larry Levis split, and I clearly recall her murmuring, half to herself, “Never again a poet.”

Am I going to get mail?

As someone who published four collections of poetry, three of which won national prizes, I didn’t dream nonfiction would teach me incomparably more than my work in verse. No comparison. That in itself was quite a discovery. Through nonfiction I’m much closer to the person I’d like to be. Which has absolutely nothing to do with ego, just me as a talking animal among billions. As to the poetic mode, only the critically naïve would say it has to happen in verse. People often tell me this or that passage in my prose is “poetic.” Well, yeah, but not accidentally. The very best prose often is, though never the poesy kind. Most so-called lyric prose is neither one nor the other. The opening verses of Genesis are great poetry by not being what Frost snidely called “very poetickal.”

Gessner: You once wrote to me about “God in all his weasly disguises.” Dogma seems to be one of your great enemies, and you have written about being offended by “pat answers and no questions.” On the other hand, in The Dawn Collector, you describe yourself as “incorrigibly religious.” Can you describe your own “mystery religion” and how it differs from what passes for religion today?

Saner: Nobody can say I haven’t given God every chance to prove himself. Having spent years being sermonized and gazing at stained-glass fables way over my head, I’m qualified to agree with Woody Allen: “If there is one, he’s a terrific underachiever.” All through grade school and high school I was taught by Dominican nuns in black wimples over ankle-length white linen. I adored them then and still do. My Catholic college added four years of priests. In fact, during my early teens I wanted to become the first priest on Mars, thinking if there were Martians, the harvest would be wonderful. Gradually I came far enough out of Plato’s cave to realize that God was the worst idea humans ever had.

Christians have often behaved worse than Murder Incorporated. In Rouen I stood on the spot where la pucelle, Joan of Arc, was burnt alive. Having lived in Florence I’ve also passed, hundreds of times, the exact spot in the Piazza della Signoria where Savonarola was torched. Ditto for Rome’s Campo dei Fiori, where the Inquisition set fire to a stark-naked Giordano Bruno.

To be religious in my sense is to feel and act on your relation to all other talking animals, asteroids, DNA, coyotes, cottonwoods, bluebirds, grasses, supernovae, yellow-bellied marmots, microbes, in short, all that is. Earth being the only heaven we’ll ever have, we should as a species stop turning it into a hell. That’s heretical but hardly radical.

Gessner: At one point in Reaching Keet Seel you mention the “whimsical” phrase “the pleasure of where.” This seems to describe much of your life and work. Can you describe the ways that “where” has impacted your work?

Saner: Whereness? Well, yes, for me life is far more a question of place than of people. Even so, I can’t imagine a worse fate than to own the whole world and be the only one in it. It’s just that the natural world happens to surprise me far more often than humans ever do. We differ only in what we reveal. What we conceal is identical.

Gessner: I can’t think of a greater, wilder pleasure than hiking though the desert and coming unexpectedly upon an Anasazi dwelling. Can you describe what the Anasazi have meant to you as a writer? What I mean is that their history fits so perfectly with so many of your themes that if they didn’t exist, you’d have to invent them. They dovetail with your love of ruins; they prove the impermanence and smallness of humans; they work as metaphor as well as being fascinating in themselves. Can you describe some of the pleasures of uncovering and exploring their gone lives?

Saner: Of course I did describe it, pretty much throughout Reaching Keet Seel. The seed of that book was a question: “Why do I love visiting these Anasazi ruins?” By then I’d pondered them in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. Their fusion with Southwestern settings exerts an almost narcotic allure. Then there’s scale. The imperial size of a Roman ruin makes it a version of Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” whereas an Anasazi site is our own size, each village less wide than a voice. You feel an intimate pathos in the scattered potsherds, corn cobs, empty rooms. Rome was blood and iron, while the Anasazi were hoes and planting sticks—for their corn, beans, and squash. Coming across even so little as one of their granaries, you marvel at their imprints in the adobe—thumbs and fingers busy with wall building eight centuries ago—but still so real you almost overhear their voices.

Gessner: You have written that there are times that overly rigorous scientific writing can taste like “canned spinach.” At the same time a degree of rigor marks your work in contrast to some “softer” and more personal essayists. “My walks are my research,” you’ve said. But your research is your research, too. Can you talk about the process of building some of your long essays? How do research and personal experience meld?

Saner: For “Technically Sweet” I read eighteen books and traveled about 1,500 miles, interviewed people, then used a small fraction of what was in my database. Even so, any reader curious about the ironic role played by the beauty of northern New Mexico in making the A-bomb—especially Oppenheimer’s relation to New Mexico—will get lots of factuality without losing the big picture.

In working up a topic I make hundreds of notes, so as to know what I’m talking about, and probably use less than ten percent. My study is crammed with card files. Your own fieldwork for Return of the Osprey must have generated tons more info than you ended up using. Theodore Roethke was talking about poetry when he said, “Ah, cutting. The great art,” equally true in prose. Like John Ashbery’s witty definition of poetry as “this leaving-out business.”

Right now I’ve fifty-seven pages of a short book I’m doing, with another thirty pages of cut wordage. Being a frugal sort of spendthrift, I always save it, hoping I might be able to use it elsewhere. I rarely do. Maybe the best writing advice ever given is a statement by Ernest Hemingway: “One judges the quality of a story by the quality of the writing that was cut out of it.” If a beginner pasted that in his hat he’d be in good shape.

Gessner: “Mountains are time we can see,” you wrote. Can you tell us a little about your background? Growing up in the Midwest and moving to the Front Range. And also coming out of the army and deciding to become a poet….

Saner: Growing up in downstate Illinois, I couldn’t see the world. Fence lines and furrows humanized the land, made it rational. Ancient history was no deeper than the chert arrowheads my uncle Frank turned up with his plow. In Boulder my house sits on the edge of open space in full view of massive upthrusts of reddish sandstone laid down some 300 million years ago. Within walking distance, two peaks rise some 2,600 feet above our roof. Gone time fascinates me, and the Colorado I love looks like time petrified, Darwin’s “enormous quantities of time.” My house is partly landscaped with boulders older than Rome. Older than civilization. For that matter, older than man. Wonderful hunks of time turned to stone.

I remember first stepping outside the station in Rome and almost fainting with delight at dramatically floodlit scraps of its ancient Servian Wall. Milton wrote about an era when “all our fathers worshiped stocks and stones.” I still worship old trees, old stones. With a heavy-duty wheelbarrow and a wrecking bar I’ve pried up enough red rock for trundling into my yard to make a state park back in Illinois.

Funny, I never decided to become a poet, just admired poetry so much I tried writing it.

But poets are few and far between. That’s why if I can avoid it I don’t call myself one—except when side-stepping the word would be silly. In poems and prose my one subject is simply my sense of the world. Various topics angle toward it differently—like spokes of a bicycle wheel—toward that hub. In my mountain poems, mountains are only the apparent subject. Same with prose on Southwestern desert, the Grand Canyon, and so on. The true subject is always some sort of take on the marginality of humans in a world they inhabit barely long enough to look around.

Gessner: Yes, a central insight of yours, repeated in various ways, is just how small and relatively insignificant we human beings are. Many of us repeat this, but you seem to truly feel it. Does part of this spring from spending so much time thinking about the universe in a larger sense—the cosmos? And is that what you are getting at in “Lone Skier in Glacier Gorge”? Or is that moment slightly different, a more unique and particular vision?

Saner: Being alive is the one strangest thing that can possibly happen. Nothing else comes close. Compared to the total of cosmic matter lacking consciousness, we humans might as well be called “infinitesimals.” Because that’s where we are and how it is. As Emily Dickinson says, “I’m nobody! Who are you? / Are you—Nobody—Too?” Being one of Euclid’s geometric points, location but no magnitude, doesn’t depress me. It’s an effect of my jaw-dropping awe at all we belong to. There’s sheer wonder in a Hubble deep-space photo revealing galaxies thick as snow where the naked eye sees nothing but the midnight of empty sky. I love Plato’s claim that wonder is the beginning of philosophy, maybe because wonder’s my weakness. I enthuse and get amazed all over the place. My mother was like that. She was a great appreciator.

Catholicism gave me a daily sense of living in two worlds at once, terrestrial and celestial. I still live there, but it’s all far more mysterious without the God hypothesis. When it comes to outer space, we’re in it, and to all the other inhabited planets we’re ETs. Again, that’s how it is because everything local is cosmic, even a wife’s pink panties.

Gessner: A pressing question for many of us is how to reconcile our love of this world with a greater pessimism about what we are doing to the planet. (And I do mean we, not them—some evil other like “developers”—since I use as much gasoline as the next guy.) Can you offer any insight into reconciling these feelings?

Saner: It’s sorry but true that global warming and peak oil come from human spawn overrunning the earth. Worse yet, we’re a weed species whose evolutionary development took a bloody turn, so we live on a ship of fools, many of them murderous. Even sorrier to say, the slow holocaust we inflicted on Native Americans is merely an instance.

So according to me, the Buddhists have it right about changing the world: “Start with yourself.” As a low-impact environmentalist, however, I’ve plenty of room for improvement. Still, Anne and I have two offspring only. We recycle and try to buy green products. Our Volvo wagon is eighteen years old, with less than 50,000 miles on it, and mileage on my twelve-year-old pickup is exactly half the national average. I bicycle and walk where feasible, and use a push mower powered by granola. As to the planet’s future, it’s a real downer to realize the nitty-gritty is filthy lucre. As a character in Shakespeare says, “And oft ‘tis seen the wicked prize itself / buys out the law.” In another play, much the same: “Plate sin with gold, / And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks; / Arm it in rags, a pygmy’s straw does pierce it.” I wish pessimistic optimism weren’t the best I can do, but that’s the situation. Bad guys make megabucks out of raping nature, absolutely looting it, whereas in trying to stop them the good guys don’t make one dime.

Gessner: In our first issue Ann Zwinger described her favorite ecotone. Any particular local ecotone that fascinates you? Does the mesa out your backdoor qualify? The Front Range itself?

Saner: On my mesa-walk near our house there’s a particular bend in the trail, some 500 feet above my house. To my right rises a steep couloir with windfallen trunks across talus. Above its chute of tumbled stone rise sandstone sheernesses way overhead, about 900 feet higher. Then just to my left there’s a continuation of the talus down a steep ravine, also timbered deep evergreen by handsome Douglas fir and ponderosa pine. It’s a sort of “Wow!” point. Utterly untouched wilderness a thirty-minute walk from my door.

Summer evenings, I may sit atop a huge lion-colored slab, munching my sandwich and sipping from a half-pint canteen of white wine while watching Steller’s jays, towhees, and mauve clouds reflecting the light’s changes. Wildflowers abound. A favorite is horsemint, or bergamot, with lavender blossoms plump as muffins, and maybe a nectar-sipping moth flicking its proboscis. The trail passes through many fine places, but that particular spot always causes the Midwesterner in me to feel, “This is what I wanted.”

Gessner: How many days a year do you collect dawn?

Saner: As I explain in The Dawn Collector, to make sunrise a duty would ruin everything, so I’m careful to go out only when I want to. Today the sun rose at 5:50, in clear air. I felt good, so up the mesa I went. Me and the mule deer—and my silly familiars, the magpies. As you know, Boulder has lots of sunny days. I suppose I go out for dawn maybe 200 times a year, and really feel my luck in living where I can not only see clear to the horizon, but also have a life with that kind of freedom.

So dawn’s gold-and-cobalt sky’s a blessing all right, but its source is blind fire. Occasionally, before the solar sphere clears the horizon, I’ll say a poem, Blake, Dickinson, Hopkins, though I couldn’t tell you why. Just do. The deer don’t seem to mind. For that matter, I like saying a poem or two aloud when I walk. I’m a word person, and a good poem feels good to say.

As to my “thing” about dawn, Pee Wee Russell, a jazz clarinetist, defended his maverick style by declaring, “The note I blow may be the wrong note for anyone else, but it’s the right note for me.”