Outside In | Books | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Arts + Culture » Books

Outside In

A lecture series links the landscape with the mindscape


Published May 28, 2003 at 2:36 p.m.

Centuries before there was an Internet there was Indra's Net, an image from Buddhist philosophy that portrays the universe as an infinitely wide web of jewels. Each jewel both reflects and is reflected in all the others. Thus, each jewel contains the entire universe, but is also only a reflection of the whole. This ancient metaphor for the illusory nature of life and the interconnectedness of all things also encapsulates a very modern principle of ecology -- that every ecosystem is a microcosm of the entire planet.

Starting in June, five authors will take part in a monthly reading series at Shelburne Farms entitled "Bringing Home Indra's Net: Ecology and Community in the Landscape of Vermont." The goal of these readings, its organizers say, is not merely to provide a forum for political debate about environmental issues but to cast a wider net, encompassing the larger cultural and religious themes that permeate nature writing today. "In the case of each of these writers," explains organizer Josh Canning, "their work resonates with a deep sense that the 'outer' world of nature and the 'inner' world of heart and mind are profoundly identical."

All the participating writers are familiar names to anyone who enjoys nature writing -- four of the five live in Vermont. The series begins June 18 with Bristol writer John Elder, author of Reading the Mountains of Home and The Frog Run. Elder, who chairs the English Department at Middlebury College, will read from his personal essay, "A Dust of Snow: Awakening to Conservation." As Elder explains, the essay is a reflection on a walk in the woods he took one winter with Vermont tracker Sue Morse. Along the way, Morse stopped the hikers beside a hemlock tree and shook some snow on them. Then she read the Robert Frost poem entitled "Dust of Snow," which is itself about a crow that dusts the snow off the branches of a hemlock.

The incident, Elder explains, "serves as an emblem for the way in which surprising experiences in nature refresh our perspective and both disorient and reorient us." It also helps remind Elder -- and all environmentalists, he suggests -- not to become trapped in our own narrow concerns and doctrinaire thinking. "One of the gifts of nature is that it's not aligned with our expectations," he adds. "So again and again we experience things that are in some way surprising and continually open us to the world and allow our thinking to remain fresh and creative."

The series continues on July 17 when internationally acclaimed author and poet Julia Alvarez reads from her new book of poems due out next year. Alvarez, a native of the Dominican Republic, settled in Vermont more than 20 years ago. But as she suggests, "'Language is the only homeland,' as Czeslow Milosz once observed, and indeed, English, not the United States, was where I landed and sunk deep roots."

Though Alvarez is not a Buddhist, she has begun exploring this spiritual path at the Vermont Zen Center. As a result, she decided to call her poetry reading, "Being Awake," after an answer the Buddha once gave a follower when he asked if he was a god, a prophet or a saint. None, the Buddha replied. I am awake. "I love that phrase," Alvarez says. "I think that's what you aim to do as a writer, to be awake and to nudge the sleeping part of all of us, including yourself." Ideally, she says, all good writing is about awakening ourselves to the things we forget and attuning ourselves to the extraordinary in the ordinary. This is particularly true in nature which, like poetry, does not reveal its secrets all at once.

"I'm almost afraid that you'll write that I'm reading poetry because people won't come," Alvarez tells Seven Days, only half-jokingly. "Americans are scared of poetry. We're so used to a sound bite that we get right away. But the whole point of poetry is that it's like a koan in Buddhism. You're not supposed to get it right away, the way you get things in a fast-food, fast-read, fast-think culture."

In an August 15 presentation called "Towards Self-Sufficiency," Bill McKibben will speak about how local economies fit into the larger environmental picture. McKibben, whose writings explore the many cultural and ecological implications of environmental crises, shies away from the notion that he is a "spiritual" writer. Speaking about the relationship between religion and the environment, he jokes, "The most useful thing I've done is come up with the slogan, 'What would Jesus drive?'" Nevertheless, his environmental writing is often cited for its keen spiritual as well as scientific insights.

McKibben, who gained international acclaim in 1989 with the publication of The End of Nature, has just released Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, an exploration of biogenetic engineering and its dire implications for the human spirit. In it, he argues that by unchaining ourselves from the limitations of our DNA, we may unwittingly destroy the very essence of what makes us human. "If you genetically alter your child and the programming works, then you have turned your child into an automaton to one degree or another," McKibben writes. "If 'Who am I?' is the quintessential modern question, you will have guaranteed that your children will never be able to fashion a workable answer."

September's featured author, Terry Tempest Williams, is the only one of the five writers who does not live in Vermont. Though Williams usually writes about the rugged and austere desert landscapes of her native Utah, she is by no means a stranger to the Green Mountain State. Williams has been a frequent speaker at Middlebury College and taught at the Bread Loaf School of English in Ripton. Last year, she was the keynote speaker at the 25th anniversary of the Vermont Land Trust.

Williams is perhaps best known for such books as Refuge, An Unspoken Hunger and Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, all of which deftly bridge the gap between the poetic and the political. As an outspoken environmental activist, Williams has been at the forefront of the struggle to save the American West from exploitation and over-development. "It could be said that the environmental movement in the past has been a political movement. I believe it is becoming a spiritual one," Williams said in a recent interview at New Mexico State University. "Native peoples have always known this. It is my hope that my own people within the Mormon culture will remember what our own roots are to the American West and the responsibility that comes with settlement." Williams' reading, "A Celebration of Native Peace" takes place on September 12.

The final speaker in the series is Stephanie Kaza, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont. Kaza says her talk will divert somewhat from the program's earlier themes in that most nature writers focus on their relationship with a specific place or animal. Kaza's reading is entitled "Love or Harm? Eating as Relationship," and will explore the various ethical questions raised by what we put in our mouths. Her talk is based on a departmental seminar she organized last semester on the ethics of food, and will touch upon various themes she is including in a new book about consumerism and Buddhism. As an expert in the emerging field of religion ecology, Kaza has spent a lot of time exploring the ethical implications of American's excessive and wasteful eating habits. A longtime Buddhist, Kaza admits that even within her chosen faith there is ambiguity about the ethical imperative, "Do no harm."

"How do you have a relationship with the food you are eating that does the least harm? There really aren't set rules," Kaza says. "Sometimes being self-righteous and having a bunch of rules about 'I'm a vegan and won't touch a drop of honey,' makes you kind of cold and sterile."

Simply choosing to be a vegetarian isn't enough, she suggests, if your food is industrially produced, exploitative of human labor, harms the environment and so forth. "I'm interested in exploring the ambiguities and complexities of these questions with the idea that your eating then becomes a very relationally rich experience, as opposed to just a gasoline tank fill-up," Kaza says. As for its connection to the larger theme of Indra's Net, she notes, "It's all about the nature of the nature we put in our mouths."

The reading series is a fundraiser for the Orion Society and the Vermont Zen Center -- two organizations that, in their own ways, are dedicated to reconnecting the human spirit with the natural world. Based in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the nonprofit Orion Society operates a publishing house, a network of environmental grassroots organizations and an institute for training educators and community activists. Its bimonthly magazine, Orion, publishes many of the nation's most influential nature writers, including several of the writers participating in the Ver-mont reading series.

The Zen Center was founded in 1988 by Sensei Sunyana Graef as a spiritual retreat for the practice of Zen Buddhism. Over the years it has expanded its membership and involvement in the community to include workshops, ceremonies, classes and public service like a program that works with prison inmates. Money raised from the lecture series goes toward its $1.9 million expansion plan which, among other things, will make its facilities accessible to people with disabilities. Asked if the new center will include an image of Indra's Net, Graef laughed and said, "If you want to see a picture of Indra's Net, look in the mirror. There it is."

Speaking of Environment