Saturday, March 19, 2011

The New Nature Writing - Lydia Peelle

The following is an interview with Lydia Peelle which I found on the Evanston (Illinois) Public Library blog from a year ago January. I recently read her collection of short stories, Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, which came out from Harper Perennial in 2009, as part of my school work for my essay on nature in fiction. From the very first story, I fell in love with her writing, with her love for her characters and the land they live in, for the animals they share it with. I kept turning to Andrew (I was reading on a long road trip), and saying "This is how I want to write someday." 

I will include excerpts of the interview here. Please visit the EPL blog site for the whole interview. She's my writing soul sister!

Many of your stories seem to deal (if not always explicitly) with history. It seems like in this country we’re constantly in the process of erasing our past. One of the things that struck me so deeply in your stories was this underlying sense of the past continually being paved over with strip malls and Wal-marts. What we end up with is a strange sort of limbo where we have few real reminders of our past, yet we live every day with the legacy of the past. Why do you think we’re so willing and able in this country to eliminate our past? Do you find this to be the case more or less in the South than in New England or other parts of the country?

I was in Ireland once and the old man I was staying with really enjoyed making the point that there was an outhouse on his property that was older than my country.  It is amazing, when you think about it, how young our country actually is – and yes, how much we’ve managed to plunder and pave over and cut down in that short amount of time, but also how recent our past is.  And what a great opportunity that gives us to connect to it. 

Another powerful aspect of your stories deals with people and our growing disconnect from nature and land, soil and animals. ... These issues seem more relevant today than ever. We, as a collective people, have very little connection to the earth, very little in the way of skills or knowledge of how to grow our own food and survive or even to step out into nature and feel at home. What do you think of our current relationship in this country to the natural world?

In two words, not good. We seem to think we exist physically separate of it, forgetting where the basic elements of our lives – food, water, air – come from. We also seem to think we can exist morally and spiritually separate from it, and in a deep way, I think we as a culture are suffering from a spiritual malaise caused by our disconnection from place and land.

For me, the natural world is where I go to seek mystery. I believe that we, as human beings, need mystery in our lives. Because only in mystery can we couch hope. And hope is essential to our survival as individuals, and as a species, and as a world. We need the unknowable places, and yes – the dangerous places – both physical and spiritual.

But modern-day life really beats the mystery out of things. You’ve got to search that much harder for it and find it any way you can – for me that’s out in the woods – or even just in a scrubby open lot behind the grocery store where I can watch a possum lumber up a tree and disappear in a hole. I think we’ve all got to search it out: whether in the woods, or the mountains, or in church, in temple, in private meditation – anywhere you can get in touch with that sense of the unknowable, and be a part of something much bigger than your own life.

Several of the stories in your book feature animals prominently, and in most of these cases the emotional power of the story is derived from a human-animal interaction. Most of the animals featured in your stories are used by humans (as farm machinery, as scientific research tool, as food source, as art, as plaything) to one end or the other, yet somehow transcend this role and end up emotionally, or even spiritually moving the humans who come in contact with them incredibly deeply. What do you think about how our society treats and interacts with animals? Why is it that our bonds with our animals are often deeper than our bonds with other human beings?

I am very interested in our relationship with animals, and, for that reason, I am drawn to the culture of agriculture, where animals are not only companions but partners in work and sources of food. I am interested in the culture (mostly disappearing in this country) where that husbandry is a noble and whole enterprise, rather than the (unsustainable and inhumane) current practice of factory farming and monoculture.

I agree that relationships with animals can be so much purer than the relationships we have with one another. Our domestic animals put ultimate trust in us (they have no choice), so there is great potential there for ultimate betrayal – as Charlie betrays the crippled kid in “Kidding Season.” For me, that signifies all the weight and responsibility of any human relationship. How we relate (or don’t relate) to animals can represent a lot about our failure to communicate well other humans.

I think about the time, ages ago – before agriculture and domestication – that we were much more in tune with all the other living beings we share the earth with. A time when we saw ourselves as part of that larger family, and therefore treated the land, other creatures, and each other with more respect. If we can do whatever we can to get back in touch with the non-human – with the consciousness that surrounds us, right down to the squirrel on the sidewalk – I believe it will make us better humans. It will be a step towards healing the planet we’ve so far ravaged. I also believe it will make us more compassionate about all the human suffering around us. Seeing things as a whole. Not to say we should go out and try to talk to trees. But that we should try to be still, and aware, and in touch with all that surrounds us. It’s a hard thing to do, in this day and age, but ultimately, we’ve got to fundamentally change our view of our place here on earth, get rid of this idea of utter entitlement. Becoming more compassionate towards the fellows we share it with is the first step. [emphasis mine]

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