Writing With the Land

Writing literature in the contemporary world is largely about reflecting on, amplifying and extending the traditions of literature. Mostly, these traditions are interpreted as the stories of individual consciousness. Those are all reasonably new things. As you may have noticed, I’m up to something a little different here. Because my friend Gin asked about my writing journey and because she writes with such openness and clarity, I’m trying to give as clear an answer here as I can.

Chinese Elm, Cheatgrass and Sage: Three seasons at once on the Plateau.

History can be read here as easily as it can be in books of critical studies, or in literary poems, or in novels. This kind of reading has its own tradition, its own history, and its own future. They cross those of literature, but they’re not the same. One of the strands of that tradition is writing. It is not literature. It has other goals.

Those of us who live in North America or Europe, however, live in a world in which writing is often defined as literature. In North America, specifically, it is increasingly a world in which the study of literature and literature itself are intimately combined in the specialized academic genres of “English” studies, “Environmental” studies, and “Creative Writing.” I have two degrees in the latter. I speak with some experience in this regard, but we’re not talking about creative writing here. We’re talking about this …


In the world of literature, as in the world of its twin, science, this is known as a slender spindle high density apple orchard. It can, however, be read in a way that is neither purely industrial nor purely aesthetic. That is not a metaphor. Literature, in fact, has no business with it.

Sometimes writers of literature also reflect on the traditions of art, or attempt to bring scientific studies to an aesthetic point, or even try to develop scientific ideas within aesthetic approaches. Artists do this work of exploration, too, with the rigour of laboratory chemists and physicists, such as the avante-garde German painter, Gerhard Richter…

Excerpts from ‘gerhard richter painting – 2011′ a film by corinna belz:
all work © gerhard richter all rights reserved

These literary and artistic explorations are exciting new traditions. Yes, of course, people were making art and making music and dancing 50,000 years ago as well, but they didn’t conceive of it as art, and they didn’t call it individual or even individual expression. It was work. It was like building a house. This state of affairs has only recently been altered. For example, this is not art:

European Blackbird Between Bouts of Song

In the world before literature — in the European world, that is — moments like the one incompletely portrayed by the photograph above were God, or at the very least a part of His Creation. It still is for many, although the words for that kind of a world haven’t been updated for a long time and could use a respectful refit. In Christian language, it was also a fallen world, one that human sin had turned from a spoken world of infinite creation into a wilderness choked with weeds.

Yellow Dock, Cheatgrass, and Other Weeds Busily Creating a New Ecosystem a Long, Long Way from Europe Okanagan Landing

This process of colonization, which mirrors the Book of Genesis, is called Nature today. This very human story is used to represent a nonhuman world, working to a nonhuman agenda. That misconception is one of the dangers of humanism: many things get defined in human terms that aren’t human at all, and many things that are human are mistakenly seen as non-human. It’s the price one pays, but one doesn’t always have to pay it. The majority of humans on the planet don’t. It’s just a consequence of a particular technology.

In the new world of literature, spiritual connections between the things of the world and the things of God became known as metaphors and symbols, subordinate to rhetoric, philosophy (or ideas) and argument. This hierarchy of mental functions was meant to re-create the kind of thing you can see in the next photograph, only in words not in stone or the relationships of faith and God that the stone itself was meant to represent…

Village Church, Rauron, Switzerland

Rilke is buried under the window facing us on the left. Rilke saw through the game and found an alternate path, although literary readings of his poems have wandered off the path among the yaks.

Yaks? Yeah. Sure looks like yaks, anyway.

Rilke’s New Neighbours in the Valais

And to think he was once Rodin’s secretary!

The concept of metaphor represents a relationship between authority and artistic endeavour, in which spiritual, physical and aesthetic responses to the world are subordinated to logic. This was the world in which the young poet, Goethe, for instance, vehemently suppressed the superior writing of his sister as well as the brilliance of his friend Joachim Lenz, because they didn’t possess either a penis (in his sister’s case) or a manipulative kind of logic and rhetoric (in Lenz’s.)

Goethe’s Sister

She died depressed and in childbirth.

In the world of God, or just in the world in which humans live within the processes of the earth, there is no metaphor. What is a symbol or a metaphor in literature is real in earth writing. This brings responsibility to get things right. Such responsibility is good, because the lack of it leads to this kind of thing:

The Loneliness of the PVC Pipe at the Property Line

Grassland subdivided into speculative housing and then turned into just so much garbage — another glitch in the humanist enterprise. 

This is the Canadian version of the Irish economic collapse: a subdivision built upon the pyramid scheme that every week the property would be worth more than it was the week before. This particular house of cards went kaplooey, What’s left are denuded stretches of formerly productive land, and strange poly vinyl chloride artworks, meant to mark water valves, and other art, like this:

Landscape Art

Art designed to sell houses according to biological response criteria but not to live in, all choreographed like a painting from 1850. Gerhard Richter need not apply.

The reasons for this kind of activity are not matters of cultural criticism but of land use, land writing, and old traditions that supersede cultural criticism. In fact, if cultural criticism sinks its teeth into this artwork, it is only doing its distasteful work of turning it into metaphor. As I point out, however, in a discussion of food on my home page, that world is over. Collectively, culture is moving on.

Sometimes the Gift is Just to See Water for the First Time

Personally, I want to be where life is. Writing about the land is work. It’s about spirit, about working with spirit, and about building spirit using the things of the world. A friend taught me that long ago. He was a buddhist, and was banging around in the cactus and gravel, with a set of wrenches, trying to set the gearbox of his thirty-year-old pickup to rights. I was trying to write poems about peach trees and Spider climbing up to the stars. He admired that. He also pointed out that banging around with his gearbox was the same spiritual work. With that in mind, on this 300th post in this discussion, I offer a little spirit:

Washing Tomatoes 

Picked three weeks ago, ripened in the canning room, and now in the freezer. I have a scallop soup in mind for those snowy days in December, some afternoon when the sun comes through like I could reach into it and my hand would come out gloved in the stuff of the universe.

Like many people, I was trained in the traditions of literature. However, whereas most people of my generation (I was born in 1958, too late for the post-war prosperity and too early for cynicism) were raised by humans and schooled in classrooms and for recreation played baseball or hockey or football, I was raised by peach trees, schooled among elms and the gold finches that ate their purple blossoms, and for recreation went fishing and watched kingfishers lift silver spirit trout out of spirit creeks and fly off among towering old growth cottonwoods. I was trained in work. My childhood was spent working with the things of the world. I was schooled in it. Here’s something in the world. It follows no human agenda:

Grapes Using a Wild Columbia Hawthorn as a Trellis

Humans who lived two hundred years ago, who lived on the earth, who subordinated themselves to its processes, saw this as God. Contemporary human society sees it through a series of scientific metaphors, which are of about the same age as literature and art. In fact, we have a year for all this. 1793. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, the young German philosopher, showed up in Jena, Germany that year, and proceeded to scandalize society and win the hearts of the young men sent to the university by their fathers to learn law and public administration by proposing that any effective form of science needed a central, relative point of observation that was always at hand and always transferable. This point, he proposed, was a new concept: the individual self, the “I”. Out of that outrageous invention came science, art and literature, three separate strands, all differentiated from spirit. Before that invention, they were all the same.

Pear, Church Garden, Rauron, Valais, Switzerland

The poet Rilke asked to be buried around the corner, because here, more than anywhere else in Europe, he felt all the energy of the world pouring up into the stars. He was right. It does.

A fruit, an echo of the Garden of Eden, what Eve ate, what one can distill into spirit, what one can tend in devotion, what one can use to build a culture and industry, how one cares for one’s people…there is no difference. Science, literature, art and faith, are the same, despite the artificial divisions inserted into them. The division is merely a convenient shorthand, to enable precise measurements in certain physical directions. That’s powerful, and billions of humans today are the beneficiaries of this division. The division, however, is not the tradition. It is a method. Its components are only tools. It is the goal of contemporary literature to find ways to approximate this knowledge. In this conception, literature and art add to the tradition by combing history to find the terms by which forgotten, lost or otherwise unknown strands can be brought into the conversation. This is powerful, but for someone like me, a man of the earth, this is a bit of a problem, because those strands are the conversation. What I need to bring into my conversation is what literature knows. I confused this for a long time, but now I’m pretty clear on it. I have plenty of writing around here that explores this world using sophisticated literary approaches. My newest project, though, is here:

Sumac Fruit

And here, for Vicki, who asked what her readers had on their windowsills, the first refined product of that fruit, a physical poem, a spiritual liquid, a form of transformed sunlight, in preparation for its extension through words into the social, ethical and spiritual work of rebuilding a land gone to weeds.

Sumac “Tea”

This stuff is amazing. If you even just sip it, it’ll change your life. Food is art, yes. Art is also food. In a culture that excels at dismantling itself, it’s time to put it back together, or at least the best of it. This stuff matters. It’s not a game. Oh, and Rilke? He lived here.

Chateau Muzot

This was his view (without the houses):

View to the South

When Rilke lived here, he didn’t write about symbolism anymore. He wrote about these trees, these mountains, and these vines. What did literature do with that? It misunderstood. It thought he was writing symbols, like he did before the Great War. He, however, had moved on. Let’s go with him.

7 replies »

  1. Let me see if I can find words to adequately respond. For I feel not quite capable. After reading your words here, it is clear you have far more training and knowledge than I will ever have. I furrow my brow and narrow my focus and try to absorb all you have to say, and in frustration all I see is how simple I am. I don’t get it all. I am trying to see more. (Why must it always come back to “me” when what I believe you are trying to express is something far beyond and greater?)

    There is a lesson to be learned in everything we take the time to listen to, read, observe. Nature is here for me. I don’t understand the complexities of the history and roots and reverence. Perhaps I should try. I can only express to you what I see. And often, I try to explain how I feel in that state of observation, interaction. Is this what you are trying to say?

    In the meanwhile, I’ll pull my head back in my shell and hope no one saw me try to understand…


    • Oh, Gin,

      no no, that’s just me. Not you. I’m the one with a head full of ideas. Can’t help it. But I’m also the farmer. That this is not a very simple dichotomy, well, that’s my struggle, not yours.

      I’m just trying to say: go with the land, go with your heart, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that culture in general has your life at heart. It might. It likely has something to do with downtown Manhattan in mind.

      You have friends. You have publishers, across your country. You have readers. All are looking for the same things you’re looking for. They might not be hooked up to the main literary swim, though. Be open. Keep going. Yours is a good path.

      That’s what I mean.

      But, I’m not a US citizen, so am a bit weak on the kind of pressures that that cultural upbringing brings, although I have a pretty good idea that there’s a lot of pressure towards national universality. From my perspective, just a bit to the side, I’m pretty sure that that’s just spin. That the real story is in the thousands of books of natural history and Western history published independently of the publishing industry in New York, because it’s not listening, and that what’s true for Canada is true for the lands down south as well: our ties are stronger north-south than they are east-west, which means that your country and mine are almost twins, while both of us are a fair way from Montreal or Boston. That’s just a guess, but that is the way it works up this way.

      But as for the ideas all over the place like road kill, that’s me. A blessing and a curse. Just laugh. I try to.




      • OK, I am laughing. Ideas like road kill. I like it. Maybe it is a Canadian thing. (Did I tell you my son chose to go to University there? Miss him as I do, it’s a great choice for him, a great place to visit, and a place my husband and I already looked into the logistics of remaining, though it is not so easy, and yes, the best in life rarely is. Guess I’ll be checking out the Southern Hem first…)

        Ah… I have a lot to learn. I do promise to keep an open mind. And to hopefully learn. I have never wanted to be where I was yesterday. Seems you don’t stay in yesterdays long either. Unless for analytical perspective?


      • Ah, I wrestle my demons, for sure. I am fortunate, however, to be ever curious, smart enough to laugh at myself, sometimes, and to see outside the box, sometimes, and, best of all, to have Diane.

        The ideas like road kill, no, that’s, sadly, German. Lots of different people living inside my head!




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