In class today, we hosted Dr. Mark Long, President of ASLE and professor of English at Keene State. I first met Mark in the summer of 2006 in Juneau, Alaska when he was teaching for the Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English M.A. program in which I was enrolled. We shared our mutual interests in hockey, mountaineering, and environmental lit, and he introduced me to ASLE, where my mind just about imploded at the discovery of a whole institution (!!!) dedicated to the study of the body of work I love above all others.
When I discovered that I would be teaching EN453, I rekindled my conversation with Mark, who invited me to his farm in Keene, NH to brainstorm ideas for the course. Mark is more knowledgeable on this particular discourse than anyone I know, and I remember scribbling notes, furiously trying to keep pace with the titles he referenced and the incipient ideas they sprouted in my mind. Mark’s good at the kinds of conversations that elevate your intellectual heart rate, that stimulate ideas and that send you tumbling down the rabbit hole of possibility. And, in addition to a brainload of new thoughts, I left his farm that day with an armful of fresh-cut garlic heads from his garden.
Mark shared with us his reflections on the work of John Muir and its influence on the environmental movement. Mark told this story through the lens of his own encounter with Muir during his climbing and mountaineering days in the high Sierra in the early 80’s. According to Mark, Muir is responsible for a legacy of ideas that flows through the environmental literary canon, and Mark’s central premise emerged that there exists a crucial relationship between experience and ideas…that one without the other is somehow incomplete.
Mark traced for us how Muir’s own work emphasizes this truth by pointing out the dialogue between Muir’s firsthand experiences in the Sierra and the ideas they inspired. Mark described his own confirmation of this relationship where, steeped in the words of Muir and in the geographical actualities they describe, Mark discovered a fountain of his own thinking. The granite to which Mark clung 1,000 feet off the valley floor infused Muir’s words with three dimensionality they lacked for him sitting at a desk. In this way, Mark suggested a synergy between the kinesthetic and the cerebral. The internalized life of the mind becomes endowed with life and breath in the torque of muscle and the visceral encounter with rock and wind. Mark showed us photographs of Mt. Ritter as he searched for the apocryphal location of Muir’s “near miss,” when he almost fell to his death, but was saved by a surge of atavistic energy that forced him to contemplate our place on the human/nature continuum. He showed us photos of pocket glaciers where Muir first posited their influence on shaping landscape. He showed us myriads of alpine flowers, growing from precarious mountain perches. It was here where Mark discovered what he deemed his “mature writing voice,” here where his environmental and literary vision crystalized.
Above all else it is this truth that I hope you glimpse this spring: that the dialogue between the lived and the read can create magic where before there was none. May you let the land itself and your encounters with it breathe life into the texts you read in new and energized permutations of thought.