Indianapolis Star, 14 Feb 2012:


“Author’s Earthly Star Turn”


by Dan Carpenter


In a communications universe that grows, by the hour, more crowded, more cacophonous, more scattered, more abstract, less private and less personal, the grounded persistence of the Everyman essayist offers a kind of strategic retreat.


In Earth Works (Indiana University Press), the nationally honored practitioner Scott Russell Sanders has collected 30 of his first-person-singular writings in continuing pursuit of “perennial human questions” that will never have definitive answers but suffer tragically from being too seldom asked.


By turns somber and snap-out-of-it buoyant, these elegant artifacts of restless inquiry cover subjects as intimate as the author’s sexual awakening and his father’s alcoholism, as broad as the origins of the universe and the disarray of contemporary hyper-urban society.


Ever-faithfully, the mind without limits returns to its chosen confines -- the Bloomington neighborhood where the IU professor emeritus settled four decades ago in defiance of secular orthodoxy about the Heartland as a burial ground for intellectuals.


Admirers of both writers will feast on “Words Addressed to Our Condition Exactly,” Sanders’ tribute to his seminal influence Wendell Berry, who likewise forsook the literary metropolis for a place where a man, like the trees and their nesting creatures, could be in place.


“He showed no interest in the culture broadcast on television, on radio, or in cinemas,” Sanders writes of “The Long-Legged House,” Berry’s account of his rural Kentucky homecoming, “but he cared deeply about the culture embodied in the skills and lore of farming communities.”

For both men, caring extends with perfect logic to the world at large, whose troubles they attribute to the drive to dominate it rather than serve a niche in it. Himself distraught over the Vietnam War when he came upon Berry’s work, Sanders was galvanized by the country thinker’s denunciation of that venture as a violation of democratic and spiritual principle, a sacrifice to “the inertia of power.”


Sanders, like Berry, confounds the gentlemanly expectations that his quiet residence and traditional trade might give rise to. Yet he, too, is a man of gentleness, a prophet whose jeremiads and praise both flow not from arrogance but from its opposite.


“Nothing less than the undivided universe can be our true home,” he writes. “Yet how can one speak or even think about the whole of things? Language is of only modest help. Every sentence is a wispy net, capturing a few flecks of meaning. The sun shines without vocabulary. The salmon has no name for the urge that drives it upstream. The newborn groping for the nipple knows hunger long before it knows a single word. Even with an entire dictionary in one’s head, one eventually comes to the end of words. Then what? Then drink deep like the baby, swim like the salmon, burn like any brief star.”