A conversation with Erik Reece

We are pleased to publish Erik Reece’s latest book Clear Creek: Toward a Natural Philosophy this week. This wide-ranging and boundary-defying work calls us out of our frenzied, digitized world to a slower, more contemplative way of being. Joe Wilkins called Clear Creek, “A wise, rambling book that is equal parts memoir, natural history, and philosophical investigation. . . . Readers of Barry Lopez and Wendell Berry will find much to admire here.” In this Q&A below, Reece talks with Caitlin Solano of Vesto PR.

The book takes place over the course of a year. Did your journals and notebooks come together naturally, or did you have to revise certain aspects?

The journaling down by the creek occurred pretty organically. But though the book takes the form of “a year in the life,” I actually spent ten years writing it! Not continuously, but rather when some observation or idea came to me. So there was time for some pretty extensive revision, editing, shaping.

You’ve written about your religious upbringing and thoughts on Christianity before in your book, An American Gospel. What was different about your approach for writing about it this time?

In American Gospel, I was settling scores, in a way, with family ghosts. Which I don’t really recommend. But I was also working through some mental anguish that I’d carried around for a long time. There’s really none of that in Clear Creek. Though I’m always, in some sense, writing about religion (I guess I’m a God-drunk agnostic, as someone said about Spinoza), I now very much think of Clear Creek as an unroofed church, where I’m a congregation of one.

In the book you mention that language separates us from the natural world but poetry, music, and creativity offers us a way to reconnect. Can you discuss this important idea—how you came to it, how it informs your work, and how you share it with students?

It’s an idea you find in many of the important twentieth century philosophers: Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Rorty. Language, particularly poetry, can be a wonderful way of paying attention to the natural world. But western language is also extremely binary: black and white, good and evil, straight and gay, etc. So I guess in the book I was working to get past that kind of abstraction and judgment. What I worry about with my students is that they simply don’t see the world; they’re always looking at screens. So I try to emphasize with them the importance if image, detail, particularity. The idea is to ultimately let language pull us off the page and onto the trail. First you learn the word jewelweed. Then you look for it. Then you appreciate it. Then you work to preserve it. All “nature writing” has to work from that kind of specificity outward to larger acts of conscience.

Environmental journalists and nature writers have long been raising the alarm about our disconnect from nature and the devastating consequences. How did you manage to face the increasingly bleak facts and maintain a positive outlook while writing this book?

It’s the whole idea of maintaining two disparate thoughts in your head at once. One thought is: the world is on fire. The other thought is: I care about a particular piece of the natural world and I’ll do what I can to celebrate and preserve it. As long as we are all doing that, I see you reason for utter despair. As I say in the book, twenty-first-century life is in many, many ways tragic. But that doesn’t mean it can’t also be filled with wonder and joy.

What books are on your bedside table now?

Tao te Ching (Stephen Mitchell translation), The Really Short Poems of A.R. Ammons, The Collected Stories of Lorrie Moore, On the Spine of Time by Harry Middleton, Before and After the Fall by Sandor Csoori (brilliant Hungarian poet), Trout Tips by Kirk Deeter, John Brown: Abolitionist by David S. Reynolds, Alcoholics Anonymous.

Can you say what your next project will be?

I’m working on a book called The Living End, about how we are now experiencing the “end” of almost everything: history, the future, progress, philosophy, communication. And so (see above), we need to learn how to navigate this new, daunting Anthropocene with dignity and empathy.

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