Meet Sharman Apt Russell
Sharman Apt Russell is the author of several books, including Hunger and Songs of the Fluteplayer, which won the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award. She has written for publications including Discover and Nature Conservancy, and currently contributes to OnEarth, the magazine for the National Resource Defense Council. Russell teaches creative writing at Western New Mexico University and at Antioch University in Los Angeles, California. She lives in Silver City, New Mexico.
Read Susan Hanson's review of Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Posted on 08/09/2008
Before writing Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist, you have written about a wide variety of topics including ranching in the American West (Kill the Cowboy), archeology (When the Land Was Young), the life of a band of prehistoric mammoth hunters (the novel The Last Matriarch), the secret lives of flowers (Anatomy of a Rose, which happens to be one of my personal favorites), butterflies (An Obsession with Butterflies), and the nature of hunger (Hunger: An Unnatural History). That's an extraordinary range of subjects—and I realize that's not the complete list of your books, either. How do you pick your subjects? Or do they pick you?
When I teach creative writing, I talk about what I call "fruitful questions." For me, a fruitful question must be real, not rhetorical. There must be a real moment of wonder and mystery before possible answers rush in. The question must also energize me in some way. And the question must be possible for me to pursue. All my books and essays are driven by a fruitful question. For archaeology, the question was, "What makes me get so excited about finding a piece of clay on the ground—a simple and relatively unimportant pot sherd? What is my link to the past?" For flowers, the question was, "What would it be like living in this almost unimaginable nonhuman world of flowers and pollinators, with these nonhuman smells and colors and motivations?"
As I answer that fruitful question, writing becomes an act of discovery and exploration. I think this desire for discovery and "quest" is often true for people, whether they are writing or studying or just living their daily life. But why do certain questions energize us? In my experience, they often connect to something essential to our childhood or to our nature. Sometimes they act like important metaphors. For me, uncovering the secret world of flowers and butterflies was like opening the door into Narnia. Here was another world of magic—with magic a metaphor for my spirituality.
All of your books have a spiritual component, but until Standing the Light, none have been explicitly about spirituality. What led you to take on the challenge of explaining pantheism, one of the world's least understood religions?
Well, I realized I was a pantheist about twelve years ago, and I was very pleased to discover that label! Pantheism is the belief that God is in everything and we should live with a constant sense of the miracle of existence itself. That idea became part of why I could join my Quaker Meeting and how I thought about the world. But then I got wrapped up in the business of life, working and being a parent. I lived in town, and I lost some of my connection to the natural world. Writing this book and exploring some of the historical and philosophical roots of pantheism was a way for me to reconnect and to go deeper, too—to ask more questions. I also think that pantheism is a fairly modern and common worldview today—even if the word is not very familiar. Pantheism marries my understanding of science and my desire to have a religious life.
To me, Standing in the Light seems to be your most personal book since your award-winning memoir Songs of the Fluteplayer: Seasons of Life in the Southwest, which came out in 1991. Did you imagine the book relying on your life—inner and outer—when you began it, or did the narrative simply evolve that way? Do you think that having your children grow up and leave home—leaving you to adapt to an empty nest—is part of why your writing has taken a more personal turn again?
I did really want to write the personal essay again. I love the personal exploration, the deeply personal and intimate voice. But most of the people in my life—my children, my husband, my mother—don't want me to write about them. That writing would invade their privacy. So I waited until I had an important story of my own to tell that didn't involve them. It was my own evolution as a person. They are in the story but they are not the story. To some extent, yes, my children had to leave home first...
Have you experienced any negative reaction to "coming out" as a Quaker who is a pantheist? Or do people seem to find the idea of a religion based on the sacredness of all life interesting rather than threatening?
So far, most people seem to find it interesting. But religion is controversial and I have encountered a few people who react negatively to the book—even before they have read it.
If you could walk your regular route over Sacaton Mesa near your home in the Gila River Valley with one writer (living or dead), who would you chose?
Oh, that would be Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome in the second century A.D., author of The Meditations, a man who tried so very hard to be a good Stoic and a good person. What amazed me about reading The Meditations is how he and I could cross this huge barrier of time, gender, and status to meet together on common ground—this is entirely due to his power as an author and his beliefs as a pantheist.
In Chapter Two of Standing in the Light, you introduce sandhill cranes, the long-legged, long-necked birds whose height makes them "impressive enough to give you pause" and who winter in the Gila River Valley each year. You mention that you long to see them dance. At the end of the book, you finally do: you watch a pair leap and bow in their aerial ballet and realize you are not surprised to have finally seen what you longed for because you have come to belong to the place: "When you live in a place, eventually you will see all of its wonders." Are there other wonders you hope to see in the Gila River Valley?
I want to see wonders every day, and the Gila River Valley is full of them. In particular, I want to see a band of coatimundis. And more eagles. And the river in flood again. But I want also to see wonders I don't know about yet. Yesterday I went to visit a neighbor whose porch now hosts a colony of cliff swallows, some 300 birds. (That's another story...) Two different big lizards were waiting on the wall right under two different nests. Were they waiting for the chance to eat the swallow's eggs, for the right moment to attack the nest? We didn't know. I had never seen that before. There was that wonderful sense of life going on, large and old and complex processes, mysteries everywhere, beauty and brutality, the whole shebang.
The natural world is wondrous to me because it helps break me out of my human concerns, the ego, the personality, the littler life. Paying attention to the natural world helps connect me to something larger—and to living in the present moment.
Susan J. Tweit is the author of ten books that explore the landscapes we share with a community of beings. If you enjoyed her discussion with Sharman Russell, you will also enjoy her interview with Mary Beath (on this website), as well as interview of Velda Brotherton, on her blog, Community of the Land.