Editorial Profile: Scott Slovic

Posted on Oct 1, 2013 in Editorial Profiles | 0 comments

Scott Slovic.Poitiers 2012Scott Slovic served as founding president of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) from 1992 to 1995 and has edited the journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment since 1995. The author of many books and articles in the field, he is currently writing Fundamentals of Ecocriticism and Environmental Literature and editing The Cambridge Companion to American Literature and Environment, among other projects. He is professor of literature and environment at the University of Idaho, USA.

Editors: We asked members of our Editorial Board/Team to provide a short reflection on a photograph of their choice that they felt says something important about or to the environmental humanities.

Technologies of Contact

William Stafford on bike 1980s

Grainy, reluctant—“let me just get going.” I’m looking at a photo of American poet William Stafford (1914-1993) on his bicycle, left foot on the peddle, the right holding him steady as he poses for the camera, a vague sense of impatience in his unsmiling face. “Let me get going on my bike, wheeling through the world,” he seems to be thinking. Knowing what I know of the poet’s mind, I imagine him considering the prosthetic possibilities of the technology in his hands. He grips a tool of sensation, of awareness. Shortly, when the photographer snaps the shutter, the poet will begin to “hear in the chain a chuckle [he] like[s] to hear,” meshing the gears of his mind with the machine and with nature, belonging to the world by way of technology, not in spite of it.

The camera, the bicycle, implements of writing, and the written word itself—all technologies, and all potentially media of engagement, of contact. Many have lamented the fall from spoken to written language and the further fall from bipedalism to the internal combustion engine, processes removing human beings from our true place in the world … or from full, feeling awareness of this place. The bicycle represents a recalibration, a rethinking of the proper use of technology. Likewise, the hybrid disciplines that comprise the environmental humanities, from philosophy to poetry, enable ongoing recalibration of our lives and our societies, asking, “How should we think, how should we live, and how should we negotiate our relationships with each other and with the greater world?”

When I see this photo of William Stafford, taken circa 1980, I think of his 1964 poem “Maybe Alone on My Bike” (originally published in The New Yorker magazine), which gently reimagines the world from the perspective of someone “(…quaintly on a cold / evening pedaling home).” Rather than resisting the mechanical bike, the speaker of the poem propels himself into the world physically and consciously by way of this appropriate technology. The world springs to life during this cold evening ride—“mountains lakes / hear snowflakes come” (lakes take on the ability to register sounds) and owls with their “radar gaze and furred ears / alert” become both mechanical and mammal, keyed to the possibility of sensation. Realizing that he is passing through a magically omni-sentient reality, the speaker commands himself: “think!— / the splendor of our life.” “We might have died,” he asserts, … but “We live.”

This grainy photograph, showing the reluctantly pausing poet, posing for a photo before taking off on his bike in order to move, to sense, to live, represents, for me, the essence of the environmental humanities. The poet’s son Kim Stafford, himself a writer of some prominence, begins his 2002 memoir Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford by recalling an early morning experience in 1965, “before first light,” when his father had driven him and his brother with their bikes to the top of a mountain pass in the Oregon Coast Range, releasing them to ride to the sea, “a long coast downhill.” “I’m shivering,” recalls the memoirist, “partly with joy.” Writing years later in the wake of his father’s death, he concludes the Prologue with the resonant question: “How long can you feel a hand, steady on your shoulder, after that hand pulls away?” In a sense, this is the question I find myself asking as a scholar and teacher working in the environmental humanities. Photographers and writers (and other artists—and perhaps even philosophers and theorists) seek to convey their immediate experience of the world with resonance and awe, then critics and commentators aim to bring a different kind of energy and perspective to the process, combining their encounters with the world and their encounters with texts—and those who view or read or listen to the work of environmental humanists hope to draw insight and guidance from this work, perhaps as the poet’s son feels his father’s hand on his shoulder, steering him toward the sea. “Ready?” What do we make of our own ride through the world as we pull away from the “hand” of the poet, the photographer, and the critic? The baffling, playful subjunctiveness of the poet’s 1964 title—“Maybe Alone…”—suggests that perhaps none of us is alone. We are all “on our bikes,” using words and wheels and other technologies to find our way home, not merely acting upon an inert world but participating in a world of mutual interactions. These thoughts occur to me as I reflect upon this photograph in conjunction with Stafford’s bicycle poem.

[Note: When I approached Kim Stafford and William Stafford Archive director Jeremy Skinner for permission to reprint this photograph, I received a clearer, less grainy version of the photo than I had previously found on the internet. In the version from the archive, the bicycle’s kickstand is obviously down, making it apparent that the poet is not readying himself to peddle away, as it had seemed in another version of the image in which the kickstand was out of view. Kim also told me that his father often commuted to Lewis & Clark College by bike, a habit hinted at in the poem I’ve mentioned above.]

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