Our Land, Our Literature
Our Land, Our Literature Home
Search our Site
Environment Regions Contacts and Links About Us  

Scott Russell SandersScott Russell Sanders

Hoosier Connection: Scott Russell Sanders has made Bloomington, Indiana, his home since 1971. Deeply influenced by his surroundings, the landscape of southwestern Indiana is a constant inspiration for his writing.

Works Discussed: Secrets of the Universe, The Force of Spirit, Writing from the Center, Staying Put, Stone Country, Hunting for Hope

If Midwestern places are so grim and gray, why do writers keep recalling them, sometimes after decades of living far away? What draws the imagination back across the miles and years? The chief lure is the country itself; the forests, fields, and prairies, the wandering rivers, wide skies, dramatic weather, the creekbeds lined with sycamores and limestone, the grasses and flowers, hawks and hickories, moths and cicadas and secretive deer. Again and again in literature about the Midwest you find a dismal, confining human realm – farm, village, or city – embedded in a mesmerizing countryside… By turns cruel and comforting, the land holds them, haunts them, lingers in their memory and bones.

Scott Russell Sanders
Writing from the Center

Scott Russell Sanders is one of the nation’s leading voices in environmental concerns. Born in 1945 in Memphis, Tennessee, Sanders moved to Ohio at the age of five. He was exposed to many contrasting environments in his childhood, from the farm in Tennessee where he was born to a military arsenal in Ohio. He left the Midwest in 1963 to attend Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and then earned his Ph. D in English literature at Cambridge University as a Marshall Scholar. In 1971, Sanders and his wife Ruth moved to Bloomington, Indiana, where he still teaches at Indiana University as a Distinguished Professor of English. By the time he moved to Indiana, he had lived in seven states and two different countries.

When Sanders moved to Bloomington in 1971, he did not take the idea of settling into a new community lightly. In his book Secrets of the Universe, he writes of his determination to become acquainted with the surrounding countryside: “[W]ishing to know the place where I have been set down, I drive the back roads of Indiana, tramp across country, wade the streams, look about" (86). Many of his main themes in writing stem from this awareness of the environment and sense of place. Humanity’s role in nature, both positive and negative, is often explored in his essays, very often in the context of contrasts.

In an interview with the Kenyon Review, he spoke about these reoccurring themes in his work:

The contrasts and tensions arise from my life – North/South, country and city, militarism and pacifism. Living as a boy in an arsenal in Ohio, I felt a fierce contrast between the fruitfulness and wildness of nature, on one hand, and the ingenuity and destructiveness of technology, on the other… As a writer I keep seeing these contrasts… and maybe I’m still trying to bring the two poles together, to reconcile enemies.

The most apparent poles in his work are nature and humanity. Sanders revels in the celebration of the earth and the resilient strength of nature, while mourning the destruction that humanity has created. Though his essays have various focuses and themes, the thread that holds everything together is his celebration of the earth and his ability to capture and rejoice in the smallest details of his surroundings. Scott Russell Sanders is deeply affected by his surroundings, and is a passionate product of his environment.

Overall, Sanders celebrates the beauty of nature. Every detail is noticed and appreciated, and this attention to intricacy fills his essays with vivid descriptions of his surroundings. Sanders’ environment is deeply intertwined with his life and his writing, and many times the countryside is where he receives solace and inspiration. In his book Secrets of the Universe, the joy of returning to familiar countryside is obvious, "After a year in the bunched-up terrain of New England, I was amazed by the extent of sky, the openness of the land, the vigor of the head-high corn, the loneliness of the farmsteads, the authority of those clouds" (84).

Indiana corn
Indiana corn

Sanders writes often of the prairies of Indiana, with vivid descriptions of tall-grass prairies and the life that teems within them:

…[B]irds fill this blustery June afternoon here in southern Indiana. We see goldfinches dipping and rising as they graze among the waving seed heads of the tall grasses. We see red-winged blackbirds clinging to the tops of cattails that sway in the breeze. We see a kettle of hawks, a swirl of starlings, a fluster of crows. A great blue heron goes beating by, and six or eight geese plow the ruffled waters of a lake. (Force 17)

In The Force of Spirit, Sanders also writes of the prairie:

In every season the prairie is lovely beyond words. It supports a wealth of wildlife, resists diseases and pests, holds water, recycles fibers, fixes nitrogen, builds soil. And it achieves all of that while using only sunlight, air, snow, and rain. (51)

Nature is used as a vivid setting for himself and also as an inspiration for his reflections. In the essay “Sanctuary” in Writing from the Center, Sanders writes about visiting Clear Creek, just outside Bloomington. Clear Creek is a common refuge for him, and this nature preserve is often a setting for Sanders to reflect and collect his thoughts.

Sanders st Clear Creek
Sanders at Clear Creek

I look out over the meadow and gather myself. To my right, beyond a thicket of willows and sumac, I see the glint of Clear Creek, whose occasional floods keep this bottom land from turning to forest. The bluff rises on my left, dense with oak and maple and cedar everywhere except for a broad swath cut by the right-of-way for high-tension lines. (53)

The contrasts of humanity and nature concern him, even when he retreats to nature to regroup. Even at Clear Creek, humanity’s alterations of this bluff catch his attention and cause him to write not only about the beauty he sees, but also the ugliness that people have inflicted upon nature:

Clear Creek
Clear Creek

This bright thread glistening before me, the sun-dappled creek, no longer runs clear, as it did when the settlers named it. The water is murky with topsoil. Mounds of dirty foam gather in the shallows…Less visibly, more dangerously, the water is fouled with fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, solvents, oil. (53)

Likewise, in Staying Put, Sanders discusses the Ohio River, the southern boundary of Indiana:

Swimming in the Ohio, I try to feel all the remotest creeks of that vast basin trickling through me. I like to imagine I can smell in the river the pines from the mountains, the oaks and hickories of the foothills, the blackberries and wildflowers of the bottomlands. What I’m likelier to smell is diesel oil, cotton poison, coal slurry, or sewage, because twenty-five million people live in the basin, and the watercourses are lined with towns, factories, mills, slag heaps, power plants, and refineries. Like the rest of our planet, the Ohio is caught in a tug-of-war between natural influences and human ones. (63)

Ohio River
Ohio River

Sanders thus juxtaposes humanity and nature to create awareness of peoples’ effects on the land.

Time and again, the effects of pollution are discussed in Sander’s work. From water pollution to chemical leaching into the soil, Sanders repeatedly highlights the effects of the environment’s widespread contamination.

When I look at the filth along parts of the Ohio, when I consider the annihilation of forests and the disappearance of wildlife, I cannot agree that such brief profit justifies so much desolation. Since the earliest days, the river has been used as a dump, receiving offal from slaughterhouses, sewage from towns, manure from livestock pens, mash from breweries, waste from factories and mines. Little was done to control pollution of the Ohio until the last few decades, and we are still a long way from having cleaned up our mess. This, too, is part of the river’s history, the tar and chemicals, the oil slicks, the squandering within a few generations of an unforeseen, unearned bounty. (82)

When researching for his book Stone Country, Sanders encountered local stories of pollution in the limestone quarries that are located around Bloomington:

Empire State limestone quarry
Empire State limestone quarry

In the 1970s he [Ed Bennett, a quarry owner] permitted the dumping of some electrical capacitors in one of his quarries, and the fluids leaking from those capacitors were poisoning the neighborhood with polychlorinated biphenyls – PCBs – recently added to the Environmental Protection Agency’s hit list of deadly chemicals… Among the PCB dumps in America, the quarry named after Ed Bennett was one of the dirtiest and most dangerous. A year before our visit, technicians in breathing gear and bubble helmets and snowy protective suits… had poked around, hauled away a few truckloads of leaking capacitors, filled the hole with fresh dirt, capped it with plastic, fenced it off, planted it with grass, and declared the three acres site "stable." (60,65)

His frustration with the pollution is often compounded with the way that people handle the situation. “A man who’d worked on the fencing crew told me that, when driving posts, they kept running into buried capacitors. Eventually they got fed up and returned to the original boundary" (Stone 65). Even though people were aware of the dangers of the PCBs, laziness and lack of foresight still drove them to compromise the quality of the soil and the surrounding communities.

Destruction of the natural landscape is also a recurring contrast in Sanders’ essays. In Secrets of the Universe, he graphically illustrates the lasting effects that people have had upon the land:

Indiana dunes on Lake Michigan
Indiana dunes on Lake Michigan

I also know from books that, except for dunes and prairies and swamps near Lake Michigan, all of what would become Indiana was dense with forest when the first white settlers arrived. This means that almost every acre of soybeans and corn represents an acre of trees cut down, stumps pulled out or left to rot: oak and beech, hickory and maple, dogwood, sassafras, buckeye, elm, tulip poplar, ash. In two centuries, a mere eyeblink in the long saga of a planet, Indiana has been transformed from a wilderness dotted by human clearings to a human landscape dotted by scraps of wilderness. Today, only the southern third of Indiana is heavily wooded, but the speed with which redbud and locust and cedars march into abandoned pastures convinces me that the entire state, left to itself, would slip into forest again within a few decades. (91)

Ginn Woods, an old growth forest
Ginn Woods, an old growth forest

Yet, while Sanders often sees the negative human impact upon the land, he also has a great deal of hope for people’s ability to undo what has been done to the earth. In his book Hunting for Hope, he reflects on the unusual opportunity that people have in interacting with the land:

We are the only species capable of exterminating other species wholesale, but we’re also the only one capable of acting, through love and reason, to preserve our fellow creatures. We are unique in our ability to affect the fate of the planet, but also unique in our ability to predict those effects and to change our ways in light of what we foresee. (133)

He believes that people need to take more responsibility for the beauty and resources that we have been given, and treat the land with respect.

Because we have achieved an extraordinary power to impose our will upon the earth, we bear a solemn obligation to conserve the earth’s bounty, for all life. This means we should defend the air and water and soil from pollution and exploitation. It means that we should protect other species and preserve the habitats on which they rely. For our own species, it means we should bring into the world only those children for whom we can provide adequate care, and then we should provide that care lovingly and generously. (168)

Sanders’ writing is a celebration of his surroundings, but also a reflection of the terrible damage that we’ve wreaked upon the earth. Nonetheless, Sanders does not end on a note of despair. He shares hope in the fact that the fragility of the environment is becoming a concern. He conveys faith that people are beginning to take responsibility for their actions and the actions of others. He expresses confidence that people have an amazing ability to heal what was done in the past. And ultimately, he takes joy in the power of nature to respond to our efforts.

Right now, in hundreds of places across the United States and other countries, people are at work returning animals and plants to areas from which they had vanished, reflooding drained wetlands, gathering rare seeds, replanting forests and prairies, cleaning up rivers, helping endangered species and battered lands to recover… Instead of merely grieving over what has been lost, these dedicated people…are working to reverse the devastation. They are reweaving the torn fabric of life. (37)



Sanders, Scott Russell. "Something Durable and Whole." The Kenyon Review 21.1 (2000) <http://www.kenyonreview.org/Magazine/interviews/pz-sanders.asp>.

Sanders, Scott Russell. The Force of Spirit. Boston: Beacon Hill, 2000.

---. Hunting for Hope. Boston: Beacon Hill, 1998.

---. Secrets of the Universe, Scenes from the Journey Home. Boston: Beacon Hill, 1991.

---. Staying Put. Boston: Beacon Hill, 1993.

---. Stone Country. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985.

---. Writing from the Center. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995.


"Scott Russell Sanders." Milkweed Editions. 11 Dec. 2002. <www.milkweed.org/4_catalog/ 4_1_5_2293.html>.


Bibliography of Scott Russell Sanders

Sanders' essay “Limberlost and Found”

Sanders' essay “Stillness”

Sanders' interview with Kenyon Review