You could say that Scott Russell Sanders’ writing career works as a metaphor for his writing style. Although he has published several titles—both children’s books and personal essay collections, mostly centered around nature—he has received precious little attention from the reading public. In much the same way, his prose is rich with thought and detail, but it never demands attention from those who read it. Instead, it whispers into their ears, forcing them to discover its profundity on their own.
The Country of Language is a series of personal essays, each focusing on Sanders’ memories of his youth and his relationship with his surroundings. Many of the pieces take nature as their central theme, but Sanders broaches other subjects as well, including war, college life, and writing itself. Each narrative flows vividly and ends with a profound lesson that Sanders learned from that experience. It’s minimalism speaking in its finest form.
Delving into each piece, readers can suddenly feel as if they are transported to Sanders’ back yard, relaxing on a wicker chair and sharing a cup of tea, homemade sugar cookies and stimulating conversation. He creates this mood with a simple, elegant style that assures the reader that he is not trying to hide anything with flashy prose and complex metaphors. Nor is he writing a juicy memoir, exposing all the gritty peculiarities of his life. Instead, he is sincere and forthright; rather than letting the readers see the intimate details of his life, he shares his most intimate thoughts.
In his essay “Grief,” for example, Sanders confronts those critics who tell him that his choice to focus on nature leads him to ignore the larger ailments of society. He responds: “So I write always in the face of grief. I write about hope because I wrestle with despair. I describe glimpses of paradise as a measure of what we might aspire to and of the directions we might go. To write about the natural order that sustains us is not to ignore the human condition, but to insist on our most fundamental needs—for light and earth and water and air, for companions, for beauty, meaning, grace.”
Sanders then describes an observation he made while on a plane headed home. He glanced out the window and noticed a butterfly floating across his field of vision, while a cargo jet descended in the background at the same angle. “Although the conjunction of butterfly and jet was merely accidental,” he writes, “it set me thinking about the polarities of my life, the tug-of-war in my heart between nature and artifice, between loving the order of things and loving what we do with that order.” Sanders takes a seemingly benign coincidence, one that many people would hardly even recognize, and ponders the foundations of his own life credo. In doing so, he walks the reader through every step of his thought process, handing us the key to the treasures of his mind while urging us to find the key to our own.
As implied by the title, Sanders constructs many of his essays around the way he uses language for making art and expressing his ideas. In “Words,” for instance, he traces how his curiosity about the names of objects, the names of places and even the stories his parents told him led him to urge his sister to teach him how to read and write at the age of four. In “Hunger for Books,” he celebrates books as gatekeepers of human knowledge and wisdom. And in “Writer,” he examines his own motives for writing and what he hopes to accomplish by transferring words to paper. The essays are mostly in chronological order, tracing the author’s own development, and Sanders’ growing fascination with the written word challenges readers to find the same joy within themselves. Life moves fast in this age, and simple pleasures like those found in literature are often forgotten. The utter childlike happiness that Sanders seems to take in his art form establishes writing as a tool for enlightenment. He motivates others to find that same euphoria that engulfs him every time he puts words to paper.
Of course, Sanders is not infallible, and The Country of Language does sometimes fail. He indulges himself in anguish, for example, over the fate of the man chosen to take his place in Vietnam, after Sanders himself objected to the war and was passed over by the draft board for “reason of physical or psychological or moral disabilities.” He wonders if that man survived or lost a limb, thinking of him as “a patriot, someone who didn’t argue when his name was called.” Through that experience, Sanders writes, he never forgot the pain of war and how it forced him to find his conscience, which is a curious conclusion. In every other part of the book, Sanders clings to what he knows, personally and intimately. Attempting to undertake a subject as large as Vietnam by barely mentioning the suffering of unknown soldiers dances into the territory of scholarly arrogance, an aberration Sanders carefully avoids throughout the rest of his essays.
Nonetheless, an afternoon spent with this book would be an afternoon well spent. Scott Russell Sanders is a wonderful companion, one who will cause you to look at your surroundings in a different way, because of the very way in which he looks at his own.