I believe in landscape, and I believe in literature. I believe, though it sounds strange to say so these days, that places teach us how to live right; I believe that they show us, if we let them, how to speak well; and I believe that the struggle to improve our sentences, to make them lean and honest and humble, is the struggle to improve ourselves, and, by that means, the world.
I am a fool for places, you see, and for the vulgar, semantic music of sentences. I have grown deeply attached to the physicality and mystery of landforms and language. To the country people inhabit—and which sometimes inhabits them—and to the words people use to tell themselves—truly or falsely—who they are.
Who you are, I think, is where you are and where you’ve been; who you are is how you speak or, sometimes, how you try not to speak.
But my interest in land and language is political as well as aesthetic. Good writing and good country heal us. So we must conserve and listen to them well. We need words and country more than we seem to remember; our futures may depend now on how well we use and how healthy we keep them both. Because I believe this, and because I cannot help it, my work often wanders the syntax of places and it tries the ecology of sentences; I want to hear and I’d like to say what the land seems to know—about us, I mean, and about itself and time and how we might use well what little we have.
Poems and essays and stories, like the human lives they plumb, make sense and go best when they belong somewhere. When they have country. So, more-than-merely-human things get a fair bit of play in my writing. But my real work, like any writer’s, is the divine comedy of human lives on earth and in time. Beyond land—if anything can be said to be beyond land—I believe in music and work and in small, good, vernacular things. I am taken with ordinary oracles like children and sunlight and rocks and rivers and paddocks and human voices and cowsheds and schoolrooms and the work of human hands and minds; I am given to the world near at hand and to the world far back in time and to the world-in-itself, an entity almost beyond our grasp, the author of us all.
“What is the world?” a four-year-old boy—my son, it happens—asked his mother one night. A better question than he knew. What the world is and who we are meant to be within it and how we are to conserve what is good and beautiful and true in the world, and in ourselves; and how we are to forgive and, if we can, redeem what is bad and ugly and false in ourselves and, because of us, in the world—this may be what we’re here for. Certainly, it’s what artists, especially writers, and especially the poets among them, are here for. This is our work. To witness the world and to say something memorable and useful—or to help someone else do something useful—about the world and its condition and our condition within it. Our work is to cry the world’s beauty; to protest its peril; and to hold us responsible. This is what I think I’m here for, anyway, and it’s what my writing attempts. A very small part of a very long and urgent conversation.