When highly regarded essayist and self proclaimed heir of Thoreau Scott Russell Sanders submitted his essay, “Simplicity and Sanity,” to The Georgia Review, the editors thought his “yet familiar, yet vital” argument was a “strong starting and focal point for some important discussion of nothing less than the fate of our country and planet.” So, they sent an invitation to a number of accomplished essayists for responses, full-fledged essays in their own right that became this issue’s special feature, “Culture and Environment – A Conversation in Five Essays.” It’s a conversation worth listening to, and many other fine contributions notwithstanding (stories by Lori Ostlund and David Huddle, poems by J. Allyn Rosser, Margaret Gibson, David Clewell, and others, and numerous book reviews), it’s the most compelling reason to read the magazine.
The editors are right that “Simplicity and Sanity” sound familiar, but it is a message we certainly need to hear again, since clearly, we’re not getting it: “let us quit using the word ‘consumer’ for a season and use instead the close synonym . . . we cannot expect to learn of experiments in simple living from the same media that promote extravagant living.” Sanders laments the proliferation of high tech toys, overgrown houses and underdeveloped gardens, the depletion of water sources, the insistence on growing, transporting, buying, and consuming foods out of season and at the expense of other animals (including human ones), the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment, and the lack of what Thoreau termed any “worthy aim” for our lives. His arguments would be almost dull, they have been so often repeated, if they weren’t so urgently necessary, and his prose so clear and sturdy, the passages from Thoreau so well chosen, and the interjection of personal stories and examples so thoughtfully integrated, the essay becomes fresh, despite its predictability.
Reg Saner, David Gessner, Lauret Edith Savoy, and Alison Hawthorne Deming counter with essays that are beautifully written, no less urgent, and all distinctly different from the Sanders essay and from each other. Saner wonders about Sanders’s appeal to readers as “reasonable creatures,” since clearly we haven’t heeded his message or followed his personal example. His prose is both entertaining and deadly serious all at once, a difficult feat to achieve, but such an exciting combination. Like Sanders, he is a master at integrating personal story with a larger social message, which makes “Sweet Reason, Global Swarming” a tremendous read.
In “Against Simplicity: A Few Words for Complexity, Sloppiness, and Joy,” David Gessner wonders about the human desire for “more,” for the “sloppy life” that also encompasses creativity and change. He describes his own “un-simple and unsettled life” as one also capable of connecting to the natural world and its unfolding. He reminds us that Thoreau was “an antisocial crank…a single antisocial crank.” So, “Pardon me if I don’t take as my role model a teetotaling, spartan, socially awkward virgin,” he says. This essay adds a marvelous voice to this conversation.
Lauret Edith Savoy’s essay, "Pieces Toward a Just Whole,” extends the conversation in an absolutely critical way, questioning the class issues inherent in and largely left out of “simplicity” arguments. “What of those Americans who don’t have the freedom, agency or economic privilege to choose,” she asks. Like the other essayists here, she pieces together a whole from critical observation, historical record, and personal story, and her essay is, in some ways, the most original and the most powerful, for it is the least familiar.
Finally, Alison Hawthorne Deming, whose work is always lyrical and philosophical, and whose science always seems so acutely grounded, ponders the relationship between biology and culture. This is a beautifully structured essay with a compelling message, “Life is its own purpose,” she insists. The message may be simple (though I would argue it is actually pretty sloppy, in the best Gessner-ian sense of the word), but the essay is sophisticated and even lovely, motivated by passion for the earth and awareness of our inability (philosophically) to grasp and manage the simplicity necessary to preserve it.