Portraits by Indi Maverick

Love Grieves But Refuses Despair: An interview with David James Duncan

A conversation about spirituality, writing, and wild places

ONE MORNING LAST JUNE as I sat with author David James Duncan on his deck overlooking Rattlesnake Creek, David pointed to a blur moving across the creek. A black bear cub. We watched the cub rummage in the underbrush, then turn and scramble up the far bank. Our conversation resumed, and David remarked that bears give birth during their winter hibernation. In many ways David himself was just emerging from a long hibernation, a sixteen-year span during which he’d been writing what became the 784-page novel Sun House.

In Sun House we meet an unlikely cast of characters who form an unintentional community. This tribe of spiritual seekers pool their funds and purchase a 4,000-acre ranch near the fictional Elkmoon mountains of Montana, calling their community the Elkmoon Beguine & Cattle Company, or E.B. & C. Co. As the character Kale Broussard says, their community becomes a “thirty-person dryland lifeboat.” A cultural, ecological, and spiritual ark built to survive the polycrises of our time. Would that more of us had such a community.

“We Elkmooners are a diverse crew spiritually speaking,” another character says, “but it’s fair to say that all of us yearn for an inner and outer wholeness inseparable from Mother Earth’s life and wholeness. And though we don’t always like it, life on the E.B. & C. Co forces us to not just talk but walk the largest possible fraction of that wholeness daily.” Walking the largest possible fraction of wholeness is what David’s characters do, and in so doing they remind us of our own hunger for wholeness, and how far from that wholeness so many of us find ourselves.

This conversation unfolded over two days and involved a few wee drams of Lagavulin, belly laughter, tears, long pauses of reverent silence, and exactly two American Spirits, lit up in honor of David’s friends Jim Harrison and Bill Kittredge. 

—Fred Bahnson

Fred Bahnson: With Sun House you bring your love of Eastern wisdom literature together with your love of Western lands and peoples, creating a genre you call the “Eastern Western.” Your characters quote Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, The Bhagavad Gita, and Zen Master Dōgen. Were you daunted by the scale of such a project? 

David James Duncan: It didn’t feel that massive to me, because wisdom literature has always been an intimate part of my life. The first spiritual states I experienced were outside any religious or other institution, in the natural world, or at night on the edge of sleep. My love for wild places, particularly wild rivers, lakes, and streams, was shot through with a fondness for Jesus. The first time I walked up a stream with a fly rod in hand, the sentence “The kingdom of heaven is within you” suddenly made perfect sense. I was still in high school when I began weaving East and West together in my reading and outdoor adventuring. Trout fishing by day and Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha or Nikos Kazantzakis’s St. Francis by the campfire, for instance—but only if, to be honest, I was too broke for a bottle of wine!

When I went to India in my twenties—a pilgrimage successful beyond my wildest dreams—my experiences were so particular to me that I can’t share them in public. Thomas Merton says that spiritual secrecy is the guardian of spiritual integrity. By trial and error, I came to accept that wisdom. Our secrecy protects the prayer closet into which we go to meet the father or mother God “who sees in secret.” When I came home to the American West, I found I could preserve the states of wonder and consolation I experienced in the East if I trekked through wild places packing wisdom books and used them to sustain a kind of “portable India.” Cedar groves, high desert river canyons, mountain ridgelines, and anywhere there’s a variety of wild birds became some of my go-to places. No interest in bagging summits or standing among a thousand tourists taking selfies when Old Faithful goes off. Wandering mountains in the spirit of Han Shan’s poetry or Zen Master Dōgen’s Mountains and Waters Sutra does it for me. So does studying the lives and spirit of the 13th-century feminist mystics known as the Beguines.

I’ve been exposed to sources of hope—ancient, as well as recent—that get no play in the halls of power. In Sun House I wanted to place spiritual practices and what they contribute to one-on-one friendships and to communities front and center. I wanted this novel to feel like walking El Camino in Spain, or taking a month-long spiritual retreat in a place far from the nearest asphalt and fumes. 

FB:  You’re beloved as a writer about rivers, but mountains feature prominently in Sun House and are also a big part of your life. Why are mountains important to you? 

DJD: I grew up watching the sun rise over Mount Hood every morning, and felt blessed every time that beautiful silhouette came to life. My love for mountains then exploded when I was eight years old and my family went to the Wallowas. We camped on Wallowa Lake, but hiked up the west fork of the Wallowa River as it winds its way up a spectacular batholith, all whiteish granite and, higher up, fantastic landscapes of white marble. When I was nineteen I landed a dream job renting a couple of cabins and row boats on Aneroid Lake, seven and a half miles up the east fork of the Wallowa and four thousand feet above the nearest road. Unless I had guests in the cabins, which was rare, I was free to go crazy wandering mountainscapes as far as my legs could carry me. I loved reaching the marble in the heights, which makes the landscape so white and so vertical that it captures more light than any other kind of landscape. You’re literally flooded by light. As you climb higher the blue sky also gets darker because you’re reaching the indigo before the black of outer space. The sky’s emptiness up there is uncanny, and far from empty if you’re counting stars. The admiration of emptiness among the characters in Sun House was born of those one hundred days in high mountains. As the 13th-century Flemish mystic, Hadewijch, wrote, “In the deepest waters, on the highest gradients, Love’s being remains unalterable.” It truly does. 

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FB: In Sun House we meet the Lûmi, a long-lived but nearly invisible breed of pilgrims whose spiritual practice involves traversing a High Altitude Purification Loop. What inspired the creation of these mythical pilgrims? 

DJD: The fact that they aren’t entirely mythical. Think of Muir’s or Thoreau’s ecstatic wanderings in the wilds. The poet Red Pine tells us there are still Taoist wanderers in the mountains of China. In 2007 I spent time with Q’ero mountain wanderers in Peru. Why wouldn’t there be people who wander the mountains of our continent and treat this wandering as a spiritual practice like the Lûmi? My time in such places suggested that the only thing needed to create a practice would be adding wisdom literature to your days and nights up there, and being on the lookout for more experienced mountain wanderers. My decision to run with this idea started one night in about 2007 with a lucid dream. I dreamt, very specifically, the mythology and cosmology of the Lûmi in the novel, including their nineteen valleys, the 1001 peaks of their High Altitude Purification Loop, and some of their deepest beliefs. I woke up at four in the morning wondering what had hit me, wrote it all down in the semi-dark, and when I got up at seven and made coffee those dream notes held together beautifully, so I kept riffing on the Lûmi throughout the book. It can seem like the number of valleys compared to the number of peaks is insufficient to create a mythos, but the Rockies are a gigantic range, and when you traverse them, you learn there are a hell of a lot of peaks for every one river.

FB: It’s magical realism in a Western key.

DJD: Right, right. Realism is magical if you pay close enough attention.

FB: Sitting around a campfire high up in the Elkmoons, the character Gladys Wax tells a character named Grady: “In the high places of the world there’s a legitimate above world. An extra naturalness enters in. I’ve felt that in every high range I’ve visited.” Later she asks him “What does elevation do to consciousness?” This feels like a fictional depiction of what mystics call apophatic truth. I’m curious how you approached the paradox of writing about apophatic truth, which by definition is beyond language.

Revisit Fred’s “Ecology of Prayer” here.

DJD: For most people, I suspect the term “beyond language” means “out of reach.” To me, though, the term names a kind of language that exists, properly called “Beyond Language.” We find Beyond Language in poetry. We find it in the writings of mystics and saints. My heart is totally bhakti: the path of love and devotion, as opposed to the more severe Desert Fathers or stricter forms of Buddhism, like Vipassana. I’d rather slog up headwaters to reach high lake basins and ridgelines where I can commune with wild creatures and weathers and light-flooded landscapes of great verticality than sit zazen. If you apply attentiveness and concentration to high places you start to feel you’re sitting inside a beautifully biblical “In the Beginning.” In contrast, if some strict leader tells me I have to sit on a zafu for, like how many hours?, not even stretching my legs?, and I’m gonna get hit with a stick if I slump? [laughter], I start to feel like I’m back in high school trapped in the class of some mean teacher! The only beings hitting you with a stick in the mountains are the mountains themselves when the thunderstorms hit. Dōgen’s Mountains & Waters Sutra begins: 

Mountains and waters right now are the actualization of the ancient Buddha way. Each, abiding in its phenomenal expression, realizes completeness. Because mountains and waters have been active since before the Empty Eon, they are alive at this moment. Because they have been the self since before form arose, they are liberated and realized.”

That’s the teacher at whose feet I can happily sit for days and nights on end. There’s no question that gaining altitude with a full pack is damn hard work. But the teachers whose Presence you’re entering are the best I’ve found in the American West. When I try to speak of them in writing the language that arises is Beyond Language we can’t own. It just passes through us. The liberated and realized peaks tell us what to set down, or tell us to forget setting anything down. I don’t even know I’m there in the mountains’ and waters’ Presence. I don’t know if an “I” is at work at all. I just open up to an Allness and things flow out my fingers onto paper. Like my literary brother Brian Doyle once told me, “Our hands know things we don’t know.”

FB:  Part of dedicating yourself to such an ambitious novel meant pulling back from your more public work. After decades of activism, you realized you’d formed an alter ego whom your former wife called Citizen Dave, a person neither of you actually liked. You eventually came to the conclusion that Citizen Dave could not coexist with DJD the novelist. Would it be too strong to say that you chose art over activism? 

Elkmoon Marble, by Daniel Mathews

DJD: One spirit thread of activism I won’t relinquish is my lifelong connection with wild salmon. I continue to do salmon-related work but that work has changed. I’m now addressing the threats to Pacific salmon in mythological terms. I never felt I was able to bring soul language, Beyond Language, to my work when I was raising money for salmon defenders trying to sway members of a political system whose participants consider the idea of removing a lower Snake River dam threatening to their worthless little careers. The system is so broken the work became nauseating. The Army Corps and Bonneville Power Administration still have a stranglehold on the salmon narrative politically. But in people’s imaginations and hearts stranglehold has been overthrown by human love for the orcas millions cherish in Puget Sound. The thousand-mile swim of Tahlequah, that orca mother who carried her dead calf for seventeen days, brought people to tears all over the world, and her heroism had nothing to do with deadening words like “environmentalism” and “activism.” That mother’s act was absolute love and heartbreak for an offspring who died within a couple of hours of birth. Her marathon of mourning couldn’t have been as deeply expressed by Shakespeare. The ability of beautiful living things to live at all is at stake in our world and I feel better writing about the love and heartbreak that comes from this crisis than doing any sort of organizational “Save Our Wild Salmon” style work. Serving a system so broken it’s fatal to what we serve isn’t serving at all. The nature of the way I speak about things changed during the years I spent creating Sun House. Patrick Henry said, “Give me freedom or give me death.” I say, “Give me the language of love and heartbreak or give me silence.” Silence helps us attend to what’s life-sustaining. Political babble isn’t just life-threatening. It’s literally deadly, committing murder as I speak.

FB: This reminds me of Lewis Hyde’s wonderful book, The Gift. Hyde describes how art and commerce can’t coexist, which is why writers need agents to separate that process. You could say there’s a similar kind of oil-and-water effect with art and activism. If you’re trying to make art with an outcome-based utilitarian mind, it becomes propaganda. How do you think about creating art with love as the goal rather than a utilitarian end? 

DJD: Well, sometimes they coincide. The Biden Administration has finally begun taking definite steps to remove the four lower Snake River Dams despite the hand-wringing protests of Washington State’s senators and governor. I don’t know if I’ll live to see that removal, but at least it’s being pursued by some very capable people, and the Native tribes are again dreaming of getting their Eucharist species back. This gives me hope despite our national politics, and salmon themselves are the reason why.

Where you and I are sitting on the Missoula Valley floor was once hundreds of feet under freezing cold water. The ice dams that formed the gigantic Glacial Lake Missoula broke over forty times and scoured the downriver landscape with a force compared to which tsunamis look like ordinary surfing waves. Those floods caused boulders from this Montana valley to back-wash a hundred miles up the Willamette River to Eugene, Oregon, 660 miles from here. Yet wild salmon survived every one of those events! 

So what do we know about what salmon, or an evolved anadromous species very like them, might do in the future to continue the love-making that goes on between the Rockies and the Pacific? Life forms and climate on this planet are changing in very unpredictable ways. Much of that change will eventually be restorative. Another ice age is possible. To claim to know the future based on our current crisis is to romance despair. As a salmon worshipper to my last breath, I refuse to participate in despair. The current crisis may be a crucible out of which unforeseen wonders pour.

FB: You’ve been deeply influenced by 19th-century Russian literature. Your novels are especially influenced by Tolstoy’s kind of epic scale, at least The Brothers K and Sun House. They’re also influenced by Dostoevsky’s mystical leanings and existential angst. The character Jervis speaks of Ocean, a mystical presence from whom he receives “strobes.” He quotes Dostoevsky’s Father Zosima who said, “All is an ocean.” Were you consciously drawing on the Russian literary tradition in creating your Eastern Western? You could say there’s an analogy between the Russian steppe and the American West. Both vast landscapes open up a spiritual vista for the writer. 

DJD: The Russian classic novels were intoxicating to me at nineteen and twenty. Through Dostoevsky, I learned that Father Zosima is based on St. Isaac of Syria, who you and I both revere. I also love how, for all his fascination with madness and darkness, once in a while Dostoevsky goes off like an early Hippie Extraordinaire. An example: 

“Love all creation, the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light, love the animals, love the plants, love everything! If you love everything you will perceive the divine mystery in things, and once you have perceived it you will begin to comprehend it ceaselessly, more and more every day, and you will at last come to love the whole world with an abiding, universal love.”  

That’s not far from some of the language of Isaac of Syria himself. Tolstoy’s characters had feelings like these, too. But when he brings up the Man of Destiny and wants us to hate Napoleon as much as he does, he leaves the novel form and becomes a lit prof grinding an axe. I’d rather watch Andre moving through the stages of death again, or Pierre and Natasha falling in love. None of that power is in War and Peace’s tracts.

David James Duncan among the cedars, by Steve Pettit

FB: Russian novels also tend to be long. How did you think about length and narrative pacing as you were writing Sun House?

DJD: I wanted to go long, the way those two great Russians did. And in a long work, there are times when the voice of an essayist is needed provided it’s not a tract. Didactic language can leave the storytelling briefly and attack the novel’s themes directly to breathe fresh life into the storytelling. Milan Kundera does this brilliantly in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. When we briefly but directly attack the themes, it adds greater intensity to the actions and words of the characters when we return to the drama. But the key to a novelistic essay is that it needs to end with a question that reopens the storytelling, not in a statement. I was thanking Kundera when Risa wrapped up a novelistic essay on East and West by asking,

“Early each morning here on the Elkmoon, every man, woman, child, plant, creature, and geographical feature casts a westward-leaning shadow for the same reason: sunrise in the East. So I ask you. Has there ever been a Western without an Eastern Western beating like a broken open heart inside it?”

The Brothers K and The River Why are loaded with novelistic essays. I use this tactic less in Sun House because I was determined to emphasize the experiential in both the mysticism and the suffering.

FB: In one of our conversations over the years, you told me that you vowed to make this novel largely “an asshole-free zone.” So much of contemporary fiction uses conflict as the main narrative engine, but your work seems driven by goodness, mercy, and kindness. This is not to say that conflict and trauma don’t happen in this novel, but that’s not the main story.  

DJD: In a lot of modern fiction, the author condescends to characters, creating walking talking idiots in order to simplify and control them. I dislike the snark that comes of that unless it’s black comedy like, say, the skilled and very funny black Irish stories of Tom McGuane. I lack that talent. I aspired early to the direction Jim Harrison described perfectly when he wrote, “I like grit, I like love and death, I’m tired of irony. As we know from the Russians, a lot of good fiction is sentimental… The novelist who refuses sentiment refuses the full spectrum of human behavior, and then he just dries up… I would rather give full vent to all human loves and disappointments, and take a chance on being corny, than die a smartass.” 

Me too. In writing Sun House I was often trying to portray people more conscious than I am, more spiritually evolved, moving characters’ consciousness upward even though that’s an arduously demanding narrative direction. 

FB: Was it a writerly challenge to depict goodness?

DJD: You don’t want to come across as a Pollyanna. You don’t want to sound cloying or ignorant of reality. To avoid such dangers I lean on the writings of poets mostly. I could name twenty and get into all kinds of trouble, so let’s just say I love American poets who live in the borderland between matter and spirit and take mystics, saints, and spiritual experiences seriously. Christian Wiman. Jack Gilbert. Jane Hirshfield. Fanny Howe. I knew that to tell stories of this kind I was going to grapple with the kinds of losses that rip a life open. I also knew I would often fail and need to reimagine and rewrite. But I persevered.

You can avoid a lot of corniness if you bear in mind that life is loaded not with sweetness, but with bittersweetness, the way nature makes you feel both when you come across a beautiful high meadow in which whitetail fawn carcasses left by predators are also present. Every trout’s rise equals a dead insect of graceful beauty. Every hawk whose majestic soaring elates us is looking to make a kill. Every bald eagle cruising river corridors is watching for Canada goose goslings as easy to spot as chartreuse tennis balls. Keeping all of that plus the sufferings of the observers in play fends off smarmy nature writing. 

You can avoid a lot of corniness if you bear in mind that life is loaded not with sweetness, but with bittersweetness.

FB: One of your characters falls in love with the incantatory power of certain words. Did you have an early experience of such language and is that part of what drew you to the writing life?

DJD: One of the first places I felt the incantatory power of language was in 1960 when Green Eggs and Ham was published. Despite my horror of churches, I also found incantatory power in the Bible when the Gospels spoke, as Thomas á Kempis did, on the need to imitate Christ as impossible as that is! I was also drawn to Christic riddles like, “He that loseth his life shall save it.” Calmer phrases also stop me in my tracks, like Abraham seeing the Lord by the oaks of Mamre in the heat of the day, or even more obvious biblical events befall me—like an accusatory rooster crowing at me three times in real life!  

FB: I’m curious how you connected those early experiences of language to your love of rivers. 

DJD: One thing that comes to mind is that there are magic words, and there are also magic objects. Totemic objects. Iconic objects. [David gets up and retrieves two stones.]  These are net stones that weighted woven salmon nets to catch salmon in the Columbia River. These stones could be 11,000 years old. The Columbia and Snake River salmon tribes had one of the longest stable cultures anywhere, ever, till federal dams drowned their usual and accustomed fishing places and wiped out a gift of abundance great beyond our meager comprehension.

FB: You found these in the river?

DJD: Friends of mine did, and gave them to me when I said I’d like to restore them to the tribes when the first of the Klamath River dams are removed on the California border of Oregon. I hope to be there for the dam busting and give these stones to people whose ancestors made them. Feel the big one there, and think of the amount of time it took to smooth this stone, pierce it with a harder stone drill, and weave nets made of dried grasses and reeds strong enough to hold chinook salmon made of solid muscle that weighed up to a hundred pounds. An incredible technology, all done with human hands.

And here’s a totemic object I live with. [David gets up and returns with a fly]: An early icon for me was a fly called the Royal Coachman. I tied them as a kid but tying flies and writing all day leads to hunchbackism, and this fly is a size 18. I never got good enough to tie that small. It’s got royal colors, a peacock butt, peacock head, a torso of striking red thread in between, and a white bucktail. It doesn’t even imitate an insect, but when I saw them as a single-digit kid I felt strongly attracted, and the attraction grew stronger when, by simply changing the size of this iconic fly, I caught a hell of a lot of trout on Royal Coachmen. This 18 imitates a small mayfly that doesn’t even exist, and it’s named after the colors literal coachmen wore in England—as if we didn’t know those blokes and the royalty in their carriages had the heads and butts of peacocks! What a weird potpourri to become a great trout fly!

Lochsa in September sunlight, by Frederic Ohringer

FB: And then there is the totemic nature of the fish themselves.

DJD: To be standing, as I have many times, 650 miles from the Pacific and 5,000 or more feet above it and hook a steelhead that traveled there after traveling great distances through the Pacific as well, is deeply moving. And part of what moves me is, it faces almost certain death when it reaches its natal stream. There’s some kind of identification that happens that makes you think about your own birth and death in such a creature’s presence. What have you too left, and what will you return to? What sent you into years of ocean-wandering exile? When I started Sun House, I had the feeling that it was a Moses book for me. I felt that, like Moses, I would not be entering the Promised Land my novel depicts.

FB: What do you mean by that?

DJD: I began Sun House in a Promised Land, living my Montana dream. I then lost the dream, my home, and my marriage. 

FB: I’m guessing you didn’t foresee the end of your marriage when you began Sun House, but did you intuit that some kind of loss would result from writing this book? 

Revisit David’s thoughts about compassion and dissent here.

DJD: Let’s back up. It’s not for me to say why I lost what I lost. But what I carry forward from loss, gratefully, is that my loss sensitized me to people living with loss all over the West and the world. I wanted the hundred stories of Sun House to reveal a kind of compassion to people betrayed in countless ways. I wanted to depict nothing less than the compassion the holy fool Jervis calls “the insane mercy.” I wanted to give sufferers something greater than I have the power to give, but not greater than I had the power to feel in my heart and set down on a page. One of my favorite things about Moses is that he did not enter the Promised Land. Whatever his reward was, it came later, outside of scripture. I intuited I was on a similar path. And that didn’t dissuade me from trying to depict lives open to realities and practices that help hold life together for others, even under my own extreme duress. In a way, my duress was expected. And by accepting it, strange to say, my efforts to remain open and keep working began to help and heal a very unexpected sufferer: myself.

I hope the same was true for Moses when he failed to enter his Promised Land.

FB: Coming back to totemic objects, I’m thinking now of your essay collection River Teeth. I often teach the introductory essay to writing classes. [David gets up and brings over one of his river teeth, and a metal statue of a Buddha the same size as the tooth.]

DJD: Look at the resemblance between them.  

FB: Can you describe what we’re looking at?   

DJD: This is a spruce river tooth from Oregon’s Salmon River estuary, which I dug out of the mud it was buried in. It’s preserved by the high pitch content where the limb of a spruce tree met the trunk, forming in boards what we call “a knot.” The pitch content in some river teeth is so high that if you cut into them, they look like glass. Petrified pitch buried in water lasts for centuries. This tooth is likely far older than this little Cambodian Buddha [David picks up the metal Buddha sculpture], which looks so similar in shape and the way both are sitting at attention. We’re talking about things that exist in deep time. The spiritually bankrupt René Descartes said, “I think therefore I am.” The word philosophy literally means, love for Sophia, love of living wisdom. Descartes’ five-word truism isn’t philosophy. It’s a narcissist trivializing the essence of all human beings. René thinks, therefore he needs a meditation teacher to still his mind and lead him into Dōgen’s “heaven of no thought.” Pardon my grammar, but “We live, therefore we am!” Being is what we and all living things are here for. Jesus saw Descartes’s five-word truism coming sixteen centuries before it arrived and corrected it with his own five words of miraculous truth: 

                                               Before Abraham was, I am.   

FB: Earlier you mentioned that, in writing Sun House, you wanted to make grief beautiful. I wonder if you could say more about that. You had to deal with grief at an early age.  

DJD: Grappling with my brother’s death, I saw grief made ugly, and I saw grief made beautiful. The preacher at his funeral didn’t know John at all and spoke of nothing but pious hoo-ha. What was beautiful were John’s pall-bearer classmates, weeping as they walked him through the church. I can still see their beautiful tears. That’s what you learn to look for in an experience of loss. Over time such things sensitize you. Things I’ve written like the “Mickey Mantle Koan” essay about the baseball Mantle signed for my brother on his death day, which arrived the day he was being embalmed, led to pain followed by an epiphany that has caused a lot of people carrying big griefs to approach me, and we have quiet little conversations about the little mysteries that were sometimes revealed.

When I teach a writing workshop, I open it to grief and mystery immediately. I tell my students, “A lot of people in this group are carrying a big heavy sorrow. That’s why I run writing workshops as spiritual retreats. Your struggle, your grief, your bitterness are welcome in this circle. Anything you’re able to say is welcome. We won’t judge or critique each other’s grief. Coming to such a workshop at all means you’re holding something we’ll try to help you find words for.”

I converse with each student individually to hear stories too troubling to share with a group. Typically, these advertised “twenty-minute chats” almost always go on for over an hour. There’s something about a writing workshop, especially those we do on rivers, that is conducive to reaching depth. 

But what I carry forward from loss, gratefully, is that my loss sensitized me to people living with loss all over the West and the world.

FB: You’re wrestling with grief on the human scale on one hand, and also your grief for the natural world. How has your thinking shifted on the realities of climate change and biodiversity loss? You mentioned you’ve been reading more about the five great extinctions and you found hope in earth’s power to regenerate whether we’re here or not. 

DJD: I think of Joy Harjo’s great line: “Remember the earth whose skin you are.” We are not separate. We are her skin. Horrible things are being done to the mother whose skin we are on a massive scale, and something in most of us agrees with Cormac McCarthy’s dark assessment of humanity’s suicidal tendencies. But I’ve spent my entire life with wisdom literature, mythology, and forms of scripture that left me sensing that tremendous work has been done to help humanity turn a corner that very few have even glimpsed. Significant groundwork has been laid. But I would only tell you about that if we turned off the iPhone recording us. 

FB: There’s a growing recognition that something as daunting as climate change is not just a technological problem, it’s a spiritual problem. Where do you look for spiritual companionship—peers or older wisdom literature—to help you understand this time?  

DJD: If you can get quiet, be at peace, and go out of your way to cultivate and sustain friendships, you begin to gain access to people who are quietly doing very good things, and your life changes. When companionship in kindness becomes a constant, it frees us from the mind trap holding that causation, scientific knowledge, and “the news” are all we’ve got. Yes, there are unbelievable divisions between humans now. Chaos and violence are at their height. But many things are happening outside the bias of the specious product we call News. To expect the motto “If it bleeds it leads,” to guide us toward anything holistic or spiritually subtle is to expect the Easter Bunny. News addicts bar themselves from the sources of hope.

There’s an irony I must mention. I’ve sought sources of hope avidly, but the best hopes arrive in ways I can’t talk about without betraying the secrecy that guards the hope’s integrity. That’s why I chose to say what I know in novel form. The fiction comes close to revealing sources, but doesn’t. I feel uneasy even talking about this because the way hope is embodied in fiction is all-important. I’m trying to portray lives, not messages. Five keen senses, a powerful intuition, and a burning heart inform Sun House’s characters, and if I turn their embodied actions into a speech for the Rotary Club, I’ve killed my magnum opus. 

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David James Duncan is the author of the novels Sun HouseThe River Why, and The Brothers K, the story collection River Teeth, and the nonfiction collections My Story as Told by Water (a National Book Award finalist), and God Laughs & Plays. His work has won three Pacific Northwest Booksellers Awards, two Pushcart Prizes, a Lannan Fellowship, the Western States Book Award, inclusion in Best American Sports Writing, Best American Catholic Writing, two volumes of Best American Essays, five volumes of Best American Spiritual Writing, an honorary doctorate from the University of Portland, the American Library Association’s 2004 Award for the Preservation of Intellectual Freedom (with coauthor Wendell Berry), and other honors. David lives on a charming little trout stream in Missoula, Montana, in accord with his late friend Jim Harrison’s advice to finish his life disguised as a creek.

 Fred Bahnson is the author of the book Soil and Sacrament. His essays and journalism have appeared in Harper’sOxford AmericanOrionNotre Dame MagazineEmergenceImageThe Sun, and the Best American Spiritual Writing series. His essay “On the Road with Thomas Merton” won a 2020 Wilbur Award for Best Magazine Article from the Religion Communicators Council and was selected by Robert MacFarlane for Best American Travel Writing 2020. He has given keynotes at Yale, Duke, Georgetown, TEDx Manhattan’s “Changing the Way We Eat,” and most recently at the 2019 Halki Summit in Istanbul, where he spoke about religious responses to climate change before an international gathering of faith leaders convened by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. He lives with his wife and sons in southwest Montana.