Scott Russell Sanders Answers the Orion Questionnaire

Photo by Jim Krause/Staff Illustration

In which we get to know our favorite writers better by exploring the sacred and mundane.

Scott Russell Sanders is a Guggenheim Fellow, member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, career professor, and the author of over twenty books. He has published over a two-dozen essays with Orion and remained a close advisor for decades. We are delighted to now picture him under a black walnut tree, eating salted popcorn, shoulder to shoulder with his wife Ruth, gazing out over still water.


There’s a spider in the room; what do you do?

First, I fetch the mason jar and thin square of cardboard I keep handy for such encounters. Then I lean in close to see what this industrious critter is up to. When the spider grows restless under my scrutiny, I place the mouth of the jar over her, slip the cardboard underneath to seal off the opening, then step outside to release her to go about her ways.


What is your most treasured comfort meal?

Popcorn, cooked at home in vegetable oil, with a dash of seasoning salt. Cornbread with butter and honey is a close second.


Would you jump at an opportunity to go into space? Why or why not?

No, because there are more than enough wonders on our home planet to fascinate me, and because space jaunts have become the hobby of billionaire showoffs, and because the Hubble and Webb and other space telescopes reveal far more about the universe than one could discover on any rocket ride.


Have you ever been bitten by an animal, wild or domestic?

Multiple times by dogs in my country youth, farm dogs, mean dogs, mongrels with fangs bared chasing me on my bicycle and latching onto my ankle or calf, prompting three trips to the emergency room, painful rabies shots, and nightmares to this day. If we’re counting insects as animals, as we should, then I would add that mosquitoes and sundry other stinging, biting, nipping tinies have punctured me in many places and on many occasions.


Ocean, garden, desert, or forest?

This is cheating, I realize, but I would opt for an old-growth forest along the rocky coast of an ocean, or, away from saltwater, along the stony shore of Lake Superior or the sandy shore of Lake Michigan.


My favorite tree in the world is _____.

Black walnut, because it was my father’s favorite tree, and I loved my father. Mind you, I’ve never met a tree I didn’t like. Sycamores, I must add, are sexy. If you don’t believe me, check out the upper branches of an old sycamore and use your imagination.


Nature would be better without _____.

Us, alas. Nature would be better off without our reckless species. Mind you, I like humans—most of them, most of the time. I recognize that we’ve brought many gifts to Earth—language, music, art, science, mathematics, philosophy… You can make up your own list. At our best, but too rarely, we cooperate with the rest of nature. On balance, however, we’ve wreaked havoc. We’re clever but not wise.


What is something you’re looking forward to?

Again, I’m going to reconceive the question, because I dread most of what I envision happening—to people I love, to places and species I love, to most things that I value. So I’ll mention a few of the outcomes I’m hoping for: my son’s recovery from cancer; my wife’s surviving Parkinson’s disease with a lucid mind; the conservation and restoration of biodiversity; an end to poverty; the collapse of global capitalism; the abolition of nuclear weapons; peace on Earth.


Revisit Scott’s poignant examination of faith in the face of tragedy here


Do you like scary movies?

No! Images of battered bodies, blazing guns, bloodied knives, bruised faces, and other signs of cruelty and suffering stick in my memory and haunt me. Even Bambi gave me nightmares. So when my wife, Ruth, and I watch British mystery shows on TV—one of her favorite genres—I close my eyes whenever the music and setting suggest that an attack or corpse is about to appear, and she tells me when it’s safe to resume watching. Nothing fazes Ruth.


Do you have any unusual hobbies, hidden talents, or superpowers you’d like to share?

No hobbies, since every skill I practice has a practical purpose, such as growing food or building bookshelves or writing books. No hidden talents. But I do possess one superpower, which I share with all children and with many adults, which is the capacity to imagine something that is not present to my senses. A fictional character, for instance, or a distant planet, dialogue from scenes that never happened, a house before it’s built, a book before it’s written….


If you could make pancakes with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?

My father, to resume painful conversations that were interrupted by his early death; my mother, to spend time with the remarkable woman she was before dementia turned her into a stranger; Mark Twain, to elicit a few yarns and to thank him for opening literature to American speech.


Can you make any convincing birdcalls?

Nope. But I have a friend who can carry on dialogues with every owl native to Indiana.


What are some of your favorite words?

Spirit, kiss, oak, lavender, levity, community, soup, fetch, tornado, skunk, boisterous, beloved, beauty…


Who are some of your heroes or heroines, real or fictional?

Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, Harriet Tubman, Ursula Le Guin, Nelson Mandela, Jane Goodall, Jimmy Carter, Dorothy Day, Anton Chekhov…


You have twenty-four hours suspended from time. Where and how do you spend them?

Have you noticed that the word “spend” is suspended right there in the middle of “suspended”? What are we to make of that? As for what I might do in a spell outside of time, I’d have a good look at time itself, and ponder why it runs in only one direction while physicists calculate that it should also run in reverse.


Learn how to be still.


It’s six o’clock on a summer Saturday, you’re sitting with your feet in a cool creek and someone hands you the perfect beverage. What is it? 

Filtered water from that creek. I regret the need for a filter, but if this creek is on our human-devastated planet, it will carry toxins.


Are you a morning person or a night owl? 

Morning, early. I once spoke with a man who bragged about how late he slept, often well into the afternoon. “I’m a modern man,” he said. “Folks who wake up early are throwbacks, still afraid a saber tooth tiger might sneak up on them.” He glanced at me. “By the way,” he asked, “what time do you get up?” “Five a.m.,” I said. “Well,” he said, “everybody’s different.”


Do you remember your dreams?

Only the scary ones, often in graphic detail. The happy or funny or merely pleasant dreams leave an aftertaste, but no distinct memories.


Are you optimistic about the future?

Alas, no. But that does not keep me from telling every young person I meet why there are reasons for hope. Nor does it keep me from working on behalf of what I love.


Would you rather drink a piña colada or get caught in the rain?

Since I love rain and shy away from alcohol, I would opt for getting soaked rather than sloshed.


Sweet or savory?

Sweet foods, savory jokes.


What is a smell that makes you stop in your tracks?

Lilacs, in a near tie with the scent of dirt thawing in the spring or applesauce simmering on the stove for canning.


Which of your book subjects or characters haunts you the most?

Theme: the search for authentic grounds for hope. Character: Harlan Blake, protagonist in my novel Divine Animal.


Where did you grow up?

Upper Ohio River watershed, eastern hardwood forest, Great Lakes bioregion, half my youth inside an Ohio military arsenal that manufactured bombs, the other half on a small farm just outside the chain-link fences.


Are you the same person you were as a child?

Genetically, yes; otherwise, yes and no. I’ve carried certain values, tastes, and interests from childhood into elderhood—a fascination with science, for instance, a yen for country foods, a habit of politeness, a curiosity about God (whatever that word might point to), a passion for reading, a tendency to tear up when I witness acts of kindness, an aversion to anger, a sometimes crippling sense of responsibility to others’ needs, a goofy sense of humor, an almost comical devotion to thrift, respect for manual skills, love of language and Earth.


What song or album reminds you of high school?

On the social side: Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Pete Seeger’s “We Shall Overcome.” On the romantic side: Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s “Maria” from West Side Story.


What did an average Friday night look like for you as a teenager? 

Near science fair time, I might be in the basement working on experiments or at my desk drawing posters. On nights before basketball or baseball games, I would go to bed early with a book. Otherwise, I would be spending time with my current girlfriend, the two of us maybe studying for finals (true story), maybe taking a walk or stargazing, maybe going to a school dance or a movie, and often practicing kissing as well as a couple of steps beyond kissing, but never—in the vernacular of the day—going all the way. I was a naïve kid; still am, with sixty more years under my belt.


Read Scott’s thoughts on conscience and resistance in the face of war.


If you could live anywhere, where would it be?

Right where I am, in the midst of people I love, as well as land and creatures I know.


Do you step on sidewalk cracks?

Sure, unless I’m walking with a child who feels like skipping over them, in which case I skip along.


You’re in a deserted island situation for an unknown period of time. You get three items and one book. What do you bring? 

Three items: Ruth; a supply of vegetable seeds; a top-of-the-line Swiss Army multitool. Book: Webster’s New World Dictionary, so we can reimagine the rest of the world, bit by bit, through language


What would you like to be most remembered for? 

Being a good father, husband, and friend; being a caring teacher; and being the author of two or three durable books.


What flower would you want pinned to your breast after you die?

Prairie sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris).


If you could come back as any organism, who or what would you be?

I might have another go at being human, a person different from my present self; otherwise, maybe a red-tailed hawk, for the view, or a humpback whale, for the songs and the sea.

Scott Russell Sanders is the author of twenty books of fiction and nonfiction, including A Private History of Awe and A Conservationist Manifesto. The best of his essays from the past thirty years, plus nine new essays, are collected in Earth Works, published in 2012 by Indiana University Press. Among his honors are the Lannan Literary Award, the John Burroughs Essay Award, the Mark Twain Award, the Cecil Woods Award for Nonfiction, the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2012 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His latest book is The Way of Imagination: Essays, a novel, published in 2020.