Staying Put: An Evening with Scott Russell Sanders: Part 1

by Jan 2, 2019

As part of The Mill’s launch in November 2018, a full week of events were held showcasing the programming, and the promise of The Mill as a center for innovation of all kinds. In keeping with that mission, The Mill selected a Bloomington literary giant, Scott Russell Sanders, whose book Staying Put was selected as The Mill’s inaugural book club selection. Scott Russell Sanders was interviewed by Jane Martin, Board Chair of The Mill and retired venture capitalist. What follows is Part 1 of a transcript of this conversation, which has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Jane Martin: For our book club we’re starting with Scott Russell Sanders. Scott Russell Sanders is the author of over 20 books, an emeritus professor and an icon for Bloomington, but I want to read you something that he wrote about Bloomington because I think it sort of captures what we. What we here in The Mill are trying to do here with place.

Scott says, “There’s 20 cities and towns in the US named Bloomington, ranging from Pennsylvania to California. Chances are each of those places was given the name in hopes that life would flourish there. I can’t speak for the other 19, but life has certainly flourished here in Indiana. Where else could you shop at the farmer’s market next to Buddhist monk, a nuclear physicist and a world-class cellist? Talented people are drawn here from across the nation and around the globe by Indiana University. The presence of a great university also helps create an enthusiastic audience for live performances, so Bloomington is able to host music and arts events on a par with cities, many times its size, but without the traffic and high ticket price of many businesses have launched here. Other businesses have relocated here providing a distinctive array of services and products for medical devices to the film industry. The is large enough to support your children’s Science Museum, a land trust, PBS and NPR stations, as well as community access radio and television stations. An excellent system of public parks and trails and a host of nonprofits that serve people in need. The city is small enough for an individual or a small group of people to enrich our common wealth by establishing a community orchard, a theater company, a shelter for women and children, a clinic staffed by medical volunteers. We love education and we’re willing to pay for it. We cherish the nearby forests and streams and we invite nature into our city. Come have a look.”

This book reminded me of the story of Clara Schumann, lying underneath Chopin’s piano, letting him the music just drown her with its beauty and that’s how I felt reading this book. So I want to ask you, what do you mean, Scott, by Staying Put?

Scott Russell Sanders: It’s often misunderstood by people who didn’t read the book. Many people assume this is especially for young people, which is that wherever you are you should stay there. That’s not what it’s about. Very few Americans have the luxury of going back home was wherever they grew up. Education will take them away. Employment will take them away, and relationships will often take people away from the places where they grew up. This is especially true for people who grow up in small towns in America. The people who do have that option tend to come from large cities, where opportunities abound. Staying put is listening to that contrary voice, my voice to what our country is. It’s gaining a deeper rewards from recommitting ourselves to a place and making a difference in that place, wherever that place might be. Learning deeply, developing direct relationships with people, with nature, with institutions in a place. Our culture tends not to emphasize the value of that kind of commitment and deep communal connection. It seems to between our attitudes towards stability of the place and stability of relationships. Those relationships might be with a partner. They might be relationships with friends or community or a cause or a profession or a vocation.

So instead of being water striders, constantly skipping around, looking for something better, we decided to stay here. My wife and I came to understand that this was the right place for us. Bloomington was the right place for us. It’s not the right place for everyone in the same way that Manhattan is not the right place for everyone. No one place can be a place for every person who might be there, but we found that Bloomington was for us. This was a very good place for us and therefore we made a conscious decision that we would stay in there and so as job offers were coming in and worries would come in where we would go visit some beautiful place, beautiful places in this country. We weren’t constantly thinking: “Should I follow up on that job possibility that would take me five states away,” or, “Should I go to this place where I can see the ocean?”

We didn’t constantly question where we were. What we were invested in therefore gave us the ability to invest in ourselves and our kids and our relationships. We have friendships that go back to the first year when I came to Bloomington. It’s been 47 years that we’ve lived here and we embraced this place. I don’t know if my life should be some kind of model that others should follow, but I do know that because we’ve invested in Bloomington, it’s nourished us, and investing in where you live, in your community can make a real contribution to your quality of life.

Jane Martin: Scott, talk about crickets. You recount a wonderful way to calculate temperature, and then I want to read a beautiful excerpt on crickets. I remember it. If you need a refresher,

Scott Russell Sanders: There’s specific species of cricket which in the summer will tell you the temperature, like counting how many clicks there are in 15 seconds, you add 37 degrees, and that’s roughly the temperature in Fahrenheit

Jane Martin: I’d like to read from that passage. “My furtive mind keeps starting off loping through a lifetime of books, reading memory, jumping ahead into the future, visiting countries where I’ve never set foot zig zagging through the cosmos and why not? When the fiddling have a cricket is tuned to the temperature which is driven by the weather, which is linked to the earth’s tilting spin, which is governed by all the matter in the universe. Why shouldn’t one gamble about? Only risky roping thought can be adequate to such a world.” That’s such a darn good sentence!

Scott Russell Sanders: That’s a pretty good sentence! He says conceitedly [laughs].

Jane Martin: There are things that one can only get from books. Can you talk about that?

Scott Russell Sanders: My sister taught me to read when I was four. When she came home from school to play “school” with me, and she would sit me down and teach me what the teachers had been teaching her. I was 12 when I saw my first television set in a hardware store window. This was in a small town in Ohio, and television was all anyone could talk about. It was an exciting thing to see, but all I could bear to do was look at the screen in the hardware store window and go back home.

I still don’t find television to be an effective medium of delivering consumable images as books are. This is a small town in Ohio and it had around the circumference of the football and consumable pictures that was all spent watching television and friends at school who talked about television. It’s exciting thing and I looked at the screen window and went back home and some channels and so forth, but I still don’t find television is the medium in which it’s an effective delivery system that is just as good for me as words on paper in terms of storytelling. I do see movies. And you can probably look at me and say, “This guy’s a PBS watcher who likes nature documentaries,” and you’d be right. And other media can do things that books can’t. But for me there’s still no substitute for words on paper.

Words on paper and especially words that can go on long enough to sustain an argument or to elaborate on a piece of history or profile a life, words that gone on long enough to amount to something are what we need in order to confront complex issues in the world. We live in a time when the words that people take in are shorter and shorter. Bits that are able to grasp. Think of billboards, or tweets, or text messages and even emails, they are short and fragmentary. And those are all intimate, invaluable forms of communication, they’re not forms of communication that can deal with things that are complex. Words on paper can do that.

And the issues that words on paper can confront are large and looming like climate change. Those kinds of issues are not going to go away easily. I’ll die probably before this country goes over the precipice, but my grandchildren and your grandchildren, if you have mentioned die before, that collapse, what are we going to do about that? You cannot address those issues in an email, you cannot address those issues in a podcast. You cannot address those issues in a tweet or a text message. We needed a bigger grasp to understand what drives complex problems like climate change. The way that words on paper can engage us can show us the need to change the conduct of our lives or we can’t account for a context rich life. For example, Michelle Obama’s forthcoming memoir. I look forward to reading and I’ve read a few excerpts online. But how could anyone have given an account of a life that she has lead? It had to be in a book. You can’t do it in a film.

Whenever you see a movie based on a book, it tends to be disappointing, and the reason is that you can only tell the story that you’re able to tell in the format that you give it, and you can’t recount all of the intimate and necessary details in an accounting of a life in 90 minutes, which can sometimes only be about 20 pages long. You can tell an interesting story, and it would certainly be richness there. But Michelle Obama could not tell her life very adequately in a film. But she can tell it very well in a book. There’s so many ways in which books where ideas, arguments, histories lives larger than ourselves.

A couple of years ago, the science fiction writer Ursula K. LeGuin passed away. LeGuin once wrote about stories as a container, like a basket. We tell stories with stories or something that matters the same way that our, ancestors first made containers. To hold seeds, to hold water. Native Americans made baskets that were watertight so they could hold would hold water and also a little fire. And so our ancestors used stories as containers. To hold knowledge, jokes. We still need those kinds of stories and they can be told in a variety of mediums but they are not told anywhere better than books. Those are my reasons for feeling that we still need books and a great teaching opportunity to be able to make books.

Jane Martin: I might just add to that. I think we are going back to our very, very early ancestors, storytellers, and we sort of carry the long arc of that history in our evolution, and I can remember a great storyteller in the school of Informatics. Marty Siegel once said, “You could tell me, Jane, the 10 lessons of being a good entrepreneur, and I would walk out into the parking lot, and I would forget what was number three. But if you tell me a story that demonstrates the characteristics of a good entrepreneur, I may not remember the specific details, but the lesson is embedded in that story.” And so there’s the power of stories that can only be told through books or an oral tradition.