Deborah Fleming’s essay collection, Resurrection of the Wild: Meditations on Ohio’s Natural Landscape was nominated for the 2020 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award in the Art of the Essay category. The only finalist published by a small press, Fleming’s book is devoted to exploring natural, agricultural, and wild regions of her native Ohio.
Fleming spoke with The Millions recently about wildness and cultivation, the relationship between humans and animals, and much more.
The Millions: As I was reading Resurrection of the Wild, I thought about a quote from Annie Dillard in response to a question asked by Life magazine in 1988: “What is the meaning of life?” Part of her response was: “We are here to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed.” I’m wondering if you might agree with Dillard, or what your response would be to the question.
Deborah Fleming: I couldn’t honestly say what the meaning of life is. I think the wild has more meaning than we do. We have to find our own meaning, but we mean nothing outside of the natural world.
TM: Your fellow nominees for the 2020 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award are all books published by big houses. How does it feel to be recognized as a small press author?
DF: I feel quite honored, overwhelmed, and humbled to be recognized among such distinguished authors from such well-known presses.
TM: An area like rural Ohio is sometimes dismissed as “flyover country.” What are people missing?
DF: They are missing rolling blue hills, deep valleys, lakes, diversity of the eastern deciduous forests, and beautiful farmland in counties like Tuscarawas and Knox. Every place has its own ecosystem and wildlife. The connection to one’s own place restores our connection to the Earth.
TM: You write about John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed. Beyond the mythos, who really was Chapman?
DF: Johnny Appleseed, the man, was much more interesting than the cartoon character he has been turned into. He lived during a very tumultuous and bloody time in history, when settlers sometimes clashed with native people and sometimes got along. He was close to settlers but also native people because he understood them and found a connection to the land. He came from Massachusetts and wandered across Pennsylvania, entering Ohio in what is now Jefferson County. He owned land in Licking County, and stayed with native people at Greentown, about five miles from where I live. He was a horticulturalist and Swedenborgian, a person who believed that everything in the natural world had an analog in heaven.
TM: Domesticated animals are clearly central to the lives of American families, but it seems there is often a fundamental tension between people and wild animals. How can we find more harmony? Or is this conflict inevitable and perhaps necessary?
DF: I feel that, more than ever, we need to do what we can to preserve wildlife, from insects to megafauna. Each one has its place in the ecosystem and when we harm one part, many other parts are affected. We can designate large tracts of land like national parks for wildlife, but we can also allow habitat on farms so that wildlife can thrive. We can, for example, fence off gardens to discourage deer but allow the deer to live in thickets and woods. Some farms can be more productive when tracts of land nearby are left uncultivated and wildflowers and trees are allowed to grow because beneficial insects and birds will move closer. Another example is to attract birds such as sparrows and swallows because they eat insects that feed on cultivated plants.
TM: You speak about returning to your home state after some years away. Can one truly go home again?
DF: I think in some ways people can “go home again,” perhaps with a new attitude widened by experience. Actually I think that “home” never really leaves us even if we leave it.
TM: I grew up on a farm and while I hated cleaning out chicken coops and bucking hay as a kid, now I miss it. In your essay “The Garden,” you speak about the difference between “necessary work versus drudgery.” Can you elaborate?
DF: It seems to me that necessary work means doing those tasks that must be done in order to sustain life. Work becomes drudgery when the worker feels no investment of the self in his or her work and someone else gains all the benefit. There is a certain satisfaction from cleaning chicken coops or horse stalls because the manure can become fertilizer. Putting up hay bales is very hard work, but when it’s done I feel satisfaction in that I will have enough hay for the winter.
TM: In your essay “Inhabitants,” you talk about the nature of “ownership.” The idea of “owning” something can feel so central to Americans. Is the urge to possess and dominate our surroundings a sickness?
DF: I think the urge to own vastly more than we need, especially in order to impress others, is a sickness. To possess something one loves and cares for, such as land, is not sickness but health. To possess something truly is to take care of it and be possessed by it.
TM: In our era of rising sea levels, burning forests, and the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, it’s easy to feel discouraged and deflated. Many of your essays are hopeful, though. Are there reasons to be optimistic about the future of the wild?
DF: Everyone’s life is diminished by loss of natural areas and wildlife, but we have to be hopeful even if we cannot feel optimistic. When people realized how destructive DDT was, its use was banned. In the 1970s, environmental laws were created that helped to clean up lakes and rivers. Strip-mined land was reclaimed with fertilizer and hardy plants. Forests like those in southern Ohio returned when settlers moved on. After replanting by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Mohican Forest was restored. If people had the political will, they could help bring the forests back and solve the problem of pollution instead of fighting with each other and denying the reality that human beings are killing themselves along with the natural world.