Photo: John Martins
Photo: John Martins

Rock and a Hard Place: An Interview with Lauret Savoy

For Lauret Savoy, the American landscape is both a refuge and a provocation. In her work as a writer and geologist, she parses layers of the land and human history, drawing connections between place, identity, and the hidden past. Fittingly, Savoy’s new book, Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape, is also a many-layered thing. It’s the product of a long inquiry into America’s complicated physical and cultural origins, and the silences that have marked Savoy’s life as a woman of color. “To re-member is to know that traces now without name…still mark a very real presence,” she writes. “To re-member is to discover patterns in fragments. As an Earth historian I once sought the relics of deep time. To be an honest woman, I must trace other residues of hardness.”

Over the course of her career, Savoy has sought to challenge and reshape the genre of environmental writing. In 2002—with an expanded edition in 2011—she and the poet and nonfiction writer Alison Hawthorne Deming coedited the influential anthology Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity and the Natural World. It was inspired in part by a pair of troubling questions Savoy was repeatedly asked: Why isn’t there more writing about nature by people of color? And: Why don’t more minorities care about nature? With contributions from writers from a wide range of cultural and disciplinary backgrounds (including Nikky Finney, Jamaica Kincaid, Yusef Komunyakaa, bell hooks, and Joseph Bruchac), the anthology highlighted the relationship between identity and place in ways that much writing about the environment tends to overlook.

The questions that guide Savoy’s most recent book continue to inform her writing. She’s currently at work on two new projects: One, an outgrowth of the last chapter in Trace, about digging into the past of her father’s family, and their roots in and around Washington, D.C. The second project also focuses on her father, who died when Savoy was a teenager. Some years ago she uncovered a box containing manuscripts of novels, journals, and letters he’d written, and with it “evidence of a man I never knew,” as she told me when we spoke on the phone earlier this month. The book it helped inspire, she says, is “a dialogue back and forth across decades” with a man whose drive to tell stories turned out to be closely aligned with her own.

An editorial board member for the environmental journal Terrain, Savoy’s writing has appeared in Orion, The Georgia Review, and The Daily Beast, among other publications. She lives in the rural town of Leverett, Massachusetts, and is a professor of environmental studies and geology at Mount Holyoke College.

Starting with its title, it’s clear that Trace is an exploration, that you’re writing to answer questions you care about deeply—writing “in search of….” What was it was like to do that writing? How did you turn that spirit of inquiry into the arc of a book? 

I grew up in a family with very little spoken memory. Growing up within an atmosphere of silence just left me wondering: Who am I, where did I come from, who are my ancestors? I believed even at a young age that I needed to have some sense of answers to those questions to really have a future.

The pieces in Trace began as essays, as attempts to try to find something concrete, something understandable that I could make a story of my life around. Each chapter really began with a search into a place, a question asked of a place, or a memory of a place. The American landscape was in some ways the template, but also the trigger, to each of the searches. In response to the questions, to the unknown, the search involved considering myself in that place, my experiences there, and the experiences of others that have preceded me that perhaps I didn’t know about, or that have not been told in popular history.

If you imagine a mosaic or a collage, each piece was a fragment. One fragment could be arranged next to another fragment in different ways. Bit by bit, I was creating something that was larger than each individual piece—larger, meaning that it began to make sense to me.

So much of your work is about those connections: How do they reveal themselves to you? Do you see them immediately or find you have to dig for them?

When I began college, I didn’t want to major in any one particular thing, because my interests were so broad. For me, those interests were all connected, but it seemed that the disciplines or fields that one could choose in college had borders that were artificial. I wanted to be a studio art major, and my interests were always around the patterns and textures of landscape. And then, because I was discouraged from pursuing it, I turned to thinking about American history. Again, that was about relationships with landscapes, how people have lived on the American land through time. Eventually I picked geology, or earth science, as my major, because I thought that having a scientific understanding of how the Earth is put together—what its history is, what the structure and materials are—would allow me to bring in all of the other pieces.

I went to Princeton University over three decades ago. There were a few faculty members who told me that I had no business being there, because of my gender and because of my skin color. So while I was drawn to geology out of interest, and thought that having a scientific underpinning would be helpful, I need to be honest: I also thought that by having a scientific background, those people who had rejected me earlier would begin to take me seriously.

That struggle was also partly a struggle within myself: trying to trust myself, believe in myself, and recognize that the dreams or wishes I had as far as academic or creative interests were valid, that they were worthwhile. And I really did have to struggle for years.

Once you had that scientific expertise, I imagine you encountered some obstacles when you tried to bring cultural history and identity into a field that people like to think of as “neutral.”

I don’t think any science is neutral or objective. There are colleagues in the field who would think that what I’m doing now or what I’ve written in Trace definitely is not science. But doing purely, strictly scientific research was never my goal. I always worked with the eye to, or the hope of, integrating multiple perspectives into reading landscape and our history in the land.

You’ve talked about loving the outdoors from the time you were a child, about some of these lines of inquiry beginning in childhood. Did writing have a similar role in your life, or did that come later?

I’ve always written. And there’s always been the wish to write. What has not always been there is the sense that I could do it. I really did struggle a long time to believe not only that I had something worth writing, but that I had the ability to do it. The significance of words—and words as a foundation not only for self-identity but as a means of expressing one’s deepest ideas—has been important to me for as long as I can remember. It’s just the way I’ve done it that’s changed over time.

How has it changed? How have you seen your voice develop as a writer?

One of the best ways to put it, as far as developing as a writer, is getting out of my own way. I started the book that became Trace more than a decade ago, but I threw away quite a bit of it. Then I reached the point of recognizing that if I could make a promise to myself to at least not throw it away—as one would discard something that is not only tattered but is ruined—then bit by bit, I could build on those pieces I kept. They may not be perfect, they may not be lovely, yet there could be something that begins to grow. Of course, there’s editing: There are changes. There are revisions. But that’s really what happened: I stopped throwing away my own voice.

I suspect that’s one reason why I stuck with geology in college. I might not have had the language then, or even the concrete ideas of the connection. But it felt connected. It felt as if there was a link between understanding the earth and understanding one’s place in this country. It felt as if the layers or strata, and the fragmentary nature of bedrock, were very similar to the layers of human life and the fragmentary nature of our histories, and of our memories. I thought that by understanding that and entering the topics with a geologic eye, a geologic ear, it might give me more of a sense of what I had been searching for since childhood.

How has nature writing changed over the years you’ve been connected to it? How is it continuing to change? Do you think there’s been progress in bridging this “gap between social injustice and environmental destruction,” as I think you’ve put it?

Of course there’s been progress, and of course more progress needs to be made. One of the changes in nature writing has been an expansion in the definition of what it is: There is a welcoming of more voices, more topics, more issues, that really do recognize that the environment is much larger than wilderness or preservation or backpacking. That it’s about looking at everything from the impact of climate change on one’s backyard to how environmental change is shaping communities large and small—from urban communities in a city like New Orleans to nations across the globe. And it’s also more than climate change or pollution of the air we breathe or the water we drink—it’s recognizing, too, that nature writing can consider the circumstances, contexts, and conditions in which we all live.

When it comes to your own writing and your writing life, what comes naturally to you, and what’s the most challenging? 

What really comes naturally are the questions. They begin a process of searching. The questions define the paths I will take to go about trying to answer them. The questions are always there. The hard thing for me is finding a way to honor the questions and not let them slide by or disappear. That has happened far too much: Some of the earlier drafts of Trace were based on questions that I let go of, or that I thought were not valid enough, or that I thought others would not find any connection to or would not be touched by. And I let them go. I wish I hadn’t done that.

You mean the questions that guided earlier drafts—you didn’t feel like you could pick up on them again?

It’s not that I didn’t think I could pick up on them again—I closed the door on them. In throwing out those drafts, I had to start over.

So you really threw them out? You got rid of the drafts completely?

Oh, they’re gone. I have a wood stove. Some of them were burned; some were recycled. They’re gone. It was a time of not trusting my voice, not believing that I had anything worthwhile to say—and acting on that. I know the questions that have arisen since then have been informed by what has gone before. I just wish that I had believed enough in the validity of what I thought and wondered about earlier.

How does place influence not just what you write about, but your writing itself? Does where you are or where you’re situated spark different things in you and affect how you work?   

I’m very much taken by what a place is. Whenever I travel to a new place, I have to sense it from early morning till late at night, to pay attention to what I can see, what I hear, what I smell: I mean truly, to sense it. And sense its daily rhythms. I need to be in a place that I feel comfortable in, and to feel comfortable means that I have to begin to know it. I have to walk the streets or alleys or roads or fields, or the deserts—to be out there in it and listening to it. And I have to begin to feel that I can be in that place. Not just on it, not just passing through, but attentive to what it has to offer. At that point, I can feel comfortable turning the gaze inward as well, to see what comes out.

And so I cannot do this work at the college; there are too many distractions, too much going on. I can work at home, and I love it here in my home. I live in a house that’s off a long dirt road, by a forested hill and stone walls that were built two centuries ago. It’s quiet here. Quiet in the sense that it’s away from city sounds or most human-made sounds. But not quiet if you go outside and listen to what the landscape offers. At the same time, I can write in a city: I can write in Washington, D.C., a place I know, or have known, as a child. So I think familiarity in some ways is important. But it can be familiarity that is new—that is based on the new experience of coming to know it.

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