Tom Montgomery Fate: Interview

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Tom Montgomery Fate

August was the perfect time for me to interview Tom Montgomery Fate about his new book Cabin Fever: A Suburban Father’s Search for the Wild. I had just finished a long backpacking trip in Wyoming, and in my head I was still sifting through the differences between the backcountry and the frontcountry. A part of me desperately wanted to be outside under the big sky of the big West, while another part of me was glad to be back among my books and grocery stores with green vegetables. Is it always an either-or? Is there a place in between?

Fate explores this question among many others in Cabin Fever. The book moves between his suburban home in Glen Ellyn and a cabin in the Michigan woods. He reflects on our place in the two locations, the natural and the civilized world, and uses the words of Henry David Thoreau as his guide.

When we talked about how much Thoreau means to us, Fate said Thoreau teaches “lesser beings like me” how to live our lives. While we all may seem like lesser beings when we read Walden, Fate is a lot closer to the ideal than he may think. I found him an affable, intelligent, thoughtful man with a deep regard for the natural world and our place in it. On a sunny afternoon on the back porch of his home, with his bird feeder (which figures prominently in the book) only a few feet away, we talked for a couple of hours and were interrupted only once, by a cell phone. This is an edited transcript.

TriQuarterly Online: Can you tell me about your history with Thoreau—when you first read him, what he meant to you, what it means to return to him?

Tom Montgomery Fate: I read him when I was in college. I was very interested in this idea of living deliberately, and I think as a as a nineteen-year-old I was very taken with the intensity and intentionality of that idea. And then I read it thirty years later and looked up the word deliberation in the OED and was really interested to see that it has libra as its base. So this idea of Thoreau’s is offering a balance to modern readers, pointing out that we’re constantly in a balancing act between self and world. All of the chapters in my book were modern attempts at deliberation, though my choices aren’t so bold.

TQO: In the book you talk a lot about balance. There’s an image of you in the cabin listening to the birds and then at the same time listening to the highway. If Thoreau could strike the balance between the natural world and the civilized world (walking to Concord twice a week, for example), how is striking that balance different now? If there are fewer wild places to go to, what is the modern task of striking this balance?

Cabin Fever: A Suburban Father's Search for the Wild

by Tom Montgomery Fate
Beacon Press

TMF: I think the key would probably be attentiveness. Thoreau lived basically on a woodlot. By the mid-nineteenth century it was not a particularly wild piece of ground. He went into town every other day to catch up on the gossip, a town that was on a rail line. So he lived in a pretty ordinary place but was able to see all kinds of incredible things in the intricacy of the flora and the fauna, and yes, there was more of that then than now, but I think the process is the same. When I look out the picture window and watch birds on the feeders with my son Bennett, or see raccoons mating on this deck, or see a coyote come in . . . there’s a couple of things I’ve learned. One, you’ve got to be watching to see them. Second, what you know and what you’ve read and what you’ve studied and how long you’ve been attentive are what dictates how much you’re able to see. We all admire naturalists who have spent years and years in the woods and see all kinds of things we can’t.

So I can’t really say just how it’s different now from Thoreau’s day; we’re doing the same thing, and we may have less to see in some ways and more to see in others.

In the book I try to overtly acknowledge that the constructed world comes from the natural world, that they’re separate but they’re not. As we destroy one to make the other, there’s balance and imbalance. As we mine the steel and cut down the trees to construct , the existing balance is disrupted. The location of the fulcrum is always shifting.

TQO: So how does cultivating attentiveness relate to wanting to fight for and preserve the natural world?

TMF: This is the art–and-activism question, and I think they’re both important. I was very much an activist in college: I went to Nicaragua many times, I was very involved in Central American stuff, antinuclear stuff, went to Washington, DC, five or six times a year attending rallies and organizing rallies. I still admire that work and think it’s important. But I think art endures. If we learn how to see in the way that Thoreau and others imagined, then long term it will do more in the political world. I suppose the question is, do you become an educator and believe that the seeds we plant and the things we teach will take hold and have some kind of long-term effect, or do you go out and become John Brown for whatever your issue is, for whatever injustice you need to fight against right now?

All of this is affected for me by having kids and a family. I have a very real daily responsibility that I didn’t have previously. Trying to introduce them to issues of social conscience and the environment is slower than simply being an activist.

TQO: Sometimes being an activist and fighting for a cause at the cost of art can be depleting. You have a finite amount of energy you can expend, and then you’re depleted.

TMF: Absolutely. I have felt that, and I have seen that in folks I’ve worked with, especially in the antiwar movement. What was very engaging for me in Central American solidarity in the 1980s and 90s was going there a lot, learning the language, being engaged with another culture—much more than the issues.

But art is creative, and with activism sometimes you presume loss, you presume the end, you presume that you can’t win, you presume all kinds of things. I used to teach [Thoreau’s] Civil Disobedience in my freshman comp classes, and I would have a speaker come in who had done a year in prison for civil disobedience. You always get into these interesting conversations, and one of them was about the civil rights movement—the reason it was successful was that they broke the laws they wanted to change. They didn’t violate trespass laws because they wanted to change US foreign policy; they wanted to eat at the all-white counter. The people that were oppressed, the victims of injustice, changed their reality.

TQO: Glancing at the title of the book, I immediately think about your cabin in Michigan, but the book exists in your two homes, moving seamlessly between the two.

TMF: Part of the idea was that this was supposed to be accessible to people who lived anywhere. After I got the contract and was working on the book, I realized that each chapter was going to be an act of deliberation. I was really trying to create some sense of thematic unity and coherence. One way was this undergirding idea of libra, and liberation, and the other was the movement between city and town, between country and suburb. And I was also trying to blur the difference between the two. At the end I mention that the train line goes up [near the Michigan cabin] and it’s becoming a suburb, but there are coyotes here—just trying to blur that stuff.

TQO: It seems like some people might dismiss Thoreau if you think you’d have to go that far into the woods and isolate yourself as he did.

TMF: There’s this wonderful quote early in the book where Thoreau says, “I would not have one live the way I do, I would have each person live his own way.” That’s the focus on the freedom of individual; it’s essential in this book. I don’t view him as a particularly political animal; I know some folks do, but I think his political morals are basically all tied to his sense of the connection of the human animal to the natural world and the resulting sense of responsibility.

TQO: One thing I’m always struck by with Thoreau is that he was a rare thing: he seemed like a genuinely happy man. And you call him “Mr. Positive with a capital P.” How do you explain this? Do we have a guess? Is he just neurochemically built this way? Is there something he did?

TMF: I had a year’s sabbatical and read his journals, and there are definitely moments of depression. There’s an up-and-down movement in his life. The self rendered in Walden is idealized. In “In the Maine Woods” he’s a different person, so I think he evolves. He moved from writing about self to writing about the natural world in 1851–61. That may have been the happiest time of his life, when he was just writing the natural history around Concord. IBased on his journals, moments of being blue, or indecisive, or second-guessing himself seem much less common in the last five years of his life.

Look at his relationship to his brother. He went into a depression over his brother’s death—for a month he was in bed. He was pretty highly wired in some other ways too. We don’t know a lot about some of his relationships; in fact, maybe we are too dependent on print to know about the ebb and flow of his life. But in print, and probably much of the time, he was an extremely optimistic person. I think this was partly because he refused to let anyone else control his time. He had complete control of his life.

So he was a happy person, unusually optimistic and energetic. I don’t know if we would have experienced him that way, though. What did other people say about him? Not that he was a wonderful person. He was nice to kids, but a lot of people who wrote about him said he was cantankerous. If you read all the letters about him, there’s very few people who say he was a lovely man. But as an individual, internally, he was very balanced. He seems to have been very at home with himself. That’s what I really admire. This is a guy that has a sense of belonging; he’s reconciled his longing with his being: he be-longed. And that’s something that really attracted me, something I’ve always admired about him.

TQO: His cantankerousness might be part of the reason that he wouldn’t let anyone control his time, that he didn’t ever feel he needed to accommodate anyone.

TMF: Even antisocial. There are all these little details in Walden that people gloss over, and one of them is that he never looks up. He looks at the ground all the time. This is all over the journal. And he says it himself: “I rarely look up.” Well, that’s a different worldview—I don’t know anybody who does that. If I did, I would perceive that the person was insecure, which of course is the antithesis of Thoreau, who is very at home with himself. I admire his honesty, his self-knowledge. He made a life out of knowing himself, making his life a work of art, or as he would say, heroic. And now hundreds of thousands of people are benefiting from that individual courage.

TQO: In many passages you write about how Thoreau belongs, how he’s resolved to the world, he found a wholeness, he’s present in the moment, et cetera. How much of that is something he deliberately developed in himself—something that perhaps we could go do ourselves even if we’re not constituted like him?

TMF: I think some of his teachings help lesser beings like me do that. One is to figure out what matters to you, follow what you love, and believe that it will lead you where you need to go. Which is totally antithetical and anticultural. That’s what I tell my freshman comp students on the first day of class: How will you know when you’re educated? You’ll know if you’re passionate about something, if you know what you love and you believe it will lead you where you need to go. That’s it. That’s a good education. So he has a good education and he models that.

With Thoreau it goes back to self-knowledge. If I have an instinctive love of dance, an instinctive love of writing, or an instinctive love of working with my hands, everything in the culture shouldn’t work against that. I’m making huge generalizations here, but that’s one of his ideas, going back to transcendentalism: there’s something in you, and you don’t repress it, you don’t try to fit it in a box.

TQO: You said that Thoreau was so protective of his time and didn’t let anyone else dictate it. There’s a sense in your book that we’re all so short on time.

TMF: The longing for Thoreau is the longing for that sense of time. I like the Greek terms kairos and chronos. Kairos is time that is unending, loaded with meaning, immeasurable. Chronos time is measurable time. In town, in Concord, Thoreau imagines all the people ticking off their to-do lists and compartmentalizing their tasks and time, while he lives in this unending moment out in the woods.

It wasn’t that long ago in this country (in my grandpa’s time) that light marked the end and the beginning of the day. I think it was a huge loss for us as animals, beings connected to the natural cycle, for light no longer to measure time, replaced by little beeping things we put everywhere.

TQO: I was wondering how these themes of Thoreau are incorporated in the raising of your children. Do these ideas come easily to a child, or is it a huge battle against the inertia of the culture?

TMF: I think both. It’s definitely a huge battle, but children also have a natural honesty about things; everything isn’t muddied. There’s such an honest and clarity to a kid’s language. Kids keep you honest. They keep me honest and closer to the natural world.

TQO: To find the natural world as interesting as it is, do we need to go through a withdrawal from our modern lives?

TMF: Television stops us from attending; it attends for us. When Bennett and I watch birds out here, it’s a different way of being in the world.

That’s another thing that is misunderstood about Thoreau. I really don’t think he was antitechnology; he was against the diminishment of the human being’s capacity to belong to the natural world, which is not the same thing.

TQO: Does it seem to you like there’s something stirring, something afoot? Because there seem to be a lot of voluntary simplicity experiments, there’s the documentary No Impact Man, Barbara Kingsolver’s book about eating local, and so on.

TMF: People are sensing the limits of the environment, and they know what’s coming in terms of the doubling of our population. And somewhere in the back of their minds they figure this is not going to work. So a lot of creative people are helping us think about how to make it work, or how to make it work better, or to give us some sense of our limitations.

TQO: Is it that people sense we’re on the brink of something? That there’s not that much time left?

TMF: I don’t know. Our approach to the economy suggests no, that we basically still are wild consumers without the ability to think beyond two years, three years. Even President Obama, whom I much admire in many ways, has very little moral courage related to the environment or militarism. I’ve read my “Art of Dying: Art and Activism” essay in a number of places, and I read it at an environmental conference, and people asked what it has to do with the environment. And I said, what it has to do with the environment is that there will be no green economy until we stop the military economy. It’s that simple.

But it’s amazing how many people are interested in Thoreau still, everywhere I go. Somehow he hit a chord. That longing for self-knowledge, for a sense of being at home wherever you are, for connection to the natural world, for individual autonomy, somehow has endured.

TQO: Is there something you hope your readers come away with?

TMF: I hope, as a lot of writers hope, that readers find themselves in the experiences, a story they can tell to themselves or with themselves, a sense that this is their story too. I hope they encounter invitation and engagement at the same time: . . . this is ordinary experience. The ordinary is religious.

The idea of religion and what religion could mean, I think, is something Thoreau offers us, that the ordinary is religious or spiritual . . . the idea of tying us together, that we all need to tie things together. For me Thoreau is the great interfaith includer. I love how he uses religious language to help us understand how it’s a part of our daily lives.