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Talking with poet and naturalist John Caddy, winner of the 2012 McKnight Distinguished Artist Award
One thing about Minnesota that’s so amazing is that, without much effort or thought, one’s time can be split evenly between a creative urban environment and a wondrous wilderness. It’s also the kind of place where someone like me, who hasn’t even been camping since I was a teenager, has the opportunity to talk to one of the most talented and passionate contemporary nature writers.
For the occasion of his being honored with the 2012 McKnight Distinguished Artist Award—an award that, now in its 15th year, is given to one artist each year and comes with a hefty $50,000 cash prize—John Caddy gave me the opportunity to chat with him over the phone about the award, nature writing, and the poet’s life as a stroke survivor. While I, as noted earlier, am not particularly an “outdoors person,” be this either by profession or fate, talking with Caddy made me wish, in some respects, that I were.
Caddy, 75, is a lifelong resident of northern Minnesota, and poet extraordinaire. He has written numerous books of poetry (four of which have been published by Milkweed Editions) about the lands, critters, and environment. A “student of nature” in terms of both his formal and informal education, Caddy has a love for the Earth that is hard to come by these days. In 1994, he suffered a stroke that slowed him down, but did not destroy him or his drive to write.
There has been some talk lately about how nature writing is dead. Why do you believe people are saying that, and do you agree?
Utter nonsense. Never a shortage of damn fools. That's a city person's perspective on the world. An urban notion but not urbane.
Well then, what is the future of nature writing?
There's a lot of ignorance. There's a nature deficit right now, but nature writing is at a peak, and it's going to stay there for a while. A lot of people are gradually realizing that we are nature and that our longing and our hopes reside there in many ways. We're even afraid of what's been natural within us for a long time, and we're busy demonizing nature. People are worried these days that nature is pissed at us and is actively trying to get back at us, but this is pure idiocy, it's like blaming yourself for stubbing your toe. Americans are learning that we screwed up. We've been making deliberate war on nature for hundreds of years. Right now we're busy wrecking the ocean.
What do you believe has been the greatest act of war on the Earth perpetrated by Americans?
I don't go for greatest or smallest. The list would be a thousand pages long, but I'd start with [the destruction of the] Native Americans, I guess.
You have said that your "relationship with Mother Nature has at times raised eyebrows." Can you explain this a little?
It's a joke. I love her, she loves me back. She likes jokes. She plays jokes on humans all the time. Like how everything is based on sex and there’s always lots of cross-pollination going on. And frogs singing. Frogs are all male, but they're still all trying to say, hey baby, I'm here, I'm big enough.
When writing as a naturalist, but also as a man who understands science, is it hard to parse facts and feelings regarding nature?
No, not at all. The science has the pretense of objectivity, which no science is truly objective. We are highly subjective beings. Of course, as an artist, I think more as an artist than as a naturalist. I'm a poet. As a poet I don't have to pretend to be objective. Scientists are told to be objective and they try, but that’s silly. You can't escape subjectivity even if you try.
What do you see as the differences, if any, between nature writing and eco-writing?
Eco-writing is about being pissed off about issues but nature writing is about celebrating gifts, like the sun, air, water, and laughter. Ever hear a squirrel yelling at you from a tree? "God you're ugly. You're so ugly out there!" It makes me laugh, and it's a good laugh. There are also gifts that are hard to take. Like knowledge. Joy delayed. You're bigger for it. Eco-writers are not so interested in nature but more interested in themselves.
Utilizing poetry and science, have you done everything you can?
Certainly not. I've done some of it. I do what I can. I'm crippled, so it puts some limits on me. I spent a long time resisting much, obeying little—that’s Whitman. But I can't do much of that any more.
What is it about the landscape of Minnesota that as held you here and kept you writing about it?
The boreal forest saved my ass when I was a kid. We lived in a cabin for part of the year. My parents weren’t always that nice to each other. They would fight hard. Yell and throw things. I would go out and hang out in a tree. That was my healing place when I was lonely.
What was the first thing you learned out there?
That I didn't have to listen to my parents.
Gosh, you sure have won a lot of awards.
Not recently. I was doing a lot in the early 90s for a while. I was on a national radar, which is kind of weird. I never accepted that. I was going on fine and all of a sudden I had a stroke. And when you have a stroke when you're a public person it means you should have died publicly. I was essentially dead for a long time and I still am as far as most people outside of Minnesota know, which I don't like, but I'm coming back somewhat.
What will the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award mean for you then?
It means I'm 75 years old and live on Social Security. This award means security—more money in the bank. I can live longer and not worry about it. I can give my kids each a couple thousand dollars. I have two kids, a great plenty. My son is sailing around the world with his family. He is a naturalist by trade, and my daughter is a nurse. I went out with her for birthday dinner recently. She found the best pizza in Minnesota. It’s at a place called ‘Za! in Forest Lake. The name is a shortening of “pizza,” and it’s the best Italian food I ever had. Their pepperonis are the size of six pepperonis and you can really taste it.
Didn’t you say you’re a vegetarian?
Walt Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” Some days a good pizza is worth it.