Interview with Deena Metzger

The Literature of Restoration actively seeks through form and language, content and focus, to create and inspire a cultural shift, developing a body of literature that radically seeks the restoration and vitality of the natural world.  It is concerned with the climate crisis, environmental destruction, extinction, the factors creating global, social chaos and the ways that Western and other contemporary imperial cultures inadvertently promote these conditions even while the themes may be opposed. Close scrutiny of self, language, cultural and literary standards is required to help us avoid reinforcing the trajectories we are on toward the destruction of all life. 

Deena Metzger

The Literature of Restoration requires a sea-change of the soul. Learning to write from a place of authentic alignment with Earth is a journey that breaks your heart, bends your mind, and takes over your life, as it must, in order to write from a transformed identity. Not a strategy or technique. Not a ‘style’ of writing, but a becoming of the whole person whose magnetic center is aligned with beyond-human beings and realms for the sake of a viable future for all Life. As I understand it, and in my own experience, LoR arises naturally out of our anguish. That’s the magnetic pull that compels us to transform ourselves and, therefore, to seek the form(s) and voice(s) that (re)shape our writing in order to change both process and outcome.

Cynthia Travis

LW: Deena, in this interview I want to draw out of you more about your understanding of Literature of Restoration —what it is and what it isn’t.  I’d also like to talk about your recently published novel La Vieja: A Journal of Fire. 

DW:  I’m grateful to have this conversation with you because Dark Matter is so aligned with the Literature of Restoration.  

LW: Can you say a bit about how the idea first emerged for you?

DM: For many years I puzzled why it was that the most radical and revolutionary writing and thinking did not create the changes we all recognize are necessary for our survival and that of the planet.  Why is it that we seem unable to respond to the articulation of the dire circumstances that beset us even when our lives are clearly at stake?  I began to study the writing that should, it seemed, to me, influence us profoundly, but … didn’t, didn’t change us.  Why?  

It took close scrutiny to see that while many radical ideas had the potential to inspire the necessary changes, they were expressed in conventional forms that subtly but inevitably undermined what was being said. I began to understand that the forms of conventional literature, the standard by which literature is judged, the context in which it appears, the particulars of English as a language, communicate values that are leading us toward environmental destruction, extinction, global violence, social and political chaos.  Consequently, they neutralize, or actually undermine, what is being expressed.

LW: Yes, I’ve noticed that. 

DM: A simple example is The New Yorker, which often publishes original, radical thought and investigation.  However, the pieces appear next to a background of glossy advertising which emphasizes wealth, privilege, and consumption.  Ultimately, the values implicit in advertising are the ones which are embedded in the culture.  

The plethora of ads concerned with products and status create a field of values that ultimately overcome the deeper concerns that a writer might be exploring.  Similarly, when the preponderance of literary works focus upon conflict, sex and violence, it is inevitable that these will be prominent in the culture.  The glorification of the hero and the warrior leads to a culture engaged in endless war. 

LW:  So you’re saying that part of being able to write in this new and very old way is becoming aware of what’s built into literature as we know it. 

DM: Absolutely. It requires us to look at contemporary literature and what’s valued and rewarded.  That whole system of awards.  Because LoR asks: how did we get to this terrible place and does our literature have something to do with it? And it’s not just the concept it’s also about the form.  

Ecology teaches us that everything is connected to everything else.  Consequently, what we write does not exist in a vacuum but bears the influence of its context, in the way each fish is affected by the waters it inhabits and the Bear is influenced by its environment, and each one of us is as affected by the place where we are born and live as we are by our genes, whether we recognize it or not.  LoR seeks to reveal these connections, as they affect us personally, as communities and in relationship to all beings and events.

A writer anguished by the state of the world, I wanted us to find and create a literature that would restore Earth and inspire a future for all beings.  I was interested in the ways that Native American writers have created a literature that is profoundly aligned with the wisdom teachings of the many tribes.  For contemporary writers to engage in such a literature they would have to question the implicit values of our culture.  If a wise Indigenous literature arises out of Indigenous wisdom traditions, might a wisdom culture result from wise and committed writers who create an aligned context?  The essential values of Literature of Restoration are ethics, deep respect for the natural world, awareness of the intelligence of non-human beings, recognition of the spirits and the spiritual life. LoR does not commodify life, is not obsessed with money, does not eroticize violence, yield to AI.  Such writing examines the subtle implications of one’s words, actions, and alliance, and is motivated by the desire to provide a sustainable future in which all Earth creatures and humans thrive.  To bring these ways, this field of values into conventional literature would change the world, might even begin to save it.  

LW:  I want to bring in one of my most important literary ancestors, E. German writer Christa Wolf. Like you she was driven by a fervent wish that literature be effective, be useful, that it help bring about a more livable world. In the speech she gave when she received the Buchner Prize she said she wanted humans to be able to “say something to each other again, and tell each other stories without having to feel ashamed.” In her own way she was both writing and calling for a literature of restoration.

DM: Yes, we share something in the larger field of true concern. But I think I have different answers. I have different concerns. The LoR is an entirely different view of what wisdom is.  Of what intelligence is. And what we should align with and try to bring forth.  I’m listening to Barry Lopez’ posthumous book of essays Love Fiercely the Burning World.  He’s a white man. But within the first few pages you really understand what a LoR is. His relationship to the land. And to animals.  And to the Indigenous people.  His clarity about their unique wisdom and intelligence. And how important it is for us now.  Indigenous writing is the original LoR.   When I read work by native writers I think “well yes, there it is; they’ve always known this.” 

What we’re trying to do is to see what it can be also from our perspective—as non-Indigenous people.  

LW: There are words you put into the mouth of the central character of your new novel La Vieja that could be instructions for LoR: “Bear Witness. Engage in rigorous scrutiny of self and world, past and present. Remember. Be ruthless about your regrets and many failures. Be ruthless about our culture’s many failures. Then vision. Restore what has been wrongfully injured, eradicated and despised. Restore the natural world in its luminous and limitless complexity.” 

The bearing witness in that book is so unflinching, you’d think it would be a hard burden to shoulder. But in “Not Hope but Possibility,” (HYPERLINK)  a piece you wrote awhile back about LoR, you write: “There is an enormous energy, infinite possibilities, that come from bearing witness and living accordingly. These are two actions that must be one.” 

DM: This is how it is for me.  I get up every morning obsessed with reading the newspaper and seeing what we have to deal with.  The next question is: Spirit, how am I to meet this today. It’s a one-two.  I don’t have an answer to the current situation, it’s getting more and more out of hand. But because I ask that question it presumes Spirit or the spirits exist, so it presumes a connection.  It presumes a possibility of meeting it. And when I know I am connecting with Spirit I can face what I must, I am energized by it. As I am speaking with you now. And as I sense you are too.

LW: Yes, by this moment between us and this moment we’re in as a species. 

DM: You know. Something really happened to you.  When you went to see the Whales in Baja,  everything changed in you.  And we can date the changes…. in other areas. It’s about relationships, the marvel that happens when you feel those interconnections. 

 LW: I did get a transmission.

DM:  A transmission from whom? From what? From a world in which the Whales can be the means. A whole different cosmology. 

LW: Cosmologist Brian Swimme wrote, back in ‘96: “our own generation is simply the one to emerge at the time when human consciousness has been subtle enough to awake to what the universe has been trying to tell us from the beginning… ” (The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos)

DM:  Yes, but our evolutionary development as a species is a Western hierarchical concept. Everything in our culture is ranked and judged. And we don’t even think about it. In LoR the natural world becomes a philosophic model for how me might survive. What it asks of the writer is to reconsider every value that seemed automatic and see which of these values, which of these ways are leading to extinction and the collapse of the natural world which is the collapse of all life. Trying to discern that and then see where those values are in the literature; where are they in the forms, in the assumptions… 

LW: Since we’re talking about what it is and what it’s not, I brought up Richard Powers’ The Overstory the other day and you said it wasn’t quite what you had in mind.

DM: I’m grateful for so much about that book and the fact that he has since moved to where those trees are.  But when you get to the end you’re in a very familiar writing pattern where violence is exciting, as is conflict.   Where would that book go if he wasn’t making these assumptions. This is the way things are.  Such familiar psychology, conflicts. What would the trees have taught him if they wrote the novel? 

One of the questions we have to ask is: How are we starting these fires and can we put them out? Well, in thinking differently, aren’t we putting out the fires we started in the past with our disconnected thinking? In my novel, La Vieja is living in a Fire Lookout in the Sierras.  She is literally watching for fires, yes, but she is also looking across the globe and into the past at the fires we set and are setting. And she is agonized that if there’s a fire and she evacuates, she can’t take the Bears with her in her car. As a ranger she’s responsible for getting the people  out.  But what about the Bears?   And if she could get them in the car where’s she going to take them? In LoR you can think about that.  It’s very very very hot here right now. There’s a picture in today’s paper today (I still call it a paper) of a Bear swimming in a pool in someone’s back yard. 

LW: Well obviously we need to talk more about La Vieja because if there was ever an instance of LoR this book is it; it obviously emerged from that daily devotion of yours you were describing.  It’s not an easy book to enter; it doesn’t suck you in the way a novel or a memoir would, though it has elements of both. There’s a layer of it that’s a philosophical mind considering among other things the nature of time and space. 

DM:  I want to bring in the word “perception” and the moment it happened for me.  La Vieja is up on this deck, there are these stairs, and she looks down and there are two people down below and she sees them. It turns out, yes, they are below but they’re 300 miles away. And they’re there and they will meet. The writer knows this is real and she is trying to explain it. That if the reader understood this is real … then the reader would understand the book.

LW:   Yes– that’s why I say it’s philosophical. Her conclusion: the imagination is a real place. 

DM: Because she knows this she can see.  

LW: I’ve read a lot of stories of bear encounters, most recently Natassja Martin’s The Eye of the Wild.  Martin is a French anthropologist. She’s working with the indigenous Even people in Eastern Siberia when she is mauled by a bear, almost losing her life.  To the Evens she is now “medka” – half bear.  It’s a remarkable story, but I wanted to know exactly how Martin had been marked and changed by the incident, and she doesn’t really take us there. Maybe it’s not fair to contrast this with la Vieja’s encounter with the bear in your book, as it’s a friendly one, there’s no attack at all, but possibly the friendliness is because the old woman has been in training for it. As you write “Her intention was simply…. to submit to him entirely…It required overcoming a lifetime if not centuries of conditioning and the training she had received… In order to truly participate, she has had to relinquish will and so agency.”  So the old woman drops to her knees when the bear approaches. And then experiences what you describe it as a “reorganization of her being.”

And in the immediate aftermath of the encounter we get this very precise description of the impact it’s had on her psyche:  “Then, unprecedented, all the senses rushed in like great winds from everywhere, she was dizzy with the force of all the forest sounds, all the creatures singing, each exuding its own signature scent, as well as the sight of them… She was aware of every part of the great world, each in its wholeness, intersecting with every other portion.  The great hum of ceaseless and continuous creation.” 

 DM: I had to be sure when I wrote that that it was not just from a human perspective. Get as close as I could to the Bear mind.  La Vieja is shedding the human because there’s wisdom there….and I think she wants to spend her last years, finally, in right relationship. And what’s so interesting: I don’t know anything about her.  I don’t know her exact age or her ethnicity. Because that individual identity doesn’t matter. Her intelligence is wanting to shed everything that would have kept her from that real right relationship.  

Someone said to me “the Bear probably called forth the whole book. The Bear wrote the book.” In the way that we would say not you went to the Whale but the Whale called you and you heard it. 

So there’s that moment early on where the Bear comes and he wants to see who Lucas (young male character) is.  And finally the Bear smells Lucas’ ancestry….several hundred years back, through his mother’s line. And he thinks “with that ancestry, and as he’s living those values, he’s ok. I can trust him.”  

LW: Reminds me of what Barbara Mor wrote in The Great Cosmic Mother: “If ‘modern man’ neither sees nor hears, the fault is in his dead sensorium.”

DM:  Yes but Bear is not only senses. Bear is an incredible intelligence who can read the natural world exceedingly well and is aware constantly of all those relationships.  In that moment he is trying to see if Lucas is a threat to his cubs…. this DNA that’s important for the world and he’s placed it in a particular Bear womb and now he has to make sure it survives.  And he’s having a harder and harder time … 

LW: So bear thinking is entirely about the continuation of life.

DM: Not about his life. About life. Completely about that.  Many many many many many many years ago in a visionary state I was told that if people/humans recognized the unique intelligence of animals and other nonhumans – and that’s what’s happening actually down to the microbes now—that if they recognized that, then we had a possibility of our ways changing. I’ve been devoted to that even though in the moment I thought “we treat each other so badly this is never going to happen.” I still hold on to that.  

LW: And it really is happening, at least in literary realms. One of the most amazing books I’ve read recently is Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ Undrowned: Black Lessons from Marine Mammals. It’s chapter after chapter of observing, listening to, channelling the wisdom of dolphins, whales, elephant seals. And drawing deep (oceanic) connections to the middle passage, to colonization  and genocide. 

Are there books or essays that you think are particularly good examples of LoR?  

DM: A lot of what’s in Dark Matter.  But you know often with essays these days I ask myself: do I believe them? Do I believe that they know and live what they’re writing?  Do they have a whole life that’s in relationship to this thing they’re writing.

LW: I think you’ve just named a whole new criterion. That the person writing this needs to be living what they’re writing.  Or trying anyway.

DM: No not just trying. Trying is nice.  Actually living it.  It has to be real.  But I don’t know if it helps us to find examples. I think it helps us to recognize there’s a place we can go.  It’s a big calling.  

LW: So you’re saying it’s not just about writers, it’s about readers too.

DM: To appreciate when they see parts of it.  When you listen to Robin Wall Kimmerer reading her book, Braiding Sweetgrass –what she’s thinking what she’s living what she’s writing, it’s all the same. Integrity. It has to have integrity. It’s ethical.  Imagine saying to contemporary literature: what are your ethics? 

LW: Would you call LoR a tradition? 

DM: I don’t think it’s a tradition.  I think it’s a possibility. I don’t know that there are works of literature that have the whole range of everything that will actually change things.  I don’t think it’s there yet.

LW: Oh so it doesn’t exist yet?  You want to bring it into being…

DM: Right. Yes. Right! It’s an aspiration.

LW: Well I’m glad we’ve discovered this at the very end of the interview.

DM: That’s what we’re doing, in Dark Matter and elsewhere…. let’s bring it into being.

LW: We’re groping towards it.

DM: Yes, look, you can see this over here and this over here.

LW: Because when you name it the way you’ve named it, it attracts and encourages this emergent body of work.

DM: And thinking and living and being….

About the Conversants:

Lise Weil is editor of Dark Matter: Women Witnessing. You can read more about her here.

Deena Metzger has been creating community with humans and more than humans through many forms for many years. She began teaching Literature of Restoration about 2012 and this year the website, was established to introduce this writing genre to the world.  It was envisioned to provide literary means to inspire and recognize Earth and Spirit based cultures that sustain all beings rather than leading to cultural dissolution and social violence and is a focus of this issue of Dark Matter: Women Witnessing. She is the author of many books, including the novels: La Vieja: A Journal of Fire, (March 2022), A Rain of Night Birds, La Negra y Blanca (PEN Oakland Award for Literature), Feral, and The Other Hand. Other books include The Burden of Light, Ruin and Beauty: New and Selected Poems, and Entering the Ghost River: Meditations on the Theory and Practice of Healing.  Her classic writing book, Writing For Your Life, 1992, is still in print.  Metzger co-edited Intimate Nature, The Bond Between Women and Animals, 1997, which pioneered the radical understanding that animals are highly intelligent and exhibit intent.  Her experiences with Elephants in the wild over twenty years is based on their spiritual agency and complex narrative communication. Some of that experience is chronicled in her latest novel, La Vieja: A Journal of Fire.

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