Writers have insiders’ jokes about the trade and craft and experience of being a professional writer. One of my favorites appears halfway through a short story written by the deeply Orthodox Jewish writer Avram Davidson at the dawn of the Kennedy era. The hero, Bob Rosen, is a writer in New York City, and his girlfriend Noreen comes to visit him:
She came, she kissed him, she prepared food for him…. Then she read everything he had written since their last juncture, and here she had some fault to find.
“You waste too much time at the beginning in description,” she said, with the certainty possible to those who have never sold a single manuscript. “You’ve got to make your characters come alive — in the very first sentence.”
“‘Marley was dead, to begin with,’” muttered Bob.
“What?” murmured Noreen, vaguely, feigning not to hear.
Of course, every fiction writer alive is familiar with Noreen’s “Famous Writers’ School” sort of criticism, and Bob’s response is the first sentence of one of the most memorable and commercially successful short novels in the world. Which just goes to show — well, something, anyway.
Bob himself, at this point in the story, has been struggling for some years with the freelance writer’s eternal quest: “What sort of thing will publishers be willing to buy?” For publishers don’t care about the quality of the writing, as Noreen imagines; publishers only want to buy books on Hot Topics. And Bob is always two steps behind the trends, forever rushing to catch up with the fads so that he can finally write something a publisher will be interested in.
Bob is in fact just an amateur participant in this quest. This is the beginning of the Kennedy era, and the science of marketing is starting to take shape. Over on Lexington Avenue, some of Bob’s buddies in the advertising world are deeply engaged in efforts to figure out What the Public Will Go Crazy For Next, so that they can take advantage of it.
As one of Bob’s acquaintances puts it, it’s a quest for the sources of the Nile: the places where fads and trends first bubble up to the surface, before the streams from those springs converge to become the river of pop culture.
Poor Bob! The same acquaintance who gave the quest its name, also leaves him with the address of one of the actual fountainheads just before he dies: the Benson family, a lower-middle-class family in the Bronx. Bob goes to visit them, and every single little thing they do just shouts to Bob’s honed instincts: here is something that’s going to catch on.
… Her hands had been fiddling with a piece of bright cloth, and then, suddenly, cloth and hands went up to her head, her fingers flashed, and — complete, perfect — she was wearing an intricately folded turban.
“Looks very nice, Mommy,” said Bart Sr. And added, “I bet it would cover up the curlers better than those babushkas the women wear, you know?”
Bob Rosen bet it would, too.
Here are people whom nobody knows about, people who are not the least bit self-promoting, but who are always casually and unthinkingly two steps ahead of the crowd. Trend-starters. Whatever they do seems catchy. Know these people, watch what they do, and market it, and you can make as big a fortune as you please.
From the moment he meets these people, Bob’s case is hopeless. He is hooked, terminally addicted, to the sources of the Nile.
But Bob is only a minnow in a sea where there are plenty of real sharks. Soon enough, thanks in part to Bob’s own foolishness, the Bensons are found and spirited away by the ruthless head of a marketing firm — and that is the last Bob sees of them. Bob winds up as he was at the beginning, a man with his nose pressed to the store window but no key to let himself in, searching forever for another fountainhead to replace the one he lost.1
Part of the poignance of this story lies in the fact that the world really is much as Avram Davidson portrayed it. Fads and trends really do begin in obscure places more often than not. Mediocre writers and artists, and “creative” personnel in advertising firms, really do chase those trends and copy them because they believe that joining the Nile near its sources is a safer thing than trusting their own voices.
I have friends in trendy places like California and New York and Colorado who have wasted much of their lives trying to get in on trends before the world discovers them; every one of them reminds me a bit of Bob Rosen.
And I’ve found that the religious-environmental world, too, is full of trend-chasers seeking the sources of the Nile.
Back in 1985, when I first addressed a major gathering of Friends about environmental issues and spoke of the need for Friends to respond, one of the things I proposed was the creation of a magazine, written and produced by Friends, which we could use to reach out to the rest of the world and express our testimony on the matter.
Not long afterward, that magazine was actually launched, by a group of very enthusiastic Friends in California. It swiftly evolved into EarthLight Magazine, which continued to be published in a sporadic way until late 2005 under the ownership of Big Top/Independent Press.
Among the living voices it featured were Thomas Berry, Annie Dillard, Matthew Fox, Jane Goodall, Joanna Macy, Jacob Needleman, Thich Nhat Hanh, John Seed, and Brian Swimme. The voices of deceased authors that it also featured included Rachel Carson, Meister Eckhart, Loren Eiseley, Hildegard of Bingen, Aldo Leopold, Thomas Merton, John Muir, Wallace Stegner, Teresa de Avila, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and John Woolman.
The odd thing about this, at least to my way of thinking, was how swiftly it ceased to be a voice by which our Quaker testimony was being expressed to the rest of the world, and became instead a vehicle through which non-Quaker voices were promoted. Look over that list of voices in the previous paragraph once more, and see how many Friends you can spot!
Two years after I addressed that first big Quaker body, I had a small hand in helping to found what is now Quaker Earthcare Witness (QEW), an organization mostly of liberal unprogrammed Friends in North America (though it does include some members from other branches of Quakerism and other parts of the world).
This organization never wandered too far from its Quaker identity the way EarthLight did. And these days it’s doing things to nurture and promote a Quaker voice and witness that I’m really pleased to see. You can go to QEW’s Pamphlets page and find a whole bunch of short works, written by Friends from one Quaker perspective or another on well over a dozen environmental issues.
Even more hopeful, to me at least, are the voices of living Friends speaking in QEW’s bimonthly publication BeFriending Creation (BFC). The current issue (November-December 2006) has a fine article on the testimony of Friends David and Lise Abazs; it also at least mentions the testimonies of other individual Friends and Quaker groups in other places around the country.
The preceding issue of BFC speaks of the good work of Friend Karen Street, whose blog site, “A Musing Environment”, I wrote about in a previous essay on this site. It also talks a bit about the witness of Friend Carl Magruder, who labors to live “off the grid” and documents some of his experiments at his blog site “Confessions of an EarthQuaker” — and about the long walk that Friend Rolene Walker plans to take, starting next year, from Vancouver, Canada, to Valparaiso, Chile, as an act of witness to the plight of the Earth. (Rolene’s blog site, “Walk With Earth”, is featured along with Karen’s and Carl’s in the “kindred souls” directory here on this journal site.
QEW thrives, while EarthLight has gone under. Is this accidental? It may, at least in part, be a indication that people are more likely to support a movement that speaks for itself.
But even QEW’s members lose sight of this, focusing instead on spokespeople and approaches from outside the Quaker community.
A case in point is that of Sallie McFague, a prominent ecofeminist theologian who delivered a keynote speech to the Friends General Conference (FGC) annual gathering this past summer. Sallie’s central approach is one of metaphors — most importantly for the environmental movement, offering “the body of God” as a metaphor for the Universe, and Christ’s saving work for humankind as a metaphor for human efforts to halt the destruction of the natural world.
Early Friends, and traditional Friends even today, would regard this as a “notional” approach — meaning, one that is built on intellectual concepts rather than being directly derived from experience. And while “notional” isn’t a belittling term — Friends have always realized that notions have a very real power in human minds, and as such, must be respected — identifying an approach as “notional” would be enough to condemn it in traditional Friends’ eyes.
The whole point of the original Quaker movement was to purify Christianity of notional things, to get back to the direct encounter with God that preceded all human notions. So early and traditional Friends have always been strongly resistant to notions in religion; they have demanded, instead, a religion directly dependent on the real experience of the real speaking of the real God in the place of their hearts and consciences.
What then do we make of QEW’s reception of Sallie, as described in the lead article of the September-October 2006 BFC? You can click on this link, and read the article itself. But here are two excerpts that summarize what I feel concerned about:
BRAVO! — She’s speaking to our condition.”
That’s the feeling that swept through QEW supporters and other Earth-Friends as Dr. Sallie McFague, a Christian theologian, spoke about the troubled human-Earth relationship at the 2006 FGC Gathering.
McFague’s presentation validates QEW’s efforts over the past 18 years….
I feel no antagonism toward Sallie McFague personally, nor am I hostile to her concerns. I see her as a good-hearted person who does the best she knows how to do, using the methodologies in which she was trained.
The reception given Sallie’s theology at the FGC gathering, though, is a noteworthy example of a much wider phenomenon — Friends depending on non-Quaker voices that advocate “notions”, in order to give words to their own religious-environmental concerns. It may not be as prominent a phenom in QEW as it was in EarthLight, but there’s no mistaking its presence in the lines I’ve just quoted.
And that is by no means its only recent appearance in QEW. To give just one further example (one out of many I might offer), the current BFC reports on how “contemporary charismatic figures found their way into discussions [at] the [2007 annual] QEW gathering … such eco-visionaries as … Matthew Fox, and Thomas Berry, to name a few.”
It’s that wider phenomenon, not Sallie herself, that I’ve been thinking about lately.
The U.S. religious-environmental movement, not just in the Quaker community but generally, is vulnerable to feelings of real helplessness in the face of the global crisis.
We thought we were getting somewhere, back in the 1970s! The first North American Conference on Christianity and Ecology, in particular, showed us our strength — hundreds of deeply religious people, led not by any fancy theology but by our own simple, heartfelt concerns, making a difference in our own communities. We saw it as the beginning of a great movement.
But in the 1980s and 1990s, the strength of the Republican right and of conservative, pro-economic, anti-environmental forces generally, left us feeling almost powerless. The very terms of the dialogue changed; goals that most Americans saw as fairly reasonable in the 1970s, like halting the destruction of wilderness and improving national energy efficiency, became popularly redefined, even in many of our own denominations, as socialist, anti-growth, unrealistic, unreasonable and dangerous.
Within our own denominations, many of us found our pleas for meaningful action increasingly falling on deaf ears. Some major denominational environmental initiatives, like those of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Church of Christ, found their agendas in their own denominations stymied by conservative opposition, or dwindled to shadows of their former selves. Friends, too, found it difficult in most places to move their heartfelt environmental concerns out of their environmental interest groups and onto the agendas of their business meetings.
And there is something about not being listened to that can provoke a crisis of self-confidence.
It is just as with poor Bob Rosen, in the Avram Davidson story with which I began this essay — Bob Rosen, whose inability to get ahead of the trends led him into his own search for the trend-starters. When we find no one — seemingly — listening to us, we begin looking for people who will speak for us and be heard.
We look for Sources of the Nile, then, and we turn to outsiders. And in doing so we betray our own Measure, that is given us to be discovered, heard, and articulated with our own tongues.
This is an old, old issue in Quakerism:
Why gad you abroad? Why trim you yourselves with the saints’ words, when you are ignorant of the life? … Return home to within, sweep your houses all, the groat is there, the little leaven is there, the grain of mustard-seed you will see, which the Kingdom of God is like; … and here you will see your Teacher … present when you are upon your beds and about your labour, convincing, instructing, leading, correcting, judging and giving peace to all that love and follow Him.
— Francis Howgill (early Quaker leader & evangelist), A Lamentation for the Scattered Tribes… (1656)
Poor Bob Rosen! What he never realized was that he already had the source-of-the-Nile that he was seeking — the Nile of popular appeal — within himself, bubbling up just as it did in the Bensons.
His own wit in responding to Noreen’s criticism as he did — “Marley was dead, to begin with” — was evidence that that wellspring was genuinely there, however weakly and however clogged with dependence on the words of others. It is the sort of come-back that just begs to be repeated elsewhere! And his repartée in other portions of the story, portions that I haven’t quoted here, was evidence as well.
But he underrated the value of that wellspring inside him — in part because his own lack of confidence got in the way, but also in part because he never did what was needed to cultivate that wellspring. He merely saw that his flow of inspiration was small, and jumped to the conclusion that it could never be enough. He never gave it the kind of sustained, patient attention that was needed in order for him to learn how to let it flow and how to work skillfully with it. He went seeking outside of himself, for people like the Bensons, instead.
And that’s how it is with us. We see that the wellspring of inspiration that is in us is feeble, undeveloped, clogged with debris. We jump to the conclusion that it can never be plentiful enough, or good enough when plentiful. And so we wind up asking Buddhists and Catholics and native Americans to do their own forms of speaking and leading in our place.
It is truly hard for any of us to stand up in front of our own monthly or yearly meeting, not leaning on what someone else has written, but speaking only from the authority of what we have experienced and known in our own hearts and consciences.
The concerns spoken in our own hearts seem so plain, so bare, so briefly said. In my own case they can be said in just four sentences: “I look at what is happening to wilderness, to endangered species, to the atmosphere, to the oceans. I feel in my heart how very wrong it is — the scale of that wrongness is so colossal, it almost turns me to stone. I know that God calls us to respond, as individuals and as a community. I ask you, as my dear and trusted friends, to recognize this calling with me, and to join me in finding more meaningful ways to respond.”
Just putting it that way, it seems too short, too feeble. How can something this small possibly be a Source of the Nile?
It is so much easier to say, “Let’s invite Famous Theologian X (who already has a following) to speak to us,” or “Let’s organize a study group to watch Famous Thinker Y’s videotapes,” or even, “Let’s all have an event in the woods one weekend, to deepen our sensitivity.” This lets us get out of the scary test of discovering whether we ourselves can rise to the task, and the even greater pain of following through on our own words with actions.
But standing and speaking on no greater authority than our own encounter with the inward Guide is how we clear the garbage out of our own wellspring, to let it flow cleanly and strongly as God meant it to.
And following through with our very own practical actions is how we contribute to the course of the Nile.
…He went on … and said, The Scriptures were the Prophets’ words, and Christ’s and the Apostles’ words, and what, as they spoke, they enjoyed and possessed, and had it from the Lord: And said, Then what had any to do with the Scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth. You will say, Christ saith this, and the Apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a Child of Light, and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God? &c. This opened me so, that it cut me to the Heart; and then I saw clearly, we were all wrong.
— Margaret Fell Fox, describing her convincement by George Fox (written not later than 1694)
I look at what is happening to wilderness, to endangered species, to the atmosphere, to the oceans. I feel in my heart how very wrong it is — the scale of that wrongness is so colossal, it almost turns me to stone. I know that God calls us to respond, as individuals and as a community. I ask you, as my dear and trusted friends, to recognize this calling with me, and to join me in finding more meaningful ways to respond.
- Avram Davidson, “The Sources of the Nile”, originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January 1961. The definitive reprinting of this story appears in The Avram Davidson Treasury: a tribute collection, Robert Silverberg & Grania Davis, eds. (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1998). For the record, this book is an astonishing collection of fine short story writing!