John Elder Turns the Page
As he speaks of life in retirement, John Elder’s voice brims with serene delight. His students and colleagues have come to recognize this note as a hallmark of the man, both inside and outside of classrooms, during his four decades at the College. Whether leading a discussion or a hike, sharing ideas or food, reciting poems or playing a game of Go, he radiates a sense of equanimity and zest.
In conversations we’ve shared over the course of 30 years, I’ve noticed how often John begins a sentence by saying, “It’s interesting.” He uses the phrase often, this summer of 2016, as he answers questions about his life. “You know, it’s interesting,” he tells me, “how many of my greatest blessings have arrived seemingly by chance.” The blessing he mentions first is his wife, Rita, whom he met in the choir at Pomona College, where both were undergraduates.
We are sitting in his study, in the zero-net-energy house that he and Rita arranged to have built for their retirement, in the town of Bristol, 12 miles from Middlebury. John has folded his six-foot-two frame into a chair flanked by stacks of books, letters, news clippings weighted down by a granite cobble, and yellow legal pads inscribed with his minuscule script. A faint smile reveals his amusement at being interviewed by an old friend. As he ponders his responses, which emerge in shapely paragraphs, he gazes across the room, his eyes the blue-green of ocean.
The walls display tokens of his past and current passions—broadsides of poems by Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry, a sheet of Japanese calligraphy, an Ansel Adams photograph of Yosemite Valley, three banjos. A map of the nearby town of Starksboro, where the Elder family tends a sugarbush, hangs next to a map of Connemara, in western Ireland, where John and Rita have gone exploring in recent years. A meditation mat rests on the floor, a book about mysticism on the desk.
This super-insulated new house, with 30 solar panels on the roof and an electric car in the garage, is only a few blocks away from the handsome, drafty, largely wood-heated Victorian where John and Rita reared their three children. They had hoped to live out their days in that beloved old house, but then Rita was diagnosed with an illness that would, over time, make the many stairs and narrow hallways a challenge. So they decided to build an accessible home to accommodate her needs. “And my eventual needs, as well,” John adds, rubbing his knees, which have carried him on thousands of miles of walks and runs.
The move into a sun-powered, handicap-friendly house is one in a sequence of postretirement surprises that John describes in Picking Up the Flute, his captivating memoir of this new phase in married life. The book’s title alludes to another of the surprises—learning to play Irish music with Rita, she on a concertina, he on a wooden flute. Each chapter of the memoir features a reel, jig, or other traditional tune—all of which can be heard, performed by John, on his website: www.johnelderauthor.com.
These lively, haunting tunes are only the latest genre of music that John and Rita have shared. Both were classically trained, she on the piano and he on the French horn, and both considered attending a conservatory. Instead, each eventually chose to pursue a degree in liberal arts—which was how they wound up singing together at Pomona College.
“I planned to study philosophy,” John recalls, “but I took a class with a wonderful English professor, who drew me into the field in which I’ve spent the rest of my life. That’s one of those blessings that came to me by chance. I met the right teacher at the right moment.”
As a doctoral student at Yale, John was guided by another gifted teacher, Charles N. Feidelson Jr., his thesis director. “He modeled for me how to be a scholar who reads literature for insight into human existence.”
On completing his PhD, instead of seeking a position at a research university, such as Yale, John applied to liberal arts colleges that resembled Pomona in focusing on undergraduate education. At the top of his list was Middlebury. So he gladly accepted an invitation to join the faculty there in the fall of 1973, and he stayed until his retirement in 2010. During those years he served stints as chair of English and director of environmental studies, taught regularly in the Bread Loaf School of English, pioneered community-based courses, published a series of important books, and rose through the ranks to become Stewart Professor and finally College Professor. The latter title, which entailed no departmental affiliation, acknowledged the breadth of John’s teaching, writing, and service.
He had not expected to stay at Middlebury for his entire career. At first, he and Rita assumed that after a few years in Vermont they would return to California. They had both grown up in the Bay Area, where their families still lived. They had imprinted on the Western landscape, which made the Green Mountains seem humble, and they had been shaped by the cosmopolitan, freewheeling coastal culture, which made the ways of New England seem guarded.
But after moving to the neighborly town of Bristol, joining community groups, and shepherding three children through school, they came to feel at ease among Vermonters. They also came to appreciate the surrounding landscape, with its richly layered human and natural history. From their house they could hike into mountains crisscrossed with tumbled stone walls and pockmarked with cellar holes from vanished farms, yet wild enough to harbor black bears and bobcats. A steep, forested ridge, visible from their back door, would earn official designation as the Bristol Cliffs Wilderness Area.
Over time, John came to see Vermont, along with much of New England, as a “recovering wilderness,” where cleared fields, long abandoned, had reverted to woods, and long-absent wildlife had returned—not only bears and bobcats but also moose, coyotes, and catamounts. He traces these discoveries about his adopted place in Reading the Mountains of Home. This is perhaps the finest of his dozen books, in the way it braids together history, science, indigenous lore, family stories, and tributes to the literature that has shaped his understanding.
The earliest of those literary influences was the Bible, which his father, a Baptist minister, read aloud at the dinner table. “I loved the King James Bible,” John tells me. “It was so much livelier than what we were reading in school. The stories were so juicy, the language so intriguing.” In The Frog Run, a personal narrative that ranges from discovering Zen to harvesting maple syrup, he reports that “Scriptures like the Psalms grounded my earliest spiritual experiences, inspired my first love of reading, and enhanced my appreciation of the natural world.”
Another early influence was Henry David Thoreau. “In high school I became fascinated by wilderness,” John says. “I went to the library and read all the Sierra Club books, with their gorgeous photos. They kindled in me a reverence for nature that was an extension of my reverence for the Bible. Then at 15, I was given a copy of Walden, and it came as a revelation. It opened me to the American nature writing tradition, which I have explored ever since.”
One fruit of that exploration is The Norton Book of Nature Writing, which John coedited with essayist Robert Finch. This pioneering anthology has helped to foster a vigorous field of research and teaching. Two years after the first edition appeared, and partly through its influence, a group of scholars and writers founded the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. John has served on the organization’s board ever since, including one term as president, while membership grew to some 1,500, drawn from 30 countries.
In addition to Thoreau and his American successors, John counts among his literary guides the classical authors of the pastoral tradition, such as Ovid and Virgil, as well as the English Romantics, especially Wordsworth, and Japanese haiku masters such as Bashō. But no writer has had a deeper impact on his reading of landscape than Robert Frost. During the latter decades of his life, the celebrated poet spent part of every year just up the road from Middlebury, in the village of Ripton, near the Bread Loaf campus. From that vantage, he observed nature and people with an eye “versed in country things”—to borrow a phrase from one of his poems—and recorded his findings in memorable verse.
“Another of my blessings,” John says, “is to live in a place that has been brought into art by a great writer.” He knows much of Frost by heart, including the long, profound poem “Directive,” which frames the sequence of hikes recounted in Reading the Mountains of Home. “Reflecting about this poem,” John explains in the introduction, “has helped me understand how the mountains around our home assumed their present form, as well as what it might mean to identify with such a place on earth.”
As John and Rita came to identify with their adopted home in Vermont, the notion of moving back to California faded away. Of all the inducements for staying, the ones John mentions most often are the rewards of teaching at Middlebury, especially the chance to work with inquisitive, idealistic students. “I felt so well suited, and so well supported, in my work at the College,” he says. Within this “community of learners,” he was free to follow his intellectual path wherever it led—to nature writing and environmental studies, to coteaching with scientists, to leading classes on Vermont’s Long Trail or local farms, to studying Japanese and spending a sabbatical in Kyoto, to directing Bread Loaf programs in New Mexico and Alaska.
“Unlike so many New England colleges,” he notes, “Middlebury wasn’t founded by a church but by a town, with the intention of educating youth to lead meaningful and useful lives.” Judging by emails sent to me by a few of his former students, John has fulfilled that purpose splendidly.
“Unconditional love is a strong current that runs through John’s teaching,” writes Byron Rath ’10, who took a course with John entitled Farm Stories. “There’s something about his love for literature and teaching that’s renewing.” Rath moved to Vermont from rural Missouri, and often felt out of place among students from big cities and private schools, but through John’s class, he recalls, “I came to understand my upbringing as a strength.” Studying the writing of Wendell Berry and other agrarians gave him a sense of purpose, which has led him to his current position with the Soil Health Institute, a nonprofit devoted to stewardship of the world’s fertile land.
After graduating from Middlebury, Alvin Ung ’94 returned to his native Malaysia, where he works as a consultant in leadership development. During his first year at the College he felt lost, and might have left, had he not found a mentor. “John saw something in me that I did not see in myself,” Ung writes. He was astounded when this celebrated professor agreed to direct his senior thesis. “Most of the time he left me breathless—literally—because he had this habit of asking me to walk the trails near the College while discussing my drafts. He remembered the rickety structure of my papers and he proposed revisions while he named the trees around us. He himself is a tree offering shade to many. Now I’m spending the rest of my life learning to live out his values.”
As a senior, Corinne Almquist ’09 took a class with John focusing on American food culture, which opened her eyes to the issue of malnutrition in poor communities. In her first year out of college, she created a gleaning program in Addison County to provide fresh, local food to low-income families. Now, as a midwife and women’s health nurse practitioner, she writes that “one of John’s greatest gifts is his ability to find the seed of an idea in his students and help nurture it to become something so much larger.” Having recently visited him, she is reminded that “even a 10-minute conversation with John makes the world feel more connected, more precious, and more replete with wonder.”
John Schubert ’80, recently retired from the U.S. Forest Service as a wilderness ranger, remembers taking John’s seminar called the Literature of Attentiveness to Nature. He writes, “Over the decades, I have often reflected that the example of John’s life inspired me to live a fuller, more sincere, generous, humor-filled and kinder life of my own. In short, simply who he is inspires me to be a better person.”
Another Forest Service veteran among John’s former students is Tom Van de Water ’83, who teaches high school science in the Adirondacks during the academic year, and during the summer works as a fire lookout in Idaho. “From my freshman seminar at Middlebury to my senior thesis,” he writes, “John shaped the direction of my life. He modeled how to read closely, listen, question, pay attention to detail, and work hard with a sincerity and love that encouraged, inspired, and awed us.” Van de Water remembers going on a 10-mile charity run with John, talking the whole way, and also remembers bicycling to the Elders’ house in Bristol, where Rita would greet him with a warm bowl of soup.
At the beginning of a course entitled A Portrait of a Vermont Town, Aylie Baker ’09 recalls, John told the students “we were doing something that hadn’t been done before, and he didn’t know how it would turn out.” It turned out quite well. Through interviews and storytelling, they learned about the community of Starksboro and helped the residents achieve a deeper sense of place. She came away with the feeling that “if we listen deeply enough we might catch the echoes of a past place and time and begin to understand how it resonates into the present. Through this process I think we all learned that it matters where we direct our listening and who we listen to.” Today, as a graduate teaching fellow at the University of Oregon, she credits that experience with stoking her interest in community storytelling.
Harrison Hobart, MA English ’12, who left a business career in his middle years to become a teacher, studied with John at the Bread Loaf School of English. He writes that “John adeptly applied the tools of a master teacher: the clear-minded capacity to listen and understand each student and a literary fluency born of a deep immersion and personal engagement—and fostered them in us. I experienced more healing and growth in that summer than at any other time in my life. Never have I been so encouraged to put as much of myself, my best, courageous, and chastened self into the world.”
To suggest John’s impact on past and current colleagues, one example must suffice. Amy Seidl, who teaches now at the University of Vermont, began her career at Middlebury. “I saw how much John loved—a term I believe he would use—the study of the environment. He loved thinking about it historically, politically, and literarily,” she writes. “This holistic and truly loving view is one I try to emulate.”
Ironically, the very intensity of John’s engagement with students helped prompt his decision to retire at the relatively early age of 63. After graduating, many students keep in touch with him, and some become lifelong friends. He recommends them for jobs and graduate programs; attends their weddings, concerts, and plays; reads their manuscripts; and faithfully answers their letters, emails, and phone calls. “While I treasure every one,” he explains, “I felt I had all the former students my life could hold. I retired early out of a desire to encounter this next phase in my life actively. I liked the idea of drawing a line, stepping over it, and seeing what might be on the other side.”
In what he calls the “spacious world of retirement” he has found much of interest. Not only the adventure of building a house and playing Irish music but also doing carpentry with twin grandsons, celebrating the birth of a third grandson, watching his three children flourish in their careers, studying Spanish and ancient Chinese philosophy, carving wooden spoons, baking bread, and memorizing more poetry. He regularly offers courses in a Bristol initiative called Hogback Community College. “It’s neighbors teaching neighbors,” he says. “We share our knowledge with one another.” John’s own classes have included an evening session on Emily Dickinson at the bakery and a several-day writing workshop at a conserved forest in town.
He has undertaken these ventures out of the same desire that led him to regularly create new courses at Middlebury and to survey the mountains of Vermont. One of his favorite Zen aphorisms says, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” With characteristic modesty, he says, “I am a very good beginner, but only a middling achiever. I love launching into new activities.” While his memory does not grasp Irish tunes as quickly as it once grasped classical music, and his fingers are not as supple on the flute as they were on the French horn, and his back is not as fit for splitting wood or his legs for clambering over rough trails as they were when he was a young man, he perseveres in walking, sugaring, making music, and following every other path of discovery. Along with his new activities, John continues the spiritual search that led him from a Southern Baptist upbringing to conscientious objection during the Vietnam War, then to Quakerism, Zen Buddhism, and contemplative traditions of East and West. He continues to serve on the Bristol Planning Commission and on the boards of Sterling College and Vermont Family Forests. The Elders’ own family forest is the 142-acre sugarbush they call Maggie Brook, where three generations harvest Earth’s sweetness.
Earlier in this record-hot summer of 2016, at a reading from Picking Up the Flute, John told the audience: “Our forests are changing under the stress of global warming. As temperatures rise, sugar maples may not be able to regenerate. Animals and plants will be forced to move farther north, or some will disappear entirely. So I often feel grief when I think about the future of this land. But if you love a place or a person, and they fall ill, you don’t love them the less. In fact, you love them more.” His words contained a truth applicable to any place or person, but one could sense that the person he had chiefly in mind was Rita, and the place was his Vermont home ground.
“Grace, as our ancestors affirmed, is ultimately what sustains every good thing in our lives,” he declares in Reading the Mountains of Home. When I quote this passage to him, he remarks, “I’ve been criticized for using words such as grace and sacred in my writing, but I refuse to give them up, because they point to things that are of utmost importance. I do believe in grace. I don’t have the theology to justify it, but I think we receive gifts from the universe.” Surely John is one such gift—for his family and friends, his colleagues, his readers, and above all his students.
“Though writing remains for me such an engrossing practice,” he says, “teaching has always been my main calling.” What has he most enjoyed about his vocation? He smiles, remembering. “A class begins as a collection of individuals. But then, as you explore ideas and texts together, a moment comes when everyone cares about everyone else’s learning, and a community forms. One can feel it happening—a kind of liftoff, as if we’re taking flight together, all singing the same tune. Together, we achieve understanding that none of us could achieve in isolation. In those moments, teaching is bliss.”