“The annihilating ocean of whiteness”: J. D. Schraffenberger on Scott Russell Sanders’ “Cloud Crossing”

ScottRussellSanders_Credit- Steve Raymer_Oct_2010.1
Scott Russell Sanders (photo credit Steve Raymer)

For years I’ve regularly taught Scott Russell Sanders’ 1981 essay “Cloud Crossing” to my creative writing students because I admire it deeply—both thematically and on the level of craft—and am enriched each time I return to it. Like many (most?) good essays, it’s deceptively simple; nothing dramatic really “happens” as Sanders recounts a short hike up Hardesty Mountain (not far from Eugene, Oregon) with his one-year-old son Jesse strapped to his back. Too often, I find, students’ first instinct is to write about a momentous Occasion, an important Event, some memorable Incident, which is why I’ve learned of the deaths of so many loved and loving grandparents over the years—because these are intensely emotional moments marked as significant by ritual. Sanders demonstrates clearly that essays need not be about Big Experiences at all. They can be quiet and mundane, internal, familiar.

TheFourthGenre_cvrIn his co-edited textbook The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction (which includes Sanders’ “Cloud Crossing”), Michael Steinberg notes Judith Kitchen’s list of five things that her writing students often “deny themselves”: retrospection, intrusion, meditation, introspection, and imagination, adding to this list: reflection, speculation, self-interrogation, digression, and projection (335-6). Sanders does not deny himself any of these techniques. While on top of the mountain, he observes “nine concrete piers that once supported the fire-tower” that is no longer there, but he doesn’t stop at what is immediately present. Instead, he imagines “the effort of hauling materials up this mountain to build this tower,” asking what became of it, realizing finally that it must’ve burned down:

The spectacle swiftly fills me: the mountain peak like a great torch, a volcano. The tower heaving on its nine legs. The windows bursting from the heat, tumbling among the rocks, fusing into molten blobs, the glass taking on whatever shape it cooled against.

There should be nails. Looking closer I find them among the shards of glass, sixteen-penny nails mostly, what we called spikes when I was building houses. Each one is somber with rust, but perfectly straight, never having been pried from wood. I think of the men who drove those nails, the way sweat stung in their eyes, the way their forearms clenched with every stroke of the hammer, and I wonder if any of them were still around when the tower was burned. (59)

Sanders conjures the burning tower and reanimates the men who built it not through observation or experience, and not even through research—but through imagination, speculation, supposing what might have been. We nevertheless get to experience as readers the “great torch” of the tower. We get to feel the “stroke of the hammer.” None of these things “happen,” but thinking makes it so.

Another reason “Cloud Crossing” finds its way onto my syllabi is that it was first published in the pages of the North American Review and subsequently reprinted in his 1987 collection The Paradise of Bombs, along with eight additional essays originally from the NAR. I mention this fact because I now happen to edit the North American Review here at the University of Northern Iowa, and I try to introduce my students to the literary publishing world whenever I can profitably do so, especially in the context of a magazine where they themselves have an opportunity to work. Returning to the original magazine publication also allows us to compare versions of the essay and ask questions about revision. In the case of “Cloud Crossing,” the original is much the same as the subsequent versions, with a notable exception. At the end of the essay, as Sanders begins the drive back home, his son is crying inconsolably in the back seat. The original version from the NAR:

But nothing comforts him, or comforts me, while we drive down the seven graveled miles of logging road to the highway. There we sink into open space again. The clouds are a featureless gray overhead. Jesse’s internal weather shifts, and he begins one of his calm babbling orations, contentedly munching his cracker… (59)

The revised version:

 But nothing comforts him, or comforts me, while we drive down the seven graveled miles of logging road to the highway. There we sink into open space again. The clouds are a featureless gray overhead.

As soon as the wheels are ringing beneath us on the blacktop, Jesse’s internal weather shifts, and he begins one of his calm babbling orations, contentedly munching his cracker… (193)

Sanders the essayist makes two significant changes here: he breaks for a new paragraph and slows our reading down by adding the introductory clause “As soon as the wheels are ringing beneath us on the blacktop.” Why do you suppose he’s made these changes? I ask my students. What new effects have been introduced? Has anything been lost? I tell my students there’s a chance that Sanders had indeed included this clause all along, but space constraints in the magazine compelled him to truncate the ending. Teaching the essay while acknowledging the original publication context sometimes leads to larger discussions like these of the literary publishing world. I also find it interesting and sometimes instructive to look at what else was published alongside a piece that appeared in a magazine. “Cloud Crossing,” for instance, is joined in its issue of the NAR by Barry Lopez’s “The Man Who Had Maps” and Bobbie Ann Mason’s “Old Things.” Are there aesthetic or thematic similarities among these pieces of prose? How is Sanders’ essay different at the level of genre from these short stories?

As a writer in complete control of his craft, Sanders’s work offers excellent examples for students to emulate:

Fascinated by his leaf, Jesse snuggles down in the pack and rides quietly. My heart begins to dance faster as the trail zigzags up the mountain through a series of switchbacks. Autumn has been dry in Oregon, so the dirt underfoot is powdery. Someone has been along here inspecting mushrooms. The discarded ones litter the trail like blackening pancakes. Except for the path, worn raw by deer and hikers, the floor of the woods is covered with moss. Fallen wood is soon hidden by the creeping emerald carpet, the land burying its own dead. Limegreen moss clings fuzzily to the upright trunks, and dangles in fluffy hanks from limbs, like fresh-dyed wool hung out to dry. A wad of it caught in the fist squeezes down to nothing. (57)

The energetic verbs (snuggles, zigzags, clings, dangles, squeezes), vivid images (powdery dirt, worn path, creeping moss), and fresh metaphors (blackened pancakes, burying its own dead, fresh-dyed wool) enliven this passage. Perhaps more impressively, however, Sanders moves from showing the reader a scene in the dramatic mode (Jesse snuggling, his heart dancing, the trail zigzagging) to telling the reader information in the narrative mode (Autumn has been dry, someone has been here) to playing linguistic music for the reader in the lyrical mode. Listen to the subtly overlapping assonance and consonance make Sanders’ prose sing: the “e” sounds of limegreen/clings/fuzzily; the “z” sound in clings/fuzzily; the short “u” sounds in fuzzily/upright/trunks/fluffy; the long “a” sounds in dangles/hanks; the “ng/nk” sounds in dangles/hanks, trunks/hanks/hung. Listening carefully and analyzing the specific ways this sentence is lyrical offers a range of examples for students to try themselves. In this one short passage of prose, we can observe the three main things writers do: show, tell, and sing.

I also like teaching “Cloud Crossing” because it’s a thoroughly ecological essay. Sanders takes us on a mountain hike with him, but this is not an idealized, romantic landscape. He tells us outright that “this is no literary landscape.” There is, furthermore, “[n]o peace for meditation with an eleven-month-old on your back,” and at the top of Hardesty Mountain, he admits, “There is no dramatic feeling of expansiveness, as there is on some peaks, because here the view is divided up into modest sweeps by Douglass firs, cottonwoods, great gangling heaps of briars” (58). To be sure, Sanders is renewed by the awe and wonder his son experiences, but the essay is driven by guilt and fear rather than by a sublime transcendence of being in the natural world. “And I realize that carrying Jesse up the mountain to see clouds,” he tells us,

is a penance as well as a pleasure—penance for the hours I have sat glaring at my typewriter while he scrabbled mewing outside my door, penance for the thousands of things my wife has not been able to do on account of my word mania, penance for all the countless times I have told my daughter Eva no, I can’t, I’m writing.

Sanders’ fear is born of “the long entropic view of things.” The essay begins by noting, “Clouds are temporary creatures,” and it ends with a meditation on human ephemerality: “Even while I peek at [Jesse] over my shoulder he is changing, neurons hooking up secret connections in his brain, calcium swelling his bones like mud in river deltas” (59). This realization leads to panic: “everything I know is chalked upon a blackboard, and, while I watch, a hand erases every last mark” (59). “Cloud Crossing” is not primarily an essay of place—though it certainly is that, too, as it grounded in the specificity of Hardesty Mountain and Sanders’ writerly attention to his environment—rather, it’s an essay of time. When we talk about ecological writing, we tend to focus on place—for good reasons—but we often neglect other ways of thinking ecologically and being in environments. If the main insight that ecology has to offer us is the inevitable interconnection of all things, these interconnections should carry us into the prehistoric past and into the distant future as well—so that we can understand more deeply who we are as humans, so that we can imagine new sustainable futures for those yet unborn.

“Cloud Crossing,” then, is a beautifully crafted and pedagogically useful essay. But I will not be including it on my next creative nonfiction syllabus. When I’ve taught it in the past, it’s been from Root and Steinberg’s The Fourth Genre, which I’ve required my students to buy. I liked the textbook because it’s both an anthology of essays by writers whose work I admire as well as a collection of thoughtful essays about the genre itself. But of the 56 writers in the current (6th) edition, only three are people of color: Judith Ortiz Cofer, Edwidge Danticat, and Dagoberto Gilb. Looking over previous editions of The Fourth Genre, I have discovered eight other people of color who have been included in the tables of contents at one point or another. Only one Native-American writer has ever been included, (Linda Hogan) and (unless we count Danticat, who is Haitian-American) no African-American writers (zero) have been included. (I should pause here to note that my analysis is obviously subject to some error because I can’t know for certain how all of these writers identify racially or ethnically. I stand firmly by the point, however. And besides, even if I’ve overlooked a few people of color in my count, it would do very little to change the overwhelming whiteness of the anthology.)

What are we to make of this lack of diversity? I don’t think it’s peculiar to The Fourth Genre because glancing through a few other anthologies of creative nonfiction, I find a similar predominance of white writers in the tables of contents. Should I be surprised? Probably not. But should I blame Root and Steinberg—and countless other editors—for their blind spots when these have been exactly my own blind spots as a teacher and writer? How can I complain about a white man’s essay in a textbook when it is, as I’ve said, beautifully crafted and pedagogically useful? How can I complain when I am myself a white man whose work has been included in such publications?

It’s true that we suffer from what Junot Diaz calls “the unbearable too-whiteness” of creative writing as a discipline in higher education, but is it also true that creative nonfiction as it is taught in writing classrooms is even whiter than poetry and fiction? That’s my suspicion, which means that I’m going to retire Scott Russell Sanders’ “Cloud Crossing.” I come to this decision not because I believe in fulfilling some arbitrary quota of people of color in a textbook or anthology (though it might surprise you to be reminded that the United States is only 62% white—The Fourth Genre, however, is 95% white), not because it’s the “right” thing to do, and not as liberal white-guilt penance, but because art is better when it is diverse, because white people (teachers, editors, writers) fool themselves if they think their literary taste and judgment have not been deeply (if unconsciously) formed by their own whiteness, because the current state of literary affairs excludes the voices of people of color not maliciously but systemically, because like Diaz, I want “[t]o create in the present a fix to a past that can never be altered.” Instead of Sanders’s work, who has been and will remain a literary hero of mine, I will teach James Alan McPherson’s “Umbilicus” or Langston Hughes’ “Salvation,” as Chauna Craig and Suzanne Cope have suggested respectively on this very blog. I will seek out and teach the essays of Martín Espada and bell hooks and Leslie Marmon Silko and N. Scott Momaday and the countless other people of color whose work has remained in my own blind spot for years.

“Cloud Crossing” is about change. Early in the essay, Sanders tells us that his child “is changing cloud-fast before my eyes. His perky voice begins pinning labels on dogs and bathtubs and sun.” Like most writers, he is acutely aware of language (“word mania”), and like most parents, he is amazed by the utterance of his child’s first few phonemes. On their hike, Jesse points to the sky and says “Ba! Ba!” Sanders corrects him: “‘Moon,’ I say. ‘Ba! Ba!’ he insists. Let it stay a ball for a while, something to play catch with, roll across the linoleum.” The essay implicitly asks us to consider how language represents the world around us. How we decide which label gets affixed to which thing. This is a linguistic question, a literary question, and it can quickly become a political question, too—words, writing, literature, art: what forms will our lives take? What sentences will contain our understanding of reality, truth, history?

“Cloud Crossing” ends in terror as Sanders descends the mountain, “down through vapors that leach color from ferns, past trees that are dissolving. Stumps and downed logs lose their shape, merge into the clouds.” The terror here is dissolution, the erasure of difference, the loss of shape and definition. As they finally leave this featureless cloudscape, Sanders listens to his child’s “calm babbling orations”: “The thread of his voice slowly draws me out of the annihilating ocean of whiteness. ‘Moon,’ he is piping from the backseat, ‘moon!’” The label has stuck—“moon!”—for Jesse as it has for us. How might we now draw ourselves out of a different but no less annihilating “ocean of whiteness”?

Works Cited

Diaz, Junot. “MFA vs. POC.” The New Yorker. April 30, 2014. Web.

Sanders, Scott. “Cloud Crossing.” North American Review 266.3. (1981): 57-59. Print.

Sanders, Scott Russell. “Cloud Crossing.” The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction. Ed. Robert L. Root, Jr. and Michael Steinberg. 6th ed. New York: Pearson, 2012. 188-93. Print.

Steinberg, Michael. “Finding the Inner Story in Memoirs and Personal Essays.” The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction. Ed. Robert L. Root, Jr. and Michael Steinberg. 6th ed. New York: Pearson, 2012. 333-36. Print.


Schraffenberger_author_pic (2) (2)J. D. Schraffenberger is editor of the North American Review and an associate professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa. He is the author of two books of poetry, Saint Joe’s Passion (Etruscan Press) and The Waxen Poor (Twelve Winters Press), and his other work has appeared in Best Creative NonfictionBrevityNotre Dame ReviewPoetry EastPrairie Schooner, and elsewhere. His essay “Ecological Creative Writing,” co-written with James Engelhardt appears in Creative Writing Pedagogies for the Twenty-First Century (Southern Illinois University Press 2015), and his manifesto “Our Discipline: An Ecological Creative Writing Manifesto” is forthcoming in the Journal of Creative Writing Studies.