Woodrat Podcast 19: Lorianne DiSabato

Lorianne DiSabato
left: in San Diego; right: in Dharma teacher robes (photos by Jim Gargani)

Lorianne DiSabato is a writer, photographer, naturalist, college instructor, and Zen teacher who’s been blogging at Hoarded Ordinaries for nearly seven years. We’ve been friends for almost that long, and first met in person in March 2005, but I realized there were still some questions I’d never asked her. I got her talking about how she got into nature, how or whether she would categorize Hoarded Ordinaries, journaling versus blogging, getting married at the zoo, nature writing as a pilgrimage, the myth of the literary hermit, blogging and Buddhism, the danger of Zen books, and more.

Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence)

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29 Replies to “Woodrat Podcast 19: Lorianne DiSabato”

  1. Substantive, lively, humorous, wise: a delightful conversation, beginning to end! Many thanks to Lorianne for confirming the value of “no fucking idea mind.”

    I’d also love to see a Google map which locates those we assume are hermits but, of course, are not. We are so taken with stories of sustained and successful renunciation of basic human needs, despite their impossibility.

    1. Glad you got so much out of this, Julia. I only wish I’d been able to include more of our conversation — and am beginning to wonder whether I am underestimating the listenership by trying to keep the podcasts so short.

    2. Julia, I love this idea of a Google map to plot so-called nature hermits. Once I figured out where Nelson, NH was, May Sarton’s journals made more sense: she’s always talking about having visitors, so it makes total sense she lived right at the heart of a New England village, not out in the wilderness somewhere. It says something about ME that I “wanted” her to be a hermit: when I first read Journal of a Solitude, I wanted the “escape” of nature, whereas now I recognize that solitude is a mental place, not necessarily a geographic one.

      One of the things I loved about Robert Sullivan’s The Thoreau You Don’t Know is his description of Thoreau’s annual watermelon parties, which included wine and the melons Thoreau himself grew. I love the image of Thoreau socializing with his neighbors over summer produce!

      1. Lorianne, I forgot to mention when we were talking about this that the book that got my mom started on her nature-writing career was actually Louis Halle’s Spring in Washington. My parents were living in D.C. at the time, visited many of the places he wrote about, and then Mom started writing down her own nature observations. SIW is a very different sort of nature book from what I tend to call the Sigurd Olsen type.

        1. That sounds like something right up my alley (no pun intended). One of the reasons why I have my first-year writing students read Robert Sullivan’s Rats is it gently makes fun of the Sigurd Olsen style of nature writing while vividly illustrating how even a place as urban as New York City harbors wild animals. I guess I’m closer in spirit to Sullivan than to Olsen…and this is why I describe myself as a place-writer, not a nature-writer. If you say you’re a nature-writer, some readers get bent out of shape if you talk about graffiti or other “urban” things. If you write about place, anything and everything is on the table.

          1. Right. But within nature writing, there’s also an important distinction to be made between books that are largely focused on the writer’s experience and those that remain focused on natural history. I feel that most academic students of the genre, being more from a literature than a biology background, have greatly over-emphasized the former to the neglect of the latter category, which has included such bestselling authors as J. Henri Fabre, Edwin Way Teale, Rachel Carson, Gilbert White, Hal Borland, and Bernd Heinrich. Here in central PA I’ve learned that Sierra Club people have very different interests from Audubon Society people; I can’t imagine the former getting too much out of a Bernd Heinrich book, or the latter out of a Sigurd Olsen.

      1. Dave, just this week I was reading my course evaluations from last term, and one of my students said I should have been an actress. So if you’re ever tempted to go into show biz, we could start our own old-timey Internet radio show.

  2. You tweeted this morning: This is what I’m after here. RT @MerryBones @morningporch I now see my balcony as a more interesting place for having found your site.

    I think that’s what Lorianne said she’s after, too. Not to have people read her blog and fall in love with Keene, but to fall in love with wherever they are.

    1. Yeah, absolutely — Lorianne’s words were echoing in my head when I read @MerryBones’ tweets about the inspiration she gets from my porchisms. (Though unlike Lorianne I’m not especially bothered by the ones who say they appreciate the moment of escape, depending on what they’re seeking to escape from. I’m not convinced that “be here, now” is the best advice for people trapped in cubicle hell, for example.)

      1. Ha, trapped in cubicle hell indeed. I’m not convinced be here now is healthy for the depressed, either, or those in pain. Of course there are healthier and less healthy ways to escape, limits, and a time and place.

        1. I’m not sure that escapism is the answer for people who are depressed or in pain, though. The first step toward addressing any problem, after all, is “being here now” long enough to recognize and admit you have a problem. Escapism merely wishes the issue away; it doesn’t actually address it.

          Besides, doesn’t escapist blog-reading merely keep folks in their cubicle hell? I’ve spent enough time working in front of a computer to have lots of experience wasting time online, and it almost never leaves me more energized. When I need a break, it’s almost always better for me to stop, step away from the computer, and do pretty much anything other than check email, blogs, Facebook, or Twitter. Going to the bathroom, getting a drink of water, or stepping outside for a cigarette-free “smoke break”: any of these is more truly refreshing, I find, than a rest break that consists of only click, click, clicking.

          Of course, your results may vary. :-)

          1. What I mean is that sitting with one’s depression or pain is often not helpful. A depressed person ruminates on their misery already and I think rarely becomes well by that (in fact can be harmed if they’re severely depressed), as some recent books have advocated. The throbbing in my arm recedes when I “escape” into some other focus.

            Also, depends on “escape” versus “escapist” (pejorative) I guess! Blog-reading may or may not be escapist. One can escape into one’s imagination and write Twitter posts in one’s head while sitting in one’s cube. One can read a piece of poetry that transports you out of yourself into another experience altogether. Reading an engrossing book can be escapist or an escape, or in any case a welcome break from too much focus on one’s present circumstances, which can give a healthy break from rumination.

          2. Lorianne, thanks for clarifying your position. Like Leslee, I tend to think there are a complex number of possible reactions to a piece of writing or art, so what we term “escape” may be healthy or unhealthy, depending on the individual and the circumstances. For example, sometimes it’s helpful to be pulled out of oneself and see things, if only for a moment, for another and radically different perspective from one’s own. Poetry can do that, and other forms of art, too, online as well as off. I often find well-made videopoems especially conducive to getting the creative juices flowing.

          3. Yes, Dave, all our results may vary, even from moment to moment. ;-)

            I don’t have a problem with folks in cubicles reading my blog: if I did, I’d have very few readers left. What bothers me is that some folks might be reading my blog (or yours, or anyone’s) instead of noticing what is around them. That’s what I mean by “escapist.” Does reading a particular blog, poem, essay, or whatever lead you to look more closely at your own world…or does it block out your own world because you’re so smitten with what you’ve read, you’re constantly comparing your own experience to what you’ve seen in blogs or books.

            (This, of course, is the whole “moon vs. the finger-pointing-at-the-moon” distinction that is so common in Zen. Does reading about Thoreau’s travels around Concord make me want to explore my own neighborhood, or am I letting reading turn myself into a sedentary, oblivious couch-potato?)

            Leslee, I definitely hear what you’re saying about both depression and physical pain, and again, I’m not against quick flights of fancy that take one away from one’s present hell. I just don’t think those quick escapes are very effective, long-term. If someone is severely depressed, they need something more than a quick blog-break to cheer them, and if repetitive stress is the cause of that throbbing arm, stepping away from the computer is probably more helpful, long term, than spending more time online.

            In my experience, “being here, now” is quite different from ruminating on one’s misery because you’re consciously, intentionally, paying attention to what is actually happening “here” without allowing yourself to get swept into your usual narrative of “why” you’re depressed, why you “should” feel differently, etc. “Right now, I’m sad because I’m alone” is very different from “I’m alone, and no one will ever love me because I’m unlovable.” Simply observing what’s happening now — “I’m breathing, my heart is sad” — is often very different from the elaborate versions of “reality” we obsess about: “I’m a bad person, I’m a failure, nobody likes me,” etc.

            When I’ve faced dark times, it’s been hugely helpful to spend time with (versus wallow in) my pain. Our culture is so addicted to the quick-fix, we don’t want to leave space for people’s pain: we literally don’t want to hear about it, and we want depressed folks to “just snap out of it” rather than actually dealing with their depression. So in my experience, it’s revolutionary to encounter someone who basically says “There’s no shame in being unhappy.” I think that place of acceptance is where real treatment can start.

    1. Oh good! (I hope you weren’t using the on-site player when the website suffered a couple minutes of down-time just now. That’s why I pay to store the audio files at WordPress.com instead of here.)

  3. Lorianne has one sane way of blogging that, I realize after listening to this, is somewhat like my own, though she is far more disciplined at it than I am. I like how she describes the relationship between her journal and her blog, between the photos and the text on her blog, and between her locales and her blog. I also like the irony she finds in writing about Zen — an irony I feel about writing sometimes even though I don’t practice Zen.

    1. Thanks, Peter. My blogging practice does feel sane in that it is something I find personally grounding. I feel different on days I don’t write, take photos, and/or blog: having this sort of creative outlet feels necessary for my personal well-being. In that sense, my blogging is an inherently selfish pursuit: although I’m sharing stuff, I’m really doing it for my own benefit.

      1. I love writing more than most anything, but I find I sometimes have to take long stretches away from all but my sketchier journal writing to kind of clear my mind, to not be so captured by how my mind tends to think when I write. (Maybe I need to fire my imaginary reader.) Writing practice is important for stretches, and then not having writing practice is important for stretches. It’s strange.

        But whether I write or not, it’s all for my benefit, too, so in that sense I’m selfish about it.

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