N. Scott Momaday on Landscape, Emily Dickinson, and the Fellowship That Changed His Life
In Conversation with Jordan Kisner on Thresholds
This is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely turned them upside down, disoriented them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Hosted by Jordan Kisner, author of the essay collection Thin Places, and brought to you by Lit Hub Radio.
In this episode, Jordan talks with N. Scott Momaday (Earth Keeper) about the Stanford fellowship that changed his life, the importance of taking the natural world into your heart, and the genius of Emily Dickinson.
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From the episode:
Jordan Kisner: I’m curious to hear you talk about what writing about the remembered Earth means to you at this point in your career and in your writing life.
N. Scott Momaday: Well, the Native American has always had a keen understanding and appreciation of the landscape, nature. The Native American has been on the North American continent for—we don’t know, maybe 30,000 years. And in that tenure, he has learned to be a multiple-use conservationist and has acquired a great understanding of the natural world and how to live in harmony with it and protect it. And that, today, is something that very much interests me. I want to do what I can to preserve the Earth because the Earth is in danger. I think my writing contributes to that task, and I’m proud of that and I want to continue it.
Jordan Kisner: How has your relationship to nature, to the landscapes that live in your mind and that you live in in the world, changed over time?
N. Scott Momaday: Well, I took it for granted. I grew up in the Southwest, in canyon country and mountain country, a very beautiful landscape. And I took it for granted, as one does. But I’ve come to understand having left that landscape, the one in which I was a child, and in my adulthood I’ve experienced a different kind of landscape—the difference has made me understand more about how it was when I was growing up. I want us to return to that, if I can.
Jordan Kisner: What can you see now about the landscape of your childhood that you felt like you couldn’t see then?
N. Scott Momaday: I appreciate more being close to it. Being in it. I grew up on Indian reservations in the Southwest, and it was such a rich experience. I grew up first on the Navajo reservation and I lived on two of the Apache reservations. And for the longest period of time, I lived with the pueblo of Jemez in north central New Mexico. All of those are beautiful landscapes, and I sometimes think I want to go back and visit the Navajo landscape because the colors of the earth there are so rich and the landscape is so vast, and it’s full of sacred materials, people who understand the sacred nature of the landscape. And that is extremely important, in our time especially.
So I think of various places in my childhood, and I understand how important they were to to me. They fashioned my writing. I learned while I was growing up to appreciate the landscape in such a way that I could write about it accurately and precisely. And I wouldn’t have been able to do that had I not grown up in that landscape and observed the kind of life that was lived there by Native people.
N. Scott Momaday is an internationally renowned poet, novelist, artist, teacher, and storyteller whose works celebrate and preserve Native American heritage. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel House Made of Dawn and he is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the Academy of American Poets Prize, the National Medal of Arts, the Ken Burns American Heritage Prize, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation’s Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award, and the 2021 Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry. A longtime professor of English and American literature, Momaday earned his PhD from Stanford University and retired as Regents Professor at the University of Arizona. He lives in New Mexico and his latest book is Dream Drawings.