Spurred by George Handley’s eco-theological reflections in Home Waters: A Year of Recompenses on the Provo River, I’ve been reading Wallace Stegner. Like Handley, Stegner is interested in the tight twine of body, place, and genealogy that makes a life. On my account, Handley and Stegner share the same thesis: if the body is a river, then the soul is a watershed.
Like a shirt pulled off over your head, this thesis leaves the soul inside-out and exposed. You thought your soul was a kernel of atomic interiority, your most secret secret – but shirt in hand, everyone can see your navel.
Stegner’s novel, Angle of Repose, opens with the narrator’s own version of this thesis. A father, writing about his grandparents, names the distance between himself and his grown son:
Right there, I might say to Rodman, who doesn’t believe in time, notice something: I started to establish the present and the present moved on. What I established is already buried under layers of tape. Before I can say I am, I was. Heraclitus and I, prophets of flux, know that the flux is composed of parts that imitate and repeat each other. Am or was, I am cumulative, too. I am everything I ever was, whatever you and Leah may think. I am much of what my parents and especially my grandparents were – inherited stature, coloring, brains, bones (that part unfortunate), plus transmitted prejudices, culture, scruples, likings, moralities, and moral errors that I defend as if they were personal and not familial. (3-4)
Right off, Stegner fingers what is different about this notion of a soul: time. Thinking that souls are tucked away inside us generally goes hand in hand with thinking that they are untouched by time. Dammed up inside, the soul, unmoved, is safe from the perpetual rush and tumble of Heraclitus’ panta rhei.
But wrong-side-out, the soul has no such repose. Here, nothing is still and the soul’s “I am!” is both compromised and constituted by its temporality: it moves but its movement is “composed of parts that imitate and repeat each other.” It moves, but it moves as a gathering litany that channels the same brains, bones, scruples, and prejudices through the narrow straits of varied bodies and lives copied from the bodies and lives of parents and grandparents.
As Handley points out, “this is the way with watersheds. They gather tributaries from upstream and connect all that is above, beneath, and beside and give life through unseen processes of exchange” (xv). Downstream, the river appears self-sufficient, its banks clearly defined, its water an unremarkable grace. But the accessible obscures the obvious. “A river is water, yes, but it is also soil, plant, and animal life – a watershed” (128). A soul is a body, yes, but it is also a place and a time.
A soul, like water, “seeps through the edges of stone, leaps out of rocky walls, or surges from beneath the soil, and it grows in size and momentum as it flows downward from the tops of the mountains. Little capillaries of water meet up with others to form small rivulets and streams, which meets others still in naturally formed transepts, until a river takes shape and creates inverted mountains to aid its way down. Down to the sea or directly to the clouds from where it drops on the mountains again” (213).
The simile is striking but I don’t want to leave it as such. Handley’s attention to the force of place insists that we are dealing with more than metaphor. The soul names both the body’s place and that body’s being placed. There are no souls without bodies, but a body, in itself, is a wire unplugged. Souls socket bodies into the place of their time.
Ungrounded, we lose track not only of place but of our bodies as well. It is in this sense, Handley suggests, that “geography teaches us the first lessons of being”: that every kind of being involves a being there (38). Every life must make and take place.
Religion is revealed geography.
The first lesson of religion is that our bodies not only have a place but are a place. The body is the place where life happens. The body localizes the extended geography of the soul. “The body is the cup in which to drink the world” (42). This cup always runs over, but without the body life won’t hold water.
We stuff, abuse, and ignore our bodies at our own peril. The soul as watershed feeds the body’s current through the capillaries, rivulets, and transepts of sensation. “Sensation is what one needs” (57). A respiring body, a sweating body, a wind-chapped body, a sun-kissed body, is what one needs. A body in open air. We forfeit our souls, our place, if our bodies become just “excess baggage, things to be maintained so that we can continue to live as if they were irrelevant, as if we were not embodied biological matter” (34).
Handley climbs mountains in order to pace out the dimensions of his watershed and it is the work imposed by the slope that wakes him to it. “The mountain,” he says, “stirs me from strange and varied slumbers of the body” (187).
None of this is to deny that we are “insufficient vessels,” that our bodies are “not built to withstand [even] the daily tremors beauty offers” (162). But this insufficiency, this dependence of the river on a watershed that spreads from view, is the whole point. The body that I am, the repetition of blood, faith, and sin that I am, is necessitated only by this insufficiency. This insufficiency is the tie that binds work to time, body to place, and child to parent.
A soul is the sharing of this insufficiency in a common place. It is the wakeful shouldering of its displacement from one body to the next.