George Handley teaches that drawing on our local landscape for inspiration can take our literature to a whole new level.
Louis L’Amour once said, “When I write about a spring, that spring is there, and the water is good to drink.” He meant that the spring exists the way he described it and that he strives to cultivate authenticity and vivid reality in his literature.
George Handley, professor of interdisciplinary humanities, uses that same approach in his own stories. For example, when he writes about wading the upper Provo River with his fly rod, he describes every tree and stone as they truly are in real life; you as the reader can almost feel the water surging past your legs and hear the sound of wind through the trees as though you were actually there.
Handley, who read at the March 11 installment of the English Reading Series, writes in genres from essays to poetry to novels, but all his writing demonstrates a particular interest in the landscape of Utah. His literature rests on the idea that we have a moral and religious imperative to cultivate a healthy relationship with our environment; he fluidly mixes art, theology, and ecology into one. At his reading he shared two nonfiction pieces, both dealing with these central themes.
The first piece was the coda from If Truth Were a Child (2019), a piece which reflects on his experiences and beliefs over his years of studying and writing about the environment. Having received degrees in comparative literature, Handley was exposed to environmental literature in the ’90s, and his interests in nature and literature evolved together over the course of his career. Handley’s essay advocates a more profound connection with nature: “This is a call to a higher and more hopeful consciousness of how we shape and are shaped by nature. . . . It is a call to what is otherwise known as repentance.”
“Cabin Fever,” the second nonfiction essay Handley shared, tells how literature helped him forge an unlikely connection with Alireza Taghdarreh, an Iranian translator. Differences in religions and cultural traditions didn’t prevent them from bonding over a shared belief in the power of ecology-based writing. Handley quoted an email that Taghdarreh sent him: “Literature is not luxury. It should bring our peoples together to converse. Yes, our nations can read books together.” Taghdarreh realized this goal when he journeyed to BYU to do a reading on invitation from Handley.
Following his BYU visit, Taghdarreh returned to Iran with a copy of Handley’s memoir, Home Waters: A Year of Recompenses on the Provo River, a book rooted in the wilderness and cities of the Provo River drainage. When later Handley found himself fielding emails from Iranian students asking him questions about his Utah-specific literature, he realized that “you learn a great deal about where you live and what you have when you see your home through the eyes of exceptionally observant visitors.”
It might seem foolhardy to try to capture in writing the majesty of nature and how we fit into it, but it is important to try. Handley shows us why it matters. Following Handley’s injunction to ecological "repentance,” attendees at the reading would have been unlikely to look at the many natural features of Utah Valley without a renewed sense of appreciation and a closer sense of connection to the nature that surrounds us.
If you find yourself moved and inspired by the nature in and around you, you can discover more of Handley’s writing, scholarship, and environmental work at his website. And you can hear more insights from authors at the English Reading Series website.