In what may be the keystone essay of his 2018 collection, The Bone Pile: Essays on Nature and Culture, Maximilian Werner asks a crucial question: “What is the purpose of listening?” The essay is entitled “Environmentalist,” and it is a musing on the unfortunate labeling that adheres to this term, the polarizing nature of which tends to shut down listening.
With this simple question, Werner flays to the bone the nature of language, which names and identifies, but simultaneously distances and diffuses. It’s all we have, this would-be tool of meaning and connection, but it is a tool that all too often forecloses meaning rather than produces it.
But Werner’s answer to the question is encouraging: we listen to understand. Werner asserts that understanding, elusive as it is, can descend on us with finality. But it does not give us comfort or clarity, as we might wish. Instead, if we really listen and understand, we become “unmoored,” drifting away from our precious assumptions about our world, ourselves, and our hidebound visions of others, both human and beyond human.
This unmooring — this daring drift into understanding — is wild, beautiful, and a little scary, and it is precisely the work of this raw, honest, and deeply felt series of essays. Wildly, freely, without the strictures of a particular agenda, we travel with the author’s astonishingly open and curious mind though a strongly biographical yet almost universally identifiable set of experiences, thoughts, and visions.
At times, as in the titular essay, Werner’s voice is aphoristic, Thoreauvian in its declarative bent. Yet the questions that enliven this supremely readable work are bone-deep. They run all the way to the quintessential query: what is consciousness? This question simmers beneath the surface as Werner recounts navigating the world of artifice and technology, our simultaneous dependence on and ignorance of our many technologies, while noting how his mind “catches fire” upon imagining an arc of sunlight making its way around this island planet. Werner captures here the suburbanite’s trapped-ness, which carries with it a deep but too-often ignored awareness of the fragility of the artifices that distance us from life in the open, with its beauty, death, and suffering. The character here is liminal, dwelling within the suburban space but, like so many of us, wistfully musing on this citified existence: “If I could make the choice again, I would have stayed in the woods.”
And that is exactly where some of the most interesting work in this volume are based. Werner has sojourned to Montana’s Centennial Valley, the Utah canyon country, and other wild corners of the West in his work as a researcher and writing professor. The author’s crystalline yet nuanced visions of wildness, as drawn from these experiences — particularly the thorny conundrums around managing predators in rural spaces — resonate with reverence and a genuine struggle to listen and understand. The result is a truly moral work, free of dogmatism, that seeks to help us engage the many connections each life and each story share.
Complex as the world is, having Werner as a muse and navigator in The Bone Pile, serves as a reverent tour through experience that is often needle-accurate in its examination of how we make meaning and how we connect to the world — with no division between “natural” and “human-made” — in which we dwell.
The Bone Pile: Essays on Nature and Culture
Homebound Publications (2018)
Aaron T. Phillips teaches professional and technical communication in the Management department at the University of Utah. His dissertation research focused on the rhetoric surrounding the reintroduction and recovery of the gray wolf in the western United States. His creative nonfiction has appeared in “Mountain Gazette” and “Cross Country Skier” magazine, as well as in various local publications.