Literary Arts

Saltfront: New Literary Journal Explores Human Habit(at)s


There is more than one definition of saltfront but the one adopted by the new Utah-based literary journal which carries the term as its name is this: an entrance to a non-discrete zone between defined ecosystems.

Saltfront, which debuted in September, is in fact a venture that finds its sense of literary place “in-between” systems, ecological and otherwise. Its submission guidelines, termed “bearings and positions,” attempts nothing less than a sea-change of the lexicon, the approach and the meanings of environmental writing and activism. Michael McLane, one of the founding editors, explains that the journal, which grew out of the work of graduate students in the University of Utah’s Environmental Humanities program, is “a reaction to an unsatisfactory discourse” in old school environmentalism epitomized by activist organizations like the Sierra Club and Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA). The bi-annual aspires to “stories,” says McLane, “of how people are living within these [ecological] changes…trying to remember the human element in all of this not just the catastrophe we’ve seen but that we are a creative and adaptive [species] through it all.”

Moving beyond conservation, traditional notions of “wilderness” preservation and the bio-regionalism of the revered novelist, eco-activist and farmer Wendell Berry, the editors of saltfront are, according to McLane, looking more to the notion of “embodiment rather than the environment.” The hope is that this bias for cultivating (and mining) the senses will propel the environmental conversation into a re-negotiation and re-navigation of what is essentially a new world.

The antidote to what sounds like a project spawned in a seminar of humanities graduate students on high doses of caffeine is the selections themselves, most of which, in the first issue, are from the pens of local writers. Celebrated environmental author  and godmother of the UofU Program Terry Tempest Williams makes an appearance with her adopted Rwandan son Louis Gakumba in “Foramen”—reportage and personal reflections by both on two different genocide memorials, one in Kigali, Rwanda and the other on the Washington DC mall. Another short piece is included by the team’s husband/father Brooke Williams. More reporting—really mapping—in the form of poetry by Robin Rothfeder details “Tar Sands Country as Seen from Outer Space.” There is even a section of haiku.

One standout work is “Postcards from Fire,” a suite of downwinder prose poems by McLane himself addressed to his mother (“Your thyroid will be quickly forgotten. There will be pills, but that is charted territory”). Another is the compelling, extended novel excerpt from another contributing editor Eric Robertson (“Rebecca birthed every ewe in that herd. She was a young woman who had never been at a mother’s breast, never lulled to sleep, never picked up, only put down.”) Robertson is arguably the visionary behind saltfront’s stated intentions and the journal’s catchy tagline: “studies in human habit(at).” Among others represented are Maximilian Werner, Jeff Metcalf, Kelsey Sather and Annie Gilliland.

A new journal of this kind, themed as it is, (though, admittedly, somehow expansively nonetheless) begs the question of just how literary as opposed to academic saltfront will end up being. And too, just how revolutionary will saltfront be with its stated impulse, according to McLane, toward eco-lit that is animated by social justice? “We are deeply enmeshed,” he says, “in that place between the Think Globally/Act Locally movement and the idea that nothing is really local anymore, [especially] the structure of markets, etc.” In other words, he seems to be saying, humans matter. There is no ethic in this tribe to return to some pristine earth devoid of the species that has brought us both the Dalai Lama and Justin Bieber.

“We’re completely uninterested in the separation between humans and nature,” says McLane. “That duality isn’t useful anymore.” With this compass, the journal intends to reach new audiences, though, he admits, readers will still see some of the old jargon. “We’re trying to determine [just how much].”

Saltfront’s second issue, to be released in April, will feature a range of writers that extend far beyond the Great Basin. Early pieces that have been accepted include meditations on the tar sands of Canada to, again, Rwanda. And what about the new audiences for this new kind of eco-lit? Who are they? McLane recalls a turning-point class that many of his fellow-students-turned-editorial-contributors had with Tempest Williams at the U. One day they were watching a film about a 16-year old kid from Oakland, California who was narrating what it was like to live in a neighborhood rife with the environmental effects of hair product manufacturers and dry cleaners, and it occurred to the class, why should this individual care about the environmental movement as (then) currently constituted? “Rich white people want to protect wilderness,” the narrator says, “but they don’t realize what kind of pollution we all live with every day, virtually everywhere.”

saltfront’s Bearings and Positions
*  We aspire to creative lives amidst the shared realities of death, failure, fragment, uncertainty, mediocrity, and birth.

*  We support stories of survival and meaning rooted in dirt and grass, bone and flesh.

*  We choose to build our homes and stories as if in a hammock—anchored but free to move within a confident suspension.

*  For now, we set aside conventional uses of the terms “nature,” “wilderness,” and ”environment.”

*  We adopt a pragmatic idealism in order to confront future challenges and provoke the youth.

*  We view unchecked growth of all kinds as chronic forms of social and cultural malnutrition.

*  We seek direct mediation through our senses, in order to reorient, reimagine, and rehabilitate our relationships.

*  We imagine body, sky, and earth as a single landscape.  Further contamination of place is not an option.

Categories: Literary Arts

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