Land and sea meet in a dance of littoral literature on this week’s episode, in which two writers train their minds on overlooked expanses. Gillian Osborne considers the American lawn, a private buffer expressing our nostalgia for common spaces. Leanne Shapton takes us into open water, where swimmers find vulnerability, wonder, and a sense of scale. They examine how great writers have drawn inspiration from the outdoors and crafted lyrical prose that unsettles the barriers between humans and nature, past and present, death and life.
First, Harper’s Magazine web editor Violet Lucca speaks with Leanne Shapton about the work of the writer, activist, and filmmaker Roger Deakin, which Shapton reviewed in the August issue of Harper’s. Like Deakin, Shapton is an experienced swimmer (she once participated in two Olympic tryouts), and she uses her marine inclinations to understand Deakin’s travel memoir Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain, as well as his life and politics. Only a lucky few can swim regularly from a young age, and Shapton discusses her desire that the experience of open-water swimming—as one means of being “with” nature, rather than “in and on it”—might be made available to people of all ages and cultural backgrounds.
Next, Lucca speaks with Gillian Osborne. Last month, Nightboat Books published Osborne’s first essay collection, Green Green Green, which was excerpted in the July issue of Harper’s. Osborne declares that the color green’s “layering of possible meanings is uncanny,” then launches into a poetic history of the American lawn. As she testifies in her conversation, she is interested in the lawn’s ability to evoke absence or emptiness—a quality she also finds in great short poetry. For Osborne, who seeks to make space for “responsive” rather than merely “responsible” reading, the experience of literature is always entwined with what writers and readers are not presently looking at—the vibrant vegetal world in which they sit.