Poet, environmentalist, educator. John Lane was born in Southern Pines, North Carolina, and he is currently a professor of English and environmental studies at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Lane is the author of nearly a dozen books of essays, poetry, and non-fiction, as well as the coeditor of five volumes of nature essays. In addition, he has published several chapbooks and pamphlets of both poetry and prose; and his poetry, essays, and other short prose pieces have appeared in magazines and journals, both regional and national. He is also involved in several online and digital projects, and his work has received wide critical attention.
Lane earned his B.A. from Wofford College in 1977 and his M.F.A. from Bennington College in 1995. From the late 1970s to the late 1980s, Lane lived variously in the Pacific Northwest, Oklahoma, Virginia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, working both in and out of the academy. In the late 1980s he was invited back to Wofford to teach creative writing; he settled into this position and was eventually awarded tenure in 1999. When Wofford created an environmental studies major in 2008, Lane served as the program’s interim director, and he is currently the director of Wofford’s Glendale Shoals Environmental Studies Center. Lane is an avid kayaker and outdoorsman, and his love of nature and the wilderness infuses nearly every aspect of his writing and teaching.
Lane’s work has garnered numerous awards, including an NEA Poetry Apprentice Grant in 1979, a University of Virginia Hoyns Fellowship in Poetry (1980), a South Carolina Arts Commission Individual Arts Fellowship (1984), and the Phillip D. Reed Memorial Award for Outstanding Writing on the Southern Environment (2001). In addition, in 2008 Lane had the honor and distinction to have his literary papers acquired by the Sowell Family Collection in Literature, Community, and the Natural World at Texas Tech University. In 1995 Lane cofounded the Hub City Writers Project in Spartanburg, dedicated to promoting and publishing high-quality southern-oriented writing. This organization has since published more than four hundred authors and has received several notable accolades, including the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award for the Arts, the South Carolina Governor’s Award for the Humanities, and three first-place Independent Publisher Book Awards.
Lane has always been a prolific writer, producing works in several different genres, including poetry, nonfiction, fiction, drama, and screenplay. Lane’s early reputation as a writer was founded on his poetry, but in recent years his repute has been based on his accomplishments as a nonfiction writer, especially in the realm of personal narrative and nature writing. His major titles in this genre include Waist Deep in Black Water (2002), Chattooga: Descending into the Myth of Deliverance River (2004), Circling Home (2007), and My Paddle to the Sea (2004, republished 2011). His most recent book is Redemption Ecology and Other Essays (2012).
The one aspect that defines and directs Lane’s work more than any other is a sense of place. The place-based work of poet Gary Snyder had a profound influence on Lane, and he continues in the tradition of Snyder by making an understanding of place the single most important element of his own writing. This sensibility pervades virtually all of Lane’s work, whether that place is the community in which one lives, a forest, or a river on which one happens to be traveling.
It is perhaps Lane’s 2007 book Circling Home that best exemplifies place as the fundamental subject of his work. In her preface to her 2008 interview with Lane, Julie Schwietert describes the provenance of the book: Lane put a saucer over the location of his home on a small-scale map, traced a circle around the saucer, and then set out to learn everything he could about everything within the limits of that traced circle. In that same interview, Lane admits to the possible limitations of writing a book in such a way, noting: “you risk writing a book that is only interesting to your immediate neighbors.” Nonetheless, Schwietert accurately identifies the real advantage of writing such a book, claiming that “Circling Home is . . . a book about the very idea of place and our relationship with it.”
In Lane’s nature writing, place becomes the true protagonist and Lane, as narrator, is left to tell the reader the true story of the place by evoking a series of emotional responses arising from his own personal confrontation with the setting. This is perhaps understood best in one of Lane’s more recent books, Paddling to the Sea (2004, 2011), which is also one of Lane’s most critically well-received and most widely read publications. In his review, Hal Crimmel notes that “the book is by turns provoking, exhilarating, nerve-wracking, and soothing, providing the full quiver of emotions one experiences when descending a river.” As a result, Lane provides for the reader what Crimmel describes as Lane’s “ever-evolving relationship with the Piedmont region.” The book is ostensibly the tale of Lane’s journey from Lawson’s Creek in his own backyard down a series of Carolina rivers to the ocean, but the setting or place described in the book—a river, with all of its hazards and joys—is the real focus. Nor is that relationship always a pleasure. My Paddle to the Sea describes the often ugly, forced intrusion of the modern world into the Carolina wilderness; but, as Crimmel deftly notes, the book “is a lesson in how to embrace the local,” even when the local is at times marred by the creeping tentacles of modern society. My Paddle to the Sea, therefore, is overtly a tale about river conservation, but the real story is the love affair between the author and the natural world which he inhabits, and this is the relationship that inspires and guides Lane in all of his work. In 2014 he was inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors.
Crimmel, Hal. “A Paddler’s Journey down a Modern Southern Riverway.” Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built and Natural Environments 29 (Spring/Summer 2012).
Schwietert, Julie. “Circling Home: An Interview with John Lane.” The Southern Nature Project (February 2008).