Silas House Finds Hope in Thin Places — THE BITTER SOUTHERNER


The book takes place a generation or so in the future as wildfires devastate the globe. These fires tore first through Australia, decimating life and forcing people to flee. As the US yields to the same fate, religious fundamentalists overturn the government. Dissenters are killed, and gay love is outlawed. Lark and his family leave Maryland for Maine, where they find a few years of solace with their friend Phoebe and her two children, Sera and Arlo. It’s in Maine, amongst verdant days of self-sufficiency on a mountain by a waterfall, where Lark falls in love with Arlo. While the religious fundamentalists would hunt them down elsewhere, Lark and Arlo are able to share a beautiful love on their mountain. Including this relationship in the book was important to House, who says the way gay men’s love stories are depicted in literature and film is “often tempered by violence, whether that be violence between them or violence enacted upon them.

“A lot of our gay stories are so rooted in being ostracized or finding ourselves sexually, but I’ve just not read too many really tender gay love stories,” House says.

Though the lovers are aware that this romance could end at any minute, sexuality is never a source of tragedy. Instead, it’s a beacon of light amid the book’s sorrow. At the heart of the novel’s ruminations on climate is Lark’s love for Arlo, which gets him through an overwhelming world.

To taste and be tasted. Every part of us humming and alive. If you are very lucky it happens occasionally that your body fits with someone else’s in such a way that you feel you are not two separate people but one being, that you’ve gone beyond the physical.

When trouble encroaches, they leave their mountain for Nova Scotia, and then Ireland, a journey in a refugee boat marked by death and loss. The sole survivor, Lark journeys into the Irish landscape in search of shelter and refuge, family and the fantastical. His target is Glendalough, a “thin place” where the physical and spirit worlds collide.

On the journey, Lark finds Helen — a resolute yet terse woman searching for her lost son — and a dog named Seamus. The three form a family of their own, but in this landscape of death and disaster, their trust is often tested, and vulnerability is a liability.

Lark Ascending was born from grief. Early in 2015, House lost an aunt who was like a second mother. Growing up around strong women who were storytellers, he attributes his career as a writer to her.

“I don’t think anything changes us more than grief, and so I wanted to write a book that explored that grief,” House says. “When you’re in deep grief like that, one thing you keep reminding yourself of is that you don’t have any other choice but to keep going.”

In part, House set out to write an adventure book, inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London. Landscapes — the environment so fully embodied — overwhelm Lark’s senses. Some of this might be attributed to House’s process: a complete immersion into the world of his characters. He can’t write without music, and each of his novels is accompanied by a soundtrack. for Lark Ascending, it was U2 and The Avett Brothers, music Lark’s parents would have grown up listening to, as well as Irish music and tunes with walking rhythms. Most of all, he listened to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ composition “The Lark Ascending.” Every emotion in the novel — grief, despair, and hope — can be found in this hauntingly beautiful 14-minute composition.

To this, House adds a color scheme. This book is filled with the black of burning, as well as the roses and purples of deep, fiery sunsets. While certain books inspire his world-building, photography and the paintings of Winslow Homer and JMW Turner were the most inspirational in envisioning this world that might come to be.

“I need to step into that world, and so I just do everything I can to create that feeling for myself: music, colors, the texture of the ground beneath my feet,” House says. “As a Southern writer, it’s drilled into you that sense of place is of the utmost importance, so you have to really, really know the place to write about it properly.”

Yet there’s a concomitant charge to this sensory immersion. While Lark’s journey through the landscape is a search for haven, it’s also a sojourn through grief; a pilgrimage, with Glendalough as his lodestar. Everywhere, his senses are overwhelmed, and the cedar trees surrounding him remind him of Arlo and their years together. He unfolds a palimpsest of all he’s lost: his family, his friends, his first love, and everyone on the refugee boat.

I thought my grief might be so big — and growing, growing — that my body wouldn’t be able to contain it. I’d split wide open the way the cedar tree must have when the fire overwhelmed it.

“In times of deep grief, you have to keep going, and Lark just keeps walking, keeps traveling, to the point of it becoming really hard for him to be still,” House says. “There’s safety in motion. I think that’s the way I deal with grief. I get busy. I work my way through it. Some people just have to sit down and be still and sleep a lot and become comatose. I’m the opposite; I have to keep going all the time. That’s what Lark is doing as well. He’s in deep grief for everybody that he’s ever loved.”

House himself has often turned to the natural world for comfort. His father was a Vietnam War veteran who suffered from PTSD and worked the graveyard shift. When home felt nervous, House went outdoors. Today, his walks are still instrumental in his process. Imagining Lark’s world, House understood there was another kind of grief for him to confront.

“I began to realize that I was also in deep grief because of the climate crisis. I think a lot of us are,” House says. “I think a lot of us are in deep grief for what we see as the demise of our democracy, the continued lack of separation of church and state.”

Climate change “is a moral issue for writers,” says Lauren Groff. “If we are not engaging with it at all, what are we doing?” Her 2021 novel Matrix revisits the story of Marie de France and her abbey in 12th-century England, telling stories of imperialism and humans destroying the land for their own gain. Groff says she’s adamant about never overlooking climate change, “the single existential threat that actually might take down humanity.”

But how do you write a story about the climate crisis? Is it possible to ever find hope? Where does the personal belong when the planet becomes inhospitable to human life?

in an essay for Outside, Erica Berry writes, “Love isn’t a distraction from climate emergency — on the contrary, its existence is critical for helping us cope. Climate fiction … can help us visualize how to better love during crisis.”

The reality imagined in Lark Ascending is adaptive and tempered; the novel recognizes that when climate disaster stresses society, the interwoven nature of our systems of power endangers the most vulnerable groups. However, it never punishes its vulnerable protagonists for being so susceptible. Though the climate crisis displaces them, their sexuality, even under the specters of homophobia and Christian fundamentalism, never undoes them. For House, the book is as much a 100-year love story as a climate novel.

In writing Lark Ascending, House was motivated by multiple personal experiences and real-world events. With the increase in frequency of historic weather events and the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Lark’s years on the mountain continue to feel ever more immediate to House.

“It’s sort of like these halcyon days. The whole world is burning down — metaphorically and literally — yet [Lark and Arlo are] up here in this place that’s above all that, and they’re safe, but they also know that the fires and the fundamentalists will eventually catch up to them. That’s the way that I feel, to some degree,” House says.

As a queer person in the US, reality can often feel porous. Time and again, well-intentioned progressives have articulated to House their joy that queer people are now totally accepted. While he’s seen great strides in his lifetime, he’s always been more skeptical and recognizes there’s something perilous in such an attitude. Clarence Thomas’ recent opinion in the reversal of Roe v. Wade signaled to gay couples what many have long feared — that many Americans still believe the right to contraceptives or interracial marriage or queer relationships and marriage are up for debate.

“We’re living in a little respite, and then things are going to get worse. My husband and I got married five days after the marriage equality decision came down. I’ve been told we were the first gay couple to be married in our county, and ever since, I’ve been waiting for them to take it away,” House says. “The two things that scare me the most right now are climate change and Christian nationalism, and it is absolutely on the rise, and it is very dangerous. The Supreme Court is showing that we’re becoming ruled by the Bible instead of the Constitution. … To me, that goes against everything it means to be an American and everything about democracy and everything that I understand about what this country is founded for.”

***

Days after we spoke, Kentucky was struck by flash floods. In the wake of the disaster, House noticed a dual response: on the one hand, an outpouring of support; on the other, calls to “let ’em swim” because Kentuckians had voted for senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, who’ve been tough on any measures for climate relief.

The callous response troubled House on a deeper level, too. in an essay for The Washington Post in the days following the flooding, he wrote that beyond behaving as decent, empathetic humans, “We should also care because science shows that someday soon the same thing may happen to many more of us. We can be better people by imagining ourselves in the most desperate situations of others.”

Lark Ascending will remain prescient as the twin pressures of climate change and politics stress our relationships, communities, and environment. But when the world becomes hopeless, there’s an easy line to draw to inertia; nothing matters anymore. House recognized this and set out to write a book about grief, but one filled with hope and wonder. Lark keeps going, seeking beauty in the natural world. He feels the utmost respect for nature, and within nature he seeks the mystical bounds that stretch beyond the limits of human imagination.

“Sometimes there’s just a mystery,” House says. “And I think there’s real beauty in the mystery, and that when everything is explained away, there’s some magic that is lost. I mean, a thin place, for instance; I can never understand that, and therein lies the beauty of it.”

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