McLean sustained by literature and the natural world

June 28, 1998
Elisabeth Sherwin --

A few lucky people can point to a pivotal time, person or event that changes their lives or helps them focus on what they want to be when they grow up.

In the case of UC Davis' Scott McLean, it was a movie he saw in 1965.

McLean grew up in Minnesota and northern San Diego County and entered San Diego State with the idea of majoring in fisheries biology.

But when he went to see the epic film "Dr. Zhivago" he decided that he wanted to write poetry and study literature.

"And literature in a foreign language was sexier," he said. "I didn't want to be just an English major."

He attended the Free University in Berlin and then enrolled in UC Santa Barbara in 1969 to work on his Ph.D. His interest in biology and the natural world remained a constant.

Now he lives in the hills outside Nevada City and teaches in two programs at the UCD, comparative literature and nature and culture.

During the past 10 years he has been one of the central figures in the development of Davis' new degree program in nature and culture. With Professors Mark Wheelis of microbiology and Michael Barbour of environmental horticulture and Eldridge Moores of geology, he has team-taught all of the three core courses in the program.

McLean also was invited to be one of the three writers at this year's Places on Earth speaker series (with UCD graduates Louis Owens and Brenda Peterson).

And he has continued writing and publishing poetry in various journals, as well as articles on Gary Snyder, Norman Maclean, and his favorite poet, the late 18th century German poet Friedrich Hölderlin. In 1980 McLean edited Snyder's collection of interviews and talks, "The Real Work," for New Directions.

McLean is currently working on a book called "Poetry and the Land," as well as a collection of his own poems, "The Refuge of the Roads: Poems, 1968-98."

McLean and his wife, Patricia, came to Nevada County in 1980. He'd been teaching at Purdue for two years and was casting about for his next move.

It was Snyder who suggested that the McLeans come to the San Juan Ridge in Nevada County to see what they could find.

"Patricia got a job at the high school right away, where she's still teaching," said McLean. "I did carpentry, type-setting, high school teaching, then realized I needed to get back to a college/university setting and started to teach in the comparative literature program at UCD.

"I see myself as a teacher first and then as a poet," he said.

They decided to stay in Nevada County not only because of Patricia's job, but because of the community of people who live there.

"It's a community of people who started settling there about 1967, some back-to-the-landers from the late '60s, early '70s, and some, like us, who were there because of Gary and our friendship, others were people who loved that particular biosphere," he said.

"But all of us, after all this time, are staying because of the bonds of real community that have been nurtured there. We all live in relatively close contact with wild nature in a world populated with lots of deer, raccoon, some bear, lots of big trees, and just a short walk away into the real back country of the river and stream canyons," McLean added.

This close connection to the natural world is important to McLean.

"I spent the first nine years of my life in the northern woods of Minnesota, north of Duluth, where my family had lived for three generations. My great-grandfather was one of the first white men on the north shore of Lake Superior. My grandfather and father were born in Ely, Minn., in boundary waters territory.

"I grew up at Lake Ely summers and was always out in the woods. My first real memory is of standing in a clearing in the woods in a snowstorm watching the sky tumble down," he said.

When the family moved to California, it was to a then-unspoiled part of the state.

"We settled in Northern San Diego County when I was 10; in the chaparral and canyon lands of the unspoiled scrub brush hill country that was still there the late '50s and early '60s. Being out in the wild is a part of how I define who I am. I am a person of those places, places of recovery and connection. We touch some sense of life (in the wild) that tells us we are a part of a wild, beautiful life reaching forward and backward for millennia," said McLean.

"What I try to do is bring some part of that to school and have it inform my teaching," he added.

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