John Elder was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1947 and grew up in Louisiana and California. His parents were Lyn Elder, a Baptist minister and seminary professor, and Lois Elder, a high-school Latin teacher. His older brother, also named Lyn, is a maker of early musical instruments. John and Rita Elder met as undergraduates at Pomona College and were married in 1970. After studying English at Pomona and Yale, in 1973 he joined the faculty of Middlebury College, where he was eventually offered a joint-appointment in English and Environmental Studies. Rita pursued her career as a special educator in Lincoln, Vermont until her retirement in 2008.
John’s special interests as a teacher included American nature writing, English Romanticism, Japan’s haiku tradition, Robert Frost’s poetry, and the contemporary poetry of earth. During the summers, when he often taught at Middlebury’s Bread Loaf School of English, he enjoyed conducting classes on literature and writing while also hiking and camping with students on Vermont’s Long Trail, in the Adirondack High Peaks, and in Southeast Alaska. For the several years preceding his 2010 retirement from the college John was a non-departmental College Professor, focusing on service-learning courses based in the surrounding communities and farmland of Addison County. In 2008 he was named Vermont Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation and CASE.
Rita and John raised their three children, Rachel, Matthew, and Caleb, in the Green-Mountain Village of Bristol. Rachel lives and works in Los Angeles today, while her brothers are both residents of Starksboro, Bristol’s neighbor to the east. An important seasonal project in collaboration with Matthew and Caleb is making maple syrup at their Maggie Brook Sugarworks in the hills of Starksboro. John and Rita are active in a number of local and statewide conservation organizations, such as Vermont Family Forests, the Vermont Land Trust, and the Watershed Center. Making music together has always been central for the two of them–from singing in the Pomona College Choir, to playing classical chamber music, and now to exploring Ireland’s remarkable tradition.
John has published widely, both as a scholar of environmental literature and as a writer of personal, reflective essays. His previous three books, Reading the Mountains of Home, The Frog Run, and Pilgrimage to Vallombrosa, each combined discussions of literature and environmental history, descriptions of the Vermont landscape, and memoir. He was co-editor with Robert Finch of The Norton Book of Nature Writing. His formal education was supported by a National Merit Scholarship and a Danforth Fellowship, while a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship and a Fulbright Fellowship were equally important for him as a writer and a teacher. Picking up the Flute has grown out of a larger, ongoing project called On Hogback Ridge which has received essential support from the Guggenheim Foundation.
Photo courtesy of Angela Evancie