The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Edited by Siddhartha Mukherjee.Tim Folger, Series Editor.

Science is a scary word. At least, it used to be for those of us who grew up messing around in the hazy world of literature and art, not empirical facts. Science was what made it possible to go to the moon, so science meant rocket science. But it seems to me now that a fear of science is a result of a rigid (and, in my day, gender-biased) educational system, where disciplines are divvied up into discrete categories, as if one had nothing to do with the other. 

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 How wrong, and how sad. Science seeks answers to the same questions that the humanities do: Who are we? What is our purpose? Where did we come from? It is all about observation. Galileo studied the moon and determined that it was not flat, and from this went on to claim that the Earth was not the center of the universe. In the Foreword of The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013, series editor Tim Folger points out that Galileo’s discovery was rejected in his time, not unlike climate change in ours. And so it goes.

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I’m glad to see Nature Writing is part of this series, and not because it makes for an easy segueway to “science,” but because we need to rethink nature altogether. We have made nature plush and Disney-like by removing most all of our predators, as J.B. MacKinnon writes in “False Idyll” (originally published in Orion). “We have rendered nature an easy god to worship,” MacKinnon says. “Nature is not a temple but a ruin.” If Man against Nature is one of the great recurring themes of literature, then we have been battling a straw dog. In “Our Place in the Universe” (Harper’s) Alan Lightman contemplates the enormity of the universe and wonders how such a remote concept can ever fit into our idea of nature. He notes that in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Nature,” Emerson separates humans from nature, and crowns nature as being morally superior. To Lightman, we are not separate so much as insignificant.

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The essays in this collection, each a small revelation unto itself, cover the waterfront, what is left of it. From “Which Species Will Live?” (Scientific America), Michelle Nijhuis argues that it is not enough to save specific species, but the eco-systems in which they live, or what is the point? Sylvia Earle, in “The Sweet Spot in Time” (VQR) writes about the disappearance of coral, the sad state of ocean life as a whole, and how this is the moment to take action, “the next ten years will determine the direction of the next ten thousand.” In “Recall of the Wild” (The New Yorker) Elizabeth Kolbert (whose most recent book is The Sixth Extinction), writes about the strange re-wilding programs taking place around the world. Governments in Europe are using marginal land to introduce herds of animals, like feral horses and deer, and letting them roam under the high power lines. The article raises questions about the ultimate purpose or benefits of re-wilding, with the sober realization that now even wilderness is a human creation.

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In “Out of the Wild” (Popular Science), David Quammen writes about our most dangerous predator, and the smallest, the zoonotic viruses that are transferable from animals to humans, such as Ebola, SARS, and AIDS. Tim Zimmerman in “Talk To Me” (Outside magazine) interviews researchers who are attempting to communicate with dolphins, even though the sentiment is that we might very well have nothing to talk about. It is a sentiment that ties in to Nathaniel Rich’s “Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?” (The NYT Magazine), which looks at Turritopsis dohrnii, a jellyfish that instead of dying, returns to being a polyp to start its life cycle over. The conclusion of which is that we are perhaps intelligent enough to achieve biological immortality, but we don’t deserve it.

The benefits of a book like this is that it directs the lay reader to the best in science writing, and that will help make us all more science literate. And we’d better pay close attention to science, because it is going to have to save us from ourselves. “As Sylvia Earle says, “We may be the planet’s worst nightmare, but we are also its best hope.”

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The Greening of Literature

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Last week at the AWP conference in Seattle, I participated in a panel called The Greening of Literature: Eco-Fiction and Poetry to Enlighten and Inspire. The discussion was led by John Yunker of Ashland Creek, an environmentally conscious press in Oregon, (and publisher of Float). I was joined by poet Gretchen Primack, and fiction writers Ann Pancake and Mindy Mejia. We had such a scintillating program, I am moved to share my short talk here, starting with a quote from Ian McEwan’s 2010 novel, Solar:

 “Professor Beard would not have believed it possible that he would be in a room drinking with so many seized by the same particular assumption, that it was art in its highest forms – poetry, sculpture, dance, abstract music, conceptual art – that would lift climate change as a subject, gild it, palpate it, reveal all the horror and lost beauty and awesome threat and inspire the public to take thought, take action, or demand it of others.”

Professor Beard, with his Nobel prize in physics clutched to his chest, is offended by the idea that art might be a better tool for curing a sick planet than his analytical facts. But for all his scientific knowledge, he fails to understand that art has power. Images created by art by-pass the modern cerebral cortex and go straight to our ancient limbic brain which controls memory and emotion, the part of the brain where we process value judgments, judgments that exert a strong influence on our behavior.

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Professor Beard may be fictional, but I know his work. I have read the academic articles of his real life peers, as well as the mainstream essays and books that spring from their scientific research. In writing my novel, Float, which involves plastics in the ocean, I wanted to get the science right in order to make my fictional world real. As John Clancy said, the difference between reality and fiction, is that fiction has to make sense. So when I started Float, I began reading about marine plastics, which turned out to be not just unsightly, immortal, and deadly to sea animals, but toxic to humans as well. As the writing continued, my interest in the health of the oceans expanded. I read about dead zones, overfishing, bottom-trawling, acidification, and the opportunistic appetite of the jellyfish. I learned a lot about the sea, but much of it was pretty dry. Pages and pages of one damn fact after another. No racy scenes, no humor. No plot, no narrative, no characters. No Pauline tied to the train tracks. It was informative, but not particularly engaging. Intellectually, I was concerned, emotionally, I was on the outside looking in. Cerebral writing has a cerebral effect. Academic papers and straight journalism cannot convey human suffering, they can only calculate or report it.

But most readers don’t want to hear about populations, they want a specific person. Not the planet, but a particular place in a moment of time. In reading Solar, I understand environmental product development through the emotions of the characters surrounding Professor Beard. I become disgusted with the brutal competition in scientific circles which prevents many of the best ideas from coming to fruition. I am touched by the simple yearning for love, angered because of an injustice done to an innocent, and then laugh because humans are such idiots. At the end of a novel like Solar, I come to understand that our biggest problem is almost always ourselves.

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In an essay published in 2007, Tom Wolfe argued that the newspaper industry would stand a much better chance of survival if editors encouraged reporters to “provide the emotional reality of the news, for it is the emotions, not the facts, that most engage and excite readers and in the end are the heart of most stories.”

Art, not science, creates that emotional reality. Through the use of image, the visual arts have the emotional power to create change. Literary arts have that power too, in spite of the fact that words on a page are the most pathetic and least effective means of communication. Fiction writers and poets tap into the emotions by working with what we’ve got, which is the ability to create images and people with words. A novel engages the reader by relying on fiction’s strength, the exploration of the human condition. And lately, the natural world is pressing hard against that condition.

But if I’d set out to write a novel about the ecological devastation of the oceans and its effects on humans, I would have froze at my keyboard. Instead, I began with the image of a man on a beach looking at some words in the sand. And as I’m writing the scene, I thought to myself, so what does he see at the beach? Sand, water, wind, seagulls, and, sadly, washed-up plastic. So I put them together, and had the man rescue a seagull being strangled by a six-pack holder, which set off a series of events that led to a search for alternative plastics. I hadn’t intended for my protagonist to get so environmentally involved, but just the act of having him notice the plastic was enough to move the plot in that direction. I needed to start with a character and see where he wanted to go.

Where will your characters go in the future? As fiction writers, we want to make a positive change for the planet, but it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. With our current obsession with ‘place,’ we let our characters experience the beauty and ravages of the natural world, as they stand on the rocky shore with the wind blowing through their hair, but they are too often protected from human accountability. It’s hard to make characters aware of something they can’t do much about, because helplessness makes for a sorry plot. But that doesn’t mean they have to do nothing. They can bear witness. We can bear witness.

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Not that I think fiction writers are under any special mandate to raise awareness. But I do think that those of us who already are, should not be afraid of letting it into our work. As individuals we recycle and consider our carbon footprints, so why not ask the same of our characters? Some writers may be afraid of opening up the Pandora’s Box of climate change or toxic waste because they don’t know what can be done about it. But fiction does not have to provide the answers, as Chekov said, it only has to ask the right questions.

The flip side of introducing environmentalism to our work is the danger of sounding preachy. Fiction cannot be a cast of straw dogs for the author’s opinions. All a writer can do is tell a good story, introduce challenges, and allow the characters to wrestle with the issues. And wrestle is the operative word, because no issue is black and white. In his memoir, Nothing to be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes wrote, “literature tells us best what the world consists of. It can also tell us how best to live in that world, though it does that most effectively when appearing not to do so.”

Humor helps. Humor lets us deal with our own absurdity, because laughter is often the result of a sudden truth about ourselves. Here we are, big-brained humans in the twenty-first century, supposedly the smartest animals who ever walked the earth, and we are killing ourselves and our world with our own cleverness. What else can you do but laugh? The saving grace in all this is that I believe that the cleverness that got us into this environmental mess will get us out of it. If that doesn’t happen before it’s too late, well then, the joke will be on us.

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As writers, our most sustainable energy source is creativity, and we should use it freely. Literature teaches us to notice, to care, and to create meaning. Professor Beard is wrong. We can inspire the public. I’m going to end with another excerpt from Solar, where the professor is being considerably annoyed by another scientist.

“On his weekly rounds, Professor Beard hoped to avoid running into Aldous alone, for the young man was always trying to convince him of photovoltaics, or his quantum explanation of photovoltaics, or to oppress him generally with friendliness and enthusiasm. There were developments in contemporary music he thought Beard should be aware of, and movies that were of particular relevance, documentaries about climate change which Aldous had seen at least twice but would happily see again. There were novels Aldous wanted him to read – novels!”

 

 

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Winter Burial

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Two days before Christmas, Mr. Black Goat, of ancient years, had a stroke which left him unable to walk. I fed, watered, and cleaned his bedding three times a day, each day expecting it to be his last. His brother, Mr. White Goat, had died of a quick series of strokes the year before, and I thought Black Goat was going to go the same way. I waited for another stroke to take him, or for him to turn his head to the wall and go. I’d never had a goat who didn’t know when it was time, except for him. He was not ever going to walk again, but he seemed not to care. His appetite was robust, and he was engaged with Mr. Pig and the chickens.

Mr. Piggie

This went on for thirty days, and it was clear he wasn’t going anywhere. But I was. I had to travel, and I could not leave him to another’s care, and I did not trust Mr. Pig to let anyone near Mr. Goat even so. I make a promise to all my animals that I will not let them suffer when the end comes. And the goat was going to suffer. If not now, then soon. As this brutal winter slogs on, his damaged body would weaken with bed sores and chronic pain. I called the vet and he came to the barn and gently put Mr. Goat down. It was so frigid, the tears froze on my face.

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We had dug a grave back in November, not expecting him to live through the winter. He was old, he was arthritic, and he did not have his brother to help keep warm the long winter nights. When his brother died, almost a year to the day before, it was unexpected and the ground was hard. We’d had to do a winter burial, which means to create a secure, above-ground crypt until the ground thaws. I was so moved by that experience I wrote a poem — my first ever, and most likely my last. It was published in Harpur Palate this past fall, and I reprint it here in both their memories.

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Winter Burial

He met her at the gate with the cart
and she covered the animal with a sheet.
They pulled together to the place
behind the barn.
The ground was frozen.
They laid their friend on the hard earth
adjusting his head, his yellowed horns
ridged with years.
She tucked the sheet around him,
collecting his dignity.
It’s a dirty business
storing a body for the winter.
They carried the black box
and covered him.
Stacking heavy stones on that
against the predators.
Snow was coming.
They might not see the box for a long while.
Say a prayer, he said.
I have no words.
Write a poem then, later.
I don’t write poetry, she said.
You will, he said.

The ground opened in March,
a sudden, violent thaw.
They peeled away wet leaves made dark by time.
The shovels cut through fibrous roots
like matted fur.
Runners hard as shins were severed.
The water table was high.
Life coursed beneath their feet.
They removed the stones
then the black box, letting it fall aside.
The body was fresh
as if they just found him in the barn,
the morning sun a shaft of dusty light.
Worn hooves and gloved hands met
for the unseemly haul to the pit
which swallowed him whole.
Then relief. He is where he was meant to be.
She tilted his horns to display his glory,
and said a prayer.
God.
Nothing else came.

When the hole was filled
they went to the shed for rakes
to smooth over what’d been done.
On return, a goat was standing on the grave
staring down, comprehending,
or not,
as his friend got ready to do
the hard work of becoming one
with the land.

goat

 

 

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Stung!

 

I read an entire book on jellyfish, and it was worth every gelatinous minute. Here is my review, originally published on ecolitbooks.com.

 

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Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean, by Lisa-ann Gershwin (The University of Chicago Press, 2013)

 

They’re here, and we’ve not just cleared out the guest room for them, we’re opened up the front parlor, the master bedroom, rumpus room, and kitchen. Soon we’ll be barricaded in the basement with a stinging, gelatinous substance dripping on us through the cracks in the ceiling. I’m talking about jellyfish. Our relationship with them has changed for the worse. As they fill our fishing nets and clog our nuclear plant intake valves around the world, they reflect our relationship with the entire eco-system. And now it’s time to say goodnight. DNA research has recently stripped the title of First Multi-Cellular Animal from the sponge and handed it to the jellyfish, and they might very well turn out to be the Last.

When I wrote jellyfish into the plot of Float, which was released in early 2013, I could not have imagined how dire the situation would get in such a short period of time. I was still thinking that if we could find a use for them — like turning them into a true bio-plastic — there might be hope. After reading Stung! by Lisa-ann Gershwin, I am not so sure about that anymore. No matter how many we harvest, more jellyfish will just bloom in their place, because the problem isn’t just that there are too many of them, it’s that they are the bellwether for a very sick ocean. As oceanographer Sylvia Earle writes in the intro, As seas become stressed, the jellyfish are there, like an eagle to an injured lamb or golden staph to a postoperative patient – more than just a symptom of weakness, more like the angel of death.

Gershwin puts jellies in the greater perspective of the general ocean health, discussing at length how jellyfish blooms (population explosions) are the result of degraded ecosystems as well as the driver of further decline. So a large part of the book is spent explaining, in layperson’s language but with the fastidiousness of a researcher, how, exactly, jellies are able to take advantage of even the smallest anthropogenic perturbation, the fancy word for manmade disturbances. These include the usual culprits of ocean acidification and warming climates from our carbon waste, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, oil spills, leaching plastics, and radioactive material.

One of the worst perturbations is over-fishing, which creates imbalance, music to jellyfish ears if they had them. When a fisheries collapse, it’s not just the target species that disappears, every plant or animal that was dependent on it goes as well. Then its prey goes postal, causing a cascade of problems up and down the food chain. When the Bering Sea was fished out of Pollock by humans, the seals and sea lions disappeared, and the killer whales had nothing to eat but sea otters. When the otters disappeared, their favorite food, the sea urchin, ate up all the kelp forests, destroying the nursery for any remaining species, taking the seabirds with it. Enter the jellyfish to feast on the single-celled muck. An entire area of the Bering Sea is now called the slime bank. When the kilka, the main food fish of the beluga sturgeon, of beluga caviar fame, was fished to extinction, the sturgeon followed. Then who steps in? The mnemiopsis jellyfish, making any sort of re-stocking impossible, since they devour the eggs of both the kilka and sturgeon. They might not have caused the problem, but they prevent any cure.

Farmed salmon, already so bad for the ocean environment, was made for jellyfish, who bloom luxuriously by feeding on all the nutritious salmon poo. The situation is made worse when the swimming vortex of the caged fish sucks the jellies against the mesh and the fish are suffocated. No so the jellyfish, who can survive in very low levels of oxygen.  It was the environment they grew up in, hundreds of millions of years ago. The same goes for warmer water. It is their natal soup. Jellies have withstood the ‘big five’ mass  extinctions because they didn’t need to change as the environment warmed, and they will survive the next.

Jellies come in all sizes and colors and shapes, able to fill any ecological niche. Fifteen hundred species have been named and classified, with more being discovered on a regular basis. They have self-descriptive names: moon jellies, comb jellies, rainbow jellies, box jellies, fire jellies, sea wasps, sea nettles, sea tomatoes, sea walnuts, and on and on, including “the long stingy stringy thingy,” which is a wake-up call for budding scientists to take more creative writing classes. Some of them area as small as 1/5th of a grain of rice, others as large as a refrigerator. They are found in all latitudes and depths, all seasons of the year, with a few freshwater jellies thrown in the mix. Even Antarctica is changing to a jellyfish-dominated ecosystem. The demand for krill to feed fish farms has denuded the waters of the main food for penguins, seals, and whales. The jellies have taken their place, because they are able to eat the tiny phytoplankton known as copepods that have replaced the krill, but the others can’t. They are too small to see, but since the jellyfish don’t have eyes, and hunt by touch, they can. The same goes for the silt storms created by trawlers scraping the bottom of the sea beds for fish. Only jellies can navigate in the dark waters. The rest of the fish, meaning those not caught up in the trawl nets, starve because they can’t see their prey.

Speaking of prey, the omnivorous jellyfish can eat both high and low on the food chain. First by eating the eggs and larvae of big species, but also by eating the food that the larvae of that species would eat. This hat trick makes them both predator and competitor of species bigger, faster, and smarter than themselves. They can also survive long stretches of famine, shrinking in size until food is available again. When they are not eating, they are reproducing, often simultaneously. They can create more of themselves by hermaphroditism, self-fertilization, external fertilization, courtship and copulation, fusion and fission. This last is why cleaning the farmed salmon cages is futile, because it just stimulates more growth. They are not just prolific, they are practically immortal. Even putting aside the fact that cloning is a form of immortality, the cells of one species, Turritopsis dohrnii, reorganizes itself after death to form new colonies of polyps, the equivalent of a dead butterfly’s cells reforming into a caterpillar.

Jellyfish, what are they good for? Aside from a few good Asian dishes, which we might be well advised to develop a taste for, jellies have some medical uses. The discovery of a jellyfish protein that glows green won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 2008, and is used to track the growth of cells, mapping the neural circuits of the human brain. We’ll come up with more uses as time goes by, because one day, they’ll be all we’ll have to work with.

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Remember the 1958 sci-fi movie The Blob, with Steve McQueen? Where an alien glob of goo takes over a town, and no one is listening to the teenagers until it’s too late? Think of jellyfish as the aliens. The teenager is played by Lisa-ann Gershwin, except that she’s stopped trying to get the adults to take her seriously and do something. Now she is calmly cataloging the cause and effect of the invasion for posterity. She believes that we have pushed the ocean too far, beyond a tipping point we never saw coming. The New York Times reported recently that the change won’t be gradual. Several human and natural systems are in danger of rapid and catastrophic collapse, meaning mass extinctions. Due to rising heat and lowered oxygen, the ocean is on its way to developing vast dead zones. No fish, no coral, no whales, no penguins, just algae and jellyfish. Lots of jellyfish. Radical simplification is what this is called, as the seas revert back to where they began. Gershwin has no suggestion beyond the single word: Adapt.

 

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New Fiction from Terrain

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This story was recently published in Terrain, A Journal of the Built and Natural Environments. I wrote it based on a real estate ad, so it leans very much towards the built environment, and was a finalist for their Elemental contest.

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Rare Offering. Paneled library, garden room, Sensational  distant views, historical landscape. Gated community. Great room with stone fireplace. Traditional charm, idyllic family setting. Call Leslie for a private viewing. An exclusive property of Brancaleone Realty.

Gail Meyers contemplated the rosewood sham-book in her hand, a box made to resemble the spines of classics such as Treasure Island, Great Expectations, andVanity Fair. It was an old ruse for hiding valuables, but its joints were loose and the laminate was buckling. Inside was the same disintegrating tangle of rubberbands that had been there since her childhood. She emptied the contents onto the cold ashes in the fireplace, then in a fit of pique, followed it with the box itself. Arching back, she massaged her spine with her knuckles and contemplated the intricate network of cracks on the ceiling. The two of them, her and the house, growing old together like some enchanted couple in a fairy tale.

Click here to read the rest, or go to, where you may also listen to me read the story:     http://terrain.org/2013/fiction/rare-offering/
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Hothouse Magazine Interview

This interview with Karin Davidson was originally published in Hothouse Magazine on Oct. 13, 2013.

Boston area folks, I’ll be reading from Float at the Boston Book Festival tomorrow, Saturday October 19th, at 3:30 pm at the Trinity Forum.

And next Thursday, Oct. 14th, I’ll be part of the Concord Festival of Authors, on a panel title “Why We Write.” At Kerem Shalom in Concord, 7:30 pm.

 

The Coastal Concerns of JoeAnn Hart

“While he lamented the shipwreck that was his marriage, he mourned the equally disastrous changes in his old route. It was no longer the road of his blissfully rudderless youth, when this stretch was a wild and untamed curve of the bay, dotted with signs of warning—“Swim at your own risk” and “Caution, strong tides”—which had only encouraged recklessness. This area had once been so sparsely settled that, at low tide, he and his older brother, Nod, could walk the few rocky miles from their house to their dad’s office without ever touching the civilization of the sidewalk. They loved the damp band of earth that was neither wholly sea nor entirely land, a constantly changing landscape that offered their prepubescent souls new, exciting dangers to overcome. Duncan and Nod had felt themselves gifted at avoiding the perils of the seaweed slicks. They had leaped across the cracks and crevices with ease, even grace, and had waded unafraid through tide pools full of barnacles and crabs. They had scratched their bare legs on wire lobster traps and tripped on minefields of trash, surviving to tell the tale. As boys, they were masters of their world, demi-gods of the water’s edge. Now their infinite kingdom was gone.”

–      from Float by JoeAnn Hart

 

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by Joeann hart

JoeAnn Hart writes about environmental concerns that affect coastal regions, where sea and land meet, and where ecosystems are made even more fragile by man’s irresponsible pursuits. Her characters are observant and engaging, her prose layered with metaphor, her setting lush with realism, and her themes linked to the beauty and tragedy of the natural world. In this interview she speaks of her novel, Float, and the environment, as well as community and collaboration.

 

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JoeAnn, tell us about your background. Has Gloucester always been your home? And how has that coastal landscape influenced your writing?

I grew up in the Bronx, then Westchester, before escaping to the Rocky Mountains, which is where young people went in the 70’s. Most of New York was cavorting about in Boulder, including the man who would be my husband. He was from Manhattan, but had just inherited a creaky house in Gloucester, and so I was dragged, somewhat kicking and screaming, from the sunny mountains to the icy sea. It was January, 1979. The sky was gray, the snow was gray, and the harbor was frozen over for the first time in decades. It was no Coastal Living magazine spread. I was only 22, and I wasn’t sure I had the fortitude for maritime life, but love being what it is, I stayed, and Gloucester became a part of me, and me of it. I didn’t start writing until much later, when the working waterfront had already begun its decline. The fisheries were decimated by the industrial fleet with their bottom-scraping trawls, and plastic debris was becoming the main harvest in the nets. In Float, I’ve tried to come to grips with the crippling of the local fishing fleet, and the ecological devastation of the seas. Most writers attack these problems through journalism and other non-fiction formats, but I am comfortable writing about these issues in fiction. I believe that environmentally conscious fiction can forge a strong connection between the brain and the heart, and become a catalyst for social change.

 

Cover image of JoeAnn Hart’s novel, Float - Art by Karen Ristuben / Design by John YunkerJoeAnn Hart’s novel, Float – Art by Karen Ristuben / Design by John Yunker

“A wry tale of financial desperation, conceptual art, insanity, infertility, seagulls, marital crisis, jellyfish, organized crime, and the plight of a plastic-filled ocean, JoeAnn Hart’s novel takes a smart, satirical look at family, the environment, and life in a hardscrabble seaside town in Maine.”

I love this description of Float. Would you tell us the details of what inspired you to write this novel? And how you decided on the title and on Duncan Leland, the man whose “infinite kingdom” is facing rising tides, as the character through which the story is revealed?

 As with my first novel, Addled, I started out with the title, Float, then dove in to play with all the many different meanings and images. The concept of Float began when I heard a friend tell me what her therapist told her, that she had to learn to float over her stress, that she couldn’t struggle against every crisis or else she would get pulled under and drown. So she learned to just say the word float whenever she was stressed and it helped get her through. I thought that was brilliant, and started building on it. I developed a main character, Duncan Leland, who had both his personal and business life in jeopardy, then I gave him a crazy mother to boot. Through the course of the book, he must learn to float, or sink. I used ‘float’ not just in this psychological sense but also in its financial meaning, as in, to float a loan. Then there are the things that float in the ocean, such as plastic, or dead humans. A float is also a wooden platform connected to a dock by a ramp, and it moves up and down with the tides. Not to mention, floating on air.

 

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Tidal pools, salt marshes, or white-capped seas?

Since I am a total wimp, no white-capped seas for me. I enjoy watching them from a distance, inside. Near a fireplace. And when I think salt marsh, I think greenhead flies, who will rip the flesh off your bones during breeding season. There are a few toe-biting crabs scuttling along the bottom, but you won’t ever find a shark in a tide pool.

 

JoeAnn Hart with Daisy - Photo credit: Morgan Baird

JoeAnn Hart with Daisy – Photo credit: Morgan Baird

What has been the most memorable harbor sighting from your dory? And does Daisy, your rescue pup, share these fair-weather outings?

The most wonderful part of rowing around the harbor in a silent vessel like a dory is the seals. They are as curious about us as we are about them, so we – me and my rowing partner, Sarah – always have an eye out for a mammalian head peeking out of the water. It is amazing to think of these large animals, these air-breathing animals like us, living under the ocean’s surface. It is not just a parallel universe to ours, but a completely foreign landscape, and here is an ambassador from that country –  a seal – saying hello. To them, we are a dark lozenge shape moving slowly over their heads. They see the tips of our oars enter the water, then disappear. What are we doing, they wonder. What are they doing, we wonder. Daisy doesn’t come on the dory with us – she much prefers luxury motor yachts with staff – but when I walk her on Brace Cove and it is low tide and the seals are sunning themselves on the rocks, they seem to know one another. The seals arch up, as she goes by, and stare. Perhaps they feel their vestigial leg bones twitch, just a little, as they watch her jump from rock to rock.

 

Seals at Brace Cove

Seals at Brace Cove

Zach & Abe

Zach & Abe

You are active in the Gloucester writing community—including the Gloucester Writers Center and the Rocky Neck Art Colony—as well as environmental alliances and animal rescues—NAMA: Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, Save Your Ass Long Ear Rescue, and more. It seems you’ve found a way to traverse the worlds of art and environment. Collaboration is also evident in your choice of artist Karen Ristuben’s cover image for Float,and your partnered gallery reading/artist discussion this September. With your past, present, and future endeavors in mind, is the environmental path of your writing career ever overwhelming? Or does the support of community and collaboration keep you energized and inspired?

In almost all cases, I get back more from an organization than I give. Usually, that pay-back is in the form of satisfaction of having at least tried to make a difference in the world, especially when it comes to the environment. There is also the payback of connection. I’ve met wonderful people working with groups. I’ve also met a few clunkers, but it’s all grist for the mill. Humans just crack me up. We say one thing, and do another, and we almost always work against our own best interests, especially when it has to do with the environment. Here we are, a species destroying our own habitat, and we just continue on our way as if it’s not happening. So I have nothing but admiration for organizations that keep fighting the good fight even as we’re sinking. Especially the arts and humanities, which are too often viewed as if they were an accessory to our culture, and not the defining aspect of our species. Science can make us think, but the arts make us feel, and in order to make the right decisions for the future of the world, we need to use the whole brain, not just half of it. We should all try to approach the world with the wonder of an artist and the curiosity of the scientist. Gloucester artist, Karen Ristuben, who did the cover art for Float, has this sensibility, so I was thrilled when Ashland Creek, who specializes in environmental literature, chose her photographs for Float. We were on a panel together this summer with other environmental artists and writers – Kyle Brown and David Abrams – to talk  about how the arts can be used to enhance environmental action. It was the hottest night of the year in an un-air-conditioned space, and we had a packed house, which demonstrates a great deal of interest in the collaboration between the arts and the environmental sciences.

NAMA is important because they promote local fishing in the same way that the plight of the family farm was brought to our attention. We can fish and save the fish at the same time if we have the right international policies, and if people understand where their fish comes from and how it is caught. And of course, Save Your Ass is close to my heart because we got Abe and Zach from them. We love our donkeys, and we like to think they love us too.

 

Photos by JoeAnn Hart, Morgan Baird, and Brendan Pike.

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Karin C. DavidsonKarin C. Davidson’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, Passages North, Post Road, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from Lesley University and awards including the Orlando Prize for Short Fiction and the Waasmode Short Fiction Prize. Originally from the Gulf Coast, she also writes at karincdavidson.com.

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A Debatable Future

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There are too few Monarch butterflies in my garden this fall. We are a regular stopping point on their migration to Mexico, so we often have hundreds, but this month I’ve seen a scattered handful. Normally this would just be a disappointment, as weather sometimes blows them on a different route, but this year it is a larger concern. Monarchs are not being reported in numbers anywhere in the country. As with any species, including our own, they disappear with their habitat. They need milkweed, but the widespread use of certain herbicides have cleared the rough edges of farmland where it used to grow.

Herbicides, pesticides, carbon emissions, plastics and rising seas, it sometimes seems as if we are in too deep, as if we can never recover the health of our planet. Scientists are calling this the Anthropocene Era, acknowledging that humans are now the largest single influence on earth. But the door swings both ways. If in the past we have handled our stewardship of the earth poorly, it also means we have the power to turn it around.

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This summer, I gave a sermon at the Gloucester Unitarian Universalist Church on just that, empowering ourselves and our local governments to make environmentally smart choices. Small acts, even composting, can turn the tide. Food and yard waste take up one third of the nations’ landfills, releasing methane gas, which adds to global warming more than carbon dioxide released by fossil fuels. In some cities, food waste is put out on the curb, just like recyclables, then processed into a rich compost for sale to local farms. The checkout counter is another arena for change, especially in our coastal community, where plastic debris is a scourge upon the sea as well as the land. Water bottles and polystyrene coffee cups break down into fragments the size of plankton, killing fish that mistake it for food. Floating plastic bags and deflated balloons are devoured by sea mammals and turtles thinking they are jellyfish, strangling their guts until they, too, are as scarce as Monarchs. For the butterflies, we can plant milkweed, but we can also refuse the genetically modified crops that were developed to withstand the herbicides that killed the milkweed in the first place.

Dick Prouty, the UU board chair, also gave a sermon this summer, aimed at reducing the carbon footprint of our historic church, within the context of working towards a carbon-neutral Gloucester. In this spirit, the Church is hosting “Leadership for a Green and Sustainable Future,” a mayoral debate between incumbent Carolyn Kirk and challenger Mac Bell, moderated by Jack Clarke. Questions on environmental issues will be submitted by middle and high school students, a citizen’s advisory panel, and fielded from the audience. We don’t have to wring our hands, we don’t have to sit on our hands, we can listen, learn, act, and vote. When we all row in the same direction we can effect change. We might even bring back the Monarchs.

The 90 minute program will be held on Tuesday, October 15, at 7 p.m. at the UU Church Meetinghouse, 10 Church Street, Gloucester. Donations to benefit the church’s green initiative will be gratefully accepted at the door, or seats may be reserved on the event registry page at www.maritimegloucester.org.

 

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This essay was originally published as a My View column in the Gloucester Daily Times, 10/9/13

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New England Beach Babies

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“What now?” I muttered as my trowel hit an obstruction. “A plastic something.” In the depths of a major garden excavation for my son’s wedding, I kept coming across indestructible bits of our family’s life. Bare tennis balls, bottle caps, keys to cars we no longer owned. This time, though, as I cut away the roots wrapped around my latest find, annoyance gave way to memory. It was a child’s green plastic shovel, and as I turned it over in my hands, years of sitting at the beach with children washed over me.

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“What a luxury,” people had always said, “to live within walking distance of the water.” What a pain, I’d grumble to myself. I grew up with suburban sprinklers, not ocean, so I was not a relaxed summer-time mom. Getting the kids ready for our daily beach expedition was like being backstage at a circus, helping squirming bodies into suits and painting faces with sunscreen. Adding up the hours, I have spent a full week of my life searching for sandals the length of my pinky. I could not begin to guess the time spent packing The Bag: Sunscreen, water, box juices, cookies, mini-carrots, peanut-butter sandwiches, towels, more sunscreen, and a blanket. I was exhausted when I finally hit our isolated patch of sand, and it was just the beginning. Clutching a sweaty baby boy while digging a moat with a toddler without taking my eyes off the oldest at the water’s edge was no day at the beach. I did my best to identify the sealife for the two older girls (“that’s a dead crab, honey, put it down”) and answer their questions about nature. “Why is the water blue?” Because it reflects the sky. “Why is the sky blue?” Have a cookie.

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We stayed as the tide played in, then out. (“Where does the water go?”) We kept time by an upright stick in the sand, and when its shadow reached a certain angle they knew we had to head back. After packing up camp, an epic adventure of lost and found, we’d begin our forced march, me pushing the stroller with baby and toddler smushed together like sardines, the oldest lagging behind and whining. This was followed by the hose-down, story-time and a nap. That last one more for me than them.

Oh, it got easier over the years. My job became that of lifeguard, albeit one who burned easily and got dizzy from the sun. I sat in a chair, a magazine open on my lap, and watched the kids float like soap bubbles and swim like otters, dark shapes against the sunlight on the surf. Occasionally I’d be called into duty to help steady a kickboard, but mostly they tried to lure me into the water so they could hear me screech like a seagull. My children, true New England beach babies, are unfazed by the sharp slap of the frigid Atlantic. I will never get used to it.

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One by one, they reached the age to beach it alone. My oldest girl would run off after breakfast and I’d meet her down there with the two younger ones. In later years, there was just one with me, and then there were none. After that, I’d only go to check that everyone was using sunscreen and staying hydrated. Usually I’d just find them working on their tans, but well into their teens, I’d catch them building kingdoms of sand, festooned with seaglass and bird bones. At the end of the day they’d watch their creations wash away with a shrug. To them, raised on tides, change was the way of the world.

Not so many years later and there I was with a little green shovel. Slipping two fingers into the handle, I could feel the small hand that once wrapped around it, and suddenly I missed the beach. Not the heat or the sand fleas, but the three familiar shapes moving through the water’s brilliant light. I missed their childhoods, and sometimes, I think, so do they. For his wedding, my son wanted a sand castle cake, a clambake at the beach, and silhouette photos against the sun as it dropped into an orange-red sea.

I stuck the shovel in a pile of dirt and tried to guess the time.

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This essay was originally published in July, 2013 online at Brain, Child, the magazine for thinking mothers.

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The Perfect Protein

Correct_PerfectProtein_Cover1Be still my beating heart. A book that embraces the aquatic ape theory of evolution, and includes a recipe for jellyfish. My novel Float does too, but I was writing in the playing fields of fiction, and they are dead serious.

“They” are Oceana, an international organization whose goal is to protect the world’s oceans, and in effect, feed the world. This is the organization behind the seafood fraud studythat showed that one-third of all seafood in America was mislabeled, from supermarkets to sushi restaurants. If you have heard the term “boat to plate,” Continue reading ‘The Perfect Protein’

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The Beautiful Fiction

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The Bible is the best selling book in the world — more people have read it than any other text.  It is, from a publishing standpoint, a miracle, more spectacular than if they could turn water into wine, and even more profitable.  It’s been printed in every language, in every country, and can still be found tucked away in hotel drawers.  In the past, it was often the only book to be found in the thatched cottage or the immigrant’s trunk.  It is perhaps the single most influential piece of literature in the world.  It is considered to be the prototype for most of the genres, plots and themes of English and American literature.  There are more than a thousand biblical references in the works of Shakespeare alone.  John Milton, Herman Melville, and Ernest Hemingway all drew on the Bible for inspiration, and Hemingway, on the advice of Gertrude Stein, typed out the Bible to learn the rhythms and meter that would become his trademark style.  Somerset Maugham wrote:  “It was generally thought that the Bible was the greatest piece of prose that the English language has produced.  I read it diligently, jotting down for future use turns of phrase that struck me.”  Which only goes to show that fiction writers are not just liars, but thieves as well.  Continue reading ‘The Beautiful Fiction’

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