Zoologies

Zoologies, On Animals and the Human Spirit (Milkweed Editions)By Alison Hawthorne Demingzoologies-230Every day, as I walk from house to barn, or go up the driveway to get the mail, I am closely monitored by the resident crows who glide from oak to oak, loudly discussing my movements amongst themselves. In a cacophony of caws and clacks, I understand the gist of their conversation: Look, look. There she is! Here she comes! Is she carrying food? Are her barking things with her? Look, look. She’s going back to her nest! She’s gone.

Crows are intelligent animals with the leisure time, like humans, to gossip and conjecture, and so I am an endless source of amusement for them. Likewise, they are for me. I even count crows, searching for meaning in their numbers. One for sorrow, two for mirth, Three for a wedding, four for a birth, and so on, an old nursery rhyme I used to read to my children, a nudge for them to pay attention to the natural world. This interaction between humans and non-human animals is the driving force of Zoologies, a collection of essays by poet Alison Hawthorne Deming. Armed with a gorgeous palate of words and images (Of a backyard bobcat: “The sharp indifferent eyes, the ears like cups to fill with sound, the leather cushions of the lobed paws.”) Deming contemplates our relationships with creatures as small as microbes to as large as mammoths. She does not just gaze at her navel for answers, but searches for revelations with the help of scientists, getting to the bare bones of behavior. In “Crow,” she interviews Kevin McGowan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology about the mourning habits of the black bird with feathers that “shine like obsidian.” She is touched to find out that during the West Nile epidemic, no crow died alone. When one was dying, either its mate or some member of its family would sit by its side to the end. In a similar vein, Deming writes about her brother’s death in “Liberating the Lobster,” and how she incorporated his love of lobsters into a compensating ritual. Humans and crows alike, we connect and we grieve.

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We share a great many traits with a wide range of animals, not all so endearing. In “Murray Springs Mammoth,” Deming visits Paul Martin at the Desert Laboratory near Tucson, where they ponder an activity known as “surplus killing,” often seen in hyenas. Martin believes that the extinction of North American megafauna, like mammoths and giant sloths, was brought about by over-hunting by the human arrivistes from the Bering land bridge. Martin points out that killing, like sex and eating, must have some innate pleasure so that humans won’t starve, a joy that makes us kill beyond what is necessary to survival. “The hunters were skilled and took pleasure in their skill,” writes Deming, and so say good-bye to the giant sloth. The buffalo. The passenger pigeon.

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Greed plays no small part in human behavior, and like surplus killing, it can be over ridden by the forebrain. But will it? In “Elephant Watching,” Deming visited Africa and writes about the horrors of poaching which will certainly lead to the extinction of the species. Zoologies often reads as a eulogy to what is being lost on our watch. In “Chimera,” she writes, “For most of human history, the ability to read animals with acuity was a matter of life and death … In modern life its focus has less to do with supper than it does with an intangible sense that our lives are enriched by animal presence and our empathy is educated by their diminishment.”

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We lose species not just though hunting and greed, but inadvertently by our own cleverness, such as with the invention of plastic, which might very well be the death of our own species. Deming notes that it is possible that nature might evolve microbes—the most basic of animals—to dissolve the immortal building blocks of plastic, but it will be too late for us. “Culture is fast,” she writes, “biology slow.” Unless we start acting from our higher selves with a common purpose, humans might have already had their brief day in the sun, and the crows left high in the oaks, wondering where we all went.

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The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2014

9780544003422Once a year, courtesy of Houghton Mifflin, we get to be wowed, disgusted, depressed, amazed, revolted, terrified, and sometimes even amused with the publication of The Best American Science and Nature Writing. This is not a book geared for science nerds, this is reading for anyone interested in life. I wish there was a different name to use other than “science,” so that the word would not conjure up the dry horrors of high school chemistry and biology, so boring, so gross, so uncool. We are now paying the price of having not paid enough attention all along, but it is not too late to become science literate.

 

In this anthology, whose series editor is Tim Folger, and whose 2014 edition guest editor is Deborah Blum, you will start seeing the world and the universe from new perspectives. Many of the articles are from magazines I would not be reading otherwise, such as Matter, Pacific Standard, and Nautilus. And of the ones I do read, like Orion, Harpers’s and the New York Times, it was nice to reread or discover articles I have missed. My favorite writers are included, including Rebecca Solnit, who has a piece from Harper’s on leprosy, a Biblical disease that still lives among us. Elizabeth Kolbert is here with an excerpt from The Sixth Extinction originally published in two parts in the New Yorker. I had read it before, but I had forgotten so much that needs remembering, such as the fact that fertilizer factories (read: humans) produce more nitrogen than is fixed naturally by all terrestrial ecosystems.

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An article I had read before in horror, and gladly reread here, was “Awakening” by Joshua Lang in The Atlantic. Lang writes that we don’t know much about anesthesia, and that it sometimes doesn’t work in the worst possible way, when the patient is in a paralyzed state and can’t tell anyone about the pain as they are being cut apart. But this is not just about gore in the operating room, it is about the very meaning of consciousness. If you want to read more about surgery, read “Imagining the Post-Antibiotics Future” by Maryn McKenna. Without antibiotics – a strong possibility in the not-so-distant future – one out of every six recipients of new hip joints would die. Time to pray to St. Joseph, the patron saint of the good death.

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Many of the writers in the anthology were a joy to discover for the first time, such as Barbara King who wrote “When Animals Mourn,” where she asks the big question of why grief evolved. Grieving costs species, such as our own, a great deal in emotional suffering. It is a time-consuming sentiment that detracts from food-gathering and child-raising. King suggests that grief may be epiphenomenal to the strong emotional bond that many species form. In other words, grief is the price we pay for love. And love has such strong benefits, such as enhanced cooperation in nurturing or resource-acquisition tasks, that nature considers it worth the trade-off. King’s article was from Scientific American, and I thank the editors for bringing it to the attention of a broader audience.

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In “23 and You,” Virginia Hughes explores the privacy issues surrounding DNA home testing. As in, do you want to know that Grandma was no paragon of virtue? She certainly didn’t. Does your birth mother or sperm donor father really want to hear from you? They might, but it’s probably not what they signed up for. Another article on DNA was “The Social Life of Genes,” by David Dobbs, where he ponders the relationship between genes and gene expression. Our DNA is hardly destiny. It’s not nature or nurture, but nature and nurture.

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Sarah Stewart Johnson’s “O-Rings” is a report from Antarctica, with katabatic winds included, (I had to look them up: winds that rush down a mountain). Johnson was there to study how bacterial cells eke out a living under extreme conditions, but she began contemplating the last two minutes and forty-five seconds of the Challenger crew. It’s a smooth segueway, and is as much a demonstration of the brain’s capacity to make connections as it is a moment of somber reflection. “Danger! This Mission to Mars Could Bore You to Death!” by Maggie Koerth-Baker, is a related article, not connected so much by space missions, but in the way they both consider the consequences of isolation and chronic boredom.

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I promise, you won’t be bored reading this book. And if you read it as an e-book, be sure not to miss Ferris Jabr’s article on “Why the Brain Prefers Paper.”

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Trash Animals

How we live with nature’s filthy, feral, invasive, and unwanted species

Kelsi Nagy and Phillip David Johnson II, editors

University of Minnesota Press, 2013

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In this collected cross-section of stories and essays about trash animals — the loathed species we deem dirty or dangerous nuisances, such as pigeons and coyotes — the authors differ in subject matter and narrative focus, but they all have one thing in common. They ask that we see these animals in a new light.

Why is that so difficult? Mostly, as the authors argue, because we hate species who survive on our sloth, such as cockroaches and rats, who clean up after us. And we don’t much like animals who invade environments we have created for our own enjoyment, such as Canada Geese on golf courses, or coyotes in suburban yards. They can alter the landscape! They can destroy the land and the water!

What invasive, destructive species does that remind you of?

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Reading these pieces, I know I am as prejudice or blind as most. In the essay “See Gull,”  Continue reading ‘Trash Animals’

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Home Ground, A Guide to the American Landscape

Edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney

(Trinity University Press, field edition 2013)

 

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“What draws our attention?” Barry Lopez asks in his introduction of Home Ground, a surprisingly entertaining guide to the language of the American landscape. Humans are predisposed to pay attention to subtle changes in the natural world, harking back to our hunting/gathering days, when knowing and naming these distinctions helped the tribe find dinner, or discourage the setting up of camp on shifting sands. Lopez and Gwartney commissioned a tribe of writers to gather up the words and define them through the lens of the humanities. The evocative phrase angle of repose more

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Writing Process Blog Hop

At every reading or workshop I give, a hand will raise and the question is asked: Where do I get my ideas from? And here’s the god’s honest truth: I don’t know! Who can keep track of what comes and goes through the labyrinth of flesh known as the brain? That’s not what I say though. What I say is that ideas are cheap. They are everywhere, all the time. They are the constant stream of images and words at the bottom of the mind’s screen. The trick of writing is not coming up with ideas, but of grasping one or two and turning them into art, which means having the discipline to actually sit down and get them on paper. For that, it helps to have a process to get you in the chair. Arcane rituals don’t hurt either, and neither does a thesaurus and sheer pluck.

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So when Mindy Mejia, one of my fellow authors at Ashland Creek Press, asked me to join a writing process blog hop, I said yes. Process can be examined; ideas, not so much. Mindy is the author of The Dragon Keeper, a touching novel about the relationship between a zookeeper and a Komodo Dragon. I never thought I could feel such strong emotions for a reptile, but by the time I finished reading her book, I wanted to marry one.

But I have no time to take on another relationship right now. I have to answer these questions.

1.) What am I working on?

Although I usually write fiction, right now I’m working on a true crime memoir that I’ve been picking up and putting down for close to 15 years, tentatively titled Fair Game. I work on it for a few months, then I let myself get distracted with other writing projects, like, oh say, a novel. But sometimes it’s family matters, like a wedding, which is what distracts me at the moment.

2.) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

By its nature, true crime memoirs are always different from one another because the writer is remembering and trying to make sense of his or her own relationship to the crime. In my case, Fair Game is about the murder of a woman I knew in the mid-70’s in Stamford, Ct. She was killed with a bow-and-arrow and hastily buried in the woods. Her murder is technically unsolved. This is my take on her story, which I thought I knew then, but turns out I knew nothing.

3.) Why do I write what I write?

The better question is why write at all? What makes me sit down at my desk every day and put down words that form in my head? It’s like holding a séance with a laptop instead of a Ouija board. Having said that, my subject matter might seem capricious, but I do have themes. Whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction, poetry or drama, the underlying questions usually have to do with environmental issues (Float), social justice (Fair Game), or animals (Addled).

4.) How does my writing process work?

With novels, and very often with short stories, I have this odd tic of starting with the title, and work from there. For instance, with Float, all I had was the word float. I opened a document and typed it in. Over the next few months, while I was working on other things, I’d write down different meanings of the word, like floating on water, or floating on air, or to float a loan or an opinion. Flotsam is from the French word flotter, to float, and there’s lots of floating garbage in the book. A float can be a glass ball used to suspend a fishing net, and a float can be the flat, wooden part of a dock. You can float through the day like a jellyfish, or float over stress in order to survive. Then one day I had an image of a man in a failing fish processing plant, and I sent him to the beach to read words in the sand. I wrote the first chapter, sat for a while, then wrote the book. The important thing is to sit down everyday to write, at a scheduled time, even if you don’t have a plan. Just write, or take notes, it will come, and you’ll want to be there when it does. A story might take me one to six months, a novel two years or more. The non-fiction project is taking much longer. That’s probably because being non-fiction, I can’t just make it all up in my head and must rely on the cold, hard facts.

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There you have it. My process, such as it. Let’s hear from someone else for a while. I went to a wonderful reading last week at Toad Hall, the independent Rockport, Ma, bookstore that donates its profits to environmental causes. We were entertained by friend and local author Thomas Hauck as he read from his new book, The Body on the Rocks. It is a collection of murder mystery short stories set here in Gloucester, and I can’t wait to read it. He’ll be up next in the #Mywritingprocess blog hop. Watch for Tom’s writing process blog coming soon.

 

 


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Writing Wild

Writing Wild
Forming a Creative Partnership With Nature
By Tina Welling
New World Library, 2014
 
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My favorite quote from Writing Wild is one Tina Welling borrows from Jesus, of all people: “If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you.” This comes from the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, which was considered too New Age in its day, and promptly buried. Likewise, with its touchy-feely Spirit Walks, Writing Wild has a whiff of New Age about it, but should by no means be buried. Taken with the right pragmatic attitude, the walks are touchy-feely in the best possible way. As Welling says, “We create a relationship with nature the same way we create a relationship with a person. We spend time in their presence.” By the end of the book, I felt her wisdom was not just constructive for writers, but for anyone who seeks a more deliberate relationship with the natural world.

When using all the senses to name, describe, and interact with the world — conscious acts designed to encourage readers to go beyond surface impressions — it is possible, as Welling puts it, to become fully awake on the planet. It is not unlike journaling, which I did for many years in a journal group (yes, I know, as New Age as it gets, but that was then and this is now). The theory behind journaling is that it doesn’t much matter what the writing prompt is, because what is currently going on inside will find a way out through the words. Free associative writing — which is done for a timed period without lifting pen from paper, and without crossing out or making corrections — will eventually sneak past the inner censor and reveal one’s themes, so to speak. The same for Welling’s walks, which go somewhat like this: One: venture out into nature; Two: focus on one object or scene, listing its characteristics; then, Three: write about the personal meaning those characteristics have for you. The results might reveal buried or unresolved conflicts, or simply tap interesting memories and psychological information.

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This is the raw material with which writers mold their work. but as in journaling, finding personal meaning in the world around you seems a useful tool for everyone. My journal group (of whom there were only a couple of members who considered themselves writers) met monthly in rotating homes, and in late May we would gather at Babette’s house by the quarry. Our ‘prompt’ for the evening was a walk through the woods where lasciviously pink Lady Slippers were in bloom. Every year, we’d laugh at the flowers’ resemblance to deeply-veined scrotums, then we’d go back to her house and write. In reading our work out loud to one another, the unworldly Lady Slippers never failed to stir up fervent, often emotionally complicated responses. Then last year, on the heels of Lady Slipper season, a year after her husband’s death, Babette took her own life. No one knows what to make of it. I tell myself a story of grief, love, and Lady Slippers.

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There, you see. I begin writing about one thing, and I am led away with the mere mention of a Lady Slipper. My unresolved sadness and confusion is still dangerously close to the surface, and bubbles up with the written word. Nature bleeds with meaning such as this.

Welling believes we can interpret the world in the same way we might interpret a dream, in that the outer world often reflects our inner condition if we open ourselves to the possibility. When a deer crosses our path in our sleep, we wake up and wonder what it could mean, often contemplating what is going on in our lives and who or what the deer might represent. When a deer crosses our path in real life, why not ask the same questions? It can lead to unexplored territory. To the wildness inside.

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Here is one of Welling’s exercises to steer you in that direction: Take a deep breath, close your eyes, open your eyes, then make a quick list of everything that catches your attention using all five senses. Then do a brief interpretation of the list. What is the tone? Negative? Positive? What images are symbols for you? How might the list inform a question you have about your life today? Go where it leads you, and watch out for the inner censor. “Eventually,” says Welling, “the wildness outside leads to the wildness within, that place that gives space and reflects truth and accepts everything.”

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Accepting everything might be too grand a goal for any exercise, but making space for wildness, there’s something worth walking for, New Age or not.

 

(Originally posted on EcoLit Books, June 16, 2014)

 

 

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Dorothy Addams Brown, 1923 – 2014

This Saturday we said good by to Dotty Brown at the UU Church in Gloucester. Dotty was a friend to all, and benefactress to the city and beyond. She was in the first generation of American women to be college educated, and because of this, had high expectations placed upon them. Dotty showed us how it’s done, and will be sorely missed.

Along with other friends and relations, I spoke at her memorial, and I am reprinting my short reflection here, if not by popular demand, then at least by a few requests.

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There’s a lot of talk these days about reducing our carbon footprint, which is the amount of harmful greenhouse gas emissions each of us produces while driving our cars and heating our homes. There are on-line calculators that can tell us our individual contribution to climate change by asking questions about the way we live, and then gives suggestions on how to lower our negative impact on the planet.

Then there is the Dotty footprint, one in which we may calculate the amount of positive impact we can have on the world.

It’s been my pleasure to have lived down the road from Dotty since I moved to Eastern Point in 1979. She was working in Boston then, coming to Gloucester only on weekends and vacations. Her brother Lawrence was still alive, a man I remember for knowing the names of every one of Hannibal’s elephants that crossed the Alps. Dotty shared his curiosity about the world, and although elephant names were not on the top of her need-to-know list, she was delighted to have the information. She beheld the world with open wonder. She never tired of it. She was never bored.

When she retired to Eastern Point full-time and no longer needed to look bankerish, she bequeathed her collection of enormous and colorful clip-on earrings to my girls for dress-up, then began the work of creating the footprint she would leave on the North Shore. For all her comforts and privileges, she was keenly aware of the private struggles of individuals and the public needs of institutions, remedying them as she could, thus greatly increasing the sum of human happiness through education and exposure to the arts. Her civic and charitable accomplishments are extensive, but it would be the rare subject that would bore her no end. She would want, instead, to be remembered for her great gift of friendship.

Dotty was an epicenter of warmth, a footprint that advanced in ever-widening circles from her house on the water, embracing us all in a hug. She never forgot anyone. She greeted people as if they’d been gone too long from her life, no matter if it had been a single day or many years. Even after Dotty slowed down and was no longer able to travel, which was only fairly recently, she kept close tabs on her friends in their wanderings. On her calendar she noted where people in her life were at any given time, as if she saw the world as a game board, with all the moving pieces connecting back to her. And since she’d been everywhere, she was a vital source of information. Before I left for Iceland last year, where Dotty had been with Sarah on a birding expedition, she had this to say of the cuisine: “Roast breast of puffin, delectable!” She was open to everything, even the eating of endangered species, who, in another part of her life she was seeking to save from extinction.

Dotty understood that people were often a mess of contradictions, and did not exclude herself from that understanding. In her own community on Eastern Point, where she developed some of her strongest relationships and her most bemused entertainment, she welcomed neighborhood news that came with a side bit of dish, but would not tolerate a mean word about anyone. She appreciated the grand comedy of personal drama, and never held human fragility against anyone human. She knew that in the face of absurdity, the only thing to do was laugh.

She suffered pain and losses, as must we all, but she remained resolutely grateful for life and the lives of those around her, and did not cultivate sadness. Life was for the living, she’d say, and then she lived it fully. As we aspire to lower our carbon footprint and do less harm, let us also raise our Dotty footprint, and try to leave the world a better place, as she did, and so gracefully at that.

 

 

 

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The Human Shore, Seacoasts in History by John R. Gillis

 

The Human Shore, by John Gillis University of Chicago Press, 2012
The Human Shore, University of Chicago Press, 2012

 

The interior section of Cape Ann, which includes Gloucester and Rockport, is called Dogtown. It was the earliest part of the Cape to be settled, and was later abandoned, so that its only occupants for many years were dogs, witches, and other assorted outcasts. It is still largely undeveloped. “Why here?” visitors ask,when I show off our Colonial cellar holes. “Why would people settle here when water is just a few miles away?”

Why? Because an ocean view was dangerous thing to have. Today, nothing says success like a front row seat to the sea, but this is a very modern development, and as the water continues to rise, it might turn out to be a passing fad. The place where water meets land has always been a treacherous spot, exposed not just to storms and tides, but to pirates as well. It wasn’t until there was strength in numbers, along with political stability, that folks ventured to the water’s edge and actually lived there. In The Human Shore, John Gillis documents the history of our relationship to the coast, going back 160,000 years or more, when a particularly cunning primate said ta-ta to the other hominids in the African savannas and wandered east towards the sea. When this early ancestor got to the water, she found seafood and shellfish, rich in the fatty acids necessary to develop large brains, and we were on our way to becoming the Homo sapiens we are today.

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Gillis, bless his heart, embraces the aquatic ape theory, which posits that modern humans evolved in close association with the water. The evidence is that we are fat and naked, looking in some ways more like a dolphin than an ape. This theory was recently considered so far out that I handed it to a character in my novel Float to espouse, so I was thrilled to see it mentioned in The Human Shore, a largely academic book.

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Whether aquatic apes or early hominids, they only lived near enough to the shore to forage seafood, but then, like the early Dogtown inhabitants, set up house-keeping in safety elsewhere. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th c. that the shore lost its association with danger to become a place of pleasure, so that today, half of all of earth’s population live within 100 miles of the sea. We are creatures of the edge, as unstable as it might be. The present sea levels were not even set until 6500 BC. Before that, Europe extended to Britain by means of a forested land called Doggerland, only just being explored by archeologists.

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Gillis writes a great deal about coasting as the norm for travel for most of our history. We hugged the shore. When the Norse got to North America, they did not so much cross the ocean as skim along the Cold Coast of Greenland and the Faroe Islands, coasting and island hopping in the manner of ancient mariners everywhere. When Columbus hit North America, he did not understand that it was an impassable landmass, but thought it was one of a series of islands. Even as recently as the arrival of the Mayflower, Frances Billington, one of the passengers, climbed a tall tree to see if he could spot the Pacific. He did! The pond is still called the Billington Sea, in honor of optimists everywhere.

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What the Europeans did find was natural abundance, but it was not all that natural, and it was not as wild as we imagine, according Gillis. The land had long been cultivated by burning, and the animals of land and sea heavily harvested. It was a delicate balance of humans and resources. When the Europeans arrived, they brought disease and slaughter, reducing the native population to less than 6 percent of its pre-contact level. Stocks rebounded, giving Europeans the impression of unlimited bounty, and began to fish and hunt North America to extinction.

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Gillis writes movingly about the plight of the fishing industry in these days of global fishing and shipping, and I’m pleased to see him mention Gloucester as resisting the trend towards ye old fishing village. We still has a working harbor, such as it is, even though we have a red line to lead tourists around town to show them where the industry used to be. But at least we are not quaint, like Rockport and most other former fishing villages, who thrive on romantic notions of a coastal past that never was. Of all the statistics in Gillis’s excellent book, this one takes the cake: Maine’s working waterfront occupy 20 of 5300 miles of coastline. Today, many fishermen commute to work, since they can no longer afford to live where they work.

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Read this book and understand the shore. We have evolved with it, and will continue to do so, sooner rather than later. From Float: “Slocum believed that fat was the secret to the success of the species. Humans were not just the fattest primates, they also had ten times as many fat cells as would be expected in any animal of its size, which, to Slocum, pointed to one obvious conclusion: Humans were descended from aquatic apes. And, he believed, they needed to maintain those fat deposits for when – perhaps not so far in the future – the rising tides of global warming forced Homo sapiens back to the sea.”

 

Book review originally published at Eco-Lit Books.

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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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