Last summer I went to Provincetown to the Fine Arts Work Center, to participate in Social Justice Week, a gathering of writers, artists, and activists concerned with, well, social justice. Gun violence, climate change, police brutality, immigration, homophobia, racism – the world is full of injustice.
I was part of a workshop called Writing an Essay, Planting a Tree: an Environmental Writing Workshop, taught by writer Alison Hawthorne Deming. Some of us were nature writers, some social activists; we were teachers, professional publicists, community organizers and editors. All of us were looking for ways to make our work matter in the 21st century. The participants were dispirited by the state of social and political discourse in the United States, and depressed that so little public attention was being given to the overwhelming disaster of climate change, that vast elephant in our tiny planetary room.
All of us wrote other things besides essays – short stories, poetry, literary criticism. But for most of us – well, I speak for myself. I think that the essay is the most direct and most effective vehicle for carrying information into a reader's heart. Fiction does it, but fiction is oblique; any theme or message – let's call it truth – takes time to work its way from a reader's heart to her brain, from feeling to concept to action. If you want to convey information that may change a heart and a mind, fiction is an indirect and slow way to do it.
Essays are the literary genre of the moment. I suppose they've been surpassed in pure mass by Tweets, let alone the millions of digital images swarming the Internet. But the personal essay, in the form of a blog, is right up there, be it a dissertation on writing, on cooking, on the environment, on birds or motorcycles or politics or art or feminism or gardening. (Or on the author's self.) It's a direct conduit to the writer's passions, and, if well executed, to information and evidence that informs them. Very rarely is the purpose of a blog obscured or camouflaged. What you read is what you're meant to read.
So the women in my workshop – we were all women! – looked to the essay as a vehicle that might have the capacity to carry and convey the weight of the world that lay on our shoulders. Beyond air space, we wanted literary legitimacy, the mark of approval and acknowledgment that a juried and well-published paper would receive.
It's a tradeoff, isn't it? Pop your piece out onto the internet without a sponsor or guide, and it's free to wander the world, picked up by any tom dick or harry who types in the right keyword. Or send it through the system: first to jury, then to judge. Once approved, a production team will send your essays right down the middle of the alley toward the pins, and it will surely bowl them over.
Or you could write a poem, in which you tell the truth slant.
Of course, no piece of writing is going to work with the speed of Alka-Seltzer; prontito! a literary essay is not. Our group felt angry, depressed, scared, and pressured – pressured, because time is not infinite, the state of the world is getting worse, we ourselves are approaching death – in a few years, in a lot of years, it makes no difference: we are anxious to do our work before it's too late. But the first thing we learned, or began to learn, was that we need to give up on the hope for a fast, or foreseeable, fix. We are in this for the long term. We are, as the title of the workshop explicitly suggested, Planting Trees. While Rome burns? Maybe. But there are trees whose seeds only spring into life after they pass through fire.
Actually, that may have been our main and most important lesson: that we must reconceive our understanding of time. In the age of this changing climate, there's no time to lose, and we have all the time there is in the world. Nous sommes tous des ecrivains de la nature maintenant. We are all nature writers now.
Writing now requires thinking on both a larger and a smaller scale. The local lawn watering restrictions, the algal bloom on the neighborhood kettle pond, the erosion of the town beach, the flooding of the subway tunnels in the city, the devastation of an island or a major port city, the wildfires burning in drought-stricken places all over the world: these are the local manifestations of what's referred to by that gentle term climate change. People who study and work with global systems may grasp some idea of the vast change occurring on the Earth, but most of us can understand it only through local, manageable events that are familiar to us: fire. Floods. Wind. High tide. The drying up of a well, or a pond, or a river. The way the beach gets narrower every year, and chunks of the parking lot are broken off in storms that seem to get stronger and more destructive every winter.
The dry well, the diminished aquifer, the loss of the predators that keep down the populations of small tick-bearing mammals, affect the daily well-being of individuals and communities. With the help of statisticians and climatologists, we begin to collage these events and conditions into an olio that gradually, as more and more pieces of information are added into the mix, becomes an identifiable system; the logical result of what seemed for so long to be disparate unrelated incidents.
Nature is a conglomeration of events that, while they seem to be random, given the constraints of the planet are really fragments of a well-organized closed system.
While our awareness of the extent and sequelae of climate change itself is the accretion of detail and research, so too must be the second level of knowledge: the growing awareness that the other side of the coin is expanding too. A report by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications finds that a majority of liberal to moderate Republicans – so some do remain? – are convinced that climate change is a result of human activity. And beyond Republicans, public support for climate and clean energy policies is strong and bipartisan. Renewable energy is creating jobs four times faster than the rest of the US economy, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.
One morning during the workshop I opened the local Provincetown paper – even though it had been suggested that we avoid reading, watching, or listening to the news that week – and, my eyes newly opened to The Small Things, stumbled into half a dozen articles about local environmental efforts. Building codes, water quality, immigrant activism, whale disentanglement, the monitoring of great white sharks. Three more towns on Cape Cod had banned the use of plastic straws. Even more have discontinued the use of plastic shopping bags in local stores.
We have to realize – we have to believe? – that in the absence of sweeping worldwide change, the smaller scale does matter. (Small Things Matter.) The small acts of adaptation and resistance are part of a patchwork quilt.
Too little, too little, too little, too late, sang the hopeless imp who sits on one of my shoulders.
But it's happening, the hopeful one whispered into my other ear. I struggled to listen.
So what is the work that environmental writing has to do now?
Let's posit that I am the paradigm for nature writing's audience. What do I want? What do I need?
What did I ever want from nature writing? What did I ever want?
Well, there was beauty in it. Often it was lyrical, allusive, inspiring, evocative. Often I could identify with what was written – with seeing the beauty or the joy in some natural thing, an animal or a process that rarely registered in the novels I usually read. Things that mattered to me, and that I did not know mattered to other people. Things we didn't talk about. Joy, beauty, the catch in the throat, the skipped heartbeat when a subject suddenly resonated. The silly and intense pleasure of seeing a chipping sparrow seize a millet seed from the feeder. The pleasure of finding coyote scat on a flat stone down by the creek. The thrill of coming face to face with the raccoon peering into the bedroom window. The discovery of an astonishing dragon-liked flower at the side of the road, that would turn out to be native Aquilegia. Columbine.
I wanted kinship, I think. To feel a part of something, as I rarely felt part of the human culture and community around me. To understand the language of the creatures, the meaning of seasons, the way the world worked. A tree would be a friend, all the animals would be characters in my own story.
Eventually, in the course of reading personal essays about ravens or ponds or walking dunes I realize that this was actual information; that couched in these personal adventures and reflections was scientific news. For one reason and another my science education had been woefully inadequate, and as I delved deeper and deeper into literary observations of the world, I found myself hungry to understand the science of things, the reasons things are as they are.
My move from the east coast to west of the Rockies was a watershed event, not just in the geological but the metaphorical implications of the term. What I had thought Nature was was not universally true. Nature was not only a blue jay in an incense cedar overlooking the cold sea, not just sand dunes and red squirrels, not just a lush woodland descending to a thin stream. It was also a magpie flashing into a cottonwood tree next to the wide Green River; it was desert varnish on red rocks; it was mountains. It was water in the desert in all it manifestations and disappearances.
I began to understand what a watershed was.
Nature writing led me to beauty and kinship, to science, to diversity. And somewhere the tide turned. (The waters of knowledge began to rise!) When did my hunger for information and understanding began to change into grief, alarm, anxiety, fear, horror, anger, despair?
No one thing, of course. No individual smoking gun. Instead, an arsenal. Paul Ehrlich's warnings. Bill McKibben's proclamation. James Hansen's testimony. My own observations of clear-cutting, of gas wells dotting the landscape, of water rising to the foundations of the house I lived in. The gorgeous sunsets after the Yellowstone fires. Changes and losses and degradations in the landscapes I'd come to love: the Intermountain West. The Siskiyou Mountains. Coastal Maine. Tidewater Virginia. Cape Cod.
And at last the watershed effect – the trickle, the flow, the flood from scientific literature into the political discourse into the popular culture: the awareness of what we first knew as global warming, later replaced by the more politically acceptable term climate change; and on now to global climate disruption. The gradual, then sudden realization that the changes in the earth's atmosphere and condition have become, like aging, irreversible.
And the one comfort that I had clung to for many years, the belief that, once we human beings had destroyed ourselves, Nature and the rest of Creation would heave a sigh of relief and continue happily without us, dissolved into the sad atmosphere and poof! was gone.
Nature, of course, can't be defined by what we've experienced. Nature will evolve with the changes of the planet; if the planet becomes a sere charred desert, or a roiling swamp of poisonous gases, or if it becomes, in the vastness of time, a frozen ball of ice hurtling around the sun, well, that will be what Nature is. We are not, after all, the deciders.
There's no apparent consolation prize, no comfort in the knowledge we have now. After joy, after understanding, after information and after sudden horror, where are we to find – well, hope seems to much to ask.
I had hoped, by writing this out, to lead myself to some kind of answer to the question, What is the work that environmental writing must – or can – do now? Instead I find myself clinging to the question itself. Asking it is the best manifestation of hope that I can muster.