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Book Review: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

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The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey is a meditative, thought-provoking book about one of our most underestimated and underappreciated animals—the wild snail—and the ways in which the natural world can illuminate our own.

When Elisabeth Bailey, normally an active person, is bedridden with a debilitating illness, she must cope not only with the illness but with the loss of her former life. “When the body is rendered useless,” she writes, “the mind still runs like a bloodhound…” She now finds herself with nothing but time, yet unlike her busy friends, she has nothing to do with it. “Time unused and only endured still vanishes, as if time itself is starving, and each day is swallowed whole, leaving no crumbs, no memory, no trace at all.”

When a friend brings her a flowerpot containing a woodland snail, Bailey turns to her new roommate as it explores its new surroundings. Among the first things she notices is that she can hear it munching on the flower leaves she’d placed in its new home. Later, after reading more about snail care, Bailey’s caregiver brought it a mushroom: “The snail loved the mushroom. It was so happy to have a familiar food, after weeks of nothing but wilted flowers, that for several days it slept right next to the huge piece of portobello, waking throughout the day to reach up and nibble before sinking back into a well-fed slumber.”

In part because snails are hermaphrodites, and in part because she couldn’t find a name that she liked better than the word snail itself, Bailey chose to call her new companion “my snail.” The affection with which she writes about her snail—and the anguish she feels when she wakes one day and believes it may be lost—is one of the loveliest things about this book. Because her own life has slowed so much, she is able to observe nearly moment of her snail’s existence, and its world is far more interesting than one might imagine.

In addition to learning of the daily life of this curious and easygoing creature, we learn from Bailey’s extensive snail research that her snail has more than 2,500 teeth, which regenerate as needed; that snails get by with only three senses—smell, taste, and touch; and that “romantic encounters between a pair of snails can take up to seven hours from start to finish.”

Although this slender book takes place largely in one room—in fact, mostly within the snail’s bedside terrarium—the world Bailey and her snail share is anything but small. Their year together encompasses birth and healing, learning and adapting. We discover along with Bailey that there is much to learn about not only our tiniest creatures but about living in the moment—and about the role all creatures play in connection to the greater world. “Although the snail moved more slowly than a human through the physical world, it traveled more quickly than a human along its pathway as an evolving species.”

Through the close observation of one intriguing animal, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating will encourage readers to pay closer attention to all of the world’s animals, large or small, and to appreciate the small moments that make up our larger lives.

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The Necessary Evolution of Environmental Writing

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Halfway through reading The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod by Henry Beston, I came across the following passage:

A new danger, moreover, now threatens the birds at sea. An irreducible residue of crude oil, called by refiners ‘slop,’ remains in stills after oil distribution, and this is pumped into southbound tankers and emptied far offshore. This wretched pollution floats over large areas, and the birds alight into it and get it on their feathers. They inevitably die.

The passage startled me because so much of the book up to that point was the sort of writing you’d expect from a classic work of environmental literature—elegant descriptions of the colors of the sand dunes, sounds of the birds, the rolling surf, nothing controversial or newsy. So I admit I was also excited to have come across this passage, expecting the author to become outraged into action or to venture into an exploration of how vulnerable the oceans and its inhabitants could be.

Instead, Beston concluded his all-too-brief aside on oil pollution as follows:

To-day oil is more the chance fate of the unfortunate individual. But let us hope that all such pollution will presently end.

Beston wrote these words in 1927.

Clearly he was an optimist.

Would Beston, were he alive today, have written a different book, one devoted less to the beauty of nature than to the ways in which humans continue to mar it through oil spills, overfishing, plastics littering the beach?

I’d like to think so.

As a writer and a publisher, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be an environmental writer today. I believe that we—readers and writers alike—must redefine environmental writing to give it a wider scope in focus and in form, and a more pressing mandate. In other words, we need environmental writing that is less concerned with how one describes the landscape than with how one protects that landscape.

Defining New Environmental Writing

The best environmental writing rises up to the challenges of its day. Without our blind faith in (and ignorance of) chemicals, there could have been no Silent Spring. Without the proliferation of dams and housing developments throughout the West there could have been no Monkey Wrench Gang.

From severe weather to record drought to species on the verge of extinction, environmental challenges have gone mainstream. So too should environmental writing, and in this light, I pose the following new guidelines:

1. Fiction and poetry can succeed where facts fail

When it comes to nature writing, most readers think of nonfiction; when it comes to twenty-first century environmental writing, most of this, too, is nonfiction—facts upon facts that many are tiring of reading, if they read it at all.

Fiction and poetry, however, can tell a new story.

Author Ann Pancake could have tackled mountaintop removal in West Virginia with a nonfiction book—she certainly conducted enough research to write one—but she chose fiction instead and created the powerful novel Strange as This Weather Has Been.

JoeAnn Hart, in her novel Float, wrote about plastics in the oceans—not by drawing on volumes of data but simply by telling a satirical story of a man struggling to make ends meet in a New England fishing town.

The poet Gretchen Primack, in her collection Kind, transports us into the world of factory farmed animals, and in only a handful of words does more to open eyes than most news articles.

We no longer want for facts; we have easy access to Wikipedia and countless other news sources, and we pick and choose which facts suit our worldview. What we need now are stories and characters that connect us to these facts—perhaps even without us knowing it at first—in ways that inspire lasting change and have the power to change our worldview.

2. All animals deserve “protected status”

We have a curious relationship with animals. Some animals we welcome into our homes while others we view merely as food. This hierarchy we have created of animal species is not based on reality; after all, pigs are more intelligent than dogs. Yet conventional environmental writing is reserved for those species on endangered lists, not pigs or chickens or cows.

Animal agriculture needs to be part of any piece of environmental writing—according to a 2012 study in the journal Ecosystems, a pound of beef requires 2,000 gallons of water to produce, while a pound of vegetables requires just 42 gallons. How can any environmental work that aspires to save the planet overlook this discussion?

Traditions are powerful, conservative forces in society. They connect us with one another, with past and future generations, and they remind us of our larger roles in life. But not all traditions are noble, nor should they be blindly handed down from one generation to the next. From religious prosecution to ethnic discrimination, history is littered with traditions better left behind. And yet so many rituals we accept as sacrosanct are having a negative impact on our planet. The consumption of meat is one such tradition that environmentalists, and those writing about environmentalism, can no longer ignore.

3. The great environmental battles are fought closer to home

So many environmental works have been written by those who took a hiatus from society. Thoreau retreated to a tiny cabin in woods of Massachusetts; Robert Byrd wintered alone in Antarctica. And while their acts and their writing took courage, today I’m far less interested in the stories of those who retreat off into the wild. For the “human against nature” stories feel tired and backward-looking.

The heroes of today are not those who run off into the wilderness. They are the people who stay behind and work to preserve the planet. I believe the best environmental writing to come will document those battles happening right in front of us, in our oceans and on our mountains, in our towns and schools, in our backyards and at our kitchen tables.

And the most important changes happen one person at a time, which then extends to one family, one neighborhood, one community, and so on. Change can happen one reader at a time—if writers are able to engage us with stories that matter.

The next hundred years

Just as I viewed Beston’s brief aside on oil spills with disappointment, I wonder how readers a hundred years from today will view our contemporary writing. Will they roll their eyes at our short-sightedness? Will they wonder why no one was talking about issues that clearly needed discussion? Or will they appreciate our awareness and our activism?

It’s been said that writing acts as a mirror, reflecting our culture, our time and place in history. Yet writing can also influence culture, nudge it forward, or redefine it entirely. This is the role of new environmental writing.

 

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The Greening of Literature

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A week ago I traveled to Seattle to participate at the AWP Conference and Bookfair — the world’s largest gathering of writers and writing programs. Ashland Creek Press hosted a booth, and a number of our authors attended for panels and book signings. We also met editors at the environmental journals Newfound, Flyway, Catamaran, and Terrain.

With more than 12,000 writers at the conference, it was a crazy few days. Perhaps in part due to its Seattle location, a strong environmental theme ran throughout the conference, and I was pleased to see so many people at the “Greening of Literature” panel that I moderated with writers Ann Pancake, JoeAnn Hart, Mindy Mejia, and Gretchen Primack.

I only wish I could have recorded this session because each writer offered outstanding advice and inspiration for any writer pursuing eco-fiction or eco-poetry. I frantically took notes during the presentations. Below are a few nuggets that I was able to capture.

JoeAnn Hart is the author of Float and Addled. She posted her AWP talk on her blog and I highly recommend reading it in full. Here are a few passages that stuck with me:

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.

And…

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.

Gretchen Primack is a poet and author of Kind and Doris’ Red Spaces. Gretchen made clear that any writer aiming to write about the environment cannot overlook the animal industries. The pollution generated by these industries far outweigh the impact of cars — so we would make a much greater impact if we all simply stopped eating animal products.

Gretchen read Love This from Kind. Many of Gretchen’s poems take the perspective of the animals — and this is not pleasant place to be. It’s horrifying to see the world through a dairy cow’s eyes, to see your offspring yanked away from you immediately after giving birth, over and over again.

When asked how she could stay upbeat while writing such challenging poetry, Gretchen said that the writing process actually helped her, as she felt engaged and able to make a difference. And I think this is a key takeaway for any writer tackling difficult issues. It’s easy to get depressed when you see and learn horrible things, but by remembering that you’re putting your talents to work to help make a bad situation less bad, you can at least know you’re making an impact.

Gretchen also talked about a word that I find is too frequently used to distance us from animals — anthropomorphism. She asks: What if we, what the planet, erred on the side of having too much compassion for animals? Would that be a bad thing? And how much better would this planet be if we did just that?

Ann Pancake is the author of Strange as This Weather Has Been, a novel about mountaintop removal in Appalachia.

Ann  told us about her extensive research, which included newspapers (there were no books out yet on this issue), interviews with residents of the regions, time spent living in the region, and research at the state archives. She then let all this information “compost” for a period of time before she began writing. I love her compost metaphor because it drives home how important research is but also how this information often doesn’t make it into the writing directly, if it all. That is, Ann was clear in emphasizing how she often had to leave out information she wanted to mention when she realized that it would have come across as didactic — something writers of eco-fiction must strive to avoid.

She also provided tips about how to get a message in more subtle ways, such as relying on a child narrator. But she emphasized that you must prioritize your art above politics. That is, the story and the characters are most important — that the message will emerge through them, and not vice versa.

Mindy Mejia is the author of The Dragon Keeper. Mindy said that she didn’t set out to write an environmental work initially. She was simply writing a love story — a story about a zoologist and her relationship with a Komodo dragon — and that everyone loves a good love story. I couldn’t agree more!

Mindy talked about how she spoke to a classroom of students about her book and how they responded to fiction vs. nonfiction. What was interesting was how they had trusted her to get the science right — and this is a key lesson to any writer: The reader is placing faith in you, the writer, to not only tell a great story but to get the science right.

A bright future for eco-fiction and eco-poetry

I didn’t expect to leave Seattle feeling more energized than when I arrived, but that’s exactly how I felt — because I realized there are so many writers out there who are passionate about eco-literature. Based on the conversations, the readings, the number of people who dropped by our booth, I am optimistic about the future.

PS: I have to mention a nearby restaurant that I frequented while we were in Seattle: Veggie Grill. This place is all vegan, and I challenge any omnivore to eat here and not come away impressed. It’s one of many plant-based restaurants that prove that adopting a vegan diet is not about deprivation but about delicious, sustainable,  environmentally friendly food.

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Writing for animals: Advice for writers of animal rights fiction

In mainstream fiction today, “normal” characters tend to be carnivores, or at least omnivores, and “fringe” characters tend to be vegetarian or vegan.

Naturally, I disagree with this distinction. But I also understand that most writers are simply following convention, simply writing about the world as they see it today.

But the world is changing. And fiction has a critical role in not only reflecting these changes but also in imagining the world as it can be.

Which is one reason I wrote The Tourist Trail and co-founded Ashland Creek Press — to help publish these works when we find them.

Writing a story that advances animal rights isn’t easy, particularly if you want to change hearts and minds.

And not every novel needs to have a theme that directly addresses animal suffering. It could simply feature vegan characters who are portrayed as normal human beings (as opposed to hemp-clad anarchists). J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello is one such character.

If you’re a writer with goals of changing the world, here are a few things I’ve learned over the years.

Tips for Writing Stories that Change Minds

1. Know your audience

If you’re writing for an already converted audience, then what you write will be vastly different than writing for minds you hope to change. At Ashland Creek Press, we aim to publish for a mainstream audience—this is where we see possibilities for positive change on a large scale. But it also means selecting works that both vegans and non-vegans will find realistic and compelling, and these can be the most challenging works of all. To create a work that accomplishes this goal, writers should include characters along a wide spectrum so that readers will have someone to identify with. Having characters with diverse lives and opinions offers something for every reader and also leads to great conflict, which brings me to the next tip.

2. Use relationships to get messages across

A good story avoids simply telling readers about the issues. Instead, let your characters work through the issues through conflict. Put a vegan into a relationship with a non-vegan, a Republican with a Democrat, a Prius driver with an SUV driver. And always keep in mind that some of the most interesting and enlightening animal rights discussions take place over dining room tables among family members. Elizabeth Costello, for example, is in conflict with her daughter-in-law who doesn’t want Elizabeth “infecting” the children with her ideas about animals. Your characters don’t have to be on the front lines of a protest to be “activists.” Sometimes it takes just as much bravery to confront a loved one over the dining room table.

3. Don’t lead with the issues

Get readers involved with the story first, so that they’re engrossed in the characters long before they realize there’s a certain issue at stake. Create mystery, conspiracy, and don’t be obvious with where you’re headed. For example, a novel about ag-gag laws can begin as a corporate conspiracy novel—a mainstream issue that could pull in a wide audience. Focus first on capturing the reader’s attention with complex characters and plots, then work in the animal rights themes in a way that fits the story.

4. Anthropomorphism can be a powerful device, used carefully

Taking readers inside the minds of animals can be a very effective way to elicit sympathy for animals. And it’s a literary device that many people were raised with—from The Rats of NIMH to Charlotte’s Web to Black Beauty. Cormac McCarthy used this device sparingly in his novel, The Crossing. Here’s an excerpt:

She carried a scabbedover wound on her hip where her mate had bitten her two weeks before somewhere in the mountains of Sonora. He’d bitten her because she would not leave him. Standing with one forefoot in the jaws of a steeltrap and snarling at her to drive her off where she lay just beyond the reach of the chain. She’d flattened her ears and whined and she would not leave. In the morning they came on horses. She watched from a slope a hundred yards away as he stood up to meet them.

This is a wolf’s point of view, but it reads as vividly as any human point of view, if not more so. And I think this is a key lesson. I always cringe when I read works from an animal’s point of view in which the animal has been “dumbed down.”

5. Empathy cuts both ways

Some vegans’ criticism of carnivores is that meat eaters have little or no empathy for animal suffering. But on the other hand, some vegans have little or no sympathy for the struggles that carnivores face as they consider giving up meat—or they may have forgotten their own struggle to become vegan. Diet is cultural, personal, and often carries with it family expectations and emotional baggage. To change one’s diet can, for some people, lead to strained or broken relationships. While going vegan may be an easy decision for one person, it could be an enormously difficult decision for another. Keep this in mind as you write, and have sympathy for all your characters.

6. Nobody is perfect

Everyone has a different view on what needs to be done to save the planet, to save the animals. And everybody works in different ways to make a difference. Just because someone doesn’t do all the things you do doesn’t mean they’re not making an impact in their own ways. To expect perfection from characters is no different than expecting perfection from your friends and family or yourself. It’s just not going to happen. In fact, I would argue that imperfection is far more important in creating authentic characters. The flaws are just as important as the features.

7. The journey is the thing

“Show, don’t tell” is one of the most commonly dispensed bits of writerly advice, and it is particularly relevant with eco-fiction. When trying to open the reader’s eyes to animal atrocities, one may feel the urge to dispense statistics and other important facts. But readers generally recoil if they feel they are being lectured to. It is far better to take the reader on a journey so he or she can see the atrocities firsthand. Don’t tell a reader how many factory farmed animals suffer; take them into a slaughterhouse. Also consider the value of including a character who begins the novel as a carnivore but becomes a vegan during the course of the book. What type of a journey will this character follow in order to make such a transformation? If you can create a character who can believably undergo such a transformation, enduring all the public and personal struggles along the way, you’ll be well on your way to developing a must-read novel.

What’s Next?

These are just a handful of suggestions, and I’d love to hear from other writers. Send me your questions and comments, and let me know what eco-lit books have made an impact on you.

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