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The Overstory: An arboreal love story (and lament)

When we started EcoLit Books five years ago, this was the type of book I had in mind.

A novel that places nature in its proper place in relation to people. That is, above us — in this case, both figuratively and literally.

In The Overstory, Richard Powers has crafted an epic novel that stretches hundreds of years, culminating in a series of life-and-death environmental battles. But even more so, this is a novel about rediscovering the largest and oldest living creatures on our planet.

So many of the characters are alien to the trees they share the planet with until various events open their eyes. And they look. They smell. They see and feel the loss. And they act up.

The book could be used to teach a course on trees. And it should be used for just that purpose. I have books about trees — mostly identification. But identifying a tree is only step one. How does a tree relate to the creatures around it? How does it respond to insect attacks? How does it care for its siblings? And other species of trees? For example, the Douglas Fir, which we live among here in Southern Oregon, are called “giving trees” because the dying trees will send out nutrients to the Ponderosa Pines. Powers does an outstanding job of providing insights into beings we have only just begun to understand.

But there are oversights in the novel in regards to activism. While the novel addresses environmental activism in Oregon and elsewhere, the players are too often seen eating meat without any awareness of the irony of defending one living entity while eating another. I know that many of those activists who have served actual time behind bars for similar crimes are vegan. They don’t differentiate between protecting trees and protecting non-human animals. And it must be noted that millions upon millions of acres of forests have been cleared for the sole purpose of raising cows and sheep for human consumption.

In many ways I feel that this novel begins where Barkskins by Annie Proulx ends. And I highly recommend reading them in chronological order. And I’m not just talking about time but about awareness — our collective awareness that the planet is not some all-you-can-eat buffet, that the planet is, like us, finite and fragile. If you are not a “tree hugger” before reading these two books, you will be afterwards.

And I think what I like most about this book are the voices he gives those who have no (human) voice. Such as: All the ways you imagine us–bewitched mangroves up on stilts, a nutmeg’s inverted spade, gnarled baja elephant trunks, the straight-up missile of a sal–are always amputations. Your kind never sees us whole. You miss the half of it, and more. There’s always as much belowground as above.

Like the trees Powers writes so beautifully about, this book towers above us and nurtures us. And, I certainly do hope, it motivates us to do more. And quickly.

The Overstory: A Novel

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Happy Earth Day

It’s been nearly 40 years since the first Earth Day, and unfortunately we’ve recently taken a lot more steps backward than forward.

Still, we humans have taken a lot of great steps forward since the 1970s. There’s a lot to celebrate about our planet, and so many ways to help it survive and thrive. We founded Ashland Creek Press to raise environmental awareness through literature … this combines two of our passions: stories and taking care of our planet. There are myriad ways to help out the planet, and to make every day Earth Day in your own life.

  • Immerse yourself in environmental literature! We love books like Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and Ann Pancake’s Strange As This Weather Has Been — each is a stunning work of eco-lit, each in such a different way. Naturally, we also love every one of our Ashland Creek Press titles, from eco-fiction to veg lit to books about animals.
  • Watch movies. A few environmental films that are interesting, important, and well worth watching: Earthlings, Cowspiracy, What the Health, Forks Over Knives, If a Tree Falls, An Inconvenient Truth and An Inconvenient Sequel … the list goes on, but this is a great start.
  • Take action. Clean up a beach or a park; step up your recycling; plant a new tree, bike or walk instead of driving; eat vegan for a month (or more) … there are so many small changes we can make that become regular habits and definitely make a difference.
  • Get political. Of course, don’t neglect to vote for candidates that believe in climate change and want to do something about it — but you can also write letters, sign petitions, march, and otherwise make your opinions known…every voice does matter.
  • Get kids involved. It’s clear that today’s young people are the ones who are going to change the world, and they’re realizing they need to do this for their own survival. Help them out, whether it’s by giving them books about environmental issues, spending time with them outside, volunteering with a nonprofit to clean a beach or maintain a hiking trail, or taking them to an animal sanctuary. Show them what’s at stake being out in nature.
  • Support organizations that do good work. From conservation to animal rescue to protecting the oceans, there are a lot of great organizations that need support to do what they do. Be sure to investigate nonprofits carefully to be sure your money is used wisely and that the organization is truly environmental (you might watch Cowspiracy before making donations). Here are a few organizations we feel are worthy of our support via the Ashland Creek Press Foundation.

We wish you all a very happy Earth Day, and here’s to much more progress to celebrate in years to come!

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Book Review: Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America, co-edited by Stefanie Brook Trout and Taylor Brorby

Reviewed by Lucia Hadella in partnership with Oregon State University’s Spring Creek Project and Environmental Arts and Humanities program.

How does one go about telling the story of hydraulic fracturing in the United States in a way that illuminates its repercussions for humans and nonhumans? Through poetry? A short story? An essay? Does one travel to a town where fracking is prevalent and talk with its residents, see the operations, walk across the scarred ground? Editors Stefanie Brook Trout and Taylor Brorby made the decision, when putting together Fracture, to include all of these approaches in an effort to capture the qualms and indignations surrounding fracking.

The story of fracking is globally relevant, contributing to the larger saga of climate change and energy production, but it is also local, personal, and intimate. In her poem “Small Buried Things,” poet and singer-songwriter Debra Marquart writes to fracking states, such as North Dakota, with a warning and a plea. Highlighting the sacrifice of life-sustaining water and air for the quick returns from fossil fuel development, she writes, “more oil than we have water to extract / more oil than we have atmosphere to burn.” Addressing her home state, she urges, “north dakota   dear sleeping beauty   please, wake up / they have opened you up and said, come in   take everything.”

I first learned about fracking during my senior year of high school, and I can still remember those infographics depicting the cracks that spread through the shale layer, sometimes more than a mile below the Earth’s surface, branching like a system of roots where trees will never reach. I remember the video of a woman in Pennsylvania turning the knob to her kitchen sink, lighting a match, and flinching as the water ignited with a flash. She talked about methane levels, about getting dizzy in the shower, about the money the gas companies gave her to lease her land for drilling. As an Oregonian who had not witnessed fracking firsthand, my schooling on the subject was important but incomplete.

Indeed, one can only learn so much about fracking by watching videos and studying diagrams. A collection like Fracture helps to humanize the on-site damage done by fracking and offer a more complete look at the political and economic forces at play. In order to gain insight for his Fracture contribution “The Occupation,” writer and professor Paul Bogard traveled to southeastern Ohio to better understand how communities there are affected by natural gas extraction. “What I saw in Ohio,” he writes, “is a land under occupation.” Between the “ubiquitous tankers labeled ‘brine’” and the “constant industrial noise, like a factory’s churn and whine,” Bogard quickly determines that the real-life fracking scene is far different from that described by the oil company Halliburton.

Fracking wastewater pond, courtesy of the Filmmaker Fund

On their website Halliburton depicts fracking operations as quick, quiet, and safe. Advertising to communities made vulnerable by poverty and limited access to education, the company downplays the environmental disruption and chemical contamination while emphasizing opportunities for job growth and “easy money.” Bogard learns from his hosts, Appalachia locals, that the oil and gas companies first try to coax landowners into signing leases, and then they revert to divisive tactics if that doesn’t work, “turning neighbor against neighbor.”

Like so many other contributors, Bogard’s narrative style entices Fracture readers, and I found myself roped in by the human intrigue of his journalistic approach—and then I remembered that these disturbing stories are real. The threatening industry representatives, the landowners who are duped and coerced, and the ground that “has the look of a recent battle, torn up and scraped bare, all yet to heal” comprise the reality right now in many towns across the nation. It seems appropriate that some authors in Fracture chose fiction as their avenue for exploring a practice whose implications for the future are both significant and unknown. The subject is heavy, and it tugs at the imagination, demanding an explanation and a way to look forward for what actions must be taken.

This heaviness is the reason why Fracture, which reads smoothly from page-to-page, author-to-author, and genre-to-genre, is also demanding. It requires from its readers a degree of empathy and self-reflection, all the while provoking frustration with a larger system that allows and perpetuates suffering at the hands of power. In her essay “The View from 31,000 Feet: A Philosopher Looks at Fracking,” nature writer and philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore stares down at an eastern Utah landscape speckled with fracking wells. From her seat in the airplane she wonders, “By what right do humans take what they want from the land—not just what they need, but whatever they want—with no regard for the living, animate community that already exists in that place?”

Indeed, some Fracture contributors, such as Moore, take their discussions beyond fracking, seeing the practice as one component of a broader system of resource exploitation in the name of growth, convenience, and progress. In his essay “Insanity,” activist and philosopher Derrick Jensen examines fracking as one part of a dominant culture obsessed with growth at any cost. He reminds readers that “[f]racking is not one lone mistake. It’s not one lone act of greed. It’s part of a larger pattern. It’s one symptom of the disease—the insanity—that is this culture.” He urges readers to fight fracking with this larger picture in mind and to understand that what is needed in taking action against fracking is a systemic shift and not one that views the extractive practice in isolation.

And indeed, Fracture is a call to action. In fact, it comes complete with several guides on how to take charge against fracking. In “A Feminist’s Guide to Fighting Pipelines,” activist-publisher Ahna Kruzic and sociologist Angie Carter share sage advice on getting started, building community, moving forward, caring for oneself, and adhering to radical imagination. I will leave you with their words as a gesture of resistance: “Trust that through the undoing, the dismantling, the collapse, we will learn to remake and will remember to question, to honor, to debate and disagree and come together again.”

Lucia Hadella grew up in Talent, Oregon. She received her B.S. in Natural Resources from Oregon State University, where she is currently earning an M.A. in Environmental Arts and Humanities.

Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America

Ice Cube Press

Read and share your own thoughts on the Center for Humans and Nature’s Questions for a Resilient Future Series: Does fracking violate human rights?

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Opportunity for Writers: Art after Nature from The University of Minnesota Press

I’ve long been a fan of Antennae, a literary/artistic journal created and curated by Giovanni Aloi.

So I was thrilled to see that the University of Minnesota Press is partnering with Giovanni and Caroline Piccard on a new book series titled Art after Nature.

Here’s their vision for the series:

Art after Nature maps new aesthetic territories defined by the humanities’ recent ontological turn. In the face of the unprecedented shifts in humanity’s conceived relationship with the natural world, modes of critical and political artistic engagement are adapting in response. As notions of pristine sublimity crumble, Art after Nature proposes to explore the consequences of this transition, further destabilizing anthropocentrism, and revealing the dark ecological fluidity of naturecultures. The urgency imposed by anthropogenic lenses of inquiry provides an ethical focus capable of applying productive pressure on practices and discourses alike. Within this framework, art theory, practice, and criticism become intersecting platforms upon which to map current philosophical waves. Books published in this series engage with the politics and contradictions of the Anthropocene as a concept in order to problematize recent and influential philosophical waves like animal studies, posthumanism, and speculative realism in relation to art writing and art making. 

More info

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Book Review: Clean Meat by Paul Shapiro

Paul Shapiro’s book Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World explores the fascinating — and potentially planet-saving — world of cultured meat.

While the notion of “cultured meat” or “lab-grown” meat may sound odd to many, Shapiro’s book makes the case for why this new industry is among our best hopes for, quite literally, saving the world. He notes, “Our species truly is at a crossroads. It’s not hard to imagine the global instability that could ensue when we have billions more people on the planet, including billions more who expect to eat meat regularly. We just don’t have the resources to satiate that demand without destroying our planet and inflicting an enormity of suffering on animals, both domesticated and wild, in the process.”

As a decades-long vegan and the founder of Compassion Over Killing, Shapiro, who has also served as a vice president for the Humane Society of the United States, knows firsthand what’s at stake, and in Clean Meat he takes us behind the scenes of those who are about to change the world for the better.

As Yuval Noah Harari notes in the book’s foreword, “The world’s animals are not the wildlife we think of when we think of animals.” Rather, most animals that exist on the planet are bred for our consumption. For example: There are forty thousand lions in the world to one billion domesticated pigs, fifty million penguins to fifty billion chickens—and for these animals, life is horrific: “Judged by the amount of suffering it causes, industrial farming of animals is arguably one of the worst crimes in history.”

Cultured meat is the answer not only to the problem of animal suffering but to the issue of greenhouse gases produced by animal agriculture (responsible for more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation combined); the massive water consumption required (“you’d save more water skipping one family chicken dinner than by skipping six months of showers”); and the destruction of rainforests to raise animals (“animal feed is the leading cause of rainforest deforestation, essentially killing the lungs of our planet”). In Clean Meat, Shapiro writes about start-up pioneers who envision “a world in which we can have our meat and eat it, too: where we can enjoy abundant amounts of meat and other animal products without all the environmental, animal welfare, and public health costs.”

Shapiro details the fascinating science behind cultured meat as well as shows us the history of meat consumption in the U.S. and other countries, and why it’s becoming unsustainable.The science of clean meat is explained in both technical and layman’s terms, which makes the industry’s concepts accessible to all readers — and the sections outlining the technology are remarkable, showing us how real animal products such as meat and leather are being produced from microscopic animal cells, and even from yeast, bacteria, or algae.

The book also demystifies many of our perceptions of cultured meat (one major point being that clean meat is not as wild an idea as we think because nearly all the food we currently eat is scientifically engineered, from packaged foods such as protein bars to vegetables and fruits such as seedless watermelon). In addition, the very term “clean meat” reflects the improved food safety of these products; whereas meat from animals raised on farms contains antibiotics, hormones, fecal matter, and diseases such as avian flu, cultured meat, which is produced in a completely sterile environment, will be far safer to eat than the meat being produced today. “Imagine choosing between an egg white that might have salmonella and one you know doesn’t,” says Arturo Elizondo of Clara Foods. “Or milk with pus versus milk without pus, which all cow’s milk has. Which would you choose?”

Perhaps most surprising is that the concept of cultured meat is not as new as it seems; as far back as 1931, Winston Churchill wrote of “the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing” — and even he was not the first: “As early as 1894 … French chemistry professor Pierre-Eugène-Marcellin Berthelot claimed that by the year 2000, humans would dine on meat grown in a lab rather than from slaughtered animals.” Shapiro outlines our history of attempting to improve the way we eat, from hunting and foraging to culturing such foods as beer and yogurt, and how technology has brought us to where we are today. In the pages of Clean Meat, we meet scientists, idealists, and businesspeople, all working toward bringing this science to the mainstream. Having met representatives from many of the companies in this emerging field — among them Memphis Meats, Modern Meadow, Hampton Creek, Mosa Meat, Finless Foods, SuperMeat, Future Meat Technologies, Perfect Day, Clara Foods, Bolt Threads, VitroLabs, Spiber, Geltor, and others — Shapiro notes, “Interestingly, for the most part they don’t consider one another rivals as much as they do friendly competitors, all working toward the same goal.”

As with any major disruption in our social, cultural, and economic lives, clean meat will have a tremendous impact on everything from jobs to food to animal welfare, and in the end, it will likely succeed if it improves the lives of humans. As Shapiro points out, much of animal protection is accidental — whaling only stopped in the mid-nineteenth century because kerosene was discovered to be a better and more affordable alternative to whale oil; horses were replaced with cars only thanks to Henry Ford’s innovation, not animal advocates (though wonderful advocates did exist, they were not the reason Americans exchanged horses for cars).

So there is reason for hope for clean meat, especially “given that mainstream meat consumers (i.e., most people in our society) rarely think twice about buying meat from animals who’ve been raised in unsanitary and inhumane conditions … it’s difficult to imagine most of us having a problem with clean meat that (aside from being safer, eco-friendlier, and more humane) is pretty much the same meat that we’re used to eating.”

The biggest question of all — how does it taste? — will ultimately be answered by consumers themselves. As you’ll read in Clean Meat, the reviews so far are quite good. Shapiro was invited to try several foods in process, from “steak chips” to cultured foie gras to clean duck. A vegan for more than two decades, he writes, “I had little ethical concern about eating the [cultured] meat, but it still felt bizarre to be on the precipice of ingesting animal flesh.” He reports that the taste of the products he sampled was authentic; the duck “was exactly how I remembered duck tasting from my youth.”

Clean Meat should be read by anyone who cares about the planet, but most of all by those who currently eat and wear animals the way these products are made today. This book provides a detailed, well-rounded examination of a new industry that highlights the challenges — and the incredible possibilities — of feeding and clothing us all in an increasingly populated and demanding world.

“I’m convinced that when we look back in thirty years on today, how we raise and slaughter billions of animals to make our hamburgers and handbags, we’ll see this as being wasteful, inhumane, and indeed crazy,” Andras Forgacs of Modern Meadow tells Shapiro. “We need to move past just killing animals as a resource to something more civilized and evolved. Perhaps we’re ready for something literally and figuratively more cultured.”

Learn more at www.cleanmeat.com as well as www.cleanmeat.org. And check out my interview with Paul Shapiro at VegNews.

 

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