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Story Magazine accepting submissions for Un/Natural World issue

Story Magazine is accepting submissions of prose for a new issue devoted to the environment:

Climate change is one of the most significant issues of our time. How do we tell stories of it? How do its stories inform us? For Issue #4, send your best work in any form that explores the natural and built worlds here on Earth. Glaciers and cityscapes. Flora and fauna and concrete. From the pastoral all the way to Mega City One.

 

The deadline for this issue is July 15, 2015. Click here for complete details.

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Film Review: Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret

Okay, so this isn’t a book review — but it’s such an important documentary that I wanted to review it here on EcoLit Books. (The book connection: As you watch the film, you’ll learn about a few books to add to your reading list, including Comfortably Unaware and The World Peace Diet.)

Cowspiracy (which is currently still available for its special Earth Day price of $1) covers the impact of animal agriculture on the planet — it’s the number-one contributor to human-induced climate change and affects everything from the rainforests to the oceans — and why some of the biggest environmental organizations never talk about it.

cowspiracy

Filmmaker Kip Andersen interviews representatives of governmental and “environmental” organizations, including the Sierra Club, Oceana, Surfrider (he tried to talk to Greenpeace, which wouldn’t agree to speak with him), and it’s fascinating to watch them stumble over their words when asked about animal agriculture’s impact on the planet.

And yet the facts speak for themselves. To produce just one quarter-pound burger takes 660 gallons of water (in other words, two months’ worth of showers). One gallon of dairy milk uses 1,000 gallons of water to produce, and for every one pound of fish caught, there are five pounds of bycatch (including dolphins, sharks, turtles, and penguins). To protect cattle-grazing lands in the United States West, ranchers kill coyotes, wolves, mountain lions, cougars — and wild horses and burrows are being rounded up and held so that cattle ranchers can use public lands for grazing.

Why won’t so many environmental groups talk about this? It’s not an easy topic, with agribusiness being so powerful. In Brazil, 1,100 activists have been killed for speaking out against animal agriculture. And of course, as Michael Pollan says in the film, asking people not to eat meat and dairy is a “political loser” for member-based organizations.

Yet there are both individuals and organizations who will speak the truth, and this is where the heart of the film is. A spokesperson for the Sea Shepherd Conservation society says there is “no such thing as sustainable fishing,” and quotes what founder Paul Watson often says: If the oceans die, we die. “That’s not a tagline,” she adds. “That’s the truth.”

Cowspiracy contains some difficult truths for omnivores, but it’s important viewing for anyone who’s concerned about the environment — and the last half hour is truly inspiring for those who are open to making a difference. (And in the last twenty minutes is one of the sweetest moments I’ve seen in a film…don’t miss it.)

“You can’t be an environmentalist and eat animal products. Period,” says Howard Lyman, former cattle rancher and author of Mad Cowboy. “Kid yourself if you want…but don’t call yourself an environmentalist.”

Visit Cowspiracy to learn more. And even if you don’t watch the entire film, do check out the film trailer, read some of the facts, and find out how to take action.

 

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” 

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Book Review: We Are All Crew by Bill Landauer

I have to make a confession. In writing circles, there are certain types of books one is supposed to hold dearer than all others. Important books. Literary books. Books that bravely ponder the desperate squalor of the human condition.

I hate these books.

The truth is I’m a complete plot junkie. I want to read a book that will keep me up until three in the morning because I have to know what comes next. If the book happens to be Dostoyevsky—awesome; I’ll stay up all night pondering that desperate squalor, but Fyodor better keep the blood pumping. Enter We Are All Crew (2015, Akashic Books) by Bill Landauer. This eye-popping page turner hits on all levels and, I’m happy to say, will keep you up way past your bedtime.

We Are All CrewWe Are All Crew is the story of two fourteen-year-old boys, Winthrop and Arthur, who escape from summer camp and attempt to hitchhike across the country in pursuit of that ultimate teenage dream—to see their favorite band play live in concert. Naturally this proves far more difficult than they could’ve ever imagined. They catch a ride on the Tamzene, a mysterious, strangely built boat powered entirely by hemp, and are immediately recruited in a battle between environmental crusaders and a deadly, government agency. Winthrop, the narrator, is a teenager you might recognize. He’s a fast talking, pop-culture soaked video game addict whose innocence and ignorance go hand in hand, as seen in lines like, “The air doesn’t smell like the city either; it smells like the river always has—like dead fish and chemicals.” One minute he’s cowering and wishing for his mother and the next he’s looking at a crew mate’s tattoos and informing us, “His tats are badass, people.” Winthrop’s irresistible, Caulfield-esque voice is addictive; I hated to leave him when the book ended. What sets Winthrop apart from most teenagers though, is that he’s the son of a prominent politician and the war he stumbles into will make him question everything he’s been brought to believe.

This is already a fresh, exhilarating story with a conscience, but Landauer takes the narrative to an entirely new level by introducing a third party to this environmental battle: the environment. This is the voice that greets you in the opening line of the book: “The trees tried to murder the boys.” That’s right. The trees are talking. The trees, the frogs, the birds, and don’t get me started on the terrifying squirrels. Nature itself is given a point of view in We Are All Crew, and that point of view is royally pissed off about what “the two-legged pigs” have done to the world. I found myself eavesdropping alongside a murder of crows and cheering for kamikaze beavers. As the Tamzene tries to make its way across the country, we are given amazing perspectives most readers have never imagined. Landauer channels Emerson loud and clear when he said, “The wonder is that we can see these trees and not wonder more.” By using this mesmerizing point of view, Landauer broadens the reader’s perspective. He makes you reevaluate your opinion on who or what can own a story and by the time the book is over, all other human-only stories—you know, those important books—will seem foolishly one-sided. The desperate squalor of the human condition, in other words, becomes eclipsed by the wretched mess we’ve made of our planet.

Talking trees? Government agencies that hunt down environmentalists? This all sounds a little surreal, you say. Landauer seems to anticipate a hesitation in our suspension of disbelief and scatters real life quotes throughout the book that are guaranteed to turn your stomach. “The radio cackles: ‘We’re out to kill the fuckers. We’re simply trying to eliminate them. Our goal is to destroy environmentalism once and for all.’” This little ray of sunshine comes from Ron Arnold, executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise. The Tamzene’s radio brings other similar doses of reality, but it’s the fantastic elements of this book that hit home for me, where the spot-on hyperboles grow legs and are let loose to run. A covert operative from the NSA has a child whose vocal cords are strangled. An entire town is under the control of a giant television. And somehow through every crazy twist and turn of their adventure, as Winthrop and Arthur navigate a country of lost icons and disintegrating societies, they retain all their energy, humor, and that irresistible childhood faith that things have to turn out all right in the end.

Bill Landauer
Bill Landauer

I should say this book is for anyone who’s looking for a coming of age thriller with imagination, guts, and soul, but the truth is this book deserves to attract a much bigger audience. Important book people, I’m looking at you. Plot junkies? Jump on board. The Tamzene is ready to set sail.

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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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Book Review: A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

SandCountyAlmanac

Reading A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold I am struck time and again by how contemporary it feels.

This is a testament to Leopold, who wrote this book back in the late 1940s, yet clearly had future generations in mind.

Leopold saw the environmental issues we are struggling with today because he was struggling with similar issues in his time.

During his life in the forest service and in teaching he had come to believe that we needed to develop a new relationship with nature, one no longer based on dominion and extraction. He saw the need for wilderness areas in a time in which people might have assumed we had more than enough wilderness, writing: Wilderness is a resource which can shrink but not grow.

The Sand County Almanac is often cited along with Walden for its influence on the modern conservation movement, and rightfully so.

It is a collection of essays and observations, each of which can stand on its own.

My favorite essay is one in which Leopold turns the simple act of sawing through a fallen tree into a dive back into history, recounting the events that occurred during the period of each tree ring.

An ever-present theme to this book is that of loss. The loss of virgin prairies, virgin forests, virgin streams and bogs. The loss of passenger pigeons. Grizzly bears and elk. I found myself stopping again and again to jot down lines such as:

Education, I fear, is learning to see one thing by going blind to another.

We grieve only for what we know.

And boy, did Leopold take issue with the recreational use of our national parks, the day-trippers and trophy hunters. He writes:

Because everybody from Xenophon to Teddy Roosevelt said sport has value, it is assumed that this value must be indestructible.

The trophy-recreationist has peculiarities that contribute in subtle ways to his own undoing. To enjoy he must possess, invade, appropriate. Hence the wilderness that he cannot personally see has no value to him. Hence the universal assumption that an unused hinterland is rendering no service to society. To those devoid of imagination, a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.

It is the expansion of transport without a corresponding growth of perception that threatens us with qualitative bankruptcy of the recreational process. Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.

Here in Southern Oregon, where mountain bikers now crowd hikers and birders off trails, I think of Leopold’s book often.

A Sand County Almanac

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Book Review: Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv

People of a certain age (myself included) remember growing up outside. Our families opened the doors, shooed us out, and shut them again, leaving us free to wander through our neighborhoods, parks, and/or wild places, making up our own games. I have particularly vivid memories of being let loose on the beaches of Southern California, with only a vague notion of adults close enough to make sure we didn’t drown or get too sunburned but otherwise being free to run around, swim, and build and destroy things in the sand.

These are memories that today’s children may never have, worries Richard Louv, and his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder outlines the risks, challenges, and solutions for children who are growing up indoors.

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Last Child in the Woods is a comprehensive book, even a bit daunting at first glance, but it should be required reading for anyone with children in their lives. Based on meticulous research and using anecdotes as well as science, Louv takes a close look at the changes in society that have distanced today’s kids from nature — as well as the changes children’s physical and social lives — and offers both stark warnings and hopeful solutions.

Divided into seven sections (beginning with quotations from writers from Whitman to Thoreau to Frost, and many others), Last Child in the Woods covers the immense gifts that nature offers us humans as well as the onset of fears that often cause parents to keep their kids too close. Louv offers data that indicate how the benefits of nature and outdoor physical activity can help with many of the problems that plague childhood populations. To offer a few examples: One study shows that the amount of TV children watch correlates with measures of their body fat; Cornell University researchers discovered that even a room with a view of nature can protect children from stress; natural surroundings encourage boys and girls to engage in make-believe play in egalitarian ways; researchers recommend nature to minimize symptoms of ADHD (“[e]ven without corroborating evidence, many parents notice significant changes in their hyperactive child’s behavior when they hike in the mountains or enjoy other nature-oriented settings”).

In addition to changes caused by housing developments — such as homeowners’ association rules or a lack of green space — issues from stranger danger to fear of the outdoors also prevent children from running around outside. Yet Louv points out that so many perceived dangers are overly hyped, and that in fact, more dangers lurk indoors than out, from toxins to poisonous spiders (the brown recluse, as one example, prefers to live indoors) to allergens to the very real risk of obesity.

Not only are there short-term and developmental effects from what Louv calls nature-deficit disorder, but distance from nature can have a wide-reaching effect on our planet’s well-being in the long run as well: “Lacking direct experience with nature, children begin to associate it with fear and apocalypse, not joy and wonder.” How can children be expected to preserve and protect something they fear rather than love?

Last Child in the Woods is powerful and important, though there is one especially disappointing section of the book, in which Louv makes “the case for hunting and fishing.” While Louv admits he does not encourage hunting, he does encourage fishing, acknowledging “the slim moral logic” dividing the two. While he offers a bit of balance, citing PETA’s objections to fishing as a sport taught in Scouting programs and quoting a young spokesperson who says, “Scouting has taught me that Scouts should not harm the environment or animals in it,” Louv nevertheless goes on to encourage fishing as a way to engage with nature—a very poor message to send to children if we want them to respect the environment in a non-destructive way. And anyone who wants to make an argument for catch-and-release should read Virginia Morell’s Animal Wise (just for starters), which makes clear that, with pain receptors on their heads (trout have twenty-two of them), fish do feel pain; there is simply no way to catch fish that is not cruel or violent, and it’s a shame that Louv encourages fishing as a way for children to engage with the natural world.

Still, otherwise the book offers other good tips and advice for bringing kids into nature. For anyone who might feel overwhelmed by the usual stressors such as a lack of time or travel funds, Louv reminds us to start with small steps: “Encourage your child to get to know a ten-square-yard area at the edge of a field, pond, or pesticide-free garden.Look for the edges between habitats: where the trees stop and a field begins; where rocks and earth meet water. Life is always at the edges.”

Louv emphasizes that the solutions will need to go beyond parenting to educators, school systems, camps, neighborhoods, and cities—but that spending quality time in nature is as essential to children’s development as it is to the care-taking of the planet we call home. “Nature—the sublime, the harsh, and the beautiful—offers something that the street or gated community cannot. Nature presents the young with something so much greater than they are; it offers an environment where they can easily contemplate infinity and eternity…Immersion in the natural environment cuts to the chase, exposes the young directly and immediately to the very elements from which humans evolved: earth, water, air, and other living kin, large and small.”

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Siskiyou Prize update – new award, extended deadline

The winner of the Siskiyou Prize, in addition to a cash prize of $1,000 and book publication, will also receive a four-week residency at the PLAYA retreat in central Oregon.

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PLAYA is a nonprofit organization supporting innovative thinking through work in the arts, literature, natural sciences, and other fields of creative inquiry. On the edge of the Great Basin in central Oregon, PLAYA offers creative individuals the space, the solitude, and the community to reflect and to engage their work.

playa pond

The winner of the Siskiyou Prize will receive a four-week residency at PLAYA, which provides private lodging in a fully equipped cabin with kitchen/living room, a place to write, and two dinners a week (Mondays & Thursdays) with a cohort of residents, at no charge. (Transportation and other meals are not included.)

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PLAYA allows uninterrupted time and solitude amidst a spectacular landscape — the perfect recipe for environmental literature.  The prize deadline has been extended to October 15, 2014, so that more writers have an opportunity to submit.

Please visit The Siskiyou Prize and PLAYA for more information, and feel free to contact Ashland Creek Press with questions.

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Falling In Love With Trees

Seeing Trees

Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees.

Timber Press, 2011
By Nancy Ross Hugo
Photography by Robert Llewellyn

Seeing Trees

“The most effective way to save the threatened and decimated natural world is to cause people to fall in love with it again, with its beauty and reality.” Author Nancy Ross Hugo quotes British naturalist Peter Scott to explain why she does what she does, which is to delve deeply into the nature of individual trees. She wants the reader to come along with her on this journey, in the hope that to know trees is to love them. Seeing Trees is one beautiful book, big and splashy enough to sit on the coffee table, but you will not want it to languish there. Page through it in awe.

The good people at Timber Press have been providing the world with quality nature and gardening books for decades, and have given Hugo and photographer, Robert Llewellyn, the task of making us see trees with new eyes. Hugo’s loving attention to tree minutiae goes a long way towards this end, but much of the attraction of this book is due to the hyper-realistic photographs. Using software developed for microscopes, Llewellyn creates an image by taking many shots, each with a different point of focus, then merging them together. The leaves, seeds, and flowers are then displayed on a white backdrop like a vintage horticultural print. The photographs are pure nature porn, with the reproductive organs of the tree presented in such articulated clarity, it will be hard to look some trees in the eye again.

In what Hugo calls a process of discovery, she narrates an intimate backstory to the photos. It is like awakening to a new world. I am surrounded by shagbark hickories, and had never noticed the delicate pink bracts that unfurl beneath the glory of spring leaves. But Hugo had, and now I know where to look. Thanks to her, I finally know the difference between red oaks and white oaks (bristled leaf tips vs. smooth lobes), but she goes much further than mere identification. She points out that leaf size, shape, color, and arrangement on the twig are aspects to be noted not just between species, but are variations on a single tree in different seasons and stages. For example, leaves on the shady side of a tree are bigger than on the sunny side, because they need a greater surface area to collect the sun. Who knew?

Hugo is careful not to frighten us away with technical terms. When she must use nomenclature, she walks the reader through it. I was already familiar with words like catkin, angiosperm, lenticel, and drupe, but here’s a new one: Marcescent. This refers to the leaves on deciduous trees, such as beech, that hold onto their brown leaves until the spring leaves push them off the branch. The spot where the leaf had been attached to the twig is called a leaf scar, which would seem observant enough, but Hugo goes deeper still to bring attention to the bundle scars within, where the veins had been severed. Speaking of falling leaves, I cannot wait for next fall to try catching leaves in mid-air. I will do as she suggests and try for twelve, since the saying goes that every leaf you catch in the fall means a happy month the coming year.

Hugo is even smitten with tree litter, and considers the fallen leaves, twigs, and fruit as part of its personality, and as ornamental. It was news to me that some gardeners pair late-blooming perennials, such as golden mums, with the colored leaves that fall around them, such as red maple. I have admired such whimsical combinations in my own yard, without ever thinking one might consciously create the effect.

So grab your photographer’s loupe and get cozy by the tree in the backyard. It doesn’t even matter if you do not know its name. Stretch out and look up. Marvel. Rethink bark. Consider the tree as a community, complete with animal companions. Pick up a leaf and twirl it in your hand. As the poet Mary Oliver wrote, “If you notice anything, it leads you to notice more and more.” The first step in saving the natural world is to notice that it’s there. Then let yourself fall in love.

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