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Book Review: Fragment

You may have read that in mid-July a massive iceberg broke off from Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf. Measuring about 2,000 square miles—nearly the size of Delaware—it is one of the largest icebergs ever to calve from the ice shelves ringing the continent. Scientists expect that it will eventually fracture, with some pieces remaining in the Weddell Sea and others moving into the Atlantic Ocean. They don’t expect the pieces will pose any danger nor do they anticipate sea level rise should they melt. But what if, rather than an iceberg splintering off an ice shelf, the continent’s largest ice shelf, itself, a land mass the size of France, were thrust into the ocean? How much global devastation might result from an event of that magnitude?

For the answer, look to Craig Russell’s fast-paced eco-thriller, Fragment. When the novel begins, a glacial avalanche severs the Ross Ice Shelf from the continent and creates a tsunami of ice that destroys two polar research stations, Scott Base and McMurdo Station. “The wave is not a perfect line,” writes Russell. “It is the product of four, falling, runaway glaciers, thrust like goring bulls into the Ice Shelf’s back…shards of surface ice are launched ahead of the onrushing swell. Launched like harpoons, catapulted forward at the speed of sound.” Only three people survive the onslaught: a polar climatologist, an astronomer, and a marine biologist.

Fragment is their story, but not theirs alone. The novel is driven by an ensemble cast that includes sailors aboard a U.S. atomic submarine, journalists, climate-change denying politicians, a self-promoting marketing director of a major cruise line, a Scottish sailor literate in the wild waters of Drake Passage, and a blue whale named Ring. All (of the human characters) are trying to make sense of what the ice shelf’s surge into the Atlantic could mean for coastal countries, and some are warning of the epic environmental and human carnage to come. It will be no surprise to readers that these warnings fall on proverbial deaf ears. Says a German scientist at a hastily-called European conference, “Such examples are imaginative, but we must not inflame the passions of the public…we must take a balanced view. We cannot simply adopt an alarmist view.”

In this climate change allegory, characters are somewhat thinly drawn in background, if not environmental outlook. Readers will quickly distinguish between those who are noble—who respect earth and all her inhabitants—and those who are selfish and scornful of nature. This lack of complexity in character development combined with short chapters that jump among settings, pitch the action of the story forward at a steady, page-turning clip. Fragment is hard to put down.

Perhaps the most compelling character in the novel—and certainly the purest of heart—is the blue whale, Ring. When the scientists who survive the Antarctic tsunami develop a language that makes communication with Ring possible, what follows is inter-species cooperation unlike the world has ever seen.

Fragment leaps so seamlessly from fact to fiction that it may drive readers to their computers or smart phones to find out where exactly fact ends and fiction begins. That’s how well-researched and executed I found Craig Russell’s eco-thriller.

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Book Review: South Pole Station

Ashley Shelby’s debut novel, South Pole Station, takes readers to the bottom of the earth for a wry, multi-layered story that tightly packs art, science, polar history, climate change, politics, humor, and human relationships into a vivid tale of courage and redemption.

The novel’s central character is thirty-year-old Cooper Gosling, whose life has hit its nadir. Cooper’s art career is going nowhere, her relationship with her parents is strained, and her twin brother’s suicide has left her emotionally unmoored. Seeking something—there’s an ambiguousness to what that might be—Cooper applies to the National Science Foundation’s year-long Artist & Writer’s Program at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, “the most remote research station on the planet.” (Vetting includes 500 questions—a “pelvic exam of the mind,”—that includes such queries as “How many alcoholic drinks do you consume a week? A day?” and “Would you rather be a florist or a truck driver?”)

At the station, Cooper establishes an easy camaraderie with her fellow “Polies,” an eclectic group of scientists, support personnel, and artists whose defining characteristic is that they “don’t fit in anywhere else.” This commonality of sorts is what sustains the station’s fragile ecosystem. But cracks begin to emerge following the arrival of Frank Pavano, a scientist in the pocket of climate change-denying politicians and their allies in the fossil fuel industry.

Pavano’s presence at Amundsen-Scott—he’s out to prove global warming is a hoax—infuriates the station’s scientists and puzzles many of the non-science personnel, including Cooper, who befriends Pavano, and Pearl, a cook with Machiavellian ambition. When the scientists seek to undermine Pavano’s every activity, Cooper agrees to travel with him to the “ice-coring camp,” on the fringe of the polar outpost. It’s there that a freak accident will change Cooper forever, imperil the station, and ignite a global controversy.

This climate thread, one of many plot lines woven into South Pole Station, is what givethe novel its tension and an unexpected timeliness. (The book is due out in July.) In a recent article for Slate Shelby writes:

In 2010, I began work on a novel set in a time I was certain would be looked upon as one of the most embarrassing periods of the climate change “debate”: the George W. Bush era. The novel, set at South Pole Station and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, … is, in part, a dark comedy, and it was a fun story to write—mostly because Obama was in office and the absurdities of politicians trying to legislate climate change out of existence had begun to fade away.

But as the opening scenes of the Trump era began to play out, these gremlins are springing back to life.

How much will Trump’s withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris climate accord and his administration’s claw back of Obama-era environmental regulations energize “these gremlins”? How much might they slow, or even reverse, progress made over the last decade? My hope is very little. But “hope,” as Shelby sees it, is, ironically, what climate deniers often prey upon. Thus, this exchange between Cooper and two scientists—Sal and Sri—following a well-attended climate lecture by Pavano:

“No, she’s right,” Sal said, still looking at Cooper. “Pearl is the test case. She was buying last night. She was feeling guilty about participating in a consumer economy that is leading to the destruction of the earth. Remember what she said? ‘I don’t want the earth to be warming.’”

“So? None of us do,” Sri said.

“But when Pavano told her it wasn’t, she said that made her feel better. She was relieved. Pavano gave her the out she was looking for.”

“Pearl is Everywoman,” Cooper said, through a mouthful of pancake.

Sri looked from Sal to Cooper and back again, his black unibrow furrowed. Suddenly, his eyes widened. “And it took Pavano two-thousandths of a second to plant doubt in Everywoman’s brain.” He stared at the wall. “Shit. People are dumb.”

“Pearl’s not dumb,” Cooper said…

“The problem isn’t brain power,” Sal said. “It’s hope. They’re hopeful. Deniers provide hope. We don’t. We’re doom and gloom, and that’s what makes it so easy for Pavano to convert.”

Shelby likely didn’t intend for South Pole Station to be a call to action, but in the age of Trump it may become one. That would be a good thing. But I’d be remiss not to emphasize that South Pole Station is a solid read for any era. Shelby’s quick wit and journalistic eye for detail ground a story that will appeal to readers of environmental literature, polar enthusiasts, and anyone who loves a story with complex, quirky characters and a compelling plot.

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Announcing the winner & finalists of the 2016 Siskiyou Prize!

We are delighted to announce the winner of the 2016 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature: Katy Yocom, for her novel THREE WAYS TO DISAPPEAR.

Judge JoeAnn Hart writes, “THREE WAYS TO DISAPPEAR begins with a focused lens on the endangered Bengal tiger then expands its reach with every page to reveal the interconnectedness of the natural world and fragility of all life. Weaving together the worn threads of ecological balance, this ambitious and moving novel addresses scarcity, climate change, family dynamics, cultural conflict, human accountability, women’s economic autonomy, and most of all, love, in all its wondrous forms. This is a story not just about saving the tigers, but ourselves.”

Katy Yocom was born and raised in Atchison, Kansas. After graduating from the University of Kansas with a degree in journalism, she moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where she has lived ever since. Her fiction, poetry, essays, and journalism have appeared in Salon.com, The Louisville Review, decomP magazinE, StyleSubstanceSoul, and Louisville Magazine, among other publications.

In conducting research for her novel, THREE WAYS TO DISAPPEAR, she traveled to India, funded by a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. She has also been awarded grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Kentucky Arts Council and has served as writer-in-residence at Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, Crosshatch Hill House, and Hopscotch House. Her short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and her poetry has been translated into Bulgarian. She holds an MFA in Writing from Spalding University.

She lives with her husband in Louisville, Kentucky, where she helps direct Spalding’s low-residency MFA in Writing program. Learn more about Katy on her website and via Facebook.

As the Siskiyou Prize winner, Katy will receive a four-week residency at PLAYA and a $1,000 cash prize.

It was a very competitive contest this year, and we would also like to congratulate the finalists and semifinalists:

FINALISTS

Small Small Redemption: Essays by Sangamithra Iyer

The Heart of the Sound: A memoir by Marybeth Holleman (published by Bison Books)

Song of the Ghost Dog: A YA novel by Sharon Piuser

SEMIFINALISTS

Karstland: A novel by Caroline Manring

Rumors of Wolves: A novel by C.K. Adams

The Harp-Maker of Exmoor: A novel by Hazel Prior

Thanks to everyone who submitted and to everyone who writes with the goal of making this world a better place. And please stay tuned for announcements for the next Siskiyou Prize!

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Q&A with Mary Woodbury of Moon Willow Press and Eco-Fiction.com

I’m pleased to welcome to EcoLit Books an interview we conducted recently with Mary Woodbury, founder of Moon Willow Press and Eco-Fiction.com. Mary also played an instrumental role in getting Ecofiction added to Wikipedia!

You’re a writer and a publisher. Can you tell us a bit about your writing and how you came to found Moon Willow Press?

Most of my writing these days is in the form of nature writing and posts for my running blog and interviews and essays at the main site. However, I have written several short stories and two novels. One novel (Back to the Garden) is published under pen name Clara Hume at Moon Willow Press; it fits in perfectly with the natural-world-in-fiction focus I am building at the press and is quite Aracadian, a genre seemingly forgotten among current fears that lead to grim outlooks in fiction. I’m also writing another novel that I describe as ecological weird fiction. It’s set in futuristic Ireland, and I’m basing it off places I’ve visited and mythologies surrounding them. The novel is inspired by Yeats, whose physical poetry said essentially that embracing nature could set us free. Not just embracing it as a concept but being in it, celebrating it, preserving it, admiring its power, and understanding and accepting the side of nature that isn’t comfortable to us humans who like climate-controlled abodes and plenty of materialistic conveniences (our trappings). I have run in Sleuth Wood mentioned in “The Stolen Child,” and boated to the “Lake Isle of Innisfree” (a small island in Lough Gill). The idea of going “to the waters and the wild” is my muse.

My life-long love of fiction, and the great outdoors, led to Moon Willow Press, which not only focuses on nature fiction and nonfiction but has a strong environmental ethic regarding energy used in the office, using only recycled or sustainably acquired forest products, following a print-on-demand (PoD) model, and so on. I’ve also been donating to tree-planting programs since I opened in 2010. So far, I’ve donated to the planting of 1,312 trees, which are planted in areas that are economically and ecologically depressed.

What books do you have in the works?

I have two scheduled novels for 2017 so far and am accepting more for 2018—though I’m considering getting my masters in 2019 and may put submissions on hold then. The first, coming this spring, is Cave Walker, by Donelle Dreese. She is an author and professor of Environmental and Multicultural Literatures, American Women Poets, and writing courses at Northern Kentucky University. Her novel is about a woman who has a family secret: she can foresee the future, like the other women in her family who came before her. Each had a different way of dealing with this talent (or curse), which in several cases foretold the death of their significant others. To figure out her own future, she travels through caves, which is interesting and serves as a metaphor for walking through time. Donelle pays strong attention to the natural world’s past, present, and future as well.

The other novel, coming this summer, is by Annis Pratt, whose early academic publications studied the way poets and novelists use myths and symbols. Dylan Thomas’ Early Prose: A Study in Creative Mythology (Pittsburgh University Press, 1970), was about pre-Christian Welsh mythology. Her next book was Archetypal Patterns in Women’s Fiction (Indiana UP, 1981, published in England by Harvester Press). I’m breaking pattern by publishing the next in a series of Annis’s Infinite Games novels. I’ll be publishing volume 4. The series starts when a young girl, Clare, opens her eyes to industrialization taking advantage of her people’s marshlands. I fell in love with this adventure series, which Annis has been so far publishing on her own. She’s a terrific writer, and her style nods to the simple beauty of earlier pastoral literature.

You’re based in Canada. What’s the ecoliterature market like up north?

It’s looking good. One of the larger presses here, Talon Books, publishes a lot of First Nations authors and aims to preserve Canadian cultural and natural history through fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Another publisher in Vancouver, Arsenal Pulp Press, “asks probing questions about the world around us,” and has some eco-fiction titles.

We also have many authors who put the environment into the center of their stories: Stephen Collis (poet), Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Katherena Vermette, Wade Davis, Richard Wagamese, Eden Robinson, Naomi Fontaine, Claudia Casper, Margaret Atwood, Joseph Boyden, Katie Welch, Thomas King, and many others. I have worked with a few in the past on special projects, including in fall 2016 when we had an Eco-fiction stage at Vancouver’s biggest literary festival, “Word Vancouver.”

Tell us about your website Eco-Fiction.com.

I was researching other novels about climate change when I was writing my own novel, beginning in 2008. I found that the approach to novels about climate change ranged from dystopian to apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic to romance to adventure to fantasy to science fiction, and everything in between. It’s reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s calling climate change “everything change.” There is no one genre that can contain these novels, and authors and readers alike are drawn to a variety of different types of books, from literary fiction to genre fictions. These novels may be realistic, based upon current events, futuristic, mildly speculative, or wildly speculative.

Before ever starting the website, I wrote an article listing the novels I could find that approached climate change head-on (many other novels are far more subtle). I noticed that no other site was curating these titles, so I began to do so in the summer of 2013, after my book was published. I thought it would be an especially good resource for academics and readers of nature novels. Over the next several months I looked at a broader range of novels that were beneath the umbrella of eco-fiction and expanded the site to beyond just novels about climate change. It was (and is) a voluntary project affiliated with Moon Willow Press. All my life I have been enamored of stories that have elements of the wild in them. This project has been both a learning and teaching experiment and has drawn me close to many others who enjoy these books.

What can environmental writers do to be a part of Eco-Fiction.com?

The submission guidelines are at the site. I ask that novels be at least somewhat notable, though in the early days I was thrilled to find any decently written book about nature or the environment. I’ve become stricter lately about notability and also just began a feature specifically about prominent authors who write about climate change. And I spotlight popular books each month on a sidebar. The database has hundreds of books, and I like to be able to point the reader to the well-known works in this field.

As long as authors have a somewhat notable book, with positive reviews in the media and on book sites, they can get involved and I will add their book to the site, which also auto-adds their book to a sortable database of books. Authors can also submit a short sample of their book at the subsite Green Reads. And I interview authors whose books are getting good reviews. If the author is new, they can join our Google newsgroup or Facebook page—both titled “Ecology in Literature and the Arts,” and both with a wider range than just fiction. Members are free to post their comments and writing at either place, though it is good to get involved first and get to know the other members rather than just posting a new book and never appearing again. The Facebook community is very new, while the Google group has been around a couple years and is over 1,000 members.

What books inspire you and do you feel deserve a wider audience?

Though I do work awfully hard to get environmental books noticed, I simply like well-written books that tell a good story, and some of my favorite categories of fiction are mysteries and mythological stories. Jeff VanderMeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy was my favorite set of novels read in 2016. I think he definitely has a following already, and the novels are being adapted to film; the first should come out this year and is being directed by Alex Garland. I interviewed Jeff after the trilogy was published and began to read some more weird fiction that has an ecological slant. Jeff and his wife Ann edited The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, which had some great stories, but my favorite inclusion in that anthology was an older novella called The Other Side of the Mountain (originally La montagne morte de la vie), by Michael Bernanos—published in 1967. He had spent time in the wild forests of South America, and the beauty of the book (and yeah, the horror) mesmerized me. I like how Gio Clairval, from Weird Fiction Review (November 21, 2011), described it:

“His intent was to move us by the terrible beauty of his images, without rational explanation, only following the inspiration of an author who wrote as a visual artist would have painted. Poetry, yes, but not so much in the choice of words or the music of sentences: the interest of this novella is not on the paragraph level; it rather lies in the author’s ability to create an atmosphere of staggering landscapes, unearthly storms and constant psychological disquiet.”

These things inspire me, much like I would imagine our early Earth, before humankind began destroying it.

What’s your outlook for the next few years in regards to environmental literature?

There’s definitely a niche of readers, like me, who seek well-written environmental novels, yet I also hope that the novels are not known just for their category but for their impact overall. I’ve noted before in conversation with others that impact is greater than intent. I made the mistake of being a little didactic in my first novel, though I still think it’s a good story and the intent was unique for its time. Impressions happen, however, by subtle appeal and human relatability more than preachiness on environmental (or any other) issues, and readers will be turned off unless they are in the choir already.

I think also that we are entering a dark age, given the last presidential election, wherein we cannot stop climate change but could still avert some of it; is it even possible now with Trump at the wheel? I say this with a positive outlook: that maybe the worst won’t happen and people will rise to do the right things, but with a corrupt leader of a powerful country not even believing in climate change and promising to deregulate environmental plans in both government and corporate branches, we may be headed down a black path. I strongly believe that the candles to light this path will include art and literature.

Also, Ron Melchiore’s Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness (the most recent published memoir at Moon Willow Press) has become quite popular and is getting good reviews. The following for this book, and others like it, shows some evidence of the growing number of people seeking out information on prepping, living off-grid, DIY, sustainable living, and homesteading. Like John Muir said nearly a century ago, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home, that wildness is a necessity.” I think most of us can relate to this today, more than ever.

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New EcoLit Books: Fall 2016

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Here are some of the books that were submitted to us over the past few months that are recently published (or soon will be):

The After
Author: Melinda Mueller
Publisher: Entre Ríos Books
Book Description: An important new collaborative work by Northwest artists responding to the sixth extinction. The first book by Seattle poet, Melinda Mueller, since her award winning “What the Ice Gets”. “The After” is a single poem sorrowing the world we will alter and leave unseen. A meditation on extinction and the anthropocene, it blends science and poetry with an urgency of a heartbreak. Interspersed with the poem is the stunning sub Arctic art of Karinna Gomez, a printmaker currently teaching in Alaska, all presented in full color. The book ships with a CD with music by the Seattle experimental jazz duo, Syrinx Effect (Kate Olsen and Naomi Siegel), commissioned specifically for “The After”.

Sustainability at Work: Careers that make a difference
Author: Marilyn Waite
Publisher: Routledge
Book Description: Through inspiring narratives and a structured framework, Sustainability at Work illustrates how sustainability can be incorporated into every imaginable career to impact the quadruple bottom line: environment, economy, society, and future generations.

The Man Who Harvested Trees and Gifted Life
Author: Gabriel Hemery
Publisher: Sylva Press
Book Description: A remarkable true story sows a seed in a young girl’s mind which grows into a lifelong relationship with a forest and its trees, yet she develops an affinity richer than she could ever have imagined. The Man Who Harvested Trees And Gifted Life is a sequel to Jean Giono’s much-loved 1954 classic, The Man Who Planted Trees And Grew Happiness, and a compelling short story in its own right.

The Nocturnals: The Mysterious Abductions
Author: Stacey Ashton
Publisher: Fabled Films Press
Book Description: The Nocturnals is a middle grade series that features three unlikely friends: Dawn, a serious fox, Tobin, a sweet pangolin and Bismark, the loud mouthed, pint sized sugar glider. The stories all play out in the nighttime world with teamwork, friendship and humor in every adventure.

Law and Disorder
Author: Mike Papantonio
Book Description: In his new fast-paced legal thriller LAW AND DISORDER bestselling author Mike Papantonio skillfully examines issues that could be pulled from today’s newsfeed—billionaires funding litigation, partisan judges ruling personal politics instead of the law, a reckless media seeding innuendo-filled stories—in a suspenseful, highly entertaining read.

After the Texans
Author: Kate Appleton
Publisher: Clink Street Publishing
Book Description: Having exposed the corrupt plans of the disgraced former government in Papua New Guinea, the UN’s carbon market watchdog, the Global Carbon Markets Organisation, is basking in the limelight. Behind the scenes, however, all is not well. Emil Pfeffer, head of market integrity, is in meltdown. With a high-stakes legal battle taking place in Hong Kong – one that will decide the future of the carbon market and, with it, the last chance for a globally coordinated response to climate change – his girlfriend is suddenly snatched by those who hope to put a stop to his work.

Jesus and Magdalene
Author: João Cerqueira
Publisher: Lion Publications
Book Description: Jesus returns to earth and meets activist Magdalene who is fighting for a better world. He find an extremist ecological group, which is plotting to destroy a maize plantation it believes to be genetically modified.

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New EcoLit Books: Summer 2016

So little time; so many books!

Here are some of the books that were submitted to us over the past few months that are now available (or soon will be):

A Naturalist’s Guide to the Hidden World of Pacific Northwest Dunes
Author: George Poinar Jr.
Publisher: Oregon State University Press
Description: From Northern California to British Columbia, coastal dunes and beaches provide a unique habitat for plants, animals, and insects. With A Naturalist’s Guide to the Hidden World of Pacific Northwest Dunes, hikers and beach walkers on the Pacific Coast will discover a teeming metropolis of life in what may seem a barren landscape to the inattentive eye.

About Marine Mammals: A Guide for Children
Publisher: Peachtree Publishers
Description: Cathryn and John Sill provide a thoughtful first glimpse into the world of marine mammals in this latest installment of the acclaimed About… series.

An Ecology of Elsewhere
Author: Sandra Meek
Publisher: Persea Books
Description: Following her mother’s death, nearly twenty years after her time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana, Sandra Meek, a writer of “dazzling, intimate poems” (Library Journal), began traveling frequently through southern Africa. During this same period, she and her sister traveled the American Southwest with their declining father, confronting and healing from a difficult family history before his death.

WILD ROOTS – Coming Alive in the French Amazon
Author: Donna Mulvenna
Description: Love, adventure, triumph and torment, this book will forever change how you see the natural world. What happens when you think you are joining your new boyfriend in France, but instead find yourself hacking through impenetrable jungle, being threatened by wild animals and canoeing along the anaconda infested rivers of the French

Salvage
Author: Martin Rodoreda
Publisher: Odyssey Books
Description: Humans have finally laid waste to the environment. The once vibrant Earth is a desolate wasteland, and only the richest can live in comfort. When their meagre existence is threatened by the greedy and powerful mining dynasty, a band of renegades must fight for survival.

Cultivating Environmental Justice: A Literary History of U.S. Garden Writing
Author: Karen Fisk
Publisher UMass Press
Description: While Michael Pollan and others have popularized ideas about how growing one’s own food can help lead to environmental sustainability, environmental justice activists have pushed for more access to gardens and fresh food in impoverished communities. Now, Robert S. Emmett argues that mid-twentieth-century American garden writing included many ideas that became formative for these contemporary environmental writers and activists.

Cassowary Hill
Author: Helen Laurens
Publisher: Glass House Books

The Environmental Wars: Antebellum
Author: Dennis G Caristi

Calan’s Eden
Author: L. G. Cullens
Description: An adventurous journey with contrasting cultures, natural world trials, physical and metaphysical experiences, and a roller-coaster of interactions, served up with a naturalistic style.

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New EcoLit Books: Spring/Summer 2016

ashland creek press books

So many books, so little time!

Because we can’t review every book that catches our eye I thought we should at least try to mention  new and upcoming books periodically. So here are the recent books that were mentioned to us.


Cultivating Environmental Justice: A Literary History of U.S. Garden Writing
by Robert S. Emmett
UMass Press

Enchanted Islands: A Novel
by Allison Amend
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
by Frans de Waal

Pia and the Skyman
By Sue Parritt

Perils of Payeto, Saving the Last Vaquita Porpoise
by Tio Stib


If you’re a publisher and have upcoming eco-literature or eco-fiction to promote, please let me know via this form.

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Book Review: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior does all that a great work of eco-fiction should, addressing the issues (climate change) without sacrificing the story (a woman whose small-town world is broken wide open by a mysterious act of nature).

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Dellarobia Turnbow, married at seventeen due to a pregnancy in which she lost the baby, is a decade later still married, tied to her two young children and husband’s family farm. She escapes emotionally through wild crushes on various men—and one day, planning to go through with an affair, she heads into the mountains for the rendezvous, only to find a “lake of fire” awaiting her. The sight of it, blurred because she’d left her glasses behind, brings her back to reality and she returns home, determined to accept her life as it is. Then, when she learns of her in-laws’ plans to log the forest from which she’s just returned, she tells her husband, “They can’t log that mountain.” When pressed for a reason, she can say only, “The world can surprise you…It could be something special up there.”

That “something special” turns out to be a vast population of monarch butterflies, whose arrival, to the locals, signifies a miracle of God; to the scientific community, it’s a sign of ecological disaster.

Soon Dellarobia’s Southern Appalachian town is filled with visitors—scientists and activists, the media and the curious. Dellarobia, who has been living restlessly in a home built by her in-laws while she raises her kids and her husband works the farm, becomes drawn into the wider world of the monarchs and the global implications for their sudden and unexplained arrival in her town.

While Dellarobia, smart and intellectually curious despite a limited education, is disturbed by the fate of the butterflies and what their detour means for the ecosystem, for most of the people in her town, “weather is the Lord’s business,” and denial reigns, as does the need for survival—like the promise of logging money “‘when there’s trees standing that could be trees laying down,’” as Dellarobia’s father-in-law says.

Dellarobia is the first among them to realize that what is happening is bigger than all of them. “Man against Nature. Of all the possible conflicts, that was the one that was hopeless. Even a slim education had taught her this much: Man loses.”

Yet paying attention to climate change is a luxury for the local population, as Dellarobia herself sees when an environmental activist reads from a pledge to lower one’s carbon footprint. Among the items on the list are bringing Tupperware to restaurants for leftovers (“I’ve not eaten in a restaurant in over two years,” Dellarobia says), carrying a bottle of tap water instead of buying bottled water (“Our well water is good. We wouldn’t pay for store-bought.”), eating less red meat (Dellarobia’s family practically lives on mac and cheese), and shopping at secondhand stores (the only stories at which Dellarobia can afford to shop).

Dellabrobia feels keenly the differences between her own life and that of the researchers, students about her own age who have no children, who “had ridden airplanes, moved among foreigners, walked on the ground of other countries. Dellarobia had been nowhere…she couldn’t even muster the strength for jealousy, given the size it would have to take.” While she recognizes that their presence is environmentally tragic, she also knows that what’s happening is presenting her with an opportunity, not only for herself but for her bright young son and her baby daughter.

As winter looms and the study of butterflies on the mountain continues, Dellarobia becomes more involved in the research, harboring feelings for the lead scientist while seeing her own family and her own future through new eyes. Using both page-turning tension and great empathy, Kingsolver portrays not only the implications of a changing planet but the reverberations of personal change upon an entire family, creating an unforgettable story.

 

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The Greening of Literature

seattle

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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Book Review: Strange As This Weather Has Been by Ann Pancake

Ann Pancake’s powerful novel Strange as This Weather Has Been is a must-read not only due to its compelling story but also its accomplishments as a work of eco-literature. This novel captures what a good book does best—revealing our humanity in the midst of beauty and grief and heartbreak and joy—while simultaneously opening readers’ eyes to environmental disaster, without ever sacrificing character or story.

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Set in a West Virginian town in the midst of a coal boom, Pancake introduces a family plagued by poverty and by the effects of the mountaintop removal strip mining that is destroying the land around them. Told through the eyes of several characters living amid the ruinous effects of coal mining—which early on felt a bit cumbersome, as the book also jumps around in time—this story belongs mostly to Lace and her teenage daughter, Bant, born when Lace herself was a teenager. Through their eyes and others, the novel vividly portrays the daily struggles of those who live amid mountain-removal coal mining: the constant fear of black floods weighed against a desperate need for work, the memories of what once was versus the wasteland that now exists. Lace and Bant, deeply connected to the land, feel these effects more strongly than most, in their very bones.

Pancake, who is from West Virginia, writes with a stunning authenticity; the book draws from conversations and interviews with people living through mountaintop removal mining, and she’s dedicated this book to them. “Nowhere have I seen courage and integrity like theirs,” she writes, and this spirit is reflected in each of her characters.

Place, too, is a major character in this novel; the richness of detail and the characters’ history with the land reveals why it’s so hard for them to leave, even when the jobs begin to disappear and the threats loom everywhere, from within the coal miners’ lungs to in the flooding of toxic black water.

At one point, the family does leave, temporarily, when Lace’s husband, Jimmy Make, gets a job in Raleigh, North Carolina. Despite the necessity of the move, she misses home: “Down there, I learned fast, you couldn’t ever really get outside. Couldn’t even get in trees, in brush, much less get into hills, you weren’t ever out of sight or sound of a road, a building, a parking lot, and sometimes I’d miss backhome woods so bad I’d feel land in my throat.”

Lace also notes “… it wasn’t just the lack of money that made us poorer in North Carolina. It was what you saw around you, what you had to compare yourself to, and I’d never understood about that before…Somehow people knew we were different from them, even before we opened our mouths, although I couldn’t for the life of me see how we looked much different from anybody else…It was that smallness North Carolina made me…I got a whole lot littler.”

Yet back home, tensions escalate both within the region as more blasting continues, and within the family as Lace becomes involved with anti-mining activists and Jimmy Make resists. Meanwhile, the couple’s younger sons—Dane, Corey, and Tommy—each deal with the landscape and the anxiety in his own way: “Sad dark Dane”; “Corey a flame, a push, a glow”; “Tommy growing up poorer than the others had to, Tommy growing up poorest of us all, and him not even knowing any different.”

When Bant, who takes after her mother in passion and intensity—“Little sister, little friend,” Lace calls her—sees the mountain in whose shadow she’d grown up in destroyed, it affects her deeply: “What I saw punched my chest. Knocked me back on my heels. At first I saw it only as shades of dead and gray, but I pushed my eyes harder, I let come in the hurt, and then it focused into a cratered-out plain. Whole top of Yellowroot amputated by blast, and that dragline hacking into the flat part left. Monster shovel clawed the dirt, and you felt it in your arm, your leg, your belly, and how lucky Grandma died, I thought. I thought that then.”

Strange As This Weather Has Been succeeds beautifully not just as the unforgettable story of a family, a region, a culture; the novel indirectly asks readers think about where their power comes from, and what the costs of coal truly are. Though not didactic—we’re never brought out of the story—Pancake has written a book we can hope will raise awareness about mountaintop removal mining and the lives affected by it. As Lace says in the novel: “Stay in their way—that’s the only language they can hear. We are from here, it says. This is our place, it says. Listen here, it says. We exist.”