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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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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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Book Review: Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith

Alexis M. Smith’s lovely novel Marrow Island envisions environmental catastrophe on several levels, beginning with a devastating earthquake and the subsequent oil refinery accident whose effects, even though these events are backstory, linger on every page.

The novel begins with a mysterious opening chapter, in which Lucie Bowen, twenty years after the earthquake, is again fleeing the island of her youth, this time under very different circumstances. Unlike during the earthquake, which Lucie and her best friend, Katie, survived together, Katie now is a suspicious presence (“I’m not leaving you alone with her,” says Lucie’s boyfriend, Carey); by the end of this short chapter, Lucie says of the inhabitants of her former childhood home: “I forgive them for trying to kill me.”

When Lucie left Marrow Island, it was uninhabitable, or so she and everyone else believed. Yet when Katie writes decades later with stunning news — she has been living on the island with other “colonists” in a thriving community — Lucie’s affection for her friend and her journalistic curiosity bring her back.

On the island, Lucie witnesses an astonishing transformation, but she knows all cannot be what it appears. During her time on the island, through those from her long-lost friend to the colony’s leader, Sister J, Lucie begins to uncover what is really happening, and what she finds is both inspiring and devastating. While the story moves inexorably toward more devastation still, there remains a lot of hope, a belief that perhaps not all is lost after all; we see this in the colonists and attempts to recover the land, as well as in Lucie’s reconnecting with her past: “I felt Katie taking my hand. My body relaxed, a conditioned response that should have been lost years ago.”

Marrow Island is a book as much about a woman’s attempts to reconnect with her past as it is about the environment. With a narrative that alternates between Lucie’s visit to the island and her life in Oregon with Carey, Smith’s novel portrays the connections between eco-disasters natural and man-made, between relationships past and present, and how we recover — or do not — from landscapes forever changed.

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Book Review: Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley by Ann Pancake

Ann Pancake’s new story collection, Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley, brings readers to the West Virginia territory of her extraordinary novel, Strange As This Weather Has Been. In these novellas and stories, the ravaged West Virginia landscape is such a deeply ingrained part of these characters’ lives that those who move away are lured back—even if they may not completely understand why.

In “The Following,” a Seattle woman finds herself mysteriously drawn to animal bones, eventually using a job interview as an excuse to return to her homeland: “many days I felt so feral I’d choose homelessness over that sense of living inside a speeding car I’d had while working full-time.” And when she returns, she discovers that the land was still a part of her: “The smell of the place. It’d near rolled me. A smell foreign to anything I’d scented as an adult—water on limestone? Appalachian dirt? acorn rot?—but one sniff. And I was eight years old again.”

Yet for a visiting cousin in the story “Sab,” who “said she had to come home and didn’t think a week would be enough…Said she really just needed to get out in the woods…” finding her roots proved more difficult. “How long do you think it’ll take,” she asks, “before I’ll get all the city out of me?”

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For most of these characters, the landscape is so deeply a part of them that they can never fully leave it behind — and the tragedy of its destruction weighs heavily on them all, from the retired miners in “Arsonists” who watch their town burn down one home at a time to the narrator of the novella “In Such Light” who “traveled under horizons of coal power plants, heaving up out of their own steam and effluvium like daymare mirages, menacing unoccupied castles, the cooling towers monstrous squat beakers, some mutation out of a chemistry set. The oil refineries with their perverse metal trees, overtall, spindly, their flares rippling, biblical, each crown a sterile altar.”

Everywhere the effects of the coal industry hovers, visibly and emotionally, made vivid by Pancake’s haunting prose. In “Arsonists,” former miners futilely spend their nights on watch, surrounded by the aftermath of fire, to catch whoever is burning down the town’s company-owned homes. “Some of the houses are just scorched, their windows like blackened eyes. Others went full-blaze, gaping open now, their charred rooms exposed—a pitiful vulgar to it…Overhead, the flattened hills roll in dead slumps, like men’s bodies cold-cocked…like men knocked out. The humps of their twisted shoulders, their arms and legs drunk-flung. Them sprouting their sharp foreign grass.”

Among Pancake’s many gifts are to reveal at once the beauty of her native landscapes and the suffering it endures — where, as she writes in “Arsonists,” the mountain-top blasting turned day to night and “dust stormed the hollow so thick…everybody’d had to birth their headlights, their houselights, right through the middle of the day…That year, there was no summer green, no autumn red. Everything evergray and velvet.” And Pancake’s every sentence is something to be savored — from the pitch-perfect voices and descriptions (“He says his words like flat creek rocks laid”) to the details that reveal physicality as well as character and place (“The bottom half of his face was twice as long as the top, out of balance even by horse standards”).

AnnPancake

The narrator of “The Following,” the only story set outside of West Virginia, is overly aware, in part due to the recent losses in her own life, of the “Great Losses of These Times”—“the atmosphere boiling, the Arctic thawing, oceans rising, species dying.” She reflects: “That same spring my life was being dismantled, BP annihilated the Gulf and a coal company with a criminal environmental record slaughtered twenty-nine miners in the hills not far from where I’d lived as a child.”

That so many other characters in this collection haven’t left their hometowns doesn’t mean they don’t feel the same sense of foreboding; Pancake captures their sensibilities beautifully, from young and teenage girls for whom poverty has made them older than their years to Matley in “Dog Song,” who feels his twenty-two dogs are the only ones who understand him, “the loose part in him” that makes him the object of rumor and nicknames. When his dogs begin to disappear, the despair is overwhelming: “…just when he’d think it couldn’t get worse, think a body couldn’t hold more hurt, another dog would go, the loss an infinity inside him.” Every character reveals an entire mirror landscape reflecting the whole of this region that Pancake portrays so distinctly.

Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley is a stunningly beautiful collection by one of our finest writers — and one of our most important voices in environmental literature.

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Book Review: Invisible Beasts by Sharona Muir

Sharona Muir’s Invisible Beasts is an absolute delight, and not only for animal lovers. This smart, whimsical novel takes readers not only into a world of “invisible beasts” but into the mind of a charmingly quirky character.

Invisible-Beasts

The novel is written in a nonfiction style, as a personal bestiary by a woman with a genetic gift (passed down from her granduncle and occurring again, she learns, in her nephew)—the ability to see invisible animals.

“Why have I written a book that could expose me, and my family, to ridicule and imputations of lunacy?” Sophie asks in her introduction. The answer sets the tone for this wonderful journey: “Human beings are the most invisible beasts, because we do not see ourselves as beasts. If we did, we would think and act differently. Instead of believing ourselves to be above animals, or separate from them, we would understand how every aspect of our lives—spiritual, psychological, social, political—is, also, an aspect of our being animals.”

In addition to an introduction and epilogue, Invisible Beasts is divided into five sections, including Common Invisible Beasts, Imperiled and Extinct Invisible Beasts, and Rare Invisible Beasts—yet while carefully structured and grounded in science, the voice is anything but staid. The novel begins, “A night of passion is a hard thing to remember (no pun intended). The moments blur into a warm blush on your brain, from which it’s hard to extract the details later, if you want to brood over them and confirm just how he did what. So it’s lovely to find a Couch Conch in your bedroom the morning after.”

This first beast we encounter, the Couch Conch, appears in one’s bedroom the morning after and displays, “in the film of pale shell that overlays its radiant pink,” what transpired the night before. “It’s wonderful that mollusks, who don’t care about us, can show us what our bodies express,” writes Sophie. “But mollusks are full of lessons. They know all about the balance of hard and soft, rigidity and acceptance, firmness and flexibility, from the way in which they compose their nacre, the iridescent glaze that makes pearls precious and conches beautiful.”

This mix of magic and science, fantasy and reality, appears throughout, among the many invisible beasts Sophie introduces. The invisible Grand Tour butterflies out-distance the monarchs; in the embryonic stage, “humans, basking sharks, and Beanie Sharks look exactly the same.” And just as it’s wonderful to be visited by a Couch Conch, so it is to be accompanied by Truth Bats (who only show up among non-liars) or an Oormz, which restores memory like “a bandage between your animal past, sadly forgotten, and your present.”

The novel isn’t all animals, however; there are lovely moments between Sophie and her practical, straight-talking biologist sister, Evie—and in one chapter, we witness Sophie’s discovery of her nephew’s gift. A few passages, despite the mythical qualities of the book, are firmly grounded in reality: In the chapter on the Foster Fowl, Sophie wonders to what extent her own selfishness led to its extinction; the chapter “The Riddle of Invisible Dogs” was inspired by the author’s year of volunteering with animal cruelty officers of the Humane Society and is tinged with the sad realities of animal abuse.

Throughout this small, compact book are allegorical gems—Sophie’s sister Evie tells her, “Without imagination, we can’t stop extinction”—and laugh-out-loud observations: the Wild Rubber Jack, we learn, is “an invisible American ass” that stands as tall as a man. “To this day,” Sophie writes, “we lead the world in the enormous size of our asses.”

Invisible Beasts is a wildly inventive novel that invites us to consider, in ways both fun and serious, the depth of our connections with non-human animals, as well as all that they can teach us.

Learn more from this Q&A with author Sharona Muir here.

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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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Opportunity for writers: The Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature

Ashland Creek Press has just announced its new book award, The Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature. The 2014 prize will be judged by New York Times bestselling author Karen Joy Fowler, whose most recent book is We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. (Check out Shel Graves’ review of the book here.)

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The contest is open to unpublished, full-length prose manuscripts, including novels, memoirs, short story collections, and essay collections. The winner will receive a cash award of $1,000 and publication by Ashland Creek Press. The submission deadline is September 30, 2014. For complete writers’ guidelines, click here.

New environmental literature” refers to literary works that focus on the environment, animal protection, ecology, and wildlife. The prize seeks work that redefines our notions of environmentalism and sustainability, particularly when it comes to animal protection. The award isn’t for books about hunting, fishing, or eating animals—unless they are analogous to a good anti-war novel being all about war. Under these basic guidelines, however, the prize will be open to a wide range of fiction and nonfiction with environmental and animal themes.

The Siskiyou Prize is named for the Klamath-Siskiyou region of northern California and southern Oregon, one of the most diverse eco-regions in the world. Considered a global center of biodiversity, the Klamath-Siskiyou region is an inspiring example of the importance of preservation.

Prize judge Karen Joy Fowler is the New York Times bestselling author of three short story collections and six novels, most recently We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Her books’ honors and awards include two New York Times Notable Books, the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, the Commonwealth medal for best first novel by a Californian, the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the Bay Area Book Reviewers Prize, and the World Fantasy Award.

For more information, click here, or visit the Ashland Creek Press submissions page.

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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.”

 

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Book Review: The Lorax by Dr. Seuss

The Lorax

In a quiet part of town where the houses stand close
and evening stretches long the shade of the garden hose
and the baby falls asleep clutching her teddy bear’s toes . . .
it’s time to read my son The Lorax.

We’ve read this book for almost a month to the day
and our ritual always begins the same way,
snuggling on top of my bed,
he tilts up his tow head
and asks, “Why the Lorax is lifted away?”

We pretend not to know why the Lorax will leave
and we crack the book and start the nightly read.
That first time, I wondered,
“Will he understand?”
Can he know why we must give Truffulas a hand?
I wasn’t quite sure where his intuition would land.

But boy! Oh, boy!
How he loved the first smacker!
His eyes went wide when we spied the Super Axe Hacker.
He gleefully counted the trees on each page,
watching the Onceler quickly clearcut the stage,
leaving me quite shocked at his industrialist rage.

The next day I began his reeducation.
We went into the yard and took up a station,
learning the importance of all of creation.
“Do you think,” I drilled,
“trees want to be Thneeds?”
“No,” he parroted. “Trees help us breathe.
“They give homes to the birds and squirrels and bees.”

So back to The Lorax we went after dinner,
(my hopes for his morality considerably thinner)
but I found that my lessons indeed struck a bell.
“Poor trees,” he sighed,
as one by one they fell
and when the Lorax left, the tears even started to well.

What a marvel it was to see this drastic change;
this single book created such emotional range.
How does The Lorax set such sympathies loose
when the hero has–come on–all the charm of a moose?
It is, quite simply,
the mastery of Dr. Seuss.

He chooses the Truffula residents with care,
whether humming fishes or ridiculously playful bears.
The colors are crisp. The world is bright
and somehow there isn’t a predator in sight
until the Onceler–or at least his disembodied arms–alight.

Then the mise-en-scène bleeds into purples and browns.
The belching factory begins to dominate the town
and all the animals faces fade into frowns.
It’s an overt approach even a toddler can sense,
at least, once all his blood-lust is dispensed.

There are still parts I don’t like for a boy in his threes
we skip the Onceler’s line, “Shut up, if you please.”
And last week when I chased him
while the bathwater ran,
he protested, “No, you dirty old Onceler man!”
prompting more revisions and narrative bans

Of course, I see the book with a writer’s skew,
noting the strategy of the villain’s point of view,
but a curious villain
because he sees the light
and inhabits the mess, where most messmakers take flight,
if indeed they’ve even witnessed their terrible blight.

Why did the Onceler decide to stop biggering?
Wasn’t there a new “Truffula” to axe while sniggering?
A new product, a new market,
today’s entrepreneurs know
when you go flat broke
you simply find a new show,
regardless of crummies in tummies, you know.

The mystery of the Onceler’s remorse aside,
I’m underwhelmed by his decision to fret and hide,
and even the Lorax, for all his blustery shouts,
makes no effort to restore the world he touts;
he just shepherds his creatures toward other routes.

Yes, I understand Dr. Seuss’s grand plan
to show every child with a Truffula seed,
“They can!”
They are the change agents, the world’s future holders,
but what awful weight
for such tiny shoulders.
This ending has all the joy of Sisyphus’s boulders,

which is why when we come to the story’s end
and with tearful eyes, my son asks me again,
“but why the Lorax is lifted away?”
I hug him close, and lie as I say,
“He went back to his mommy, and she’s so happy he’ll stay.”