Thursday, January 20, 2011

Holleman: What are (environmental) writers for?

I have been trying to imagine thousands of red-winged blackbirds falling from the sky, dead, lying on the ground all around me. How must it have felt, to see that, to stand in a field of dead red-winged blackbirds?

And what does it mean? We don’t even know what caused their deaths. Fireworks? Maybe. But there have been fireworks for decades. Maybe fireworks were the last straw. Maybe it was an accumulation of things: habitat destruction and fragmentation, strange weather events caused by global warming, contamination from our use of oil—in the air, the water, in what they eat. Maybe it’s even connected to the Gulf oil spill. We just don’t know.

But it happened, and as an environmental writer, I sit and think about it, imagine what it looked like, and wonder what it means. This is what I do. Does it do any good?

Scientists are no doubt investigating this as well, as they do. But as a writer I get to ask different questions. I can make different leaps. I can use my imagination. Take for example what Tom Wolfe does in The Right Stuff. This is a book of nonfiction that explores the inner world of early astronauts. Wolfe immersed himself so deeply into his research, into his subject matter, that he recreates scenes in incredible detail. Scenes that he was not there to witness. There’s even a scene where we’re hearing John Glenn’s thoughts. That’s pretty cool. And damn effective.

Of course, this writer’s leap comes with a heavy responsibility—to readers and to the subject matter. And environmental writers take on responsibility as well for their non-human subjects. Which can get tricky, and has all sorts of pitfalls like the dreaded anthropomorphism. The solution, again, is immersion.

As to whether it does any good. The million dollar question.

Writing about the natural world has been instrumental in how human society regards the other life with which we share our home planet. Think Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. But we’re facing big hurdles now, with this thing called climate change. Unlike the problem Carson described, we can’t fix it in a couple of decades by not using DDT or even by not using oil anymore.

What can we do? How do we tell the increasingly desperate and dismal stories of environmental issues in a way that people will read? How do we get beyond speaking to the choir? Come join our discussion, “Environmental Writing and Activism,” on Tuesday night at 7 pm at Out North Theatre. Let's find some answers.

As to the title: it comes from Wendell Berry’s collection of essays entitled What Are People For?.

I placed the word “environmental” in parentheses because I think it doesn’t matter what your subject matter is, we writers all share the same basic obligations. And I think all people share the same basic obligations as well. To be of use, to leave the world a better place because you were here. So you can change “writer” back to “people” and get the same answer. That’s what Wendell Berry would say.

Our January featured guest-blogger Marybeth Holleman is author of The Heart of the Sound: An Alaskan Paradise Found and Nearly Lost, and co-editor with Anne Coray of Crosscurrents North: Alaskans on the Environment. She'll be discussing the topic of environmental writing and activism with author Nancy Lord and moderator Charles Wohlforth at a 49 Alaska Writing Center CROSSCURRENTS event at Out North Theatre on Jan. 25 at 7 pm.

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