Issue #51, Spring 2014
Introduction to the Sustainability issue
While interviewing Elizabeth Kolbert for this issue, I was struck by her candor, humility, humor, and toughness. As an environmental journalist, Kolbert travels the world to witness the effects of global warming. She never sugarcoats the harsh facts, and I couldn’t help but ask her how she lives with the grim knowledge she acquires.
Her response—“I definitely have enjoying-life problems. I can’t say, Oh yeah, I can forget about all this. But that’s who I am; that’s probably why I write about things like global warming. If you’re more in touch with the joyful part of life, you would probably find more joyful subjects to write about”—was frank, chagrined, bemused, and battle-weary. What you don’t find in the transcript, however, is the silence, and the deep sigh, that preceded her answer. A pause and breath charged with the intensity and burden of painful truths, which many of us refuse to confront.
Indeed, the more we know about threats to the biosphere, the more stymied we may feel. Global warming, pollution in its many insidious forms, ocean acidification, the destruction of forests and wetlands, toxic waste, endangered and invasive species––all are overwhelming. We struggle to grasp the complexity or magnitude of it all, and end up minimizing the problems or retreating into denial. But environmental writers will not let us turn away. Scientists, naturalists, and journalists have been paying close and inquisitive attention to our species’ impact on the planet ever since the precipitous launch of the industrial age, pouring their observations and findings into works of clarifying and compelling creative nonfiction. Essays, articles, and books that counter fear, ignorance, and complacency. Works of beauty and astonishment, knowledge and inspiration.
We continue to learn from Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carson, and Edward Abbey, as others—incisive, adventurous, rousing, and dazzling writers such as Diane Ackerman, Gretel Ehrlich, Elizabeth Kolbert, Bill McKibben, John McPhee, Sy Montgomery, Carl Safina, Terry Tempest Williams, and E.O. Wilson—carry the mission forward. Consequently, environmental writing comprises one of the most vital, probing, and necessary regions in the great republic of letters.
Yet we remain confounded. What should we do: Recycle? Bring reusable bags to the store? Eat organic and local food? Give up our cars, cut down on waste, go off the grid? Or are such efforts puny and futile? Living sustainably can seem more like a fantasy than an achievable goal.
When Lee Gutkind invited me to serve as guest editor for this issue of Creative Nonfiction, I suggested sustainability as the focus, hoping for enlightenment. We received more than four hundred essays, and many were accompanied by a cover letter expressing thanks to Lee and the magazine for taking on this difficult topic. Clearly, we had tapped into a deep wellspring of thought, fact, feeling, and story.
Stories came from all around the world: Appalachia, the Amazon, Arizona, Australia, Cambodia, Canada, Connecticut, Eastern Europe, Kenya, Mexico, Nepal, the Pacific Northwest, Russia, Wisconsin, the United Arab Emirates, and Utah. The essays were written by students, teachers, scientists, governmental employees, grass-roots organizers, farmers, teachers, journalists, and concerned parents. They recount often extreme efforts to live a more sustainable private life or report on innovative sustainability projects. The smart, informed, and spirited essays sent to Creative Nonfiction counter the deplorable and downright dangerous lack of accurate, consistent, and responsible environmental coverage in corporate media. Here’s a partial list of topics they addressed:
Bats, bees, bicycles, children, coffee, disease, drought, education, energy, family farms, food, glaciers, greenhouses, human waste, indigenous cultures and languages, inheritance, insulation, invasive species, nuclear waste, organic farming, permaculture, politics, pollution, population, quality of life, recycling, trees, urban gardens, waste, and water.
As I read, I was astonished, anguished, intrigued, infuriated, amused, and humbled by the spectacular array of environmental, social, moral, and spiritual inquiries and illuminations. It was a struggle to winnow down so many diverse and worthy submissions to arrive at the essays you will read here. I’m grateful to every submitting writer for his or her engagement with the most significant subject on Earth. The stakes are high, and, accordingly, the writing is dynamic, forthright, and forceful. There is zeal in these narratives as well as invaluable information and literary finesse.
The nine essays published here offer distinct and provocative points of view. Several grapple with unexpected losses caused by our reliance on oil and gas. In “Depredation,” a work of hard-edged lyricism, Matthew Ferrence chronicles a walk through his family’s Pennsylvania farm, which is being surveyed in preparation for fracking. Mieke Eerkens’s “Seep” looks back to 2007 when the author was working for a California marine mammal rescue center and the Cosco Busan, a container ship, collided with the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, causing an oil spill. In “What Happened in Humbug Valley,” Ana Maria Spagna shares her conversations with Maidu elders in the Northern Sierras and tells the maddening story of the tribe’s attempts to reclaim its ancestral land in order to tend it traditionally.
Sarah Gilbert’s stinging essay, “Trapped,” opens with this line: “I make their blood boil.” What does she do to elicit such rage? She rides her customized bicycle with her young sons on the busy streets of Portland, Oregon. Nicole Walker is pithy, funny, and devastating in “Regeneration,” an episodic account of her fear of bats and our fuzzy and foolish optimism regarding global warming. In “No Thirst,” Michelle Lanzoni vividly describes her study of a precarious groundwater system in Sudan.
Children suffering the horrific effects of the undetectable sea of dangerous chemicals in which we live galvanized Wendy Rawlings and Mary Heather Noble. In “Food and Worker Safety Across the Globe: A Nervous and Incomplete Case Study” (this issue’s “Pushing the Boundaries” essay), Rawlings connects the story of a young girl who nearly died from an E. coli infection, and who took comfort from a virtual pet on her iPad, with that of workers who did die in Chinese factories where iPads are manufactured. The catalyst for environmental scientist Noble’s lashing inquiry, “Acts of Courage,” winner of the $10,000 “Human Face of Sustainability” essay contest, sponsored by Arizona State University’s Sustainability Solutions Festival, was her shock at learning that carcinogenic pesticides had been sprayed on the fields surrounding her daughter’s school just before the first day of classes.
On the food front, Amy Hassinger takes us to notoriously impoverished Pembroke Township, Illinois, in “Iyabo is Yoruba for The Mother Has Returned,” and introduces us to African American organic farmers intent on eradicating the food desert in the predominantly African American South Side of Chicago.
Sustainability is about future generations, as each of the contributors herein reminds us. Attaining it will require change on a monumental scale, and the gravitational pull of the status quo is formidable. But to fail to face facts and seek solutions is to ensure escalating misery and disaster.
This where the art of telling true stories comes in. To read these fascinating and suspenseful, probing and pragmatic, wry and witty, outraged and determined, engaged and valiant dispatches is to know that we can shift from paralysis to motion. We can educate ourselves and participate in the extended discourse that will be necessary to envision and work toward more responsible, more just, healthier, and forward-looking lives. I hope this issue of Creative Nonfiction helps propel the conversation, fortify conviction, and foster action.
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An interview with environmental writer Elizabeth Kolbert
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