Search Results for: Nature

We Are Nature

Longreads Pick
Author: Beth Lord
Source: Aeon
Published: Apr 28, 2020
Length: 14 minutes (3,700 words)

Longreads Best of 2019: Science and Nature

We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in science and nature.

Deborah Blum
Deborah Blum is the director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT and publisher of Undark magazine.

‘We Have Fire Everywhere’ (Jon Mooallem, The New York Times Magazine)

Our Secret Delta (Tony Bartelme and Glenn Smith, The Post and Courier)

One of the most interesting trends in climate change reporting is the way writers now quietly and deftly weave its effects into the background of natural disaster stories, from the rapid intensification of hurricanes in the Atlantic to the increasingly explosive wildfires in the west. I’d like to pay tribute to two outstanding examples of this in the past year.

One is environmental writer Jon Mooallem’s stunning narrative portrait of last year’s devastating Camp Fire in northern California, which killed at least 85 people, burned through nearly 240 square miles, and destroyed almost 20,000 buildings including almost all of the small, wooded town of Paradise. Mooallem’s story “We Have Fire Everywhere” is a vivid, terrifying, edge-of-your seat reconstruction of desperate attempts to escape a literal inferno. It moves so beautifully and is so well-paced that you almost don’t realize that he’s also slipping in a lot of very smart fire science, exploring the ways in which climate change is making wildfires exponentially more dangerous. Describing one harrowing moment in a line of burning cars, he writes, “Fisher wasn’t just trapped in a car; she was trapped in the 21st century.”

The other is “Our Secret Delta,” a haunting exploration of South Carolina’s threatened Santee River delta, published this September in the Charleston paper, The Post and Courier. It’s a real pleasure in these days when we worry so much about the fate of local journalism to see this paper shine in so many important ways. This project, led by Tony Bartelme and Glenn Smith, is visually gorgeous and told with the grace of an old-time Southern story, allowing the delta, its history and culture, its fragile waters, to gradually unspool like the winding path of a river itself. The writers create a memorable portrait of an old and essential ecosystem under new threats. Perhaps the most ominous threat is the rise of coastal waters as they reshape the state, yet another reminder that climate change stalks our present as well as our future.

Elizabeth Rush
Elizabeth Rush is the author of Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore and instructor of creative nonfiction at Brown University.

Climate Signs (Emily Raboteau, The New York Review of Books)

When Emily Raboteau’s son becomes obsessed with extreme weather events after a family outing to the “Nature’s Fury” exhibition at the natural history museum in New York, she wonders how much she should shield her five-year-old from conversations around climate change. It is a query she carries with her as she embarks on a city-wide pilgrimage to visit each installation of a public art project called “Climate Signals” wherein the artist hijacks highway traffic signs, rewriting their commonplace warnings with uncanny proclamations of new hazards ahead. In Saint Nicolas Park in Harlem, the sign reads: CLIMATE CHANGE AT WORK. At Hudson River Yards, the yellow lettering spells out an even more dire threat: CLIMATE DENIAL KILLS. In this expertly rendered essay –– gracefully weaving between the personal and critical, the scientific and political –– Raboteau attempts to make sense of what it means to raise a child in a world that is coming apart. It is a question many have but that is all too often addressed in reductive, late capitalist logic in which our human hearts are not taken into consideration.

Emily Raboteau
Emily Raboteau is a professor of creative writing at the City College of New York, and the author of several nontraditional longform essays, including a year-long Twitter thread on climate change, @emilyraboteau.

After the Storm (Mary Annaïse Heglar, Guernica)

Mary Annaïse Heglar’s “After the Storm” stood out to me as a knockout personal essay on climate this year. Heglar is building a body of important work marrying climate awareness with social, environmental, and racial justice. In this piece, which ran in Guernica in October, she frames her harrowing experience of Hurricane Katrina, along with her family in the Mississippi River region, as the lens through which she now sees the climate movement as an activist and director of publications at the National Resources Defense Council. She weaves together the overtly racist news coverage of that storm, the fact that it made landfall the day after the 50th anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder, and the inequitable suffering of New Orleans’ Black population to illuminate the layers of historical injustice magnified by the climate crisis, “covered in the fingerprints of slavery and Jim Crow and colonialism and genocide and patriarchy. It’s what happens when large swaths of people are not only systematically ‘left out,’ but forced to be their own gravediggers and pallbearers.” This should be required reading for those interested in how equity and equality are pivotal to successful climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Mary Annaïse Heglar
Mary Annaïse Heglar is a climate justice writer and communications professional based in New York City.

The End Times Are Here, and I Am at Target (Hayes Brown, The Outline)

Perhaps the most perplexing paradox of climate change is its ability to be both overwhelmingly terrifying and mind-numbingly ordinary. Especially in the past few years, as denial has become less of a viable option and even delusion has slipped from our fingers, the climate crisis with its alarming headlines and horror stories has become… normal. The steady drumbeat to the banality of our lives. Hayes Brown manages to capture that drumbeat in this masterful essay, isolating its sound out of the symphony with surgical precision. As he runs regular errands in a regular Target on a regular, if unusually hot, summer day in Brooklyn, the climate crisis reverberates in the back of his mind, filtering into every choice of every item, if he allows himself to think of it. As someone who exists as a bonafide “climate person,” I love the fresh eye that Hayes brings to the subject. He gives voice to the haunting bewilderment, the guilt of surrender, and the uncertainty that lies within the cracks of the certainty. His essay reminds us of the dullness of our collective heartbreak as we stare into our manmade abyss.

Mikael Awake
Mikael Awake‘s work has appeared in GQ, Bookforum, ArtNews, The Common, and most recently McSweeney’s 58: 2040 A.D. He teaches at Lafayette College.

Indigenous Knowledge Has Been Warning Us About Climate Change for Centuries (Malcolm Harris, Pacific Standard)

This piece by Malcolm Harris has stuck with me for a few reasons. It came out in Pacific Standard, which was an important outlet for environmental writing before it was shut down this past August. (How the crisis in media has interacted with the climate crisis is a subject for another day.) The essay is an elegant synthesis of entomology, economics, and colonial history that places indigenous knowledge at the foundation of the climate conversation — not as ornament, but as central anti-capitalist critique, as timeless technology. Such a piece could inspire the allotment of more time and money — in academic, political, media, and cultural spaces — for deeper dives into indigenous environmentalism and systems of knowledge. It made me dream of a 1619 Project-style series devoted to un-suppressing those narratives, and made me think about Standing Rock and Mauna Kea and how the violent suppression of indigenous activism works hand-on-musket with the suppression of indigenous thought. Harris is a sharp and funny writer, which is why this story seemed something of a departure in approach and tone, and I appreciated it. I wasn’t familiar with the work of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who posits the crucial idea that what we call climate change is not a new challenge, but one as old as the New World, “part of a much longer series of ecological catastrophes caused by colonialism and accumulation-based society.” The piece resonated with my feeling that imagination is a function of collective human memory, or as Harris says, paraphrasing sociologist Nikitah Okembe-RA Imani, “[t]hose who study what has been suppressed can see the future.”

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Read all the categories in our Best of 2019 year-end collection.

The Problem with Nature Writing

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

Nature writing is a prestigious genre graced with such legendary practitioners as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Unfortunately, the genre is no longer that popular. For The Believer, nature writer Jenny Price shows what the sprawling Los Angeles Metropolitan Area reveals about the genre’s failure to connect with modern readers, and how we can rethink our relationship with nature.

People frequently ask Price, “Is there nature in L.A.?” Many outsiders incorrectly claim that L.A. has no history, beauty, depth, culture, or pedestrians. Their inability to recognize nature in the city stems from the same core problem that plagues Price’s genre: the idea that nature is something separate from, or untouched by, humanity. “To define nature as the wild things apart from cities,” Price writes, “is one of the great fantastic American stories.”

And it’s one of the great fantastic American denials. On Mapleton Drive in Holmby Hills in the Bel Air area, in the Santa Monica Mountain foothills, the TV producer Aaron Spelling has built what’s widely publicized as the starship of Hollywood homes—a 56,550-square-foot French limestone mansion with 123 rooms, with two rooms for wrapping gifts and a rose garden on top of one of four garages. Here are two generally ignored facts about Spelling’s famous homestead. First, it is a house of nature: Spelling built it, has maintained it, and stocks it with fantastic quantities of oil, stone, metals, dirt, water, and wood (a likely forest’s worth of wrapping paper, to begin with). And second, there are very few maples on Mapleton Drive. Maybe maples grew here in abundance once, and maybe not. Either way, the street enjoys the idea of maple trees, which conjures a bucolic refuge above the smog, noise, and torrential activity of the megalopolis below. Call it maple mojo. Smaller manses of nature line the rest of Mapleton Drive as well as the neighboring streets Parkwood, Greendale, Brooklawn, Beverly Glen. No parks, no woods, no dales, no brooks, no glens. Just the mojo of wild nature.

Mapleton Drive showcases the denial intrinsic to the great American nature story. To say there’s no nature in cities is a convenient way of seeing if I like being a nature lover and environmentalist but don’t want to give up any of my stuff. We cherish nature as an idea of wildness while losing track of the real nature in our very houses. We flee to wild nature as a haven from high-tech industrial urban life, but refuse to see that we madly use and transform wild nature to sustain the exact life from which we seek retreat. We make sacred our encounters with wild nature but thereby desacralize all other encounters. Or in other words, if we cannot clearly understand cities and our lives within them unless we keep track of our connections to nature, still there may be some basic things we prefer not to see and understand.

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Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in LA: Part I

Longreads Pick

A nature writer in Los Angeles tackles her genre’s fundamental problems, which is also the problem of how modern Americans relate to the natural world. And yes, there is nature in L.A.

Source: The Believer
Published: Apr 1, 2006
Length: 19 minutes (4,828 words)

‘What If We Just Got Out of Nature’s Way?’

AP Photo/Elliot Spagat

For many, climate change is still a future problem to address, but it’s already affecting certain beachside communities. When water flooded Imperial Beach, California, in March 2014, it made a symbolic meeting with the city’s surfer statue — as if to tell residents, “What is now dry will soon be shoreline.”

For High Country News, Ruxandra Guidi details how this small beach community is directly confronting climate change by talking the impossible: managed retreat. As other coastal towns consider raising the land, building seawalls and levees, or using sand replenishment, Imperial Beach asks instead: “What if we just got out of nature’s way?”

Dedina does not see a future in sand. His city, he believes, will have to do what was once unthinkable: It will have to retreat. Managed retreat represents a planned move away from the coast, allowing the beach to erode for the forces of nature to take over. This, of course, is a gargantuan task. How does a city take all the homes and businesses along its coast and relocate them inland? It has never been done in the Western U.S. before, certainly not on the scale that would be needed — even for a city as small as Imperial Beach.

“This is all new to us,” Dedina said, as we chatted one day in his office. He showed me what a retreat looked like on a map: a ribbon of color, one to three city blocks deep, that covered Imperial Beach’s entire coast. “Cities are inherently very conservative places, but we decided that it would be unwise to be conservative in this situation,” he said. “Our only future lies in being innovative and taking risks, because the risk of not taking a risk is very great.”

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How Do You Control One of Nature’s Biggest Rivers?

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

The 2,350-mile long Mississippi River is the world’s fourth longest river and it functions as America’s economic lynchpin. As one Missouri farmer put it, “To understand America at this time, you have to understand the river.” For the Washington Post, journalist Todd C. Frankel and a group of photographers took a close look at the river’s problems and ongoing struggles to solve them. The obvious problems are navigation and flood control, but this massive river historically shifted channels and meandered widely, so, against all logic, people continuously labor to keep its course in place.

Concrete enforces the river’s banks, levees hold back floods, and locks and bridges make it navigable. Much of that aged infrastructure needs improvement. The river drains parts of 31 states, and with so many competing interests, it’s hard to coordinate efforts, let alone fund them. Ecology complicates things: changes in one section of the river often affect other sections, especially when it comes to levees. The Army Corps of Engineers has always treated flood control on the Mississippi as a battle, but many people who rely on the river view that as an ineffective strategy which creates more problems than it solves. Trump wants a $1.5 billion infrastructure plan to fund vague, various repairs, but why should anyone trust him? Read more…

Reconnecting with Nature, and with Wi-Fi

Mikel Bilbao / VWPics via AP Images

When Henry David Thoreau wrote about living in a small cabin in the woods with intention, did he not imagine that readers would find out he went to his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house for dinner? Never mind that he had a support system, the truths that Thoreau articulated in his cabin in the woods across the tracks from Emerson’s house are no less true. As famous naturalist and author Bernd Heinrich says in this profile, you can’t “put a fence around nature” if you intend to be a part of it, just as you can’t shut out the modern world as you try to reconnect with nature.

For Outside, journalist Bill Donahue spends time in the snowy woods with the 77-year old Heinrich, to see what a naturalist does at the end of their career, and what it means to connect with nature in the 21st century. Even in retirement, while living in a cabin in the backwoods of Maine, Heinrich’s biological research and observational work hasn’t ended, and he’s slowed down enough to appreciate the small beauties of nature.

A special place can contain all stories—all of the past and all of the future, all the beginnings and endings. In 2016, the summer before my mom died, I drove her up to New Hampshire for a final visit. By then she was heavily medicated, but when we crested the final hilltop, with its stunning view of the local pond, her eyes glimmered with delight.

Her reaction was rooted in long memory, and also in nature. She was a naturalist. So many of us are, in our way, and as Bernd sees it, this is a fine thing. Indeed, it could save us. “A naturalist,” he e-mailed me, “is one who still has the habit of trying to see the connections of how the world works. She does not go by say-so, by faith, or by theory. So we don’t get lost in harebrained dreams or computer programs taken for reality. We all want to be associated with something greater and more beautiful than ourselves, and nature is the ultimate. I just think it is the one thing we can all agree on.”

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Joan Didion and the Nature of Narrative

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

The title of the new Joan Didion documentary, The Center Will Not Hold, can apply to any writer’s body of work: under scrutiny, does it hold? Now that Didion has published her final book, critics have started assessing her extensive body of work. At The Point, Paul Gleason takes his own look at Didion’s legacy, connecting her biography with her writerly interests. What Gleason sees is the realization of Didion’s own literary maxim that “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Readers often expect journalists and cultural critics to help clarify the stories of our time, but as Didion tackled culture and politics through the decades, she was also examining the unsettling possibility that there was no grand narrative, only a human need to make sense of disorder. Didion told herself many stories in order to live, about her family’s place in the mythic West, about America and the 1960s, about her relationships, and she also tore those stories down. To me, as a longtime fan of Didion’s nonfiction, it seems she told stories that were not only about her subjects or her struggles — she told stories that were about stories, about the ways human beings construct meaning from the potentially meaningless, chaotic nature of existence. Didion might, as Sarah Nicole Prickett wrote in Bookforum, have been “out of her intellectual range” when it came to large subjects like Feminism, but as a storyteller, Didion’s legacy has much to do with narrative itself and why we want answers, through-lines and resolution, and how we delude ourselves.

In the title essay of The White Album Didion insists that her cutting room experience had clued her in to something about the stories people live by: “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” Her disillusionment with her own story, it seems, positioned her especially well to see through the self-deceptions of others.

In the rest of the collection, Didion charted the distance between Americans’ self-conceptions and the realities of their lives. In her essays young mothers abandon their infants on the interstate or, unable to attain the lifestyles they expected, murder their husbands. Jaycees wonder if campus Jaycee clubs are the answer to student unrest. An Episcopalian bishop rejects the divinity of Christ and chases the historical Jesus into the desert, where he dies of thirst. The national media treats the hippie lifestyle as a social statement, while the runaways and small-time drug dealers in the Haight-Ashbury district can’t tell the difference between militant anarchists and the John Birch Society.

Jaycees and an Episcopal bishop make easy targets for Didion’s acid irony. Of course the upheavals of the late Sixties threw respectable people like them into confusion, but Didion also criticized the wishful thinking of left-wing reformers and radicals. Not only do Hollywood liberals understand politics in clichéd story arcs, but they believe they can impose those arcs on American history: “Things ‘happen’ in motion pictures. There is always a resolution, always a strong cause-effect dramatic line, and to perceive the world in those terms is to assume an ending for every social scenario.”

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The Nature of a Narrative Line

September 17

Annie Dillard talks about how the narrative line has been devalued by modern physics. The narrative line to me is like a Mexican mural: flattened in perspective so all is present; cramped by detail, erotic, various, the flat depth held up in the imagination, its transience, and impermanence nakedly apparent. The narrative does not lead from one place to another, from the past to the future, but more deeply into the present, always the present and its sense of time is in tune with the human heart rather than the chessman’s calculating mind; present moves are a means to the future. The narrative line, then, is at rest and jostling at the same time. Like a sonogram of a pregnant woman’s belly: the fetus’ tiny heartbeat jostled by gas.

—Poet and essayist Gretel Ehrlich, in a journal entry from 1985. The above passage is quoted from Our Private Lives: Journals, Notebooks, and Diaries, a wonderful anthology of chapter-long selections from the journals of writers including Ehrlich, Annie Dillard, Jim Harrison, Norman Mailer, Oliver Sacks, and others.

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