When I started out on this journey of writing essays, I now understand that I had a majorly inadequate idea of what an essay was, and how it can behave differently to other forms of prose. A few years down the line, I have a much greater sense of what the essay is and what it can do; how it can perform. The learning has been steep but surprising and at times really energizing. Sometimes I’m deep in the process of writing and out of the blue there’s a lightbulb moment; about how exactly I can structure this essay, because of something that rises up from the depths. Or there might be a moment of fission that leads me towards the form of another essay. And sometimes even a single word can ignite ideas about form. I’m thinking of a word like ‘filamentous’, and how the writing itself can be filamentous, stretching here and meandering over there and coming back home again to the body of the essay.
Something that I really like about your writing is your use of metaphor. They are frequently extended and, well, filamentous. Themes and ideas recur numerous times throughout your work; I’m not aware of having seen this approach before, or not quite so coherently done anyway. And this came to be really important to me in the Creative Writing PhD that I’m undertaking at the moment. The way you structured Sustainability: A Love Story,
became the single most influential book of essays in my supporting research, helping me to understand how it is possible to create internal and external rhymes within a single essay or within a sequence; how one can link or resonate with another and then another, rather than existing in isolation.
From this side of the Atlantic, it feels as there’s a particular aesthetic to much North American writing, but I feel that your work stands apart from this; it feels like its very own thing. Reading your work, nothing feels laboured; it feels spontaneous, but then there’s also this element of control and intention, and I wondered how aware you are of working like this. Are you working like this? Or am I miles wide of the mark here?
There’s an ongoing theme of consumption in your work. As parents we provide for our families, but now, with the reality of the climate crisis having entered the mainstream, (at last..) every choice that we make has a consequence. Your essays engage with the to and fro between the world and your writing, which I really like. You never allow humans off the hook; or yourself for that matter. You’re sometimes very hard on yourself, and this is very comforting to me. Even on holiday (for goodness sake,) as in your essay "Abundance or Scarcity: A Tribute to Not Knowing Which is Which
," you are constantly watching your own actions—from the food choices made in the shop to the sunscreen you’re not supposed to use because of the effects of its chemicals on the acidity of the ocean and the dying of the coral reefs; everything is laden with meaning and the impact of human activity.
Meanwhile, the fish in the sea and the whales and the sharks carry on doing their thing, and the earth as a character, and as itself, is morally neutral. Was it your original intention to present yourself as a central character; one that is utterly fallible? Should we allow ourselves off the hook? Or by taking yourself to task, is what you are really saying that it’s the human race that is under scrutiny?
First of all, I am so grateful to you for reading Sustainability
and these newer essays and for your description of my work. Perhaps my reaction to your generous comments can lead to how to answer your questions. My first response is to put the words away. I immediately close the laptop. On the one hand, I can’t read that much kindness. I don’t deserve it. On the other hand, I want to preserve the moment—you know, as a writer, that instances of deep appreciation are far and few between. This connects to your question about utter fallibility. In writing, one is supposed to have “authority.” The word “author” derives from such a concept. But authority has always been a troubling concept to me. Authority seems monolithic and impenetrable. In the braided essay, weaving back and forth between multiple ideas is to penetrate—to undo as much knowledge as to do knowledge. I am envious of those writers for whom the ground underneath isn’t always constantly shifting. Sure, one moment I know something but the next, I surely don’t. This relates to climate change. “Change” is the hardest part—unpredictability, inability to forecast the weather, let alone the future, agitates and destabilizes. The form of the writing should reflect that, I think.
I think we should both let ourselves off and hang ourselves hard upon the hook. Climate change is both our fault and also the organic extension of humans’ flaws and gifts. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for technological advances. And, we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for technological advances. Perhaps what I see you getting at is thinking about where “here” is. Perhaps by scrutinizing where we are, the details of place, the specifics of where we stand, we can make more grist, more stuff of the relationship between us and here, maybe even eventually seeing that the Human Race and the Place are one in the same thing. We and the planet hang together and, you’re right, the planet can get along fine without us but not so much the other way around. So it’d be nice to be nice to the nice, as Frank Burns said on MASH.
One thing I love about your poem, "Genesis" (at the end of this post) is the way you incorporate IKEA, God, and the Mariana Trench. To me, this is how we show that humans and nature or humans and planet are not separate. The thingy-ness of this world is “of this world” and connecting those things in one poem or one essay makes them planar. In your essay “Human Resilience Training,” you weave together the importance of swimming to you personally, the incredible, natural description of the damselfly, and then the toxic effects of algae blooms. You write that “The Environment Agency and the Lake District National Park tell us that the algal bloom is a naturally occurring phenomenon.
This is true, in the same way that cholera is a naturally occurring phenomenon. They tell us this because they do not want us to worry
.” So here shows the planet/nature not caring about the humans or the dogs that may be in the way of a natural algae bloom. However, we know that it’s often human activity, like industrial agricultural processes, that create these algae blooms. Humans disrupt nature but are themselves extensions of nature.
Sometimes, I think we deserve what we get. But I most assuredly don’t think the damselfly or other creatures deserve what “we” dish out. Humans work paradoxically. “A few miles up the road, the village of Staveley is one of my cycling destinations. I can stop at the café and drink coffee and eat cakes. I can read a book whilst also affecting to lose weight by cycling and work by eating cakes and reading.” Can these paradoxes be useful in changing human nature? Or our consumerist conditioning, at least? Even if the earth is neutral about humans, and if humans are an extension of earth, is it in our “nature” to just go about our human-y ways? Do we have to change our nature to “save” nature?
In Human Resilience Training you describe Storm Desmond’s destructive powers. Roads washed away, emergency services taxed to the nth degree, the water rising right outside your front door. I love this scene you describe.
In our sitting room a slow, bulging accumulation of water had inveigled its way inside the structure of the house and gathered in a big pregnant swag above the bay window. At any moment, the ceiling paper might have burst. I fetched a knife and a bucket and stood on a chair and stabbed a hole in the paper to relieve the pressure. It was a relief to relieve the pressure. Later, I joined the paper back together with glue and painted it over, but I know the flaw remains.
I’m sure “love” isn’t the right word but, since I imagine that the water has receded and the ceiling has been re-drywalled and re-painted, I do love how this scene is so narrative, so alive, so visible. I wonder if what differs between climate change writing and “nature” writing, is that there is scene, drama, events. There’s also, as you show here, humor. I wonder if these are tools we can and should use to draw people to pay attention to the emergency of climate change? I also wonder if, without the emergency, readers would be farther and fewer between?
A couple of things. First, I think all this interest in nature/environmental writing is actually a product of people having finally realised how alienated they had become from that world, rather than having been provoked by climate issues. Secondly, yes -humour! Where would we be without it. Without humour maybe what we are (well, me anyway, definitely,) are a couple of moaning Minnie’s, banging on... In "Abundance and Scarcity," we get this; ‘I get back to the house and the wine is all gone. So is the ice. I’ve lost my water bottle. My step-grandmother-in-law is sitting by me at the table while I consider whether to go into town for some wine or whether to learn to love tequila. Does my laziness trump my predilections? I love wine so much. I get another beer.’ and ‘twenty-five cases of beer, four liters of tequila, one liter of vodka, one of rum, two fifths of Glen Fiddich and five bottles of wine. There are seventeen of us. That’s more than one case of beer per person, but it is I who sees the lack here. Five bottles of wine for a group of seventeen whose last trip was to wine country?’ It’s so marvellously saying look! I’m just a regular person! I might be picky about plastic straws, but I’m damn well going to enjoy myself!
I do have some priorities right! This question leads me to my last question. You speak of the crushing loss of a world you’ll never see again and living in a country that has abandoned its progressive promise, “They voted for a Prime Minister who has been shown to tell lie after lie: who doesn’t care sufficiently about our childrens’ futures to take the climate emergency seriously nor take part in the televised climate debate. A Prime Minister who is uber-privileged, self-righteous, disgustingly dishonest; leading those who are unable to see into a future that is uncertain at best, potentially disastrous.” It’s impossible to live in so much disappointment. You begin the essay with such incredible images of the “etiolated flock of fieldfares and thrushes” and other vivid details which predicts the turn in mood of the essay:
Recently, I asked my elder son what on earth he makes of the state of the world, and what he says is not the gloom of my own forecasting. He tells me that he thinks it’s a fascinating time to be alive. I am in awe, and humbled. I wish I had his sense of calm and his optimistic outlook.
My last question is how can we balance a sense of hope and excitement for the world while still acknowledging the disasters burning around us? And, to take us back to the earlier questions about paradox, perhaps it is in the delight that we’ll find the way through the disaster?
In 2019, the Guardian
newspaper decided to re-designate the term ‘climate change’ with ‘climate crisis;’ I decided to follow suit. I wonder if it’s possible then, to talk about a crisis in writing? I’m interested in why you have ‘begun to be careful about using the term climate crisis—as opposed to change. It’s unequivocal that it’s a crisis. but not essay—it can change—but can it be in crisis? I think it’s fascinating to think of the essay—or at the very least—writing, as being in crisis. It feels to me as if much British nature writing is indeed in crisis; ‘nature’ has become this separated place where writers go to recover from any number of internal problems; mental health: to ‘find’ their sexuality: to recover from alcoholism etc etc. For me this kind of approach perpetuates the idea of nature being something entirely separate from us; it’s where we go when the processes of the industrialised world catch up with us—and to coin a British term—‘do our heads in.’ What essayists like you are doing in Sustainability
, or Jonathan Franzen in The End of the End of the Earth,
is what David Foster-Wallace described as being “an enormous eyeball floating around something, reporting what it sees.” You are that eyeball, consuming the world by close looking.
You say that “Change” is the hardest part—unpredictability, inability to forecast the weather, let alone the future, agitates and destabilizes. The form of the writing should reflect that, I think. And yes, you and me and Mr Franzen are saying, we’re all implicated, and that we all need to act and change the thinking we’ve grown up with; that it’s no longer fine and dandy to carry on. (Oh how we carry on…) But unless governments engage pretty soon, there’s not a great deal of impact that individuals can have.
I hear you saying that you’re ‘envious of those writers for whom the ground underneath isn’t always constantly shifting.’ But isn’t the ground continuously shifting underneath us? Isn’t there a continuum of shift—both in the climate and in the essay? I think I’d feel more concerned if I thought the ground wasn’t shifting. I want to stand on the tectonic plates of the climate and of language and observe where and how they carry me, like some freakishly slow surf dude. Here I’ll mention the way you question the idea of authority, as something other than being authorial—or marshalling—as something that serves ‘to undo as much knowledge as to do knowledge.’ But as essayists, don’t we also become authorial through our unadulterated greed—consuming everything that presents itself during our research, then chucking half of it overboard. My wanton excesses are the plastic gunge-islands that gyre away from redrafted essays. (We should meet up there sometime..)
Another way of giving and—through the lens of the reader—receiving, authority, is through the structure of the braided essay. In High Pressure Systems you twine the story of a series of devastating fires, with the individual disaster that your aunt’s life became. Both elements include brutal realism; landscapes take years to recover from fires: the threat to communities. Then your aunt’s bruises, her lost teeth, the falls; a relationship that’s so far gone it’s passed the tipping point. The lag in the system; recovery as the only thing it sometimes is; a disappearing. Fires happen. Clouds change their behaviour and chemical reactions change sand into glass. Then there’s this strange sequence where people just keep going as normal:
The neighborhood is moved to “Set” mode. Neighbors pack their photo albums and birth certificates in the car. It’s strangely calm—people still go to work. My son Max’s summer camp is still on although the Museum of Northern Arizona canceled my friend Gretchen’s youngest son’s camp. It looks like a war zone when you get close to the fire. It sounds like one from here.
There’s a matter of factness to your writing here, and then the chaos of what we’ve done to the climate:
It’s hard to make a case to the monsoon: come now. We need you today. We needed you yesterday. But now that the monsoon has arrived, blanketing the mountain in moisture, the fire managers become flood managers. They could have trained the fire. It’s impossible to train rain. Still, they try. They’re pulling cement barriers to organize the water to flow west. We’re packing sandbags for the neighbors to layer against their thresholds.’
What I see here is the writer maintaining control of her writing, which in many ways, is about all we can do.
I guess that is what way to ride out the shifting ground--write like we're surfing. I wonder if that counts as proper prioritizing.
I need to qualify something I said earlier. It’s about Callum, my eldest. We talked again the other day in the car, and I told him how humbled I’d been by his response to the climate and political inaction (narcolepsy?) that even now, engulfs the world. Cal is a pragmatist. He sees it all rolling on, and he doesn’t like what he sees. But he’s staying with this idea of fascination. I think we all need to stay with it too.
Cheers to that.
And on the seventh day, God sat back in his IKEA Poang
chair, lit a cigarette and blew smoke rings that travelled
miraculously in sequence across the skies.
And when the ash tip fell it fell as gritty smuts that set
the ancient Californian forests on fire and all the crews
fought the fires but after weeks of this were too exhausted
to continue. And even when the flames were extinguished,
they flickered like electricity underneath the surface
of the earth, bursting out momentarily in the Mariana trench
before the ocean ate them, then burst out again in Tasmania
where they became the very devil.
And families fled the flames that ate their timber houses
like a Komodo dragon eats a lizard and one particular
family ran to the water and became six bobbing blonde
heads and a dog underneath the jetty,
while around them, everything burned.
And I do not blame God, even though in Genesis
he tells us that everything is for our use and our use only;
all the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky
and all the creeping things that creepeth along
the ground and the fracking companies and Shell Oil
and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill,
the thousands of sea birds ruined, all the
laughing gulls and the diving gannets and the pelicans
waiting to be cleaned – again – and for all the world
are like a Pieta; oh, how they are fallen!
Back in the clouds, God begins to hear voices;
they rise into the atmosphere from every corner of the Earth
and some of them speak in tongues and tell us
this is not climate change or the consequences
of our habits upon the planet.
God removes a shred of tobacco from his lip,
considers it for a moment, then stubs out the cigarette
and, vowing to give up – again - rises from his chair
and remembers some of the things his mother
taught him, because mothers are the fount
of all knowledge. He goes into the kitchen,
fetches a bucket, some cloths and a Brillo pad
and wearily, begins to clean.
Karen Lloyd lives in South Cumbria. Her first book, The Gathering Tide; A Journey Around the Edgelands of Morecambe Bay (Saraband 2014) was included in The Observer’s top books of 2016 and won the Striding Edge Productions Prize for Place at The Lakeland Book of the Year Awards. Her latest book, The Blackbird Diaries—A Year with Wildlife (Saraband 2017), explores the wildlife in her garden in addition to issues of land use and species loss, and is also a prizewinning publication. She is a contributor to Guardian Travel, BBC Wildlife, and Countryfile magazines amongst others. Her poetry has been published by Corbel Stone Press, Zoomorphic and in the This Place I Know anthology (Handstand Press 2018). Karen is currently undertaking a PhD in Creative Writing at Lancaster University where her thesis is a book of essays exploring abundance and loss in the natural world. She is the initiator of the ‘Reimagining the Lake District Uplands’ project—a partnership between Lancaster University and the University of Cumbria to explore and implement ways of improving biodiversity in the uplands in a time of climate crisis.
Nicole Walker is the author of the collections The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet from Rose Metal Press and Sustainability: A Love Story from Mad Creek Books/OSU Press. Her previous books include Where the Tiny Things Are, Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. She edited for Bloomsbury the essay collections Science of Story with Sean Prentiss and with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction. She’s nonfiction editor at DIAGRAM and directs the MFA Program at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.