Words in a changing world
December, 2012. I sat in front of a white screen, twitching with panic, desperately wanting words to answer a prompt in a call for papers: a planned anthology of young voices writing about growing up in an irrevocably degraded environment. The example themes covered a lot of ground — climate change, biodiversity decline, environmental justice, sustainability, etc. Enormous and crushing topics. I got up and procrastinated. Laundry, dishes, organizing my hoody collection… anything mundane to keep me from the blank page and blinking cursor.
Days of procrastination. Weeks of writing one sentence and then deleting it. I’m not a writer. I studied other writers, wallowed in the good stuff. I know enough to place myself in the non-writer category. But dammit, I wanted to try. I kept re-reading one of the prompts: sources of joy in a diminished place. And I went on lots of walks. And finally, I sat down and wrote about my places: from the Pacific Northwest to the Aleutians and finally to Kodiak. I wrote about home, about the public lands where I grew up, monuments to the wonders of nature. And I wrote about betrayal. About toxins that migrate on prevailing winds, about the contamination of places that seemed too remote and safe to ever suffer from degradation. And I wrote about searching for a place to belong, from one isolated Alaskan island to another. About the distrust and fear of connecting with another place, only to get my heart broken again. And I wrote a little bit about hope — about the people I get to work with who have so much passion for protecting our world.
Its been four years since I submitted my fledgling essay, “Winter Solstice,” with very little confidence that it might get accepted. A few weeks ago, I opened my mailbox and found two honest-to-goodness real books in a package from Trinity University Press — the final result of a convoluted publishing process. I’ve just finished reading the other 21 essays in the collection — a range of perspectives that ponder Coming of Age at the End of Nature: A Generation Faces Living on a Changed Planet. I want to meet each and every one of these young writers. Hear more about their stories. Despite the apocalyptic title, we have all found reasons to hope.
A funny thing, holding my four-year old essay in a printed book. A lot has happened since 2012. In September, we failed to drop below the 400 ppm for CO2 in the atmosphere — making 2016 the benchmark year of a symbolic threshold, a point of no return in my lifetime. In 2014, I introduced a new group of college students to Sandra Steingraber’s text about the ecology of toxins, including the essay that ruptured my sense of security fifteen years earlier. We studied the intersection of Science, Technology, and Culture — beginning in far away places, but ending with local case studies. We walked through the same disbelief I experienced as a student. Except this time, I was talking with young people in Alaska about the environmental injustice of contamination in their home landscapes — not an abstract, far-off place like Greenland. And I’ve had four more years of working with USFWS. Watching new volunteers fall in love with Kodiak, watching youth ambassadors take their stories beyond Alaska.
I have to wonder how this essay might have been different, written in 2016. The world has become a scarier place in four years. And my search for belonging has not become less complicated. I’d like to think I would use shorter sentences, polish the writing more.
But these places… to borrow a love letter from Gary Snyder:
“Range after range of mountains
Year after year after year
I am still in love.”