The Journal Writer: Why Keep a Journal?

Old maple tree under snow dusting in a mixed cedar-pine forest in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

There are as many reasons for writing a journal as there are people in the world: to express, to heal and clarify, to create, learn and influence, to record, to celebrate, to share with friends or the world even…and everything in-between. The journal is a way to connect—to yourself and to others—with gentleness, compassion and deeper understanding. It’s a “safe home” where your deepest thoughts can reside without fear of judgment, blame or need for justification. A place where you can be just you.

Late afternoon sun glimmers through cedar-pine forest in winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

What is a Journal?

Most people think of a journal as a bound notebook with text, sketches and pasted-in mementos. But it can also be a binder full of memorabilia and notes, a collection of digital information on a computer, CD or flash drive, or an audio tape. According to Ron Klug (2002), a journal is essentially a “day book” where you record daily happenings. But it is much more than that. The journal is a tool for self-discovery, an aid to concentration and finding clarity, a “mirror for the soul”, a training ground for a writer and a good friend and confidant. It is at its heart a place of learning and being.

Mary Louise Holly (1989) describes a journal as “a reconstruction of experience and, like the diary, has both objective and subjective dimensions, but unlike diaries, the writer is (or becomes) aware of the difference. The journal…is a book that someone returns to. It serves purposes beyond recording events and pouring out thoughts and feelings. Like the diary, the journal is a place to ‘let it all out’. But the journal is also a place for making sense of what is out.” The journal helps you assess the next step and help you find direction. I talk more about this in Chapter 5 of my guide The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice.

Swamp forest reflected in icing pond, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Some reject journaling as too self-absorbing; the truth is that most of us during some part of our lives are too little connected to ourselves. We keep so busy, filling our lives with activities, filling our senses with stimuli, running at full tilt. We may be constantly communicating with others through cell phones, computers, notebooks, at school and at work. But we aren’t communicating with ourselves. For that to happen we need to quiet our minds and our environment to have a meaningful self-dialogue. This is the gift that journaling brings to us.  It helps us find the depth of ourselves and lead richer more truthful lives. The key is to use it to learn.

A journal need not be the dark brooding place many people envision when they think of diaries and journals. A journal can be a happy place, a place to celebrate one’s explorations and achievements and self-education. Here’s what journal writer Jennifer Moon (1999) says about her journal:

A journal is a friend that is always there and is always a comfort. In bad moments I write, and usually end up feeling better. It reflects back at me things that I can learn about my world and myself. It represents a private space in my life, a beautiful solitude, the moments before I go to sleep just to stop and note what there is about the day or about my life at the time. I think that it has enabled me to feel deeper and more established as a person, more in control and more trusting of life. On a less introverted note, I think that it contributes to my ability to write in general, and it underlies an interest in poetry and creative writing which awaits a quieter time in my life for fulfillment. 

–Jennifer Moon

Remember, it is just as important to record your happy, wonderful, scintillating and inspirational experiences as those dark moments.

Moss-covered base of a cedar tree under a light dust of snow in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Why Keep a Journal?

Writer Louise DeSalvo shared an interesting story about what expressive writing means to her. Here’s what she said:

“Many people I know who want to write but don’t (my husband, Ernie, for example) or who want to write more than they have but say they can’t find the time (my friend Marla) have told me that taking the time to write seems so, well, self-indulgent, self-involved, frivolous even. And that finding the time to write—even a diary, much less fiction or memoir or poetry—in their busy schedules is impossible. I’ll write when I have the time, they say.”

–Louise DeSalvo

DeSalvo adds, “what if writing weren’t such a luxury? What if writing were a simple, significant, yet necessary way to achieve spiritual, emotional, and psychic wholeness? To synthesize thought and feeling, to understand how feeling relates to events in our lives and vice versa? What if writing were as important as a basic human function and as significant to maintaining and promoting our psychic and physical wellness as, say, exercise, healthful food, pure water, clean air, rest and repose, and some soul-satisfying practice?”

Journal writing encourages engagement and reflection. It helps you deepen your self-understanding and make added sense of your life and what you believe. It can provide you with added perspective on you and the world, by giving you a greater awareness of what is happening to and around you in your daily world. Writing a journal can help you write better and help improve your skills in observing, recording and interpretation. It can also help you set goals and manage your time and priorities.

Give yourself the permission to write. Give yourself the gift of expression.

Beech tree with marcescent leaves in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

This article is an excerpt from The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice (Pixl Press, 2013) by Nina Munteanu.

The Journal Writer is the second writing guide in the Alien Guidebook Series. This comprehensive guidebook will help you choose the best medium, style and platform for your expressive writing. The guide provides instruction on issues of safety, using the computer and electronic devices, social media and the internet.

Engaging, accessible, and easily applicable…Brava, Nina, brava.”—David Merchant, Instructor, Louisianna Tech University

Straight up, fact-filled, enriching, joyful and thorough…Nina is honest, she is human and she wants you to succeed.”—Cathi Urbonas, Halifax writer

References:

Baikie, Karen & Kay Wilhelm. 2005. “Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing.” Advances in Psychiatric Treatment. 11: 338-346.

DeSalvo, Louise. 1999. “Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives.” Beacon Press, Boston. 226pp.

Holly, Mary Louise. 1989. “Writing to Grow. Keeping a personal-professional journal”. Heinemann. Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Klug, Ron. 2002. “How to Keep a Spiritual Journal: a guide to journal keeping for inner growth and personal discovery.”Augsburg, Minneapolis, 4th ed.

Moon, Jennifer. 1999. “Learning Journals: A handbook for academics, students and professional development.” Kogan Page. London.

Munteanu, Nina. 2013. “The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice.” Pixl Press, Vancouver. 170pp.

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

On Writing Hopeful Dystopias and the Blur of Fiction with Non-Fiction

‘Hopeful dystopias’ are much more than an apparent oxymoron; they are in some fundamental way, the spearhead of the future—and ironically often a celebration of human spirit by shining a light through the darkness of disaster. I discussed this in a recent interview on Solarpunk Futures Podcast.

In a recent interview on the CBC Radio show Ideas “Beyond Dystopia”, Canadian author Margaret Atwood (who penned the dystopic The Handmaid’s Tale and Maddaddam trilogy) said much the same thing. Atwood argued that dystopias and cautionary tales ultimately embrace an element of hope, through a character’s experience. Dystopias can serve as a road map for individual endurance, resilience, and triumph through disaster.

I talked with Solarpunk Futures about how the purposeful blur of fiction with non-fiction in my latest eco-novel A Diary in the Age of Water produced a heightened relevance to the dystopic journey for the reader.

Solarpunk: Your latest book is an eco-novel, or rather something of a fiction-nonfiction hybrid perhaps, called A Diary in the Age of Water. Tell us a bit about that novel and the role that water plays in the story.

Nina: A Diary in the Age of Water follows the climate-induced journey of Earth and humanity through four generations of women and their battles against a global giant that controls and manipulates Earth’s water. The book spans over forty years (from the 2020s to the 2060s) and into the far future, mostly through the diary of a limnologist, which is found by a future water-being. While A Diary in the Age of Water is a work of fiction, its premise and much of its story are firmly based on real events, people and phenomena. The dramatization of these through four main characters carry the reader into consequence and accountability. Water’s relationship with each character provides four different perspectives on the value of water to humanity—from the personal and practical to the spiritual and existential. For readers with an evidence-based approach to learning about water’s importance, the diarist provides interesting facts on water in each of her entries in the form of epigraphs (mostly from Robert Wetzel’s Limnology). Things like: watershed, hypolimnion, aquifer, thalweg, clapotis gaufre, and petrichor, to name a few…

I chose a diary format to purposely blur the fiction with non-fiction. I was writing about both the far and the near future and much of it was based—like Margaret Atwood and her books—on real events and real people. I wanted personal relevance to what was going on, particularly with climate change. I also wanted to achieve a gritty realism of “the mundane” and a diary felt right. Lynna—the diarist—is a reclusive inexpressive character, so I thought a personal diary would help bring out her thoughts and feelings. There’s nothing like eves-dropping to make the mundane exciting. The diary-aspect of the book characterizes it as “mundane science fiction” by presenting an “ordinary” setting for characters to play out. The tension arises from insidious cumulative events and circumstances that slowly grow into something incendiary. The real events are the fuel that incite a slow-burn fictional drama that blurs the reader’s perception of reality and heightens its relevance.

Solarpunk: Can you give us an example of an event in your book where the lines between fiction and nonfiction get blurred?

Nina: In the diary entry entitled “Watershed,”, for July 14, 2049, Lynna writes:

Today, CanadaCorp announced that the collection of rainwater was illegal. As of today, I could be arrested for using my rain catcher and cistern. I’ve decided to continue using the cistern, and I’ve warned Hildegard not to breathe a word to anyone at school about what we’re doing with the water. Thankfully, I have time to train her in the art of subterfuge before she starts Grade Two in the fall.

What follows in the story is a series of greater water restrictions that mimic some of the currenet ongoing scenarios in other parts of the world (e.g. illegal rainwater collection in parts of the USA; shutting down of home water taps in Detroit; required and restricted water collection at public water taps in parts of the world).

Lynna’s August 13, 2051 diary entry in my 2020 novel seemed to predict the atmospheric river disaster that befell British Columbia in November 2021:

In the mid- to late-twenties the west coast succumbed to massive atmospheric river storms. San Francisco. Los Angeles. Seattle. Even earthquakes seemed to follow climate change’s lead. The earthquake / tsunami that hit Vancouver Island in 2029 shifted the Earth’s axis by three inches, Daniel informed me. The American military stormed over the border with swift aid. “Did you know that they never left?” Daniel asked me. I hadn’t known that. But I wasn’t surprised either.

Of course, these “predictions” were really just good research into the current scientific knowledge and what current circumstances may naturally generate in the future. I was just doing a good job at reading water.

Thompson Creek marsh in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Given that cli-fi features climate change, environmental destruction, and species extinction, you must think ‘how can it not be all doom and gloom?’ But dystopias often do reflect—in their depiction of terrible circumstance—an element of triumph, of overcoming adversity, and ultimately of hope. In fact, dystopias generally draw on a writer’s optimism; else, why would we write these cautionary tales? A strong belief in humanity underlies much of eco-fiction. Solarpunk is a rising light of eco-fiction that has emerged recently in response to the denial-despair dilemma many of us face when we think of climate change. This kind of eco-fiction features ingenuity, generativity, independence, and community. And it ultimately leads us through it all toward the light. A Diary in the Age of Water is in fact a dystopia with elements of solarpunk.

You can listen to the entire podcast interview on Solarpunk Futures: Imagining a New World here.

Thompson Creek Marsh in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Solaris: Planet as Alien Character in Science Fiction

Kelvin (played by George Clooney) arrives on Solaris in Steven Soderberg’s 2002 film

Some time ago, I participated in an inquiry to name my choice of “Best Alien in Science Fiction,” posed by John DeNardo at SF Signal. “Aliens are a classic trope dating back to the earliest days of science fiction,” John said. They are the quintessential “other” archetype in science fiction.

From conquering warlords (War of the Worlds) to instructing sages (The Day the Earth Stood Still) to victimized pacifists (Martian Chronicles), how the “other” is portrayed and how humanity interacts with it, has been explored throughout science fiction since it began with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Of course, in science fiction—a metaphoric literature of grand scope—these ‘others’ / aliens make representation through archetype. So, the aliens of War of the Worlds represent a conquering nation; Klaatu of The Day the Earth Stood Still may represent a benevolent dictator; the Martians of Martian Chronicles represent our indigenous peoples under the yoke of settler colonialism and an exploitive resource-extraction mindset; and the monster of Frankenstein exemplifies the disabled/deformed unsavory departure from our ‘perfect’ self-image. Author Brian Ott tells us that “it is a profound mistake to interpret the genre [of science fiction] literally.” He reminds us that it is not what the aliens are but what they represent that matters (except when, in some cases, they are one in the same). Science fiction is both “the great modern literature of metaphor” and “pre-eminently the modern literature not of physics but of metaphysics,” adds Peter Nicholls, Australian scholar and critic.

Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film of H.G. Wells’s book “War of the Worlds”

In a previous article entitled “Dreams and Perceptions And ‘the Other” I described an experience with the unfamiliar. Have you ever done the same? Looked backward while driving through a familiar scene to gain a different perspective? And just felt different for a moment? Like you’d entered a different dimension and briefly glimpsed ‘the other.’

What is it like to meet ‘the other’?

In story, characters are defined through their experience and their approach to the unfamiliar. A new relationship. A stranger in town. A different culture. An alien encounter… How does the character react? Is it with fear? Wonder? Curiosity? A mixture of these? By describing “the other” science fiction writers describe “us”, given that it is through our own eyes that the other is viewed and described.

In his book Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient Edward W. Said contended that for there to be an ‘us’, there has to be a ‘not-us.’ According to Patricia Kerslake of Central Queensland University, this arises from a postcolonial notion of ‘the Other’, through a mutual process of exclusion. This exclusion inspires the very idea of ‘alien’ by imposing expectation on perception. Kerslake argues that: “When one culture imposes its perceptions on another, in that it begins to see the Other not as they are but as, in Said’s words, ‘they ought to be’, then the process of representation becomes inevitable: a choice is made to see a ‘preferred’ real.”

Klaatu greets humanity in “The Day the Earth Stood Still”

In her 1975 article “American SF and the Other,” Ursula K. LeGuin unequivocally scolded the Western SF genre for representing and promoting colonialism and androcratic motives by “othering” or making inconsequential the poor, the uneducated, the marginalized and women.

…The question involved here is the question of The Other—the being who is different from yourself. This being can be different from you in its sex; or in its annual income; or in its way of speaking and dressing and doing things; or in the color of its skin; or the number of its legs and heads. In other words, there is the sexual Alien, and the social Alien, and the cultural Alien, and finally the racial Alien…

The people in SF are not people. They are masses, existing for one purpose to be led by their superiors…

If you deny any affinity with another person or kind of person, if you declare it to be wholly different from yourself–as men have done wo women, and class has done to class, and nation has done to nation–you may hate it, or deify it; but in either case you have denied its spiritual equality, and its human reality. You have made it into a thing, to which the only possible relationship is a power relationship. And thus you have fatally impoverished your own reality.

You have, in fact, alienated yourself.

Ursula K. LeGuin

Written 45 years ago, Le Guin’s scathing article may have accurately represented the North American science fiction community of writers of that time. Today, despite the remnants of a strong old guard that still promotes a patriarchal colonialist hegemony, the science fiction genre has matured and grown beyond this self-limiting view. This is partly because current authors—many who are women and many who are representatives of minority or marginalized groups—have given SF a new face and voice that promises to include equality, inclusion, and a fresh look at exploration and ‘the other.’ In most cases it is ‘the other’ whose voice—for so long missing—is now being expressed.

The genre of science fiction has diversified and matured to embrace “mundane science fiction,” literary fiction, speculative fiction, climate fiction, cli-fi, eco-fiction, indigenous futurisms and more. Each of these genres provide new opportunities that give voice to ‘the other’ from women (Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and N.K. Jemison’s The Broken Earth series) to disabled people (Mishell Baker’s Borderline) to the indigenous human (Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves) to the non-human (Costi Gurgu’s RecipeArium) and the environment such as water (Emmi Itäranta’s The Memory of Water and my own A Diary in the Age of Water).

My Choice for ‘Best’ Alien Character: Solaris

The most memorable aliens for me have been those that helped illuminate our history and our very humanity, whether they played the archetype of simple antagonist or misunderstood as “commentator” on human prejudice, insecurities, greed, heroism, compassion and honor. I can think of several aliens who have provided excellent examples of this: the victimized ” prawns” of Peter Jackson’s District 9 come to mind. Each provided a platform for the exploration and exposition of human’s strengths and weaknesses. How we handle or even recognize “the other” is very compelling and illuminating.

The planet Solaris

My choice for alien character is the ‘self-aware’ planet in Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris: see my film review of Steven Soderbergh’s film interpretation of Stanislaw Lem’s book Solaris in a previous article on this site. What follows is a brief summary:

In response to his friend’s plea, a depressed psychologist with the ironic name of Kris Kelvin (George Clooney), sets out on a mission to bring home the dysfunctional crew of a research space station orbiting the distant planet, Solaris. Kelvin arrives at the space station, Prometheus, to find his friend, Gibarian, dead by suicide and a paranoid and disturbed crew obviously withholding a terrible secret from him. It is not long before he learns the secret first-hand: some unknown power (apparently the planet itself) taps into his mind and produces a solid corporeal version of his tortured longing: his beloved wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone) who years ago had committed suicide herself. Faced with a solid reminder, Kelvin yearns to reconcile with his guilt in his wife’s death and struggles to understand the alien force manifested in the form of his wife. He learns that the other crew are equally influenced by Solaris and have been grappling, each in their own way, with their “demons,” psychologically trapping them there.

Crew onboard the Prometheus orbiting Solaris: Snow (Jeremy Davies), Rheya (Natascha McElhone), Kelvin (George Clooney) and Gordon (Viola Davis)

Ironically, our hero’s epic journey of great distance has only led him back to himself. The alien force defies Kelvin’s efforts to understand its motives; whether it is benign, hostile, or even sentient. Kelvin has no common frame of reference to judge and therefore to react. This leaves him with what he thinks he does understand: that Rheya is a product of his own mind, his memories of her, and therefore a mirror of his deepest guilt—but perhaps also an opportunity to redeem himself.

Kelvin and his ‘dead’ wife Rheya onboard the Prometheus orbiting Solaris

Solaris is the epitome of the “other”, a force and entity unrecognizable and unfathomable. Lem’s existentialist portrayal of “the other”—and by extension of humanity—serves as excellent commentary on what is important to us and our identity. Unlike the familiar human-like figures of a Spock, Zhaan or the fremen, Solaris accomplishes its ‘other’ role through arcane manipulation of the human characters’ dreams and yearnings. We never understand its motivations or intelligence, yet we are drawn to its force and reflective mirror of our souls. It is its very incomprehensibility that attracts us, as to an abstract artwork, and challenges our very identities. Solaris shows neither judgment nor morality. It exists through the lens of paradox. Both there and not there. Fluid but enduring. Fractured yet whole. Like water. 

All lead to the ultimate question asked of science fiction: who are we and why are we here?

Kelvin arrives at the space station orbiting Solaris

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Nina Munteanu’s Short Story “Arc of Time” in Metastellar: Speculative Fiction & Beyond

My short story “Arc of Time” recently appeared in Metastellar: Speculative Fiction & Beyond. Described by them as an “epistolary account of alien discovery on Earth over time,” the story follows the fate of a mysterious and charismatic character Dante Sarpé and his associates over several centuries.

Here’s how it begins (click on the link above to read the complete story):

—I-net correspondence

from:     F. Y. Benoit, Ph.D.,Paris, France

to:     Dr. F. Wolke, Bonn, Germany

September 6, 2096

Dearest Friedrich,

I missed you at the World Sustainable Environment Congress in London last week. Where were you? I thought you were going to come? You should have heard Dante Sarpé. He captivated the congress right from the start with an introductory quote from the 20th Century social ecologist, Aldo Leopold: “Ecosystems are not only more complex than we think, they are more complex than we can think.” Describing the grave environmental calamity facing us as a symptom, Dante challenged our present paradigms and values to achieve peace and harmony. He submitted that our insatiable thirst for knowledge reflected unease with ourselves and a lack of partnership with our world.

He moved me with his parting words, Friedrich: “The branch of the tree cannot bear fruit of itself. Without compassion to fill it, knowledge is an empty house, casting its shadow on our courage to embrace the paradoxes in our lives: to feel love in the face of adversity; grace when confronted with betrayal.”

The conference was very well attended. Over 3,000 scientists and socio-economists came from all over the world. I wished you’d come, Friedrich. I drank my coffee alone, longing for your stimulating company.

Love,

Françoise Yvette

✸✸✸

A breeze braced the boy as he scrambled up the mountain. When he reached the old woman’s hut at the summit, he shielded his eyes against the sun and saw her, stepping with fluid movements in some meditative exercise. He crept closer and watched from a distance as Da’at performed her graceful dance, limbs coiling and slithering to an inner rhythm.

After completing a full turn, she pulled her rags about her and faced the boy with a nod.

He stepped forward. “What were you doing, Mama?” he asked. Da’at was not his mother, but she had looked after him since before he could remember. She always called him her blue-eyed chosen one.

“They will call it Tai Chi Chuan,” she said in a deep voice, easing herself to the ground and crossing her legs. “It is an exercise of the will, mind, and body toward the Way of Nature. Something you must learn, boy.”

“It was beautiful.” The boy squatted beside her and looked into her green eyes. Her motions had reminded him of the elegance of the cormorant and the spring of the furry Purgatorius.

“The purpose of the movements is to transfer the Chi, or the intrinsic energy, to the Shen, or spirit, by using inner rather than outer force.” She trained her gaze to the bright sun and her eyes sparkled like emeralds. “It brings me closer to my eternal love who dwells now only on the shafts of light and the whisper of the wind.”

The boy tilted his head and squinted, trying to grasp the meaning of her strange words. She often spoke cryptically, expecting him to understand.

Da’at turned to the boy. “If you practice Tai Chilong enough and execute it properly, you will become reconnected with the unity of everything, including the fourth dimension.”

“What is the fourth dimension?”

Da’at smiled wearily. “Time, my chosen one.”

The worn lines of her masculine face resembled weathered rock. She had always looked old yet she never seemed to age. “Is that why you can see into the future?” the boy asked, rocking on the balls of his feet.

She folded her arms on her knees and her thick brows knit together. “Future? What is that?” Before he could respond, she added, “You have much to learn about time and space, boy. Do you think we inhabit one place and one time? Our universe is not only more complex than you think; it is more complex than you can think.”

A dove flew overhead. Da’at gazed up at the bird and raised her hands in supplication. “My Shekhinah, I sense your presence here. How will my chosen one acquire wisdom when you elude us like the shifting wind?”

Reminded of why he’d come, the boy moved onto his knees and leaned forward. He focused on the dark hairs on Da’at’s chin and, taking a deep breath, he said, “While I was napping in the forest, I had a strange dream. About a faraway place unlike any I’ve seen. Full of huts taller than the Gingko trees and so many people like me, crowded inside them like ants.”

Da’at nodded to herself. “The dove has spoken to you.”

✸✸✸

To read the full story go to Arc of Time on the Metastellar site.

Fox skull found on shore of Jackson Creek in winter, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Giving In to the Beauty of the Moment…

Marsh in the Kawarthas of Ontario in the fall (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”—Rachel Carson

In a recent seminar called “Cultivating a Sense of Place” (Programs in Earth Literacies) Douglas Christie introduced me to the works of Philip Levine. In particular, he discussed a work entitled “Dust” which appeared In Levine’s 2004 collection Breath:

Dust

My wife tells me that when she was six
she came home from school to an empty house,
put down her lunch box, sat on a hassock
by her father’s chair, and simply waited.
Someone known would return home soon, she was sure.
The house was still, silent, holding its breath,
the late afternoon sunlight streamed in
the unshaded windows and turned the dust
into in golden planets floating
before her. Sixty-four years later
she declares, “It was beautiful,” and goes
on to describe the sense of awe and peace
before this vision of the universe
that descended from nowhere or perhaps
rose from within. North-central Iowa,
1933, her grandmother’s house.
Nothing else remains of the day. She gazes
into space seeing again those whirling
worlds more perfectly than the room she’s in,
her smile open, her glazed eyes radiant.

–Philip Levine

Philip Levine

Such utter stillness in the moment described! As though it still existed. Which it did, which it does. Intact and unaffected by time’s erosion.

What we see as beautiful, touches us in our heart-minds and we cherish it.

Because that moment was beautiful, Levine’s wife cherished it; because she cherished it, it was beautiful. This was so only because her child-self gave herself over to the moment and allowed herself to experience the awe and wonder of that moment. It helped that she was a child, alone in an empty house that was usually filled.

Old shed of farmstead with goldenrods in foreground, fall in Ontario (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

When we grow up, why is it that we lose the tendency, even the ability, to simply be in the moment, in the silence of ourselves, to discover beauty? I suppose we make excuses; it isn’t efficient or productive to “do nothing.” Compelled to feed into the ever-burgeoning capitalist machine, we must keep “doing.” Do we learn to ignore those moments to be efficient machines ourselves? Surely, in refusing to live these moments, we are also silencing the many voices of beauty that could touch our hearts.

To appreciate beauty is to open your heart to wonder and silently witness. Beauty is found through beholding. Beauty is slow. To notice beauty, we must slow our mind and sense with our soul. We may “see” beauty all around us, but we do not “feel” it until we open to it, let it touch us and let it stroke our inner soul.

Pine cedar forest in Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

The Beauty Instinct

Researchers have confirmed what the poets have long known: that we need to experience beauty in our lives. According to biologist Richard Prum, all creatures possess an aesthetic instinct—an instinct and a need for beauty. “The taste for the beautiful is as distinctive [and meaningful] as the need to survive,” writes Brenner. “One of the attributes of the beauty instinct is an inbuilt sense of respect for others.”

Encouraging yourself to recognize and appreciate beauty in Nature may be one of the most important aspects of your well-being.

Reflections on the Otonabee River, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

But what is beauty and how does one experience it? I devote an entire chapter to this topic in my book “Water Is…”.

There is beauty, writes 18th century aesthetic realist Francis Hutcheson, “in the knowledge of some great principles, or universal forces, from which innumerable effects do flow, such as gravitation, in Sir Isaac Newton’s scheme.” Neither beauty of form nor beauty of idea sufficiently applies to its definition, because beauty is, as we all know, “in the eyes of the beholder.” 

Beauty—like love—is not so much a quality as a relationship

Lane to farm off country road in Ontario (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

In 1942, philosopher of aesthetics Jared Moore described complete beauty as three varieties of harmony combined: (1) objective harmony (i.e., harmony among the elements that make up the “beautiful object” through form, idea and its expression); (2) objective–subjective (i.e., harmony between the beautiful object and the contemplative mind through spiritual and psychophysical [empathetic] means); and (3) psychological (i.e., its meaning). Moore writes that complete aesthetic harmony—expressed by psychological or purely subjective harmony—is achieved only when the first two harmonies are attained. He describes this complete sense of harmony as “a sense of pleasure” which not merely adds itself to the sense of beauty, but “enters into and becomes a part of it.” This “inner harmony” brings the personality into a state of “unity and self-completeness.” A unity of the subjective, not only with the object, but with itself. 

We recognize beauty, and, in feeling it, are beautiful.

Stand of poplar trees in the fall, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

British artist and educator John Lane, author of Timeless Beauty, describes beauty this way: 

“Although the complexities of both nature and beauty have a subtle mathematical basis, reason by itself cannot tell us why beauty exists nor what is beautiful … There is often something spontaneous, even ‘illogical’ about these emotions; like love, they can never be predetermined, let alone dictated. But neither can the otherwise and splendid things which are most significant in human life, to which the greatest of the human race have contributed most, and in which our real refreshment consists—the love of truth, the sources of inspiration and the production of great works of art.”

“These, like beauty,” says Lane, “ultimately pertain to the unconscious, the heart and the soul. They pertain to the heart because it is love which discerns the mystery inherent in those things we see as beautiful; love which abandons arrogance and stands in awe before the mystery of life. It is love that sees beauty which, in turn, is always loved.”

Jackson Creek in the fall, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

The Beauty of Place

I grew up in the Eastern Townships, a gently rolling agricultural region in Quebec, Canada. I followed my older brother and sister to the nearby maple-beech forest and local stream. The forest was our playground and gateway to our imaginative play. We stirred soil, flower petals and other interesting things with water to fuel “magic potions” that we inflicted on some poor insect. Yes, I was a bit destructive as a child—and I took a lot for granted.

Country road in Kawarthas in fall, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Much later in life, when I gave birth to my son, Kevin, in Vancouver, BC, I felt a miracle pass through me. Kevin became my doorway back to wonder. His curiosity was boundless and lured me into a special world of transformation. Kevin and I often explored the little woodland near our house. We made “magic potions” out of nightshade flowers, fir needles, loam and moss; we fueled our concoctions with the elixir of water from a stagnant pool. This time the little insects weren’t molested.

Red oak acorns line up against a tree root, Jackson Creek, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Being with my young son slowed my world and returned to me a great sense of wonder. A walk to the little store with young Kevin was an expedition. He’d amble, explore, poke, then suddenly squat and study something on the pavement that I’d missed. 

He brought me back to the ground, to the extra-ordinary mundane—to the quiet details and the fragrant light. Acting like a macro lens, he pointed me to the little things, Nature’s nuanced designs that I’d forgotten in the larger paradigms of my hurried life. 

Poplar leaf amid the litter of a cedar forest floor (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

He brought me back to the immediate, to Nature’s elegant silence and beauty. He showed me the fractal wonders of tree branches, exploding seeds, glorious reflections in puddles, strange mud waves and odd moss-covered rocks. We crouched in halted silence to watch a bee feast from a flower’s nectar then launch itself—a dirigible laden with pollen—into the sky. We followed the brilliant Fibonacci spiral of a sunflower or the circular gossamer web of a spider, both mimicking the greater spiral of our own Milky Way Galaxy. We stuck our tongues out to taste the snow as it cascaded down in heaps or caught hexagonal snowflakes on our sleeves and sadly watched them melt. We stomped in road puddles or threw rocks and watched the circles of waves feed outward, changing the colour and texture of everything. We collected flotsam in nebulous forest pools and made magical potions. We wrote stories in the ocean sand, then leapt from dry rock to dry rock until the sea trapped us in its rushing embrace.

Group of young boys explore the river bank, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

My adult son still carries that sense of wonder for the natural world. He lives in British Columbia where he skis the mountains and frequently hikes the mountain foothills and old-growth forests of that beautiful province.

He’s soul-bathing. 

My son Kevin skiing in British Columbia (photo by Lindsay; rendition by Nina Munteanu)

In her 2003 foreword to John Lane’s book Timeless Beauty, Kathleen Raine writes, “Of Plato’s three verities, the Good, the True and the Beautiful, none can be understood in terms of the materialist values of modern Western civilization, and beauty least of all.” She adds, “Keats saw [beauty] as the highest value—because its reality can be known only to the soul … If beauty is the highest of Plato’s verities this is because it is in accordance with our nature: Plato did not invent that need. And did not Dostoevsky in The Idiot affirm his believe that the world can be saved only by beauty? We disregard and undervalue the beautiful at our peril.” 

“That the universe is alive, a living entity, there can, it seems, be less and less doubt, and that it is beautiful there can be none at all.”

—John Lane, Timeless Beauty
Mossy rocks in Jackson Creek, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Parts of this article are excerpted from “Water Is…The Meaning of Water.”

References:

Aristotle. 350 BCE (1984). “The Poetics” and “Metaphysics.” In: “The Complete Works: The Revised Oxford Translation, Vol. 1. Bollingen/ Princeton University Press, N.J. 2512 pp.

Birkhoff, George David. 1933. “Aesthetic Measure.” Harvard University Press. 225 pp. 

Hutcheson, Francis. 1725 (2004). “An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue.” In: Wolfgang Leidhold (ed) Indianapois: Liberty Fund. 

Lane, John. 2003 “Timeless Beauty: In the Arts and Everyday Life.” UIT Cambridge Ltd, , UK. 192 pp. 

Livio, Mario. 2005. “The Equation that Couldn’t Be Solved.” Simon & Schuster. 368 pp. 

Moore, Jared S. 1942. “Beauty as Harmony.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 2(7): 40–50. 

Munteanu, Nina. 2016. “Water Is…The Meaning of Water.” Pixl Press, Vancouver. 586pp.

Newton, Eric. 1950. “The Meaning of Beauty.” Whittlesey House. 207 pp. 

Puffer, Ethel. 1905. “Psychology of Beauty.” Houghton, Mifflin & Co., NY. 156 pp. 

Marsh with cattails and flock of geese, near Millbrook, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Overcoming Climate Change, One Story at a Time: “Stories for Earth” Interviews Nina Munteanu

I was recently interviewed by Forrest Brown on his podcast Stories for Earth, a site in Georgia devoted to entertaining and informing its audience on matters to do with climate change and environment and how literature represents and influences our understanding and behaviour in the current and future issues of planet Earth. The site’s mission statement reads: “Stories for Earth seeks to foster hope and emotional resilience by discussing cultural narratives that contain parallels and takeaways to our current predicament. Cultural narratives provide stories for our past, present, and future, and Stories for Earthcritically engages with these narratives through all mediums.”

This is what Forrest says about how and why he started his podcast:

I founded Stories for Earth in the summer of 2019. As a writer and lifelong lover of stories, I never suspected my two biggest interests might have something to do with fighting climate change. That is, until one day when I came across an article about an interesting class at the University of Washington Bothell.

This class, taught by senior lecturer Dr. Jennifer W. Atkinson, sought to help students struggling with the emotional effects of climate change, specifically with the feelings of hopelessness and despair associated with climate grief. Atkinson is a professor of environmental humanities and American literature, so naturally she chose to do this by examining climate change through what she knows best: literature.

After I read this, something clicked. Of course literature can help us face climate change, I thought. Literature and stories in general have helped humanity overcome countless struggles throughout the course of our history—why can’t they help us overcome climate change too?

Stories for Earth is my personal realization of that idea. I want to read books, watch movies, and engage with stories through any other medium out there that can better prepare me to fight climate change in my own way without losing my mind. This podcast is my way of sharing what I learn with you, the listener, and I hope you’ll follow along. If anything you hear sticks or helps you in some way, consider sharing it with a friend who might also benefit from it. We must take care of each other.

Here’s the blurb on the site for our interview

Nina Munteanu is a prolific and insightful Canadian science fiction writer who has published nine novels, including her most recent novel A Diary in the Age of Water. This novel imagines a Canada in the not-so-distant-future where water is becoming increasingly scarce, partially because water sources are drying up and partially because the US and China are buying up water from all the recently privatized Canadian utilities. As a limnologist–literally a fresh water scientist–it makes sense for Nina to be the one telling this story, and our conversation ranges from water shortages in the present day to Ray Bradbury to the need for a new paradigm for living.

We also discuss the connection between exploitive capitalism/colonialism and climate change, then move onto the new paradigm for living by looking at regenerative cultures, the gift economy used by many indigenous peoples, and the creation of an ecological civilization. 

Here’s the interview:

Here’s part of our interview:

  1. Tell me about yourself. How did you become a writer? Why do you think stories are important in the climate action movement?

I wasn’t much of a reader as a kid. While my older brother and sister devoured The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series, I hid myself in the back corner of Williams General store and read comics: Superman, Supergirl, Magnus Robot Fighter. I was obviously enamoured with the fantastic. When I earnestly started to read things other than comics, I came across the SF classics: Huxley, Orwell, LeGuin and Asimov to name a few. Ray Bradbury moved me and his “Martian Chronicles” made me cry. I wanted to write science fiction like him and move readers like he’d done with me. But I’d also discovered the sensual classics like Thomas Hardy. So, like most beginner writers, I started by imitating my favourites. Imagine the genre-confused chimeric stuff I was writing: Thomas Hardy crossed with Ray Bradbury? It wasn’t until I found my unique voice, which blended these with my passion for the environment, that my own voice emerged. The environment and how we treat it (and ourselves by extension) has always been something important to me since I was a kid when littering was a pet peeve—it still is… I think that the stories we tell help us define ourselves and our role on this planet. Climate fiction and eco-literature and solarpunk provide us with important narratives that both entertain and educate: from cautionary tales to constructive visualizations of a potential future.  

  • Your new novel A Diary in the Age of Water is the story of a young girl in the future who discovers a diary from a Canadian woman who wrote about her experiences living in an increasingly water-scarce Canada in the 2040s. What inspired you to write this story?

It started with a short story I was invited to write in 2015 about water and politics in Canada.  I had long been thinking of potential ironies in Canada’s water-rich heritage. The premise I wanted to explore was the irony of people in a water-rich nation experiencing water scarcity: living under a government-imposed daily water quota of 5 litres as water bottling and utility companies took it all. I named the story “The Way of Water.” It was about a young woman (Hilda) in near-future Toronto who has run out of water credits for the public wTap; by this time houses no longer have potable water and their water taps have been cemented shut; the only way to get water is through the public wTaps—at great cost. She’s standing two metres from water—in a line of people waiting to use the tap—and dying of thirst. The short story begged for more and that inspiration came when I attended a talk by Maude Barlow on her book Boiling Pointabout the water crisis in Canada. We were in a church and I noticed a young mother and her little six-year old daughter in the balcony; I wondered what kind of mother would bring her little girl to a political talk about water in Canada? The diarist character, Lynna, and her mother, Una, were born. It went from there with Lynna—the diarist—writing about not just water shortage but water related phenomena such as climate change, habitat destruction, hormone disruption and the alarming increased infertility in humans.

  • Coincidentally, I just interviewed another author, C.C. Berke, about his novel Man, Kind, in which people also become infertile in the future. I’ll be honest, this isn’t a problem I was really aware of until recently, but humans are indeed becoming less fertile with every new generation. Is this something you hoped to raise awareness about with your novel?

The short answer is yes! I hope it helps spark the much needed discussion. Rising infertility is an issue that seems to embarrass us … something we feel we must hide under the rug, so to speak. Like our misbehaving Uncle Zeek. But if we don’t talk about it, we can’t understand the underlying reasons for it, many of which are environmentally induced—things we should be addressing. 

  • Politics and big business play huge roles in your novel, as they do in real life as well. Canada has privatized its water utilities after the Conservative Party comes into power, and a giant company called CanadaCorp removes municipal water connections from people’s homes and imposes strict water rations, all while selling off Canada’s precious water to US states like California that would otherwise be uninhabitable. Given that Canada is home to a huge portion of the world’s freshwater, what role do you see Canada playing in the coming years when many prominent people—including the Vice President of the United States—have predicted that wars will one day be fought over water?

She’s right. But this isn’t just in the future; water wars are occurring right now and have for some time. Perhaps not between our two countries. Certainly in the middle east and Asia. There are tensions between Egypt, and nine upstream countries for control of water in the Nile watershed; the Sudanese and Ethiopians are building dams and Egypt plans to pump water from Lake Nassar into the Sahara. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and China are in conflict over control of rivers such as the Indus, Ganges, and particularly the Brahmaputra. India’s River Link Plan impacts Bangladesh. Meantime Pakistan, Kashmir and India fight over more and more water, as the Indus dries up and no longer flows into the ocean.

But let’s move closer to home, to North America and the premise of water conflicts here… Considering what you mentioned about Canada’s huge water storage of freshwater, water conflicts are inevitable. Canada and America border some significant water bodies such as the Great Lakes and various rivers like the Columbia River in the west. We’ve formed joint commissions along with treaties to manage these trans-boundary water bodies. They’ve often been highly electrified politically. The book by Eileen Delhanty Pearkes—“A River Captured”—explores the controversial history of the Columbia River Treaty and the huge dams built on that system that impacted ecosystems, indigenous peoples and local cultures in the Pacific Northwest. That didn’t go very well for Canada and particularly not for some of its indigenous peoples.  Another example that my book features is from the 1960s: the NAWAPA project, a plan by Ralph Parsons Company and the Army Corps of Engineers to make the entire Rocky Mountain Trench into a giant 800-km long reservoir to hydrate the US by inundating a fifth of British Columbia’s prime habitat, several towns and indigenous communities and literally destroy a fishery. But guess what? Congress was seriously looking at it and the plan keeps resurfacing among corporate entrepreneurs, engineers and politicians.

  • Going back to big business, do you think industry and sustainability are compatible? I know some cultural movements like solarpunk emphasize DIY and more small businesses over mass production and giant corporations. Do you have any thoughts on this? This is one of the defining questions of our time, but can we have both capitalism and a livable planet?

Some people—mostly economists—would say definitely yes; we just need to be conservationist in our approach to doing business. But the very basis of capitalism is exploitation, not conservation. The driving force behind capitalism is fear and uncertainty and its main process is exploitation. From an ecologist’s perspective, this makes sense for a community during its early succession and growth stage… when it first colonizes a new area. Ecologists call this approach r-selected (for rate), based on profligate and fast growth. But as we reach a climax community and our carrying capacity—where we are now—this r-selected approach no longer works. We need an economic model that better matches this new paradigm. NOT based on continued growth! A climax global economy, one based on cooperation not competition. Elisabet Sahtouris calls this ecological economy ecosophy. In his book “Designing Regenerative Cultures” Daniel Christian Wahl talks about changing our evolutionary narrative from one based on fear defined by a perception of scarcity, competition, and separation to one based on love defined by a perception of abundance, a sense of belonging, collaboration and inclusion. 

And moving forward we can take a lesson from Robin Wall Kimmerer who talks about a gift economy—an economy of abundance—whose basis lies in recognizing the value of kindness, sharing, and gratitude in an impermanent world. This is what she says: “Climate change is a product of this extractive economy and is forcing us to confront the inevitable outcome of our consumptive lifestyle, genuine scarcity for which the market has no remedy. Indigenous story traditions are full of these cautionary teachings. When the gift is dishonored, the outcome is always material as well as spiritual. Disrespect the water and the springs dry up. Waste the corn and the garden grows barren. Regenerative economies which cherish and reciprocate the gift are the only path forward. To replenish the possibility of mutual flourishing, for birds and berries and people, we need an economy that shares the gifts of the Earth, following the lead of our oldest teachers, the plants.”

  • The diary entries in your novel make frequent reference to the post-truth era we seem to be living in. I feel like we’ve been heading in this direction for a while (it seems as though books like Manufacturing Consentby Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman and 1984by George Orwell have documented this), but I think many people feel as though we officially entered the post-truth era when Kellyanne Conway used the term “alternative facts” in a Meet The Pressinterview in 2017. Again, this is another huge question of our time, but how do those of us pushing for climate action make progress when entire political parties like the Republican Party in the US and the Conservative Party of Canada are in blatant denial of reality? (Actually, it seems worse than denial of reality—they use the fascist tactic of disregarding reality and replacing it with their own reality, even though they know what they’re doing.)

I have absolutely no answer for that! LAUGH! ARGH! But seriously, how do you convince someone about an evidence-based truth when they are living by a faith-based or agenda-based truth? As a scientist who has lived most of her life doing research and learning to accept the truth of evidence, I find this belief or stance incomprehensible. So you weren’t asking me a question, were you? Well, I’ve heard some great advice on this actually and that is to appeal to a person’s compassion, their kindness, their links to family and friends and find some common ground through their humanity in the phenomenon—say a local manifestation of climate change—then work from there. Keep it local and practical and nonthreatening. In other words, take the science out of it and the belief out of it and appeal on humane grounds. You can’t convince someone to change their belief, but you might be able to persuade them to accept an aspect of something if it doesn’t threaten their belief. 

  • I’d like to talk about the persistence of colonialism and how it’s tied to the climate crisis. In your novel, enormous swaths of British Columbia have been turned into reservoirs to store water to sell to Americans. Doing this displaces lots of people, especially indigenous and First Nations people. But things like this are happening even now. In Minnesota, the Canadian energy company Enbridge has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars paying local police departments to stop Water Protectors from blocking construction of Line 3, which would desecrate indigenous land and transport tar sands oil to US refineries. Could you talk a little about the importance of protecting indigenous and First Nations people’s rights, especially in the climate action movement?

You cite a great example of capitalist exploitation in the fossil fuel industry, which is occurring everywhere on the globe. As I mentioned already, Local and Traditional Ecological Knowledge lies at the heart of preserving this planet’s health and balanced climate. And Indigenous people around the world are regaining control of their territorial environments to reinvigorate food security, governance, social relations and economies. To quote Steven Nitah of the Dene First Nation, “because of their attachment to, and dependence on the land, Indigenous Peoples have been establishing their own protected areas for millennia.”

Luckily, we’re getting on board with this on a grass roots level and even government level—where it needs to be. An example of this are the Indigenous-led conservation movements like the Indigenous Guardians and the IPCAs (the Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas) where indigenous governments have the primary role in protecting and conserving ecosystems through indigenous laws, governance and knowledge systems. This is linked to the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)—specifically Articles 29 and 32—to govern themselves and their territories and to conserve and protect them. British Columbia in Canada sees many examples of Indigenous-led conservation leadership such with the Tla-o-qui-aht and Haida. 

An example I’m following is the Heiltsuk Nation on the Great Bear Sea who have enacted an Oceans Act to protect their ocean relatives and particularly the Pacific herring—a keystone species. The Heiltsuk-herring relationship have thrived over millennia through a system of traditional ecological knowledge, gwee-ee-las, and sustainable harvesting practices. Under current legislation overseen by DFO, commercial fisheries have pretty much destroyed the herring fishery through unsustainable practices. While the Heiltsuk’s stewardship and governance of this area was recently recognized by Canada’s provincial and federal governments, DFO continued to operate separately through settler law, opening herring seine fishery in violation of Heiltsuk constitutional rights. Then they finally collaborated. We’re working it out. It’s an ongoing conversation. 

  • We live in a time where it is so hard to decipher what is true, what is propaganda, and what is conspiracy theory. Your novel deals with this theme a lot through the character Daniel and his obsession with a social media-like platform called Oracle. Could you talk about writing this character and what inspired his creation?

Daniel is a kind of twisted hipster version of an oracle. Young. Wise. Naïve all at the same time.  I brought him in as a trickster archetype, and a kind of foil to Lynna, the main character in the diary part of the book. He’s her technician and work mate and ends up being her link to the world of gossip and dark truths repressed by the corporations via the traditional internet. He finds these gems in the quagmire of the net to share with her over coffee. He’s really a very bright and astute technologist, but he also seems naïve in some ways. For instance, he’s a researcher who dabbles in conspiracy theory. He’s all about health but he smokes. So, a man of contradictions. So, even though he is Lynna’s coffee companion and amuses her, he also unsettles her. In true trickster fashion, he finds out her secret and pays for it. His character allows me to explore the best and worst of the diarist character Lynna. 

  • I hope I’m not giving too much away with this question (we can skip it if you don’t want spoilers), but I want to talk about one of the central themes of the book: is it possible to save the Earth while saving humanity? The author of the diary, Lynna, writes about her water activist daughter, Hilde, a little over halfway through the book: “Does Hilde realize that she’s an oxymoron? To fight for water and the environment is to fight against humanity. Because at the root of Daniel’s question—would you save the planet at the expense of humanity?—lies the deeper question: can humanity exist without destroying the environment? And has Hilde made her prognosis? I know Una still believed in her heart that we could. I always thought her optimism was naïve.” For a long time, it seems like a narrative of the environmental movement was that humans are a virus. But now, there’s a big pushback against this narrative, with activists pointing to the systemic players who bear the most responsibility for the climate crisis. What do you think? Are humans the root problem?

On the surface, I’d say yes. Of course we are. But that is a far too simple and easy answer. It’s the easy way out. It isn’t so much that we’re human that created the climate crisis. It is that we— most of us—live and subscribe to a worldview and belief system that came from a place of great uncertainty with a perception of scarcity and an existential model based on fear and separation. Ancient peoples and most indigenous people today do not hold themselves as separate from the land; they already live in ecological civilizations. An ecological civilization is both a new and ancient idea. Buddhist, Taoist, and other traditions base their spiritual wisdom on the deep interconnectedness of all things. According to Robin Wall Kimmerer “In indigenous ways of knowing, it is understood that each living being has a particular role to play. Every being is endowed with certain gifts, its own intelligence, its own spirit, its own story…The foundation of education is to discover that gift within us and learn to use it well.” I think we’re starting to do this. Partly through listening to the Traditional Ecological Knowledge of our indigenous peoples.

I do believe that human nature is basically empathic and cooperative over selfish and competitive; I think we are born the former and taught to be the latter. That is what needs to change. How we are taught. 

  1. On a related note, the issue of overpopulation is a highly controversial topic in the environmental movement. This has led to some fear-mongering from Conservative politicians who tell their constituents that climate activists want to make a “one child” law like the draconian one-child policy in China that began in the late 70s as part of a government program to curb population growth. Yet, overpopulation is an enormous problem, with Project Drawdown saying, “Education lays a foundation for vibrant lives for girls and women, their families, and their communities. It also is one of the most powerful levers available for avoiding emissions by curbing population growth. Women with more years of education have fewer and healthier children, and actively manage their reproductive health.” Do you think overpopulation needs to be part of the conversation in the environmental movement? Do you think there are times when pointing to this issue as it relates to climate change is problematic?

It certainly can polarize and spark conflict. Reproduction and the right to reproduce is an innate impulse of all life: to make more of itself. So, we’re in conflict with ourselves already. I agree with Project Drawdown. But how to enter into a rationale and productive discussion on this issue relies on the players, their rationale, perspective, and their personal feelings on the matter. We kind of know there should be fewer of us but how to achieve that is another matter. It comes down to ecological footprints and living lightly on the earth and other philosophical considerations. You and I talked earlier about infertility. It seems a macabre kind of irony going on with habitat degradation caused partially by over-population sparking infertility in humans through endocrine disrupting chemicals in our drinking water…

  1. Change is another big theme in your novel, reminding me of Octavia E. Butler’s masterpiece Parable of the Sower, in which she writes, “God is change.” In your novel, Lynna writes, “Trapped by our preordained notion of change, we no longer see what we’re not prepared to see. And that’s the change that kills us.” The problem with climate change is that everything is happening too fast for biological evolution to keep pace. There’s a lot of buzz about transhumanism right now—do you think we’re approaching a point where humans will have to take evolution into our own hands, so to speak, if we want to survive?

It isn’t our intelligence—our cleverness—that will save us; it is our kindness and compassion that will do that. We don’t need to invent some techy thing or reinvent ourselves or implant some intelligent virus into us. What we simply need to do is accept ourselves with humility, find and express joy. Give in to the beauty of our world and our own part in it. Become a participant. Embrace the feminine. Respect Nature and all that lies in it. Find something there to love, cherish it and protect it. The rest will follow. 

Nina Munteanu and Forrest Brown on “Stories for Earth” Podcast

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

The Future of Books…

Vancouver Central Library, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Just over five years ago I read a survey by bestselling author Marie Force who revealed some interesting trends about what American readers like, what format they prefer and where they find their writers. While the survey was fairly small and restricted to Americans (just under 3,000 people responded to 44 questions), I think it provided a good microcosm of what the trend is out there in North America generally. Here are the main points I took away, of which I think remain relevant today:

  1. Increased sales of Digital Books: the increasing sales of digital books (ebooks) and the rising sales of audiobooks is a wonderful and uplifting icon of rising literacy. More people are reading—and listening—to books now than ever. And we have the digital book, Kindles, Kobos and iPads to thank for it. The “book” has become more accessible and readable. People swarm the public transit, clutching their iPhones and reading devices. 
  2. Readers still choose Print Books: Obviously, print books are cherished by readers for their intrinsic value. Books—their tangible tactile presence—will always remain with us; in collector’s showcase libraries, in trendy artistic venues, and funky local neighbourhood venues.
  3. My Crazy Prediction: print books will become the epitome of publishing value and worth. Already coveted by collectors whose libraries will represent the best of the best in the literary world, print books will come to represent the highest status in literature. Only the best stories will endure as print books; perhaps only the “best book” will even be published in print form. Its existence in print form will define its literary value.
  4. Take Home Message to Authors: ensure that your book appears in print form and get it into the hands of classy libraries and classy people. So, even if you don’t survive the apocalypse, your book will…
Vancouver Central Library, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Nina Munteanu Talks About ‘Water Is…’ and ‘A Diary in the Age of Water’ with Dr. Steven Miletto

Nina Munteanu appears on “Teaching, Learning, Leading, K-12” Podcast with Dr. Steven Miletto

I was recently interviewed by Dr. Steven Miletto in Georgia on his podcast “Teaching Learning Leading K12”—Episode 401. We talked about my two recent books on water,Water Is…and A Diary in the Age of Water. The 1-hour interview covered a range of topics from why water makes us feel so good, to the study of limnology, and writing both non-fiction and fiction about water. In the latter, I talked about water as a character in story. We also talked about how characters form in a story and how to keep going when the muse or the joy buries itself.

Jackson Creek, ON (photo and dry-brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

On Writing: The Gestalt Nature of Passion & Success

Marsh and swamp forest in a blushing sunset, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

What is to give light must endure burning —Victor Frankl

Says Keyes: “Any writing lays the writer open to judgment about the quality of his work and thought,” writes Ralph Keyes, author of The Courage to Write. “The closer [the writer] gets to painful personal truths, the more fear mounts—not just about what he might reveal, but about what he might discover should he venture too deeply inside. But to write well, that’s exactly where we must venture.”

So, why do it, then? Why bother? Is it worth it to make yourself totally vulnerable to the possible censure and ridicule of your peers, friends, and relatives? To serve up your heart on a platter to just have them drag it around as Stevie Nicks would say?…

Welcome to the threshold of your career as a writer. This is where many aspiring writers stop: in abject fear, not just of failure but of success. The only difference between those that don’t and those that do, is that the former come to terms with their fears, in fact learn to use them as a barometer to what is important.

“Everyone is afraid to write,” says Keyes. “They should be. Writing is dangerous…To love writing, fear writing and pray for the courage to write is no contradiction. It’s the essence of what we do.”

Marsh in the Kawarthas, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Unravelling the Secret…

How do you get past the fear of being exposed, past the anticipated disappointment of peers, past the terror of success?

The answer is passion. If you are writing about something you are passionate about, you will find the courage to see it through. “The more I read, and write,” says Keyes:

The more convinced I am that the best writing flows less from acquired skill than conviction expressed with courage. By this I don’t mean moral convictions, but the sense that what one has to say is something others need to know.

This is ultimately what drives a writer to not just write but to publish: the need to share one’s story, over and over again. To prevail, persist, and ultimately succeed, a writer must have conviction and believe in his or her writing. You must believe that you have something to say that others want to read. Ask yourself why you are a writer. Your answer might surprise you.

Every writer is an artist. And every artist is a cultural reporter. One who sometimes holds the world accountable. “Real art,” says Susan Sontag, “makes us nervous.”

The first step, then, is to acknowledge your passion and own it. Flaunt it, even. Find your conviction, define what matters and explore it to the fullest. You will find that such an acknowledgement will give you the strength and fortitude to persist and persevere, particularly in the face of those fears. Use the fears to guide you into that journey of personal truths. Frederick Busch described it this way: “You go to dark places so that you can get there, steal the trophy and get out.”

John Steinbeck, author of Grapes of Wrath, said:

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced that there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader.  

Marsh of cattails, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Finding Success Through Meaning

Victor Frankl survived Auschwitz to become an important neurologist and psychiatrist of our time and to write Man’s Search for Meaning.

Blogger Gavin Ortlund wrote: “What gripped me most about [Frankl’s] book, and has stayed with me to this day, is not the horror and barbarity of his experiences in concentration camps—when you pick up a book about the holocaust, you expect that. What really struck me was Frankl’s repeated insistence that even there, in the most inhumane and horrific conditions imaginable, the greatest struggle is not mere survival. The greatest struggle is finding meaning. As I was reading, I was struck with this thought: going to a concentration camp is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. The worst that can happen to a person is not having a transcendent reason to live. Life is about more than finding comfort and avoiding suffering: it’s about finding what is ultimate, whatever the cost.”

Victor Frankl wisely said:

The more you aim at success and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.

Frankl is talking about passion. “If you long to excel as a writer,” says Margot Finke, author of How to Keep Your Passion and Survive as a Writer, “treasure the passion that is unique within yourself. Take the irreplaceable elements of your life and craft them into your own personal contribution to the world.” It’s what has you up to 2 am, pounding the keys. It follows you down the street and to work with thoughts of another world. It puts a notebook and pen in your hand as you drive to the store, ready to record thoughts about a character, scene or place. “For the passionate, writing is not a choice; it’s a force that cannot be denied.”

Finke says it astutely: You need to be passionate about everything to do with your book—the writing and rewriting, your critique group, your research, your search for the best agent/editor, plus your query letter. Not to mention the passion that goes into promoting your book. Nothing less will assure your survival—and success—as a writer.

“Follow your inner moonlight, don’t hide the madness”

Allen Ginsberg

This article is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! by Nina Munteanu

References:

Finke, Margot. 2008. “How to Keep Your Passion and Survive as a Writer.” In: The Purple Crayonhttp://www.underdown.org/mf_ writing_passion

Frankl, Victor. (1946) 1997. Man’s Search for Meaning. Pocket Books. 224 pp.

Keyes, Ralph. 1999. The Writer’s Guide to Creativity. Writer’s Digest, 1999.

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now. Starfire World Syndicate. 294pp

Ortlund, Gavin. 2008. “Frankl, the holocaust and meaning.” In: Let Us Hold Fast. http://gro1983.blogspot.com/2008/02/frankl-holocaust-and-meaning.html

Slonim Aronie, Nancy. 1998. Writing from the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice. Hyperion. 256pp.

Marsh near Millbrook, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Anachronisms and Ambiguity in Spec-Fic: “Dreams of the Moon”, a guest post by Lorina Stephens

“Petawawa River” by Lorina Stephens (7″ x 10″ watercolour on Arches 140 lb hot pressed)

I first met Lorina Stephens some years back when I joined SF Canada, the organization of Canadian professional science fiction, fantasy and horror writers and publishers. Lorina was already the publisher of Five Rivers Publishing, a highly successful small book publishing house out of Neustadt, Ontario. What I didn’t know at the time was that she is also a consummate landscape artist, using watercolour to create evocative art. And, of course, a consummate storyteller.

She’s here today to talk about her latest book Dreams of the Moon, a new collection of ten fantastica short stories, described by writer/reviewer R. Graeme Cameron as “Darkness and light. Wonder and sorrow. The ambiguity, sometimes, of reflected illumination … In this new collection of both previously published and new short fiction, Lorina presents a progression from darker, sometimes horrific stories which explore religious mythology, mental health, and the beloved dead, to the more light-hearted explorations of spirit guides and illustrations made manifest.”

Lorina’s previous short story collection And the Angels Sang published in 2008 was described as “a provocative [collection] of speculative short fiction, from dystopia to utopia, written over the past 25 years.”

“the Angels Sangis a cornucopia of fractal glimpses into the mysterious, the fantastic, and surprises that lurk beneath the surface.”—Midwest Book Review 

“It is often the case with contemporary Canadian authors that they have a tendency to punctuate their novels with long, psychological dissertations on mundane subjects. It’s as if they feel that each everyday occurrence is fraught with deep sociological undertones. Lorina Stephens, fortunately, is free of such meanderings. She has a good economy of words and each paragraph contains vital information.”—Dan Pelton, Orangeville Citizen

Here’s Lorina’s post:

The last collection of short stories I published was in 2008. It’s an eclectic mix which I entitled And the Angels Sang, named for the lead story. To my delight, it’s met with quite a bit of positive reaction from both readers and reviewers.

In the ensuing years, I’ve crafted a number of other short stories in between operating a publishing house and all the demands of being an administrator in our other business, one which pays the bills. A lot has happened during that time: our son married his life-buddy, three major surgeries, a failed attempt at elder care, renovating this old stone house which was built c1847, and as I write this, into the second year of a global pandemic. 

And somewhere in all that still writing, still exploring ideas and what-ifs. I do have to admit a reluctance to writing short fiction. The literary form seems so restrictive to me, perhaps more having to do with the fact I have too much to say and want to make an epic out of everything. But short story writing is good discipline.

Having said that, I’m giving you 10 short works of fiction in this collection [Dreams of the Moon], spanning the boundaries of science fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, magic realism and absurd fantastica. Apparently, I don’t much like writing in just one genre, either. Creative fences drive me batshit crazy, although I do very much appreciate fences around this sanctuary we are privileged to call home. But there is a theme to this collection, a common thread I think you will find through all the stories. What it is, I will leave up to you to decipher, and thus we will have a silent communication.

I’ve arranged the stories in some loose graduation of dark to light, and again have chosen to use the lead story as the title for the collection. But the title Dreams of the Moon is more, because as a child, and then an adolescent, I firmly believed if I arranged myself just so in the bed, so that when the moon shone in my window, something wonderful would happen. It never did. But I still felt compelled to answer the call of that pale, eerie light. 

And then there were all the moonlight walks in the deep of the night which took place well into adulthood. Wonderful moments. Moments I remember with clarity and wonder, whether moonlight so bright on a winter’s night that the trees by the river cast indigo shadows across the snow, or a brace of geese rising up and across that silver face. And as with all things, there is the dark side of the moon: a sleepless night fraught with sorrow and a desperate attempt to rescue someone I dearly loved.

All of these moments influence and underscore what I write. It’s there in these 10 stories. Darkness and light. Wonder and sorrow. The ambiguity, sometimes, of reflected light. Dreams of the Moon.

The third story in the collection, Gravity, slides from the horrific to a quieter, perhaps oppressive literary piece of speculative fiction. As in At Union, the second story in the collection, Gravity deals with the loss of a child, in this case a daughter who dies while on a scientific mission at the edge of a singularity. 

I do like playing with anachronisms, because somehow they are a metaphor for many of the ironies in our lives. So it is in this story the main character is a woman of age who is a maker of old world automatons, and in this case she’s working on a silver niello owl. 

I chose an owl because of both the dark mythology which often surrounds owls, and because of their sheer beauty. They are amazing raptors. Silent. Deadly. Reticent creatures. Amazing fliers through dense forest. 

There is also an eerie spring in the story, which is inspired by a sulphur hot spring not far from our home. It flows at a constant temperature 12 months of the year, which is remarkable given our geographic location. It’s also a very eerie spring to view. The water is a pellucid turquoise, flowing with force out of a deep funnel, and in which nothing grows. There is just this volume of warm, clear water fountaining up out of the bowels of the earth and spilling out into the Saugeen River complex.

Of course, you’re likely scratching your head at this point wondering how the hell did I weave together the death of a daughter, a singularity, a mourning mother, a hot spring, and a clockwork owl? Well, at the risk of being coy, you’ll have to read the story in order to find out.

Dreams of the Moon is available in trade paperback and ebook, either directly through my website or through your favourite online bookseller wherever you live in the world. It’s also available through elibrary services globally. 

“Big Sky” by Lorina Stephens (7″ x 1o” watercolour on Arches 140 lb hot pressed)

The Art of Lorina Stephens

Lorina tells us that the two watercolours featured here “are both part of a series I’ve been exploring the past three years since my mum died,” says Lorina. “Painting was one of the few things we shared throughout a difficult and often shattered relationship. So, in this series in particular, I have been trying to capture the sense of peace, of belonging to the planet, of harmony.”

Lorina primarily paints in watercolour: “I prefer to use transparent pigments, carefully glazing from warm, light pigments to cool, dark, which allows light to travel through those microscopic films of colour. I think that creates a clarity of colour, which then adds to the sense of luminescence I want to imbue into most of my art. I do also work in oils, acrylics, and pen and ink, as well as pencil and pastels. But my heart lies in watercolour because it’s such a precise, unforgiving, technical medium. It makes me slow down, consider. And I like that meditative process. It’s also something I do in my writing: think a lot. That’s essential to being creative, at least for me.”

Lorina mostly works in landscapes, often with lakes and rivers, icons of a water-rich nation. “We are such a remarkable land of water,” she says. “Our geography is breathtaking.”  Atmospherics—weather—fascinates Lorina. “I love the challenge of bringing that sense of fog, or mist, or rain, or even crisp, clear air to a painting, of making the viewer feel they are there, without resorting to magic realism. I like to tuck my work somewhere comfortably between realism and impressionism.” 

Biography on Lorina Stephens

Lorina Stephens has worked all sides of the publishing desk: writer, editor, publisher. From freelance journalist for regional and national periodicals, to editor of a regional lifestyle magazine and then her own publishing house, she’s been at this professionally since 1980 and has witnessed publishing evolve into the dynamic form of self-expression which exists today. For 12 years Lorina operated Five Rivers Publishing as a house which gave voice to Canadian authors. Due to life circumstances, Lorina had to change direction, and so now the house exists as a bit of a vanity press for her work.

Lorina’s short fiction has appeared in literary and genre publications, novels under her own house, Five Rivers Publishing, non-fiction under Boston Mills Press and an anthology co-edited with Susan MacGregor, Tesseracts 22: Alchemy and Artifacts.

Mostly Lorina is an introvert. You won’t find her at conventions. On social media she mostly lurks. If you really want to know what Lorina is about, read her work. It’s that simple. If you’re curious, email her at: lorina@fiveriverspublishing.com

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.