A True Rocky Mountain Gem: The Antique Forest of Robson Valley

In my upcoming novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” (Inanna Publications) the diarist writes about the huge reservoir complex that was built in the late 2020s in the Rocky Mountain Trench to create an 800 km long reservoir system to rehydrate the United States. Of course, it’s science fiction, but it was based on real plans that went all the way to congress in the 1960s. That reservoir might have drowned the rainforest conservation corridor of Robson Valley—a conservation area that continues to experience existential risk due to development, resource harvest, and other disturbance.

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Friend Anne walks the boardwalk of the ancient forest park

In Robson Valley—tucked between the Rocky and Cariboo Mountains of East-Central British Columbia, the Fraser River nourishes an ancient rainforest matched nowhere on Earth. Massive Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata)—some over 1200 years-old, 3.5 meters in diameter, and 45 meters high—thrive in this valley, nurtured by abundant groundwater flow and high humidity for healthy tree growth and reduced fire risk. “Unfortunately, this requirement for growth in wet toe-slope positions has had negative consequences for ancient cedar stands. Historically, roads and railroads were placed at the base of mountain slopes, where easy access on level roadside terrain meant that ancient cedar stands were often among the first sites chosen for logging. Ancient cedar stands now represent less than 5% of forested landscapes within the Upper Fraser River watershed.” (UNBC Plant Ecology)

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Moss-covered giant Redcedar in foreground to boardwalk

This valley contains the most extensive inland rainforest in the northern hemisphere and is the only valley in the Rocky Mountains where grizzly bears still feed on wild ocean-going salmon.

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Western Redcedar with wide buttresses

The Save-The-Cedar League also tells us that the Robson Rainforest is oroboreal: mountain-caused with boreal biome characteristics—unlike typical rainforests which are temperate-coastal or tropical. “Antique Forest” is a term used for ancient cedar-hemlock stands that have endured for more than 1000 years. One stand in Primordial Grove can be seen via a well-constructed boardwalk in a small park off Highway 16.

When I entered the ancient forest of magnificent giants with wide buttressed bases, a deep reverence came over me. No other word comes close to describing what I experienced or felt. I was enthralled and humbled by these magnificent trees, silent giants that rose into the mist like sentinels, piercing the heavens. It had rained that morning and the forest dripped with living moisture. Greens of all shades created a living mosaic of hue and texture. Moss covered everything. Lichen dripped off branches and clothed trees in crenulated patterns. The fragrance was intoxicating, a fresh pungency that woke something inside me. The smell has been variously described as “lingering”, “fresh”, “sweet”, “like pineapple when crushed”, or “almost like fresh water.” Even the breeze took on a different voice inside this living cathedral. A kind of deep hush that whispered of sacred grandness.

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Western Redcedar

I knew I was in a sacred place.

This ancient forest had been here at least a millennium; long before the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the Atlantic shores of North America. Long before us. Referred to as “the cornerstone of northwest coastal Indian culture,” the Western Redcedar is known as the “tree of life” and “life giver.” Groves of ancient cedars were symbols of power, and gathering places for ceremonies, retreat, and contemplation.

I kept to the boardwalk—to help prevent unwanted trampling and soil compression. The boardwalk snaked past giant buttressed trees that towered several stories high and formed a feathered canopy way above me. Whenever the boardwalk came close to a giant cedar, I had to stop and touch it. The reddish bark was smooth. I smiled; many others had done the same. In unavoidable reverence.

Breathing in the tree’s exquisite fragrance, I scanned my surroundings. A rich understory of red-berried Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridus), huckleberry, fern, moss, liverworts and dense ground cover painted the forest floor in varying form and colour. I imagined the diversity of invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals that flourished here. I’m told that scientists are still finding new species in this rainforest. UBC scientists tell us that arboreal lichen communities of the inland rainforest, especially the epiphytic cyanolichen assemblages on conifers, are among the richest in the world.

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Nina Munteanu leans against a well-loved giant Western Redcedar

 

Gentle Giant of North Temporate Rainforest: Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata)

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Western Redcedar

The Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata) is one of the most magnificent conifers in Pacific Northwest forests (both coastal and inland); it flourishes along the coastal fog belt from Alaska to northern California, and inland from the Pacific Ocean to Montana. The Western Redcedar is actually an arborvitae—not a true cedar; acknowledged by its name “redcedar”. True cedars only grow in the Mediterranean regions of the world. “Thuja,” is the latinism for the ancient Greek word for a now unknown, long-lost aromatic evergreen wood; “plicata,” means “folded into plaits,” which may refer to the tree’s characteristic foliage or its furrowed, stringy bark. The heartwood is pink- to red-brown to deep warm brown and highly resistant to moisture, decay and insect infestation due to the oils and acids (polyoxylphenols) it produces; it’s the phenols, in fact, that give the cedar its distinctive and pleasant aroma.

Given their extensive root system, cedars can remain standing long after they die. Western Redcedar snags (standing dead trees) can remain intact for up to 125 years. The large snags provide habitat for many cavity-nesting birds and mammals. Many species that require snags for habitats also prey on insects that use trees in a fine balance of a functional ecosystem. Examples include the pileated woodpecker, squirrels, weasels, martens, bats, owls and ducks. A fallen cedar can remain on the forest floor for over a century. “This durability is the result of a natural preservative that is toxic to decay-causing fungi. This ability does not decrease with age; in fact, it increases,” writes Jeri Chase, Oregon forester.

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Devil’s Club

Several of these live ancient cedar trees grow out of the trunks of other live ancient cedars, following a 180 million-year-old pattern observed in the closely-related redwoods (Sequoia). Basal shoots of the trunk yield genetically-superior mature trees when compared to seeds, root sprouts, other shoots or other layering phenomena.

Western Redcedar reproduces from root or branch development on fallen trees—the classic “nurse logs” often seen in northwest forests that also nourish other forest species. The magnificent bark of the Redcedar ranges in color from grey to reddish brown, and is deeply furrowed, forming long flat fibrous plates that peel and shed easily. Wildlife use the cedar in many ways. The foliage is an important winter food for elk and is browsed year-long by deer and rodents. Black bears den in the hollowed-out trunks of old trees and the cedar-dominated old growth forests provide valuable habitat for spotted owls and Vaux swifts.

Functional Ecosystem & Symbiosis

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Red-backed vole

The Robson Valley cedar-hemlock rainforest supports a diverse and efficient ecosystem from apex and keystone predator—the grizzly—to black bear, gray wolf, cougar, lynx, wolverine, coyote, and seven ungulate species (including the Mountain caribou); all feeding on a diversity of prey and primary producers. The Mountain caribou feeds on mountain boxwood shrubs which are sheltered by the cedar and hemlock canopy layer.

An example of the symbiotic nature of the old growth cedar-hemlock forest is the red-backed vole, which resembles a large plump mouse. This forest mammal eats truffles—a type of fungus that lives underground. After digesting the truffles, voles spread the fungus around the litter layer of the forest through their droppings. The truffles help tree roots absorb soil minerals and the trees produce sugars necessary for the truffles: a win-win symbiotic relationship. The cedar and the hemlock require this alliance with truffles and voles to grow so large in the nutrient-poor soil.

The Inland Sea of the Rocky Mountain Trench

Diary Water cover finalUna stopped the car and we stared out across the longest reservoir in North America. What had once been a breathtaking view of the valley floor of the Rocky Mountain Trench was now a spectacular inland sea. It ran north-south over eight hundred kilometres and stretched several kilometres across to the foothills of the Cariboo Mountain Range. Una pointed to Mount Mica, Mount Pierre Elliot Trudeau and several other snow-covered peaks. They stood above the inland sea like sentinels of another time. Una then pointed down to what used to be Jackman Flats—mostly inundated along with McLellan River and the town of Valemont to the south. Hugging the shore of what was left of Jackman Flats was a tiny village. “That’s the new Tête Jaune Cache,” my mother told me.

If villages had karma this one was fated to drown over and over until it got it right.  Once a bustling trading town on the Grand Trunk Pacific railway, Tête Jaune Cache drowned in the early 1900s when the Fraser naturally flooded. The village relocated to the junction of the original Yellowhead 16 and 5 Highways. Villagers settled close to where the Fraser, Tête Creek, and the McLellan River joined, all fed by the meltwater from the glaciers and icefields of the Premiere Range of the Cariboo Mountains. The village drowned again in 2025. I imagined the pool halls, restaurants, saloons and trading posts crushed by the flood.

“This area used to be a prime Chinook spawning ground,” Una said. “They swam over 1,200 km from the Pacific Ocean to lay their eggs right there.” She pointed to the cobalt blue water below us.

The reservoir sparkled in the sun like an ocean. Steep shores rose into majestic snow-capped mountains. The village lay in a kind of cruel paradise, I thought. It was surrounded by a multi-hued forest of Lodgepole pine, Western red cedar, Douglas fir, paper birch and trembling Aspen. Directly behind the village was Mount Terry Fox and across the Robson valley mouth, to the northeast, rose Mount Goslin. Behind it, Mount Robson cut a jagged pyramid against a stunning blue sky. Wispy clouds veiled its crown. I couldn’t help thinking it was the most beautiful place I’d seen. And yet, for all its beauty, the villagers had lost their principle livelihood and food. The reservoir had destroyed the wildlife habitats and the fishery. And its people with it.

Una pointed to where the giant reservoir snaked northwest and where towns like Dunster, McBride and Prince George lay submerged beneath a silent wall of water. Her eyes suddenly misted as she told me about Slim Creek Provincial Park, between what used to be Slim and Driscoll Creeks just northwest of what used to be the community of Urling. She told me about the Oroboreal rainforest, called an “Antique Rainforest”—ancient cedar-hemlock stands over a 1000 years old. She described how massive trunks the width of a small house once rose straight up toward a kinder sun. The Primordial Grove was once home to bears, the gray wolf, cougar, lynx, wolverine and ungulates. It was the last valley in North America where the grizzly bear once fished ocean-going salmon. Now even the salmon were no longer there, she said. Then she bent low beside me and pulled me close to her in a hug. She quietly said to me, “This is what killed Trudeau.”

I stared at her and firmly corrected, “but that was an accident.”

“Yes,” she agreed. Then added, “a planned one.”

A Diary in the Age of Water

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Moss-covered Western Redcedar

 

NAWAPA (North America Water Power Alliance)

The original NAWAPA Plan was drawn up by the Pasadena-based firm of Ralph M. Parsons Co. in 1964, and had a favorable review by Congress for completion in the 1990s. The plan—thankfully never completed—was drafted by the US Army Corps of Engineers and entailed the southward diversion of a portion (if not all) of the Mackenzie and Yukon rivers in northern Canada and Alaska, now flowing into the Arctic Ocean as well as the Peace, Liard and other rivers flowing into the Pacific by creating massive dams in the north. This would cause the rivers to flow backwards into the mountains to form vast reservoirs that would flood one-tenth of British Columbia. The water would be channeled south through the 800-km Rocky Mountain Trench Reservoir into the Northern USA, and from there along various routes into the dry regions of the South, to California and reaching as far as Mexico.

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NAWAPA was envisioned as the largest construction effort of all times, comprising some 369 separate projects of dams, canals, and tunnels, for water diversion. The water diversion would be accomplished through a series of connecting tunnels, canals, lakes, dams, and pump-lifts, as the trench itself is located at an elevation of 914 m (3,000 feet). To the east, a 9 m (thirty-foot) deep canal would be cut from the Peace River to Lake Superior. Its largest proposed dam would be 518 m (1,700 feet) tall, more than twice the height of Hoover Dam (at 221 m) and taller than any dam in the world today, including the Jinping-I Dam in China (at 305 m).

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Robson Valley old growth

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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” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

Science Fiction On Water Justice & Climate Change

TheWaterKnife-Paolo BacigalupiThere were stories in sweat. The sweat of a woman bent double in an onion field, working fourteen hours under the hot sun, was different from the sweat of a man as he approached a checkpoint in Mexico, praying to La Santa Muerte that the federales weren’t on the payroll of the enemies he was fleeing…Sweat was a body’s history, compressed into jewels, beaded on the brow, staining shirts with salt. It told you everything about how a person had ended up in the right place at the wrong time, and whether they would survive another day.

So begins Paolo Bacigalupi’s speculative thriller The Water Knife, set in the near-future in the drought-stricken American southwest. Where corrupt state-corporations have supplanted the foundering national government. Where water is the new gold—to barter, steal, and murder for. Corporations have formed militias and shut down borders to climate refugees, fomenting an ecology of poverty and tragedy. Massive resorts—arcadias—constructed across the parched landscape, flaunt their water-wealth in the face of exploited workers and gross ecological disparity. Water is controlled by corrupt gangsters and “water knives” who cleverly navigate the mercurial nature of water rights in a world where “haves” hydrate and “have nots” die of thirst.

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Paolo Bacigalupi is just one of many authors of compelling dystopian eco-thrillers that engage readers in climate change—many with strong water themes: Margaret Atwood, Emmi Itäranta, Jeff VanderMeer, Richard Powers, Barbara Kingsolver, Upton Sinclair, Ursula Le Guin, JoeAnn Hart, Frank Herbert, John Yunker, Kim Stanley Robinson, James Bradley, Nathaniel Rich, David Mitchell, Junot Diaz, Claire Vaye Watkins, J.G. Ballard, Marcel Theroux, Thomas Wharton—just to name a few.

Diary Water cover finalMy upcoming novel by Inanna Publications—A Diary in the Age of Water coming out in 2020—explores the socio-political consequences of corruption in Canada, now owned by China and America as an indentured resource ‘reservoir’; it is a story told through four generations of women and their unique relationship with water during a time of great unheralded change. On February 17, 2046, limnologist Lynna writes in her diary about her mother Una:

Bald, alle das wasser verschwindet,” She said in her quiet voice of certainty. She always spoke in her mother tongue when it came to water. Soon, all the water will be gone. “Und so werden wir.” And so will we. “Es wird das Ende des Zeitalters des Wassers sein.” It will be the end of the Age of Water. 

Una always seemed to follow the thalweg. She seemed to always know what water was doing. Even when it braided and curled in on itself. Even when human-made obstructions got in the way; like the increased water tax, followed by the severe water-use quota. Like water, Una found a way around it.  

I wish I had that skill.

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Adobe Photoshop PDFScience fiction explores our water crisis through premises of extreme water shortage and devastating violence (floods, droughts and storms), water diversion, and hoarding. Premises explore weather manipulation, the consequences of extensive deforestation and the massive extinction of species. As with my own book A Diary in the Age of Water, Claudiu Murgan’s Water Entanglement explores water as a character, as though water has gone rogue, unruly. Perhaps even vengeful…

Today, we control water on a massive scale. Reservoirs around the world hold 10,000 cubic kilometres of water; five times the water of all the rivers on Earth. Most of these great reservoirs lie in the northern hemisphere, and the extra weight has slightly changed how the Earth spins on its axis, speeding its rotation and shortening the day by eight millionths of a second in the last forty years.

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Millennia ago, we adapted and lived by the rhythms of the global water cycle. We have since harnessed the power of water; we captured it and diverted it and changed it in ways to suit our own rhythms. Our unprecedented power over the planet’s water has advanced our civilizations immeasurably. But water remains our Achilles’ heel; it has the potential to limit our ambition like no other resource on Earth.

If climate change is the planet’s response to humanity’s relentless exploitation, water is its archangel.

Three Percent TVshowA tidal wave of TV shows and movies currently explore—or at least acknowledge—the devastation we are forcing on the planet. Every week Netflix puts out a new science fiction show that follows this premise of Earth’s devastation: 3%; The 100The TitanOrbiter 9; even Lost in Space.

Science fiction is suited to this role; it is the literature of consequence that explores large issues faced by humankind and can provide an important vehicle in raising environmental awareness. Literature in general has always served as a cultural reporter on themes important to humanity.  The science fiction genre—and speculative fiction particularly—explores premises based on current scientific and technological paradigms. What if we kept doing this?…What if that went on unchecked?… What if we decided to end this?… These are conveyed through the various predictive visions from cautionary tales (e.g., Atwood’s Year of the Flood) to dystopias (e.g., Itäranta’s The Memory of Water). Science fiction has always been the pre-eminent literature of metaphor and history; it has lately matured in the Anthropocene to incorporate the edgy realism of literary fiction to give us potent environmental relevance. Sub-genres now include eco-fiction, climate fiction, and cli-fi.

MemoryOfWater_Emmi ItarantaEllen Szabo, author of Saving the World One Word at a Time: Writing Cli-Fi suggests that the ability to make environmental issues less political and more personal (through story) permits more engagement by readers and a higher likelihood of action toward justice: we are more likely to take action on the things we love and know. It’s all about connection.

“Science doesn’t tell us what we should do,” Barbara Kingsolver wrote in Flight Behavior “It only tells us what is.” Stories can never be a solution in themselves, but they have the capacity to inspire action, which is perhaps why cli-fi’s appeal among young adult readers holds such promise. As the scientists and leaders of tomorrow, they may be most capable of addressing climate and water issues where previous generations have failed, writes J.K. Ullrich of The Atlantic. As Margaret Atwood wrote in MaddAddam, “People need such stories, because however dark, a darkness with voices in it is better than a silent void.”

We tend to live very much in the here and now, Bacigalupi told an audience at the University of Seattle when describing humanity’s lack of planning for the future.  But, he added, “with science fiction, I can give you a [here and now] experience far into the future,” and allow a reader to truly experience “what it’s like to be a climate refugee” or be someone with no legal access to water. An extrapolated science fiction future provides a visceral opportunity to see our future selves in a way that promotes serious consideration, says Bacigalupi. By putting us there, we have a better chance of making those extrapolations into consequence.

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For centuries we have hubristically and disrespectfully used, discarded and destroyed just about everything on this beautiful planet. According to the World Wildlife Federation, 10,000 species go extinct every year. That’s mostly on us. They are the casualty of our selfish actions. We’ve become estranged from our environment, lacking connection and compassion. That has translated into a lack of consideration—even for each other. In response to mass shootings of children in schools, the U.S. government does nothing to curb gun-related violence through gun-control measures; instead they suggest arming teachers. We light up our cigarettes in front of people who don’t smoke and blow cancer-causing second-hand smoke in each other’s faces. We litter our streets and we refuse to pick up after others even if it helps the environment and provides beauty for self and others. The garbage we thoughtlessly discard pollutes our oceans with plastic and junk, hurting sea creatures and the ocean ecosystem in unimaginable ways. We consume and discard without consideration.

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We do not live lightly on this planet.

We tread with incredibly heavy feet. We behave like bullies and our inclination to self-interest makes us far too prone to suspicion and distrust: when we meet the unknown—the “other” so often portrayed in science fiction—we tend to respond with fear and aggression over curiosity, hope and kindness. Something we need to work on if we are going to survive.

Science fiction—the highest form of metaphoric and visionary art—is telling us something. Are we paying attention?

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Rainforest on southern Vancouver Island, B.C. (Photo by Kevin Klassen)

 

 

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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” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

Climate Change: What We Can Do—Nina talks to the Toronto Star

Nina Munteanu

Nina Munteanu (photo by Richard Lautens)

The Toronto Star recently spoke to Nina Munteanu with two questions about climate change. These were included in a recent handbook published by the Star entitled “Undeniable: Canada’s Changing Climate—What We Can Do Now.” In it, The Star showed how the majority of Canadians place climate change as a top priority. In “Let’s Talk” The Star interviews computer scientist and head of UofT’s School of the Environment Steve Easterbrook. Questions involving local community action and the importance of hope.

In “Your Carbon Footprint” The Star showed how China and the US together produce over half of the entire greenhouse gases emitted annually by the top ten countries that include EU 28, India, Russia, Japan, Brazil, Indonesia, Canada, and Iran. These ten countries currently emit seventy percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. China (11.912 Mt CO2) continues to lead in greenhouse gas emissions, being over twice the US, the next large emitter (6.371 Mt CO2).

Top Ten GreenhouseGas Countries

However, when The Star looked at per capita greenhouse emissions, Canada jumped to the top rank at 21 tonnes per person annually, followed by the US (20 tonnes/person). By comparison, China—ranked the highest for total emissions—measured only 8.73 tonnes per person annually. And Bangladesh measured 1.1 tonnes/person.

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“Most scientists agree that in the coming decades we need to limit our individual annual carbon footprint to 1-2 tons,” says The Star. This entails making personal changes to cut our carbon output. One example is driving less or converting to a hybrid or electric car. “Our behaviours, whether good or bad, are contagious,” says The Star. I agree. It is important to not only do what we can but to share with others and provide our reasons. Seth Wynes, a geographer at the University of British Columbia concurs: “It’s not just about what you do, it’s about setting an example for others.” Research suggests, for example that homeowners are more likely to install solar panels when someone else does it first in their neighbourhood. Wynes in 2017 co-authored a study that ranks the most effective lifestyle changes to curb an individual’s carbon footprint.

In “Four Things You Can Do”, The Star suggests the following key initiatives:

  1. Eat less beef
  2. Live car-free or go hybrid / electric
  3. Invest in green infrastructure
  4. Reduce air travel

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The Star also provided good advice on how to talk to children about our changing climate. They provide excellent examples of children empowering themselves by making a difference—instead of becoming depressed with what they are inheriting. In “Political Checkup” The Star discusses with experts how we can best interact with our political leaders to engage and ensure positive change. In “Faith and Community” The Star showcases examples of faith communities addressing our waste stream.

In “The ChangeMakers” The Star asked the same two questions of five Canadians who are making climate change a top priority. They included:

  • Franny Ladell Yakelashek: 12-year old environmental rights activist from Victoria, BC
  • Jocelyn Joe-Strack: Indigenous scientist and storyteller, Whitehorse, Yukon
  • Kathy Bardswick: director of the Institute for Clean Growth and Climate Change, Guelph, ON
  • Gordon McBean: climatologist and professor emeritus at Western University, London, ON
  • Nina Munteanu: ecologist, instructor at The University of Toronto and author of eco-fiction and climate fiction, Toronto, ON.

Q1: What is the one thing about climate change that keeps you up at night?

Nina: I worry that my son and his kids will end up experiencing one of my dystopias from one of my books. My son lives in Vancouver, and my main concern is that he and his kids won’t have the chance to live safely and enjoy a stable and beautiful planet because we have wrecked it for them.

That leads me to the second thing that keeps me up at night, which is that nobody cares. Or that they are scared to care. We’re still going about our business like nothing is happening.

That really frustrates me. I’m a scientist and we’ve been talking about this for a long time; for me it’s been decades. My frustration is that we are still debating climate change, and we should be acting on it.

Q2: What is the one thing Canadians can do to act on climate change?

Nina: I think it has to be three things. First, plant a tree; make an actual difference through action. By doing that, we get out from hiding under the bed and face the monster of climate change and show that we care and that we are not alone. And that — taking direct action — will give us courage and hope.

Second, vote for green politicians. Politicians need to hear directly from their communities, they need you to push them to act on climate change.

Third, find your tribe and create a movement. Everyone says that people have the power, but that power comes best through numbers and solidarity. Find your tribe, and you’ll find yourself more motivated.

For answers to these two questions by the other changemakers, please go to the Toronto Star’s “What You Can Do About Climate Change” site.

 

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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. Nina’s short story collection of eco-fiction can be found in “Natural Selection” published by Pixl Press. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

“Ecology of Story: World as Character” Workshop at When Words Collide, Calgary

EcologyOfStoryI recently gave a 2-hour workshop on “ecology of story” at Calgary’s When Words Collide writing festival in August, 2019.

The workshop—based on my third writing guidebook: “The Ecology of Story: World as Character”explored some of the major relationships in functional ecosystems and how to effectively incorporate them in story. We  briefly explored how ecosystems and ecological processes work and looked at several of the more bizarre examples of ecological adaptation.

I showed how treating world and place as character provides depth and meaning to story through its integration with plot, theme, and other characters. We looked at these story components as integral to help ground the reader in context and meaning of story. We explored place / setting as metaphor, symbol, archetype, and allegory.

Through literary examples of setting and place, we looked at how readers are drawn into story through metaphor, sensual description, and thematic integration through POV character.

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Reviewing the story we created through an exercise

Then came the story-building part of the workshop—a snappy, fast-paced dialogue among all workshop participants. Using the book’s cover image as story-prompt, we worked through the story components of premise, theme, character, plot and setting. Following a lively discussion, we succeeded in creating a stunning first crack at a story that was both original and intriguing. And at whose heart was a strong sense of place and identity.

creating a story

“The Ecology of Story” had only recently been launched at Type Books in Toronto and saw its first use at the Calgary When Words Collide conference. Books were sold out an hour after the workshop.

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“The Ecology of Story” recently achieved Amazon Bestseller status in the Ecology category.

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Nina starts her “The Ecology of Story” workshop with Part 1: ecology

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Nina talks about some interesting adaptations in reproduction

nina-2014aaaNina is a Canadian scientist and novelist. She worked for 25 years as an environmental consultant in the field of aquatic ecology and limnology, publishing papers and technical reports on water quality and impacts to aquatic systems. Nina has written over a dozen eco-fiction, science fiction and fantasy novels. An award-winning short story writer, and essayist, Nina currently lives in Toronto where she teaches writing at the University of Toronto and George Brown College. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…”—a scientific study and personal journey as limnologist, mother, teacher and environmentalist—was picked by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times as 2016 ‘The Year in Reading’. Nina’s most recent novel “A Diary in the Age of Water”— about four generations of women and their relationship to water in a rapidly changing world—will be released in 2020 by Inanna Publications.

Cathedral Grove

Cathedral Grove, Vancouver Island, BC

 

Nina Munteanu’s Short Story “Natural Selection” features in Eagle Literary Magazine Issue #1

NaturalSelection-IonutiBanuta

Illustration by Ionuț Bănuță

Sarah reached the summit, panting for breath, and grinned at her prize. She’d just caught the sun trembling over the horizon, before it dipped out of sight and left a glowing sky under pewter clouds. She glanced behind her, where the towers of Icaria blazed like embers catching fire. Struck by their beauty, Sarah admired their smooth, clean surfaces. When she looked back toward the path, the sanguine images burnt into her eyes.

Which way should she go? The deer path she’d followed now diverged into two smaller ones. She shifted her mind to veemeld with her AI, DEX. Which way should we go, DEX?

Her AI answered in her head: Sarah, shouldn’t you be returning inside? It’s dangerous to stay out this long. Statistics are now against you for getting caught—

Just a few more minutes, DEX. How about to the right?

“Natural Selection” tells the story of Sarah, an unruly veemeld who can speak to the machine world that runs Icaria. Given her immunity to the environmental disease ravaging the enclosed city, Sarah—at least her genetic material—is sought after by the Ecologist government in a bid to maintain order and reshape humanity through “selection”; but Sarah fraternizes with unsavory friends and her truant behaviour poses a great risk to her freedom and survival.

Eagle-1issue-summer2019_Cover_1600“Natural Selection” first appeared in 2013 in my short story collection of the same name by Pixl Press. The story returns in Issue #1 of Eagle Literary Magazine, Pan European Science Fiction & Fantasy Collection (Summer 2019; Nexus Project) edited by Mugur Cornilă and featuring the impeccable artwork of Ionuț Bănuță.

In the 2013 Pixl Press short story collection my introduction describes the theme that embraces the nine stories in the collection:

How do we define today a concept that Darwin originated 200 years ago in a time without bio-engineering, nano-technology, chaos theory, quantum mechanics and the internet? We live in an exciting era of complicated change, where science based on the limitation of traditional biology is being challenged and stretched by pioneers into areas some scientists might call heretical. Endosymbiosis, synchronicity, autopoiesis & self-organization, morphic resonance, Gaia Hypothesis and planetary intelligence. Some of these might more aptly be described through the language of meta physics. But should they be so confined? It comes down to language and how we communicate.

Is it possible for an individual to evolve in one’s own lifetime? To become more than oneself? And then pass on one’s personal experience irrevocably to others—laterally and vertically?

On the vertical argument, the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamark developed a theory of biological evolution in the early 19th century considered so ridiculous that it spawned a name: Lamarkism. His notion — that acquired traits could be passed along to offspring—was ridiculed for over two hundred years. Until he was proven right. Evolutionary biologists at Tel Aviv University in Israel showed that all sorts of cellular machinery — an intelligence of sorts — played a vital role in how DNA sequences were inherited. When researchers inserted foreign genes into the DNA of lab animals and plants, something strange happened. The genes worked at first; then they were “silenced”. Generation after generation. The host cells had tagged the foreign genes with an “off switch” that made the gene inoperable. And although the new gene was passed onto offspring, so was the off switch. It was Larmarkism in action: the parent’s experience had influenced its offspring’s inheritance. Evolutionists gave it a new name. They called it soft inheritance [also known as epigenetics].

NaturalSelection-IonutBanua2

Illustration by Ionuț Bănuță

Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is the movement of genetic material between organisms other than by vertical transmission of DNA from parent to offspring. Jumping genes (transposons) are mobile segments of DNA that may pick up a gene and insert it into a plastic or chromosome. Pieces of DNA move from one locus to another of a genome without parent-to-offspring by horizontal transposon transfer (HTT). Epigenetics describes the modification of DNA expression through DNA methylation—and results in “Lamarkism.” Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance is the new black: genes and environments interacting. Where do we end and where does environment begin? Researchers have proven the significant role of environmental feedback through HGT in evolutionary success. Researchers showed that up to 20% of a bdelloid rotifer’s genome is made of foreign genes that they stole from the environment through horizontal gene transfer and gene conversion. This compares to about 1% for humans and a fifth for tardigrades.

—excerpts from “A Diary in the Age of Water” due for release in 2020 by Inanna Publications.

Diary Water cover finalAs for passing on one’s experience and acquisitions to others laterally, education in all its facets surely provides a mechanism. This may run the gamut from wise mentors, spiritual leaders, storytellers, courageous heroes to our kindergarten teacher.  Who’s to say that these too are not irrevocable? This relies, after all, on how we learn, and how we “remember”.

Evolution is choice. It is a choice made on many levels, from the intuitive mind to the intelligent cell. The controversial British botanist Rupert Sheldrake proposed that the physical forms we take on are not necessarily contained inside our genes, which he suggested may be more analogous to transistors tuned in to the proper frequencies for translating invisible information into visible form. According to Sheldrake’s morphic resonance, any form always looks alike because it ‘remembers’ its form through repetition and that any new form having similar characteristics will use the pattern of already existing forms as a guide for its appearance.  This notion is conveyed through other phenomena, which truly lie in the realm of metaphysics and lateral evolution; concepts like bilocation, psychic telegraphing, telekinesis and manifestation. Critics condemn these as crazy notions. Or is it just limited vision again? Our future cannot be foretold in our present language; that has yet to be written. Shakespeare knew this…

There are more things in heaven and earth , Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy—Shakespeare

NaturalSelection-front-webEach story in the “Natural Selection” short story collection reflects a perspective on what it means to be human and evolve in a world that is rapidly changing technologically and environmentally. How we relate to our rapidly changing fractal environments—from our cells to our ecosystems, our planet and ultimately our universe—will determine our path and our destiny and those we touch in some way.

My friend Heidi Lampietti, publisher of Redjack Books, expressed it eloquently, “For me, one of the most important themes that came through in the collection is the incredible difficulty, complexity, and importance of making conscious choices — and how these choices, large and small, impact our survival, either as individual humans, as a community, a species, or a world.”

DarwinsParadox-Cover-FINALsmall“Natural Selection” also features the sprawling semi-underground AI-run city of Icaria (a post-industrial plague Toronto) that was first introduced in my novel “Darwin’s Paradox” and is a character itself. Sarah is a “gifted” and troubled misfit—not in sync with the rest of the population. Yet her choices—and how she is treated by her community— will influence an entire species and world.

 

 

 

 

You can purchase Issue #1 of Eagle Literary Magazine in the United Kingdom, United States, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Japan, Canada.

 

nina-2014aaaNina is a Canadian scientist and novelist. She worked for 25 years as an environmental consultant in the field of aquatic ecology and limnology, publishing papers and technical reports on water quality and impacts to aquatic systems. Nina has written over a dozen eco-fiction, science fiction and fantasy novels. An award-winning short story writer, and essayist, Nina currently lives in Toronto where she teaches writing at the University of Toronto and George Brown College. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…”—a scientific study and personal journey as limnologist, mother, teacher and environmentalist—was picked by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times as 2016 ‘The Year in Reading’. Nina’s most recent novel “A Diary in the Age of Water”— about four generations of women and their relationship to water in a rapidly changing world—will be released in 2020 by Inanna Publications.

Windup Girl: When Monsanto Gets Its Way…

Windup GirlPaolo Bacigalupi’s 2015 biopunk science fiction novel The Windup Girl occurs in 23rd century post-food crash Thailand after global warming has raised sea levels and carbon fuel sources are depleted. Thailand struggles under the tyrannical boot of ag-biotech multinational giants such as AgriGen, RedStar, and PurCal—predatory companies who have fomented corruption and political strife through their plague-inducing and sterilizing genetic manipulations. The story’s premise could very easily be described as “what would happen if Monsanto got its way?”

Bacigalupi’s story opens in Bangkok, “City of Angels”, now below sea level and precariously protected by a giant sea wall and pumps that run on bio-power:

Windup Girl-closeIt’s difficult not to always be aware of those high walls and the pressure of the water beyond. Difficult not to think of the City of Divine Beings as anything other than a disaster waiting to happen. But the Thais are stubborn and have fought to keep their revered city of Krung Thep from drowning. With coal-burning pumps and leveed labor and a deep faith in the visionary leadership of their Chakri Dynasty they have so far kept at bay that thing which has swallowed New York and Rangoon, Mumbai and New Orleans.

Energy storage in this post-oil society is provided by manually-wound springs using cruelly mistreated genehacked megodonts—elephant-slave labor. Biotechnology dominates via international mega-corporations—called calorie companies—that control food production through genehacked seeds. The companies use bioterrorism and economic hitmen to secure markets for their products—just as Monsanto is currently doing. Plagues (some they created, others unintended mutations) have wiped out the natural seed stock, now virtually supplanted by genetically engineered sterile plants and mutant pests such as cibiscosis, blister rust, and genehack weevil. Thailand—one of the economically disadvantaged—has avoided economic subjugation by the foreign calorie companies through some ingenuity—a hidden seedbank of diverse natural seeds—and is now targeted by the agri-corporations.

julien-gauthier-bangkok

future Bangkok envisioned by Julien Gauthier

Bacigalupi’s opening entwines the clogged and crumbling city of Bangkok and its swarming beggars, slaves and laborers in a microcosm of a world spinning out of control:

Overhead, the towers of Bangkok’s old Expansion loom, robed in vines and mold, windows long ago blown out, great bones picked clean. Without air conditioning or elevators to make them habitable, they stand and blister in the sun. The black smoke of illegal dung fires wafts from their pores, marking where Malayan refugees hurriedly scald chapatis and boil kopi before the white shirts can storm the sweltering heights and beat them for their infringements.

Anderson Lake is a farang (of white race) who owns an AgriGen factory trying to mass-produce kink-springs—successors to the internal combustion engine) to store energy. The factory is in fact a cover for his real mission: to find and exploit the secret Thai seedbank with its wealth of genetic material. We later discover that Lake is an economic hitman and spy whose previous missions have destroyed entire countries for the sake of monopoly.

Emiko is an illegal Japanese “windup” (genetically modified human), owned by a Thai sex club owner, and treated as a sub-human slave. When she meets Lake, he cavalierly shares that a refuge in the remnant forests of northern Thailand exists for people like her (the “New People”); Emiko dreams of escaping her bonds to find her own people in the north. But like Bangkok itself, both protected and trapped by the wall against a sea poised to claim it—a bustling city of squalor caught up in the clash of new and old—Emiko cannot escape who and what she is: a gifted modified human—and possible herald of a sustainable future—vilified and feared by the very humanity that created her.

 

Bangkok-floating market

Bangkok’s floating market

Bangkok emerges as a central character in a story that explores the paradox of conflicting dialectics battling for survival in a violently changing world. Anyone who has spent time in Bangkok will recognize the connective tissue that holds together its crumbling remnants with ambitious chic. Just like the novel’s cheshires: genetically created “cats” (made by an agri-giant as a “toy”) that wiped out the regular cat Felis domesicus.

cheshire-cat

Cheshire Cat of “Alice in Wonderland”

Named after Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire Cat, these crafty creatures have adapted well to Bangkok’s unstable environment. The cheshires exemplify the cost of unintended consequence (a major theme in the novel); the cheshires also reflect the paradoxical nature of a shape-shifting city of Thais, Chinese and Malaya refuges who struggle to survive in a place that is both haven and danger:

Cheshire cat-disappearing

Cheshire cat disappearing

The flicker-shimmer shapes of cheshires twine, yowling and hoping for scraps … The old man’s flinch is as hallucinogenic as a cheshire’s fade—one moment there, the next gone and doubted … The devil cats flicker closer. Calico and ginger, black as night—all of them fading in and out of view as their bodies take on the colors of their surroundings.

Captain Jaidee Rojjanasukchai is a righteous white shirt—the strong arm of the Ministry of the Environment. He is a faithful Thai Buddhist, whose only weakness is his sense of invincibility borne from a mistaken sense of government integrity. Revered by fellow white shirts as the “Tiger of Bangkok,” he is incorruptible—we find out that he may be the only person in the entire place who refuses to be swayed by bribes. A true and passionate believer in the cause he is fighting for—the very survival of the environment and his people by association—Jaidee is ruthless in his raids and attacks on those who wish to open the markets of globalization and potential contamination. Early in the novel, Jaidee reflects on humanity’s impact on the ecological cycle:

All life produces waste. The act of living produces costs, hazards, and disposal questions, and so the Ministry has found itself in the centre of all life, mitigating, guiding and policing the detritus of the average person along with investigating the infractions of the greedy and short-sighted, the ones who wish to make quick profits and trade on others’ lives for it.

Bacigalupi astutely identifies the tenuous role of any government’s environment ministry—to protect and champion the environment—within a government that values its economy more highly and when, in fact, most of the time its members operate quietly in the pocket of short-sighted politicians and business men who focus myopically on short-term gain. “The symbol for the Environment Ministry is the eye of the tortoise, for the long view—the understanding that nothing comes cheap or quickly without a hidden cost,” Jaidee thinks. The United States EPA is a prime example of such paradox—in which the agency’s top executive is in fact a former industrialist who lobbied for deregulation. The current EPA no longer fulfills its role as guardian of the environment. In Canada, I have witnessed terrible conflict between one ministry with another in a game of greed vs. protection. Bacigalupi showcases this diametric with his characters Pracha (Environment) and Akkarat (Trade).

Abandoned Shopping Mall now Koi Pond

Abandoned supermarket now a giant koi pond, Bangkok

The rivalry between Thailand’s Minister of Trade and Minister of the Environment represent the central conflict of the novel, reflecting the current conflict of neo-liberal promotion of globalization and its senseless exploitation (Akkarat) with the forces of sustainability, fierce environmental protection and (in some cases) isolationism (Pracha). Given the setting and the two men vying for power, both scenarios are extreme and there appears no middle ground for a balanced existence using responsible and sustainable means. Emiko, who represents a possible future, is precariously poised; Jaidee, the single individual who refuses to succumb to the bribes of a dying civilization—is sacrificed: just as integrity and righteousness are violently destroyed when chaos threatens and engulfs.

Bangkok dam

“Windup Girl” Bangkok dam

Various reviewers of the novel identify the gaijin (foreigner) Anderson Lake as the closest thing to a protagonist. In fact, Lake never manages to rise from his avatar as the human face to the behemoth of ruthless globalization, the face of a Monsanto-look-alike. He is an unsympathetic and weak character, who—despite showing some feelings for the windup girl—connives and lacks human compassion to the end. Not a protagonist. During a meeting with the Minister of Trade, in which Lake hubristically offers “aid”, Akkarat confronts Lake on the destruction of his greedy corporation: “Ever since your first missionaries landed on our shores, you have always sought to destroy us. During the old Expansion your kind tried to take every part of us. Chopping off the arms and legs of our country…With the Contraction, your worshipped global economy left us starving and over-specialized. And then your calorie plagues came.” Lake shrugs this off and continues his aggressive exchange with the minister—sealing his fate beneath Nature’s relentless tsunami.

rob-davies-WIndupGirl-twug-tank

Twug tank, imagined by Rob Davies

Jaidee—who is brutally killed on page 197 of the novel with another 200 pages to go—remains Bacigalupi’s only character of agency worth following. The Tiger of Bangkok represents the Ministry of Environment’s hard policy of environmental protection—the only thing that kept Thailand from falling to the global mega-corporation’s plagues. With Jaidee’s demise, we tumble in free fall into a “Game of Thrones” miasma of “who goes next—I don’t care.” While I continued to read, it was more from post-traumatic shock than from eager interest. It was as though I’d lost a good friend—my safety anchor in a horrid place—and was now set adrift. I drifted, alone, amid the remaining characters—each pathetic in their own way—on a slow slide into the wrathful hell of a vengeful Nature. I found myself rooting for the cheshires and windups, experiments-turned victims-turned adapted survivors of a vast unintended consequence in human greed.

Perhaps that is what Bacigalupi intended.

WindupGirl-megadonts

Concept of megadonts in “Windup Girl”

And yet, there is unsmiling monosyllabic Kanya, Jaidee’s not-so-pure lieutenant, now promoted to his position and eager to atone for her former betrayal—we learn that she was planted as a Trade mole in Environment. Struggling to do the right thing after Jaidee’s murder, Kanya emerges as the true protagonist in the novel. As we learn more of her unfortunate history and gain a clear understanding of her complex motivations (we get no such insight into Lake), Kanya’s journey unfolds through heartbreak and redemption. Kanya picks up Jaidee’s spirit—literally—and, accompanied by his phii (his ghost), tries to settle the warring factions to gain peace for a rioting city. Of course, it doesn’t work and the gaiji devils return in full force as Akkarat hands over Thailand and its precious seedbank to the American corporations.

Happy with Akkarat’s coup, corporate mogul Carlyle says to Lake: “The first thing we do is go find some whiskey and a rooftop, and watch the damn sun rise over the country we just bought.”

Instructed to take the AgriGen gaigi to the vault and hand over the seedbank to them, “Kanya studies the people who used to be called calorie demons and who now walk so brazenly in Krung Thep, the City of Divine Beings.” Jeering and laughing with no respect, the gaiji behave like they own the place. In a sudden moment of clarity—inspired by Jaidee’s phii—Kanya then singlehandedly creates her own coup by executing the AgriGen gaigi and instructing the monks to dispatch Thailand’s precious seedbank safely to the jungle wilderness. Husked of its precious treasure, the city implodes.  Floodwater pumps and locks fail to sabotage. Then the monsoons arrive. The City of Angels gives in to the sea that chases refugees into the genehack-destroyed outer forests.

paolo-bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi

While Kanya triumphs in her own personal battle, she remains less agent of change than feckless witness to Nature’s powerful force as it unfurls like a giant cheshire and sends dominoes crashing into one another.

Fittingly, Bacigalupi’s Epilogue belongs to the windup girl and the cheshires. And an uncertain future with promise of change.

And that is certainly what Bacigalupi intended.

 

julien-gauthier-bangkoksunset

Bangkok sunset by Julien Gauthier

 

nina-2014aaa

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” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

 

Can Dystopian Eco-Fiction Save the Planet?

NewYork 2140By failing to engage with climate change, artists and writers are contributing to an impoverished sense of the world, right at the moment when art and literature are most needed to galvanize a grassroots movement in favor of climate justice and carbon mitigation.”—Amitav Ghosh, 2017

…Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl or The Water Knife. Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. Nina Munteanu’s A Diary in the Age of Water. Richard Power’s Overstory. Annie Proulx’s Barkskins. Emmi Itäranta’s The Memory of Water

Diary Water cover finalWhat these novels have in common is that they are all Dystopian Eco-Fiction. Humanity’s key role in environmental destruction serves a strong thematic element. In eco-fiction dystopias (as opposed to political or socio-cultural dystopias such as Brave New World, 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale) the environment—whether forest, ocean, water generally, or the animal world—plays a key character.

Our Literature in the Anthropocene

In 2017, Amitav Ghosh observed that the literary world has responded to climate change with almost complete silence (The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable). “How can we explain the fact that writers of fiction have overwhelmingly failed to grapple with the ongoing planetary crisis in their works?” writes Fredrick Albritton Jonsson of The Guardian, who observes that, “for Ghosh, this silence is part of a broader pattern of indifference and misrepresentation. Contemporary arts and literature are characterized by ‘modes of concealment that [prevent] people from recognizing the realities of their plight.’”

Windup GirlAccording to Ghosh, plots and characters of contemporary literature tend to reflect the regularity of middle-class life and the worldview of the Victorian natural sciences, one that depends on a principle of uniformity. Change in Nature has been perceived as gradual (or static by some) and never catastrophic. Extraordinary or bizarre happenings were left to marginal genres like the Gothic tale and—of course—science fiction. The strange and unlikely have been externalized: hence the failure of modern novels and art to recognize anthropogenic climate change.

From Adam Smith’s 18th Century economic vision to the conceit of bankers who drove the 2008 American housing bubble, humanity’s men have consistently espoused the myth of a constant natural world capable of absorbing infinite abuse without oscillation. When James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis proposed the Gaia Hypothesis in the 1970s, many saw its basis in a homeostatic balance of the natural order as confirmation of Nature’s infinite resilience to abuse. They failed to recognize that we are Nature and abuse of Nature is really self-abuse.

Jonsson suggests that these Enlightenment ideas are essentially ideological manifestations of Holocene stability, remnants from 11,000 years of small variability in temperature and carbon dioxide levels, giving rise to deep-seated habits and ideas about the resilience of the natural world. “The commitment to indefinite economic growth espoused by the economics profession in the postwar era is perhaps its most triumphant [and dangerous] expression.”

barkskins

Louise Fabiani of Pacific Standard suggests that novels are still the best way for us to clarify planetary issues and prepare for change—even play a meaningful part in that change. In her article “The Literature of Climate Change” she points to science fiction as helping “us prepare for radical change, just when things may be getting too comfortable.”

Referring to our overwhelming reliance on technology and outsourced knowledge, Fabiani suggests that “our privileged lives (particularly in consumer-based North America) are built on unconscious trust in the mostly invisible others who make this illusion of domestic independence possible—the faith that they will never stop being there for us. And we have no back-ups in place should they let us down.” Which they certainly will—given their short-term thinking.

TheOverstory“To counteract this epidemic of short-term thinking,” says Fabiani, “it might be a good idea for more of us to read science fiction, specifically the post-apocalyptic sub-genre: that is, fiction dealing with the aftermath of major societal collapse, whether due to a pandemic, nuclear fallout, or climate change.”

I suggest widening the genre to include good dystopian eco-fiction, which includes not just post-apocalyptic tales but also cautionary tales, worlds in upheaval, and satires. Dystopian literature is ultimately an exploration of hope through personal experience. The eco-fiction protagonist navigates their dystopia by learning meaningful lessons—lessons that pertain directly to our reader in their current world. This is because the premise of a dystopia lies squarely in the present world. Good dystopias can enlighten and suggest possibilities; they can warn and herald. At the very least, they incite the necessary conversation.

On the Role of Dystopian Eco-Fiction

NaturalSelection-front-webI recently shared a panel discussion with writer Kristen Kiomall-Evans at the 2019 Limestone Genre Expo in Kingston entitled: “On the Role of (Dystopian) Literature and Environmental Issues: Can Books Save the Planet.” The audience of mostly women shared enlightened input in an open discussion, which spanned a range of topics and directions from what dystopian literature actually is to whether we are turned off by its negativity—that it may be too close to reality and makes us cringe and want to hide. One person even brought up Game of Thrones as an example; which I then bluntly suggested was not real “story”—it is a stream of episodic sensationalism and horror—aimed at thrilling shock value, not fulfilling meaning.

The group explored what Eco-Fiction is and the possibility of how eco-fiction writers can influence their audience to engage in helping the planet and humanity, in turn.

 “Science doesn’t tell us what we should do,” Barbara Kingsolver wrote in Flight Behavior “It only tells us what is.” Stories can never be a solution in themselves, but they have the capacity to inspire action. Margaret Atwood wrote in MaddAddam, “People need such stories, because however dark, a darkness with voices in it is better than a silent void.”

We explored several areas in which writers could elucidate ways to engage readers for edification, connection and participation. We discussed optimism, new perspectives, envisioning our future, and imaginative use of “product placement” to gain reader engagement and galvanize a movement of action.

Optimism in Story

I pointed out that good dystopias—like all good fiction—follow a character and story arc that must ultimately resolve (which Game of Thrones may never do, certainly not well—J.R.R. Martin’s books series upon which it is based are not even finished yet!). Eco-Fiction Dystopias often conclude with a strong element of hope, based on some positive aspect of humanity and the human spirit—which may include our own evolution. Think Day After Tomorrow, Year of the Flood, Windup Girl, The Postman, Darwin’s Paradox.

WaterAnthology-RealitySkimmingPress copyIn 2015, I joined Lynda Williams of Reality Skimming Press in creating an optimistic science fiction anthology with the theme of water. My foreword to Water addressed this point:

As we drank Schofferhoffers over salmon burgers, Lynda lamented that while the speculative / science fiction genre has gained a literary presence, this has been at some expense. Much of the current zeitgeist of this genre in Canada tends toward depressing, “self-interested cynicism and extended analogies to drug addiction as a means of coping with reality,” Lynda remarked. Where was the optimism and associated hope for a future? I brought up the “hero’s journey” and its role in meaningful story. One of the reasons this ancient plot approach, based on the hero journey myth, is so popular is that its proper use ensures meaning in story. This is not to say that tragedy is not a powerful and useful story trope; so long as hope for someone—even if just the reader—is generated. Lynda and I concluded that the science fiction genre could use more optimism. [As a result,] these stories explore individual choices and the triumph of human imagination in the presence of adversity. [Each story explores] the surging spirit of humanity toward hopeful shores.

New Perspectives in Story

Evans spoke of the emergence of and need for a strong voice by marginalized groups who would be most affected by things like habitat destruction and climate change. The poor and marginalized will most certainly make up the majority of climate change refugees, starved out and water shorted, and suffering malnutrition, violence and disease.

FifthSeason-JemisinEvans pointed out that afro-American writers (e.g., Octavia Butler, Walter Mosley, Nalo Hopkinson and N.K. Jemisin) and indigenous writers (Cherie Dimaline, Daniel Wilson, Drew Hayden Taylor) are an exciting voice, providing a new and compelling perspective on ongoing global issues.

I would add that the “feminine” voice—the voice of women and the voice of ecology and those who embrace the gylanic voice—are needed. This was strangely not mentioned in the group—perhaps because we were all women—but one. Such a voice can help personalize the experience to readers, by creating discovery, connection and understanding—and ultimately serving a key force in engaging readers to act.

Envisioning Our Future Through Story

One audience member shared a yearning for an optimistic focus through an envisioned world where solutions have successfully created that world. She wasn’t so much suggesting writing a utopia, but including elements of future wishes as an integral part of the world, following Ghandi’s wise advice: be the change you seek. In a recent interview in which I also participated in The Globe and Mail on women science fiction writers, Ottawa writer Marie Bilodeau addressed this concept:

“the best part about writing science fiction is showing different ways of being without having your characters struggle to gain rights. Invented worlds can host a social landscape where debated rights in this world – such as gay marriage, abortion and euthanasia – are just a fact of life.”

People are looking for hopeful fiction that addresses the issues but explores a successful paradigm shift. One that accurately addresses our current issues with intelligence and hope. The power of envisioning a certain future is that the vision enables one to see it as possible.

Product Placement in Story

Editor and naturalist Merridy Cox suggested that writers could make motivating connections through altruistic (not market-driven) “product placement.” She gave the example of an Ash tree. The Ash (Fraxinus species) could subtly make its name, its character and ecology known in the story, along with its plight—its destruction by the non-native invasive emerald ash borer. The use of metaphor and personification would easily link the Ash to a character and at the same time illuminate the reader on a real aspect of the environment to consider. Another example she gave was of the threatened bobolink bird, now all but gone. The bobolink originally made its home in the tallgrass prairie and other open meadows. As native prairies were cleared for farming, the bobolink was displaced and moved to living in hayfields and fallow fields—building their nests on the ground in dense grasses. Changing farm practices (shorter crop rotation and earlier maturing seed mixtures) are now destroying the bobolink’s last refuge.

bobolink-chicks-mom

Bobolink mother and her chicks

 

Such “product placement” essentially gives Nature and the environmental a personalized face that can easily interact with the story’s theme and its characters. “Product placement”—like symbol—lies embedded in its own story. In the case of the bobolink, it is a story of colonialism, exploitation, and single-minded pursuit at the expense of others not considered, known or understood. These examples have anthropogenic connections to human behaviour, action and knowledge—all related to story and theme.

MockUpEcology copyIn my new writing guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character I discuss and explore how some authors do this impeccably. Authors such as Barbara Kingsolver, Richard Powers, Frank Herbert, Ray Bradbury, Thomas Hardy, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Janet Fitch, John Steinbeck, David Mitchell, Joanne Harris and many others.

Writing for the Anthropocene

Learn how to write for the Anthropocene: from Habitats and Trophic Levels to Metaphor and Archetype…

Learn the fundamentals of ecology, insights of world-building, and how to master layering-in of metaphoric connections and symbols between setting and character. “Ecology of Story: World as Character” is the 3rd guidebook in Nina Munteanu’s acclaimed “how to write” series for novice to professional writers.

The Ecology of Story will be released by Pixl Press in July 2019.

 

 

nina-2014aaa

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” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.