Apex Magazine Interviews Nina Munteanu About Story, Ecology, and The Future

Issue  #128 of Apex Magazine featured an interview that Rebecca E. Treasure did with me, posted on December 10, 2021. We discussed the power of story, the use of dystopian narrative, and the blur between fiction and non-fiction to create meaningful eco-fiction. Here’s part of the interview. For the complete interview go here:

INTERVIEW

Nina Munteanu, author of “Robin’s Last Song,” is a prolific creator with multiple books, podcasts, short stories, and nonfiction essays in publication. Her work spans genre, from eco-fiction to historical fantasy to thrillers, and of course, science fiction. Her work as an ecologist informs all of her writing, which circles around an essential exploration; the relationship between humanity and our environment.

 At the top of Nina Munteanu’s website, there is a quote: “I live to write, I write to live.” This sentiment is reflected in her fiction, which is not just about characters in compelling situations solving their problems with compassion, but is about all of us, our planet, our environment, and our future.

Rebecca E. Treasure

Nina Munteanu sat down with Apex for a conversation about story, ecology, and the future.

APEX MAGAZINE: “The Way of Water” in Little Blue Marble is such a powerful piece touching on water scarcity and friendship, a dry future and the potential for technology to overtake natural ecology. “Robin’s Last Song” explores extinction, human fallibility, friendship, and again, that conflict between technology and nature. Do you think we’re heading toward the kind of dystopia shown in these stories?

NINA MUNTEANU: The scenarios portrayed in these eco-fiction narratives are deeply grounded in current realities that involve a kind of dissonance between technology and natural processes—more specifically our myopic use of technological “fixes” to make nature more efficient for our use, whether it’s to mine water from the air (disrupting the water cycle) or gene-hack monocrops to increase yield (compromising the crop’s resilience and long-term productivity). It isn’t so much the technology, but the thought process driving its use that is undermining the environment we live in. Our unwillingness to think of ourselves as part of the very environment we’re manipulating for shortsighted purposes could certainly bring about some version of these dystopias.   

While these narratives are based on the realistic premise of current and projected water use and food production, their trajectories are fluid and multi-faceted. We still have many directions we can go. Concrete precedents set by a changing climate and our several-century interference will ensure continued extinction of species, reduction of bio-diversity, the proliferation of unstable simple ecosystems prone to crashing, and an unruly water cycle. Despite these, planetary responses remain fluid and unpredictable; there is so much about the natural world we still don’t know. And that is what my story “Robin’s Last Song” touches on: even when it looks utterly bleak and nothing seems left, Nature surprises us with hidden gifts. If nothing else, we are humbled by it. And a little wiser, hopefully.

AM: Your stories show readers the kind of world we could be facing if nothing changes. Do you believe such disaster is preventable?

NM: Humanity can destroy habitats and ecosystems; but we can’t destroy the planet—well, not yet anyway. We can only change it. Earth will endure. The question is: as Nature changes will we endure? We are currently destroying and simplifying the ecosystems that best support our species, and heralding in those that may not. Ecologists use a term “natural succession” to describe when one species or group of species create better conditions for another group that will succeed them. We are in danger of doing this. And we’re taking down a lot with us. This planet has experienced four major extinction events in the past (wiping out up to 90% of its species) and each time life came back in full force; but each time, that life looked different from what had preceded it.

To ensure our own survival, we need to ensure the survival of our supporting network: forests that balance a climate best suited to us; a biodiversity that brings resilience; a clean healthy ocean that nurtures all life. But I am hopeful. We need creativity and joy and connection to do this right. We are creators at heart and are more joyful when creating. We are capable of creating so much beauty in our music, art, and science. When faced with insurmountable odds and terrible circumstance, our earnest hearts fill with kindness and compassion. Some countries have embraced the Happy Index—over the GDP—to measure their success. Bhutan has achieved carbon negativity and others are following its lead. We know what the solutions are. We have the technologies. We understand the science. We just need the will.

As Yuval Harari noted, we remain an insecure species; despite our curiosity and capacity for wonder, we are prone to fear, suspicion, and defensive action in the face of the unknown. Our preoccupation with “self” in all its iterations limits our ability to gain a more healthy perspective and to see ourselves as part of our environment, not apart from it. Our hubris and separation comes from that same insecurity. Like the hero in the hero’s journey, we’ve strayed from our “home” to find ourselves. The changes in the world that we’re largely responsible for creating (e.g., climate change, habitat destruction, and oversimplification) are also part of our journey to find ourselves. When we find our humility and our unique gifts to the world, we can prevent disaster. It won’t be the tool—technology—that does it. It will be the wisdom that comes with loss of ego, allowing us to forge a partnership with the rest of the world, human and non-human.

With the wisdom of feminine energy emerging from the shadows and lighting its voice with kindness, humility, compassion, unity, and wholeness, I’m ever hopeful. It’s time to grow up, forgive ourselves and each other, and become whole.

For the entire interview, go to Apex Magazine, December 10, 2021.

Birch trees and marsh on a foggy winter morning, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Rebecca E. Treasure grew up reading science fiction and fantasy in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. After grad school, she began writing fiction. Rebecca has lived many places, including the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Tokyo, Japan. She currently resides in Texas Hill Country with her husband, where she juggles two children, two corgis, a violin studio, and writing. She only drops the children occasionally. To read more visit www.rebeccaetreasure.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.

The Power of Diary in Fiction—with Focus on “A Diary in the Age of Water” by Nina Munteanu

Last August I was invited by the University of Saskatchewan to give a talk at 20/21 Vision, their conference on Speculating in Literature and Film in Canada. My presentation was entitled “The Power and Relevance of Diary in Near-Future Mundane Science Fiction.”

The use of mundane realism through setting and events—particularly through letters or diary—creates powerful narrative that uniquely engages the reader with metaphor, allegory, and archetypes through additional sensibilities and personal connections. Devices such as POV, tense, and voice help create this form of storytelling.

What Is a Diary?

Diaries are first person accounts of real events relevant and meaningful to that person’s life experience. They are written in casual conversational language, usually a chronological account of daily life over lifetime, have wide scope; and are autobiographical.

If the scope is more narrow and focused, we have a memoir. The memoir is often focused by theme (e.g., addiction, loss, parenting, war, etc.). Memoirs are usually written in scenes and may trade accuracy for dramatic effect (emotional truth over historical truth). Anne Frank’s diary is a mundane account of her tragic short life in Nazi Germany; Yoko Ono experienced Hiroshima during World War 2.

If the focus is by topic, we get a journal (e.g. nature journal, grief journal, travel journal). Henry Henry David Thoreau’s journal became a manifesto for living simply with Nature; Sister Gargi’s journal was an ode to a spiritual movement.

Examples of memoirs and journals

Non-Fiction in Fiction

The play of non-fiction in fiction is achieved through several tools. This includes:

  • use of point of view such as first person or second person; writing as an epistolary novel—or a series of letters—such as The Colour Purple
  • displaced narrative such as The Great Gatsby
  • detached autobiography such as To Kill a Mockingbird
  • interior monologue such as Finnegan’s Wake.
Examples of fictional diaries

Fictional diaries play on historical truth through emotional truth through narrator voice and use of metaphor. This provides authenticity, meaning, relevance, and impact to the story. Reality and fiction blur through realized premise that provides a gritty realism to the dramatization and intensifies the experience The diarist’s ability to introspect provides great insight for the reader to the protagonist’s inner voice, their eccentricities, and self-delusions. These provide great intimacy with the character.

Most fictional diaries are memoir-like because they are usually based on THEME which carries the meaning of the story. In The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver effectively uses several first person voices—of the mother and her four daughters—to provide more perspectives of the story.

Mundane Science Fiction

Mundane science fiction is a niche literary movement from 2004 focused on near-future realism—also called speculative fiction or literary SF. The focus is on already existing technology and plausible extensions—no ray guns, warp drives or time travel. The premise lies in existing circumstances and events. It has similarities with hard science fiction, cyberpunk, ecopunk, ecofiction and climate fiction. Mundane science fiction incorporates elements of literary fiction and mainstream fiction to achieve a strong sense of realism.

Examples of mundane science fiction

Mundane science fiction is the literature of near-future realism that explores how environmental and technological changes will change our lives. Christopher Cokinos calls mundane science fiction the “science fiction that functions more as compass than chimera.” Examples include cautionary tales and dystopias, all predicated on and launched from real events and phenomena—and including my own recent climate fiction “A Diary in the Age of Water.”

“A Diary in the Age of Water”: Mundane SF with Fictionalized Diary 

A Diary in the Age of Water” is the climate-induced journey of humanity through four generations of women, each with a unique relationship to water… Centuries from now, in a dying boreal forest in what used to be northern Canada, Kyo, a young acolyte called to service in the Exodus, yearns for Earth’s past—the Age of Water, before the “Water Twins” destroyed humanity. Looking for answers and plagued by vivid dreams of this holocaust, Kyo discovers the diary of Lynna, a limnologist from a time just prior to the destruction. The diary spans a 40-year period in the mid-21st century and describes a planet in the grips of severe water scarcity. Lynna in her work for the international utility that controls everything to do with water, witnesses and records in her diary the disturbing events that will soon lead to humanity’s demise.

The story begins and ends in the far future with the blue being Kyo, who finds the diary of the limnologist, Lynna. The story is hard SF with a strong basis in science. This is obvious through the narrator, who is a scientist, and the form of the diary itself, in which each entry has an epigraph from a science textbook related to the experience in the entry. Lynna also includes sketches, formulas and other references to science and these appear in the entries.

The diary portion of the book is a first person narrative nested within the larger 3rd person narrative of Kyo in the far future. Its SETTING is based on many real events with dramatized fiction stitched in. This blurs what’s real and what’s fiction. VOICE and POV are used to achieve differing scope and time perspectives between the diarist’s world and that of the future being. We get insight into the inner voice of the diarist through 1st person voice; this is contrasted with the 3rd person voice of the future being—they remain on the outside, looking in. The PLOT is essentially that of a young future human “in discovery”, a metaphoric coming of age for humanity.

The diary format includes the use of:

  • short entries with epigraphs and quotes from fact
  • conversational voice of intimacy with introspection, opinion, and judgment
  • outer conflict with family and colleagues
  • inner conflict with motivations and truths
  • metaphoric connections with water
  • illustrations embedded in the diary entries
Two pages with illustrations in ‘A Diary in the Age of Water’

The diarist is a real and flawed protagonist—this makes her more like us and we are more likely to empathize with her despite her considerable flaws … Lynna makes mistakes and does some terrible things, but the diary allows the reader to find out more about why she does these things, what motivated her and how she feels, including remorse and regret. This allows the reader to forgive Lynna, even as her own daughter cannot, even as she cannot. This becomes key to the story, which is about forgiveness. The diary abruptly ends with pages torn out and Kyo is anxious to know what happened to both Lynna and her world. So is the reader.  

Responses to “A Diary in the Age of Water”

Readers and reviewers had interesting responses, some paradoxical:

The blur of real events/history and fictional action brought the story into living colour. Several readers confided in me that they often did not know what was non-fiction and what was fiction and that this confusion made the book more gripping. Several reviewers, caught up in the blur of non-fiction with fiction, accused the book of being overtly polemic, when it was the fictional diarist who was proselytizing and being protective and narrow-minded; one need only look to the diarist’s daughter and her actions to see another voice).

In their analysis, reviewers gave the following visceral responses:

In her review of ‘A Diary in the Age of Water’ in The Temz Review, Marcie McCauley writes:

Munteanu “invites readers to recognize themselves in the ‘historical’ story and to project themselves into her imagined future…the diary…operates as a doorway…Munteanu combines methodologies, familiar literary motifs with text and images from non-fiction…She does not appear to view fiction and non-fiction as separate territories; or, if she does, then this book is a bridge between them.”

That blur with reality makes readers both love and hate the novel and it is precisely this that makes them read on. They are thoroughly invested. They need to know how it turns out, as though this is real lives at stake.

Red maple leaf sits on mossy log of old growth forest, 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.

Earthstar Goes To Tea

Collared Earthstar (Geastrum triplex) on mossy cedar growing on rotting cedar logs of Trent swamp forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Earthstar lived in a verdant cedar forest, under a soft dappled light, where the fresh smell of moss and loam mixed with the pungency of cedar. It was a good life, thought Earthstar, gazing up at the tall canopy of green above her. She lived among many like her, scattered on and between old cedar logs that had piled on the ground and rotted into a rich woody ‘soil.’ It was just right for earthstars who grew deep in the warm, moist rot, covered in a carpet of moss and ferns. Cedar saplings had even sprouted on the rotting log piles, and grown into large mature trees. That was not surprising, given the number of caches the red squirrels left on the spongy rotting logs.

Red squirrel on a tree (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Fully opened Earthstar and sister buds in mossy humus of rotting cedar logs, Trent cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

When she was just a young bud, Earthstar had pushed herself up from her parent mycelium through the woody humus then cracked open her outer shell to reveal her inner spore sac and beaked mouth. The outer shell formed arms of a ‘star’ that pushed back, raising her up to meet the world. When she surveyed her mossy terrain, she noticed that she was one of the earliest earthstars to emerge. Most of her sisters were still budding through the moss and duff. She was eager to fulfill her path. Soon she would be ready to deliver her precious spores to the world—

“Hey there!” a beaky voice called to her.

Earthstar recognized a Beaked Earthstar ambling along the rot pile using its outer skin ‘legs.’ She herself was a Collared Earthstar, and although she had long dislodged from the woody soil and become independent of the ground she sat on, she didn’t normally walk about like this Beaked Earthstar, known for its itinerant lifestyle. He was a rare and somewhat mysterious earthstar, not often seen, and somewhat of a legend. In fact, it was the first time she saw him and she felt tickled that he’d stopped in his wanderings to greet her.

Beaked earthstar, showing many arms that keep it upright, Trent cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“I’m on my way to town,” said Beaky cheerfully. “Want to come along? There’s so much more to see than this silly forest.”

“No thanks,” said Earthstar, overcoming the flush of excitement at being invited by this exotic drifter. She’d heard about ‘the town’ but knew nothing of it—and decided she didn’t want to. Besides, the forest wasn’t silly, she thought peevishly. It was her home. It nourished her. It was where her family was. Earthstar was content.

“Suit yourself,” said Beaky. “But you don’t know what you’re missing! There’s a river out there, and strange but wonderful creatures and moving things on wheels that carry them from place to place. And the fine ladies have something called ‘High Tea,’ which is quite splendid.”

“I think this forest is quite splendid enough,” she retorted a little rudely.

“Ah… But you won’t truly know your place until you’re out of place,” Beaky said. Then with a slight nod of his beaky head, he left her and soon disappeared along the forest path that wound its way into somewhere.

What did Beaky mean by his last comment? wondered Earthstar. How can one be out of place? And why would one wish to be? As time went by, Earthstar began to wonder about that ‘somewhere’ and those wonderful creatures and fine ladies and that thing called ‘High Tea.’ And before she realized it, she was no longer content. She became very curious about that ‘somewhere’ that lay beyond her forest home.

In a sudden thrilling act, Earthstar decided to leave the forest to see the world. And once she thought of it, she did it. That’s the way of earthstars. So, within moments, Earthstar was wandering along the same forest path that Beaky had earlier taken. She took Moss with her, tucked safely inside her ‘legs’ as companion.

Path, damp from a morning rain, through cedar swamp forest in Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Earthstar rests on small root snag on leaf-strewn trail through Trent cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Path through Trent cedar swamp forest with ash and poplar in early fall, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The path wound through dense cedar forest, mixed with birch, ash, poplar and the occasional oak and maple tree. Earthstar passed many relatives. Flaming waxcaps dotted the rotting logs and ground, looking like dance partners. Graceful Fairy Fingers thrust up through the duff on either side of the path along with Ashen Coral fungi, whose delicate ‘fingers’ reached up like praying hands. By the feet of one poplar tree, Earthstar saw a party of Scaly Ink Caps loitering on one side and Striate Bird’s Nest fungi having a party on the other. Stalwart boletes towered majestic, anchored to a mossy slope. A single shield mushroom with its smart lilac cap had burst out of a cedar stump and leaned into the sun with joy.

Waxcaps on decaying cedar wood in Trent forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Fairy Fingers in cedar duff in Trent forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Ashen coral fungi on ground of Trent cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Scaly ink caps growing at the base of a poplar tree in Trent forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Striated Bird’s Nest fungi at the base of a poplar tree in Trent forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Bolete on mossy hill of Trent cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Shield fungus grows out of rotting cedar stump in Trent forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

A group of Scaly Pholiota graced an old maple tree and not much farther a gaggle of Wolf’s Milk spread orange fungus joy over a decaying log. Conifer Tufts created a fairy ring around an old ash tree. Witches hats stood at the feet of a huge cedar tree, bowing with shy wisdom to her. There was a cheerful family of brilliant Scarlet Fairy Helmets tucked in the mossy undergrowth of a buckthorn thicket.  She even saw a crowd of her closest relatives, Lycoperdon puffballs clutching a rotting birch log, and waved to them.

Scaly Pholiota on an old maple tree in Trent mixed cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Wolf’s Milk slime mould on rotting log in Trent forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Conifer Tufts form a fairy ring around an old ash tree in Trent cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Witches hats nestled at base of a cedar tree, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Scarlet Fairy Helmets in mossy undergrowth of cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Lycoperdon puffballs on decaying birch log, Trent cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Eventually, the forest opened into fields and thickets and the path became rocky. The dense cool cedar-scented air of the deep forest gave way to a fragrant floral breeze and the warmth of the sun touched Earthstar with rays of good tidings.

Earthstar on rocky path out of Trent cedar forest into open area, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Earthstar negotiates the rocky path on her way out of the Trent forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Soon Earthstar reached a road and thought to follow it to town. Within moments a huge thing on wheels barrelled toward her! She froze in terror. But the cheerful wind whisked her out from under the wheel in the nick of time.

Earthstar almost gets run over by a car!

Earthstar thanked the wind and continued down the road, certain that the thing on wheels was what Beaky had mentioned and that she’d soon find the town and the river and those wonderful beings at the end of the road. And perhaps there she would encounter this marvelous “High Tea.”

Earthstar keeps to the side of the road with busy traffic
Countryside near Otonabee River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The road took Earthstar through an open countryside of meadows, flowers and trees. Earthstar kept to the side of the road to avoid getting squashed and soon found the river Beaky had mentioned. The river was magnificent. Sparkling in the radiant sun, it danced and lapped against the shore with the gurgling rush of laughter around the rocks and reeds.

The shallows of the Otonabee River, showing diatom-froth, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Earthstar on Rotary Trail as bicycles bear down on her (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Sensing the lateness of the day, Earthstar continued her journey in search of “High Tea.” She wasn’t quite sure where she’d find it and followed the river on a trail through a black walnut forest.

Earthstar passed a large building with an open lawn just as a loud bell sounded and large beings with legs spilled out onto the trail. They chattered about their lit class and laughed as Lillie, one of the students, recounted her scifi story about flying giant tardigrades that terrorized human cities for destroying the planet.

Attack of the giant tardigrades (image by Ramul in Deviant Art)

“Tardigrades are the coolest creatures,” Lillie went on. “Some people think they’re from outer space and lived among the stars. They can handle extreme temperature, the vacuum of space, and radiation, after all. And water bears can even survive a bullet impact!”

The students didn’t notice Earthstar below them.
She was so tiny after all!

Earthstar (and her moss companion) gets underfoot near the high school (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Just as the dark shadow of a giant foot loomed over her, someone shouted, “Wait, Marcus, STOP! Look!”

Earthstar was snatched off the ground before Marcus could step on her and gently cupped in the girl’s hand where the little fungus felt finally safe. “It’s an earthstar!” said the girl holding her. “How cute! See the bit of moss clutched in its arm? How adorable!”

“But, Emily, what d’you think it’s doing here on the trail by the school?” Marcus asked the girl holding Earthstar. “How did it get here?” Marcus suddenly grinned with inspiration and turned to Lillie, eyes sparkling. “Or did your giant space tardigrade drop it here? Which means we’re in your story–“

Lillie elbowed him and said something Earthstar didn’t understand.

Emily looked down at Earthstar, who sat quietly in her palm. “They’re the only mushrooms that move. Earthstars. I’ve read about them.” Emily then bent low and carefully set Earthstar on the grass by the trail, out of harm’s way.

“Maybe it’s on ‘walkabout,’” Lillie suggested, inspired by the thought of travel.

“You mean floatabout!” Marcus laughed. “If it came all the way from Australia it’d have to float across the Pacific Ocean!”

The students giggled, visualizing little Earthstar floating on a leaf and braving the vast ocean then hitchhiking across the North American continent into the Kawarthas. Still discussing the earthstar’s epic journey, they went on their way, leaving Earthstar on the grass.

Earthstar continued her journey, wondering what ‘walkabout’ meant. She found another large building and thought this might be where she needed to go. When one of the giant beings walked out through a door, she slid inside.

Earthstar and her Moss companion make it inside the condo complex (photo by Nina Munteanu)

She found herself in a wonderfully lit atrium with many more doors and lost herself among the indoor plants under large skylights. Within moments, as if sensing her presence, one of the large beings stepped out from a doorway and immediately saw Earthstar, perched by one of the indoor gardens.

“Well, well, what do we have here? A wandering earthstar and her little moss companion!” The being picked Earthstar up and gently cupped Earthstar in its hand. “Would you like to join me for tea?”

Earthstar in lady’s hand (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The magic word! Tea!

Earthstar jiggled on her ‘legs’ with joy. Was this being one of those fine ladies? As if sensing her excitement, the lady smiled and brought Earthstar inside her apartment.

The lady brought them outside to the patio for tea, where she had laid out tiny sandwiches, cheeses, crackers, scones with jam, and lovely pastries. Of course, Earthstar did not partake in these strange foods—being a saprophyte, she fed exclusively on decaying matter. But she enjoyed the ambience of this civilized celebration. And, of course, the tea!

Lady serving the tea (photo by Nina Munteanu)

When the lady went inside to replenish the tea, Earthstar explored the patio. Mistake!
Moments after Earthstar dropped to the patio bricks with the help of a little breeze, a very large dog (well, a rather small dog for you and me) came bounding to her and gave her a lick. The dog might have eaten her but the lady returned and rescued Earthstar.

Poppy the dog licks Earthstar! (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“Oh, my! Don’t mind Poppy, the neighbour’s shiatzu,” the lady said to Earthstar. “Poppy is harmless and only eats dog treats. I don’t think you’re a dog treat, are you?”

Earthstar dipping her feet into the water of the bird bath (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Thinking to get her to safety, the lady placed Earthstar on the edge of the birdbath where Earthstar dipped her tired feet. Within moments a mischievous wind pushed Earthstar into the water! Luckily, Earthstar floated. She was accustomed to deluges of water that filled her ‘collar’ and raised her spore sac to better deliver her spores. Water was an earthstar’s friend; earthstars counted on the beating drops of rain to help release their spores. After the initial shock, Earthstar rather enjoyed the swim.

Earthstar swims happily in the birdbath (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The lady thought she ought to rescue Earthstar again and put her back down on the patio. Then the whistle of the kettle inside drew the lady away to the house. In that short time, a clever black squirrel, who had been spying from the silver maple tree nearby, leaped forward and seized her!

Earthstar about to be snatched by the black squirrel (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“Mine!” he shouted to himself and bounded away with her clutched in his mouth. After waiting for an oncoming bicycle, he raced across the trail–just inches in front of the zooming bicycle (squirrels are daredevils at heart)–and entered the little wood by the river.

Earthstar screamed. But no one heard her, because it was a silent scream.  

The black squirrel took his prize to a huge old willow tree by the river. The tree bowed over a small path as if reaching down to say hello. The squirrel left Earthstar on the bowing tree to dry like he would any mushroom for later caching. Then he scurried away to look for more food.  What this city squirrel didn’t know was that—unlike most other mushrooms—earthstars can move!

Old willow of the riparian forest by the Otonabee River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Earthstar let the wind blow her off the branch to the ground where she used her six arms to carry her back to the trail and back to the lady’s place.
“Where have you been?” asked the lady when Earthstar got there. Her eyes seemed to wink. “I suspect you were on a small adventure with squirrels.”

Driving Earthstar home to the forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)

They continued their tea and when it was finished, the lady took Earthstar in her car and drove Earthstar home to the forest. Earthstar didn’t wonder how the lady knew where Earthstar’s home was; there is only one place where earthstars grew in the region. And no doubt the lady—being a true lady—knew where that was and respected the earthstars place in the world.

Cedar trees covered in moss, growing on ancient rotting cedar logs of the cedar swamp forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Fern-like moss grows on cedar roots that dig into old decaying cedar logs of the forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

When they reached the deep forest where the tall cedars covered the sky with green and the air stirred with the breaths of cedar and birch, Earthstar felt the exhilaration of coming home. She did not need to rely on the vagaries of a capricious wind to deliver her safely home; the kind hand of the lady set her down on the soft downy surface of woody loam. The lady set Earthstar right beside her sisters, her tiny moss companion still with her, tucked under her arm.

Gently placing Earthstar back home by several earthstar buds in moss of decaying cedars, cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The forest was her home. It nourished her. It was where her family was. Earthstar was content.
And this time she really was…

~~The End~~

Moss-covered red bark of cedar tree in the cedar swamp forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The Trent Nature Sanctuary

Located in the southeast corner of Symons Campus of Trent University, the Wildlife Sanctuary Nature Area includes many types of ecosystems and a network of trails. Wetlands of the area are deemed Provincially Significant by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. The cedar/maple swamps of the sanctuary support a rich diversity of fungi and lichen amid a rich ecosystem of plants and animals of the forest. It is within this area that I keep discovering interesting life each time I visit. Virtually all the images of the forest and fungi in this article come from this sanctuary, including the Collared Earthstar.

Mossy cedars in the cedar swamp forest of the Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Information on the Collared Earthstar (Geastrum triplex)

Eight stages of the Collared Earthstar life cycle, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON: 1) buds emerge in late summer; 2) the outer layer begins to crack in early fall; 3) the bud cracks open; 4) then spreads open; 5) forming a ‘flower’; 6) the outer layer cracks; 7) to form the ‘collar’ by early fall; 8) the outer layer shrivels by early winter (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Collared Earthstar Life Cycle

The Collared Earthstar (Geastrum triplex) is a Gasteromycete or stomach fungus, since it produces and releases its spores inside a saclike structure. The earthstar spends most of the year as a network of fungal cells (mycelia) that penetrate the soil and digest decaying organic material. When they are ready to reproduce, the mycelium develops the “earthstar” above ground. New earthstars emerge as ‘buds’ and develop in late summer and autumn through into winter. The matured fruiting bodies will survive the winter to be discovered the following spring by curious explorers like me. 

Spore sacs of Collared Earthstar in the frosts of winter (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Geo means earth and astrum means star. The species name triplex, which means ‘having three layers,’ refers to the way the ‘star’ arms of the outer layer crack when they peel back, making it look like the spore-sac is sitting on a dish. The three layers allow the earthstar to do something no other fungus can do: move. When it rains, the two outer layers of the peridium split and peel back, forming a ‘star’ with 4-12 rays. The rays spread with enough force to push aside leaves, raising the spore-filled sac above the surrounding debris. The rays often lift the earthstar high enough to break the connection to the parent mycelium, releasing the earthstar from its sedentary position. Detached, the earthstar can move with wind or rain to better spread its spores.

Finger poking the spore sac helps release the spores (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Fruiting bodies are large, 5-10 cm in diameter. Spores escape from the apical pointed hole (peristome) as breezes blow across it. Much larger puffs are released when raindrops hit and compress the spore-sac—or an interfering finger depresses the sac. What escapes is a powdery gleba (which distributes the tiny spores). The sides of the peristome ‘beak’ are fibrous and appear slightly ragged.

Several stages of the Collared Earthstar, from buds to opening ‘flower’
Early budding stage of Collared Earthstar (photo by Nina Munteanu)

After a late summer / autumn rain, the collared earthstar emerges from the leaf litter looking like a Hershey’s kiss or a fancy bulb-shaped truffle dusted in fine cocoa. Only the outer layer (exoperidium) is visible, peeking out of the litter and loam. The outer layer eventually cracks open, looking like a coconut husk and splits into five to seven ‘arms’ to form a star. Inside is revealed a tan to grey-coloured spore-sac (endoperidium) with a fringed beak (peristome) and its opening (ostiole). The endoperidium, or spore sac, is more like an elastic membrane resembling rubber that holds the gleba (spore-bearing mass). The star arms peel back and down, eventually cracking to form the ‘saucer’ which the round fruiting body (spore sac) sits on. The spore sac contains a mass of spores and fertile mycelial tissue, called the gleba that is white, fibrous and firm when young, but turns brown and powdery as it ages. A network of cells (capillatum) help spores move to the pore when a raindrop strikes the endoperidium. The columella, a bulbous sterile base at the centre of the spore-producing gleba forms ‘columns’ that radiate out to help spore dispersal.

Over time, the outer layer of ‘stars’ (exoperidium) form a reticulated pattern of cracks and fissures that deepen into golden-brown colours as they decompose and curl downward to lift the spore-sac farther up. The sac also grows more pale and papery. 

Parts of Collared Earthstar (photos by Nina Munteanu)
Just opened Collared Earthstar, not yet showing the ‘collar’ formed by cracking of exoperidium (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Good example of a more mature opened Collared Earthstar, showing the ‘collar’ formed by separation of exoperidium and extended curled back ‘arms’ (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Mature Collared Earthstar, showing papery spore sac sitting on reticulated exoperidium (photo by Nina Munteanu)

However, in the rain, the sac reverts to a rubbery consistency and deepens to a dark shiny tan colour. I was surprised by its elasticity; this time when I poked it, the sac sprang back to its round sphere like a thick balloon. 

Mature Collared Earthstar; left in rain, right in dry weather (photos by Nina Munteanu)

Collared Earthstar Habitat

I also learned that the collared earthstar prefers a habitat of leaf litter in deciduous woods, especially beech on chalky soils. However, researchers acknowledge that the collared earthstar is also found under coniferous trees, especially on sloping ground—which better describes where I found them, in this cedar-birch forest of the Kawarthas. Geastrum triplex is a saprophytic organism: it gets its nutrients from decomposing organic matter—such as well-rotted cedar trees, where humus has accumulated—by further breaking down the organic matter then, in turn, returns those nutrients to the soil to complete the cycle. It does this by releasing enzymes to break down and digest the lignin, cellulose or chitin in these materials, converting them to soluble compounds that can be absorbed by them, and by plants, as nutrients. Earthstars, like all fungi, play a vital role in reducing the accumulation of dead organic material and in recycling essential nutrients, particularly carbon and nitrogen. If not for fungi, forests would choke under a mountain of logs and leaves.

References:

Ellis JB, Ellis MB. 1990. “Fungi without Gills (Hymenomycetes and Gasteromycetes): an Identification Handbook. ”Chapman and Hall. London. ISBN 0-412-36970-2.

First Nature. “Geastrum triplexJungh.—Collared Earthstar” Online: https://www.first-nature.com/fungi/geastrum-triplex.php

Kirk, Paul M., Paul F. Cannon, David W. Minter and J. A. Stalpers. 2008. “Dictionary of the Fungi.” CABI, 2008

Kuo M. 2008. Geastrum triplexMushroomExpert.Com

Roel, Thomas. 2017. “#044: Mushroom Morphology: Earthstars.” Fungus Fact Friday.

Roody WC. 2003. “Mushrooms of West Virginia and the Central Appalachians.” University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, KY. p. 443. ISBN 0-8131-9039-8.

Torpoco V, Garbarino JA (1998). “Studies on Chilean fungi. I. Metabolites from Geastrum triplex Jungh”. Boletin de la Sociedad Chilena de Quimica43 (2): 227–29.

Woodland Trust. “Collared Earthstar.” Online: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/fungi-and-lichens/collared-earthstar/

Pegler, D.N., Laessoe, T. & Spooner, B.M. 1995. “British Puffballs, Earthstars and Stinkhorns.”Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. 

Utah State University. “Earthstars.” Online: https://www.usu.edu/herbarium/education/fun-facts-about-fungi/earth-stars

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.

Integrate Place in Fiction To Deepen Meaning

This past August, I participated in the When Words Collide Online 2022 Writing Festival.  one of Canada’s prime writing festivals in Calgary, Alberta. I was a featured writer, sitting on several panels and conducting presentations and lectures.

My presentation on the role of place in story kicked off the festival.

The role of place in story is a topic close to my heart and one I wrote an entire writing guidebook on: The Ecology of Story: World as Character. In my coaching sessions with writers and in my writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto, I’d observed in the novice writer a need for more effective integration of setting and place in story. All too often, the lack of meaningful integration translated into a lost opportunity to explore the POV character and the story’s theme.

The lack of meaningful use of place in story can result in a lacklustre story, overly vague characterizations and a story that lacks metaphoric depth and relevance.

Nina Munteanu

The presentation and following discussion drew from my guidebook Ecology of Story and was also featured in the WWC recorded panel called “What is Eco-Fiction and Why Should We Care?” The presentation overviewed topics covered in the book, such as:

  • Place as character & archetype
  • Place as metaphor (personification, symbols, allegory)
  • Place and first impressions (openings)
  • Place and emotion (over time and by POV)
  • Place through the senses
  • Place as environmental force (including climate change)

We also discussed how characters connect with their environment and I introduced the metaphoric connection between the white pine forests and the Mi’kmaq in Annie Proulx’s Barkskins. Both are exploited by the white settlers, with intentions to subdue and controll:

The Gatineau forest was noisy, echoing with ax blows and the rushing crackle of falling timber, with shouted warnings and orders. The axmen cut the great pines, but only a few in each plot were suitable for squaring. The rest were left to rot on the ground … unwanted trees lay prostrate, severed branches everywhere, heaps of bark and mountains of chips … There were so many trees, what did it matter? Maine men were used to waste—it was usual—but this was beyond anything even they had seen. 

In the Penobscot settlement, the trees fell, tracks inched through the forests, only one or two then seven, then webs of trails that over the decades widened into roads. The roads were muddy, sometimes like batter, sometimes thick and clutching until late summer; when they metamorphosed into choking dust so fine it hung in the air long after a horse and carriage passed, settling on the grass as the English people settled on the land … Fields of wheat and hay took the land, these fields enclosed by linked stumps, the root wads of the forest that had once stood there turned on their edges to bar the white man’s cows and sheep. 

I concluded the presentation with a writing exercise asking participants to write about the psychology of a place and how they related to it.

Writers attending the presentation / workshop eagerly participated and produced some evocative narrative that contained good metaphor and sensual writing. Here are a few:

Freyja on their high school gym: “I remember rallies and lectures and sweating, running in circles for an hour and a half. The gym stayed the same but the population of people got smaller and smaller over the years. One year a kid hit his head on the wall and went into a coma. Longest seven seconds in my life.”

Roma: “As soon as I get a whiff of old pages in a book, I am reminded of Uncle Leo. The coffee coloured leather jacket he always wore had seen better days and like him, still retained most of its luster. He was the youngest of my dad’s nine siblings, born during a storm and considered a tempestuous child. Our family just didn’t understand his passion.”

Angela: “I stood on the bridge in Moscow. My mother was talking with a friend. She couldn’t believe how lucky we were to be posted here. I looked down at the river. And at the bridge. It would be so easy to just jump over the fence and land in the water. It was a sunny day. The heat was oppressive. I wanted to do it. But I stood still.”

Kylie: “The stuffy air was full of the smell of bodies and heat. The din of laughing and talking, and yelling surrounded me.”

To find out more on how place can add depth and meaning to your writing, see my third writing guide, The Ecology of Story: Place as Character.

The Ecology of Story: World as Character is presented in two parts: Part 1 provides a comprehensive summary of the science of ecology, the study of relationships, and links to useful metaphor; Part 2 discusses world and place in story. Here I discuss how the great writers have successfully integrated place with theme, character and plot to create a multi-layered story with depth and meaning. Part 2 also contains several exercises and detailed case studies.

Boat dock at sunset, Ladner Slough of Fraser River, BC (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.

Nina Munteanu Interviewed on her latest short story “Robin’s Last Song”

Left: cover of Apex Magazine Issue #128 in which my story appears; Right: cover of 2021 anthology published in fall 2022.

I was recently interviewed by Alberta writer Simon Rose about my latest eco-fiction short story “Robin’s Last Song”, which was recently published by Apex Magazine in its 2021 Compilation Anthology. Below is the interview:

Simon: Congratulations on publishing your short story “Robin’s Last Song” in Issue 128 of Apex Magazine and soon in the Apex Magazine 2021 Compilation Anthology. I’m curious about the title? Whose last song is it? Is Robin the name of a human or the bird?

Nina: Both, actually. The title is both literal and metaphoric. The premise of the story is based on the alarming trend of disappearing birds. The robin, a common bird in Ontario where the story takes place, is a good sentinel for what is happening with bird populations around the world. Robin is also the protagonist’s name; she was named after the robin, her mother’s favourite bird.

Recently fledged robin rests on patio chair, Mississauga, ON (photo by Merridy Cox)

Simon: Robin’s Last Song is obviously eco-fiction. What’s it about?

Nina: Robin’s Last Song first appeared in the #128 Issue of Apex Magazine in 2021. It tells the story of Robin, a blind elder whose digital app failed to warn the world of the sudden global loss of birds with disastrous ecological consequences. After years of living in self-exile and getting around poorly on sight-enhancing technology, a discovery gives her new hope in rekindling her talents in the field of Soundscape Ecology.

Discarded robin’s egg to deter predators, found on a woody trail in Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Simon: How did you come to write this particular story about birds and what is “soundscape ecology”?

Nina: Since I was a child, the burgeoning SF writer in me had dared to imagine a world without the sound of birds—I thought it utterly bleak and, recognizing an ever-polluting world, I feared for my feathered relatives. I didn’t follow through with a story until September 2019, when I was approached by Oliver Hockenhull, the guest editor of subTerrain Magazine, to write a piece on technology and the environment. The timing was interesting; I’d just read two impactful things that resonated with me.

The first was the October issue of Science Magazine that reported a staggering decline in North American birds. Kenneth V. Rosenberg and his team of researchers had estimated that three billion birds of various species had disappeared in Canada and the US since 1970. That’s a third of the entire bird population lost in five decades. To make it clear, we aren’t talking about rare birds going extinct; these declines are of common birds throughout the world. The wrens, sparrows, starlings, and, of course, the robins. I was devastated; I could not imagine a world without the comforting sound of birds. What would it be like if the birds all disappeared? This brought me back to my childhood fears.

The second article I ran across talked about an emerging bioacoustics tool, soundscape ecology, that measures biodiversity and the health of an ecosystem, mostly through bird sound which well represents ecosystem health. Bernie Krause, a soundscape ecologist who had been conducting long-term recordings for decades noted how the dawn chorus in many areas had greatly diminished if not vanished altogether.

Bernie Krause, soundscape ecologist recording a soundscape in Florida

I now had my premise and my connection with technology. The title of my original story for subTerrain was “Out of the Silence”. This story focused on the technical aspects of the premise and solution. When I was approached for a story in February 2021 by Francesco Verso, the guest editor of Apex Magazine Issue #128, I rewrote the story with a stronger focus on the protagonist’s personal journey and connection with the bird catastrophe, how she coped with Asperger’s syndrome and the failure of her tool to predict the disaster. Hence the change in the title to “Robin’s Last Song”.

Cover of subTerrain Issue #85 in which “Out of the Silence” appears

Simon: Without wanting to bring in spoilers, isn’t there a twist to the story, suggesting a cautionary tale that touches on the dangers of genetic engineering?

Nina: Yes, thanks for bringing that up. I was already primed with research into genetic engineering for the sequel to my 2020 eco-novel “A Diary in the Age of Water.” I wanted to make the bird disappearance in “Robin’s Last Song” into a dramatic catastrophe linked to our own dangerous ecological tampering. I had the notion of using a gene hacking disaster to create ecological calamity and how this might affect birds. I wanted to make “Robin’s Last Song” a realizable work of fiction in which science and technology play both instigator of disaster and purveyor of salvation. Our biogenetic technology comes to us as a double-edged sword in the form of gene-editing, proteomics, DNA origami, and CRISPR—just to name a few. These biotechnological innovations promise a cornucopia of enhancements: from increased longevity and health in humans to giant disease-resistant crops. But, for every ‘magic’ in technology, there is often unintended consequence. Unforeseen—or even ignored—casualties and risks. I suppose my ultimate question with this story is: will synthetic biology redesign Nature to suit hubris or serve evolution? Science doesn’t make those decisions. We do.

Simon: Tell us a little bit about the Apex Magazine 2021 Compilation Anthology (that came out in both print and digital versions August).

Nina: The 350+ page anthology compiles all original short stories published in Apex Magazine during the 2021 calendar year. Published through Apex Book Company, it features 48 stories from a diverse group of new and established writers and the cover features award-winning artwork “Entropic Garden” by Marcela Bolivar. Check this link for more about the anthology and where to get it.

Cover art for Apex 2021 Compilation Anthology (art by Marcela Bolivar)

Simon: Are you still coaching writers and such?

Nina: Yes, I am, Simon. Did you know that I’ve been coaching writers to publication for close to twenty years? When I’m not teaching writing at the University of Toronto or George Brown College, I help writers with craft on their novels and short stories through my coaching services. You can find out more at: www.NinaMunteanu.me.

Nina teaches a writing class in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia

Simon: Tell us a little about any writing projects you’re working on these days.

Nina: I’m always busy with science articles for various online and print magazines and my own blogs. I’m also currently finishing a speculative eco-fiction novel that is a loose sequel to “A Diary in the Age of Water.” It’s set throughout Canada, from the Maritimes to the Arctic Circle, and spans a wide timeline from the Halifax Explosion of 1917 to the vast NAWAPA reservoir created a century and a half later by drowning British Columbia’s Rocky Mountain Trench. It’s a fast-paced thriller that focuses on four homeless people who battle corporate intrigue, kidnapping, human experiments and a coming climate plague.

Robin’s First Song: fledgling sits on a black walnut tree branch, ON (photo by Merridy Cox)

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 “Water Is…” Discussed in Book Club

This month of September (September 8 and 22 at 2 pm) the Unitarian Fellowship of Peterborough Non-Fiction Book Club will discuss my book “Water Is…”

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.

When the Meridional Overturning Circulation Shuts Down

Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) (drawing by Nina Munteanu, from “A Diary in the Age of Water” Inanna Publications, 2020)

March 6, 2055

Before leaving for the university this morning, I watched a news report on the storm that devastated the northwest coast of Britain last week. Over a thousand people were affected by the sudden deluge, severe winds, and flooding. Scientists are blaming another major AR (Atmospheric River). That’s the tenth so far this year for both Britain and Western Europe. Not surprising either. Due to the global temperature increase, the air holds more moisture, so these atmospheric rivers are growing in frequency and intensity. They are consequently wreaking havoc on the Atlantic west coast and the European coasts. I can hear Daniel’s ghost hissing in my ear: Between the relentless sea level rise and these storms, we’re fracked. The ARs that roar about like angry banshees have picked up the slack left by the stagnating great ocean conveyor. The conveyor or Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC)— circulates ocean water very much like in a lake, with dense cold water sinking beneath warmer, less salty water. Sunken water flows south along the ocean floor toward the equator; then warm surface water from the tropics flows north to replace the water that sank, keeping AMOC moving and preventing stagnation. As the Arctic turns into the Atlantic, dumping in more and more freshwater, the sinking is beginning to stop and the machine is slowing down. Freshwater is taking over the world. Like a giant wrench in an anarchist’s hand, it’s jamming the conveyor. Scientists underestimated how climate forcing would accelerate Arctic sea ice melt and increase precipitation. The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation—the great ocean conveyor—is in the process of stalling. It accounts for at least a quarter of the planet’s heat flux. We in the Northern Hemisphere are already seeing its effects: the rivers in Europe are drying up, forcing farmers to try to grow crops in the snow; the angriest storms in history are battering our maritime coast. In the meantime, the entire Southern Hemisphere is growing steadily hotter as the Indian and Asian monsoons dry up. Imagine the dynamic sea turning into a stagnant pond. No one really knows what this all means. It is likely that the oceanic plankton—our last food source—will crash or go toxic. It will probably be both.

—Lynna Dresden (scientist) in A Diary in the Age of Water

“Global ocean circulation will not change abruptly, but it will change significantly, in this century,” writes Cecilie Mauritzen, scientist with the Climate Department of the Norwegian Meteorogical Institute in Chapter 2 of “Arctic Climate Feedbacks: Global Implications”. Yet other researchers who study ancient climate change point to evidence that the AMOC can turn off abruptly. I suppose this depends on one’s definition of “abruptly.”

Mauritzen adds that “the potential for a significant change in global ocean circulation is considered one of the greatest threats to Earth’s climate: it presents a possibility of large and rapid change, even more rapid than the warming resulting directly from the build-up of human-induced greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.” An AMOC collapse would promote major cooling in most of the northern hemisphere, but also strengthen storm tracks in the North Atlantic and lead to further warming in regions of the southern hemisphere.

Climate models of an AMOC shutdown suggest a severe cooling in the whole northern hemisphere, particularly the regions closest to the zone of North Atlantic heat loss (the “radiator” of the North Atlantic central heating system). A shut down of the AMOC circulation would bring extreme cold to Europe and parts of North America, raise sea levels on these coastlines and disrupt seasonal monsoons that provide water to much of the world. It would also further endanger the Amazon rainforest and Antarctic ice sheets.

What climatologists like Mauritzen don’t discuss is the profound effects on the Earth’s biological community supported by this global circulation. The result of an AMOC stall may result in a massive ecological collapse and our existential end due to creatures so small only a microscope can see them.

In the above quote from my eco-fiction novel A Diary in the Age of Water the scientist Lynna Dresden highlights one of the most discernable effects of an AMOC shutdown: extreme weather, a cold snap with more angry and wetter storms in the north, particularly Europe, that could last hundreds of years. Scientists report that when AMOC stopped near the end of the last Ice Age, the cold spell lasted a thousand years.

Illustration of oceanic plankton (by Nina Munteanu, in “A Diary in the Age of Water” Inanna Publications, 2020)

But Lynna also talks about our primary producers, the phytoplankton (and their cousins the zooplankton). The phytoplankton—which is made up mostly of single-celled diatoms—drift on the ocean currents and sustain all life from producing the first source of a massive food chain to sequestering carbon, creating clouds and rain, and helping to create fifty percent of the oxygen we breathe.

According to Velasco et al. in Nature, “An AMOC shutdown could lead to the collapse of North Atlantic plankton stocks.”

When plankton populations crash, recovery is slow. Plankton ecosystems in Earth’s oceans took 3 million years to fully recover after the mass extinction event 65 million years ago, according to scientists at the University of California—Santa Cruz. In their 2006 paper in the journal Geology, the researchers concluded “that the time required to repair food chains and reestablish an integrated ecosystem is extremely long.”

Perhaps even more likely is that the plankton will only partially crash; more likely is a shift in its distribution and characteristics with many going extinct and some even exploding in numbers. This is called a regime shift—a widespread and prolonged change of a biological system due to climate change—something that is occurring throughout the world right now.

Coccolithophores under electron microscope (image by NASA)

For instance, a study in NRDC reported a massive surge in plankton in the Arctic Barents Sea in 2020. Researcher Brian Palmer shared that “phytoplankton blooms are growing faster and thicker than ever seen before.” Summer blooms of Coccolithophores (unicellular Protista with calcium carbonate plates) generally occur from July through September in the Barents Sea when this shallow northern sea is ice free. The 2020 study showed that these blooms are thicker and more extensive as nutrients influx from other oceans. A recent Stanford study indicated that the growth rate of phytoplankton in the Arctic Ocean has increased 57 percent in the last twenty years.

While higher productivity may naively seem a good thing, these blooms are problematic: to begin, their growth is often not synchronous with what might feed on them, creating waste and detrimental trophic cascades (see below); although the algal blooms absorb more carbon, this higher carbon also contributes to the acidification of the ocean, which, in turn, impacts the phytoplankton: their growth, behaviour, and succession. The dying blooms may also liberate the excess carbon under certain circumstances. This becomes a positive feedback cycle with ever more impact.

Algal bloom in the Barents Sea (image by NASA)

Stephanie Dutkiewicz, principal research scientist in MIT’s Center for Global Change Science, says that while scientists have suspected ocean acidification might affect marine populations, the group’s results suggest a much larger upheaval of phytoplankton—and the species that feed on them. “The fact that there are so many different possible changes, that different phytoplankton respond differently, means there might be some quite traumatic changes in the communities over the course of the 21st century. A whole rearrangement of the communities means something to both the food web further up, but also for things like cycling of carbon.” Dutkeiwicz’s team also found that the interactive behaviour, including competition, among phytoplankton species might change.

Regime shifts also cause trophic cascades.

The guillemot seabird is an example of one casualty. The guillemot, which typically nests on the Isle of Shetland off the coast of Scotland, is starving and few are nesting. This is because the guillemot feed on sandeel fish that have all but disappeared because the cold-water plankton the fish eat have moved north. The historically icy waters between England and Scandinavia have become too warm for the plankton to survive. Of course, if the AMOC stalls, these warming waters may cool substantially.

References:

Dybas, Cheryl Lyn. 2006. “On a Collision Course: Ocean Plankton and Climate Change.” BioScience 56(8): 642-646.

Mauritzen, Celilie. 2009. “Ocean Circulation Feedbacks”,  Chapter 2 of “Arctic Climate Feedbacks: Global Implications,” Martin Sommerkorn and Susan Joy Hassol, editors. World Wildlife International Arctic Programme. 97pp.

Munteanu, Nina. 2020. “A Diary in the Age of Water.” Inanna Publications, Toronto. 300pp.

Palmer, Brian. 2020. “A Massive Surge in Plankton Has Researchers Pondering the Future of the Arctic.” NRDC September 09, 2020.

Schmittner, Andreas. 2005. “Decline of the marine ecosystem caused by a reduction in the Atlantic overturning circulation.” Nature 434: 628-633.

Velasco, Julian A. et. al. 2021. “Synergistic impacts of global warming and thermocline circulation collapse on amphibians” Nature, Communications Biology 4(141)

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 Moment’ by Margaret Atwood

Great blue heron in Thompson Creek outlet marsh, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Old cedars and roots by Jackson Creek, 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.

Apex Magazine To Release 2021 Anthology Fall 2022 with Nina Munteanu’s “Robin’s Last Song”

Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds. The early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.”

—Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Apex Magazine will release its 2021 Anthology this fall with my short story, Robin’s Last Song in it.

Robin’s Last Song first appeared in the #128 Issue of Apex Magazine in 2021. It tells the story of Robin, a blind elder whose digital app failed to warn the world of the sudden global loss of birds with disastrous ecological consequences. After years of living in self-exile and getting around poorly on sight-enhancing technology, a discovery gives her new hope in rekindling her talents in the field of Soundscape Ecology.

Apex Issue #128 and upcoming 2021 Year Issue with Nina Munteanu’s “Robin’s Last Song”

May, 2071

I rock on the cedar swing on my veranda and hear the wind rustling through the gaunt forest. An abandoned nest, the forest sighs in low ponderous notes. It sighs of a gentler time. A time when birds filled it with song. A time when large and small creatures — unconcerned with the distant thrum and roar of diggers and logging trucks — roamed the thick second-growth forest. The discord was still too far away to bother the wildlife. But their killer lurked far closer in deadly silence. And it caught the birds in the bliss of ignorance. The human-made scourge came like a thief in the night and quietly strangled all the birds in the name of progress.

“Robin’s Last Song” by Nina Munteanu

Bird Population Decline

The number of birds in North America has declined by three billion, some 30 percent, over the last half-century. The October 2019 issue of Science magazine reported a staggering decline in North American birdsKenneth V. Rosenberg and his team of researchers estimated that three billion birds of various species have disappeared in Canada and the US since 1970.

Bird population change since 1970 (image The New York Times)

That’s a third of the entire bird population lost in five decades.

In North America, warbler populations dropped by 600 million. Blackbirds by 400 million. The common robins, cardinals, and blue jays had noticeably declined. Even starlings—once considered a kind of fast-breeding pest—have dwindled by 50%. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services have determined that three-quarters of Earth’s terrestrial and two-thirds of the its marine environments have been severely altered by human actions.

Robin’s egg in the forest, discarded from the nest to divert predators (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Plowing of fields, deforestation, wetland draining, climate change and other land use clearing and treatments have caused great habitat loss. In addition, neonicotinoid pesticides make it harder for birds to put on weight needed for migration, delaying their travel.

A robin fledgling rests on a patio chair (photo by Merridy Cox)

Common bird species are vital to ecosystems. They control pests, pollinate flowers, spread seeds and help regenerate forests. When these birds disappear, their former habitats lose their functionality. “Declines in your common sparrow or other little brown bird may not receive the same attention as historic losses of bald eagles or sandhill cranes, but they are going to have much more of an impact,” said Hillary Young, a conservation biologist at the University of California. Kevin Gaston, a conservation biologist at the University of Exeter, lamented that: “This is the loss of nature.”

The Trump administration heinously and foolishly demolished or maimed several key bird protection acts, which hopefully the new administration has or will reinstate in full force: Migratory Bird Treaty Act; Clean Air Act; Clean Water Act; National Fish and Wildlife Act; and the Endangered Species Act.

Useful Tool: Soundscape Ecology

The new science of soundscape ecology can analyze the health of an ecosystem. Bernie Krause, a soundscape ecologist who has been conducting long-term recordings for many decades recently noted that in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, not far from his home in Northern California, “the effect of global warming and resulting drought has created the first completely silent spring I’ve ever experienced.” Stuart Winter at Express reports that “many of the iconic birds whose mating calls ring out across woodlands and open fields during early May are vanishing at an alarming rate.”

Bernie Kraus creating one of his soundscapes

Silent Spring: Rachel Carson’s Ominous Prediction and Warning

Rachel Carson was nothing short of prophetic when she published Silent Spring in 1962 (in reference to the dawn chorus most noticeable in spring during breeding). Silent Spring cautioned burgeoning ag-biotech companies (like Monsanto—now Bayer—Sygenta, Dow, and DuPont) who were carelessly and flagrantly spraying fields with pesticides and herbicides—at the time DDT was the main culprit. This would soon become a GMO world where gene-hacked plants of monocultures can withstand the onslaught of killer pesticides like neonicotinoids (currently killing bees everywhere) and Roundup.  Roundup is a carcinogenic glyphosate-based weed killer that has recently been shown to kill beneficial insects like bees) and has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, ADHD, birth defects, autism, and several kinds of cancer in humans.

Rachel Carson and her iconic book “Silent Spring”

Despite Carson’s warnings in 1962 and despite some action eventually taken (e.g. the ban on use of DDT in 1972—the precursor to Roundup and other neonicotinoids currently in use), the use of chemicals in big ag-industry has increased over five-fold since the 1960s. And this is destroying our bee populations, other beneficial insects, beneficial weeds, small animal populations and—of course—our bird life.

And it’s making us sick too.

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.

Now is The Age of Nature…

Age of Nature is a series of three films made by PBS and narrated by Uma Thurman about humanity’s relationship with nature and wildlife and how scientists and conservationists study ways to restore the planet. The series, beautifully narrated and filmed, shows how restoring nature might be our best tool to slow global warming. From Borneo to Antarctica, the resilience of the planet is helping us find solutions to cope and even mitigate climate change, providing hope for a more positive future. The series consists of three episodes: Awakening, Understanding, and Changing:

In AWAKENING you will discover how a new awareness of nature is helping to restore mostly collapsed ecosystems; this included: restoring the cod fishery in Norway’s Lofoten Islands; the restoring the Chagres watershed in Panama; rehabilitating the collapsed ecosystem of Mozambique’s Gorongosa Park; and restoring the denuded Loess Plateau in China by planting a forest (and reducing the sediment in the Yellow River by 80%). This episode shows how innovative actions are being taken to repair human-made damage and restore reefs, rivers, animal populations and more.

“We are at a turning point in history,” says narrator Uma Thurman. “and moving in a new direction. How we live with nature now will determine our future. A new age is upon us, the age of nature.” This new awakening comes with a change in philosophy.

“Materialism has suggested that wealth is coming from things. But, in fact, wealth is coming from ecological function.” 

—John D. Liu, Ecosystem Ambassador, Commonland Foundation
Orangutan in Borneo forest (image from “Age of Nature”)

In UNDERSTANDING you will explore how a new understanding of nature is helping us find surprising ways to fix it. From the salmon runs and connection to forest health of the Pacific Northwest to restoring fireflies in China, and the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone—scientists, citizens and activists are restoring the environment, benefiting humans and animals alike.

“If humans get our acts together and start thinking about the whole ecosystem, we’re going to be recovering the whales and ultimately we’re going to be saving ourselves.”

—Dr. Deborah Giles, Killer whale researcher, University of Washington
Jungle in Borneo (image from “Age of Nature”)

In CHANGING you will discover why restoring nature might be our best tool to slow global warming. From Borneo to Antarctica, the resilience of the planet is helping us find solutions to cope and even mitigate climate change, providing hope for a more positive future. Bhutan’s negative carbon system is based on “decades of enlightened but courageous policies,” says Tshering Tobgay, former prime minister of Bhutan. By law they maintain over 60% forest cover to maintain a rich biodiversity and help balance climate as a carbon sink. Over 70% of Bhutanese live along river banks where they cultivate rice and other crops. “We’ve always had a strong association with water,” Tobgay adds.

“Ultimately, if we’re going to understand how to stop climate change, we need to understand our planet,” says Professor Tom Crowther, who leads a team of ecologists in categorizing forests and soils around the world from “on the ground information” to understand the carbon they contain and absorb. Crowther stresses that “the key is to restore these ecosystems in the right ecologically-minded way. That means we don’t plant trees in ecosystems that would naturally be grasslands. We also restore trees in a very biodiverse mixture; we don’t just want plantations, monoculture of the same species. We need all the different interacting species which help one another to grow and capture huge amounts of carbon…We absolutely need nature to survive on this planet. If humanity is going to have a chance, we’re going to have to restore ecosystems all across the globe…Biodiversity is the life support for our planet.”

Rainforest (image from “Age of Water”)

The movie showcases three major ecosystems of significant carbon sequestration that need to be (and are in some cases) encouraged, nurtured and grown:

1.  Old growth forests of the world: Bialowieza in Poland is the oldest forest in Europe:

Malgorzata Blicharska at Uppsala University reminds us of an ecological tenet: the higher the biodiversity of an ecosystem, the more stable and resilient it is. “The more complex the forest is, the more resilient it will be to different environmental pressures, which is really important now in relation to climate change.” A more complex ecosystem has a larger toolkit to draw from when confronted with change. “Even if one species with a particular function disappears because of climate change, there will be other species that take over this function.” This provides a natural buffer to change, helping it cope with disruption. “A natural forest is not a stable forest; it is changing all the time.” Adapting. The simpler the ecosystem, the less likely it will be equipped to adapt to imposed change; the more likely it will collapse with change.

Bison in Poland ‘wilderness’ (image from “Age of Water”

2,  Ocean phytoplankton, tidal marshes and seagrass meadows: Peter MacReadie, at Deakin University, studies seagrass meadows that store enormous amounts of carbon. They, along with tidal marshes and mangrove forests lock massive amounts of carbon; this is known as blue carbon. Mangroves are incredibly efficient blue carbon sinks. “Blue carbon is definitely one of the new heros in the climate change mitigation scene.” They not only effectively sequester carbon, they protect coastlines, and they support half of the world’s fisheries.

MacReadie acknowledges the role apex predators in achieving balance in the ecosystem that might otherwise be destroyed by an over-abundance of herbivores. The apex predator keeps a balance not so much by eating prey but through what is called “fear ecology” and achieiving a healthy trophic cascade: the shark changes the behaviour of the next trophic level down, the turtle, that would otherwise over-graze the seagrass. “Through fear, they affect how much turtles breed, where they forage, where they move around,” ultimately creating a healthy balance of apex predators at the top, turtles in healthy balance and seagrass meadows thriving.”

Peatlands in Indonesia (image from “Age of Nature”)

3.  Peatlands: Taryono Darusman, director of research and development of the Katingan Project in Indonesia, tells us that, “globally, peatlands store around five hundred and fifty gigatons of carbon.” Covering only 3% of the land on Earth, peatlands absorb twice the amount of carbon in all the world’s forests—which are ten times the size. Peatland ecosystems also provide for a unique and highly biodiverse community. Peatlands form in wetlands and rainforests; many of these areas have been drained to create canals or for agriculture. The drying peatlands become susceptible to fire. The Borneo fires of 2015 released more carbon than all of North America’s industry of that same year.  

The last ten minutes of the film are truly heartwarming and encouraging as the film documents how awareness is growing and inspiring a grass roots movement, particularly with the brave efforts of youth around the world. People like young Dayak activist, Emmanuela Shinta (who worked with youth groups to replant a destroyed ecosystem in Kalimantan, Borneo), and eleven-year old Madison Edwards (who started a social media campaign to stop oil drilling off the shores of Belize).

Planting in Borneo (image from “Age of Nature”)

Eco-heroism is sprouting all over the planet in response to her need for balance. Showing us that every single individual can make a difference…  

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.