Nina Munteanu Talks About “A Diary in the Age of Water” with Sustainably Geeky

Jackson Creek swells in early winter, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

I appeared recently on the Sustainably Geeky Podcast Episode 34 “We’re in Hot Water” to talk with host Jennifer Hetzel about my latest eco-novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” published by Inanna Publications

Here is their blurb about the episode:

“In this bonus episode, we continue our conversation with limnologist and cli-fi author Nina Munteanu. We discuss her book A Diary in the Age of Water and what led her to write this dystopian tale of a future that revolves around water scarcity. Nina’s background as a limnologist gives her a unique perspective on the challenges that await us if we do not address climate change.”

Click below to listen:

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 Nature Destroys … and Creates

Cedar roots dusted in winter snow, Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

It’s late December in the old-growth riparian forest of Jackson Creek, Peterborough. A light snow is falling on the cedars. When I walk by the creek through this deep forest, my senses reach out like tendrils, touching the mysteries of Nature’s complexity. To my right, the river’s multi-timbral chorus gurgles and chortles in chaotic symphony. Occasionally, I hear the percussion of ice cracking and booming like a designer rearranging furniture. The cedar pine forest sloping up to my left hisses and giggles as the snow falls and melts. My footfalls crunch over a frozen sponge of litter and loam. Nature’s sounds and aromas coarse through me like sweet nectar and my soul rejoices. I quiet my mind and become one with all of it. Serene in discovery. In sensing. Feeling. Embedding. I’m awestruck with the simple beauty of complex form, pattern and purpose: from the tiniest moss covering a boulder erratic to the largest cedar trees creaking and swaying above me in the whisper of a brisk winter wind. 

Today is different. 

I see something unexpected. A skull.

Red fox skull embedded in frozen shore of Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I’ve been following the icing of Jackson Creek. Huge ice “islands” have formed over boulders, creating new channels for the freezing water to coarse around. I stop near a small tributary of the river to study the formation of ice “pearls” on either side of an ice-formed channel. I venture out onto an ice shelf and set up my small tripod to take slow shots of water magic. The sun paints the water a brilliant turquoise hue.

Jackson Creek with ice formation on shore, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Breathing hard from my efforts and satisfied with the shots I’ve taken, I stand up and step back from the shore. It’s then, as I look down to where I’ve placed my feet, that I see it. A small white “rock”—No! A skull! Embedded in the frozen leaf litter and ground, not more than several centimetres from the frozen shore of the river, lies an animal skull the size of my hand with a long snout. How have I managed not to step on it and crush it with all my tramping there? I must have stepped past it several times to get to my photo op. I bend low to get a better look. What is it doing there? Who—or what—had brought it there, depositing it on the creek shore?

I returned the next day, eager to show my discovery to friend and naturalist Merridy; she suggested it was a red fox. Excited, I returned the following day with a ruler to measure it and a trowel and some hot water to help me extricate it for better examination. A light snow had fallen the night before but the top of the skull was still visible. I removed the snow and the skull came out of the ground rather easily, revealing several back teeth still embedded in it. While the skull was mostly intact, the lower jaw was missing and a loose tooth lay on the ground below it. I removed my prize and brought it home. After cleaning it with some bleach, I examined it further.

Red fox skull, left to right: front, back, ventral aspects (photos by Nina Munteanu)

The skull showed no signs of trauma or injuries to the head. I guessed that while this fox was an adult, it was young; the teeth that were there were in excellent condition. The skull measured 133 mm from end of snout to external occipital protuberance (inion). The average skull length of an adult male measures 129 to 167 mm and vixens 128-159 mm. Steve Harris in BBC’s Discover Wildlife tells us that dog foxes also tend to have broader and more domed skulls than vixens; my skull was rather sleek, I thought. From this I guessed that the skull belonged to a young adult female, a vixen. Statistics for fox deaths also favoured a young fox (see below). 

MeasurementValue
Skull LengthInion to prosthion133 mm
Skull widthWidest interzygomatic distance70 mm
Facial lengthNasion to prosthion63 mm
Facial widthWidest interzygomatic distance45 mm
Cranial lengthInion to nasion79 mm
Cranial widthWidest interparietal distance47 mm
Cranial heightMiddle of external acoustic meatus to bregma43 mm
Red fox skull, lateral aspect (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I couldn’t help wondering about this fox which had appeared as if by magic at my feet. What was Vera Vixen’s story? (Somewhere between bringing her home and cleaning her, I decided to name her). How did Vera meet her demise and where was the rest of her? Had the skull recently washed onshore or was it recently brought to the shore by a scavenging racoon, badger(they’re more common in this area than most people think) or another fox? Or had the skull been there longer and the winter ice and water just washed away the litter to reveal the embedded skull? Was it a death of misadventure? Had Vixen drowned when Jackson Creek flooded? Or was she hit by a car at the edge of the park, torn up by scavengers and her skull brought here to eat? Jake McGown-Lowe of BBC’s The One Showshares that “Fox bones are hard to find.” He had found his specimens at the edge of a wood. “In the countryside the main predator of foxes are farmers and gamekeepers, especially around lambing time, and the gamekeepers usually take the bodies away to dispose of… Be careful with the canine teeth because they easily fall out.” Jackson Creek is an urban park. Thirty percent of its perimeter is surrounded by urban and suburban streets of Peterborough; sixty percent of the park is surrounded by farmland and some marsh at its upstream end. A Bristol University study on cub survival determined that major sources of mortality included hypothermia, attack by domestic dogs, attack by badgers, and death of the mother. 

Red fox skull, dorsal side (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Various hunters have indicated that in a temperate climate it takes several weeks to several years for decomposers (insects, fungi and bacteria) to clean a skull left in the elements of nature. Temperature, humidity, presence of insects and water play key roles in the process of skeletonization. The skull at my feet could have died as recently as the fall of 2020 and as long ago as spring of 2019 during lambing season. Had Vera been shot or poisoned (including indirectly through scavenging) as she hunted for her kits? 

Bristol University estimated that two thirds of the fox population die each year by predators (including humans), disease and vehicles with the single largest cause of fox mortality being through road collisions.An Oxford study corroborated this with observations that 60% of the fox population were run-over by vehicles. Apparently most of the fox deaths are the young.In their 2004 review of the red fox, David Macdonald and Jonathan Reynolds at Oxford noted that “roughly 75% of the fox population die in their first year.” Studies in Europe have also shown that three to seven-month old foxes are most susceptible to traffic collisions—associated with the cub’s increase in ranging behaviour around the den and their lack of experience—and larger propensity for misadventure.

BBC Wildlife Magazine tells us that “spring is a good time to look for mammal skulls. The end of winter is a peak period of mortality for many species, and skulls can be found virtually anywhere.”

Red fox pups in refuge park in Delaware (photo by Jennifer Cross, USFWS)

The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is one of Canada’s most widespread mammals, living in a wide range of habitats including forests, grasslands, meadows and farmland. Known for their ability to adapt quickly to new environments, foxes have adapted well to urban settings and ecotones between city and wilderness; in fact, they prefer mixed vegetation communities such as edge habitats and mixed scrub and woodland. They are highly athletic, agile and incredibly fast (they can run up to 30 mph); foxes are known for pouncing on mice and other small rodents, burrowing in the snow using the earth’s magnetic field to help them hunt. Foxes have good visual acuity, capable of seeing small movements from far away and for navigating dense forests as they sprint after prey; but their most useful sense is their ultrasonic hearing. Treehugger reported on a 2014 study by the University of Duisburg-Essen and Czech University of Life Sciences who discovered that “red foxes have the best known maximal absolute hearing sensitivity of any mammal. They can hear a mouse squeak from 100 feet away.”This along with their ability to move swiftly and quietly through most terrain makes them effective crepuscular (dawn and dusk) predators in open country and nocturnal hunters in areas of concentrated human habitation. Foxes generally live an average of 3-7 years in the wild.

Foxes are monogamous. They live in family units in which both parents take equal part in raising their young. Older siblings also care for the young pups. The young kits remain with their parents at least until the fall of the year they were born in and sometimes longer, especially females. Pups are typically born from February-April. They are born blind, deaf and toothless, with dark brown fluffy fur. Mom fox stays close to guard the kits and nurse them for several weeks and the father or barren vixens feed the mothers. The kits leave the den a month after and are fully weaned by 8-10 weeks. The mother and her pups remain together until the autumn after the birth. After the pups are weaned and begin to play about the den’s entrance, Dad fox helps watch them while Mom fox gets in some hunting. If the mother dies, the father takes over caring for the pups. Kits reach adult form by seven months and some vixens reach sexual maturity by ten months—enabling them to bear their first litter at one year of age. 

Red foxes help balance ecosystems by controlling population of prey animals such as rodents and rabbits. They also disperse seeds by eating fruit. Steve Hall of Adirondack Almanack reminds us that red foxes play an important ecological role: 

“Now and then, vulnerable farm animals such as chickens, ducks and lamb will be taken. While farmers used to routinely trap foxes, many now realize that the fox brings far more benefit in its constant predation on crop-destroying rodents and insects, than the harm they cause in taking the occasional barnyard animal; secure enclosures for hens and [use of] guard dogs to keep the fox in the field but out of the barnyard, are the key to discouraging unwanted fox predation.”

James Fair of BBC Discover Wildlife noted that a single fox during its lifetime may be worth £150-190 to a farmer through rabbit predation. Most farmers in Wiltshire consider the fox a helpmate in reducing the pest of rabbits. Hall adds that while, “Deer are significant carriers of the tick, Lyme disease starts with rodents… [the red fox] eats huge quantities of rodents. If for no other reason, fox hunting and trapping should be banned.”

Cedar-pine-hemlock forest after first snow, Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Foxes take shelter in thickets and heavy bushes in the autumn until March of the next year. They are omnivores with a varied diet of small mammals such as voles, mice, squirrels and rabbits, and a variety of plants, berries, other fruit and nuts. Foxes have good eyesight but very keen hearing and sense of smell; this along with their ability to move swiftly and quietly through most terrain makes them effective crepuscular (dawn and dusk) predators in open country and nocturnal hunters in areas of concentrated human habitation. Foxes generally live an average of 3-7 years in the wild. 

The red fox communicates through a wide range of body language and vocalizations. Foxes use scent glands and urination to communicate their individuality through their skunk-like smell. They use scent to mark territory and show status. The smell increases during mating season. The fox vocal range spans across five octaves with at least 28 different sounds that include those for “contact” and those for “interaction.” Individual voices can be distinguished. One contact sound between two foxes approaching one another resembles the territorial call of a tawny owl. When foxes draw close together, they use a greeting warble similar to the clucking of chickens. Adults greet their kits with gruff huffing sounds.

Red foxes feature prominently in the folklore and mythology of human cultures with which they are sympatric. In Greek mythology, the Teumessian fox or Cadmean vixen, was a gigantic fox that was destined never to be caught. The fox was one of the children of Echidna. In Japanese mythology,the kitsune are fox-like spirits that possess magical abilities which increase with age and wisdom. This includes the ability to assume human form. Some folktales suggest that kitsune use this ability to trick others; others portray them as faithful guardians, friends and love. In the Cotswolds, witches were thought to take the shape of foxes to steal butter from their neighbours. In later European folklore, Reynard the Fox symbolizes trickery and deceit. In the actual world, this translates to resourcefulness, a quick study, and swift and decisive action. And perhaps that is the true meaning of Vixen.

Image of fox and crow from Aesop’s Fables 

Fox teaches us that gender equality helps to create a strong family, says Chris Lüttichau, author of Animal Spirit Guides. Fox’s medicine is family, survival and voice. Fox embodies resourcefulness and daring in her quest to feed herself and her young. “Fox survives and flourishes because she is clever and adaptable; she is now found living in cities. Fox teaches us to be flexible rather than to resist change.” According to Lüttichau, Fox’s medicine is “swiftness, surefootedness and a quick mind that always knows what to do.” Foxes have a wide vocal capacity and range, from screams and calls to low barks—something for each case as the fox calls and listens and calls back. We can learn from Fox’s varied voice to transcend traditions and prejudices through healing council and stories.

With thoughts returning to my Vera Vixen, I think that perhaps she is not a young unlucky fox who met with misadventure after all; rather, she’s a smart old vixen who’s birthed and nurtured several litters of four to six kits each spring. Her natural death after four to seven years of a rich life in the old growth forest and marsh of Jackson Creek would have led her to a quiet place to lay herself to rest; there her corpse was ultimately found by a badger, racoon or other fox and parts of her scattered throughout the forest to decompose and feed the ecosystem. Ever the mother, Vera now feeds the forest that nurtured her and her family’s existence. 

Jackson Creek during first heavy snow, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The Story of Fleet, the Fox of Surrey: In January 2014 it was reported that “Fleet”, a relatively tame urban red fox tracked as part of a wider study by the University of Brighton in partnership with the BBC’s TV series Winterwatch, had unexpectedly traveled 195 miles in 21 days from his neighbourhood in Hove, at the western edge of East Sussex, across rural countryside as far as Rye, at the eastern edge of the county. He was still continuing his journey when the GPS collar stopped transmitting due to suspected water damage. Along with setting a record for the longest journey undertaken by a tracked red fox in the United Kingdom, his travels have highlighted the fluidity of movement between rural and urban red fox populations.

Fox Prayer for 2021:

I call on Fox.
Shapeshifter and trickster.
Edge-walker and messenger.
Help me blend with my surroundings and adapt to the changing landscapes.
Show me the hidden paths between the worlds.
Teach me the ways of invisibility and camouflage.
Gift me your keen senses that i might see more of what is around me and use it to accomplish my goals.
I call on you, Fox, to bring magic and discernment into my life.
Lead me at your steady gait to those places where I might do the greatest good.
Let us walk the borders between day and night and follow the scent of divine mischief.
Fox, I call on you.

TRAVIS BOWMAN
Jackson Creek ices up in December, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The Tale of the Prayer and the Little Fox

Map of Jackson Creek Park and surrounding area, ON

Jackson Creek Old-Growth Forest:

Jackson Creek Old-Growth Forest (OGF) is a 4.5 hectare urban forest located on a glacial spillway slope littered with granite erratic boulders. The OGF lieswithin the Jackson Creek Riparian Forest, a 92-ha valleyland forest which extends into a major wetland of importance. Dominant conifers in the OGF include white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), white pine (Pinus strobus), and eastern hemlock (Tsuga Canadensis). Sugar maple, American beech, yellow birch, white ash and white oak contribute to the mixed riparian forest. Trees are commonly over 150 years old with some reaching over 250 years. Largest trees—which tend to be the pines and cedars—reach diameters of 97 cm dbh and heights of 35 metres. 

Cedar-pine-hemlock forest in Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The Jackson Creek valley was formed by the torrent of glacial meltwater that flowed from the ancient Lakes Algonquin and Jackson through the overlying till to create a glacial spillway some 12,000 years ago (Adams and Taylor 2009); the outflow of glacial Lake Algonquin was channeled to the former glacial Lake Iroquois—a body of water larger than the current Lake Ontario but in the same general area (Ecclestone and Cogley 2009).

The Jackson Creek OGF is a good example of a mature White Cedar—White Pine—Eastern Hemlock stand on a glacial spillway slope in Ecodistrict 6E-8. This eco-district extends in a band from south of Lake Simcoe eastward to the Bay of Quinte, north of the Oak Ridges Moraine, and is characterized by rolling till plains with drumlins, eskers, and intervening wide river valleys (Hanna 1984). 

Red fox skull found embedded on iced shore of Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

References:

Adams, P. and C. Taylor. 2009. Peterborough and the Kawarthas (Third Edition). Geography Department, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario. 252 pp. 

BBC. 2014. “BBC Two – Winterwatch, Urban Fox Diary: Part 2”. 23 January 2014

BBC. 2014. “Fleet the Sussex fox breaks British walking record”. 22 January 2014

Ecclestone, M. and G. Cogley. 2009. “The Physical Landscape of Peterborough and the Kawarthas.” In: Peterborough and the Kawarthas, Third Edition, ed. by P. Adams and C. Taylor, pp. 19-40. Geography Department, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario. 

Hanna, R. 1984. “Life Science Areas of Natural and Scientific Interest in Site District 6-8.” Parks and Recreational Areas Section, Central Region, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Richmond Hill, Ontario. 71 pp. & map. 

Henry, Michael, Peter Quinby and Michael McMurtry. 2016. “The Jackson Creek Old-Growth Forest” Research Report No. 33. Ancient Forest Exploration & Research. Online: http://www.ancientforest.org/wp-content/uploads/RR33-Jackson-Creek-OGF.pdf

Lüttichau, Chris. 2013. “Animal Spirit Guides.” Cico Books, London, UK. 160pp.

MacDonald, D. and J. Reynolds. 2005. “Red fox (Vulpes vulpes)” IUCN Canid Specialist Group. Online

Malkemper, E. Pascal, Vaclav Topinka, and Hynek Burda. 2015. “A behavioral audiogram of the red fox (Vulpes vulpes). Hearing Research Vol. 320: 30-37: Online

Monaghan, Patricia. 2004. “The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore”. Infobase Publishing. pp. 199–200. ISBN 978-0-8160-4524-2.

The Nature Conservancy: Nature.org. “Wetlands Mammals: Red Fox.” PDF Online

“Relatives are the worst friends, said the fox as the dogs took after him.” – Danish

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.

Embracing the Paradox of Creative Destruction

Beech tree in snow-covered cedar forest, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

I understand something of paradox. As an ecologist, I deal with it all the time. Destruction in creation and creation in destruction lies ingrained in the life-cycles of everything on this planet. A forest fire can destroy life but in so doing creates a more vibrant, healthier forest. Nature reveals many such examples from its circular patterns and fractal self-organization to its infinite spirals.

The Ouroboros is an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon swallowing its own tail to form a circle. It represents self-reflexivity or cyclicality, especially of something constantly re-creating itself. As the serpent devouring its own tail, the Ouroboros symbolizes the cyclic Nature of the Universe: creation out of destruction, Life out of Death. The ouroboros eats its own tail to sustain its life, in an eternal cycle of renewal. In Gnosticism, the ouroboros symbolizes eternity and the soul of the world.

Ecologist C.S. Holling recognized ecosystems as non-linearself-organizing and continually adapting through cycles of change from expansion and prosperity to creative destruction and reorganization. In his classic paper, entitled: “Simplifying the complex: the paradigms of ecological function and structure” (1987), Holling suggested that the experience of instability maintains the structure and general patterns of ecosystem behaviour; that Nature ‘learns’ and accommodates with time. 

In the final analysis, it is a matter of scale.

We can’t expect the natural world around us to run smoothly and safely for our benefit. New diseases, pollution, species extinction, and climate change are all results of unexpected impacts, whether human-caused or not. Though incredibly elegant, Nature is not simple. Scale is something you can’t see or easily measure and assess if you are in it. Scale is like hindsight.

The systems of Gaia are complex from the tiniest cell to the complex planet itself. Weather, for instance, is a “chaotic system” that displays a fractal structure and a range of chaotic behaviour on many scales. Temperature, air pressure, wind speed and humidity are all sensitive to initial conditions and interrelated in multi-scales.

Says Brian Arthur, professor at Stanford University: 

The complex approach is total Taoist. In Taoism there is no inherent order. “The world starts with one, and the one become two and the two become many, and the many lead to myriad things.” The universe in Taoism is perceived as vast, amorphous, and ever changing. You can never nail it down. The elements always stay the same, yet they are always arranging themselves. So, it’s like a kaleidoscope: the world is a matter of patterns that change, that partly repeat, but never quite repeat, that are always new and different.

BRIAN ARTHUR

Western scientists are just beginning to appreciate this through the application of complexity theory and chaos theory. This is something the eastern world has “known” since ancient times: humility before nature; respect for richness and diversity of life; generation of complexity from simplicity; the need to understand the whole to understand the part.

I wish you a safe and wealthy 2021: a year’s wealth of unexpected wonder, of genuine love, of unguarded honor, and dazzling bravery. There is no wonder without tolerance; no love without humility; no honor without sacrifice; and no bravery without fear. I wish you the gift of unbridled compassion. 

As Dante Sarpé (in my story, Arc of Time) said: Without compassion to fill it, knowledge is an empty house, casting its shadow on our courage to embrace the paradoxes in our lives: to feel love in the face of adversity; grace when confronted with betrayal.

Happy New Year!

Recommended Reading:

Holling, C.S. 1987. Simplifying the complex: the paradigms of ecological function and structure. Eur. J. Oper. Rel. 30: 139-146.

Holling, C.S. 1973. Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annual Rev. Ecol. Syst. 4: 1-23.

Holling, C.S. 1977. Myths of ecology and energy. In: Proceedings Symposium on Future Strategies for Energy Development, Oak Ridge, Tenn., 20-21 October, 1976. Oxford University Press, New York, N.Y.

Beech tree in leaf amid cedars and moss-covered boulders in Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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

How the Bdelloid Rotifer Lived for Millennia — Without Sex

As a child, I always wanted a microscope.

I would have collected slimy waters from the scum ponds and murky puddles near my house. I would have brought them home and exposed them to the light of my microscope. I would then have peered deep into a secret world, where shady characters and alien forms lurked and traded.

It would be many years, when I was in college, before I finally witnessed this world—so alien, it might have inspired the science fiction books I wrote later as an adult. As it turned out, I was led to pursue a Masters of Science degree, studying periphyton (microscopic aquatic communities attached and associated with surfaces like rocks and plants) in local streams in the Eastern Townships of Quebec.

Filamentous algae collected in Lake Ontario, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

While my work focused on how diatoms (glass-walled algae) colonized surfaces, micro-invertebrates kept vying for my attention. Water fleas (cladocerans), copepods, rotifers, seed shrimps (ostracods) and water bears sang across my field of vision. They flitted, lumbered, wheeled and meandered their way like tourists lost in Paris. But this wasn’t Paris; I’d taken the blue pill and entered the rabbit hole into another world…

Sketch of common zooplankton and phytoplankton (illustration by Nina Munteanu)

The Secret—and Dangerous—World of Micro-Organisms

Small Freshwater habitats are home to a highly productive and diverse collection of micro-invertebrates—multicellular animals that can barely be seen with the naked eye. Many average from 0.5 to 1 mm in size and resemble little white blobs; however, a scholar can distinguish each invertebrate by its unique movement. For instance, when presented with a jar of pond water, I can usually distinguish among the wheel-like wandering of a gastrotrich, dirigible-like gliding of an ostracod (seed shrimp), the vertical goldfinch-style “hopping” of the cladoceran (water flea) as it beats its antennae, or the halting-jerking movements of copepods (oar-feet) as their antennae drive them along like a dingy propelled by an amateur oarsman.

Alas, puddles, ephemeral ponds and vernal pools pose sketchy habitats, given their tendency to appear and disappear in a wink. And like the thief in the night, they pose a harsh and uncertain home to many small organisms. These environments are ever-changing, unstable, chaotic and unpredictable. Yet, anyone who has studied these variable ecosystems understands that they team with life. 

When a puddle or ephemeral pond dries up then reappears with rain, how can these communities thrive? Or do they all die off and then somehow recruit when the pond reappears? Many of these invertebrates have evolved creative ways to survive in very unstable environments. Some form a resting stage—a spore, resting egg or ‘tun’—that goes dormant and rides out the bad weather.

Philodina, a bdelloid rotifer (microscope photo by Bob Blaylock)

Animalcules & the Bdelloid Rotifer

In 1701, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek observed that “animalcules” (likely the bdelloid rotifer Philodina roseaola) survived desiccation and were “resurrected” when water was added to them. He’d discovered a highly resistant dormant state of an aquatic invertebrate to desiccation.

Dormancy is a common strategy of organisms that live in harsh and unstable environments and has been documented in crustaceans, rotifers, tardigrades, phytoplankton and ciliates. “Dormant forms of some planktonic invertebrates are among the most highly resistant … stages in the whole animal kingdom,” writes Jacek Radzikowski in a 2013 review in the Journal of Plankton Research. Radzikowski describes two states of dormancy: diapause and quiescence. (on right: sketch of bdelloid rotifer by Nina Munteanu

Bdelloid rotifers can go into quiescent dormancy at practically any stage in their life cycle in response to unfavorable conditions. Early research noted that dormant animals could withstand freezing and thawing from −40°C to 100°C and storage under vacuum. They also tolerated high doses of UV and X radiation. Later work reported that some rotifers could survive extreme abiotic conditions, such as exposure to liquid nitrogen (−196°C) for several weeks or liquid helium (−269°C) for several hours. Desiccated adult bdelloid rotifers apparently survived minus 80°C conditions for more than 6 years. The dormant eggs of cladocerans and ostracods also survived below freezing temperatures for years.

Rotifers are cosmopolitan detrivores (they eat detritus) and contribute to the decomposition of organic matter. Rotifers create a vortex with ciliated tufts on their heads that resemble spinning wheels, sweeping food into their mouths. They often anchor to larger debris while they feed or inch, worm-like, along substrates. Some are sessile, living inside tubes or gelatinous holdfasts and may even be colonial. Rotifers reproduce by parthenogenesis (in the absence of mates), producing clones (like cladocerans). Resting eggs (sometimes called zygotes) survive when a pond dries up. Bdelloid rotifers don’t produce resting eggs; they survive desiccation through a process called anhydrobiosis, contracting into an inert form and losing most of their body water. Embryos, juveniles and adults can undergo this process. The bdelloid withdraws its head and food and contracts its body into a compact shape called a tun; a generally unprotected dormant state that remains permeable to gases and liquids. Like Tardigrades (see below), Bdelloid rotifers can resist ionizing radiation because they can repair DNA double-strand breaks.

The long-term survival and evolutionary success of bdelloid rotifers in the absence of sex arises from horizontal gene transfer via DNA repair.

In my eco-novel A Diary in the Age of Water the limnologist Lynna visits her technician Daniel as he peers through a microscope and makes the observation of why the bdelloid rotifer is well-suited to climate change:

I bent to peer through the eyepiece at what turned out to be a pond sample in a Petri dish. Attached to a pile of detritus shivering in the current, several microscopic metazoans—rotifers—swung like trees in a gale; they were feeding. Their ciliated disk-like mouths twirled madly, capturing plankton to eat. Watching them reminded me of my early research days as an honours undergrad at Concordia University in Montreal. Probably Philodina, I thought; I had seen many during my stream research in Quebec.

“They’re the future,” Daniel said, looking up at me with a smirk as I straightened.

I raised my eyebrows, inviting him to elaborate, which he cheerfully did.

“They’re the future because of their incredible evolutionary success and their ecological attraction to environmental disaster.” He knew he’d piqued my interest. “These little creatures have existed for over forty million years, Lynna. Without sex! And they’re everywhere. In temporary ponds, moss, even tree bark. Bdelloid mothers that go through desiccation produce daughters with increased fitness and longevity. In fact, if desiccation doesn’t occur over several generations, the rotifers lose their fitness. They need the unpredictable environment to keep robust.” They incorporate genes from their environment: they acquire DNA transposons—mobile DNA—through HGT.”

—A DIARY IN THE AGE OF WATER

The bdelloid all-female populations have thrived for millions of years by maintaining a robust and diverse population through epigenetics and DNA repair during dormancy…The dormancy of all-female bdelloids is an elegant technique to ride out harsh conditions. The bdelloids can go dormant quickly in any stage of their life cycle, and they’re capable of remaining dormant for decades. They can recover from their dormancy state within hours when the right conditions return and go on reproducing without the need to find a mate.

Highly variable environments tend to support rare species: organisms that are uniquely equipped for change. These are the explorers, misfits, and revolutionaries who do their work to usher in a new paradigm. They carry change inside them, through phenotypic plasticity, physiological stress response mechanisms, or life history adaptations. Like bdelloid rotifers going dormant through anhydrobiosis. Or blue-green algae forming dormant akinete spores. In tune with the vacillations of Nature, epigenetics-induced adaptation is the only option for keeping up with rapid and catastrophic environmental change, not to mention something as gigantic as climate change. That’s why the bdelloid rotifers survived for millennia and will continue for many more. They adapt by counting on change.

Maple swamp forest in Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

References:

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

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

O’Leary, Denise. 2015. “Horizontal gene transfer: Sorry, Darwin, it’s not your evolution anymore.” Evolution News, August 13, 2015. Online: https://www.evolutionnews.org/201508/horizontal_gene/

Ricci, C. And D. Fontaneto. 2017. “The importance of being a bdelloid: Ecological and evolutionary consequences of dormancy.” Italian Journal ofZoology, 76:3, 240-249.

Robinson, Kelly and Julie Dunning. 2016. “Bacteria and humans have been swapping DNA for millennia”. The Scientist Magazine, October 1, 2016. Online: https://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/47125/title/Bacteria-and-Humans-Have-Been-Swapping-DNA-for-Millennia/

Weinhold, Bob. 2006. “Epigenetics: the science of change.” Environmental Health Perspectives, 114(3): A160-A167.

Williams, Sarah. 2015. “Humans may harbour more than 100 genes from other organisms”. Science, March 12, 2015. Online: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/03/humans-may-harbor-more-100-genes-other-organisms

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.

Darwin’s Paradox Revisited: Compassion and Evolution

In 2007, when I started my first blog, The Alien Next Door, I wrote an article that explored the term “Darwin’s Paradox”—it’s not just the title of my science fiction thriller Darwin’s Paradox released that year by Dragon Moon Press—but  a term coined by scientists to describe the paradoxical phenomenon exhibited by coral reefs.

Defying The Laws of Thermodynamics

Darwin described coral reefs as oases in the desert of the ocean. Coral reefs comprise one of the richest ecosystems on Earth, in apparent violation of the laws of thermodynamics (high productivity in a low-productivity environment). Productivity ranges from 50 to 250 times more than the surrounding ocean. How do they thrive in crystal-clear water, largely devoid of nutrients? Part of the answer lies in the coral’s efficiency in recycling nutrients like nitrate and phosphate.

First, the rough coral surface amplifies water turbulence at a microscopic level, disrupting the boundary layer that usually settles on objects under water and lets the coral “hoover” up the sparse nutrients. I stumbled upon a similar phenomenon during my grad work on temperate streams and published my serendipitous discovery in the journal Hydrobiologia. I was researching how periphyton (attached “algae”) colonized submerged glass slides and observed that the community preferred the edges of the slides because the micro-turbulence there provided more opportunity for attachment and nutrition.

Second, lots of corals also function symbiotically with specialized algae (called zooxanthelae), which provide the coral with food (through photosynthesis) and, in turn, get food from the wastes created by the coral.  

Can the science of symbiosis teach us something about another Darwin’s Paradox?

The Evolution of Compassion

In a September 2013 article in the Jewish World Review, Boston Globe reporter Jeff Jacobywrote:

“Charles Darwin struggled with a paradox: If evolution is a struggle for survival, how could generosity, compassion, and other altruistic virtues have spread through natural selection? Darwin could see the clear evolutionary benefit to groups that inculcated ethical values in their members. Imagine two competing primitive tribes, equally matched — except that ‘one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic, and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, [and] to aid and defend each other.’ (Darwin, “The Descent of Man”). There was little doubt that tribes highly endowed with such virtues ‘would spread and be victorious over other tribes.’”

“How did any tribe evolve such ethical qualities in the first place?” asks Jacoby. Brave individuals who risked their lives for others “would on average perish in larger numbers than other men.” It hardly seemed possible, Darwin conceded, that, “such virtues … could be increased through natural selection, that is, by the survival of the fittest.” So, how did it and why?

Jacoby quotes Sir Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s Orthodox chief rabbi, who pointed to “the central drama of civilization: Biological evolution favors individuals,” says Sacks. “But cultural evolution favors groups.… Selfishness benefits individuals [only in the short-term and only in a limited way—my comment], but it is [ultimately] disastrous to groups, and it is only as members of a group that individuals can survive at all.”

Jacoby describes the vast literature in evolutionary psychology and sociobiology that have demonstrated humanity’s hard-wired moral capacity. “We are born with an aptitude for empathy and fairness,” said Jacoby, citing recent neurological experiments that have demonstrated that an act of generosity triggers a pleasurable response in the brain.

Abraham Lincoln summarized it in seven words: “When I do good, I feel good.”  Psychologists call it the “helper’s high”. Neuroscientists and behavioral scientists are demonstrating unequivocally the benefits of altruism to our health and happiness. Scientists have designed experiments that actually trace altruism—and the pleasure we gain from it—to specific regions and systems in the brain. Key studies now provide striking evidence that our brains are wired for altruism. 

The Social Brain and the Seat of Compassion  

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Moll et al, 2006), a team of neuroscientists lead by Dr. Jordan Grafman, reported that, “when people made the decision to donate to what they felt was a worthy organization, parts of the midbrain lit up—the same region that controls cravings for food and sex.” The brain experiences a pleasurable response when we engage in good deeds that benefit others. 

Dr. Grafman found that the subgenual area in the frontal lobe near the midpoint of the brain was also strongly active when his study subjects made the decision to give to charity. The area houses many receptors for oxytocin, a hormone that promotes social bonding. “The finding suggests that altruism and social relationships are intimately connected—in part, it may be our reliance on the benefits of strong interpersonal connections that motivates us to behave unselfishly,” reports Elizabeth Svoboda in the WallStreet Journal. The team also found that the nucleus accumbens, which contains neurons that release the pleasure chemical dopamine, was triggered when a person chose to help another.

A 2007 study headed by neuroscientist Scott Huettel and reported in Nature Neuroscience(Tankersley, et al., 2007) connects altruism to the posterior superior temporal cortex (pSTC), an area in the upper rear of the brain that lets us perceive goal-directed actions by someone or something else. Results suggest that altruism depends on, and may have evolved from, the brain’s ability to perform the low-level perceptual task of attributing meaning and motive in the actions of others.

“Our findings are consistent with a theory that some aspects of altruism arose out of a system for perceiving the intentions and goals of others,” said Dr. Huettel. “To be altruistic, you need to see that the people you’re helping have goals, and that your actions will have consequences for them.” 

Research led by Michael Platt reported in Nature Neurosciencein 2012, showed that the anterior cingulate gyrus(ACCg) is an important nexus for the computation of shared experience and social reward. That same year researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York published research in the journal Brainthat suggested that the anterior insular cortexis the activity centre of human empathy.

I find it both interesting and exciting that these studies link different brain regions to altruistic and compassionate behavior. “There are certain to be multiple mechanism that contribute to altruism, both in individuals and over evolutionary time,” added Huettel. This is the nature of the brain, whether we look at intelligence, motivation or physical characteristics. And I am convinced that we will someday find that many other areas—if not the entire area—of the brain are involved. Moreover, researchers have shown that engaging—or even witnessing—generous acts can reduce stress, increase immunity (e.g., increased antibody levels), and longevity.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director for the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, explains the chemical activity that happens in our heads when we commit acts of altruism. “There are multiple reward systems that have been tied to pleasurable feelings when people help others or contribute to the well being of the people around them,” she notes. These reward systems are comprised of three main chemicals that are released when we commit an act of kindness and feel pleasure: Dopamine, Oxytocin and Serotonin. According to Simon-Thomas, Dopamine is most closely related to hedonic pleasure — or pleasure derived from self; oxytocin is tied to more social pleasure — especially with regard to physical contact; and serotonin is implicated in a more broad mood state. “All three of these, again, are sort of intersecting and interacting, and depending on the context that you’re in, represent feelings of pleasure in different context,” she explains. “All these systems are activating and parallel, and sort of influencing one another as you go through life.” So when I do a good deed, I am rewarding myself with a cocktail of wonder drugs that please me and make me smile.

So, what I’ve known since I was a child is now proven: doing good deeds is mutually beneficial to the giver and the receiver.

Path through winter forest in the fog, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Altruism in All Beings

The notion that all aspects of life on this planet—not just humanity—have the capacity to act altruistically remains controversial—even among professional scientists and researchers. We are not unique in experiencing or practicing altruism, in acting altruistically and benefiting from our own altruistic acts. It is however a matter of perspective, bias and open-mindedness. Many examples of altruistic behavior and empathy exist in the rest of the living world on our planet.

Nature’s Heroes

Scientists have been demonstrating for years that cooperation among organisms and communities and the act of pure altruism (not reciprocal altruism or kin/group selection) is, in fact, more common in Nature than most of us realize. Valid examples of true altruism in the wild in many species exist. The key here is “in the wild”—not in captivity, where inherent behavior is often modified (see my Alien Next Door article “The SamaritanParadox Revisited: The Karma Ran Over the Dogma”).

Despite the overwhelming evidence for altruism in every aspect of our world, some researchers continue to design experiments and then draw sweeping conclusions based on animals in captivity to suggest that only humanity possesses the ability to behave altruistically—and then again only by social-instruction (aka “the Selfish Gene” of Richard Dawkins vs. the “Social Gene” of Lynn Margulis).

Examples of altruism abound and range among mammals, birds, invertebrates and even Protista. Some examples include: dogs, cats, ducks, squirrels, wolves, mongooses, Meer cats, baboons, chimpanzees, vampire bats, dolphins, walruses, lemurs, African buffalo—to name a few.

de Waal explained that “evolution favors animals that assist each other if by doing so they achieve long-term benefits of greater value than the benefits derived from going it alone and competing with others” (de Waal 2006). The prevalent phenomenon of altruism is Nature’s answer to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. “Empathy evolved in animals as the main … mechanism for [individually] directed altruism,” said deWaal. And it is empathy—not self-interest—that “causes altruism to be dispensed in accordance with predictions from kin selection and reciprocal altruism theory.” deWaal further proposed that the scientific community has become polarized between evolutionary biologists on the one side, and, on the other, a discrete group of economists and anthropologists that “has invested heavily in the idea of strong reciprocity,” which demands discontinuity between humans and all other animals.

“One of the most striking consequences of the study of animal behavior,” says anthropologist Robert Sapolsky, “is the rethinking … of what it is to be human.” He notes that, “a number of realms, traditionally thought to define our humanity, have now been shown to be shared, at least partially, with nonhuman species.” (Sapolsky 2006). This makes some of us uncomfortable. To some, it threatens to make us less special. The corollary is that this demonstrates that we possess intrinsic virtue, not something “painted” on through cultural teaching or diligent personal effort. Of course, it also means that all other beings possess intrinsic value too. In the final analysis, what we generally “know” is colored by what we believe and want to continue believing.

First big snow in Thompson Creek marsh, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Universal Altruism and Gaia

What does all this mean? Does the very existence of altruism demonstrate the connectivity of all life on Earth? Let’s not stop there. Does the grace of altruism reflect a fractal cosmos imbued with meaning and intent? Was it the grace of altruism that allowed it all to happen in the first place? Don’t we all come from grace?

Despite struggles with acceptance for some of us, we are emerging enlightened to the fractal existence of grace and altruism embedded in the very nature and intentions of our universe.

I come full circle to my book Darwin’s Paradox, a tale of fractal intelligence and universal cooperation. A tale of emerging awareness of Self and Other as One…Evolution through cooperation… Creative DNA…Manifestation through thought and intent…Self-organization and synchronicity…A hero’s journey…and coming Home…

In this season of gratitude, we celebrate altruism in giving and in receiving graciously.

Merry Christmas!

First snow over Thompson Creek outlet, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Links / Books of Interest:

Altruhelp.com. 2011. “Altruism: the Helper’s High”. Altruhelp.com. http://blog.altruhelp.com/2011/04/01/altruism-the-new-high/

Atwood, Margaret. 2009. “Dept: Not Just A Four Letter Word”. Zoomer. March, 2009 (www.zoomermag.com)

Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, Stanford School of Medicine: http://ccare.stanford.edu

Jacoby, Jeff. 2013. “Darwin’s conundrum: Where does compassion come from?” http://www.jeffjacoby.com/13700/darwin-conundrum-where-does-compassion-come-from

Ridley, Matt. 1998. The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation. Penguin Books, 304pp.

Svoboda, Elizabeth. August 31, 2013. “Hard-Wired for Giving” in The Wall Street Journal;http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324009304579041231971683854

Svoboda, Elizabeth. 2013. “What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selflessness” Current. 240 pp.

Munteanu, Nina. Aug, 2010. “The Samaritan Paradox Revisited: The Karma Ran Over the Dogma” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2010/08/samaritan-paradox-revisited-karma-is.html

Munteanu, Nina. June, 2010. “What Altruism in Animals can Teach Us About Ourselves” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2010/06/what-altruism-in-animals-can-teach-us.html 

Munteanu, Nina. March, 2010. “Gaia versus Medea: A Case for Altruism” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2010/03/gaia-versus-medea-case-for-altruism.html

Munteanu, Nina. Feb, 2009. “Margaret Atwood’s Wise Words About Dept & Altruism…A Portrait of the Artist as a Real Hero” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2009/02/margaret-atwoods-wise-words-about-debt.html

Munteanu, Nina. August, 2007. “Is James Bond an Altruist?—Part 2” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2007/08/is-james-bond-altruist-part-2.html

Nina Munteanu. August, 2007. “Co-evolution: Cooperation & Agressive Symbiosis” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2007/08/co-evolution-cooperation-agressive.html

Nina Munteanu. July, 2007. “Altruism at the Heart of True Happiness” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2007/07/altruism-at-heart-of-true-happiness.html

Ridley, Matt. 1998. “The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation.” Penguin Books. 304 pp. http://www.amazon.com/Origins-Virtue-Instincts-Evolution-Cooperation/dp/0140264450

References for Altruism in All Animals:

Bradley, Brenda. 1999. “Levels of Selection, Altruism, and Primate Behavior.” The Quarterly Review of Biology, 74(2):171-194.

De Waal, Frans, with Robert Wright, Christine Korsgaard, Philip Kitcher, and Peter Singer. 2006. “Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved”. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Goodall, Jane. 1990 Through A Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Moll, Jorge, Frank Krueger, Roland Zahn, Matteo Pardini, Ricardo de Oliveira-Souza, and Jordan Grafman. 2006. “Human fronto-mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation.” In: Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., USA, 103(42): 15623-15628. http://www.pnas.org/content/103/42/15623.full

Sapolsky, Robert M. 2006. “Social Cultures Among Nonhuman Primates.” Current Anthropology, 47(4):641-656.

Svoboda, Elizabeth. 2013. “What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selfishness.” Current.

Tankersley D et al.  2007. “Altruism is Associated with an Increased Response to Agency.”  Nature Neuroscience, February 2007, Vol. 10(2), pp. 150-151.

Warneken, F. & Tomasello, M. 2006. “Altruistic Helping In Human Infants and Young Chimpanzees.” Science, 311, 1301–1303.

Warneken, F., Hare, B., Melis, A. P., Hanus, D. & Tomasello, M. 2007. “Spontaneous Altruism By Chimpanzees and Young Children.” PloS Biology, 5(7), e184.

de Waal, F. B. M. 2008. “Putting the Altruism Back Into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy.” Annu. Rev. Psychol., 59, 279–300.

de Waal, F. B. M., Leimgruber, K. & Greenberg, A. R. 2008. “Giving Is Self-rewarding for Monkeys.” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., USA, 105, 13685–13689.

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.

W.O.W Interviews Nina Munteanu on “A Diary in the Age of Water”

Thompson Creek outlet, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

I recently chatted with Darshaun McWay on W.O.W. Podcast about my recent novel A Diary in the Age of Water.

We talked about the story, its main characters–including water as a character–and why I write about water. We also covered why the book is written partly as a diary. Margaret Atwood’s name came up a few times…

Here is the W.O.W description of the interview:

Nina Munteanu chats with Darshaun McAway of W.O.W. Podcast about her new clifi novel “A Diary in the Age of Water”: a novel about the journeys of four generations of women and their unique relationship with water during a time of great environmental change. Darshaun and Nina talk about her use of water as a character, her choice of heroines and her use of a diary format to tell the story.  Nina shares that the book–set in the near future as a limnologist’s diary and the far future with an evolved human–explores the premise of a water-scarce Canada whose water now belongs to the USA, who, in turn, is owned by China. The events about which the diarist writes are based on real historic events and people. Nina brings her considerable scientific, limnological and research skills to bear in describing a future Canada both dystopic and harrowing–yet very familiar. One real event taken as premise in the book that Nina shared with Darshaun is the American NAWAPA plan of the 1960s that went to congress and was (and still is) seriously discussed for years following: the plan was to divert massive amounts of fresh water from Canada and store by inundating the Rocky Mountain Trench and piped south to hydrate dwindling aquifers in the USA.

W.O.W Interview with Nina Munteanu and Darshaun McAway

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 Art Tangos with Science Through Synchronicity

Imagination is more important than knowledge—Albert Einstein

 

Fern woodfern Cedar JC

Eastern cedar and wood fern in Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I tell stories. I’m also a scientist. I use the scientific method in my research to seek truth; I also find truth presented to me through the symbols of intuition.

Several years ago, I was introduced to Krista Fogel, a University of British Columbia masters student at the time, who was investigating the use of creative art in high-ability scientists. She named her thesis: “The Self-Perceived Experience of Investigating Science with an Artistic Spirit: A Hermeneutic Phenomenological Study of High Ability Scientists Who Also Engage in the Arts”. Hermeneutic, by the way, is the development and study of theories of the interpretation and understanding of texts (I had to look it up) and phenomenology is an approach to philosophy through the study of phenomena.

Krista wanted to interview me as part of her project. I was flattered, of course. Me, a High Ability Scientist? Who’d told her that? Once I got past my own humble angst, I found Krista’s questions bracing; they reopened a world of compelling ideas I had carried with me for some time. The concept of using art to do good science has dwelled inside me since registration day at Concordia University when I quit my fine arts program to pursue a science degree only to come full circle and write fiction.

Fern woodfern moss logs JC

Wood fern and moss, Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I’d received my Masters Degree in Ecology and Limnology and was then working as a scientist for an environmental consulting firm (I now write and teach writing full time). I conducted research, drove boats, collected samples and analyzed data then wrote up my findings and made recommendations. I wrote science fiction novels on the side.

“History shows that eminent scientists, such as Leonardo da Vinci, also engaged in the arts,” said Fogel. She went on to cite 400 other famous scientists who also practiced art at a high level. “If not entirely engaged in the arts, scientists throughout history have at least engaged in science with an artistic spirit. Scientists and artists use common tools for thinking such as intuition and imaginative processes.”

Krista and I met several times at the local Starbucks, where I “toked” on coffee as she fumbled with her notes. A young gal with a direct but unassuming gaze and a gentle smile, Krista asked me to share my personal experience of mixing art with science. Every good scientist is an artist at heart, she told me: science is the tool and art is the process.

Fogel concluded that when conducting scientific investigations with an artistic spirit, the scientist holds her heart central, from which the artist springs. This “allows us to connect with serendipitous occurrences, which breed discovery,” Fogel added.

You can train your mind as both artist and scientist to become more aware of serendipitous occurrences around you. I call it being in sync and wrote about it in a previous article here. Often, when I’m researching a novel, I pick up things serendipitously. Something will come up that just fits with what I was searching for. An article pops up in the news. Or I’m talking to someone and they bring up just the topic I am researching. These things always happen to me. This occurs not only in my fiction writing but in my scientific pursuits. Some years ago, I was doing a pollution study using glass slides for colonizing algae to compare communities of an urban stream to those of an agricultural stream. I was really looking to see the difference between communities of these different stream environments when I discovered that the algae were colonizing the glass surfaces according to the current. Compelled with more questions of why, how and what if, I pursued this new line of research (which turned out to be far more interesting than my original research premise) and wrote several ground-breaking papers on it.

Indeed, questions like “why” and “what if” are germane to both art and science; the ‘what if’ question is the science fiction writer’s mantra and the premise, which comes from the artist part of you: imagination and an inquisitive and open mind. The idea of seemingly unrelated events intersecting to produce meaningful patterns has spawned new notions of thought from the scientific study of spontaneous order in the universe  (synchrony), to Synchromysticism — the discovery of convergent archetypal symbols in pop culture (e.g., books, music and film).

Fern woodfern SolomonSeal JC

Wood fern and Solomon seal, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Writer and philosopher Jake Kotze suggests that, “Synchronicity happens when we notice the bleed-through from one seemingly separate thing into another — or when we for a brief moment move beyond the mind’s divisions of the world.” Synchronicity and serendipitous discovery, like metaphor, appears when we change the way we look at things.

Serendipitous discovery comes to us through peripheral vision. Like our muse, it doesn’t happen by chasing after it; it sneaks up on us when we’re not looking. It comes to us when we focus outward and embrace our wonder for this world. When we quiet our minds and nurture our souls with beauty. It is then that what we had been seeking naturally comes to us. Like a gift.

Author Sibyl Hunter tells us that “Sync operates as an undercurrent of divine awareness personified through the myriad processes and symbols that make up the building blocks of our reality. Within that current, we spin our modern-day myths into books, fairy tales and movies, subconsciously retelling ourselves the same story over and over.” This also holds true in the models and metaphors of scientific genius, which often spring from the creativity of an intuitive heart and imaginative mind.

According to Mark A. Runco (California State University) “creativity depends on originality, while accomplishment and achievement reflect other problem-solving skills. Creative thinking involves at least three things: 1) the cognitive capacity to transform experience into original interpretations, 2) an interest in producing original interpretations, and 3) discretion.” The title of Piaget’s monograph, To Understand Is to Invent, reflects the fact that we do not have an authentic understanding of our experience until we construct that understanding for ourselves. In other words, “it is one thing to memorize some datum; it is quite another to discover it for one’s self; only then do we understand,” says Runco. Fogel concurs: “what Piaget called inventionis a kind of creation, a creation of personal meaning. Piaget tied assimilation to imaginative play into creative interpretation.”

According to Dean Keith Simonton (University of California), even the most illustrious creative geniuses of history have careers riddled by both hits and misses, both successes and failures. He uses Albert Einstein as an example. A man who has achieved almost mythical status as a genius, Einstein’s career “was plagued by terrible ideas, false starts and surprising disasters.” Simonton tells the story of Einstein’s debate with Niels Bohr over the implications of quantum theory, in which Einstein offered a series of arguments that Bohr countered. Bohr once even pointed out that Einstein failed to take into consideration the theory of relativity! According to some, Einstein wasted the final years of his career working on a unified field theory that was almost universally rejected by his colleagues. Einstein defended his missteps by noting that errors can advance science so long as they are not trivial; the greater the error, the greater the opportunity for new perspective and discovery.

It is left for us to simply recognize the dance.

Fern woodfern two Cedars wide JC

Wood fern and two Eastern cedars, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

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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 Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Atlantykron Summer Academy—2020

Because of the COVID19 pandemic, The 31st annual summer academy for learning was held virtually this year by New Horizons (of the World Genesis Foundation and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

Because of this, I was finally able to participate. Virtually and all the way from Canada.

Atlantykron island

Atlantykron on the Danube

The international event is normally held on an island on the Danube River near the village and ancient Roman ruins of Capidava, Romania. First held in the summer of 1989, the event has attracted hundreds of youth and teachers from around the world to learn with scientists, artists, writers and other professionals in a wilderness setting.

Coordinated by Sorin Repanovici of the World Genesis Foundation and run by Dr. Florin Munteanu, Heather Caton-Anderson and Constantin D. Pavel, Atlantykron promotes UNESCO core goals of promoting sustainable development and creating dialogue and collaboration among nations in the areas of education, science, culture and communications.

Key presentations in the 2020 Atlantykron included:

  • “New Horizons of Animal-Human Relationships” by Chan Chow Wah in China
  • “Mars 2020 Mission Perseverance” by Ravi Prakash and Erisa K. Stilley in USA
  • “Planning and Scripting a Time-Lapse Movie” by Stan Jiman in USA
  • “Generating & Solving Crisis to Avoid Imbalance and Catastrophe” by Dr. Florin Colceag in Romania
  • “The Science and Meaning of Water” by Nina Munteanu in Canada
  • “Who’s Afraid of Autonomous Cars” by Pompilian Tofilescu in USA

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Florin Munteanu

Dr. Florin Munteanu

I’d met Florin Munteanu in 2012, when I went to Bucharest, Romania to participate in the launch of the Romanian translation of my book The Fiction Writer (Manual de Scriere Creativa: scriitorul de fictiune) with Editura Paralela 45 at the Gaudeamus Book Fair. Florin met me at the airport and took me to the Phoenicia Grand Hotel where I was staying. We had some coffee and pastries over a wonderful chat and he then coordinated a tour of the city for me with one of his students at the Centre of Complexity Studies where he taught.

When Florin invited me to speak at Atlantykron 2020, I was more than pleased.

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Nina with “Water Is…”

As a limnologist and with two major books on water published, I gave a talk on the science and meaning of water. Much of what I shared is in my book Water Is… The Meaning of Water, which provides 12 different angles on what water means—to different people from scientists and technologists to politicians, spiritualists and lay folk.

Water is so much more than the sum of its parts…

“Ultimately, water and our relationship with it is a curious gestalt of magic and paradox. Like the Suntelia Aion described by the Greeks, water cuts recursive patterns of creative destruction through the landscape, an ouroborous remembering. It changes, yet stays the same, shifting its face with the climate. It wanders the earth like a gypsy, stealing from where it is needed and giving whimsically where it isn’t wanted; aggressive yet yielding. Life-giving yet dangerous. Water is the well-spring of life. Yet it is the River Styx that leads the dead to Hades… Water is a shape shifter.”—Water Is…The Meaning of Water

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Nina with “A Diary in the Age of Water”

I overviewed some of water’s many anomalous qualities such as its unique density, cohesive, and adhesive properties—all life-giving. I discussed the water bridge, demonstrated by Dr. Elmar C. Fuchs and Professor Jakob Woisetchlager in 2007. I explored why water—particularly moving water—makes us feel so good (all those negative ions!). I went over the water cycle, water’s role in most natural cycles, and how it contributes to climate.

I then explored some of the oddest but most common tiny water residents. One example is the bdelloid rotifer—featured in my latest novel A Diary in the Age of Water—which is smaller than a millimeter, ubiquitous, lives wherever there is some water and can withstand desiccation, drying up into a dormant stage called a tun. Bdelloids create protective proteins, such as LEA, which act as a molecular shield.

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Sketch of a bdelloid rotifer (illustration by Nina Munteanu)

The bdelloid rotifer has existed for over forty million years. It reproduces through obligate parthenogenesis to produce all females, called thelytoky. Their long-term survival and evolutionary success in the absence of sex is largely a function of ecological adaptation that involves horizontal gene transfer through DNA repair. While they are patching up their broken genes from desiccation, they stitch in foreign DNA from the environment through horizontal gene transfer.

I ended the talk with some notes about conservation and stewardship of water. Using twelve-year old Rachel Parent and Greta Thunberg as examples, I stressed that no one is too young or too alone to make a difference; we then explored several activities that anyone could do.

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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 Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Eco-Fiction: What Readers Get From It and How to Prevent Polemic

Mary Woodbury on Dragonfly.eco recently shared a survey of over a hundred readers to determine the impact that eco-fiction had on them. What did environmental fiction mean to readers? What about it appealed to them? What were their favourite works? And did it incite them to action? The answers were both expected and surprising. Given the sample size and some study limitations on audience and diversity, the results are preliminary still. However, they remain interesting and enlightening.

theoverstorySome of the most impactful novels according to the readers surveyed include Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Richard Power’s The Overstory, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle series.

Readers gave Woodbury several reasons why they enjoyed and found eco-novels impactful:

  • Realism or compelling account of or reflection of society, scary or not
  • Goes beyond readers’ culture–expands minds
  • Humorous
  • Story focused on characters versus an issue
  • Learned something new
  • Opened readers’ minds
  • Captured imagination
  • Positive endings
  • Good storytelling
  • Interesting characters
  • Suspense and/or psychological burn

One reader mentioned that what appealed to them about Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water was the style of writing. It provoked “feelings of utter beauty but also unease.”

One reader enjoyed Cormac Mccarthy’s The Road “for its spare post-apocalyptic world where even language seems to run out.”

Of Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves a reader wrote that “The dystopic beginning felt so real, and then the positive ending was so good. I loved it and it made me think about how climate change can possibly have impacts beyond just our physical and mental health, but also our dreams!”

A reader of Frank Herbert’s Dune wrote that “it was the first time I’d seen a literary rendering of an ecosystem that felt real. The ideas of ecology are woven into this story in a way I didn’t think was possible for fiction. Interconnection is hard to think about, hard to grasp, and Dune showed me that fiction, done well, can really help with this.” The same reader acknowledged that in Annihilation Jeff VenderMeer “mastered the technique.”

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Graph from Environmental Fiction Impact Survey by Mary Woodbury

When asked the question “Do you think that environmental themes in fiction can impact society, and if so, how?” 81% agreed and qualified their answers:

  • Fiction can encourage empathy and imagination. Stories can affect us more than dry facts. Fiction reaches us more deeply than academic understanding, moving us to action.
  • Fiction can trigger a sense of wonder about the natural world, and even a sense of loss and mourning. Stories can immerse readers into imagined worlds with environmental issues similar to ours.
  • Fiction raises awareness, encourages conversations and idea-sharing. Fiction is one way that helps to create a vision of our future. Cautionary tales can nudge people to action and encourage alternative futures. Novels can shift viewpoints without direct confrontation, avoid cognitive dissonance, and invite reframed human-nature relationships through enjoyment and voluntary participation.
  • Environmental themes can reorient our perspective from egocentrism to the greater-than-human world.

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Graph from Environmental Fiction Impact Survey by Mary Woodbury

In summary, Woodbury writes:

“The sample size (103) seems to be a good one for people who are mostly familiar with the idea of eco-fiction (and similar environmental/nature fiction genres and subgenres), though I was still hoping to get a larger, more diverse group of participants. The majority of respondents were highly educated middle-aged women. The majority of the group read from 1-29 novels a year. Favorite novels represented mostly North American or European authors (male and female about equally, with J.R.R. Tolkien, Barbara Kingsolver and Margaret Atwood consistently a favorite), with the majority of readers enjoying literary fiction the most, followed by dystopia/utopia and then science fiction.”

Woodbury notes that the genres of science fiction and fantasy were well represented in the survey, “both as favorite and most impactful novels, despite literary fiction being the favorite genre among the participants.” Of novels that respondents enjoyed, “readers were most impacted by good storytelling.” Polemic was not well regarded.

 

Achieving Impactful Eco-Fiction & Avoiding Polemic Through Use of Metaphor

The key to impact and enjoyment for a reader lies in good storytelling. The very best storytelling uses metaphor and oblique description to achieve a deeper meaning. The greatest art must be left to interpretation; not directly dispensed. Great art is felt and experienced viscerally; not just taken in intellectually. Great art shows; not tells.

EcologyOfStoryIn my writing guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character, I discuss the various ways that the use of metaphor achieves depth and meaning in story, particularly in eco-fiction. One impactful way is in the choice of setting. In the chapter on Place as Metaphor, I write:

Everything in story is metaphor, Ray Bradbury once told me. That is no more apparent than in setting and place, in which a story is embedded and through which characters move and interact.

Metaphor is the subtext that provides the subtleties in story, subtleties that evoke mood, anticipation, and memorable scenes. Richard Russo says, “to know the rhythms, the textures, the feel of a place is to know more deeply and truly its people.” When you choose your setting, remember that its primary role is to help depict theme. This is because place is destiny.

What would the book Dune be without Arrakis, the planet Dune? What would the Harry Potter books be without Hogwarts?

Metaphor provides similarity to two dissimilar things through meaning. In the metaphor “Love danced in her heart” or the simile “his love was like a slow dance”, love is equated with the joy of dance. By providing figurative rather than literal description to something, metaphor invites participation through interpretation.

When I write “John’s office was a prison,” I am efficiently and sparingly suggesting in five words—in what would normally take a paragraph—how John felt about his workplace. The reader would conjure imagery suggested by their knowledge of a prison cell: that John felt trapped, cramped, solitary, stifled, oppressed—even frightened and threatened. Metaphor relies on sub-text knowledge. This is why metaphor is so powerful and universally relevant: the reader fully participates—the reader brings in relevance through their personal knowledge and experience and this creates the memorable aspect to the scene.

Metaphor is woven into story through the use of devices and constructs such as depiction of the senses, personification, emotional connections, memories, symbols, archetypes, analogies and comparisons. Sense, and theme interweave in story to achieve layers of movement with characters on a journey. All through metaphor.

Symbols and Archetypes

In Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water—about a post-climate change world of sea level rise—water is a powerful archetype, whose secret tea masters guard with their lives. Water, with its life-giving properties and other strange qualities, has been used as a powerful metaphor and archetype in many stories: from vast oceans used as a powerful metaphor and archetype in many stories: from vast oceans of mystery, beauty and danger—to the relentless flow of an inland stream. Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad is one example:

Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.

In my short story The Way of Water (La natura dell’acqua), water’s connection with love flows throughout the story:

The Way of Water-COVERThey met in the lobby of a shabby downtown Toronto hotel. Hilda barely knew what she looked like but when Hanna entered the lobby through the front doors, Hilda knew every bit of her. Hanna swept in like a stray summer rainstorm, beaming with the self-conscious optimism of someone who recognized a twin sister. She reminded Hilda of her first boyfriend, clutching flowers in one hand and chocolate in the other. When their eyes met, Hilda knew. For an instant, she knew all of Hanna. For an instant, she’d glimpsed eternity. What she didn’t know then was that it was love. 

Love flowed like water, gliding into backwaters and lagoons with ease, filling every swale and mire. Connecting, looking for home. Easing from crystal to liquid to vapour then back, water recognized its hydrophilic likeness, and its complement. Before the inevitable decoherence, remnants of the entanglement lingered like a quantum vapour, infusing everything. Hilda always knew where and when to find Hanna on Oracle, as though water inhabited the machine and told her. Water even whispered to her when her wandering friend was about to return from the dark abyss and land unannounced on her doorstep. 

In a world of severe water scarcity through climate catastrophe and geopolitical oppression, the bond of these two girls—to each other through water and with water—is like the shifting covalent bond of a complex molecule, a bond that fuses a relationship of paradox linked to the paradoxical properties of water. Just as two water drops join, the two women find each other in the wasteland of intrigue. Hilda’s relationship with Hanna—as with water—is both complex and shifting according to the bonds they make and break.

Using the Senses 

Readers don’t just “watch” a character in a book; they enter the character’s body and “feel”.

How do writers satisfy the readers’ need to experience the senses fully? Description, yes. But how cold is cold? What does snow really smell like? What color is that sunset? How do you describe the taste of wine to a teetotaler?

Literal description is insufficient. To have the sense sink in and linger with the reader, it should be linked to the emotions and memories of the character experiencing it. By doing this, you are achieving several things at the same time: describing the sense as the character is experiencing it—emotionally; revealing additional information on the character through his/her reaction; and creating a more compelling link for the reader’s own experience of the sense.

Senses can be explored by writers through metaphor, linking the sense to memories, using synesthesia (cross-sensory metaphor), linking the sense psychologically to an emotion or attitude, and relating that sense in a different way (e.g., describing a visual scene from the point of view of a painter or photographer—painting with light). How a sense is interpreted by your protagonist relies on her emotional state, memories associated with that sense and her attitude.

Using Personification

TheWindupGirl Paolo BacigalupiEnvironmental forces—such as weather, climate, forests, mountains, water systems—convey the mood and tone of both story and character. These environmental forces are not just part of the scenery. To a writer, they are devices used in plot, theme and premise. They may also be a compelling character, particularly in eco-fiction, climate-fiction, and speculative fiction. Dystopian fiction often explores a violent world of contrast between the affluent and vulnerable poor that often portrays the aftermath of economic and environmental collapse (e.g., Maddaddam Trilogy, The Windup Girl, Snowpiercer, Interstellar, Mad Max). In any fiction genre it is important to get the science right. Readers of fiction with strong environmental components, however, expect to learn as much from the potential reality as from the real science upon which the premise depends.

In Memory of Water, Emmi Itäranta personifies this life-giving substance whose very nature is tightly interwoven with her main character. As companion and harbinger, water is portrayed simultaneously as friend and enemy. As giver and taker of life.

Memory of Water Emmi ItarantaWater is the most versatile of all elements … Water walks with the moon and embraces the earth, and it isn’t afraid to die in fire or live in air. When you step into it, it will be as close as your own skin, but if you hit it too hard, it will shatter you … Death is water’s close companion. The two cannot be separated, and neither can be separated from us, for they are what we are ultimately made of: the versatility of water, and the closeness of death. Water has no beginning and no end, but death has both. Death is both. Sometimes death travels hidden in water, and sometimes water will chase death away, but they go together always, in the world and in us. 

Personification of natural things provides the reader with an image they can clearly and emotionally relate to and care about. When a point-of-view character does the describing, we get a powerful and intimate indication of their thoughts and feelings—mainly in how they connect to place (often as symbol). When this happens, place and perception entwine in powerful force.

Donald Maass writes in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook: “The beauty of seeing a locale through a particular perspective is that the point-of-view character cannot be separated from the place. The place comes alive, as does the observer of that place, in ways that would not be possible if described using objective point of view.” The POV character’s relationship to place helps identify the transformative elements of their journey. Such transformation is the theme of the story and ultimately portrays the story’s heart and soul.

Connecting Character with Environment

Strong relationships and linkages can be forged in story between a major character and an aspect of their environment (e.g., home/place, animal/pet, minor character as avatar/spokesperson for environment [e.g. often indigenous people]). In these examples the environmental aspect serves as symbol and metaphoric connection to theme. They can illuminate through the sub-text of metaphor a core aspect of the main character and their journey: the grounding nature of the land of Tara for Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind; the sacred white pine forests for the Mi’kmaq in Barkskins; The dear animals for Beatrix Potter of the Susan Wittig Albert series.

The immense sandworms of Frank Herbert’s Dune are strong archetypes of Nature—large and graceful creatures whose movements in the vast desert sands resemble the elegant whales of our oceans:

It came from their right with an uncaring majesty that could not be ignored. A twisting burrow-mound of sand cut through the dunes within their field of vision. The mound lifted in front, dusting away like a bow wave in water. 

Misunderstood, except by the indigenous Fremen, the giant sandworms are targeted as a dangerous nuisance by the colonists—when, in fact, they are closely tied to the ecological cycles of the desert planet through water and spice.

Barkskins Annie ProulxAnnie Proulx opens her novel Barkskins with a scene in which René Sel and fellow barkskins (woodcutters) arrive from France in the late seventeenth century to the still pristine wilderness of Canada to settle, trade and accumulate wealth:

In twilight they passed bloody Tadoossac, Kébec and Trois-Rivières and near dawn moored at a remote riverbank settlement … Mosquitoes covered their hands and necks like fur. A man with yellow eyebrows pointed them at a rain-dark house. Mud, rain, biting insects and the odor of willows made the first impression of New France. The second impression was of dark vast forest, inimical wilderness.

These bleak impressions of a harsh environment crawling with pests such as bébites and moustiques underlie the combative mindset of the settlers to conquer and seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource. By page seventeen, we know that mindset well. René asks why they must cut so much forest when it would be easier to use the many adequate clearings to build their houses and settlements. Trépagny fulminates: “Easier? Yes, easier, but we are here to clear the forest, to subdue this evil wilderness.” He further explains the concept of property ownership that is based on strips of surveyable land parcels—an application of the enclosure system. For them, the vast Canadian boreal forest was never-ending and for the taking: “It is the forest of the world. It is infinite. It twists around as a snake. swallows its own tail and has no end and no beginning,” Trépagny claims.

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Leaf litter in Ontario forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Annie Proulx’s Barkskins chronicles two immigrants who arrive in Canada in 1693 (René Sel and Charles Duquet) and their descendants over 300 years of deforestation of North America; a saga that starts with the arrival of the Europeans in pristine forest and ends with a largely decimated forest under the veil of global warming. “Barkskins” (woodcutters) are, in fact indentured servants who were brought from the Paris slums to the wilds of New France to clear the land, build and settle. Sel is forced to marry a native woman and their descendants live trapped between two cultures; Duquet runs away to become a fur trader and builds a timber empire.

The Mi’kmaq are interwoven with the land and the forest. Missionary Pere Crème, who studies language makes this observation of the natives and the forest:

He saw they were so tightly knitted into the natural world that their language could only reflect the union and that neither could be separated from the other. They seemed to believe they had grown from this place as trees grow from the soil, as new stones emerge aboveground in spring. He thought the central word for this tenet, weji-sqalia’timk, deserved an entire dictionary to itself. 

The foreshadowing of doom for the magnificent forests is cast by the shadow of how settlers treat the Mi’kmaq people. The fate of the forests and the Mi’kmaq are inextricably linked through settler disrespect for anything indigenous and a fierce hunger for “more” of the forests and lands. Ensnared by settler greed, the Mi’kmaq lose their own culture and their links to the natural world erode with grave consequence. In a pivotal scene, Noë, a Mi’kmaw descendent of René Sel, grows enraged when she sees a telltale change in her brothers:

The offshore wind had shifted slightly but carried the fading clatter of boots on rock. They were wearing boots instead of moccasins. Noë knew what that meant but denied it … The men should be setting out to hunt moose, but because of the boots she knew they were going to work for the French logger.

 

Other Articles on Environmental Fiction, Eco-Fiction and Climate Fiction 

Can Dystopian Eco-Fiction Save the Planet?

Science Fiction on Water Justice & Climate Change

Windup Girl: When Monsanto Gets Its Way

Eco-Artist Roundtable with Frank Horvat on Green Majority Radio

 

Thanks to Mary Woodbury for the permission to share her survey results here. Much of the second part of this article is excerpted from the “Story” section of  The Ecology of Story: World as Character.

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Grape leaves on fence in Toronto, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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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 Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

An Interview with a Bull Thistle

Story is place, and place is character—Nina Munteanu

Darwins Paradox-2nd edI write mostly eco-fiction. Even before it was known as eco-fiction, I was writing it. My first book—Darwin’s Paradox—published in 2007 by Dragon Moon Press as science fiction, was also eco-fiction. It takes place in 2075 after climate change has turned southern Ontario into a heathland and Toronto into a self-enclosed city. My latest eco-fiction—A Diary in the Age of Water published in 2020 by Inanna Publications—is set mostly in Toronto from the near-future to 2065 and beyond.

As a writer of eco-fiction and climate fiction, I’m keenly aware of the role environment plays in story. Setting and place are often subtle yet integral aspects of story. In eco-fiction, they can even be a “character,” serve as archetypes and present metaphoric connections to characters on a journey (see my guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character published by Pixl Press for more discussion on all aspects of nature’s symbols in writing).

EcologyOfStoryThings to consider about place as character begin with the POV character and how they interact with their environment and how they reflect their place. For instance, is that interaction obvious or subtle? Is that environment constant or changing, stable or unstable, predictable, or variable? Is the place controllable or not, understandable or not? Is the relationship emotional, connected to senses such as memory?

Place as character serves as an archetype that story characters connect with and navigate in ways that depend on the theme of the story. A story’s theme is essentially the “so what part” of the story. What is at stake for the character on their journey. Theme is the backbone—the heart—of the story, driving characters to journey through time and place toward some kind of fulfillment. There is no story without theme. And there is no theme without place.

Archetypes are ancient patterns of personality shared universally by humanity (e.g. the “mother” archetype is recognized by all cultures). When place or aspects of place act as an archetype or symbol in story—particularly when linked to theme—this provides a depth of meaning that resonates through many levels for the reader.

In Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Mars symbolizes a new Eden. Like Bradbury’s aboriginal Martians—who are mostly invisible—the planet is a mirror that reflects humanity’s best and worst. Who we are, what we are, what we bring with us and what we may become. What we inadvertently do—to others, and finally to ourselves—and how the irony of chance can change everything.

“Nature’s symbols are powerful archetypes that reveal compelling story,” writes Donald Maass in Write the Breakout Novel Workbook.

Diary Water cover finalWater has been used as a powerful archetype in many novels. In my latest novel, A Diary in the Age of Water, water plays an important role through its unique metaphoric connection with each of the four main characters; how they relate to it and understand it, and act on its behalf. Water in A Diary in the Age of Water is often personified; water reflects various symbolic and allegorical interpretations and embraces several archetypes including herald-catalyst, trickster, shapeshifter, and shadow.

Strong relationships and linkages can be forged in story between a major character and an aspect of their environment (e.g., home/place, animal/pet, minor character as avatar/spokesperson for environment).

FictionWriter-cover-2nd edIn these examples the environmental aspect serves as symbol and metaphoric connection to theme. They can illuminate through the sub-text of metaphor a core aspect of the main character and their journey: the grounding nature of the land of Tara for Scarlet O’Hara in Margaret Mitchel’s Gone With the Wind; the white pine forests for the Mi’kmaq in Annie Proulx’s Barkskins; The animals for Beatrix Potter of the Susan Wittig Albert series.

All characters—whether the main POV character, or a minor character or personified element of the environment—have a dramatic function in your story. In my writing courses at George Brown College and The University of Toronto and in my guidebook The Fiction Writer, I provide a list of questions you can ask your character to determine if they are functioning well in the story and if they should even stay in the story. I call it interviewing your character. You can interview any character in your story; it can provide incredible insight. And speaking of character…

I have of late been walking daily to a lovely meadow beside a stream and thicket where brilliant Bull thistles have burst into flower. I felt the need to research this beautiful yet dangerously prickly plant and why it peaked my interest…

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Bull Thistle, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 Interview With the Bull Thistle

Nina: Pardon my saying, but you seem to scream paradox. You’re dangerously beautiful. Alluring yet aloof. Standoffish, even threatening. For instance, how is it that you have such a beautiful single purple-pink flower at the top of such a nasty prickly stem and leaves?

Bull Thistle: First of all, it isn’t just a flower at the top; it’s a flower head of over two hundred flowers called florets. Each flower head is a tight community of tube disk bisexual florets arranged in Fibonacci spirals and protected by a collection of spiked bracts called an involucre. And inside the protective outer shell, embedded in a fleshy domed receptacle, are the tiny ovaries, waiting patiently to be fertilized and grown into a seed or achene.

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Honey bee getting nectar from the thistle flower head (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina: Ah, I beg your pardon. But you still have all those sharp spikes everywhere. I’m guessing they are to protect your developing young, the ovaries. But doesn’t that isolate you? Keep you from integrating in your ecosystem?

Bull Thistle: The bristles are specifically aimed at predators who wish to harm us, eat us, bore into us, pull us out of the earth. We have many friends—the pollinators, the bees, wasps, and butterflies that help us cross-pollinate from plant to plant. And the birds—particularly the goldfinches—also help.

Nina: Wait. Don’t goldfinches eat your babies—eh, seeds?

Bull Thistle: They do. But they also help disperse our children. They land on our dried involucres—now opened to reveal the seeds and their pappus. The birds pull the seeds out by the thistle down that rides the wind. The birds eat the seeds and also use the thistle down to make their nests. But—like the squirrels who love oak acorns—the birds miss as many as they eat. By carrying the down to their nests, they also help the seeds travel great distances farther than the wind would have carried them. By dislodging the seeds in bunches, they help the seeds break away from the receptacle and meet the wind. The pappus, which is branched and light like a billowing sail, carries the seed on the wind to germinate elsewhere to help us colonize.

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Opened involucre with achenes and pappus ready to disperse, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina: So, your enemy is also your friend… The shadow character, who helps the hero on her journey by presenting a perilous aspect of enlightenment.

Bull Thistle: If you say so. What we understand is that Nature’s resilience derives from the balance of give and take over time. Prey and predator. Death, decay, transcendence. Destruction and creation. Ecological succession and change are a gestalt expression of Gaia wisdom as each individual fulfills its particular existential niche. Even if that is to die…for others to live.

Nina: Yes, the hero’s journeyBut you’re not originally from here, are you? You were brought to North America from Eurasia. Some consider you an interloper, a disturbance. You could serve the shadow or trickster archetype yourself—outcompeting the native thistle, creating havoc with pasture crops. You can tolerate adverse environmental conditions and adapt to different habitats, letting you spread to new areas. Your high seed production, variation in dormancy, and vigorous growth makes you a serious invader. You cause wool fault and physical injury to animals. Storytellers might identify you metaphorically with the European settler in the colonialism of North America; bullying your way in and destroying the natives’ way of life.

Bull Thistle: We’re unaware of these negative things. We don’t judge. We don’t bully; we simply proliferate. We ensure the survival of our species through adaptation. Perhaps we do it better than others. You’ve lately discovered something we’ve felt and acted on for a long time. Climate is changing. We must keep up with the times… But to address your original challenge, if you did more research, you would find that we serve as superior nectar sources for honey bees (Apis spp.), bumblebees (Bombus spp.) and sweat bees (Anastogapus spp.) who thoroughly enjoy our nectar.

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Sweat bee draws the sweet nectar of the Bull Thistle, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

We’re considered a top producer of nectar sugar in Britain. Cirsium vulgare—our official name—has ranked in the top 10 for nectar production in a recent UK survey.  The goldfinch relies on our seed and down. And we’ve provided food, tinder, paper, and medicine to humans for millennia. As some of your indigenous people point out, it’s a matter of attitude. Change is opportunity.

Thistle group Pb copyNina: I guess that every weed was once a native somewhere. I also agree that times are changing—faster than many of us are ready for, humans included. If you were to identify with an archetype, which would you choose?

Bull Thistle: That would depend on the perceiver, we suppose. Some of us think of us as the hero, journeying through the change and struggling to survive; others see us as the herald, inciting movement and awareness by our very existence; some of us identify with the trickster, others with the shapeshifter—given how misunderstood we are. In the end, perhaps, we are the mentor, who provides direction through a shifting identity and pointing the way forward through the chaos of change toward enlightenment.

Nina: Yes, I suppose if someone stumbled into your nest of prickles, incredible awareness would result. Speaking of that very awareness, this brings me back to my original question: why are you so beautiful yet deadly?

Bull Thistle: We are the purest beauty—only attained through earnest and often painful awareness. We are the future and the beauty of things to come.

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Flower head of Bull Thistle, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

You can read more on this topic in Nina’s writing guidebook series, particularly The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! and The Ecology of Story: World as Character.

Relevant Articles:

The Ecology of Story: Revealing Hidden Characters of the Forest

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

Ecology of Story: Place as Allegory

Ecology of Story: Place as Symbol

Ecology of Story: Place as Metaphor

Ecology of Story: Place as Character & Archetype

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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 Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.