Earthstar Goes To Tea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earthstar almost gets run over by a car!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The magic word! Tea!

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

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

Lady serving the tea (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~The End~~

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

The Trent Nature Sanctuary

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

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

Information on the Collared Earthstar (Geastrum triplex)

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

Collared Earthstar Life Cycle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collared Earthstar Habitat

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

References:

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

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

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

Kuo M. 2008. Geastrum triplexMushroomExpert.Com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the Meridional Overturning Circulation Shuts Down

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

March 6, 2055

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coccolithophores under electron microscope (image by NASA)

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

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

Algal bloom in the Barents Sea (image by NASA)

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

Regime shifts also cause trophic cascades.

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

References:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

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

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

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

May, 2071

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

“Robin’s Last Song” by Nina Munteanu

Bird Population Decline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Useful Tool: Soundscape Ecology

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

Bernie Kraus creating one of his soundscapes

Silent Spring: Rachel Carson’s Ominous Prediction and Warning

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

Rachel Carson and her iconic book “Silent Spring”

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

And it’s making us sick too.

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

Now is The Age of Nature…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rainforest (image from “Age of Water”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking in the Rain: Part Two

Flooding creek in Trent Nature Sanctuary during a rain, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

One morning, in late spring, I went walking in the rain through the Trent Nature Sanctuary forest. Looking for magic…

Moisture covered everything. It coaxed out vivid colours and textures in a tangle of stable chaos. I felt like I’d entered a Tom Thomson painting…

Moss-covered cedar trees after a soft rain in Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The rain intensified the forest’s mosaic of unique scents from pungent, heavy and sharp to floral, fresh and sweet. The gossamer morning light favoured photography with a gentleness that softened and deepened everything, and invited intimacy. Mist hung low and rose like steam from the damp earth, slowing time. It felt as though I was walking through a cloud. The forest emerged ghost-like in glimpses of tree, shrub and grass. The brilliant red of the osier dogwood. The vivid greens of mosses and leaves. A tangle of blue-green lichens and bright red cedar roots. I was witness to a chaotic tapestry of Nature’s art. Infinite shades of green, brown, grey and yellow created a fluid landscape that water painted into a vibrant watercolour scene.

I moved through it, boots squelching along the spongy loam path, as though wrapped in a moving artwork.

Dew drops on hawksweed, lichen fruiting bodies in background, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Moss with spore capsules in the rain, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Cedar roots and ferns in the heavy mist of a morning rain, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Cedar root and moss during a mild rain, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Cedar root and moss shortly after a rain, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The moisture carried the warbles and fluting chirps of lively bird song amid the hush of raindrops on vegetation. Each surface had a unique voice. And the rainfall—from light drizzle to hard pour—carried its own tune, rhythm and percussion. A symphony of diverse frequency from rich infrasound to beyond. 

Nina’s Canon EOS Rebel camera on its tripod, ready to take photos, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I kept my camera, attached to its tripod, tucked under several water-proof bags and walked with deliberate steps through wet duff, decayed leaves and mud. I had a hood but couldn’t stand to keep it up—I needed to hear and feel all of it: the rain sizzling through the vegetation, the red-winged blackbird’s conk-a-lee! The robin’s cheerily-cheer-up-cheerily-cheer up! The crow’s caw and rattle. The primordial shriek of a blue jay or kingbird. All were out, though not visible, as I navigated the huge puddles and slippery mud-leaf mix. Hair dripping, face in a grin.

Rain falling on the marsh to the Otonabee River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Pond lilies in the rain, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Rain falls on the Otonabee River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I felt elation in Nature’s celebration of life.

I was the only person in the park and thoroughly basked in that feeling of humbleness that comes with a kind of knowing: of being part of something far greater than oneself and yet in some way being that greater ‘self.’ Like I belonged there. Hard to explain. But it felt truly awesome and eternal.

Nina Munteanu
Boardwalk over the forest swamp, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Fence post with marsh in the background during a steady rainfall, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Country road in the rain, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

I could have stayed there, wet in the rain, for hours. But I felt sorry for my camera and headed home, thinking of a warm cup of tea… 

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

Nina Munteanu Reflects on Her Eco-Fiction Journey at Orchard Park Secondary School

I recently gave a talk at Orchard Park Secondary School during their “Eco Crawl” week. “Eco crawl is a cross curricular initiative promoting environmental awareness, natural conservation, and well-being,” says Teresa Grainger, Library Learning Commons Technician at the school. The “week long initiative will include animal visitors, presentations, displays, and outdoor activities. We like to involve as many departments as possible.”

The school invited me to participate with a presentation. I spoke about my work as a writer and as a scientist, how I was inspired to write eco-fiction and a little about the process of how I started. I shared the challenges I faced and my victories. I also spoke about the importance of eco-fiction as narrative and the importance of storytelling generally to incite interest, bring awareness and ultimately action.

The word is a powerful tool. And the stories that carry them are vehicles of change.

Here is some of that talk:

My story begins with the magic of water, Quebec water … I was born in a small town in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, a gently rolling and verdant farming community, where water bubbles and gurgles in at least two languages.

Pastoral Eastern Townships and Granby, Quebec; Nina Munteanu as a child

I spent a lot of my childhood days close to the ground, observing, poking, catching, destroying and creating. Perhaps it was this early induction to the organic fragrances of soil, rotting leaves and moss that set my path in later life as a limnologist, environmental consultant and writer of eco-fiction.

My mother kept a garden in our back yard that she watered mostly with rain she collected in a large barrel out back. I remember rows of bright dahlias with their button-faces and elegant gladiolas of all colours, tall like sentinels. And, her gorgeous irises.

In the winter, my mother flooded the garden to create an ice rink for the neighbourhood to use for hockey. Somehow, I always ended up being the goalie, dodging my brother’s swift pucks to the net. I got good at dodging—probably a useful life skill in later life…

Our dad frequently took us to the local spring just outside town. We walked a few miles up Mountain Road to an unassuming seepage from a rock outcrop with a pipe attached to it by the local farmer. I remember that the water was very cold. Even the air around the spring was cooler than the surrounding air. I remember that the spring water tasted fresh and that the ice it formed popped and fizzed more than tap water.

I followed my older brother and sister to the nearby forest and local river. We stirred soil, flower petals and other interesting things with water to fuel “magic potions” then told wild stories of mayhem and adventure. I became a storyteller. My passion for storytelling eventually morphed into writing; but, the underlying spark came through environmental activism.

In early high school, during the mid-60s, I became an environmental activist, putting up posters and writing in the school paper. I wrote letters to industry and politicians, trying to incite interest in being good corporate citizens and promoting global environmental action. I remember a well-meaning teacher chiding me for my extravagant worldview. “Stick to little things and your community—like recycling,” he suggested patronizingly. I remember the shock of realizing that not everyone felt the planet like I did. Perhaps it was a teenage-thing, or a girl-thing, or a nina-thing. I prayed it wasn’t just a nina-thing

I started writing stories in high school. Mostly eco-fiction, though I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. There was no genre called eco-fiction back then. It all went under the umbrella of scifi.

I completed my first novel, Caged in World when I was fifteen—in Grade 9—in 1969.  Caged in World was a hundred-page speculative story about a world that had moved “inside” to escape the ravages of a post climate-change environment. The eco-novel was about a subway train driver and a data analyst caught in the trap of a huge lie. The story later morphed into Escape from Utopia. Several drafts—and years later—the novel became the eco-medical thriller Angel of Chaos, set in 2095 as humanity struggles with Darwin’s Disease—a mysterious neurological environmental pandemic. Icaria 5 is one of many enclosed cities within the slowly recovering toxic wasteland of North America, and where the protagonist Julie Crane works and lives. The city is run by technocrats, deep ecologists who call themselves Gaians, and consider themselves guardians of the planet. The Gaians’ secret is that they are keeping humanity “inside” not to protect humanity from a toxic wasteland but to protect the environment from a toxic humanity.

Some of the scientific papers, reports and articles I wrote or participated in

When I enrolled in college and university, I thought of going into environmental law then decided that I didn’t have the temperament for it and switched to biology. Without realizing it, I put fiction writing on hold while I pursued ecology at university. One professor got me very interested in limnology and it became my focus when I realized that I’d always been fascinated by water. I started out being scared of water—not being a strong swimmer—and the best thing you can do to get over a fear is to study it and understand it. That’s exactly what I did. I did some cool research on stream ecology and published scientific papers, articles and reports. Then I moved to the westcoast to teach limnology at the University of Victoria and do consulting work in aquatic ecology.

So, in a way, I’d gone back to what I loved best as a child—mucking about in nature, spending my days close to the ground, observing, poking, catching, destroying and creating.

Kevin as a toddler

In 1991, my son Kevin was born. I felt a miracle pass through me. Kevin became my doorway into wonder. His curiosity was boundless and lured me into a special world of transformation. I took time off work to spend with Kevin when he was young. We went on great trips, from the local mall, where we had a hot chocolate and played with Lego, to the local beach on the Fraser River, where we explored the rocks. When he was no more than three, I took him on endless adventures in the city and its surroundings. We didn’t have to go far. The mud puddles of a new subdivision after a rain were enough to keep our attention for dozens of minutes. We became connoisseurs of mud. The best kind was “chocolate mud,” with a consistency and viscosity that created the best crater when a rock was thrown into it.

Kevin and I often explored the little woodland near our house. We made “magic potions” out of nightshade flowers, fir needles, loam and moss; we fueled our concoctions with the elixir of water from a stagnant pool then told wild stories of mayhem and adventure.

Storytelling kept calling to me. It was the 1990s—twenty years after I finished Angel of Chaos—and I’d published lots of short stories and articles. But no novels.

Some of Nina’s short story publications

I spent several years shopping Angel of Chaos to agents and publishing houses. Although I received many bites, all finally let go. I kept writing short stories, some of which were cannibalized from the book, and several were published; I also wrote Angel’s prequel, The Great Revolution and Angel’s sequel Darwin’s Paradox and shopped them.

Then In 2007, Dragon Moon Press in Calgary made an offer to publish Darwins Paradox; the sequel became my debut novel. Dragon Moon Press later picked up Angel of Choas and published it in 2010 as a prequel. I haven’t stopped publishing books since (with a book pretty much every year), both fiction and non-fiction…including writing guidebooks in my Alien Guidebook Series.

Kevin hiking the mountains of the west coast, BC

My son left the nest to go to university and work and I went on walkabout and eventually left the westcoast, returning to my old home in the east. I did lots of house-sitting in the Maritimes, then ended up teaching at UofT in Toronto.

UofT, west gate to quadrangle of University College, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In 2016, I published Water Is… with Pixl Press in Vancouver.  It’s a biography and celebration of water—my attempt to write a lay book on my water science, something that all could appreciate. Turns out that Margaret Atwood really liked it too!

On its heels, I got a book deal with Inanna Publications in Toronto for my eco-novel A Diary in the Age of Water. This eco-fiction novel follows the journeys of four generations of women during a time of catastrophic environmental change. The novel explores each woman’s relationship with water, itself an agent of change…

Eco-fiction (short for ecological fiction) is a kind of fiction in which the environment—or one aspect of the environment—plays a major role in story, either as premise or as character. For instance, several of my eco-fiction stories give Water a voice as character. In my latest novel, A Diary in the Age of Water, each of the four women characters reflects her relationship with water and, in turn, her view of and journey in a changing world.

In eco-fiction, strong relationships are forged between the major character on a journey and an aspect of their environment and place. Such strong relationship can linger in the minds and hearts of readers, shaping deep and meaningful connections that will often move a reader into action. Our capacity—and need—to share stories is as old as our ancient beginnings. From the Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux to our blogs on the Internet, humanity has left a grand legacy of ‘story’ sharing. By providing context to knowledge, story moves us to care, to cherish, and, in turn, to act. What we cherish, we protect.  It’s really that simple.

Eco-fiction—whether told as dystopia, post-apocalypse, cautionary tale or hopeful solarpunk—can help us co-create a new narrative, one about how the Earth gifts us with life and how we can give in return. It’s time to start giving.

That starts with story.

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

The Ontario Derecho: When a Disaster Brings Out Kindness

Cars trapped when a sugar maple snaps and falls on them in Saturday’s Derecho, Peterborough, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

It’s Wednesday and parts of the city still have no power since Saturday’s storm swept through like a ferocious lion. We got our power yesterday. We’d relied on our kind neighbours, who had a barbecue, to cook up some suppers. The power has come back in stages depending on where lines were brought down by trees or the violent wind microbursts.

A string of power poles and lines downed by the violent winds of the derecho along Highway 29 near Lakefield, ON (photos by Nina Munteanu)

Environment Canada calls Saturday’s storm a derecho: a long line of very active and violent thunderstorms or microbursts that include winds of at least 93 km/h with focused gusts of 121 km/h or greater. According to Environment Canada Senior Climatologist David Phillips, the storm spanned about 1,000 kilometers from Michigan to Maine as it went across Ontario and Quebec. Derechos typically contain numerous downburst clusters (families of downburst clusters) that, in turn, have smaller downbursts, and smaller microbursts. These tight, often cyclic tornado-like bursts within larger linear downbursts are what likely created the random devastation seen in Peterborough, where one tree was entirely uprooted and the tree beside it left untouched.

Birch uprooted on Auburn Street, Peterborough (photo by Nina Munteanu)

A true ‘herald archetype’, environmental disasters incite change, often through disorder. In doing so, they can bring out the best in us. The true mettle of a person is often revealed during such times, through the emergence of compassion and kindness.   

I live just off the Rotary Trail in Peterborough, facing a mixed riparian forest of mostly black walnut and locust trees, with some silver maple, willow, Manitoba maple, oak and ash. The trail is well used every day by cyclists and walkers. The tornado-force winds and deluge rains singled out a few trees on the forest edge and flung them across the trail. A quick inspection shortly after the storm revealed that several trees formed obstacles to those using the trail: a silver maple just in front of my good friend Merridy’s place; an old half-dead elm; and a large Manitoba maple whose upper canopy had gotten tangled in the telephone wires.

Various damaged and uprooted trees in Peterborough, ON (photos by Nina Munteanu)

When Merridy and I decided to attempt clearing the Rotary Trail of strewn maple limbs and branches, we weren’t there more than five minutes when a cyclist stopped and without a word helped us; he grabbed large tree limbs and hoisted them aside like Superman then got on his bike and took off without a word—like Spiderman. After more dragging of tree limbs and my deft hand at the tree clippers and the broom, we cleared the trail for walkers and cyclists. 

Before (left) and after (right) we cleared the Rotary Trail of downed silver maple from the derecho (photos by Nina Munteanu)

And then there was Charlie … a fashion-savvy quasi hipster-hippy who came cycling in with his chainsaw and hand saw on his back; he’d been all over the trail clearing tree debris just because he could. Charlie set to work on the huge Manitoba maple that had fallen across the trail and was leaning heavily on the telephone wire. Charlie proceeded to climb the tree and saw branches here and there to lighten the limb on the wire before cutting it. Two of us ladies became his cleanup crew, hauling big tree sections off the path as he downed them. By the time he got to the main tree limb on the wire, a group of cheerleaders had formed to watch. We all clapped when the big branch came off the line. One elder lady on two walking canes hobbled out from her home and handed Charlie a Bobcaygeon Petes Lager as thanks.

Charlie sawing off branches from Manitoba maple tangled on telephone wire (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Charlie saws the remaining tree trunk to clear the trail (photo by Nina Munteanu)

At first it was just me and Charlie. Watching him set up, I’d asked him if he was from the city and in the same breath knew he wasn’t—we both knew they were very busy getting the city’s power back on and freeing streets and getting trees off the roofs of houses; it would be a long time before they came to the Rotary Trail and other parks to clear. He responded, “well, that depends… are you a lawyer?” I laughed. We both recognized that Charlie was a rogue Good Samaritan, using less than regular protocol (no safety harness or equipment [except for goggles] and climbing shoes). When I said no, he relaxed and we introduced ourselves and exchanged stories about the storm, then got to work. I was soon joined by Susan, and together we became Charlie’s support team, hauling limbs and branches out of the tangle then rolling large tree bole sections to the side. Eventually several more walkers and nearby residents came to support the work and watch. Within an hour, the entire tree was off the path and off the wire. I felt a wonderful sense of community as people gathered exchanged names and stories about the storm. And it all started with one person’s kindness. Thanks, Charlie!

Before (left) and after (right) Charlie and his gang cleared the way (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I find that we really find our humanity and sense of kindness when a disaster strikes… one of the ‘good’ things about them.

Derecho damage to trees in the forest in Peterborough area, ON (photos 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.

Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively Donate to Indigenous Education on Water Science

Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds

Global Newswire announced yesterday that Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively donated half a million dollars to the Canadian charity Water First Education & Training Inc. to support the locally-based hands-on skills training and education programs with indigenous communities. The program focuses on young indigenous adults in learning water science and becoming certified water operators and environmental technicians.

“One of the most fundamental challenges in Canada today is the lack of sustainable access to safe, clean water in many Indigenous communities,” writes Global Newswire. “Successive federal governments have failed to address the issue, with the likelihood of having no access to safe, clean water still far more prevalent in the lives of Indigenous Peoples, compared to non-Indigenous populations in Canada.”

At least 15%, or approximately one in six First Nations communities in Canada, are still under a drinking water advisory. Everyone has a right to safe, clean water. The water crisis in Indigenous communities is unacceptable.”

Water First
Two Indigenous students test water

“Access to clean drinking water is a basic human right. Canada is home to over 20% of the planet’s freshwater — an abundance that’s envied around the world. There’s absolutely no reason Indigenous communities should not have access to safe, clean water. All the individuals involved, whether they are operating water systems or monitoring their local water bodies, are critical. We appreciate Water First’s focus on supporting young, Indigenous adults to become certified water operators and environmental technicians. These folks are helping to ensure sustainable access to safe, clean water locally, now and for the future. Blake and I are thrilled to support this important work.”

Ryan Reynolds
Using a Van Dorn sampler to collect water at depth

“Nobody understands the evolving challenges and needs more than the people who live there,” says Water First. “Drinking water challenges are complex: in some communities, local concerns may be around infrastructure, for others, source water contamination. And numerous communities have challenges recruiting and training young Indigenous adults to join the drinking water field.”

“Safe water needs skilled people”

Water First

Water First shares that Indigenous communities have identified the need for more young, qualified and local personnel to support solving water challenges. In partnership with indigenous community leaders, Water First customizes local water-focused education and training programs to align with community goals and needs. These partnerships are built on trust, meaningful collaboration and reciprocal learning.

In-situ water testing

Spencer Welling, Water First intern from Wasauksing First Nation shares, “I am doing this for myself, my family and community. It’s important to know how things are done and gives you a better appreciation for it. It’s a good career to have, which I’m sure would ease my parents’ minds knowing that. It also feels good knowing that my community will have a local water treatment operator at the plant for at least a couple decades.”

Water technician learns her skills

In 2018, CBC ran a story on a pilot training project that Water First ran with Indigenous youth to help tackle water challenges in their communities. The program ran as a 15-month paid internship toward ensuring communities have quality drinking water. Ten youth were involved. The training, which included week-long workshops (including mapping, traditional knowledge, and environmental science) and hands-on training at their local water treatment plants, focused towards a provincially recognized certification as a Water Quality Analyst. Certification through an exam at the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks permits them to do drinking water testing. They can receive further certification as operators through another exam.

Water technician learning his skills

Anyone interested in learning about Water First and its education and training programs can find out more at www.waterfirst.ngo.

Water First Education & Training Inc. (Water First) is a registered Canadian charity that works in partnership with Indigenous communities to address water challenges through education, training and meaningful collaboration. Since 2009, Water First has collaborated with 56 Indigenous communities located in the lands now known as Canada while supporting Indigenous youth and young adults to pursue careers in water science.

For more information, you can contact: 

Ami Gopal
Director of Development and Communications
Water First
1-905-805-0854
ami.gopal@waterfirst.ngo 

Collecting sediment samples for testing

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

‘Overcoming the Monster’ and DuPont’s Dark ‘Magic’

The Ohio River at Parkersburg, West Virginia, contaminated for decades with C8 used by DuPont to make Teflon

I write science fiction and fantasy. On occasion magic or something that stands for magic enters in.

But that’s my fiction. In my ordinary very real life, I tend to be suspicious of claims of ‘magical’ properties, particularly those that claim to provide great convenience and utility with no expenditure (except money). Perhaps it’s my half-German ethic of good old-fashioned honest work; these claims seem like a big cheat: mops that clean the floor spotless without you ever having to bend over or scrub; carpets that resist spills or clean themselves; non-stick pans where cooked food just slides cheerfully from pan to plate without sticking.

In my experience, I have often found that if something seems too good to be true—like magic—there’s a catch. And just like magic in a good fiction story, it comes with great hidden cost.

Enter DuPont and its dark magic…

DuPont Washington Works facility at Parkersburg, West Virginia

DuPont is one of the richest families in the United States since French aristocrat Irénée du Pont de Nemours fled the French Revolution in 1802 and built a gunpowder mill in northeast Delaware. DuPont soon expanded to bombs and poison gas and over its more than a hundred years of operation DuPont has been linked to dangerous products that have caused health problems, particularly to its own workers. By the 1930s DuPont had created leaded gasoline, which ended up causing madness and violent deaths and life-long institutionalization of workers. Certain rubber and industrial chemicals turned the skin of exposed workers blue. Bladder cancers developed in many dye workers.

Spruce trees damaged by Imprelis

Then there was DuPont’s Imprelis, an aminocyclopyrachlor herbicide to control weeds that caused widespread death of mature trees and created ‘killer compost.’ DuPont failed to submit reports to the EPA about potential adverse effects of Imprelis and sold the product with misleading labelling. When damage reports began to surface weeks after Imprelis was introduced, DuPont simply continued to sell the product until the EPA finally banned its sale and DuPont was charged for negligence and violation of FIFRA. A year after the ban, impact from Imprelis use continues to be reported throughout the northern United States for a range of trees including maples, oaks, honey locust, Norway spruce and white pine (stunted, twisted or curled new growth, bud-kill, delayed leaf-out, stem die-back). Trees that initially experienced minor affects from Imprelis later developed more severe damage (e.g. bud formation and cold hardiness).

Concerned over “the tendency to believe [chemicals] are harmless until proven otherwise,” staff doctor George Gehrmann convinced DuPont to create Haskell Laboratories in 1935. The lab became the first in-house toxicology facility; but, due to its position within DuPont, Haskell Lab also inherited limitations on its ability to conduct and report objective science. Just as self-regulation is a ridiculous concept, self-analysis is feckless and fraught with the potential for omission and false reporting. When pathologist Wilhelm Hueper tried to share his results with the scientific community on how dye chemicals led to bladder cancer, he was gagged and fired, and DuPont went on to use the chemicals for decades after in what appeared to become a common pattern for this company.

Early ad for DuPont’s “Happy Pan”

DuPont developed many astonishing products, mostly for warfare, including nylon, Lycra, Saran wrap and, of course, Teflon—their magic non-stick compound. By the late 1940s, they were producing a wide variety of industrial chemicals, synthetic fibers, petroleum-based fuels and lubricants, pharmaceuticals, building materials, sterile and specialty packaging materials, cosmetics ingredients, and agricultural chemicals worldwide. By the early 1950s, a group of Columbia University scientists published several papers describing high rates of cancer in rats exposed to plastics such as vinyl, Saran wrap and Teflon. This did not deter DuPont from continuing its production line for these products.

Representation of 1950s DuPont “Happy Pan”

By 1954, during the ramp up for the Teflon rollout, DuPont’s toxicologist R.A. Dickison noted possible toxicity of the surfactant C8 (PFOA or Perfluorooctanoic Acid) used to make Teflon. By 1961, the same year they rolled out their Teflon-coated “Happy Pan”, DuPont knew C8 was a toxic endocrine disruptor and caused cancer. DuPont’s chief toxicologist Dorothy Hood cautioned executives in a memo that the substance was toxic and should be “handled with extreme care.” It didn’t stop the roll out. By 1982, DuPont had confirmed the high toxicity of C8 in humans.

Teflon-lined Tefal (T-fal) pan made with C8

From the 1960s well past the millennium, DuPont displayed gross criminal negligence in not reporting their in-house findings of C8 toxicity to the EPA, and doing nothing to protect their workers exposed and working with C8 (and eventually their community when C8 leaked into the water supply). For over five decades, DuPont executives chose to: 1) continue using toxic C8 despite its proven toxicity; 2) expose C8 to their own workers without telling them (and even testing their workers without telling them why); 3) dispose of C8 unsafely, releasing the toxin into the communities and the environment; 4) cover up and deny that they did, when they were caught in the act.

Effects of PFOA (birth defect in Bucky Bailey whose mother was on the Teflon line without protection during her first trimester; blackening teeth from the excessive fluoride, from scene in “Dark Waters”)
DuPont’s Washington Works plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia

Finally, in 2019—sixty-seven years after DuPont knew PFOA was toxic and did nothing—this forever chemical was banned globally under the Stockholm Convention. Unfortunately, by 2019, PFOA was already literally everywhere on the planet in concentrations considered unsafe. Given its high water-solubility, long-range transport potential, and lack of degradation in the environment, PFOA persists in groundwater and is ubiquitously present in oceans and other surface water around the globe. It is found in remote areas of the Arctic and Antarctic (where it was not used or manufactured), no doubt transported there through ocean currents and in the air, bound on particles.

Average surface water levels of PFOA and PFOS by country in 2012 (from Kunacheva et al. 2012)

In 2020, NBC News revealed that DuPont was still avoiding its responsibility to clean up its C8 mess and compensate those harmed by DuPont’s negligence. In 2015, DuPont began a series of complex transactions that transferred its responsibility for environmental obligations and liabilities associated with PFAS (C8) onto other entities such as Chemours, Corteva, and NewDupont. If Chemours becomes insolvent, Corteva will be responsible. Corteva does not have the funds to cover tens of billions in estimated PFAS (C8) costs to their victims.

Timeline for DuPont’s use of PFOA (C8) to 2006 (image from The Intercept)

Their Story…My Story…

In his 2006 book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Write Stories, Christopher Booker told us that there are seven types of plots in story. One is entitled “Overcoming the Monster,” an underdog story where the hero sets out to destroy an evil to restore safety or order to the land. The evil force is typically much larger than the hero, who must find a way, often through great courage, strength, and inventive cunning, to defeat the evil force. This is the story of David and Goliath, of Beowulf and Grendel, of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in Star Wars, of Jake Sully and Miles Quaritch in Avatar, of Rita Vrataski and the Mimics in Edge of Tomorrow. The list goes on…

Miles Quaritch and Jake Sully face off in the film “Avatar”

The “Overcoming the Monster” plot, whether told literally or through metaphor, reflects an imbalance in the world—usually of power—that the hero must right. The true story of DuPont’s evil maleficence reflects the great power imbalance of many large corporations and the evil they enact through willful deception and mischief to increase profit, their god. 

We’ve now come full circle to me and my relationship with magic. For in some terrible way, the story of DuPont is also my story. One of power imbalance, of deception and ignorance. Their deception; my ignorance:

In 1954, the year I was born, DuPont discovered the toxicity of C8 in its Teflon products at its Washington Works plant in Parkersburg—and proceeded to roll it out for mass use.

In 1964, I was ten years old and struggling with my Grade 5 teacher who was trying to curb my unique self-expression. I was already aware of environmental imbalance and destruction in the world. My pet peeve was littering because it demonstrated great disrespect for others and the environment; I told environmental stories. That year DuPont had already begun its great deception; having confirmed the toxicity of C8, they simply watched (and recorded) as this cancer-causing endocrine disruptor injured, maimed and killed their own workers. The company did nothing to prevent it and they told no one.

In 1969, I wrote my first dystopia, Caged in World.  The eco-novel was about a subway train driver and a data analyst caught in the trap of a huge lie. The story later morphed into Escape from Utopia. Several drafts and years later the novel became the eco-medical thriller Angel of Chaos, set in 2095 as humanity struggles with Darwin’s Disease—a mysterious neurological environmental pandemic assaulting Icaria 5, an enclosed city within the slowly recovering toxic wasteland of North America. The city is run by deep ecologists who call themselves Gaians, and consider themselves guardians of the planet. The Gaians’ secret is that they are keeping humanity “inside” not to protect humanity from a toxic wasteland but to protect the environment from a toxic humanity.

In the early 1970s, I entered college and contemplated becoming an environmental lawyer; I wrote short stories, mostly eco-fiction, and joined marches protesting environmental destruction by large corporations.  DuPont confirmed that C8 not only persisted in the environment; it bioaccumulated in animals. A 1979 internal memo in which humans exposed to C8 were referred to as “receptors,” DuPont scientists found “significantly higher incidence of allergic, endocrine and metabolic disorders” as well as “excess risk of developing liver disease.”  DuPont withheld this information from EPA.  

In 1981, when I got my first job as a limnologist and environmental consultant in Vancouver, DuPont confirmed that C8 caused birth defects in its own workers—and did not warn its workers; in fact they created false data for EPA and continued exposing women of childbearing age to C8. In 1984, a year after I formed my own consulting company Limnology Services in Vancouver, DuPont staffers secretly tested their community’s drinking water and found it to contain alarming levels of C8. Deciding that any cleanup was likely to cost too much and tarnish their reputation, DuPont chose to do nothing. In fact, they scaled up their use of C8 in Teflon products and bought land to dump their toxic sludge in unlined landfills. Deaths in DuPont workers from leukemia and kidney cancer climbed.

Throughout the 90s, I started teaching college ecology courses in Vancouver; Shared Vision Magazine published my first article “Environmental Citizenship” in 1995. Meantime, DuPont’s Washington Works plant pumped hundreds of thousands of pounds of PFOA sludge, powder and vapor through stacks and outfall pipes into the Ohio River and surrounding air. By 1996, C8 was in the drinking water of Parkersburg and other communities. Despite what they knew of C8’s toxicity, DuPont kept it a secret (no one else was testing for PFOA because it was unregulated).

In 2007, Darwin’s Paradox, my eco-fiction novel about an environmental pandemic, was published by Dragon Moon Press in Calgary, Alberta.Four years earlier, the law had finally caught up to DuPont, but not before they had dispersed 2.5 million pounds of harmful C8 from their Washington Works plant into the air and water of the mid-Ohio River Valley area. It would be another twelve years before DuPont would stop making C8 (in 2015) and another four years after that when C8 would be banned from use globally (2019). PFOA is still unregulated by EPA; the best they can do is issue a non-enforceable health advisory set at 70 parts per trillion.   

Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker face off as Palpatine looks on in the film “Star Wars”

It isn’t the Darth Vaders or Miles Quaritchs we must overcome. Yes, they are monsters, but they serve a greater monster. For Vader it is Emperor Palpatine and for Quaritch it is the RDA Corporation. While Vader and Quaritch may be the face of evil, true evil lurks behind them, orchestrating. It is an evil we must fight internally, because each of us carries that evil inside us—in the urge to cheat on our taxes; in looking for the free ride (there are no free rides); in coveting what others have when what we have is enough; in embracing self-deception through unsubstantiated narratives and choosing to remain ignorant to suit a self-serving agenda.

I only heard of the decades-long environmental dispersal of PFOA (C8) by DuPont in 2022. I’d lived in total ignorance through DuPont’s entire five decades of deception with C8. This past year, I chanced upon “Dark Waters,” the 2019 film starring Mark Ruffalo as lawyer Robert Bilott, who took DuPont to court in 2002. I found out seven years after DuPont agreed to stop using PFOA (DuPont currently uses other PFAS compounds that are unregulated and whose toxicity is unknown).

Lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) investigates leachate-infected cows from nearby DuPont landfill (photo from film “Dark Waters”)

Ignorance breeds complacency and hubris. Both will lead to downfall.

If you think you’re getting away with something … if you think you’re getting a free ride … think again. You’re being taken for one. Short cuts are dangerous. Nature is complex for good reason. Complexity builds in a diverse spider web of safeguards that interact to sustain the greater existential collaborative.

That is the real magic. And we’re not even close to understanding it.  

“Angel of Chaos” and “Darwin’s Paradox” explore human-induced environmental catastrophe

DuPont’s Forever Weapon of Death: Teflon and C8 (PFOA)

Teflon was created in 1938, quite by accident, by Dr. Roy J. Plunkett, who was working on alternative refrigerant gases. Plunkett had stored the gas (tetrafluroethylene) in small cylinders where they were frozen and compressed. The gas had solidified into a waxy white material, which came to be called Polyetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a slippery substance that was non-corrosive, chemically stable and with an extremely high melting point. Through polymer research, PTFE was combined with PFOA to make Teflon, a type of fluoropolymer and telomere-based consumer product. For every two carbon atoms, there are four fluorine atoms attached throughout the entire molecular structure. The fluorine atoms surround the carbon atoms, creating a protective armor, preventing the carbon atoms from reacting when anything comes into contact with them—such as food in a non-stick frying pan. The fluorine atoms also decrease friction, making it slippery.

Chemical formula for Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) also called C8

DuPont registered the Teflon trademark in 1944, and the coating was used in the Manhattan Project’s A-bomb effort. Like DuPont’s other wartime innovations, such as nylon and pesticides, Teflon found its way into the home. In 1951, DuPont started using PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) known as C8 in its Teflon production at the Parkersburg factory. By the 1960s, DuPont was producing Teflon for cookware and advertising it as “a housewife’s best friend.” C8 was eventually used in hundreds of DuPont products, including Gore-Tex and other waterproof clothing; coatings for eye glasses and tennis rackets; stain-proof coatings for carpets and furniture; fire-fighting foam; fast food wrappers; microwave popcorn bags; bicycle lubricants; satellite components; ski wax; communications cables; and pizza boxes.

Farmer Tennant and lawyer Rob Billot encounter a leachate-infected mad cow in the 2019 film “Dark Waters”

PFOA is a member of a family of over 4,500 synthetic chemicals called PFAS (polyfluorinated alkyl substances), also known as the Forever Chemicals. Due to their strong carbon-fluorine bond, PFAS chemicals don’t break down easily and persist in the environment for decades. PFAS also bioaccumulate, which means these chemicals are absorbed and not excreted and therefore buildup in the body. The higher up the food chain, the greater the PFAS concentrations. Before their manufacture started in the 1940s, no PFAS compounds were present in the environment. Now, thanks to their persistence and bioaccumulation, they exist everywhere in the environment, occupying virtually 99% of all life on the globe.

Currently, PFOA is one of only two PFAS chemicals regulated globally (the other being PFOS, which was banned in 2009, that DuPont replaced with another toxic unregulated chemical, GenX). Over 4,000 other PFAS chemicals remain in use that have not been studied and are not regulated. CHEMtrust, points out that when one PFAS chemical is regulated, “it is replaced in products and manufacturing processes by a similar, unregulated PFAS chemical. Unfortunately, the chemicals’ similarities often extend to their hazardous properties, and the replacement chemical is found to have similar harmful impacts on human health and the environment.”

DuPont’s Washington Works facility in Parkersburg, West Virginia

References:

Ahrens L. 2011. “Polyfluoroalkyl compounds in the aquatic environment: a review of their occurrence and fate.” J Environ Monit 13: 20–31. 10.1039/c0em00373e

Barton CA, Butler LE, Zarzecki CJ, Laherty JM. 2006. Characterizing perfluorooctanoate in ambient air near the fence line of a manufacturing facility: comparing modeled and monitored values.” J Air Waste Manage Assoc 56: 48–55. 10.1080/10473289.2006.10464429

Barton CA, Kaiser MA, Russell MH. 2007. “Partitioning and removal of perfluorooctanoate during rain events: the importance of physical-chemical properties.” J Environ Monit 9: 839–846. 10.1039/b703510a

Busch J, Ahrens L, Xie Z, Sturm R, Ebinghaus R. 2010. “Polyfluoroalkyl compounds in the East Greenland Arctic Ocean.” J Environ Monit 12: 1242–1246. 10.1039/c002242j

Kunacheva, Chinagarn, Shigeo Fujii, Shuhei Tanaka, et al. 2012. “Worldwide surveys of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perflurorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in water environment in recent years.” Water Science & Technology 66(12): 2764-71.

McMurdo CJ, Ellis DA, Webster E, Butler J, Christensen RD, Reid LK. 2008. “Aerosol enrichment of the surfactant PFO and mediation of the water-air transport of gaseous PFOA.” Environ Sci Technol 42: 3969–3974. 10.1021/es7032026

Paustenbach, Dennis, Julie Panko, Paul K. Scott, and Kenneth M. Unice. 2007. “A Methodology for Estimating Human Exposure to Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA): A Retrospective Exposure Assessment of a Community (1951-2003)” Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health

Prevedouros K, Cousins IT, Buck RC, Korzeniowski SH. 2006. “Sources, fate and transport of perfluorocarboxylates” Environ Sci Technol 40: 32–44. 10.1021/es0512475

Rauert, Cassandra, Mahiba Shoieb, Jasmin K. Schuster, Anita Eng, Tom Harner. 2018. “Atmospheric concentrations and trends of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and volatile methyl siloxanes (VMS) over 7 years of sampling in the Global Atmospheric Passive Sampling (GAPS) network.” Environmental Pollution 238: 94-102.

Velez, M.P., T.E. Arbuckle, W.D. Fraser. 2015. “Maternal exposure to perfluorinated chemicals and reduced fecundity: the MIREC study.” Human Reproduction 30(3): 701-9.

Vierke, Lena, Claudia Staude, Annegret Biegel-Engler, Wiebke Drost, and Christoph Schulte. 2012. “Perflurorooctanoic acid (PFOA)–main concerns and regulatory developments in Europe from an environmental point of view.” Environmental Sciences Europe 24: 16

Yamashita N, Kannan K, Taniyasu S, Horii Y, Petrick G, Gamo T. 2005. “A global survey of perfluorinated acids in oceans.” Mar Pollut Bull 51: 658–668. 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2005.04.026

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

Apex Magazine to release 2021 Anthology This Fall with “Robin’s Last Song” by Nina Munteanu

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

Apex Magazine will release its 2021 Anthology this fall with my short story, Robin’s Last Song in it. They are running an Apex Kickstarter Campaign until April 30 to fund the anthology.

Apex Issue 128 and upcoming Anthology for 2021

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

May, 2071

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

Robin’s egg, discarded in the forest to distract predators, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Bird Population Decline

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

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

Bird population decline since 1970

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

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

Robin fledgling rests on a patio chair, ON (photo by Merridy Cox)

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

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

Bernie Krause uses soundscape to measure ecosystem function

Useful Tool: Soundscape Ecology

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

Rachel Carson and her iconic book, “Silent Spring”

Silent Spring: Rachel Carson’s Ominous Prediction

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

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

And it’s making us sick too.

Three baby goldfinches in a nest in a staghorn sumac shrub, 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.