Darwin’s Paradox Revisited: Compassion and Evolution

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

Defying The Laws of Thermodynamics

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

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

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

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

The Evolution of Compassion

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Social Brain and the Seat of Compassion  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Altruism in All Beings

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

Nature’s Heroes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Universal Altruism and Gaia

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas!

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

Links / Books of Interest:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References for Altruism in All Animals:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Art Tangos with Science Through Synchronicity

Imagination is more important than knowledge—Albert Einstein

 

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

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

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

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

Fern woodfern moss logs JC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fern woodfern SolomonSeal JC

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is left for us to simply recognize the dance.

Fern woodfern two Cedars wide JC

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

 

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

Atlantykron Summer Academy—2020

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

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

Atlantykron island

Atlantykron on the Danube

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

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

Key presentations in the 2020 Atlantykron included:

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

Atlantykron pg2 copy

Florin Munteanu

Dr. Florin Munteanu

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

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

Nina WaterIs book

Nina with “Water Is…”

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

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

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

Nina A Diary book

Nina with “A Diary in the Age of Water”

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

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

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Sketch of a bdelloid rotifer (illustration by Nina Munteanu)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Graph from Environmental Fiction Impact Survey by Mary Woodbury

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

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

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Graph from Environmental Fiction Impact Survey by Mary Woodbury

In summary, Woodbury writes:

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Symbols and Archetypes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Using the Senses 

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

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

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

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

Using Personification

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

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

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

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

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

Connecting Character with Environment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Leaf litter in Ontario forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Can Dystopian Eco-Fiction Save the Planet?

Science Fiction on Water Justice & Climate Change

Windup Girl: When Monsanto Gets Its Way

Eco-Artist Roundtable with Frank Horvat on Green Majority Radio

 

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

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

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

An Interview with a Bull Thistle

Story is place, and place is character—Nina Munteanu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bull Thistle, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 Interview With the Bull Thistle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relevant Articles:

The Ecology of Story: Revealing Hidden Characters of the Forest

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

Ecology of Story: Place as Allegory

Ecology of Story: Place as Symbol

Ecology of Story: Place as Metaphor

Ecology of Story: Place as Character & Archetype

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

 

Cymatics: How Frequency Changes the Very Nature of Matter and Energy

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Reeds in Otonabee River (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Music can help recover damaged brain function by activating parts of the brain that are nearby—Oliver Sacks

If, indeed God moves us to express that within us which is divine, then poetry is the language of the heart and music is the language of the soul—Nina Munteanu

We are creatures of rhythm; circadian, diurnal, seasonal. Let’s face it; our environment—light especially—affects our behavior, psychologically, physiologically and even socially. For instance, mood-altering chemicals generated in the pineal gland in our brain, are partially affected by the light received from our retina. In an earlier post, entitled “The Mozart Effect: The Power of Music” I discussed how music can heal the body, strengthen the mind and unlock the creative spirit. For instance, music with a pulse of about sixty beats per minute can shift consciousness from the beta wave (ordinary consciousness at 14-20 Hz) toward the alpha range (heightened awareness at 8-13 Hz), enhancing alertness and general well-being.

Our world is composed of energy, light, sound and matter, all expressed at different frequencies.

The study of cymatics, coined by Hans Jenny from the Greek word kyma (wave), explores how sound affects gases, liquids, plasmas and solids and how vibrations, in the broad sense, generate and influence patterns, shapes and moving processes. When sound travels through non-solids it moves in longitudinal waves called compression waves. In matter, the medium is displaced by sound waves, causing it to oscillate at a frequency relative to the sound, and visible patterns emerge.

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Water drops in rainfall on Otanabee River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Robert Hooke, and Ernst Chladni investigated this phenomenon in the 1400s, 1500s, 1700s, and 1800s, respectively. In 1967, Hans Jenny, a Swiss doctor, artist, and researcher, published Kymatik-Wellen und Schwingungen mit ihrer Struktur und Dynamik/ Cymatics (The Structure and Dynamics of Waves and Vibrations). Like Chladni two hundred years earlier, Jenny showed what happened when one took various materials like sand, spores, iron filings, water, and viscous substances, and placed them on vibrating metal plates and membranes. What then appeared were shapes and motion-patterns which varied from the nearly perfectly ordered and stationary to those that were turbulently developing, organic, and constantly in motion.

Using crystal oscillators and his invention called a “tonoscope” to set plates and membranes vibrating, Jenny controlled frequency and amplitude/volume to demonstrate that simple frequencies and songs could rearrange the essential molecular structure of water and other materials.

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Raindrops falling among reeds in Otonabee River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Jenny was convinced that biological evolution was a result of vibrations, and that their nature determined the ultimate outcome. He speculated that every cell has its own frequency and that a number of cells with the same frequency create a new frequency which is harmonious with the original, which in its turn possibly formed an organ that also created a new frequency in harmony with the two preceding ones. Jenny was saying that the key to understanding how we can heal the body with the help of tones lies in our understanding of how different frequencies influence genes, cells and various structures in the body.

Boldly extended his tonoscope research into voice and language, Jenny discovered that when the vowels of ancient Hebrew and Sanskrit were pronounced, the sand took the shape of the written symbols for these vowels, while modern languages didn’t generate the same result. This has led spiritual philosophers to ponder if “sacred languages” (including Tibetan and Egyptian) have the power to influence and transform physical reality, to create things through their inherent power, or through the recitation or singing of sacred texts, to heal a person who has gone “out of tune”?

Cymatics photographer and author Alexander Lauterwasser showed that:

  • Higher frequencies created more intricate and complex patterns
  • Typical line types were radial and spherical or elliptical lines that repeated the outer form of the perimeter
  • When asymmetrical shapes developed at certain frequencies, symmetrical shapes always formed in between

In a controversial movie called “Water”, Rustum Roy, professor at the State University of Pennsylvania and Member of the International Academy of Sciences, suggested that water has “memory”, based on the structure it takes on as a result of electromagnetic fields and various frequencies to which it is exposed.

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Rain falling among reeds in Otonabee River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I’m a practicing aquatic scientist and this is what I find fascinating: noting that the human brain is 75% water, it is not surprising that we can be affected by the shape and form of water itself—and, in turn, may shape water with our minds. This is in itself a startling admission and opens up a myriad of controversial topics, which many scientists find hard to reconcile and refuse to investigate, let alone entertain. And, yes, I am edging into the area of metaphysics, of “science fiction”, of “fanciful thinking”. A place populated by heretics who do “questionable science”, those rogue mavericks who dare step outside the realm of traditional science to imagine, to dare ask the unaskable, to dare pursue a truth using unconventional means.

Here’s my point: water is important to us in ways science can’t even begin to explain. Because science can’t yet explain it, should we abandon the potential and its investigation? All good science was once perceived as magic before it was understood.

Let me take it one step further:

I posit that our entire bodies are sending and receiving vibrations at different frequencies with our environment, other people, other animals around us, inanimate objects, even the seemingly ‘empty’ space. Our intimate relationship with frequency and waves has permeated our culture more than you may realize, including the metaphors we have seamlessly adopted in our common language: terms like “bad vibes”, “making waves”, “you can feel the tension”, and “you could cut the air in here with a knife”.

LastSummoner-coverIf you think this is all too weird, consider the weirdness of quantum mechanics, which shows us that not only is “solid” matter made up mostly of energy and “empty” space but what makes a solid a chair vs. you sitting on it is the vibration of its energy. Quantum science has demonstrated that light and matter are made of both particles and waves (New Scientist, May 6, 2010) and can exist in two simultaneous states. Let’s consider, for instance, “entanglement” (quantum non-local connection), the notion that particles can be linked in such a way that changing the quantum state of one instantaneously affects the other, even if they are light years apart. And what does it mean when solid flows, ghost-like, through itself under certain conditions? Or parallel universes created by splitting realities? Check out my historical fantasy novel The Last Summoner for a unique take on this popular notion.

Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feyman says of the paradoxes presented by quantum mechanics, “the ‘paradox’ is only a conflict between reality and your feeling of what reality ought to be.”

Magic, again… The mind is powerful and graceful in its unanswerable and infinite beauty.

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Near shore of Otonabee River early evening, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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

Writing in Sync

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Ostrich ferns, Little Rouge forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“At the heart of the universe is a steady, insistent beat: the sound of cycles in sync,” says Steven Strogatz in the opening to his compelling book, Sync: the emerging science of spontaneous order. He then describes how every night along the tidal rivers of Malaysia, thousands of fireflies congregate in the mangroves and flash in unison, without any leader or cue from the environment. “Even our bodies are symphonies of rhythm, kept alive by the relentless, coordinated firing of thousands of pacemaker cells in our hearts…almost as if nature has an eerie yearning for order,” adds Strogatz. The tendency to synchronize pervades the universe, from atoms to animals, and people to planets.

To be in sync is to intuitively connect (which is what spontaneous order is) and “know”… Each of you has felt that “knowing” that otherworldly, euphoric wave of resonating with something that is more than the visible world: when the hairs on the back of your neck tingle as you write that significant scene or trembling with giddy energy as you create that perfect line on a painting … or glowing with a deep abiding warmth when you defend a principle … or the surging frisson you share with fellow musicians on that exquisite set piece.

These are all what I call “God moments”. And they don’t happen by chasing after them; they sneak up on us when we’re not looking. They come to us when we focus outward and embrace our wonder for this world. When we quiet our minds and nurture our souls with beauty. It is then that what we had been seeking naturally comes to us. Like a gift.

It’s the blue pill to a new world of synchrony.

This teaches us above all else that we are all journeying together and part of something greater.

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Wood ferns in Jackson Creek park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I want to share with you my own experience of synchronicity in art. When I’m working on a story, I find that events, opportunities, actions and resources directly germane to my project present themselves: watching an applicable movie that a friend chose for us to see; picking up a newspaper (which I seldom do) and reading a relevant article; looking for something on the internet and finding something totally different (ok; that happens to me all the time); a friend out of the blue introduces a pertinent topic, or someone you haven’t seen in a long time bumps into you with significant news. As though the universe was providing me with what I needed. Of course, my mind was focused on anything to do with my current piece. It was as though I had donned a concentrating filter, one that would amplify relevant details. I’ll go further: I was unconsciously acting in a way that was bringing me more information relevant to my project. Ask and you shall receive.

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Ostrich fern, Little Rouge River woodland, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Jake Kotze says it this way: “Synchronicity happens when we notice the bleed-through from one seemingly separate thing into another—or when we for a brief moment move beyond the mind’s divisions of the world.” Swiss psychologist Carl Jung introduced synchrony in the 1920s as “temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events.” The idea of seemingly unrelated events intersecting to produce meaningful patterns has spawned new notions of thought from the scientific study of spontaneous order in the universe (synchrony), to Synchromysticism — the discovery of convergent archetypal symbols in pop culture (e.g., books, music and film). Author Sibyl Hunter tells us that “Sync operates as an undercurrent of divine awareness personified through the myriad processes and symbols that make up the building blocks of our reality. Within that current, we spin our modern-day myths into books, fairy tales and movies, subconsciously retelling ourselves the same story over and over.”

As the myth builders of today, authors tap in to the synchronicity of ancient story, of resonating archetypes and metaphor and the “mythic journey”. To write in sync.

Joseph Campbell reminds us that, “Anyone writing a creative work knows that you yield yourself, and the book talks to you and builds itself … you become the carrier of something that is given to you from the Muses or God. What the shaman or seer [or artist] brings forth is something that is waiting to be brought forth in everyone.” It’s sync in action.

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Oak tree amid Ostrich fern, Little Rouge River woodland, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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Path through profusion of Black walnut and locust forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

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

The Mozart Effect & the Power of Music

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Joe-Pye weed, Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Music is a holy place, a cathedral so majestic that we can sense the magnificence of the universe, and also a hovel so simple and private that none of us can plumb its deepest secrets—Don Campbell

 

Don Campbell calls it the “Mozart Effect” in his book of the same name: the ability of music to heal the body, strengthen the mind and unlock the creative spirit.

You’ve all felt it—its rhythm resonating with your throbbing heart, soothing your mind, calming your breath. Or you’ve felt the reverse— depending on the music. Whatever your response, says Campbell, music produces mental and physical effects in you; and—I would venture to add—in all things animate and inanimate (see my next post on Cymatics). Therapeutic uses of music are many:

  • Music can slow down and equalize brain waves: music with a pulse of about sixty beats per minute can shift consciousness from the beta wave (ordinary consciousness at 14-20 Hz) toward the alpha range (heightened awareness at 8-13 Hz), enhancing alertness and general well-being
  • Music affects the heartbeat, pulse rate and blood pressure: a study of expectant mothers at the College of Nursing at Haohsiung Medical University (Taiwan) demonstrated significant reductions in stress, anxiety and depression after two weeks of listening to Brahms lullaby, Beethoven and Debussy and traditional Chinese children’s songs
  • Music can regulate stress-related hormones: Anesthesiologists reported that levels of stress hormones like ACTH, prolactic and HGH all declined in those listening to relaxing music
  • Music and sound can boost the immune function: A Michigan State University study demonstrated that listening to music for fifteen minutes increased levels of interlukin-1 in the blood from 12.5 to 14 percent (interlukin is involved in the immune system, protecting against AIDS, cancer and other diseases)
  • Music improves productivity: a University of Wisconsin study of ninety people copyediting a manuscript found that accuracy in those listening to light classical music improved 21.3% compared with those listening to a popular commercial radio format at 2.4%
  • Music can strengthen memory and learning: studies have shown that music increases stamina during exercise in addition to the ability to concentrate.

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Joe-Pye Weed, Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

When I was pregnant with my son, I felt an overwhelming urge to listen to classical music (mostly Beethoven, Debussy, Ravel and Mozart) and soft “new age” Celtic music (mostly Enya). What I’d intuitively felt is now known: music calms or stimulates the movement and heart rate of a baby in the womb. It has also been shown that children who receive regular music training demonstrate better motor skills, math ability, and reading performance than those who don’t. High school students who sing or play an instrument score up to fifty points higher on SAT scores than those who don’t.

These observations are borne out by another observation: that adult musician’s brains generally exhibit more EEG (brainwave) coherence than those of non-musicians.

Music is a language understood instinctively by all peoples because it communicates directly to the soul. Darwin suggested that music may have played a role in the evolution of language, comparing the sounds of speech to the way birdsong is used in courtship, reports Caroline Green in the Jan/Feb 2010 Issue of BBC Knowledge. “Some have referred to this as a ‘musical proto-language’.”

In an article in the Fall 2009 Issue of Super Consciousness Campbell eloquently described music as, “the sounds of earth and sky, of tides and storms. It is the echo of a train in the distance, the pounding reverberations of a carpenter at work. From the first cry of life to the last sigh of death, from the beating of our hearts to the soaring of our imaginations, we are enveloped by sound and vibration every moment of our lives. It is the primal breath of creation itself, the speech of angels and atoms, the stuff of which life and dreams, souls and stars, are ultimately fashioned.”

A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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Joe-Pye Weed, Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

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

Age of Water Podcast: Interview with The Water Brothers

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AoW Logo-smallWe are now living in the Age of Water. Water is the new “gold”, with individuals, corporations and countries positioning themselves around this precious resource. Water is changing everything. The Age of Water Podcast covers anything of interest from breaking environmental news to evergreen material. This also includes human interest stories, readings of eco-literature, discussion of film and other media productions of interest.

Join the discussion!

In Episode Six of Age of Water, we join Canadian film educators The Water Brothers—Alex and Tyler Mifflin—in Toronto, Ontario, where they discuss their eco-adventure TV series and other documentary initiatives to educate, entertain and connect people with water and environmental issues. Alex and Tyler are two young eco-adventurer brothers who travel the world to explore our relationship with water. What are the problems and where will the solutions come from? The next generation takes us on the search.

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The Water Brothers

The Water Brothers is an eco-adventure documentary series that follows brothers, Alex and Tyler Mifflin, as they explore the world, uncover the planet’s most important and leading-edge water stories and interview top scientists and experts on solutions to help overcome the many and diverse environmental challenges we all face. There is nowhere they won’t go from high mountain peaks to the bottom of the ocean.

 

Alex and Tyler are passionate about the subject of water conservation and use their respective educations in film and environmental studies to create this award-winning series. Alex is the lead researcher, co-writer and co-host and Tyler is the co-host, director, videographer and co-producer. They share a love of travel and adventure, a passion for the subject and a powerful desire to communicate their passion to audiences, especially their own generation.

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Water Brothers

Age of Water talked to the Water Brothers about their adventures from the Kumbh Mela on the Ganges River—largest gathering of humans on earth—to diving into dead zones to sailing into the middle of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. The Water Brothers circle the globe to bring back stories that affect, inspire and educate viewers.

The Water Brothers airs in Canada on TVO, Knowledge Network, and Radio – Canada in Quebec, as well as in over 50 countries worldwide.

 

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