The Journal Writer: Benefits of Expressive Writing

Boardwalk through marsh in a swamp forest, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays the objects it loves

Carl Jung

You don’t have to take my word for it or that of my writing colleagues either. Psychologists, neuroscientists and other researchers have revealed health and emotional benefits of expressive writing. The meditative action of handwriting alone has proven beneficial. Think of the poetry of laying down an intelligent pattern over a surface: the subtle “prayer” of pen to paper to the renewal of self-discovery.

Over the past 20 years, a growing body of literature has shown beneficial effects of writing about traumatic, emotional and stressful events on physical and emotional health. For instance, researchers have shown that college students writing about their deepest thoughts and feelings for only 15 minutes over 4 consecutive days experienced significant health benefits four months later (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986). Table 1 summarizes some of the long-term benefits of expressive writing.

TABLE 1: Long-Term Benefits of Expressive Writing
HealthSocial & Behavioral
Fewer stress-related visits to the doctorReduced absenteeism from work
Improved immune system functioningQuicker re-employment after job loss
Reduced blood pressureImproved working memory
Improved lung functionImproved sporting performance
Improved liver functionHigher student’s grade point average
Fewer days in hospitalAltered social and linguistic behavior
Greater psychological well-being 
Reduced depressive symptoms 
Fewer post-traumatic intrusion and avoidance symptoms 
Reference: Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005 

DeSalvo shares something a friend of hers confided to her: “Why is it that I always get sick after I finish a book, and not while I’m writing? Crazy as it sounds,” she concluded, “it must be that writing keeps me healthy.” Although writing can’t cure us, some studies suggest that it might prolong our lives, says DeSalvo. It can help us “to accomplish that shift in perspective marked by acceptance, authenticity, depth, serenity and wisdom that is the hallmark of genuine healing.”

Expressive writing produces significant benefits for people with a variety of medical problems. Some of the major ones appear in Table 2 below.

TABLE 2: Medical Conditions Benefiting from Expressive Writing
Lung functioning in ASTHMA
Disease severity (improvements in joint stiffness) in RHEUMATOID ARTHRITIS
Pain and physical health in CANCER
Immune response in HIV Infection
Hospitalisations for CYSTIC FIBROSIS
Pain intensity in women with CHRONIC PELVIC PAIN
Sleep-onset latency in POOR SLEEPERS
Post-operative course
Reference: Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005
Wooden bridge over creek in a forest park, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

This article is an excerpt from The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice (Pixl Press, 2013) by Nina Munteanu.

The Journal Writer is the second writing guide in the Alien Guidebook Series. This comprehensive guidebook will help you choose the best medium, style and platform for your expressive writing. The guide provides instruction on issues of safety, using the computer and electronic devices, social media and the internet.

Engaging, accessible, and easily applicable…Brava, Nina, brava.”—David Merchant, Instructor, Louisianna Tech University

Straight up, fact-filled, enriching, joyful and thorough…Nina is honest, she is human and she wants you to succeed.”—Cathi Urbonas, Halifax writer

1.7  References

Baikie, Karen & Kay Wilhelm. 2005. “Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing.” Advances in Psychiatric Treatment. 11: 338-346.

DeSalvo, Louise. 1999. “Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives.” Beacon Press, Boston. 226pp.

Hieb, Marianne. 2005. “Inner Journeying Through Art-Journaling”. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London, England. 176pp.

Holly, Mary Louise. 1989. “Writing to Grow. Keeping a personal-professional journal”. Heinemann. Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Klug, Ron. 2002. “How to Keep a Spiritual Journal: a guide to journal keeping for inner growth and personal discovery.” Augsburg, Minneapolis, 4th ed.

Moon, Jennifer. 1999. “Learning Journals: A handbook for academics, students and professional development”. Kogan Page. London.

Pennebaker, James. W. 1990. “Opening Up: The Healing Power of Confiding in Others”. Morrow, New York, NY.

Pennebaker, James W., and Sandra Klihr Beall. 1986. “Confronting a Traumatic Event: Toward an Understanding of Inhibition and Disease”. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 95, no. 3: 274-81.

Munteanu, Nina. 2013. “The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice.” Pixl Press, Vancouver. 170pp.

Nina Munteanu enjoys a snowstorm

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.

A Late Autumn Snowfall–An Ekphrastic Poem by Bev Gorbet

Otonabee River glints in the sun as it snows, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

An autumn’s last days, fierce snowfalls, fall lights and storm
The autumn landscape now full of wild moods,
Hints of a magic wilderness and an encircling cold,
The bitter winds, the fast falling hail:
Landscape echo and retreat

Mallards contently swim the marsh under a heavy snow, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Snow veil mists over the receiving marsh lands:
Somber cloud grays, shades of amber glow…
Mallard ducks unconcernedly paddling 
On the smooth black marsh waters
The snows above falling in majestic blizzards:
Powerful bursts of snow over treetop
And bended bough,
Moody haze lit skies high falling away
In blasts of snow and wind

Heavy snow falls in the riparian forest, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Snowy reflections over high treetop above…
Snowy days and last messages of a fading autumn’s glory:
Detritus of bronze leaf, the withered beauty of a fading goldenrod
A final sadness, autumn’s last messages, 
Haunted promises of a brilliant winter sunshine
On snowy fields, velvet days and gold

Snow flies horizontally in a fierce wind, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Now the forests bend, overwhelmed by the flying snow
Thick tumbling down, shards of ice and rain
Clouds of snow falling everywhere
Forest pathways now covered in a lucent white glow,
The shaded greens of cedar and fir picked out in a forest landscape;
The continuing deluge, wild nature’s primordial powers: 
Mad windstorm and snow drift

Sun emerges over Thompson Creek marsh after the snowstorm, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

The still marsh waters now reflect the gray cloud, the  sky high above
All the windstorm madness, the bog detritus on the still marsh 
Now snow covered and silent, the snowfall ended
The marsh now a sacred retreat: worlds of a glorious and gentle reflection,
A tender, and radiant peace overall.

 –Bev Gorbet

Bev Gorbet is a Toronto poet and retired school teacher. She has published several poems with the Retired Teachers Organization and most recently in “Literary Connection IV: Then and Now” (In Our Words Inc., 2019), edited by Cheryl Antao Xavier.

Thompson Creek marsh after a first snow in late autumn, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Nina Munteanu revels in a snowstorm in Ontario (photo by Merridy Cox)

When We Burn Books…

Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen


—Heinrich Heine
House of Leaves burning (photo by Learning Lark)

In her 2017 article A Brief History of Book Burning, from the Printing Press to Internet Archives Lorraine Boissoneault writes, “As long as there have been books, people have burned them.” Books were burned to silence a dissonant, threatening and potentially rousing voice; they were burned to wipe out a cultural presence; They were burned to control and curtail intellectual freedom; they were burned to simply ruin and pillage and destroy.

Books and libraries have been targeted by people of all backgrounds for thousands of years, sometimes intentionally and sometimes as a side-effect of war, Boissoneault tells us. “In 213 B.C., Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang (more widely remembered for his terracotta army in Xian) ordered a bonfire of books as a way of consolidating power in his new empire.” According to historian Lois Mai Chan, “His basic objective was not so much to wipe out these schools of thought completely as to place them under governmental control.” 

Boissoneault adds, “When al-Qaida Islamists invaded Mali, and then Timbuktu in 2012, among their targets were priceless manuscripts—books that needed to be burned.” The damage might have been much worse if not for men like Abdel Kader Haidara, who risked their lives to protect the medieval works. He and others succeeded in smuggling out 350,000 manuscripts.”

“Qin was only one in a long line of ancient rulers who felt threatened enough by the ideas expressed in written form to advocate arson,” says Boissoneault. Qin and religious leaders like him are only a small part of the early book-burning equation. “A lot of ancient book burning was a function of conquest,” writes author Rebecca Knuth. The Library of Alexandria had its contents and structure burned during several periods of political upheaval as a casualty of brutal war and associated despoliation and pillaging.

When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, there were suddenly far more books—and more accessible knowledge. Book burning continued, unfettered, perhaps taking on a more symbolic and insidious role, and no less violent.

In 1966, when Mao Zedong took power in China and implemented the Cultural Revolution, any book that did not conform to party propaganda, such as those that promoted capitalism or other dangerous ideas, were destroyed. In 1992, the Jaffna Public Library of Sri Lanka—repository of nearly 100,000 rare books of Tamil history and literature—was burned by Sinhalese Buddhists.

German writer/poet Heinrich Heine

Heinrich Heine’s Prediction

In his 1821 play, Almansor, the German writer/poet Heinrich Heine wrote: Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen, “Where they burn books, they will in the end burn human beings.” He was referring to the burning of the Muslim holy book, the Qoran as part of the eradication of the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula, during the Spanish Inquisition half a century before.

A century later, on May 6-10th, 1933, Heine’s books were among the thousands of volumes publicly hauled out and burned by Nazi brownshirts, SS and Hitler Youth groups in Berlin’s Opernplatz (Bebelplatz). A violent outburst that, in fact, did foreshadow the blazing ovens of the Holocaust. Some twenty thousand books were burned, including those by Heinrich Mann, Karl Marx, Albert Einstein.

Nazi book burning in Opernplatz, Berlin, 1933
Brownshirts and Hitlerjugend perform Nazi salut as books burn in Opernplatz, Berlin in 1933

Wikipedia defines ‘book burning’ as the “practice of ceremoniously destroying by fire one or more copies of a book or other written material.” The practice, usually carried out in public (like public hangings in Medieval times) is generally motivated by moral, religious or political objections to the material. Some notable and particularly destructive book burnings have included:

  • the destruction of the Library of Alexandria;
  • burning books and burying scholars (‘live burying’) under China’s Qin Dynasty (3rd Century);
  • Cathar texts in the Lanquedoc region of France in the 13th Century;
  • the Talmud in Paris by the French crown in 1242;
  • Arabic and Hebrew books at Andalucia, Spain, in 1499;
  • Servetus’s “heretical” writings along with the writer at Geneva;
  • Maya sacred books in Yucatan (1562);
  • Tyndale’s New Testament by the English authorities in 1525 and 1526;
  • Luthar’s Bible in Germany (1624) as ordered by the Pope;
  • Robespierre’s destruction of religious libraries in 1793;
  • anti-communist books by the Bolsheviks in 1917;
  • Jewish, anti-Nazi and “degenerate” books by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s;
  • Communist and “fellow traveller” books by Senator McCarthy in 1953;
  • The Satanic Verses by Muslims in the UK in 1988; and,
  • Harry Potter books at various American cities.
Hitler youth burning books at Opernplatz, Berlin, in 1933
Book-burning crowd at Opernplatz, Berlin, in 1933

“Even when the knowledge itself isn’t prevented from reaching the public, the symbolic weight of burning books is heavy,” writes Boissoneault.

“Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them as to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are,” wrote John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, in his 1644 book Areopagitica. “Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature… but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.”

Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury on the Dummying Down of an Obedient Society

In the 1967 introduction of his novel, Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury implied that the Nazi book burnings inspired his story. I found this statement both eloquent and powerful: “It follows then that when Hitler burned a book I felt it as keenly, please forgive me, as his killing a human, for in the long sum of history they are one in the same flesh.”

Addressing currently relevant themes of censorship, conformity and anti-intellectualism, Bradbury’s 1953 cautionary tale explores a fictional future society that has institutionalized book burning in an effort by authorities to maintain order and ‘happiness’. In this world, firemen don’t put out fires; they start them. The book gets its title from the temperature that paper catches fire and burns.

The book-burning fireman Guy Montag in Francois Truffaut’s 1966 film Fahrenheit 451

The story begins with Montag, an ordinary fireman, after a day’s work of burning:

It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of historyMontag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by the flame. He knew that when he returned to the firehouse, he might wink at himself, a minstrel man, burnt-corked, in the mirror.”

–Fahrenheit 451
Firemen Beatty and Montag on their way to burn books (from Francois Truffaut’s 1966 film)

Soon after, Montag encounters an old lady who refuses to leave her house when the firemen come to burn her books. She dies alongside the stories she cherishes. Montag then meets the girl, Clarisse, who knows something of the past, when firemen used to put out fires, during a time when there were no informers and people were not afraid.

“A book is a loaded gun in the house next door,” Montag’s superior warns him, arguing for why they must be burned and their knowledge erased. “Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?” A foreshadowing of what follows.

Fahrenheit 451 weaves a compelling political and social tale that follows one man’s journey in finding his soul and his ability to judge for himself—through his rediscovery of literature.

Book burning in Opernplatz, Berlin, 1933

“Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible.”

Barbara Tuchman, 1980 address at Library of Congress
Burning German book (photo by Amnesty International)

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 Day We’re Not Allowed to Drink Water…

Dew drops on Hawkweed hairs, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

That day may seem like science fiction or the far future, but as William Gibson famously proclaimed, “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

This is partly why I’ve been recently writing speculative (mundane) science fiction in which components of fiction blur with non-fiction. In a recent interview on the SolarPunk Magazine Podcast, I discussed with hosts Justine and Bria how my recent novel A Diary in the Age of Water blurred fiction with non-fiction. The novel achieved this through the use of a diary to create a gritty realism in a mundane narrative hard to put down. The intention was to achieve personal relevance for the reader to what was going on, particularly with climate change—a water-driven phenomenon. In The Temz Review, Marcie McCauley postulated that “[Munteanu] does not appear to view fiction and non-fiction as separate territories; or, if she does, then this book is a bridge between them.” I had to laugh when I read this; “she gets me,” I concluded.

In the near-future of A Diary in the Age of Water, Canada has privatized its water utilities after the Conservative Party comes into power, and a giant company called CanadaCorp removes municipal water connections from people’s homes and imposes strict water rations, all while selling off Canada’s precious water to US states like California that would otherwise be uninhabitable.

In her entry for July 13, 2049, Lynna the diarist writes:

“Today CanadaCorp announced that the collection of rainwater was illegal. As of today, I could be arrested for using my rain catcher and cistern. I’ve decided to continue using the cistern, and I’ve warned Hildegard not to breathe a word to anyone at school about what we’re doing with the water. Thankfully, I have time to train her in the art of subterfuge before she starts Grade Two in the fall.”

Nina Munteanu, A Diary in the Age of Water
Raindrops on a black locust leaf, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

What follows in the novel is complete commodification of water and further restrictions for citizens in the form of house tap closures and daily water quantity quotas from paying public water taps. No form of water is free or available without payment. And if you can’t pay, well…

Dizzy and shivering in the blistering heat, Hilda shuffles forward with the snaking line of people in the dusty square in front of University College where her mother used to teach. The sun beats down, crawling on her skin like an insect. She’s been standing for an hour in the queue for the public water tap… The man behind Hilda pushes her forward. She stumbles toward the tap and glances at the wCard in her blue-grey hand. Her skin resembles a dry riverbed.

Heart throbbing in her throat, Hilda fumbles with the card and finally gets it into the reader. The reader takes it. The light screams red. Her knees almost give out. She dreaded this day…

A tiny water drop hangs, trembling, from the wTap faucet mouth, as if considering which way to go: give in gravity and drop onto the dusty ground or defy it and cling to the inside of the tap. Hilda lunges forward and touches the faucet mouth with her card to capture the drop. Then she laps up the single drop with her tongue. She thinks of Hanna and her throat tightens.

The man behind her grunts. He barrels forward and violently shoves her aside. Hilda stumbles away from the long queue in a daze. The brute gruffly pulls out her useless card and tosses it to her. She misses it and the card flutters like a dead leaf to the ground at her feet. The man shoves his own card into the pay slot. Hilda watches the water gurgle into his plastic container. He is sloppy and some of the water splashes out of his container, raining on the ground. Hilda stares as the water bounces off the parched pavement before finally pooling. The ache in her throat burns like sandpaper and she wavers on her feet. The lineup tightens, as if the people fear she might cut back in. She stares at the water pooling on the ground, glistening into a million stars in the sunlight…and knows she is dying of thirst…

Nina Munteanu, The Way of Water / la natura dell’acqua

This excerpt from my bilingual short story “The Way of Water / la natura dell’acqua” (Mincione Edizioni, 2016) follows the life of Hilda Dresden, daughter of Lynna, the diarist in “A Diary in the Age of Water.”

Science fiction, you think…

Far future, you think…

Think again…

In 2010, Mike Adams of Natural News reported that collecting rainwater was now illegal in several states of the USA. Utah, Washington and Colorado had outlawed individuals from collecting rainwater on their own properties because, according to officials, that rain belonged to someone else.

In 2015, thousands of citizens in two of America’s poorest cities, Detroit and Baltimore, had their water shut off for being behind on their water bills (which had been sharply increased).

Both are inhumane examples of government-imposed oppression over what should be a public and free resource: water.

Dew drops on hawkweed hairs and Mealy Pixie Cup lichens, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Maude Barlow, the Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, writes in Boiling Point of the water crisis in Canada—perhaps our best kept secret, considering that Canada is supposedly so water-rich. Are we giving it all away? And what of our indigenous communities, some of whom have not had potable water for decades?

So, I agree with Gibson about the future not being evenly distributed. This is because the present isn’t evenly distributed. Much of this disparity arises from an extractive and exploitive mentality and practice. One that commodifies what needs to remain free and available for all users. Capitalism ensures an uneven future by focusing on fear and stressing competition, separation, and exclusion.

In his book Designing Regenerative Cultures Daniel Christian Wahl talks about changing our evolutionary narrative from one based on fear defined by a perception of scarcity, competition, and separation to one based on love defined by a perception of abundance, a sense of belonging, collaboration and inclusion.

And moving forward we can take a lesson from Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass, who talks about a gift economy—an economy of abundance—whose basis lies in recognizing the value of kindness, sharing, and gratitude in an impermanent world.

This is what she says: “Climate change is a product of this extractive economy and is forcing us to confront the inevitable outcome of our consumptive lifestyle, genuine scarcity for which the market has no remedy. Indigenous story traditions are full of these cautionary teachings. When the gift is dishonored, the outcome is always material as well as spiritual. Disrespect the water and the springs dry up. Waste the corn and the garden grows barren. Regenerative economies which cherish and reciprocate the gift are the only path forward. To replenish the possibility of mutual flourishing, for birds and berries and people, we need an economy that shares the gifts of the Earth, following the lead of our oldest teachers, the plants.”

So, “The Day We’re Not Allowed to Drink Water…”

…Let that day never come.

Make it so…

Moss with raindrops on capsules, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

References:

Barlow, Maude. 2016. “Boiling Point: Government Neglect, Corporate Abuse, and Canada’s Water Crisis.” ECW Press, Toronto. 312pp.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. 2020. “The Serviceberry, An Economy of Abundance.” Emergence Magazine, December 10, 2020.

Munteanu, Nina. 2016. “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water.” Mincione Edizioni, Roma. 114pp.

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

Wahl, Daniel Christian. 2016. “Designing Regenerative Cultures.” Triarchy Press Ltd. 288pp.

Raindrops ‘float’ on a black locust leaf in a light rain, 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.

On Writing: Nina Munteanu Interviewed by Lisa Haselton

The Otonabee River glints in the sunlight in the midst of a snow flurry, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

This time last year reviewer Lisa Haselton posted an interview with me on New Year’s Day of 2021 on my latest release “A Diary in the Age of Water.” 2021 saw incredible sales for my clifi eco-novel, along with several appearances on radio shows, podcasts and TV stations. It would seem that water is on everyone’s mind and what better way than a limnologist’s diary to learn more about it.

Lisa and I talked about what inspired me to write this novel and about my writing process. What follows is part of that interview. Check out this link for the complete interview with Lisa Haselton.

*****

Lisa: Please tell us about your current release.

Nina: The book tells the journey of four generations of women who have a unique relationship with water, through a time of extreme climate change and water shortage. The book spans over forty years (from the 2020s to the 2060s) and into the far future, mostly through the diary of a limnologist, which is found by a future water-being. During the diarist’s lifetime, all things to do with water are overseen and controlled by the international giant water utility CanadaCorp—with powers to arrest and detain anyone. This is a world in which China owns America and America, in turn, owns Canada. The limnologist witnesses and suffers through severe water taxes and imposed restrictions, dark intrigue through neighbourhood water betrayals, corporate spying and espionage, and repression of her scientific freedoms. Some people die. Others disappear…

Ultimately, the book carries themes of hope and forgiveness—of ourselves and each other—and compassion for all things, starting with water. Each character carries an aspect of that theme, from the diarist’s activist mother, to the diarist’s own cynical protectionism, her spiritual anarchist daughter, and lastly the innocent storm of the last generation.

Lisa: What inspired you to write ‘A Diary in the Age of Water’?

Nina: It started with a short story I was invited to write in 2015 about water and politics in Canada.  I had long been thinking of potential ironies in Canada’s water-rich heritage. The premise I wanted to explore was the irony of people in a water-rich nation experiencing water scarcity: living under a government-imposed daily water quota of 5 litres as water bottling and utility companies took it all. I named the story “The Way of Water.” It was about a young woman (Hilda) in near-future Toronto who has run out of water credits for the public wTap; by this time houses no longer have potable water and their water taps have been cemented shut; the only way to get water is through the public wTaps—at great cost. She’s standing two metres from water—in a line of people waiting to use the tap—and dying of thirst.

The short story and the novel that came from it explore the nuances of corporate and government corruption and deceit together with global resource warfare. In this near-future, Canada is mined of all its water by thirsty Chinese and US multinationals—leaving nothing for the Canadians. Rain has not fallen on Canadian soil in years due to advances in geoengineering and weather manipulation that prevent rain clouds from going anywhere north of the Canada-US border. If you’re wondering if this is possible, it’s already happening in China and surrounding countries.

Lisa: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Nina: After astronaut, actress and a drummer in a rock and roll band—seriously—it was paperback writer. That’s been my dream since I was ten. I told stories long before I wrote them and long before any of them was published. I told stories in the form of cartoons. Since I was a small child, I wanted to be a cartoonist and write graphic novels (back then I knew them as comics). I created several strips with crazy characters that I drew, blending my love for drawing with my love for storytelling. My sister and I used to make up amazing adventure stories in the universe, peopled with aliens and crazy worlds. I wrote my first complete novel when I was fifteen (“Caged-In World”—which later served as a very rough draft for my first published novel, “Darwin’s Paradox” in 2007). My first published work was a non-fiction article “Environmental Citizenship” which appeared in Shared Vision Magazine in 1995. My first fiction work was a short story entitled “Arc of Time”, which was published in Armchair Aesthete in 2002.

Heavy snowfall in the forest in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Lisa: When did you first consider yourself a writer?

Nina: I’ve considered myself a storyteller since I was a child when I wrote and directed plays that my older brother and sister played in and drew cartoon adventure stories. My dream was to be a paperback writer (like the Beatles tune). But I didn’t think of myself seriously as an author until my first short story was published in 2002. It was called “Arc of Time” and appeared in a small magazine with a circulation of about 200. That story went on to be reprinted several times in larger magazines and led to a career of award-winning short stories—the latest appearing in the literary magazine subTerrain in 2020.

Lisa: Do you write full-time? If so, what’s your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?

Nina: While I don’t write full-time, my career is all about writing. Every day I write and research my next novel; I also write commissioned articles and short stories for magazines and for my several writing and science blogs. When I’m not writing, I teach writing at the University of Toronto and George Brown College. I also coach writers online to publication. Finding time to write has not generally been a challenge. I’ve embraced an opportunistic process in my writing and research that allows me to write considerably. The process recognizes that there are many ways to “write” from observations and note-taking, to reading and research, to writing short vs long and fiction vs non-fiction. For instance, I can fill a short break time with meaningful research, editing, or the start of a short article; this saves longer break times for my current novel, which requires a greater stretch of uninterrupted time.

Heavy snowfall in the marsh in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Lisa: What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?

Nina: That I am both a pantser and an outliner—with the same book. My writing process has always been a tandem kind of ‘fish and cut bait’ scene / sequel scenario with research following a premise followed by vigorous writing, which in turn engenders more research, which often reveals another plot or sub-theme that needs inclusion. It may seem a haphazard way to write, but I find it very fulfilling, fun and revealing—especially when the Universe provides with serendipitous discoveries (just when I need them). 

Lisa: What exciting story are you working on next?

Nina: I’m currently researching and working on the sequel to “A Diary in the Age of Water”—a thriller about how a phenomenon brings together four lost and homeless people through a common goal to free the Earth from the manacles of human greed. The story takes place throughout Canada—from Halifax to Vancouver and the Arctic. It takes place mostly during the 2050s, and features a few ghosts, the Halifax 1917 Explosion, experimentation on humans, espionage, murder, and—of course—a plague. I’m calling it my COVID19 novel…

Use this link to read my entire interview with Lisa Haselton.

Sun emerges after a heavy snowfall at the marsh, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

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

A Tardigrade Christmas…

 …A Different Christmas Story… (with a nod to Lewis Carroll)
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Blika lived in Mossland with her clone sestras, gathering and sucking the delicious juices of detritus and algae. Never in a hurry, she lumbered from frond to frond on eight stubby legs in a gestalt of feasting and being. Blika led a microscopic life of bloated bliss—unaware of forests, human beings, quantum physics or the coming singularity…

A sudden fierce wind wicked her water away. In a burst of alien urgency, she wriggled madly for purchase on the frond as it shivered violently in the roaring wind. Blika lost hold and the wind swept her into a dark dryness. Her liquid life-force bleeding away from her, Blika crawled into herself. The moss piglet felt herself shrivel into oblivion.

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No, not oblivion… more like a vast expanse…

She had entered a wonderland of twinkling lights in a vast fabric of dark matter. Where am I?

“Welcome, sestra!” boomed a large voice.

It occurred to her that she had never thought such a thing before. Am I dead? She’d never thought about existence before either. What has happened to me? And where are my sestras? She felt an overwhelming sadness. Something else she’d never felt before and wondered why she hadn’t. Did it have to do with that liquid that had always embraced her with its life-force? Here, in the darkness of space, she felt alone for the first time, separated from the plenum.

Blika beheld a being like her with eight arms and hands, seated on a throne and wearing a jeweled crown. “Why do you call me sestra?” Blika asked.

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“Because we are ALL sestras! You are a Tardigrade, aren’t you?” She waved all eight arms at Blika. “Well, I am your queen!” She looked self-pleased. “You are in Tunland now! The land of awareness. And now that you are self-aware, you can do anything! We’re special,” the queen ended in smug delight. The folds of her body jiggled and shimmered.

“Why are we special?” Blika asked.

“Because we are!” the queen said sharply, already losing patience with her new subject. “Don’t you know that you can survive anything? Ionizing radiation. Huge pressure. Boiling heat. Freezing cold. Absolutely no air. And no water…”

Blika gasped. Water was the elixor that connected her to her sestras and her world… her…home…

“How do you think you got here, eh?” the queen mocked her with a sinister laugh. Blika cringed. The queen went on blithely, “So, where do you come from, piglet?”

“I’m trying to find my way home…”

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Tardigrade holiday

“Your way? All ways here are my ways!”

“But I was just thinking—”

“I warn you, child…” The queen glowered at her. “If I lose my temper, you lose your head. Understand?”

Blika nodded, now missing her home even more.

“Why think when you can do!” the queen added, suddenly cheerful again. “First there is BE, then THINK, then DO. Why not skip the think part and go straight to the do part? In Tunland we do that all the time,” she went on blithely. “And, as I was saying, here we can do anything!”

The queen grabbed Blika by an arm and steered them through the swirling darkness of space toward a box-like floating object. “This is my doctor’s Tardis…”

“Doctor who?” Blika naively asked.

The queen shivered off her annoyance and led them eagerly through the door and into her kingdom.

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They entered a strange place of giant blocks and whining sounds beneath a dark swirling sky.

The first thing Blika noticed was the huge tardigrades floating above them like dirigibles! Others were dressed in suits holding little suitcases and walking into and out of the huge blocks through doorways.

“We’ve crossed into another dimension—my universe,” the queen announced cheerfully. “Here you can do anything you want. So, why be tiny and feckless when you can be huge and powerful!” She studied Blika. “This is your moment to do what you could never do before. Think of the possibilities! You too could be huge!”

Blika stared at the strange world of smoke and metal and yearned for her simple mossy home.

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As if she knew what Blika wanted, the queen quickly added, “But you can never go back home!”

“Why not?” Blika asked, disappointed.

Because, that’s why!” the queen shouted.  Squinting, she added, “It’s too late. It’s just not done! Once you’ve learned what the colour green means you can’t erase its significance!”

“But I still don’t know what the colour green means,” Blika complained. “And, besides, I think you’re wrong. Becoming self-aware doesn’t stop you from going home. It just changes its meaning. And if I can really do what I want, then you can’t stop me. I’m going home to my family.”

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The little hairs on the queen bristled. Then she grew terribly calm. “I won’t stop you, but…” The queen pointed to the floating tardigrades above them. “My water bear army will. I sentence you to remain in Tunland forever for your crime!”

“I haven’t done anything…yet.”

“You’ve broken the law of thinking before doing. In Tunland you have to skip that part—”

“You just made that up—”

“Doesn’t matter!” shouted the queen. “Sentence first, verdict afterwards!”

“That’s nonsense,” said Blika loudly. “The idea of having the sentence first.”

“Hold your tongue!” said the queen, turning a shade of chartreuse.

“I won’t,” said Blika.

“Off with your head!” the queen shouted at the top of her voice, pointing to Blika with all eight of her appendages. The water bear army hovered over Blika, taking aim. They were going to get more than her head with those lasers, Blika thought, and scurried for cover faster than her stubby eight legs had ever moved before. She was doomed—

Then, just beyond her sight, she saw—no felt—something far more significant than the colour green…or a huge bloated water bear army about to shoot her…

Water! She could taste it, smell it, hear it. Blika rejoiced with thoughts of her green home.

The water came in a giant wet wave of blue and silver and frothy green. Tunland sloshed then totally dissolved. Blika surfed the churning water. That green! She knew what it was! Blika reached out with her deft claws and snagged a tumbling moss frond. It finally settled and there were her sestras! So many of them clinging to the same green moss! She’d found her family! She was home! Yes, it was a different home and different sestras, but it was also the same. Love made it so…

Merry Christmas!

Tardigrade ornament (Archie McPhee)

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Tardigrades, also known as water bears or moss piglets, are plump, microscopic organisms with eight clawed legs. Fossils of tardigrades date to the Cambrian period over 500 million years ago. Over 900 species are known. Tardigrades were first described by the German pastor Johann August Ephraim Goeze in 1773 and given the name Tardigrada, meaning “slow stepper,” by the Italian biologist Lazzaro Spallanzani. Tardigrades reproduce asexually (parthenogenesis) or sexually. They mostly suck on the fluids of plant cells, animal cells, and bacteria.

Tardigrades survive adverse environmental stresses including:

  • High and low temperatures (e.g., -273°C to +151°C)
  • freezing and thawing
  • changes in salinity
  • lack of oxygen
  • lack of water
  • levels of X-ray radiation 1000x the lethal human dose
  • some toxic chemicals
  • boiling alcohol
  • low pressure of a vacuum
  • high pressure (up to 6x the pressure of the deepest ocean).
Water Bear or Tardigrade

Tardigrades respond to adverse environmental stresses through “cryptobiosis”, a process that greatly slows their metabolism. Tardigrades survive dry periods by shriveling up into a little ball or tunand waiting it out. They make a protective sugar called trehalose, which moves into the cells to replace the lost water. You could say that the water bear turns into a gummy bear.

Tardigrades have revived after a 100 years of desiccation. The antioxidants they make soak up dangerous chemicals and tardigrades can also repair damaged DNA from long term dry-out. In low oxygen, the tardigrade stretches out, relaxed muscles letting more water and oxygen enter its cells. The tardigrade’s cold-resistant tun also prevents ice crystals that could damage cell membranes.

Tardigrades survive temperatures, pressures and ionizing radiation not normally found on Earth. All this raises questions of origin and evolutionary adaptation. How—and why—have tardigrades developed the ability to survive the vacuum and ionizing radiation of space? Some suggest that it’s because they originated there. Scientists argue that they developed extreme tolerances from Earth’s volatile environments (e.g., water bodies that freeze or dry up, and undergo anoxia). But, if they can make it there, they can make it anywhere. So, where is “home” really?…

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My Book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press explores this creature and many other interesting things about water. Look for it on Amazon, Chapters, Kobo and in bookstores & libraries near you. If it’s not in your local library, ask for it.

What I Love About Teaching How To Write

Path leading into a mixed gnarly forest in a December fog, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

During a recent professional development session for writing instructors at UofT, I got a prompt to share what I loved about teaching how to write. We had eight minutes to write what first came to us. I found myself writing easily and quickly. Here’s what I shared:

Path through a gnarly forest in a December fog, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

I love how fluid it is. I used to work as an environmental consultant (as a limnologist) and what I loved about that job was the lack of structure and the diversity of projects. No day was the same. And—like a box of chocolates—I never knew what lay in store for me. I flourish in that kind of chaotic problem-solving.

Teaching how to write is like that.

Teaching how to write is about process. It’s about the journey and the relationships, not just about things. It’s more about how they fit together, why they work, and where they go. The act of teaching is always changing. It’s fluid, like water. And how apt, considering that our bodies are over two-thirds water. Just like water, we like to flow.

Teaching how to write is more than teaching how to use a tool, how to string a good sentence together or choosing the best word; it includes “voice”, expression, identity, freedom, and autonomy. Writing is power and I am empowering when I teach writing.

What a cool thing to do!

Path along the edge of a small woodland in the December fog, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

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

The Journal Writer: Why Keep a Journal?

Old maple tree under snow dusting in a mixed cedar-pine forest in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

There are as many reasons for writing a journal as there are people in the world: to express, to heal and clarify, to create, learn and influence, to record, to celebrate, to share with friends or the world even…and everything in-between. The journal is a way to connect—to yourself and to others—with gentleness, compassion and deeper understanding. It’s a “safe home” where your deepest thoughts can reside without fear of judgment, blame or need for justification. A place where you can be just you.

Late afternoon sun glimmers through cedar-pine forest in winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

What is a Journal?

Most people think of a journal as a bound notebook with text, sketches and pasted-in mementos. But it can also be a binder full of memorabilia and notes, a collection of digital information on a computer, CD or flash drive, or an audio tape. According to Ron Klug (2002), a journal is essentially a “day book” where you record daily happenings. But it is much more than that. The journal is a tool for self-discovery, an aid to concentration and finding clarity, a “mirror for the soul”, a training ground for a writer and a good friend and confidant. It is at its heart a place of learning and being.

Mary Louise Holly (1989) describes a journal as “a reconstruction of experience and, like the diary, has both objective and subjective dimensions, but unlike diaries, the writer is (or becomes) aware of the difference. The journal…is a book that someone returns to. It serves purposes beyond recording events and pouring out thoughts and feelings. Like the diary, the journal is a place to ‘let it all out’. But the journal is also a place for making sense of what is out.” The journal helps you assess the next step and help you find direction. I talk more about this in Chapter 5 of my guide The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice.

Swamp forest reflected in icing pond, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Some reject journaling as too self-absorbing; the truth is that most of us during some part of our lives are too little connected to ourselves. We keep so busy, filling our lives with activities, filling our senses with stimuli, running at full tilt. We may be constantly communicating with others through cell phones, computers, notebooks, at school and at work. But we aren’t communicating with ourselves. For that to happen we need to quiet our minds and our environment to have a meaningful self-dialogue. This is the gift that journaling brings to us.  It helps us find the depth of ourselves and lead richer more truthful lives. The key is to use it to learn.

A journal need not be the dark brooding place many people envision when they think of diaries and journals. A journal can be a happy place, a place to celebrate one’s explorations and achievements and self-education. Here’s what journal writer Jennifer Moon (1999) says about her journal:

A journal is a friend that is always there and is always a comfort. In bad moments I write, and usually end up feeling better. It reflects back at me things that I can learn about my world and myself. It represents a private space in my life, a beautiful solitude, the moments before I go to sleep just to stop and note what there is about the day or about my life at the time. I think that it has enabled me to feel deeper and more established as a person, more in control and more trusting of life. On a less introverted note, I think that it contributes to my ability to write in general, and it underlies an interest in poetry and creative writing which awaits a quieter time in my life for fulfillment. 

–Jennifer Moon

Remember, it is just as important to record your happy, wonderful, scintillating and inspirational experiences as those dark moments.

Moss-covered base of a cedar tree under a light dust of snow in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Why Keep a Journal?

Writer Louise DeSalvo shared an interesting story about what expressive writing means to her. Here’s what she said:

“Many people I know who want to write but don’t (my husband, Ernie, for example) or who want to write more than they have but say they can’t find the time (my friend Marla) have told me that taking the time to write seems so, well, self-indulgent, self-involved, frivolous even. And that finding the time to write—even a diary, much less fiction or memoir or poetry—in their busy schedules is impossible. I’ll write when I have the time, they say.”

–Louise DeSalvo

DeSalvo adds, “what if writing weren’t such a luxury? What if writing were a simple, significant, yet necessary way to achieve spiritual, emotional, and psychic wholeness? To synthesize thought and feeling, to understand how feeling relates to events in our lives and vice versa? What if writing were as important as a basic human function and as significant to maintaining and promoting our psychic and physical wellness as, say, exercise, healthful food, pure water, clean air, rest and repose, and some soul-satisfying practice?”

Journal writing encourages engagement and reflection. It helps you deepen your self-understanding and make added sense of your life and what you believe. It can provide you with added perspective on you and the world, by giving you a greater awareness of what is happening to and around you in your daily world. Writing a journal can help you write better and help improve your skills in observing, recording and interpretation. It can also help you set goals and manage your time and priorities.

Give yourself the permission to write. Give yourself the gift of expression.

Beech tree with marcescent leaves in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

This article is an excerpt from The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice (Pixl Press, 2013) by Nina Munteanu.

The Journal Writer is the second writing guide in the Alien Guidebook Series. This comprehensive guidebook will help you choose the best medium, style and platform for your expressive writing. The guide provides instruction on issues of safety, using the computer and electronic devices, social media and the internet.

Engaging, accessible, and easily applicable…Brava, Nina, brava.”—David Merchant, Instructor, Louisianna Tech University

Straight up, fact-filled, enriching, joyful and thorough…Nina is honest, she is human and she wants you to succeed.”—Cathi Urbonas, Halifax writer

References:

Baikie, Karen & Kay Wilhelm. 2005. “Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing.” Advances in Psychiatric Treatment. 11: 338-346.

DeSalvo, Louise. 1999. “Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives.” Beacon Press, Boston. 226pp.

Holly, Mary Louise. 1989. “Writing to Grow. Keeping a personal-professional journal”. Heinemann. Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Klug, Ron. 2002. “How to Keep a Spiritual Journal: a guide to journal keeping for inner growth and personal discovery.”Augsburg, Minneapolis, 4th ed.

Moon, Jennifer. 1999. “Learning Journals: A handbook for academics, students and professional development.” Kogan Page. London.

Munteanu, Nina. 2013. “The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice.” Pixl Press, Vancouver. 170pp.

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 Witch’s Hat and Other Fungi Tales

Witch’s Hat (Hygrocybe conica) by cedar tree, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In my recent wanderings in the small cedar forest by the river near my house, I chanced upon a community of emerging reddish-orange fungi. They sat among the cedars in a crowded aggregation. Some pushed their way up through the duff like little buds, barely visible; others rose up with pointed steep caps; and others had opened further into tiny ‘witch’s hats’ and blackened.

Several stages of Witch’s Hat, including blackening stage, cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

According to Frank Dugan, fungus plays a key role in many folktales and fairy tales. “They appear as foods, poisons, diseases, decorations, dyes or tinder, and even in insults, compliments, graffiti and video games,” says the author of Fungi, Folkways and Fairy Tales: Mushrooms & Mildews in Stories, Remedies & Rituals, from Oberon to the Internet.

Fungi figure in wonderfully with stories of and about witches. “Witches have long used fungi in their potions in Europe,” Fungal Folklore tells us. Even ferry rings are called “Hexen Rings” in Germany; Hexe means witch and this refers to “the dancing of witches on Walpurgis night (the eve of May Day) when the old pagan witches were thought to hold high revelry,” writes Dugan.

Baba Yaga (Wikipedia Commons)

Baba Yaga

In the Slavic folktale, Baba Yaga is an ancient swamp witch; she’s a cruel ogress who steals, cooks and eats her victims, usually children; OR offers them help. It’s complicated; she’s either a maternal helper or a cannibalistic villain; or both. Certainly a trickster.  Baba Yaga is guardian of the fountains of the water of life and lives in a forest hut perched on bird’s legs, surrounded by pine trees and glowing skulls. She can manipulate earth and wood, and can mesmerise. Baba Yaga has lately become something of an icon for feminism and the power of the feminine.

Says Marissa Clifford in Vice: “Like other witches, deistic Baba is agent of transformation, who, according to Kitaiskaia, exists ‘kind of outside of the things which constrain human society, like time and morality.’ She may well be so compelling for women today because of her rejection of social standards, and the power that comes from that. She’s an outlier with power that isn’t derived from her beauty, or her relationships with others. Instead, it comes from within her—earth, hut, and firey stove.”

Baba Yaga (illustration by Tatyana Chepkasova)

Witches, Fungi & Potions

“Witches have long used fungi in their potions in Europe,” The Fungus Among Us tells us. According to Dugan, the dung-loving Panaeolus papilionaceus (Petticoat Mottlegill) was used in witch’s concoctions in Portugal. The entheogen Amanita muscaria (Fly Agaric)—the elixir of ancient alchemists—is known as Hexenpils (‘Witches’ mushroom’) in Austria.  Among German tribes, it is associated with Woton/Odin, god of ecstasy, war and shamanic knowledge.  Puffballs were reportedly used in potions by witches in the Basque country. Witch’s butter (Exidia spp.) also figures in folklore. “Stabbing, burning or otherwise destroying these fungi were believed to harm the witch herself,” writes Owen. The Witch’s Hat (Hygrocybe conica) is aptly named for its blackening witch-style ‘hat’ that starts bright red-orange and turns coal black.

Many country folk through the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries performed rituals to protect their crops from the devastation wrought by witches and spirits. Thiselton-Dyer discusses the malignant Roggenwolf (‘rye wolf’ of Germanic folklore) who stole children and fed on them and the various rituals peasants used to appease these Feldgeister (field spirits), such as leaving a sheaf of rye in the fields over the winter. The Roggenwolf is, of course, the personification of ergot, the fungus Claviceps purpurea, which caused convulsions, burning, “massive-appetite”, and “the sense of becoming an animal.” People who contracted ergot poisoning from the contaminated rye were accused of being witches and brutally killed.

Young Witch’s Hats push up through the cedar forest floor, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Ergot and The Last Summoner

In my historical fantasy “The Last Summoner,” young Vivianne Schoen, Baroness of Grunwald—accused of being a witch—is chased by her father’s guard to be burnt at the stake. Blamed for the sudden stupor of her father and the chaplain who both love their rye bread, it didn’t help that Vivianne possesses unnatural powers in metal manipulation, has weird markings or blemishes on her back or that suspicions of her preternatural mother being a witch precede her. Then odd things start to happen; cattle stop producing milk and other farm animals behave strangely. At a feast to celebrate her own coming nuptial to a foreign stranger and just after she is falsely accused of adultery, people suddenly succumb to fits of convulsions, facial distortions, hallucinations and paralysis. Targeted as the obvious candidate to blame, she must flee her home or be burnt alive at the stake:

…With a final unintelligible gasp that wet her cheek with flying spittle, he convulsed violently and pitched to the floor, shaking and vomiting his dinner.

Vivianne stared at her father, rolling and twitching in a seizure on the floor and crying out gibberish. She turned to the castle community, who were now pointing and shouting at her. Their faces had twisted from transfixed revulsion into fear and anger. Somehow they blamed her for both the stranger’s accident and her father’s sudden paroxysm. Perhaps for losing them a battle in the bargain too. Even Père Daniel’s face looked stricken with confused accusation. Until now Vivianne hadn’t realized how much his opinion of her meant to her. She felt his faltering faith drive like a blade into her heart and would have burst into tears had the crowd not suddenly grown very surly, which demanded her sudden attention.

Gertrude, the new dairymaid she’d assisted earlier, flung the first accusation: “She’s a witch!”

“Witch!” another echoed. “You heard her father call her one!”

Another servant swiftly followed with, “Just like her mother! She’s bewitched the baron! Put a spell on him with her wicked look!”

The crowd ignited to a raucous mob and a spate of accusations gushed out like a dam breaking: “My butter failed to churn because of her!”

“Look at the witchling’s eyes! They blaze with the devil’s own fire!”

“She appeared in Weikhard’s dream and now he’s ill!”

“She touched my cow and afterwards it couldn’t stand!”

“I saw the nursemaid bringing her a daily potion of nettle, mustard and mint with wine to make her lustful!”

Oh, no! They were implicating Uta along with her!

“I smelled basil and cloves in her bed chamber!”

Vivianne had used both to mask the rank odor of Uta’s anti-plague potions, completely innocent of their aphrodisiac properties. Vivianne stared in anguished despair as Père Daniel stood by, mutely sanctioning their actions. She’d thought him her champion once. But obviously this was too much for him to bear. He’d lost his trust in her. As their eyes met briefly, he suddenly gasped out strange words of gibberish. A violent shudder convulsed through him. It threw him forward, as if the devil itself were animating him, then felled him to the ground where he vomited alongside her retching father.

“She’s taken the priest!” someone shouted. “He’s doing the Viper’s dance!” Another screamed in a panic, “Watch out for her eyes!”

Vivianne turned back to the crowd. Whomever her gaze alighted upon shrank back and averted their face in terrified alarm. They were convinced that she could strike them down with a glance. To her horror a few of the castle servants jerked out of their seats with startled cries of gibberish then fell writhing to the ground; some began to vomit. Vivianne recognized the true onslaught of an epidemic. The same illness that had inflicted her father and the chaplain was attacking the staff. And again, the timing was impeccable, thought Vivianne with wry cynicism. As though God was plotting against her.

Gertrude pointed to her. “Seize her! Burn the witch! Before she kills us all!”

“Someone find her demon cat too!” Vivianne heard the doctor shout.

Several of the baron’s knights surged forward, swords drawn. As if suddenly awoken from a stupor, the Teutonic Knights at the high table leapt into action and drew their swords.

NO! Vivianne backed away in alarm. She envisioned their swords suddenly pointing back toward themselves. To her amazement, their swords flung back and the knights dropped them in shocked fright.  

In that surreal moment, as the world staggered into slow motion, Vivianne saw the entire castle household draw in a long breath. Still on the floor, Père Daniel’s shakes abated long enough for him to fix lucid eyes upon her and silently mouth, “Cours, ma petite! Cours! Sauves toi!”

After a last glance at her convulsing father, Vivianne took the Père’s advice and ducked through one of the curtained archways behind the table to the kitchen stairwell, and pelted down the stairs.

“After her!” she heard the booming voice of Doctor Grien. “The witch is getting away!”

*****

Vivianne later discovers what caused the sudden ‘bewitchment’ of members of her community: all the people who became ill had eaten the rye bread. She learns about ergot poisoning of rye by the fungus Claviceps purpurea. Conditions had been ideal for ergot to thrive: damp and rainy cool weather.

Young Witch’s Hat with peaked cone-shaped pileus, amid cedar duff, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The Witch’s Hat

Witch’s Hats are a small agaric (cap from 1-4 cm across) that start out bright red to orange, sometimes almost yellow as they thrust up through the cedar duff, looking like buds.

The conical pileus is often curved steeply with a fairly sharp top and sometimes with edges that curve slightly inward. The stem (stipe) is often white at the base blending to yellow and will stain black with age.

Witch’s Hat mushroom showing inward curve of cap, with key to show size, cedar tree, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

As the waxcap mushroom develops, the cap spreads out with a discernable brim while maintaining the hat peak of a witch’s hat. As it ages, it turns a deeper red-orange that blackens, often from the edges inward.

Three stages of Witch’s Hat, from early conical to spreading and blackening hat, cedar tree, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

This tendency to blacken from bruising or with age is a good diagnostic for this mushroom. Very few others show this trait. Its gills “have the consistency of soft wax when rubbed between the fingers,” Fungus Fact Friday tells us. The gills start white to yellowish and gradually yellow and stain black.

Stages of Witch’s Hat from budding to opening cap to blackening cap and gills, cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Blackened and blackening Witches Hat caps and stems, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Hygrocybe conica well-represents its common name Witch’s Hat as it keeps its peak and turns totally black, cedar in Ontario forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The Witch’s Hat (Hygrocybe conica), also known as Blackening Waxcap (for the obvious reason), shows a diversity of habitat preference and high variability. It tends to grow on the ground under hardwood and conifer trees. The community I stumbled upon fanned out from a few cedar trees in a small mixed cedar forest. The Witch’s Hat also likes mossy areas, where I found several near the river. The saprobic Hygrocybe conica is also a mycorrhizal fungus, sending tendrils from tree to tree.

Mycorrhizae are symbiotic relationships that form between fungi and plants. The fungi colonize the root system of a host plant—in this case some cedar trees—providing increased water and nutrient absorption capabilities while the plant provides the fungus with carbohydrates through photosynthesis.

Mycorrhizal network (illustration by Charlotte Roy, Wikipedia)

References:

Dugan. 2008. “Fungi, folkways & fairy tales.” North American Fungi 3(7): 23-72.

Morgan, A. 1995. “Toads and Toadstools: The Natural History, Folklore, and Cultural Oddities of a Strange Association.” Celestial Arts. Berkeley, California.

Munteanu, Nina. 2012. “The Last Summoner.” Starfire World Syndicate. Louisville, KY.

Owen, E. 2003. “Welsh Folk-Lore: A Collection of the Folk-Tales and Legends of North Wales. Kessinger Publishing. Whitefish, Montana.

Thiselton-Dyer, T.F. 1898. “Folk-Lore of Plants.” D. Appleton and Co., New York.

Young emerging Witch’s Hats through cedar duff, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Witch’s Hat in cedar forest, 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.

On Writing Hopeful Dystopias and the Blur of Fiction with Non-Fiction

‘Hopeful dystopias’ are much more than an apparent oxymoron; they are in some fundamental way, the spearhead of the future—and ironically often a celebration of human spirit by shining a light through the darkness of disaster. I discussed this in a recent interview on Solarpunk Futures Podcast.

In a recent interview on the CBC Radio show Ideas “Beyond Dystopia”, Canadian author Margaret Atwood (who penned the dystopic The Handmaid’s Tale and Maddaddam trilogy) said much the same thing. Atwood argued that dystopias and cautionary tales ultimately embrace an element of hope, through a character’s experience. Dystopias can serve as a road map for individual endurance, resilience, and triumph through disaster.

I talked with Solarpunk Futures about how the purposeful blur of fiction with non-fiction in my latest eco-novel A Diary in the Age of Water produced a heightened relevance to the dystopic journey for the reader.

Solarpunk: Your latest book is an eco-novel, or rather something of a fiction-nonfiction hybrid perhaps, called A Diary in the Age of Water. Tell us a bit about that novel and the role that water plays in the story.

Nina: A Diary in the Age of Water follows the climate-induced journey of Earth and humanity through four generations of women and their battles against a global giant that controls and manipulates Earth’s water. The book spans over forty years (from the 2020s to the 2060s) and into the far future, mostly through the diary of a limnologist, which is found by a future water-being. While A Diary in the Age of Water is a work of fiction, its premise and much of its story are firmly based on real events, people and phenomena. The dramatization of these through four main characters carry the reader into consequence and accountability. Water’s relationship with each character provides four different perspectives on the value of water to humanity—from the personal and practical to the spiritual and existential. For readers with an evidence-based approach to learning about water’s importance, the diarist provides interesting facts on water in each of her entries in the form of epigraphs (mostly from Robert Wetzel’s Limnology). Things like: watershed, hypolimnion, aquifer, thalweg, clapotis gaufre, and petrichor, to name a few…

I chose a diary format to purposely blur the fiction with non-fiction. I was writing about both the far and the near future and much of it was based—like Margaret Atwood and her books—on real events and real people. I wanted personal relevance to what was going on, particularly with climate change. I also wanted to achieve a gritty realism of “the mundane” and a diary felt right. Lynna—the diarist—is a reclusive inexpressive character, so I thought a personal diary would help bring out her thoughts and feelings. There’s nothing like eves-dropping to make the mundane exciting. The diary-aspect of the book characterizes it as “mundane science fiction” by presenting an “ordinary” setting for characters to play out. The tension arises from insidious cumulative events and circumstances that slowly grow into something incendiary. The real events are the fuel that incite a slow-burn fictional drama that blurs the reader’s perception of reality and heightens its relevance.

Solarpunk: Can you give us an example of an event in your book where the lines between fiction and nonfiction get blurred?

Nina: In the diary entry entitled “Watershed,”, for July 14, 2049, Lynna writes:

Today, CanadaCorp announced that the collection of rainwater was illegal. As of today, I could be arrested for using my rain catcher and cistern. I’ve decided to continue using the cistern, and I’ve warned Hildegard not to breathe a word to anyone at school about what we’re doing with the water. Thankfully, I have time to train her in the art of subterfuge before she starts Grade Two in the fall.

What follows in the story is a series of greater water restrictions that mimic some of the currenet ongoing scenarios in other parts of the world (e.g. illegal rainwater collection in parts of the USA; shutting down of home water taps in Detroit; required and restricted water collection at public water taps in parts of the world).

Lynna’s August 13, 2051 diary entry in my 2020 novel seemed to predict the atmospheric river disaster that befell British Columbia in November 2021:

In the mid- to late-twenties the west coast succumbed to massive atmospheric river storms. San Francisco. Los Angeles. Seattle. Even earthquakes seemed to follow climate change’s lead. The earthquake / tsunami that hit Vancouver Island in 2029 shifted the Earth’s axis by three inches, Daniel informed me. The American military stormed over the border with swift aid. “Did you know that they never left?” Daniel asked me. I hadn’t known that. But I wasn’t surprised either.

Of course, these “predictions” were really just good research into the current scientific knowledge and what current circumstances may naturally generate in the future. I was just doing a good job at reading water.

Thompson Creek marsh in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Given that cli-fi features climate change, environmental destruction, and species extinction, you must think ‘how can it not be all doom and gloom?’ But dystopias often do reflect—in their depiction of terrible circumstance—an element of triumph, of overcoming adversity, and ultimately of hope. In fact, dystopias generally draw on a writer’s optimism; else, why would we write these cautionary tales? A strong belief in humanity underlies much of eco-fiction. Solarpunk is a rising light of eco-fiction that has emerged recently in response to the denial-despair dilemma many of us face when we think of climate change. This kind of eco-fiction features ingenuity, generativity, independence, and community. And it ultimately leads us through it all toward the light. A Diary in the Age of Water is in fact a dystopia with elements of solarpunk.

You can listen to the entire podcast interview on Solarpunk Futures: Imagining a New World here.

Thompson Creek Marsh in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

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