The Legacy of Trees: Purposefully Wandering Vancouver’s Stanley Park

Winter on Sea Wall StanleyPark

Winter on the sea wall (Heritage House)

“In the gorgeously colourful fall of 2017, I had a sudden thought: “I live next to Stanley Park, one of the world’s most beloved and best parks. How have I not noticed? Of course I had noticed, but I hadn’t taken that awareness inside. I barely knew the park. I have lived beside this park for twenty-five years. I first saw the crescent beach of English Bay and the storytelling totems in the park in 1961, fifty-nine years ago. Have I been asleep? Can I wake up? Is it time?

If I am going to get to know this park—this Stanley Park—and call it “my park,” I will have to wander it purposefully, path by path, plaque by plaque, monument by monument, rock by rock, tree by tree, blossom by flowering blossom, through every season, and allow its layers of history to seep into me as though it were a living, breathing being.

Actually, it is.

Legacy of Trees Nina Shoroplova

This is how Nina Shoroplova begins her book “The Legacy of Trees” by Heritage House, 2020, a book all about “Purposeful Wandering in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.”

The beautifully laid out 288-page book with colour photos is a feast for the mind and the heart. Although the book provides an excellent human and natural history of the park—from its pre-colonial existence, and logging history, to its creation and uses and description—at its root is an expression of wonder for this natural gem in the middle of a bustling city and a true love of trees.

Shoroplova approaches the forest with the heart of a poet. Her passion for nature—and trees, particularly—lights each page with joyful discovery. Shoroplova brings this passion to Stanley Park, one of Canada’s iconic parks, and one worth both visiting and knowing through many aspects from history to ecology and from forest ecosystem to legacy tree.

Each year, Stanley Park welcomes more than eight million visitors from around the world. In the summer of 2013, Travel & Leisure magazine ranked Stanley Park second among the world’s twenty-eight most beautiful city parks in the world. In 2014, TripAdvisor named Stanley Park the best park in the world. The park features 400-hectares of natural coastal temperate rainforest with 27 km of trails and scenic views of water, mountains, and truly majestic trees. The rainforest holds an old-growth forest of +400-year old Douglas-firs and some of the largest grand firs in the world. The park also features an 8.8 km seawall, totem poles and six beautiful gardens.

Map of Stanley Park

Map of Stanley Park, Vancouver

Early in the book, Shoroplova describes a particular experience with a weeping beech in Shakespeare Garden with something close to reverence:

“When I first walked under its canopy of falling dark green drapery, tears came to my eyes. Somehow, the generosity of that tree, offering its shade and comfort to all who stand, walk, and drive underneath its south-facing leaves, opened my heart.” She then added, “As a friend says, ‘trees are divine beings.’”

Shoroplova shares why she feels calmed, centred, and connected in a forest, particularly in Stanley Park:

Hemlock on Cedar StanleyPark

Hemlock growing on cedar stump (Heritage House)

Maybe it’s because the change in a forest is constant yet unobservable, unobtrusive. Maybe it’s because I, as a human being, am so insignificant in size compared with the giants around me. Or because I, as a human being, have lived for such a short time compared with the ancient living beings around me. Or the green and the tree pheromones are so calming…

I used to feel this way when I skied downhill and when I breastfed my babies. I feel this way when I stand in the ocean and await the next wave and the next. I feel this way with my grandchildren. That’s what being in the forest does for us…It brings us to the present moment. That’s the gift.”

Victorian woman giant trees 1901

Woman wanders among the Seven Sisters giants, 1901 (Heritage House)

There is an abiding quality about trees and a living forest that is reassuring. “Trees are supportive, yet ambitious,” writes Shoropova. They are “quiet yet communicative, flexible yet strong, adaptive yet true to type.” They connect us to a larger world in a way that is both awe-inspiring and familiar.

“Learning the histories of the legacy trees in Stanley Park deepens our knowledge of the people of Vancouver—our history, our origins, our values,” Shoroplova explains in her opening chapter. These stories also show how Vancouver is maturing and evolving alongside its park forests and gardens. “We are shaking off the colonial identity that the park exhibited for so many decades and embracing the values of reconciliation with the first inhabitants of this land, the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh. We are also reclaiming what we can of the original nature of this land while honouring our communal history.”

Loggers springboard system Douglas-fir-1890s

Loggers using springboards to chop down a Douglas-fir giant, Stanley Park, 1890s (Heritage House)

Shoroplova arranged her tree stories into three parts: Part 1: The Trees Were Always There—trees that were already growing on the peninsula headland that became the federal reserve and then Stanley Park; Part 2: The First Trees Are Planted—those that were planted during the colonial and imperial years of the park (up to 1960); Part 3: The Park Grows Up—the years of growing independence.

Complete with old photos and original maps, Shoroplova offers several well-described and mapped routes to learn about and appreciate the beauty of the park. Her accurate science and historical accounts are dispensed in easily-digested and understood parcels through the language of conversation. The narrative is both charming and intriguing from the sad tale of the sentinel big Douglas-fir at the entrance to Stanley Park in 1894 to the princess-poet Pauline Johnson’s naming of Lost Lagoon and stories of historic events.

GeorgiaSt Entrance StanleyPark-bigfir-1894

Georgia Street entrance to Stanley Park in 1894 (Heritage House)

In a particularly engaging chapter of the book (Chapter 8), Shoroplova compares humans to trees and, through some interesting observations on tree physiology and behaviour, she draws some interesting conclusions. One example is her description of a tree’s heartbeat: how trunk and branches use a very slow pulse of contraction and expansion to send water up and out to every branchlet and leaf. Or how trees essentially breathe in more oxygen during the day (during active photosynthesis) and breathe out more carbon dioxide at night (during respiration without photosynthesis). Shoroplova likens it to “one slow breath for every twenty-four hours.” Shoroplova extends this fractal idea to the “suggestion that the northern hemisphere of Earth breathes in every summer and breathes out every winter. One slow planetary breath for every twelve months.”

Shoroplova also discusses two theories that explain the phenomenon of crown shyness, only seen in deciduous trees: “One is that trees of the same species avoid both being shaded by and shading each other. They take up space that is not already filled, allowing each other space to grow and breathe and capture the sun’s rays. The opposing theory is that stormy weather breaks off branches that are very close to each other. I suspect a mixture of both theories is at work.”

NurseryTree StanleyPark

Decaying log provides nutrients and substrate for other life (Heritage House)

Shoroplova continues her comparison in describing the life and death of a tree. “The death of a tree is a very drawn-out affair, taking years and even decades, as the tree changes from being healthy to having its health impinged on in some way, to losing more of its branches … to becoming a standing snag, and finally to falling to the forest floor. The decomposition—the composting—of one tree provides the soil for the birth and regeneration of many others. When a tree falls in the forest, its fallen form—minerals, fibre, and glucose—nourishes all the other life forms in its environment…Fallen trees become nurse logs for seedling trees, especially for western hemlocks.” In Chapter 9, Shoroplova shares how the forest—like the ocean—releases negative ions that help in general feelings of wellness as these ions “neutralize all the free radicals that result from our natural body processes or that exist as environmental toxins.”

RemainingSevenSister burl

Western red cedar with burl, remaining Seven Sister in Stanley Park (Heritage House)

In Chapter 12, Shoroplova describes the cathedral-like grandeur of the Seven Sisters grove of western redcedars and Douglas-firs as witnessed by Mohawk poet E. Pauline Johnson in 1911 and the sad narrative that followed. The fame of this stately grove of giants became their undoing—in the early 1950s the Park Board cut them down, citing safety reasons. The seven stately trees became seven sad stumps—with just one western redcedar with a large burl of the originals remaining. In 1988 the Park Board planted seven young Douglas-fir trees to replace the Seven Sisters. It will take time but eventually they may rival the Seven Sisters in majestic height. The single original sister still stands, prompting Shoroplova to “return to feel the history embedded in this single sibling.”

PaulineJohnson feather

E. Pauline Johnson

“But in all the world there is no cathedral whose marble or onyx columns can vie with those straight, clean, brown tree-boles that team with the sap and blood of life. There is no fresco that can rival the delicacy of lace-work they have festooned between you and the far skies. No tiles, no mosaic or inlaid marbles are as fascinating as the bare, russet, fragrant floor outspreading about their feet. They are the acme of Nature’s architecture, and in building them she has outrivalled all her erstwhile conceptions. She will never originate a more faultless design, never erect a more perfect edifice. But the divinely moulded trees and the man-made cathedral have one exquisite characteristic in common. It is the atmosphere of holiness.”—E. Pauline Johnson, Legends of Vancouver, 1911.

ProspectPoint 1891

Prospect Point, Stanley Park, 1891 (Heritage House)

Subsequent chapters are devoted to singular trees and charming stories throughout the various gardens and paths of Stanley Park. Shoroplova brings them all to life with an animated history that weaves through the park to the present day.

Nina looking up dougfir-LHP

Nina Munteanu looks up at giant Douglas-fir in Lighthouse Park, BC (photo by M. Ross)

She ends on a high note for me by invoking the wisdom of UBC ecologist and forester Suzanne Simard, who parses out four simple solutions to forest managers. They include: 1) know the local region and ecology and act accordingly; 2) stop or at least curtail most logging of the old-growth forests; 3) save the legacies, the mother trees and networks so they can pass their wisdom onto the next generation of trees; 4) help regenerate the biodiversity of forest ecosystems by planting and allowing natural regeneration. “Forests aren’t just a bunch of trees competing with each other; they’re super-cooperators,” says Simard in a TED talk in June 2016. From Simard’s message I travelled to Ira Sutherland’s TEDx talk in October 2019, about the giant trees in Vancouver, which include Stanley Park; his message was also direct: 1) this is our story; and 2) Nature proves resilient.

I give Shoroplova a top score for ending her wonderful exposé on Stanley Park trees with action. Once we have connected with a forest and with a particular tree, we have walked through a door into awareness and ultimately responsibility. The wisdom and actionable message is clear. It isn’t enough to be a bystander. Just as E. Pauline Johnson raised the flag of awareness a hundred years ago for indigenous peoples and Nature by association, we must do the same. Or it will disappear. Sutherland points out that many of the sites where he has documented giant mother trees are not protected.

Bill Stephen, superintendent of urban forestry (retired), in his foreword to the book, wisely suggests how to use the book:

Read it first in a leisurely manner at home, and internalize the park’s history since its dedication in 1888. Then tuck it into your backpack and take it with you as a companion on your park wanderings. Take it on your smartphone or tablet as an ebook. Follow the maps, and use a maps app to enter the latitude/longitude coordinates of your place of interest for the day. Re-read its tales in the presence of the very trees about which it speaks, time travel with them, and return to the city with a richer sense of the connections between the trees of this great park and its human and animal actors. Then repeat…”

Vancouver StanleyPark bridge

North side of Sea Wall with view of north shore and Lion’s Gate Bridge, Stanley Park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

References:

Johnson, E. Pauline 1911. “Legends of Vancouver.” Library of Alexandria. 196pp. E. Pauline Johnson (Takehionwake) was a daughter of a Mohawk Chief and a white mother.  She was one of Canada’s most famous performers, poet, feminist and indigenous activist of the Victorian era. Pauline Johnson documented legends, told to her by her great friend, Squamish Chief Joe Capilano, in the Vancouver newspaper, The Daily Province, and then a book, ‘Legends of Vancouver’, in print now for over 100 years.

Nombre, Antonio Donato. 2010. “The Magic of the Amazon: A river that flows invisibly all around us.” TEDx Talk, 21:27 min. November, 2010. The Amazon River is like a heart, pumping water from the seas through it, and up into the atmosphere through 600 billion trees, which act like lungs. Clouds form, rain falls and the forest thrives. In a lyrical talk, Antonio Donato Nobre talks us through the interconnected systems of this region, and how they provide environmental services to the entire world. A parable for the extraordinary symphony that is nature.

Simard, Suzanne. 2016. “How Trees Talk to Each Other.” TED Talk, 18:20 min. June, 2016. “A forest is much more than what you see,” says ecologist Suzanne Simard. Her 30 years of research in Canadian forests have led to an astounding discovery — trees talk, often and over vast distances. Learn more about the harmonious yet complicated social lives of trees and prepare to see the natural world with new eyes.

Shoroplova, Nina. 2020. “Legacy of Trees: Purposeful Wandering in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.” Heritage House Publishing Co.Ltd., Vancouver. 288pp.

Sutherland, Ira. 2019. “The Great Vancouver Forest: A Story of Place.” TEDx Talk, 21:04 min. Oct. 2019. Growing up among the tall forests near UBC, Ira Sutherland developed an appreciation and curiosity for forests early on. This talk invites his audience to explore Vancouver’s extensive forests and to hopefully see trees in a new light (for more information, see http://www.vancouversbigtrees.com)

 

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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.

Craig Russell’s “Fragment” in the time of COVID-19

Fragment-CraigRussellCraig Russell begins his eco-thriller Fragment with a TV interview of glaciologist Kate Sexsmith in Scott Base Antarctica. The interview is interrupted by what turns out to be four runaway glaciers that have avalanched into the back of the Ross Ice Shelf and a fragment the size of Switzerland surges out into the open sea. Hence the title: Fragment.

The original slide / wave and ensuing tsunami wipes out both Scott Station and the American McMurdo Station. The TV station records the moment:

Where Kate had stood to touch the map of Antarctica moments before, something hit the wall like an artillery round. It left a ragged hole through wall and map alike, framing an eerie light-show. A sheet of jewels flickered, glinting greens and blues, until a white mountain appeared and the screen went black.

Ross Ice Shelf 4

Ross Ice Shelf, Antartica

With astute prescience, Russell reveals humanity’s behaviour in the stress of such a momentous event: from scientists who understand the global significance of this rogue fragment to those who minimize its effect such as the media and tourist industry who wish to exploit this anomaly and self-centred politicians obsessed with protecting their status.

antarctic-glaciers

Antartica

 

snowball in senate

Senator Inhofe and infamous snow ball

My first thought was: he’s stereotyping a little. Then COVID-19 broke out to become a global pandemic. The reactions of scientists, media and certain politicians (e.g. the Trumps of the world) have played out with COVID-19 just as Russell had predicted with Fragment. Then again, good science fiction reaches deeply into a society’s core being, our motivations, fears and strengths; this is why science fiction is so eerily good at predicting. The best way to predict possibilities of the future is to understand the present and, as Russell demonstrates, science fiction writers are in touch with the zeitgeist of the world.

Reflecting the American government’s ridiculous denial of climate change, and calling to mind Republican Senator Inhofe’s snow ball in the senate scene, Russell’s character David Rookland (Washington’s Science Advisor) uses the glacier avalanche and fragment that he (purposely) misunderstands to illustrate with equal lack of logic the same misguided myth: “these theorists claim that around the world, glaciers have been receding. Thankfully, as you can see in the second photo, dear old Mother Nature has proven them wrong again.”

blue whale 2

Blue whale

 

Russell’s chapters devoted to the POV of character Ring, a young blue whale also fragmented from his pod, are particularly touching and powerful. Chased alternatively by Killer whales and human hunters, Ring must warn his kind of the danger posed by the fragment. In one chapter Ring observes that “there’s a special taste to the air here, a tang carried north from the twin Smoking Mountains, which send their steamy vapors into the sky forever.”

Russell then weaves an inspiring legend among the blues about a whale named Long-Throat and the “hard/noisy things” that came to hunt. Men slaughtered so many and scattered the pods in all directions. According to the legend of Long-Throat, the faint bitter smell of the Smoking Mountains brought the pods together again. This had been a time, thinks Ring, when the pods were not afraid to be different, or of new places and strange experiences. But no more. “The Slaughter scarred his race and young Blues are fed fear with their mother’s milk. Fear that never heals, never sleeps. Fight it though he may, that fear lives inside him too.” Ring hopes that, by facing this new fear of the fragment and its incredible power to devastate (any whale caught under its massive moving force will drown), “the old fear can be allowed to sink away.” His course is clear: he must compose a new song to warn other blues. Ring ends up doing far more than sound the warning of the moving behemoth to his people when he is discovered by an American nuclear missile submarine. What follows is what I think is the real story and its magic.

Ross Ice Shelf

Ross ice shelf, Antarctica

The book is appropriately titled Fragment because in some ways the fragment is a main character, carrying the theme. It is herald, harbinger, and misunderstood by many. Its power is greatly underestimated by others, and it is set apart from its fold to become something else. Like Ring and his people. Like humanity, even. Just as the Corona virus pandemic (currently ravaging the world as I write this article) promises to change every aspect of our world, so too does the fragment.

The fragment: “….Its northern rim is a world of chaos. Pack-ice, bulldozed by the Fragment, has been swept up into a bramble, miles deep, piled up and over itself in a frozen explosion. The corpses of countless penguins lie within, broken by the onslaught. Behind this jumble rises the Wall. A hundred metres above the water line and six hundred below, the Shelf is old, formed before Columbus stumbled his way across the Atlantic. In the Fragment’s back, imbedded like spears, are vast sections of the four glaciers. Byrd, Nimrod, Beardmore, and Shackleton. Truly ancient, each is a fortress, hard as granite, laminated layer upon layer over millennia…The creatures of the sea meet the wall in their millions. The air breathers, penguins, seals, dolphins, and so on, have no hope. They swim and die, exhausted and drowned. For many of the water breathers like fish and squid, the drop in temperature near the Fragment is too much…Some species of fish, well able to withstand the cold, succumb instead to the unfamiliar fresh water that has begun to pool around the Fragment.”–Craig Russell, Fragment

In a scene near the end of the book, which could be taken out of our current COVID-19 crisis, Russell describes how carefully considered warnings by scientists are downplayed as “alarmist” resulting in devastating inaction:

When Kate Sexsmith presents a possible scenario of the Fragment smashing into Europe, the Chairman of the European Fragment Conference counters with “in that highly unlikely event” all is under control by the world community. To this dangerous platitude, Sexsmith challenges (only to receive a mealy-mouthed double-speak reply):

“Respectfully, Mr. Chairman, [says Sexsmith] the world has faced plenty of hurricanes, tidal waves, and earthquakes. But we have no historical event to compare with the Fragment. And Europe isn’t the only place in danger. There are millions of people at risk on the Caribeean islands. Many are poorly educated and have no resources of their own. When do we mov them? How do we move them? Who is prepared to take them in? And based on Stanley [which was totally destroyed by the Fragment] who is prepared to take them in on a permanent basis?”

“We are not blind to these concerns, Doctor [says the chairman]. But we must take a balanced view. We cannot simply adopt an alarmist approach. Our scientific community’s reputation for sound council is too important to risk…”

But when great disaster strikes, all peoples (whales and humanity) come together in solidarity. With new humility, kindness and wisdom. I was astonished at the way Russell pulled things together toward a unique resolution. I give Craig Russell five stars for the courage to end his book the way he did. It was pure magic. The kind of magic we all want to see more of in this currently beleaguered, divisive and consumer-obsessed world.

Antarctica ice

Antartica

As Dutch trends forecaster Li Edelkoort said of COVID-19, the Fragment “might just turn the world around for the better [as] an amazing grace for the planet.”

Antarctica melting

Antarctica melting

 

Whales and Intelligence:

Scientists are still finding ways to assess “intelligence”, particularly in life that isn’t human. Whales have been shown to have emotional intelligence. They show signs of empathy, grief, joy, and playfulness. All of these learned behaviors, types of intelligence, and signs of teamwork have led scientists to think about groups of whales in new ways.

blue-whales-commercial-whaling-shipping-population-endangered-species-ocean-sea-whale-whaling-hunting-recovery

Blue whale

Most humans believe that our ability to communicate is far more complex and evolved than that of other animals, but cetaceans may be superior. According to a comparison of cetacean to primate brains from Michigan State University, “They have the distinct advantage over us in that their primary sense is the same as their primary means of communication, both are auditory. With primates, the primary sense is visual and the primary means of communication is auditory.” Communication is so great in cetaceans that there is a strong possibility they are able to literally project an “auditory image” that replicates a sonar message they may receive.  MSU describes it this way: “So a dolphin wishing to convey the image of a fish to another dolphin can literally send the image of a fish to the other animal. The equivalent of this in humans would be the ability to create instantaneous holographic pictures to convey images to other people.”

Specialized brain cells called spindle neurons are most often associated with an organism’s ability to “recognize, remember, reason, communicate, perceive, adapt to change, problem solve and understand.” Spindle neurons have been isolated in the brains of both whales and dolphins, which suggests that whales do a lot more thinking than previously thought. Dolphins, for example, have been known to recognize themselves in mirrors, solve problems, follow recipes, and associate a part of their anatomy with that of a human’s (such as when a dolphin waves it’s fin whenever a trainer waves their arm). Recent studies even indicate that dolphins are capable of creating personalized whistles that act as names for individual members of a pod. With this name, dolphins are able to communicate more efficiently while roaming the open seas.

mother calf humpback whale

Mother humpback and her calf

In a Scientific American article entitled “Are Whales Smarter Then We Are?” R. Douglas Fields writes: Logically, brain function and intelligence must relate to the number of neurons. Intelligence resides in the neocortex (the thin, convuluted “rind” of the brain) rather than in other, underlying areas devoted to controlling vital housekeeping functions for the body, so Eriksen and Pakkenberg focused their investigation there. The frontal lobes of the dolphin brain are comparatively smaller than in other mammals, but the researchers found that the neocortex of the Minke whale was surprisingly thick. The whale neocortex is thicker than that of other mammals and roughly equal to that of humans (2.63 mm). However, the layered structure of the whale neocortex is known to be simpler than that of humans and most other mammals. In particular, whales lack cortical layer IV, and thus have five neocortical layers to humankind’s six. This means that the wiring of connections into and out of the neocortex is much different in whales than in other mammals. The researchers’ cellular census revealed that the total number of neocortical neurons in the Minke whale was 12.8 billion. This is 13 times that of the rhesus monkey and 500 times more than rats, but only 2/3 that of the human neocortex. What can account for the fact that whales have bigger brains — and similarly thick neocortexes — but fewer neurons? Eriksen and Pakkenberg found that there were 98.2 billion non-neuronal cells, called glia, in the Minke whale neocortex. This is the highest number of glial cells in neocortex seen in any mammal studied to date. The ratio of neocortical glial cells to neocortical neurons is 7.7 to 1 in Minke whales and only 1.4 to 1 in humans. This finding may indicate a tendency for larger glia/neuron ratios as brain mass increases to support the growing neurons. But when one considers other recent research revealing that glia play an important role in information processing (see “The Other Half of the Brain,” fromn Sci. Am. April 2004), one is left to wonder. Is the whale brain intellectually weaker than the human brain, or just different? They have fewer neurons but more glia, and in traditional views of the glia, the neurons count for much more.

In her article in One Green Planet entitled “Whales and Dolphins Might Be The Smartest Animals”, Madison Montgomery leaves us a strong message and exhortation: “While it appears that cetaceans have incredible abilities to feel emotions, understand complex problems and communicate in ways we can’t even imagine, humans don’t seem to value this. Because we assume we are so smart, we put the other creatures of the world underneath us. Knowing how dynamic cetaceans are, keeping them in glorified bathtubs and forcing them to do tricks for food is insulting and cruel. Could you imagine the pain of living in a small room your entire life and having to do flips to be fed? Sounds like a miserable existence, doesn’t it?”

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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 Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

 

Windup Girl: When Monsanto Gets Its Way…

Windup GirlPaolo Bacigalupi’s 2015 biopunk science fiction novel The Windup Girl occurs in 23rd century post-food crash Thailand after global warming has raised sea levels and carbon fuel sources are depleted. Thailand struggles under the tyrannical boot of ag-biotech multinational giants such as AgriGen, RedStar, and PurCal—predatory companies who have fomented corruption and political strife through their plague-inducing and sterilizing genetic manipulations. The story’s premise could very easily be described as “what would happen if Monsanto got its way?”

Bacigalupi’s story opens in Bangkok, “City of Angels”, now below sea level and precariously protected by a giant sea wall and pumps that run on bio-power:

Windup Girl-closeIt’s difficult not to always be aware of those high walls and the pressure of the water beyond. Difficult not to think of the City of Divine Beings as anything other than a disaster waiting to happen. But the Thais are stubborn and have fought to keep their revered city of Krung Thep from drowning. With coal-burning pumps and leveed labor and a deep faith in the visionary leadership of their Chakri Dynasty they have so far kept at bay that thing which has swallowed New York and Rangoon, Mumbai and New Orleans.

Energy storage in this post-oil society is provided by manually-wound springs using cruelly mistreated genehacked megodonts—elephant-slave labor. Biotechnology dominates via international mega-corporations—called calorie companies—that control food production through genehacked seeds. The companies use bioterrorism and economic hitmen to secure markets for their products—just as Monsanto is currently doing. Plagues (some they created, others unintended mutations) have wiped out the natural seed stock, now virtually supplanted by genetically engineered sterile plants and mutant pests such as cibiscosis, blister rust, and genehack weevil. Thailand—one of the economically disadvantaged—has avoided economic subjugation by the foreign calorie companies through some ingenuity—a hidden seedbank of diverse natural seeds—and is now targeted by the agri-corporations.

julien-gauthier-bangkok

future Bangkok envisioned by Julien Gauthier

Bacigalupi’s opening entwines the clogged and crumbling city of Bangkok and its swarming beggars, slaves and laborers in a microcosm of a world spinning out of control:

Overhead, the towers of Bangkok’s old Expansion loom, robed in vines and mold, windows long ago blown out, great bones picked clean. Without air conditioning or elevators to make them habitable, they stand and blister in the sun. The black smoke of illegal dung fires wafts from their pores, marking where Malayan refugees hurriedly scald chapatis and boil kopi before the white shirts can storm the sweltering heights and beat them for their infringements.

Anderson Lake is a farang (of white race) who owns an AgriGen factory trying to mass-produce kink-springs—successors to the internal combustion engine) to store energy. The factory is in fact a cover for his real mission: to find and exploit the secret Thai seedbank with its wealth of genetic material. We later discover that Lake is an economic hitman and spy whose previous missions have destroyed entire countries for the sake of monopoly.

Emiko is an illegal Japanese “windup” (genetically modified human), owned by a Thai sex club owner, and treated as a sub-human slave. When she meets Lake, he cavalierly shares that a refuge in the remnant forests of northern Thailand exists for people like her (the “New People”); Emiko dreams of escaping her bonds to find her own people in the north. But like Bangkok itself, both protected and trapped by the wall against a sea poised to claim it—a bustling city of squalor caught up in the clash of new and old—Emiko cannot escape who and what she is: a gifted modified human—and possible herald of a sustainable future—vilified and feared by the very humanity that created her.

 

Bangkok-floating market

Bangkok’s floating market

Bangkok emerges as a central character in a story that explores the paradox of conflicting dialectics battling for survival in a violently changing world. Anyone who has spent time in Bangkok will recognize the connective tissue that holds together its crumbling remnants with ambitious chic. Just like the novel’s cheshires: genetically created “cats” (made by an agri-giant as a “toy”) that wiped out the regular cat Felis domesicus.

cheshire-cat

Cheshire Cat of “Alice in Wonderland”

Named after Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire Cat, these crafty creatures have adapted well to Bangkok’s unstable environment. The cheshires exemplify the cost of unintended consequence (a major theme in the novel); the cheshires also reflect the paradoxical nature of a shape-shifting city of Thais, Chinese and Malaya refuges who struggle to survive in a place that is both haven and danger:

Cheshire cat-disappearing

Cheshire cat disappearing

The flicker-shimmer shapes of cheshires twine, yowling and hoping for scraps … The old man’s flinch is as hallucinogenic as a cheshire’s fade—one moment there, the next gone and doubted … The devil cats flicker closer. Calico and ginger, black as night—all of them fading in and out of view as their bodies take on the colors of their surroundings.

Captain Jaidee Rojjanasukchai is a righteous white shirt—the strong arm of the Ministry of the Environment. He is a faithful Thai Buddhist, whose only weakness is his sense of invincibility borne from a mistaken sense of government integrity. Revered by fellow white shirts as the “Tiger of Bangkok,” he is incorruptible—we find out that he may be the only person in the entire place who refuses to be swayed by bribes. A true and passionate believer in the cause he is fighting for—the very survival of the environment and his people by association—Jaidee is ruthless in his raids and attacks on those who wish to open the markets of globalization and potential contamination. Early in the novel, Jaidee reflects on humanity’s impact on the ecological cycle:

All life produces waste. The act of living produces costs, hazards, and disposal questions, and so the Ministry has found itself in the centre of all life, mitigating, guiding and policing the detritus of the average person along with investigating the infractions of the greedy and short-sighted, the ones who wish to make quick profits and trade on others’ lives for it.

Bacigalupi astutely identifies the tenuous role of any government’s environment ministry—to protect and champion the environment—within a government that values its economy more highly and when, in fact, most of the time its members operate quietly in the pocket of short-sighted politicians and business men who focus myopically on short-term gain. “The symbol for the Environment Ministry is the eye of the tortoise, for the long view—the understanding that nothing comes cheap or quickly without a hidden cost,” Jaidee thinks. The United States EPA is a prime example of such paradox—in which the agency’s top executive is in fact a former industrialist who lobbied for deregulation. The current EPA no longer fulfills its role as guardian of the environment. In Canada, I have witnessed terrible conflict between one ministry with another in a game of greed vs. protection. Bacigalupi showcases this diametric with his characters Pracha (Environment) and Akkarat (Trade).

Abandoned Shopping Mall now Koi Pond

Abandoned supermarket now a giant koi pond, Bangkok

The rivalry between Thailand’s Minister of Trade and Minister of the Environment represent the central conflict of the novel, reflecting the current conflict of neo-liberal promotion of globalization and its senseless exploitation (Akkarat) with the forces of sustainability, fierce environmental protection and (in some cases) isolationism (Pracha). Given the setting and the two men vying for power, both scenarios are extreme and there appears no middle ground for a balanced existence using responsible and sustainable means. Emiko, who represents a possible future, is precariously poised; Jaidee, the single individual who refuses to succumb to the bribes of a dying civilization—is sacrificed: just as integrity and righteousness are violently destroyed when chaos threatens and engulfs.

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“Windup Girl” Bangkok dam

Various reviewers of the novel identify the gaijin (foreigner) Anderson Lake as the closest thing to a protagonist. In fact, Lake never manages to rise from his avatar as the human face to the behemoth of ruthless globalization, the face of a Monsanto-look-alike. He is an unsympathetic and weak character, who—despite showing some feelings for the windup girl—connives and lacks human compassion to the end. Not a protagonist. During a meeting with the Minister of Trade, in which Lake hubristically offers “aid”, Akkarat confronts Lake on the destruction of his greedy corporation: “Ever since your first missionaries landed on our shores, you have always sought to destroy us. During the old Expansion your kind tried to take every part of us. Chopping off the arms and legs of our country…With the Contraction, your worshipped global economy left us starving and over-specialized. And then your calorie plagues came.” Lake shrugs this off and continues his aggressive exchange with the minister—sealing his fate beneath Nature’s relentless tsunami.

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Twug tank, imagined by Rob Davies

Jaidee—who is brutally killed on page 197 of the novel with another 200 pages to go—remains Bacigalupi’s only character of agency worth following. The Tiger of Bangkok represents the Ministry of Environment’s hard policy of environmental protection—the only thing that kept Thailand from falling to the global mega-corporation’s plagues. With Jaidee’s demise, we tumble in free fall into a “Game of Thrones” miasma of “who goes next—I don’t care.” While I continued to read, it was more from post-traumatic shock than from eager interest. It was as though I’d lost a good friend—my safety anchor in a horrid place—and was now set adrift. I drifted, alone, amid the remaining characters—each pathetic in their own way—on a slow slide into the wrathful hell of a vengeful Nature. I found myself rooting for the cheshires and windups, experiments-turned victims-turned adapted survivors of a vast unintended consequence in human greed.

Perhaps that is what Bacigalupi intended.

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Concept of megadonts in “Windup Girl”

And yet, there is unsmiling monosyllabic Kanya, Jaidee’s not-so-pure lieutenant, now promoted to his position and eager to atone for her former betrayal—we learn that she was planted as a Trade mole in Environment. Struggling to do the right thing after Jaidee’s murder, Kanya emerges as the true protagonist in the novel. As we learn more of her unfortunate history and gain a clear understanding of her complex motivations (we get no such insight into Lake), Kanya’s journey unfolds through heartbreak and redemption. Kanya picks up Jaidee’s spirit—literally—and, accompanied by his phii (his ghost), tries to settle the warring factions to gain peace for a rioting city. Of course, it doesn’t work and the gaiji devils return in full force as Akkarat hands over Thailand and its precious seedbank to the American corporations.

Happy with Akkarat’s coup, corporate mogul Carlyle says to Lake: “The first thing we do is go find some whiskey and a rooftop, and watch the damn sun rise over the country we just bought.”

Instructed to take the AgriGen gaigi to the vault and hand over the seedbank to them, “Kanya studies the people who used to be called calorie demons and who now walk so brazenly in Krung Thep, the City of Divine Beings.” Jeering and laughing with no respect, the gaiji behave like they own the place. In a sudden moment of clarity—inspired by Jaidee’s phii—Kanya then singlehandedly creates her own coup by executing the AgriGen gaigi and instructing the monks to dispatch Thailand’s precious seedbank safely to the jungle wilderness. Husked of its precious treasure, the city implodes.  Floodwater pumps and locks fail to sabotage. Then the monsoons arrive. The City of Angels gives in to the sea that chases refugees into the genehack-destroyed outer forests.

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Paolo Bacigalupi

While Kanya triumphs in her own personal battle, she remains less agent of change than feckless witness to Nature’s powerful force as it unfurls like a giant cheshire and sends dominoes crashing into one another.

Fittingly, Bacigalupi’s Epilogue belongs to the windup girl and the cheshires. And an uncertain future with promise of change.

And that is certainly what Bacigalupi intended.

 

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Bangkok sunset by Julien Gauthier

 

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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 Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

 

Audiobook Blog Tour of The Splintered Universe Trilogy: Book 3 “Metaverse”

We continue our Audiobook series blog tour with Book 3 “Metaverse” of Nina Munteanu’s “The Splintered Universe Trilogy,” a science fiction detective adventure, starring the indomitable Galactic Guardian, Rhea Hawke.

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“Dawn Harvey breathed incredible life into the lead character, Rhea Hawke–both sarcastic and vulnerable at the same time; a detective with a cynical edge, and sultry voice tinged with wiry sarcasm. The story unfolded through Rhea’s narrative like an old film noir as she unraveled mysteries that led to the greatest one: her own.”–Amazon Review

Book 1, Outer Diverse: January 8-14
Book 2, Inner Diverse: January 15-21
Book 3, Metaverse: January 21-28

The tour with blog sites includes spotlights, reviews, audio excerpts, Rhea’s proverbs, character profiles, guest posts, interviews of author, narrator (and character Rhea Hawke!)

Join the third part of the audiobook tour with “Metaverse“, the last book of the trilogy.

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In Metaverse (Book Three) the scintillating conclusion of the Splintered Universe Trilogy, Rhea Hawke travels back to Earth, hoping to convince an eccentric mystic to help her defend humanity from an impending Vos attack–only to find herself trapped in a deception that promises to change her and her two worlds forever.

 

“An action packed adventure! I really enjoyed the narration by Harvey for this second book. She has a large cast of characters to portray and she did them all excellently! I felt like each was easily distinguishable and had their own quirks. The story … had a great amount of action to keep me interested the whole time. I feel like I truly understand more about this crazy and exciting world. I can’t wait to see how this all ends up, but I’m now 100% invested in Reah and her companions! ”–The Book Addict 

TOUR SCHEDULE for METAVERSE

Follow the itinerary for “METAVERSE“, Book 3 of the trilogy (Jan 22-28):

Jan. 22nd:
Assorted Nonsense (Spotlight + Audio Excerpt, Rhea’s Proverbs)

Jan. 23rd:
Lilly’s Book World (Review, Spotlight + Audio Excerpt)

Jan. 24th:
Book Addict (Review, Spotlight + Audio Excerpt, Interview with Rhea Hawke, Rhea’s lexicon Giveaway)

Jan. 25th:
Dab of Darkness Book Reviews (Review, Interview with Rhea Hawke, Splintered Universe Lexicon)

Jan. 26th:
Jazzy Book Reviews (Spotlight + Audio Excerpt, Rhea’s lexicon, Giveaway)

Jan. 27th:
The Book Addict’s Reviews (Audio Excerpt, Character Interview, Rhea’s lexicon)

Jan. 28th:
Chapter Break (Spotlight + Audio Excerpt, Character Interview)

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“A master of metaphor, Munteanu turns an adventure story into a wonderland of alien rabbit holes… a fascinating and enthralling read.” (Craig Bowlsby, author of Commander’s Log)

“A rollicking science fiction plot with all the trappings…Hawke is a maverick in the wild west tradition…a genetic mystery with lethal powers.” (Lynda Williams, author of Okal Rel series)

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What a rollicking tour it’s been! If you missed any of it, just go back to the previous posts here to find the archived blog posts of the tour.

RecipeArium Delivers a Full Course Thrill

recipearium-costi gurguIn the Green Kingdom, stimulation through the sense of taste has become a powerful and complex art form that rules the lives of the males—the phrils. Not only does it bring pleasure, it can change a phril’s destiny, even guide him into death and beyond. But only if he can afford the services of the artists called Recipears. Without a Recipear, a phril will live and die a pagan, with no chance of an afterlife. The female of the species, called phriliras, cannot experience RecipeArium; they replace it with their faith in one God with changing names. In the world within the huge body of a monstrous beast, the Recipears rule society.

RecipeArium is a tale of sensation and flesh, in which the very hope of an afterlife is determined by one’s sex. The novel takes us on a journey to discover the meaning of love in a boldly imagined world where art is transformative and immortality the destiny of the few.

Carrying the soul of his RecipeArium master within him, Morminiu comes to the royal Court with two objectives: to exact revenge on his master’s enemies and to win for himself the most desired and treacherous position in the realm: Master Recipear of the Kingdom.

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Costi Gurgu, launching at Pierre Leon Gallery

My own testimonial of the book follows:

Gurgu delivers a full course meal of epic transcendence in an alien landscape that is at once grotesque and wondrously compelling.

From the vast and forgotten lands of the Edge of the World to the corrupt decadence and intrigue of the nobility who dwell inside the monstrous Carami, Gurgu’s Recipearium unveils a fascinating world in transformation. Recipearium is a sensual metaphoric tale that explores the dialectic quest of duality to realize itself as whole.

Imaginative. Outrageous. Original.

Gurgu subverts traditional fantasy and SF with the promise of new heights in storytelling.

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Costi Gurgy signing his book at launch in Pierre Leon Gallery

The publisher, White Cat Publishers interviewed Costi recently; a few choice questions and answers appear below:

Regarding his aspirations for the book, Costi responded:

First of all, this new release will bring Recipearium to the English speaking market, which is quite a big aspiration in itself. And through Recipearium I hope to open the hearts of North American readers to the rest of my fiction as well as to Romanian Speculative Fiction in general.

To their mention that RecipeArium is considered the “new weird” (even in science RecipeArium launchADASTRAfiction, which is itself considered strange), Costi responded:

Several publishers told me that they hadn’t read anything like it, and therefore they couldn’t compare it to any other book. Yes, at first I wanted to thank them because they practically told me it really was an original novel, but only later I realized that they meant they wouldn’t know how to market it and sell it. They didn’t even know if it would sell, because nobody has sold something similar before.

When I signed the contract in Romania, my Romanian publisher also didn’t know how to market it. So, my editor decided to write and talk about it like any other book and completely ignored that one thing that made it different. He hoped that when the readers discovered it, they would already be hooked and therefore it would be too late for them to freeze in awe. J

It paid off. The story proved a success. Not only because of the awards and the numerous reviews but mostly because of the satisfied readers … So, as a conclusion, I won’t tell you what makes it different from the rest. I want my readers to discover it for themselves. And I promise you it’s not the kind of surprise that goes BANG! It creeps on you slowly.

White Cat then asked Costi to elaborate on his earlier comment about the difference between European and American genre writing. Here’s what Costi said:

Sure. In my opinion there are two major differences. The first one is of perception. In Europe we read fiction works by writers from over seventy countries from all around the world. That is over seventy different cultures in which their authors write stories without worrying that maybe a foreign reader would not understand a certain social, political or cultural event, or a certain attitude, habit or tradition.

Yes, maybe the South American characters act according to a different code of social conduct than Romanians, or maybe French characters’ attitude is strange for a Bulgarian reader, or Chinese motivations are weird to Greeks. But if the story or the characters are gripping enough, all those things don’t stop us from getting the underlying concept from the context and we just keep reading.

The stories we read can take place in real cities or villages from different and unfamiliar parts of the world. Usually the European writer doesn’t care that his readers may have never been in his city and he keeps telling the story as if all his readers are his co-nationals, or even his neighbours.

poster-launchWe embrace the exotic, the foreign, the strange, the unknown… the alien.

American editors have rejected translating huge names from European speculative fiction because they’re considered too strange and not easily understood by North American readers. Because the North American readership has read only North American genre writers for the past fifty years and they wouldn’t accept something different than an American way of perceiving reality and interpreting information. Something that may be too far from the North American system of values.

“But they’re readers of Science Fiction! I mean, they read Science Fiction or Fantasy because they want to be transported to different worlds. You mean that the American readers better understand a story happening on a strange planet or in the underworld, but they will find it difficult to follow a story happening in Bruges, or Warsaw?” I replied.

North American editors don’t appear to have that confidence in their readers. I, on the other hand, have that confidence. It has been proven to me over and over again, that the true SF&F reader, European or North American, is thirsty for new and exotic, and strange, and alien.

The second aspect is technical. It’s about the writing techniques, the story structure, the point of view approach, and so on. It’s an aspect I will not detail here. Suffice to say that while in North America a writer is supposed to write according to a certain and more strict system of technical rules if she’s to be accepted by professional markets, in Europe the editors don’t care if the writer abides by the rules or breaks them, as long as it’s good writing and the readers want more of that author.

 

 

Atwood, Water & The New York Times

“Water Is…” leads Atwood’s Pick for Books of 2016

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ny-times-theyearinreaingEvery year, near Christmas, The New York Times puts out “The Year in Reading” in which they ask notably avid readers—who also happen to be poets, musicians, diplomats, filmmakers, novelists, actors and artists—to share the books that accompanied them through that year.

For the 2016 Year In Reading, The Times asked a prestigious and diverse readership, including Junot Diaz, Paul Simon, Carl Bernstein, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elizabeth Banks, Samantha Power, Philip Pullman, Ann Pratchett, Orhan Pamuk, Drew Gilpin Fause, Anne Tyler, and many others to share their books of 2016.

There was also Booker Prize-winning and celebrated Canadian author and poet Margaret Atwood.

atwood-margaretMargaret Atwood is a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature as well as the Booker Prize (several times) and the Governor General’s Award. Animals and the environment feature in many of her books, particularly her speculative fiction, which reflects a strong view on environmental issues.atwood-angel-catbird

Several of her latest works (e.g., Oryx and Crake, Year of the Flood, MaddAddam) are eco-fiction and may be considered climate fiction. Atwood and partner, novelist Graeme Gibson, are the joint honorary presidents of the Rare Bird Club within BirdLife International. Atwood’s highly popular graphic novel Angel Catbird reflects an environmental sensitivity to the balance between wildlife and humans and their pets in urban settings.

Atwood’s choice for 2016 books came from her active, astute and compassionate environmentalism. Suggesting that many of her ‘The Year in Reading’ co-readers would emphasize fiction, history and politics, Atwood chose her books “instead from a still-neglected sector. All hail, elemental spirits! You’re making a comeback!”

Here are the four books Atwood recommends and why:

  1. water-is-cover-webWater Is…: The Meaning of Water” (Pixl Press) by Nina Munteanu. “We can’t live without it, so maybe we should start respecting it,” says Atwood. “This beautifully designed book by a limnologist looks at water from 12 different angles, from life and motion and vibration to beauty and prayer.” Water is emerging as one of the single most important resources of Planet Earth. Already scarce in some areas, it has become the new “gold” to be bought, traded, coveted, cherished, hoarded, and abused worldwide. It is currently traded on the Stock Exchange…Some see water as a commodity like everything else that can make them rich; they will claim it as their own to sell. Yet it cannot be “owned” or kept. Ultimately, water will do its job to energize you and give you life then quietly take its leave; it will move mountains particle by particle with a subtle hand; it will paint the world with beauty then return to its fold and rejoice; it will travel through the universe and transform worlds; it will transcend time and space to share and teach.
  1. hiddenlifeoftreesThe Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries From a Secret World” (Greystone Books) by Peter Wohlleben. In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben shares his deep love of woods and forests and explains the amazing processes of life, death, and regeneration he has observed in the woodland and the amazing scientific processes behind the wonders of which we are blissfully unaware. Much like human families, tree parents live together with their children, communicate with them, and support them as they grow, sharing nutrients with those who are sick or struggling and creating an ecosystem that mitigates the impact of extremes of heat and cold for the whole group. As a result of such interactions, trees in a family or community are protected and can live to be very old. In contrast, solitary trees, like street kids, have a tough time of it and in most cases die much earlier than those in a group. Drawing on groundbreaking new discoveries, Wohlleben presents the science behind the secret and previously unknown life of trees and their communication abilities; he describes how these discoveries have informed his own practices in the forest around him. As he says, a happy forest is a healthy forest, and he believes that eco-friendly practices not only are economically sustainable but also benefit the health of our planet and the mental and physical health of all who live on Earth.
  1. weeds-mabeyWeeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants” (Ecco) by Richard Mabey. “They’re better for you than you think,” says Atwood. “They hold the waste spaces of the world in place, and you can eat some of them.” Ever since the first human settlements 10,000 years ago, weeds have dogged our footsteps. They are there as the punishment of ‘thorns and thistles’ in Genesis and , two millennia later, as a symbol of Flanders Field. They are civilisations’ familiars, invading farmland and building-sites, war-zones and flower-beds across the globe. Yet living so intimately with us, they have been a blessing too. Weeds were the first crops, the first medicines. Burdock was the inspiration for Velcro. Cow parsley has become the fashionable adornment of Spring weddings. Weaving together the insights of botanists, gardeners, artists and poets with his own life-long fascination, Richard Mabey examines how we have tried to define them, explain their persistence, and draw moral lessons from them. One persons weed is another’s wild beauty.
  1. birds-and-peopleBirds and People” (Jonathan Cape) by Mark Cocker. “Vast, historical, contemporary, many-levelled,” says Atwood. “We’ve been inseparable from birds for millenniums. They’re crucial to our imaginative life and our human heritage, and part of our economic realities.” Vast in both scope and scale, the book draws upon Mark Cocker’s forty years of observing and thinking about birds. Part natural history and part cultural study, it describes and maps the entire spectrum of our engagements with birds, drawing in themes of history, literature, art, cuisine, language, lore, politics and the environment. In the end, this is a book as much about us as it is about birds.

“Time to pay attention to the nonhuman life around us, without which human life would fail,” Atwood concludes.

As we enter a new year of great uncertainty, particularly on how we and our environment will fare in a shifting political wind, these books offer diverse insight, a fresh and needed perspective and critical connection with our natural world–and each other through it.

Buy them, discuss them, share them. And save this planet.

Happy New Year!

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Jungfrau, Switzerland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. 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.

Flight Behavior

In a world that’s quickly heating up and drying up, you can’t go home again—even if you never leave—Clive Thompson

 

flightbehaviourBarbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel Flight Behavior was, according to The Globe and Mail, the first novel that dealt “specifically, determinedly and overtly with climate change. And “only Kingsolver could pull it off,” they add.

The premise of climate change and its affect on the monarch butterfly migration is told through the eyes of Dellarobia Turnbow, a rural housewife, who yearns for meaning in her life.

The book starts with her scrambling up the forested mountain—slated to be clear cut—behind her eastern Tennessee farmhouse; she is desperate to take flight from her dull and pointless marriage of myopic routine. The first line of Kingsolver’s book reads: “A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture.” Dellarobia thinks she’s about to throw away her ordinary life by running away with the telephone man. But the rapture she’s about to experience is not from the thrill of truancy; it will come from the intervention of Nature:monarch butterfly-migrating

A small shift between cloud and sun altered the daylight, and the whole landscape intensified, brightening before her eyes. The forest blazed with its own internal flame. “Jesus,” she said, not calling for help, she and Jesus weren’t that close, but putting her voice in the world because nothing else present made sense…The mountain seemed to explode with light. Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave. Like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange blaze. “Jesus God,” she said again…Trees turned to fire…The flame now appeared to lift from individual treetops in shows of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it’s poked. The sparks spiraled upwards in swirls like funnel clouds….It was a lake of fire, something far more fierce and wondrous than either of those elements alone. The impossible…She was on her own here, staring at glowing trees. Fascination curled itself around her fright. This was no forest fire. She was pressed by the quiet elation of escape and knowing better and seeing straight through to the back of herself, in solitude. She couldn’t remember when she’d had such room for being. This was not just another fake thing in her life’s cheap chain of events, leading up to this day of sneaking around in someone’s thrown-away boots. Here that ended. Unearthly beauty had appeared to her, a vision of glory to stop her in the road. For her alone these orange boughs lifted, these long shadows became brightness rising. It looked like the inside of joy, if a person could see that. A valley of lights, and ethereal wind.

It had to mean something.

Although Dellarobia doesn’t realize it yet, that moment proves life-changing for her: no longer “watching a nearly touchable lover behind her eyelids but now seeing flame in patterns that swirled and rippled. A lake of fire.” That day, she participates in the sheep shearing, greatly distracted from a new awakening to the power and wisdom of Nature:

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus). Monarch Butterflies cluste

Monarch butterfly

“Watch and learn, Dellarobia thought, feeling an unaccustomed sympathy for the animals, whose dumb helplessness generally aggrieved her. Today they struck her as cannier than the people. If the forest behind them burned, these sheep would come to terms with their fate in no time flat. Flee or cower, they’d make their best call and fill up their bellies with grass to hedge their bets. In every way more realistic about their circumstances. And the border collies too. They would watch, ears up, forepaws planted, patiently bearing with the mess made by undisciplined humans as the world fell down around them.”

Entomologist Ovid Byron (in response to a reporter’s suggestion that scientists disagree about whether it’s happening and whether humans have a role) talks about the tipping point we’ve ignorantly raced past: “The Arctic is genuinely collapsing. Scientists used to call these things the canary in the mine. What they say now is, the canary is dead. We are at the top of Niagara Falls… in a canoe. There is an image for your viewers. We got here by drifting, but we cannot turn around for a lazy paddle back when you finally stop pissing around. We have arrived at the point of an audible roar. Does it strike you as a good time to debate the existence of the falls?” Ovid (really Kingsolver) effectively reiterates what most scientists know: that we have already crossed the tipping point of no return. There is no point in looking back to restore what we are losing; there is only the option of looking forward to adapt—and assist—as best we can.

Climate change—and all that is associated with it—is altering our planet irreparably, one sure-footed step at a time. The irony is that, as audible a roar climate change is for scientists like Ovid, to most of us climate change whispers insidious notes too subtle for us to comprehend or care about.

How does one grasp the gravity of a few degrees difference in temperature? The subtle rise in sea level? The almost imperceptible shift in the migratory pattern of a bird? When we are already so disconnected from Nature and lack the sensibilities—and compassion—to recognize and empathize with her trials and tribulations. Kingsolver suggests—quite accurately, I think—that only scientists can truly appreciate the portent of these subtle changes because it speaks in a language only they can understand.monarch copy

Flight Behavior resonated with Kristen Poppleton, climate change educator, who shared that Kingsolver was spot on in her “description of the grief and sensation of loss most of us in this business of climate change education, communication and science carry around daily.” This type of grief is so prevalent, in fact, that it has a name: solastalgia. Poppleton empathized with scientist Ovid’s grief as Kingsolver writes, “The one thing most beloved to him was dying.  Not a death in the family…but maybe as serious as that.  He’d chased this life for all his years; it had brought him this distance…Now began the steps of grief.  It would pass through this world…while most people paid no attention.”

Flight Behavior isn’t so much about climate change and its effects and its continued denial as it is about our perceptions and the actions that rise from them: the motives that drive denial and belief. This is no more apparent than in Kingsolver’s use of biblical references of fire and flood. Both water and flame are potent cleansing agents. They evoke powerful change. They represent givers—and takers—of life. Together, fire and water frame Kingsolver’s book with a strong metaphoric beginning and end that embrace creative destruction.

monarch-butterfly-migrationKathleen Byrne of The Globe and Mail writes: “We begin in flames and end in flood, which suits the biblical (and scientific) parameters of a novel whose setting in Tennessee’s Appalachian mountains is the nexus of a God-fearing religious literalism and an untaught but unbudging righteousness that finds expression in the view that “weather is the Lord’s business.”

When Dellarobia questions Cub, her farmer husband, “Why would we believe Johnny Midgeon about something scientific, and not the scientists?” he responds, “Johnny Midgeon gives the weather report.” Kingsolver writes:  “and Dellarobia saw her life pass before her eyes, contained in the small enclosure of this logic.” Because Johnny told me

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Mammatous clouds, Wyoming (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Ovid shares with Dellarobia a terrible insight about science and our perceptions of scientists:

“There are always more questions. Science as a process is never complete. It is not a foot race, with a finish line…. People will always be waiting at a particular finish line: journalists with their cameras, impatient crowds eager to call the race, astounded to see the scientists approach, pass the mark, and keep running. It’s a common misunderstanding, [Ovid] said. They conclude there was no race. As long as we won’t commit to knowing everything, the presumption is we know nothing.”

The grief that Poppleton feels, voiced by Kingsolver through her character Ovid, is really a grief for us, for the “home” we grew up in and love. The world we made. Near the end of Kingsolver’s book, Dellarobia makes this observation: “Mistakes wreck your life. But they make what you have. It’s kind of all one…it’s no good to complain about your flock, because it’s the put-together of all your past choices.”

Male_monarch_butterfly-buddleiaWe—humanity—may not be around here for much longer. Nature will endure without us. Planet Earth will continue, in some form and Nature and life will endure, evolve, and flourish—in its own way. It will change, perhaps grow more unruly than it is already, but Gaia will continue after she has kicked us off. Ecologists have long recognized the pattern of colonization, exploitation, decadence and succession. How hubristic of humanity not to include itself in that cycle. The cycle of continuing change. We grasp—we clamor—for the world we knew—even as we senselessly impose irreparable change. Shaving forests to the ground so water has no where else to go but down and in a torrent. Creating hot deserts by diverting great rivers somewhere else. Mining vast oil and mineral reserves by scraping the earth until it “bleeds” from unhealable wounds.

Evolution and Nature march on, greater than us, encompassing us—whether we recognize it or not—and in ways we can’t imagine (and science is only beginning to discover).  Our vast Universe is so much more than we are capable of even imagining.

Flight Behavior is a multi-layered metaphoric study of “flight” in all its iterations: as movement, flow, change, transition, beauty and transcendence.

Kingsolver ends her book with Dellarobia caught in a mountain flood that may take her

kingsolver-barbara-ap1credit-david-wood

Barbara Kingsolver

life; yet, she remains suspended—transfixed in the moment of the miracle unfolding before her. The monarchs survived the winter and are taking flight:

“The vivid blur of their reflections glowed on the rumpled surface of the water, not clearly defined as individual butterflies but as masses of pooled, streaky color, like the sheen of floating oil, only brighter, like a lava flow. That many.

She was wary of taking her eyes very far from her footing, but now she did that, lifted her sights straight up to watch them passing overhead. Not just a few, but throngs, an airborne zootic force flying out in formation, as if to war…Her eyes held steady on the fire bursts of wings reflected across the water, a merging of flame and flood. Above the lake of the world, flanked by white mountains, they flew out to a new earth.”

And a new earth is what we can be sure of. Whether we’ll be there is debatable—unless we too change.

 

Nina MunteanuNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. 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. Read Nina’s climate/eco-fiction Darwin’s Paradox, Angel of Chaos and Natural Selection.