The Ecology of Story: Revealing Hidden Characters of the Forest

 Story is place, and place is character—Nina Munteanu

EcologyOfStory coverI remember a wonderful conversation I had several years ago at a conference with another science fiction writer on weird and wonderful protagonists and antagonists. Derek knew me as an ecologist—in fact I’d been invited to do a lecture at that conference entitled “The Ecology of Story” (also the name of my writing guidebook on treating setting and place as a character). We discussed the role that ecology plays in creating setting that resonates with theme and how to provide characters enlivened with metaphor.

Derek was fascinated by saprotrophs and their qualities. Saprotrophs take their nutrition from dead and decaying matter such as decaying pieces of plants or animals by dissolving them and absorbing the energy through their body surface. They accomplish this by secreting digestive enzymes into the dead/decaying matter to absorb the soluble organic nutrients. The process—called lysotrophic nutrition—occurs through microscopic lysis of detritus. Examples of saprotrophs include mushrooms, slime mold, and bacteria.

Recipearium CostiGurguI recall Derek’s eagerness to create a story that involved characters who demonstrate saprotrophic traits or even were genuine saprotrophs (in science fiction you can do that—it’s not hard. Check out Costi Gurgu’s astonishing novel Recipearium for a thrilling example). I wonder if Derek fulfilled his imagination.

I think of what Derek said, as I walk in my favourite woodland. It is early spring and the river that had swollen with snow melt just a week before, now flows with more restraint. I can see the cobbles and clay of scoured banks under the water. Further on, part of the path along the river has collapsed from a major bank scour the previous week. The little river is rather big and capricious, I ponder; then I consider that the entire forest sways to similar vagaries of wind, season, precipitation and unforeseen events. Despite its steadfast appearance the forest flows—like the river—in a constant state of flux and change, cycling irrevocably through life and death.

Cedar trunk base

Cedar tree (photo by Nina Munteanu)

As I’m writing this, the entire world struggles with life and death in the deep throws of a viral pandemic. COVID-19 has sent many cities into severe lock down to prevent viral spread in a life and death conflict. I’ve left the city and I’m walking in a quiet forest in southern Ontario in early spring. The forest is also experiencing life and death. But here, this intricate dance has seamlessly partnered death and decay with the living being of the forest. Without the firm embrace of death and decay, life cannot dance. In fact, life would be impossible. What strikes me here in the forest is how the two dance so well.

cedar log patterns2 copy

Cedar log, patterns in sapwood (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I walk slowly, eyes cast to the forest floor to the thick layer of dead leaves, and discover seeds and nuts—the promise of new life. I aim my gaze past trees and shrubs to the nearby snags and fallen logs. I’m looking for hidden gifts. One fallen cedar log reveals swirling impressionistic patterns of wood grain, dusted with moss and lichen. Nature’s death clothed in beauty.

The bark of a large pine tree that has fallen is riddled with tiny beetle holes drilled into its bark. Where the bark has sloughed off, a gallery of larval tracks in the sapwood create a map of meandering texture, form and colour.

Beetle bore holes pine log

White pine bark scales with tiny beetle bore holes (photo by Nina Munteanu)

larval tracks in pine wood

Beetle larval tracks in pine sapwood (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nearby, another giant pine stands tall in the forest. Its roughly chiselled bark is dusted in lichens, moss and fungus. The broad thick ridges of the bark seem arranged like in a jigsaw puzzle with scales that resemble metal plates. They form a colourful layered mosaic of copper to gray and greenish-gray. At the base of the tree, I notice that some critter has burrowed a home in a notch between two of the pine’s feet. Then just around the corner, at the base of a cedar, I spot several half-eaten black walnuts strewn in a pile—no doubt brought and left there by some hungry and industrious squirrel who prefers to dine here.

The forest is littered with snags and fallen trees in different stages of breakdown, decomposition and decay. I spot several large cedar, pine, oak and maple snags with woodpecker holes. The snags may remain for many decades before finally falling to the ground.

Fallen Heroes, Mother Archetypes & Saprophyte Characters

WoodpeckerHole on cedar

Woodpecker hole in a snag (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The forest ecosystem supports a diverse community of organisms in various stages of life and death and decay. Trees lie at the heart of this ecosystem, supporting a complex and dynamic cycle of evolving life. Even in death, the trees continue to support thriving detrivore and saprophytic communities that, in turn, provide nutrients and soil for the next generation of living trees. It’s a partnership.

Decomposition and decay are the yin to the yang of growth, writes Trees for Life; and together they form two halves of the whole that is the closed-loop cycle of natural ecosystems.

Snags and rotting logs on the forest floor provide damp shelter and food for many plants and animals. Most are decomposers, including earthworms, fungi, and bacteria. As the wood decays, nutrients in the log break down and recycle in the forest ecosystem. Insects, mosses, lichens, and ferns recycle the nutrients and put them back into the soil for other forest plants to use. Dead wood is an important reservoir of organic matter in forests and a source of soil formation. Decaying and dead wood host diverse communities of bacteria and fungi.

TurkeyTail fungus on tree-LR

Turkey tail fungus, Little Rouge woodland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Mother Archetypes

Wood tissues of tree stems include the outer bark, cork cambium, inner bark (phloem), vascular cambium, outer xylem (living sapwood), and the inner xylem (non-living heartwood). The outer bark provides a non-living barrier between the inner tree and harmful factors in the environment, such as fire, insects, and diseases. The cork cambium (phellogen) produces bark cells. The vascular cambium produces both the phloem cells (principal food-conducting tissue) and xylem cells of the sapwood (the main water storage and conducting tissue) and heartwood.

stages of tree life

Forest ecologists defined five broad stages in tree decay, shown by the condition of the bark and wood and presence of insects and other animals. The first two stages evolve rapidly; much more time elapses in the later stages, when the tree sags to the ground. These latter stages can take decades for the tree to break down completely and surrender all of itself back to the forest. A fallen tree nurtures, much like a “mother” archetype; it provides food, shelter, and protection to a vast community—from bears and small mammals to salamanders, invertebrates, fungus, moss and lichens. This is why fallen trees are called “nursing logs.”

uprooted stump carbon cushion fungus

Uprooted tree covered in fungi, lichen and moss (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

Heralds, Tricksters and Enablers

rotting maple log2

Rotting maple log (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I stop to inspect another fallen tree lying on a bed of decaying maple, beech and oak leaves. When a fallen tree decomposes, unique new habitats are created within its body as the outer and inner bark, sapwood, and heartwood decompose at different rates, based in part on their characteristics for fine dining. For instance, the outer layers of the tree are rich in protein; inner layers are high in carbohydrates. This log—probably a sugar maple judging from what bark is left—has surrendered itself with the help of detrivores and saprophytes to decomposition and decay. The outer bark has mostly rotted and fallen away revealing an inner sapwood layer rich in varied colours, textures and incredible patterns—mostly from fungal infestations. In fact, this tree is a rich ecosystem for dozens of organisms. Wood-boring beetle larvae tunnel through the bark and wood, building their chambers and inoculating the tree with microbes. They open the tree to colonization by other microbes and small invertebrates. Slime molds, lichen, moss and fungi join in. The march of decay follows a succession of steps. Even fungi are followed by yet other fungi in the process as one form creates the right condition for another form.

rotting maple log

Rotting maple log, covered in carbon cushion fungus (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Most hardwoods take several decades to decompose and surrender all of themselves back to the forest. In western Canada in the westcoast old growth forest, trees like cedars can take over a hundred years to decay once they’re down. The maple log I’m studying in this Carolinian forest looks like it’s been lying on the ground for a while, certainly several years. The bark has fragmented and mostly fallen away, revealing layers of sapwood in differing stages of infestation and decay. Some sapwood is fragmented and cracked into blocks and in places looks like stacked bones.

Black lines as though drawn by a child’s paintbrush flow through much of the sapwood; these winding thick streaks of black known as “zone lines” are in fact clumps of dark mycelia, which cause “spalting,” the colouration of wood by fungus. According to mycologist Jens Petersen, these zone lines prevent “a hostile takeover by mycelia” from any interloping fungi. Most common trees that experience spalting include birch, maple, and beech. Two common fungi that cause spalting have colonized my maple log. They’re both carbon cushion fungi.

Spalting

Spalting through zone lines by carbon cushion fungus (photo by Nina Munteanu)

hypoxylon-close

Hypoxylon fungus (photo N. Munteanu)

Brittle cinder (Kretzschmaria deusta) resembles burnt wood at maturity. Deusta means “burned up” referring to the charred appearance of the fungus. Hypoxylon forms a “velvety” grey-greenish cushion or mat (stroma). As the Hypoxylon ages, it blackens and hardens and tiny, embedded fruitbodies (perithecia) show up like pimples over the surface of the crust.

Blue-green fungus on log

Green and Blue Stain fungus (photo N. Munteanu)

Much of the exposed outer wood layer looks as though it has been spray painted with a green to blue-black layer. The “paint” is caused by the green-stain fungus (Chlorociboria) and blue-stain fungus (Ceratocystis). The blue-green stain is a metabolite called xylindein. Chlorociboria and Ceratocystis are also spalter fungi, producing a pigment that changes the color of the wood where they grow. While zone lines that create spalting don’t damage wood, the fungus responsible most likely does.

Spalting is common because of the way fungi colonize, in waves of primary and secondary colonizers. Primary colonizers initially capture and control the resource, change the pH and structure of the wood, then must defend against the secondary colonizers now able to colonize the changed wood.

Intarsia using blue-green spalted wood

Details of 16th century German bureaus containing blue-green spalted wood by the elf-cup fungus Chlorociboria aeruginascens

Wood that is stained green, blue or blue-green by spalting fungi has been and continues to be valued for inlaid woodwork. In an article called “Exquisite Rot: Spalted Wood and the Lost Art of Intarsia” Daniel Elkind writes of how “the technique of intarsia–the fitting together of pieces of intricately cut wood to make often complex images–has produced some of the most awe-inspiring pieces of Renaissance craftsmanship.” The article explores “the history of this masterful art, and how an added dash of colour arose from the most unlikely source: lumber ridden with fungus.”

Shapeshifting Characters

moss hiding under leaves

Moss in forest litter (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I find moss everywhere in the forest, including beneath the forest floor. Moss is a ubiquitous character, adapting itself to different situations and scenarios. Like a shapeshifter, moss is at once coy, hiding beneath rotting leaf litter, stealthy and curious as it creeps up the feet of huge cedars, and exuberant as it unabashedly drapes itself over every possible surface such as logs, twigs and rocks, and then proceeds to procreate for all to see.

Moss is a non-vascular plant that helps create soil; moss also filters and retains water, stabilizes the ground and removes CO2 from the atmosphere. Science tells us that mosses are important regulators of soil hydroclimate and nutrient cycling in forests, particularly in boreal ecosystems, bolstering their resilience. Mosses help with nutrient cycling because they can fix nitrogen from the air, making it available to other plants.

Moss with spores water drops2

Green moss gametophyte with sporophytes growing out of it (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Mosses thrive in the wet winter and spring, providing brilliant green to an otherwise brown-gray environment. Even when covered in snow (or a bed of leaves), moss continues its growth cycle, usually in the leafy gametophyte stage. When the winter is moderate, like it is near Toronto, sporophyte structures can already appear on stalks that hold a capsule full of spores.  In the spring the capsules release spores that can each create a new moss individual. Moss is quietly, gloriously profligate.

Symbiotic Characters

Many twigs strewn on the leaf-covered forest floor are covered in grey-green lichen with leaf-like, lobes. On close inspection, the lichen thallus contains abundant cup-shaped fruiting bodies. I identify the lichen as Physchia stellaris, common and widespread in Ontario and typically pioneering on the bark of twigs—especially of poplars, and alders.

Lichen fruiting-best-2 copy

Physchia stellaris lichen with fruiting bodies (apothecia) (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Lichens are a cooperative character; two characters in one, really. Lichens are a complex symbiotic association of two or more fungi and algae (some also partner up with a yeast). The algae in lichens (called phycobiont or photobiont) photosynthesize and the fungus (mycobiont) provides protection for the photobiont. Both the algae and fungus absorb water, minerals, and pollutants from the air, through rain and dust. In sexual reproduction, the mycobiont produces fruiting bodies, often cup-shaped, called apothecia that release ascospores. The spores must find a compatible photobiont to create a lichen. They depend on each other for resources—from food to shelter and protection.

Forest as Character

Sunset 1 Niagara

Sunset in Niagara on the Lake (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy personified trees as interpreters between Nature and humanity: from the “sobbing breaths” of a fir plantation to the stillness of trees in a quiet fog, standing “in an attitude of intentness, as if they waited longingly for a wind to come and rock them.” Trees, meadows, winding brooks and country roads were far more than back-drop for Hardy’s world and his stories. Elements of the natural world were characters in their own right that impacted the other characters in a world dominated by nature.

Place ultimately portrays what lies at the heart of the story. Place as character serves as an archetype that story characters connect with and navigate in ways that depend on the theme of the story, particularly in allegories that rely strongly on metaphor. A story’s theme is essentially the “so what part” of the story. What is at stake for the character on their journey. Theme is the backbone—the heart—of the story, driving characters to journey through time and place toward some kind of fulfillment. There is no story without theme. And there is no theme without place.
—excerpted from The Ecology of Story: World as Character

 

nina-2014aaa

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.

 

 

 

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

EcologyOfStoryI recently gave a 2-hour workshop on “ecology of story” at Calgary’s When Words Collide writing festival in August, 2019.

The workshop—based on my third writing guidebook: “The Ecology of Story: World as Character”explored some of the major relationships in functional ecosystems and how to effectively incorporate them in story. We  briefly explored how ecosystems and ecological processes work and looked at several of the more bizarre examples of ecological adaptation.

I showed how treating world and place as character provides depth and meaning to story through its integration with plot, theme, and other characters. We looked at these story components as integral to help ground the reader in context and meaning of story. We explored place / setting as metaphor, symbol, archetype, and allegory.

Through literary examples of setting and place, we looked at how readers are drawn into story through metaphor, sensual description, and thematic integration through POV character.

Nina and flipchart2

Reviewing the story we created through an exercise

Then came the story-building part of the workshop—a snappy, fast-paced dialogue among all workshop participants. Using the book’s cover image as story-prompt, we worked through the story components of premise, theme, character, plot and setting. Following a lively discussion, we succeeded in creating a stunning first crack at a story that was both original and intriguing. And at whose heart was a strong sense of place and identity.

creating a story

“The Ecology of Story” had only recently been launched at Type Books in Toronto and saw its first use at the Calgary When Words Collide conference. Books were sold out an hour after the workshop.

Microsoft Word - EcologyOfStory Launch.docx

“The Ecology of Story” recently achieved Amazon Bestseller status in the Ecology category.

EcologyOfStory-AmazonBestseller-Ecology

 

NinaEcologyWorkshop01

Nina starts her “The Ecology of Story” workshop with Part 1: ecology

Nina-slide-EcologyWorkshop

Nina talks about some interesting adaptations in reproduction

 

Rainforeset Stream-2012

Stream on Vancouver Island, BC (photo by Kevin Klassen)

 

nina-2014aaaNina is a Canadian scientist and novelist. She worked for 25 years as an environmental consultant in the field of aquatic ecology and limnology, publishing papers and technical reports on water quality and impacts to aquatic systems. Nina has written over a dozen eco-fiction, science fiction and fantasy novels. An award-winning short story writer, and essayist, Nina currently lives in Toronto where she teaches writing at the University of Toronto and George Brown College. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…”—a scientific study and personal journey as limnologist, mother, teacher and environmentalist—was picked by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times as 2016 ‘The Year in Reading’. Nina’s most recent novel “A Diary in the Age of Water”— about four generations of women and their relationship to water in a rapidly changing world—will be released in 2020 by Inanna Publications.

 

Write About What You Know

Cedar trunk base-LR

Base of cedar tree, Little Rouge woodland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

How many times have you been told to write about what you know? And how many times have you trusted that advice? Well, how interesting is that?!? We think our lives are dull, boring, and mundane. We write – and read – to get away from it, don’t we?

Well, yes…and no…

In the final analysis, even good “escapist” writing, like some science fiction, despite its alien settings and creatures of imagination, is grounded in the realities of our every-day lives, which form the basis of human nature. Love, ambition, trust, hate, envy, honor, courage. All these are universal human traits which the writer taps into and ultimately writes about.

“In the 19th century, John Keats wrote to a nightingale, an urn, a season. Simple, everyday things that he knew,” say Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux in The Writer’s Guide to Creativity. “Walt Whitman described the stars, a live oak, a field. They began with what they knew, what was at hand, what shimmered around them in the ordinary world.”

The advice, “write what you know” isn’t about literal truths; it’s about what you know inside. As SF author Marg Gilks says, “You know more than you think.”

Twisted Truths & Inner Knowledge

In an article in Writing World, Gilks discusses how a writer can use her own knowledge and experiences in everyday life and translate them into something far from ordinary. You start with universal experiences.

Get Emotional

What excites you; what frightens you; what angers you, makes you sad, happy. These are emotions we all feel. When we give our characters experiences similar to our own, we breathe life into both character and experience and provide the reader an anchor for her heart.

Get Sensational

You know how it feels when the sun shines on your face or the rain drenches you. You know how it feels to have your knees shake with fatigue after a long climb on a hot day or the invigorating freshness of a cool lake in summer.

Get People Around You

My neighbor has a funny way of focusing his gaze slightly off me when he talks, like he can’t look me directly in the eyes. When he approaches my house to deliver the paper, Dennis strides with a lilting gait as he listens to hip-hop on his ipod.

Drawing from what you observe and know of the people around you is one of a writer’s most treasured resources for character description. I always carry a notebook with me no matter where I go, even if it’s only to the grocery store.

The Magic of Storytelling

A writer is like a magician. You play upon what readers all “know” then surprise them with the unexpected.

Unleashing your imagination and letting it soar while grounding yourself in the realities of universal truths is the stuff of which stories are made. This is what most of us mean when we say “write what you know.”

“Unless you are writing about a personal tragedy,” says Tina Morgan of Fiction Factor, “you will have to use your imagination. Use the creativity that drives you to write in the first place. Take those feelings you have every day and amplify them. Make them more intense, more vivid. Before you know it, you will be ‘writing what you know’.”

“Next time you hear ‘write what you know,’ ” says Gilks, “you’ll realize that you know an awful lot about what matters most in a story’s success. It’s waiting only to be shaped by your imagination.”

Write Real

Literary Agent, Rachelle Gardner, provided a great definition of “write what you know” on her blog. Here’s an excerpt:

Most people think “write what you know” means you have to put characters in situations you’re personally familiar with. If you’re a mom with five kids, you should write a mom story. If you’ve fought cancer and won, you should write about that. But in my opinion, that’s not what it means.

Write what you know means write with authenticity about thoughts, feelings, experiences of life. Be honest. Write from a deep place. Don’t write from the surface. Whether you’re writing about parenthood or cancer or anything else… be real.

Don’t reflect what you know from other people or the media… write what you know from your own inner life.

Nina MunteanuNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist 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.

 

The Careful Writer: Common Pitfalls of the Beginning Novelist: Part 1–Characters

patterns2-log-beetl holes-LR

Decaying log with insect bores (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Have you ever wondered how an editor decides not to read your cherished tome past the second paragraph of the first page and has pegged you as a beginning writer? This used to really bug me… Now, as a published author, mentor, and writing coach I read a lot of unpublished manuscripts. I now recognize what these editors do.

So, I’d like to share what I’ve learned over the years (some of the very same comments that have been made of my work, I am now sharing with you). I’ll be providing you my advice in three parts: 1) characters; 2) language; and 3) structure.

Let’s start with characters, since they are in my opinion, the most important part of a novel:

Characters carry the theme of the book. Each character needs to have a role in advancing the plot and/or theme; each character needs a reason to be there. A character therefore needs to be distinctive and usually shows some character development (as story arc) from beginning to end of story. Your characters are the most important part of your book (more so than the plot or premise). Through them your book lives and breathes. Through them your premise, your plot (which is essentially just a way to create problems for your characters to live out their development) and story come alive. Through them you achieve empathy and commitment from the reader and his/her willingness to keep reading to find out what’s going to happen next: if the reader doesn’t invest in the characters, they won’t really care what happens next.

Characters need to be real. They come to life by giving them individual traits and real weaknesses and heroic qualities that are consistent and have qualities readers can recognize and empathize with. You play these against each other to achieve drama. For instance, a man who is afraid of heights but who must climb a mountain to save his love is far more compelling than one who is not; a military man who fears responsibility but must lead his team into battle; a scientist who is afraid of failure; etc.

Characters of beginning writers often suffer from lack of distinction, or purpose, and often simply clutter up a story. For a character to “come alive” their “voice” must be distinct. Give them distinctive body movements, dress, facial features and expressions that reveal character, inner feelings, emotions, fears, motivations, etc. Then keep them consistent. There are several techniques writers use to increase empathy for a character. This includes use of third person POV, keeping the story with focus on fewer rather than many characters, creating character dossiers and keeping them consistent, providing each character a distinctive “voice” (figuratively), as in how they behave, say, react, etc. Another way to make your characters distinct (and works to also tie into plot and theme) is to make your characters not get along. Make them argue, disagree (at least!), have suspicions, betray one another, laugh and ridicule, etc. By doing this you increase tension, conflict (two things every book requires) and you enlighten the reader into each of the characters involved. Make them fight or argue over what they believe in – or not. You need to describe your characters in effective brief but vivid language as the reader encounters them.

Here are some questions you need to ask about your characters:

  1. if I can remove the character, will the book fall apart? (if not, you don’t need that character; they aren’t fulfilling a role in the book);
  2. how does the character portray the major or minor theme of the book? (that’s what characters are there for)
  3. what is the role of the character? (e.g., protagonist, antagonist, mentor, catalyst, etc.)
  4. what is the story arc of the character? Does he or she develop, change, do they learn something by the end? If not, they will be two-dimensional and less interesting
  5. what major obstacle(s) must the character overcome?
  6. who are your major protagonist(s) (the main character who changes the most)?
  7. who are your major antagonist(s) (those who provide trouble for your protagonists, the source of conflict, tension, the obstacle: one of their own?
  8. what’s at stake: for the world (plot); for each individual (Theme) and how do these tie together? Every character has a role to fulfill in the plot and to other characters. Don’t be afraid to totally remove characters if they do not fulfill a role.

To summarize, each character is there for a purpose and this needs to be made apparent to the reader (intuitively through characterization, their failings, weaknesses, etc.). Make them bleed, hurt, cry, feel. This needs to be clear to the reader, who wants to empathize with some of them and hate others. How characters interact with their surroundings and each other creates tension, a key element to good storytelling. Tension, of course builds further with the additional conflict of protagonist with antagonists. But, in truth, it’s more fun to read about the tension from WITHIN a group that’s supposed to be together. Think of Harry Potter and what was juicy there… It wasn’t really Voldemort … it was what went on at Hogwarts between Harry and his friends and not-so-friends. That is what makes a story memorable; that is what makes a story something you can’t put down until you’ve finished it.

TheFictionWriter-NMPart 2 of the Beginning Novelist will focus on language.

This is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Starfire)

 

nina-2014aaNina 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.