The Ontario Climate Symposium: Adaptive Urban Habitats by Design

SONY DSC

Nina presents Diana Beresford-Kroeger with a copy of “Water Is…”

I recently participated in the 2018 Ontario Climate Symposium “Adaptive Urban Habitats by Design” at OCAD University in Toronto, hosted by the Ontario Climate Consortium and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority.

Day 1 opened with a ceremony by Chief R. Stacey Laforme of the Mississauga of the New Credit First Nation, followed by keynote address by Dr. Faisal Moola, associate professor of the University of Guelph.

A three-track panel stream provided diverse and comprehensive programming that helped further the goal to foster important discussions for how art and design can play a role in developing adaptive, low carbon cities. Panels sparked much networking among a diverse group of participants, who clustered around the refreshments in the Great Hall, where my “Water Is…” exhibit was located.

OCS-venue

The Great Hall, where participants networked over refreshments

WaterIs...at OCS2

one participant clutches “Water Is…”

Water Is… was also there for sale, as part of my exhibit on water, along with Environment and Climate Change Canada, Green Roofs, Waste, and the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. I had several lively and insightful conversations with participants and I’m glad to say that Water Is… made it into several people’s hands at the symposium. Water is, after all, a key component of climate and climate action.

The film “Call of the Forest: The Forgotten Wisdom of Trees” was screened and scientist Diana Beresford-Kroeger participated in a question and answer period then signed her latest book.

diana_and_the_tree_

Call of the Forest” was called “a folksy and educational documentary with a poetic sort of alarmism about disappearing forests,” by the Globe and Mail. The film “takes us on a journey to the ancient forests of the northern hemisphere, revealing the profound connection that exists between trees and human life and the vital ways that trees sustain all life on this planet.” The movie describes the numerous health-giving aerosols that trees use to communicate. Diana’s genuine and earnest concern illuminates her simple yet powerful narrative, such as when she says that the forests are “haunted by silence and a certain quality of mercy.” Featuring forests from Japan and Germany’s Black Forest to Canada’s boreal forest, this documentary is a powerful manifesto for sustainability.

DianaBeresfordKroeger

Diana lecturing in High Park

On Day 2, I toured the Black Oak savanna in High Park with Diana Beresford-Kroeger (author of The Global Forest). The tour was refreshing and enlightening. Diana is a genuine advocate for the forest and showed some of the medicinal properties of forest plants. An example is the common weed, Goldenrod; its astringent and antiseptic qualities tighten and tone the urinary system and bladder, making goldenrod useful for UTI infections; Its kidney tropho-restorative abilities both nourishe and restore balance to the kidneys.

Diana spoke from the heart and brought a wealth of scientific knowledge to us in ways easy to understand—like the biochemistry of photosynthesis or quantum coherence. Diana shared how over 200 tree aerosols help combat anything from asthma to cancer. I also talk about this in the “Water Is Life” chapter of my book, Water Is…, which I gave a copy to Diana.

 

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.

How Creative Destruction Embraces Paradox…

“Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large—I contain multitudes.”—Walt Whitman

OuterDiverse-cover-webCreative destruction … sounds like a paradox, doesn’t it? Nature—and God— is full of contradiction and paradox. There is so much that we do not understand (at least on the surface)… and apparent contradiction proves that to me. In Outer Diverse, Book One of The Splintered Universe Trilogy, my character Serge says:

“… somewhere between the infinities of [worlds] you would experience paradox: black holes, quasars; intuition, déjà vu, clairvoyance… order in chaos…darkness at the heart of all beauty… beauty in the heart of all darkness…a mathematician with faith …the strength of surrender…loving your enemy…dying to live…”

Paradox lies undeniably at the heart of the clash of two realms.

I understand something of paradox. As an ecologist, I deal with it all the time.

Destruction in creation and creation in destruction is ingrained in the life-cycles of everything on this planet, indeed in this universe. A forest fire can destroy life but in so doing creates a more vibrant, healthier forest.

Darwins Paradox-2nd coverIn my speculative fiction novel, Darwin’s Paradox, Julie applies her father’s ecological precept to describe her observations on the rise and fall of a civilization, an ecosystem and an entire world. The precept was based on C.S. Holling’s 1987 ecological model of creative destruction:

Fire was a constant hazard in the heath. Yet, fire served the heath by discouraging invasive shrubs and halting succession. The grazing deer populations completed the job of keeping the heath from reverting to woodland. So, fire had its place as creative destroyer in the natural cycle of ecosystem behavior. Stable chaos, according to her father. It was a harsh and rude environment, Julie concluded. Like thieves in the night, bell heather, gorse and purple loosestrife snatched everything for themselves, leaving nothing for the others. Like many things in nature, the heath plants, though beautiful and fragrant, were ruthlessly greedy. . .

Creative destruction was first introduced as a term in 1942 by the economist, Joseph Schumpeter to describe the process of industrial transformation that accompanies radical innovation. According to Schumpeter’s view of capitalism, innovative entry by entrepreneurs sustained long-term economic growth, even as it destroyed the value of established companies that enjoyed some degree of monopoly power. An example is Xerox, who has seen its profits fall and its dominance vanish as rivals launched improved designs or cut manufacturing costs, drawing customers away.

The Science of Creative Destruction

In his classic paper, entitled: “Simplifying the complex: the paradigms of ecological function and structure” (1987) C.S. Holling applied Schumpeter’s term to ecology. Holling’s model of ecosystem behaviour recognized ecosystems as non-linear, self-organizing and continually adapting through cycles of change from expansion and prosperity to creative destruction and reorganization.

creative-destruction-model

Holling presented several paradigms that ecologists use to describe the causes and behaviour (and management) of ecosystems, including an equilibrium-centred view (based on the constancy of behaviour over time), which Simon Forge described as “driving using the rear-view mirror”—trying to judge the road ahead by what went on behind. Holling advocated a “nature evolving” view, which describes ecosystems as undergoing sharp, discontinuous changes that are internally organized and balanced (I like his mobius loop to describe the closed ouroborus-like cycle of creation and destruction in nature). Holling described four phases of natural ecosystem succession within his “nature evolving” paradigm. It starts out with the exploitation phase, in which new opportunities are realized through rapid colonization and competition. Natural forces of conservation (e.g., nurturing, consolidation) lead to vulnerable systems (e.g., old growth forests), as stabilizing factors lose strength and the system evolves from having few interrelationships to having many. The result is often an abrupt change that both destroys systems and creates opportunity (creative destruction) through fire, storms, pests, senescence. Mobilization of bound, stored “capital” (e.g., carbon, nutrients and energy) through physicochemical and biological processes like decomposition and mineralization completes the dynamic cycle of functional ecosystems.

What this means for the ecosystem manager is that efforts to detect responses to changes, including human interventions like restoration activities, are confounded. Traditional (equilibrium-centred) ecosystem management may be misdirected, resulting in pathological “surprises” of ecosystem response and a spiralling vigilance and cost in control measures. Examples of traditional equilibrium-centred management of forests, fish and other organisms of terrestrial and aquatic environments with devastating consequences include:

  • firecycle copySuppression of spruce budworm populations in eastern Canada using insecticides partially protected the forest but left it vulnerable to an outbreak covering an area and of an intensity never experienced before;
  • Forest fire suppression reduced the probability of fire in the national parks of the United States but the consequence has been the accumulation of fuel to produce fires of an extent and cost never experienced before;
  • Semi-arid savanna ecosystems have been turned into productive cattle grazing systems in the Sahel zone of Africa, southern and east Africa, and other parts of the world. However, changes in grass composition have promoted an irreversible switch to woody vegetation and the systems have become highly susceptible to collapse, often triggered by drought; and,
  • Protection and enhancement of salmon spawning on the west coast of North America may have led to some success regarding enhanced stocks (e.g., hatchery-grown fish), but fishing industry is left precariously dependent on a few enhanced stocks which are vulnerable to collapse.

In each of these examples, the policy succeeded in its immediate objective. But in each case the system evolved into something with different properties and each “solution” led to a larger problem. In short, the biophysical environment had evolved into one that was more fragile, more dependent on vigilance and error-free management. Something Holling called “Nature Engineered.”

In his classic 1987 paper, Holling suggests that ecosystems be viewed—and managed—as “Resilient Nature”, where the experience of instability maintains the structure and general patterns of ecosystem behaviour; in other words, that Nature ‘learns’ and accommodates with time. In the final analysis, it is a matter of scale.

We are seeing that now as global warming takes force and we step solidly into the depths of the Anthropocene Age where green is the colour of resilience.

The Narrative of Creative Destruction

Water Is-COVER-webIn my book Water Is… I write: “Destruction in creation and creation in destruction are ingrained in the life cycles of everything on this planet and in the universe. A forest fire can destroy life but in so doing creates a more vibrant, healthier forest. Holling and I, in our separate studies, were really drawing on the ancient knowledge of polarity and cycles in nature. The opposing forces of polarity generate ongoing cycles of creation and destruction. The Ouroboros, remembering.”

The Ouroboros is an ancient symbol that depicts a serpent or dragon swallowing its own tail to form a circle. As a serpent devouring its own tail, the Ouroboros symbolizes the cyclic nature of the Universe: creation out of destruction, Life out of Death. The Ouroboros eats its own tail to sustain its life, in an eternal cycle of renewal. In the Gnosis scriptures, it symbolizes eternity and the soul of the world.

“in the Chinese I Ching, the hexagram for “crisis” also represents “opportunity.” This is because when we are in stasis (which represents lack of movement), we do not recognize our path; perspective only comes with movement. In this way, calamity, initially seen as disaster, may be viewed as unexpected opportunity for creative change. The unpredictable nature of water provides the opportunity to teach and learn.” The “crisis” of change and “destruction” provides opportunity, just as collision of viewpoints bring new ideas.”

pine bark

Recommended Reading:

Holling, C.S. 1987. Simplifying the complex: the paradigms of ecological function and structure. Eur. J. Oper. Rel. 30: 139-146.

Holling, C.S. 1973. Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annual Rev. Ecol. Syst. 4: 1-23.

Holling, C.S. 1977. Myths of ecology and energy. In: Proceedings Symposium on Future Strategies for Energy Development, Oak Ridge, Tenn., 20-21 October, 1976. Oxford University Press, New York, N.Y.

Munteanu, N. 2016. Water Is… The Meaning of Water. Pixl Press, Vancouver. 586pp.

 

nina-2014aaaNina 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. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

 

My Writing Retreat in Niagara-on-the-Lake

Ravine-house

Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery

When I’m not teaching writing at UofT in Toronto, I’m often writing at home. And if I’m not writing at home, I’m often traveling to where I will write. You get the picture: I’m a writer. My website mantra reads: “I live to write; I write to live.”

I’m always looking for great places to write, to synthesize observations and experiences for an article or to plot my next novel. As writers, we are constantly studying the nature of our surroundings, how people interact, what they do, how events affect us and more. Writing is as much about experiencing life as writing about it. But we need both to flourish: something to write about and a place to write about it.

Breakfast Room

Noble Restaurant, Prince of Wales Hotel

Horse carriage01

Horse and carriage on King Street

Recently a good friend of mine lured me out of town on a trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake. She didn’t blink an eye when I grabbed my computer and happily accompanied her on our wonderful adventure. We started at the Prince of Wales Hotel, named in honour of the 1901 visit of the Duke and Duchess of York, who were later crowned King George V and Queen Mary.

FredGamula

Fred Gamula

We got there just in time for supper in the elegant and panoramic Noble restaurant. Of course, we had to order the divine “Grand Hotel Tasting Menu”, a four-course meal, paired with several fine wines. Sommelier Fred Gamula guided us through the “Grand Hotel Tasting Menu” of crisp romaine hearts, grilled chili marinated quail, pan seared trout and Grand Hotel Opera cake. Each course was paired with a wine that brought out the best in each; from an Inniskillin Chardonnay Reserve to a Flat Rock Twisted, to a Cave Spring Gamay and finally a Taylor Fladgate port. Gamula and I got into a diverting conversation about looking after the environment and water (I later gave him a copy of my book “Water Is…”).

PrinceOfWales-patio

Patio of Prince of Wales Hotel

Gamula grew up on a small fruit farm in Niagara-on-the-Lake and has seen some changes in the area due to development. Some not so good. We agreed that the trick is to embrace influx while preserving the very reason for that influx—to enjoy and preserve the wonderful country, vineyards and wineries in the area.

I found a wonderful place to write on the Churchill Room patio facing King Street, where the horses and carriages waited for customers. As the sun set, I drank my Campari and orange juice and wrote my novel to the cheerful sounds of birds, rustling trees and exploring people.

Nina-ottoman store

Nina and her favourite hippo

The next morning we wandered Queen Street before heading out to explore wine country. Curious about Reiner’s window display, I wandered into what I thought was a leather shop—expecting the usual fare such as purses, satchels, belts and the like; but it turned out to be a speciality leather ottoman store.

HippoOttomanThese weren’t ordinary ottomans—they were all animals! Hippos, bears, moose, elephants and pigs stood on stout legs, begging for a nice home to live in.

The store is named after leather crafter Reiner Henneveld who came to Canada in 1950 from Germany and created his first animal-shaped ottoman in the shape of a pig—after his pet pig, Wilbur. Reiner’s two sons have taken up the craft with a commitment to individual design and workmanship that includes hand sewing, cutting and stuffing and using the finest upholstery leather. I found them comfortable and very attractive.

wayne-gretzky-whisky

Wayne Gretzky with his “99”

After lunch we visited old favourites and explored new vineyards and wineries. Wayne Gretzky Estates recently opened its winery and distillery on Old Stone Road. The estate is getting known for its No. 99 Red Cask Canadian Whisky; “the same soils that produce great grapes also grow grains that are used to produce whisky,” they write. The whisky is made in small batches from rye, malted rye and corn that has been individually mashed, fermented and distilled. After aging, the whisky is finished with red wine casks from the Wayne Gretzky winery.

IMG_0865

General store of Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery

PorkWithSangria

Pork chop, sea-salted bread and Sangria at the Ravine restaurant

The Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery is an old haunt for its charming and diversely stocked general store and its rustic-style restaurant with imaginative and surprising menus. Both inside and outside seating offer vistas of undulating countryside and the sounds of a working vineyard. Another great place to write!

Ravine-birdhouses

A sparrow sings his heart out on his very own house in Ravine vineyard

Ravine-chickens

Free range chickens roam the vineyard at Ravine

I’m half-inclined to shift over to writing a murder-mystery series about a young recent George Brown graduate who comes to Niagara-on-the-Lake to work as a Sommelier in one of the hotels—only to find intrigue and—of course—a murder to solve. What do you think?…

 

nina-2014aaa

Nina 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Being a Canadian in The Age of Water

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself; I am large, I contain multitudes.”—Walt Whitman

nina-child01I was born on this day, some sixty+ years ago, in the small town of Granby in the Eastern Townships to German-Romanian parents. Besides its zoo—which my brother, sister and I used to visit to collect bottles for a finder’s fee at the local treat shop—the town had no particular features. It typified French-Canada of that era.

So did I.

I went to school in Quebec then migrated across to the west coast to practice and teach limnology. Given that Canada holds a fifth of the Earth’s freshwater, that also made sense.

 

muskeg-northern Quebec

muskeg in northern Quebec

Canada is a vast country with a climate and environment that spans from the boreal forests of the Canadian Shield, muskegs of northern BC, and tundras of the Arctic Circle to the grasslands of the Prairies and southern woodlands of Ontario and Quebec. Canada’s environment is vast and diverse. Like its people.

kevin-nina-close

Nina and son Kevin explore Nature

In December of 2017 I participated in a discussion on the subject and role of water in literature in Toronto. I came to the event as a limnologist/ecologist, mother and environmentalist prepared to share how water—its meaning and our relationship with it—is used in my writing and how writing about water can help nurture a future of awareness and action.

But, as the discussion slid into the slippery subject of colonialism, I made the apparent mistake of sharing that—as a Canadian—I was proud of Canada. I was later schooled that “celebrating the nation” was considered anathema to an audience with strong anti-colonialist sentiments and a hatred for neoliberalist corporate Canada (something I share but do not obsess over); I’d obviously crossed some invisible line and I made a mental note to better assess my audience in future).

I also got to thinking about what it means for me to be a Canadian and what my pride in Canada really means. Was I being a “white-toast” nationalist in sharing a pride in my country?

Ecologist vs Nationalist

Ecology is the study of “home” (oikos means ‘home’ in Greek). Ecology studies the relationships that make one’s home functional. It is, in my opinion, the most holistic and natural way to assess where we live. My home is currently Toronto, Ontario, Canada and ultimately the planet Earth.

Country_road_Stephane_Lemire

country road in Eastern Townships of Quebec

Growing up in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, I’d always felt an abiding sense of belonging and I resonated with Canada’s national symbols—mostly based on Nature and found on our currency, our flag, and various sovereign images: the loon, the beaver, the maple tree, our mountains and lakes and boreal forests. Why not? Over 80% of Canada lies in the boreal zone with much of that boreal forest and wilderness (that’s some 552 million hectares). Canadians are custodians of a quarter of the world’s wetlands, longest river systems and most expansive lakes. Most of us recognize this; many of us live, play and work in or near these natural environments.

I have long considered myself a global citizen with no political ties. I saw my country through the lens of an ecologist—I assessed my community and my surroundings in terms of ecosystems that supported all life, not just humanity. Was a community looking after its trees? Was my family recycling? Was a corporation using ‘green’ technology? Was a municipality daylighting its streams and recognizing important riparian zones? I joined environmental movements when I was a teenager. I shifted my studies from art to science because I wanted to make a difference in how we treated our environment. After university, I joined an environmental consulting firm, hoping to educate corporations and individuals as environmental stewards. I brought that philosophy into a teaching career and began writing eco-fiction, science fiction and essays to help promote an awareness and a connection with our natural world. My hope was to illuminate how important Nature and water is to our planet and to our own well-being through an understanding of ecology and how everything is interconnected.

US-tour and Desolation Sound 260 copy

Nina kayaking in Desolation Sound, British Columbia

Merriam-Webster defines “nationalism” as: “loyalty and devotion to a nation, especially a sense of national consciousness.” This is not the same as patriotism. Nor does it describe what many think of the word, which is an extreme form of nationalism, in which one nation is exalted above all others (I can think of one nation that is overtly doing that now) and placing primary emphasis on promoting its culture and interests over others—often through isolationism, xenophobia, chauvinism and jingoism. When I think of Canada, I think of my “home”, where I live; my community and my environment. I have traveled the world and I feel a strong sense of “home” and belonging every time I return. Canada is my home. I was born and grew up in Quebec; I raised a family in British Columbia, and I lived in Ontario and Nova Scotia. Each of these places engendered a feeling of “home”. If a strong sense of “home” and belonging is nationalistic, then that is what I am.

lunenburg-keel-laying

The Dory Shop in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia

Or am I something else? Perhaps, we need to redefine our sense of belonging (and pride) in a country that is not tied to some core political identity or melting-pot mainstream. Historian and writer Charlotte Gray wrote:

“we live in a country that has a weak national culture and strong regional identities …Two brands of psychological glue bind Canada together: political culture and love of landscape…[in] a loose federation perched on a magnificent and inhospitable landscape—[we are] a nation that sees survival as a collective enterprise.”—Charlotte Gray

Canada as Postnational State

Trudeau-RollingStone

Justin Trudeau on the cover of “Rolling Stone”

In October 2015, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the New York Times that Canada may be the “first postnational state,” adding that “there is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada.” This is largely because Canadians, writes Charles Forman in the Guardian, are “philosophically predisposed to an openness that others find bewildering, even reckless.”

To anyone but a Canadian, Trudeau’s remark would rankle, particularly in a time when many western countries are fearfully and angrily turning against immigration through nativism and exclusionary narratives. A time when the United States elected an authoritarian intent on making “America great again” by building walls. A time when populist right-wing political parties hostile to diversity are gaining momentum in other parts of the world. “Canada’s almost cheerful commitment to inclusion might at first appear almost naive,” writes Forman. It isn’t, he adds. There are practical reasons for keeping our doors open.

We are who we are because of what we are: a vast country the size of Europe. A country dominated by boreal forest, a vital and diverse wilderness that helps maintain the well-being of our entire planet. A land that encompasses over a fifth of the freshwater in the world, and a quarter of the world’s wetlands. Canadians are ultimately the world’s Natural stewards. That is who and what we are.

According to Forman, postnationalism frames how “to understand our ongoing experiment in filling a vast yet unified geographic space with the diversity of the world” and a “half-century old intellectual project, born of the country’s awakening from colonial slumber.” As the first Europeans arrived in North America, the Indigenous people welcomed them, taught them how to survive and thrive amid multiple identities and allegiances, writes Forman. “That welcome was often betrayed, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries, when settlers did profound harm to Indigenous people.” But, says Forman, if the imbalance remains, so does the influence: a model of another way of belonging. One I think many Canadians are embracing. We are learning from the natural wisdom of our Indigenous peoples. Even our fiction reflects how we value our environment and embrace diversity. “Diversity fuels, not undermines, prosperity,” writes Forman.

naturalselectionAs efforts are made to reconcile the previous wrongs to Indigenous peoples within Canada and as empowering stories about environment are created and shared, Canada carries on the open and welcoming nature of our Indigenous peoples in encouraging immigration. In 2016, the same year the American government announced a ban on refugees, Canada took in 300,000 immigrants, which included 48,000 refuges. Canada encourages citizenship and around 85% of permanent residents typically become citizens. Greater Toronto is currently the most diverse city in the world; half of its residents were born outside the country. Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa and Montreal are not far behind.

Canadian author and visionary Marshal McLuhan wrote in 1963 that, “Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity.” This is an incredible accomplishment, particularly given our own colonial history and the current jingoistic influence of the behemoth south of us.

The Way of Water-COVERWriter and essayist Ralston Saul suggests that Canada has taken to heart the Indigenous concept of ‘welcome’ to provide, “Space for multiple identities and multiple loyalties…[based on] an idea of belonging which is comfortable with contradictions.” Of this Forman writes:

“According to poet and scholar BW Powe, McLuhan saw in Canada the raw materials for a dynamic new conception of nationhood, one unshackled from the state’s ‘demarcated borderlines and walls, its connection to blood and soil,’ its obsession with ‘cohesion based on a melting pot, on nativist fervor, the idea of the promised land’. Instead, the weakness of the established Canadian identity encouraged a plurality of them—not to mention a healthy flexibility and receptivity to change. Once Canada moved away from privileging denizens of the former empire to practicing multiculturalism, it could become a place where ‘many faiths and histories and visions would co-exist.”

Water Is-COVER-webAnd that’s exactly what is happening. We are not a “melting pot” stew of mashed up cultures absorbed into a greater homogeneity of nationalism, no longer recognizable for their unique qualities. Canada isn’t trying to “make Canada great again.” Canada is a true multi-cultural nation that celebrates its diversity: the wholes that make up the wholes.

Confident and comfortable with our ‘incomplete identity’—recognizing it for what it is—is  according to Forman, “a positive, a spur to move forward without spilling blood, to keep thinking and evolving—perhaps, in the end, simply to respond to newness without fear.”

This resonates with me as an ecologist. What I envision is a Canada transcending the political to embrace the environment that both defines us and provides us with our very lives; a view that knows no boundaries, and recognizes the importance of diversity, relationship and inclusion, interaction, movement, and discovery.

 

PolarBearMum-pupsSo, am I still proud of Canada? Definitely. We have much to be proud of. We live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and the 8th highest ranking in the Human Development Index. Canada ranks among the highest in international measurements of government transparency, civil liberties, quality of life, economic freedom, and education. It stands among the world’s most educated countries—ranking first worldwide in the number of adults having tertiary education with 51% of adults holding at least an undergraduate college or university degree. With two official languages, Canada practices an open cultural pluralism toward creating a cultural mosaic of racial, religious and cultural practices. Canada’s symbols are influenced by natural, historical and Aboriginal sources. Prominent symbols include the maple leaf, the beaver, Canada Goose, Common Loon, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the polar bear, the totem pole, and Inuksuk.

WaterAnthology-RealitySkimmingPressWe are a northern country with a healthy awareness of our environment—our weather, climate and natural world. This awareness—particularly of climate change—is more and more being reflected in our literature—from Margaret Atwood’s “Maddaddam” trilogy and Kim Stanley Robinson’s “New York 2140” to my own book “Water Is…”. Canadians are writing more eco-fiction, climate fiction, and fiction in which environment somehow plays a key role. Water has become one of those key players: I recently was editor of the Reality Skimming Press anthology “Water”, a collection of six speculative Canadian stories that explore near-future scenarios with water as principle agent.

In a recent interview with Mary Woodbury on Eco-Fiction, I reflected on a trend over the years that I noticed in the science fiction writing course I teach at George Brown College: “It’s a workshop-style course I teach and students are encouraged to bring in their current work in progress. More and more students are bringing in a WIP with strong ecological overtones. I’d say the percentage now is over 70%. This is definitely coming from the students—it’s before I even open my mouth about ecology and eco-fiction—and what it suggests to me is that the welfare of our planet and our ecosystems is on many people’s minds and this is coming through in our most metaphoric writing: science fiction.”

It is healthy to celebrate our accomplishments while remembering where we came from and what we still need to accomplish. This provides direction and motivation.

 

References:

Dechene, Paul. 2015. “Sci-Fi Writers Discuss Climate Catastrophe: Nina Munteanu, Author of Darwin’s Paradox.” Prairie Dog, December 11, 2015.

Forman, Charles. 2017. “The Canada Experiment: Is this the World’s First Postnational Country?” The Guardian, January 4, 2017.

Gray, Charlotte. 2017. “Heroes and Symbols” The Globe and Mail.

Moorhouse, Emilie. 2018. “New ‘cli-fi’ anthology brings Canadian visions of future climate crisis.” National Observer, March 9, 2018.

forest path neat lightMunteanu, Nina. 2016. “Crossing into the Ecotone to Write Meaningful Eco-Fiction.” In: NinaMunteanu.me, December 18, 2016.

Newman-Stille, Derek. 2017. “The Climate Around Eco-Fiction.” In: Speculating Canada, May 24, 2017.

Woodbury, Mary. 2016. “Part XV. Women Working in Nature and the Arts: Interview with Nina Munteanu, Ecologist and Author.” Eco-Fiction.com, October 31, 2016.

 

nina-2014aaaNina 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. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

Write About What You Know

Beauty Creek, Jasper National Park, Alberta, CanadaHow 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.

 

How Art Reveals Truth in Science

It is quite possible … that we will always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology —Naom Chomsky

niels bohr

Niels Bohr

In the 1920s, physicist Niels Bohr struggled to re-imagine the structure of matter. He rejected the current hegemony of a fractal “solar system” model and sought a new metaphor.

“When it comes to atoms,” said Bohr, “language can only be used as poetry.”

Bohr compared the invisible world of atoms and electrons to cubist art because, according to Jonah Lehrer in an article in SeedMagazine.com, it “revealed the fissures in everything, turning the solidity of matter into a surreal blur.” In 1923 deBroglie had determined that electrons could exist as particles or waves. Bohr maintained that the form they took depended on how you looked at them: by simply observing, you determined their nature.

Many of us believe that while art can be profound, it does not solve practical challenges of reality; only scientific knowledge, which progresses on a linear ascent toward greater understanding, resolves the serious challenges of our world and will one day solve everything.

This is, of course a matter of belief. Novelist Vladimir Nabokov once wrote, “the greater one’s science, the deeper the sense of mystery.” The traditional elements of science have used a reductionist approach to understand the whole, looking at the parts and reconstructing the causal pathways. Take the synapse, for instance. Neuroscientists now know that 100 billion electrical cells occupy a human brain, that every cubic millimeter of the cerebral cortex contains a billion synapses involved in the neurotransmission of electrical impulses in perception and thought. Yet, as Novelist Richard Powers challenged, ‘If we knew the world only through synapses, how could we know the synapse?”

neuroscience“The paradox of neuroscience,” said Lehrer, “is that its astonishing progress has exposed the limitations of its paradigm … Neuroscience has yet to capture [the] first-person perspective. Artists … distill the details of real life into prose and plot … They capture a layer of reality that reductionism cannot … and provide science with a glimpse into its blind spots … Sometimes the whole is better understood in terms of the whole … No scientific model of the mind will be complete unless it includes what can’t be reduced.”

Logical minds will reject art as too incoherent and imprecise to contribute to the knowledge base provided by scientific process. They will maintain that Beauty isn’t Truth, that the novel is just a work of fiction, and abstract art the arcane expression of a micro-culture.

But what of paradox? Critic Randall Jarrell contended that, “it is the contradictions of works of art which make them able to represent us — as logical and methodical generalizations cannot — our world and our selves, which are also full of contradictions.” The cultural hypotheses of artists can inspire the questions that stimulate important new scientific answers, adds Lehrer.

neutrino colliding

Neutrino colliding

The irony of modern physics is that it seeks reality in its most fundamental form, and yet we are incapable of comprehending these fundamentals beyond the math we use to represent them. The only way to know the universe is through analogy.

Richard Feyman

Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman said, “Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.” While artists rely on imagination, much of modern physics exceeds the imagination: dark matter, quarks and neutrinos, black holes, multiple dimensions and folded space. To venture beyond the regular confines of our “ordinary world” where matter is certain, time flows forward and there are only three dimensions, we must resort to metaphor. “Metaphor in science serves not just as a pedagogical device,” wrote physicist and novelist Alan Lightman, “but also as an aid to scientific discovery.” Einstein came up with relativity while thinking about moving trains; Arthur Eddington compared the expansion of the universe to an inflated balloon; James Clerk Maxwell visualized magnetic fields as little whirlpools in space. String theory is often imagined as garden hoses.

Pablo Picasso bullfight,1934

Pablo Picasso’s Bull Fight, 1934

The greatest physicists of the 20th century thought metaphorically. String theorist Brian Greene wrote that the arts have the ability to “give a vigorous shake to our sense of what’s real.” Picasso never understood the equations, says Lehrer: “he picked up the non-Euclidian geometry via the zeitgeist.” A century later some scientists still use his fragmented images to symbolize their ideas.  “Novelists can stimulate the latest theories of consciousness through their fiction … Painters can explore new theories about the visual cortex … Dancers can help untangle the mysterious connection between the body and emotion.”

Both science and art benefit from exchange. By inviting art to participate in its conversation, science provides art with the opportunity to add science to its repertoire. And through its interpretation of scientific ideas and theories, art offers science a new lens through which to see itself.

Karl Popper exhorts us to “give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes.”

And that is the stuff of fiction after all…

 

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.