Nina Munteanu Talks About ‘Water Is…’ and ‘A Diary in the Age of Water’ with Dr. Steven Miletto

Nina Munteanu appears on “Teaching, Learning, Leading, K-12” Podcast with Dr. Steven Miletto

I was recently interviewed by Dr. Steven Miletto in Georgia on his podcast “Teaching Learning Leading K12”—Episode 401. We talked about my two recent books on water,Water Is…and A Diary in the Age of Water. The 1-hour interview covered a range of topics from why water makes us feel so good, to the study of limnology, and writing both non-fiction and fiction about water. In the latter, I talked about water as a character in story. We also talked about how characters form in a story and how to keep going when the muse or the joy buries itself.

Jackson Creek, ON (photo and dry-brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

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

On Writing: The Gestalt Nature of Passion & Success

Marsh and swamp forest in a blushing sunset, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

What is to give light must endure burning —Victor Frankl

Says Keyes: “Any writing lays the writer open to judgment about the quality of his work and thought,” writes Ralph Keyes, author of The Courage to Write. “The closer [the writer] gets to painful personal truths, the more fear mounts—not just about what he might reveal, but about what he might discover should he venture too deeply inside. But to write well, that’s exactly where we must venture.”

So, why do it, then? Why bother? Is it worth it to make yourself totally vulnerable to the possible censure and ridicule of your peers, friends, and relatives? To serve up your heart on a platter to just have them drag it around as Stevie Nicks would say?…

Welcome to the threshold of your career as a writer. This is where many aspiring writers stop: in abject fear, not just of failure but of success. The only difference between those that don’t and those that do, is that the former come to terms with their fears, in fact learn to use them as a barometer to what is important.

“Everyone is afraid to write,” says Keyes. “They should be. Writing is dangerous…To love writing, fear writing and pray for the courage to write is no contradiction. It’s the essence of what we do.”

Marsh in the Kawarthas, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Unravelling the Secret…

How do you get past the fear of being exposed, past the anticipated disappointment of peers, past the terror of success?

The answer is passion. If you are writing about something you are passionate about, you will find the courage to see it through. “The more I read, and write,” says Keyes:

The more convinced I am that the best writing flows less from acquired skill than conviction expressed with courage. By this I don’t mean moral convictions, but the sense that what one has to say is something others need to know.

This is ultimately what drives a writer to not just write but to publish: the need to share one’s story, over and over again. To prevail, persist, and ultimately succeed, a writer must have conviction and believe in his or her writing. You must believe that you have something to say that others want to read. Ask yourself why you are a writer. Your answer might surprise you.

Every writer is an artist. And every artist is a cultural reporter. One who sometimes holds the world accountable. “Real art,” says Susan Sontag, “makes us nervous.”

The first step, then, is to acknowledge your passion and own it. Flaunt it, even. Find your conviction, define what matters and explore it to the fullest. You will find that such an acknowledgement will give you the strength and fortitude to persist and persevere, particularly in the face of those fears. Use the fears to guide you into that journey of personal truths. Frederick Busch described it this way: “You go to dark places so that you can get there, steal the trophy and get out.”

John Steinbeck, author of Grapes of Wrath, said:

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced that there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader.  

Marsh of cattails, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Finding Success Through Meaning

Victor Frankl survived Auschwitz to become an important neurologist and psychiatrist of our time and to write Man’s Search for Meaning.

Blogger Gavin Ortlund wrote: “What gripped me most about [Frankl’s] book, and has stayed with me to this day, is not the horror and barbarity of his experiences in concentration camps—when you pick up a book about the holocaust, you expect that. What really struck me was Frankl’s repeated insistence that even there, in the most inhumane and horrific conditions imaginable, the greatest struggle is not mere survival. The greatest struggle is finding meaning. As I was reading, I was struck with this thought: going to a concentration camp is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. The worst that can happen to a person is not having a transcendent reason to live. Life is about more than finding comfort and avoiding suffering: it’s about finding what is ultimate, whatever the cost.”

Victor Frankl wisely said:

The more you aim at success and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.

Frankl is talking about passion. “If you long to excel as a writer,” says Margot Finke, author of How to Keep Your Passion and Survive as a Writer, “treasure the passion that is unique within yourself. Take the irreplaceable elements of your life and craft them into your own personal contribution to the world.” It’s what has you up to 2 am, pounding the keys. It follows you down the street and to work with thoughts of another world. It puts a notebook and pen in your hand as you drive to the store, ready to record thoughts about a character, scene or place. “For the passionate, writing is not a choice; it’s a force that cannot be denied.”

Finke says it astutely: You need to be passionate about everything to do with your book—the writing and rewriting, your critique group, your research, your search for the best agent/editor, plus your query letter. Not to mention the passion that goes into promoting your book. Nothing less will assure your survival—and success—as a writer.

“Follow your inner moonlight, don’t hide the madness”

Allen Ginsberg

This article is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! by Nina Munteanu

References:

Finke, Margot. 2008. “How to Keep Your Passion and Survive as a Writer.” In: The Purple Crayonhttp://www.underdown.org/mf_ writing_passion

Frankl, Victor. (1946) 1997. Man’s Search for Meaning. Pocket Books. 224 pp.

Keyes, Ralph. 1999. The Writer’s Guide to Creativity. Writer’s Digest, 1999.

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now. Starfire World Syndicate. 294pp

Ortlund, Gavin. 2008. “Frankl, the holocaust and meaning.” In: Let Us Hold Fast. http://gro1983.blogspot.com/2008/02/frankl-holocaust-and-meaning.html

Slonim Aronie, Nancy. 1998. Writing from the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice. Hyperion. 256pp.

Marsh near Millbrook, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

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

I Became a Climate Activist in the 1960s

Two cedar trees entangle their roots in a cedar forest in Warsaw Caves Park, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

In 1969, I completed my first novel at the tender age of fifteen. Caged in World was a hundred-page speculative story about a world that had moved “inside” to escape the ravages of a harsh post climate-change environment. 

1969 was the year that humans first stepped on the moon and the first Concorde test flight was conducted in France. But I was concerned by the environment and what was happening on our planet. It was seven years since Rachel Carson had published Silent Spring, which warned of our declining bird and bee populations and impacts to human health from unregulated pesticide/herbicide use (such as carcinogens and hormone disruptors). It was just a year after Paul Erlich’s Population Bomb warned that attempts to stretch the Earth’s resources to support the ever-growing population would result in mass starvation, epidemics, and, ultimately, the breakdown of social order. 

In the 1960s it was already apparent to me that environmental imbalance and destruction were global concerns and we were on the brink of an environmental crisis.  Unchecked deforestation was destroying forests around the world, including the boreal and old-growth forests of my own country Canada. Brazil had already begun cutting down trees and burning forest at an alarming rate. Unregulated use of pesticides, herbicides and growth hormones created toxic contamination of our natural world and our food and water supply—despite Carson’s dire warning with Silent Spring. Our waterways were being contaminated by mining wastes and industrial effluents. Killer smog. Noxious algal blooms. Oil spills. Dead zones. The list was growing.

Rachel Carson and her iconic book, Silent Spring

I joined S.T.O.P. (Society To Overcome Pollution) and marched in protests to call for responsible behaviour by governments and large corporations. I tried to raise awareness at my school about our deteriorating environment and likely consequences to human survival; my own teachers tried to silence me! I wrote my first dystopia, Caged in World.  The eco-novel was about a subway train driver and a data analyst caught in the trap of a huge lie. The story later morphed into Escape from Utopia. Several drafts—and years later—the novel became the eco-medical thriller Angel of Chaos, set in 2095 as humanity struggles with Darwin’s Disease—a mysterious neurological environmental pandemic. Icaria 5 is one of many enclosed cities within the slowly recovering toxic wasteland of North America, and where the protagonist Julie Crane works and lives. The city is run by technocrats, deep ecologists who call themselves Gaians, and consider themselves guardians of the planet. The Gaians’ secret is that they are keeping humanity “inside” not to protect humanity from a toxic wasteland but to protect the environment from a toxic humanity.

I spent several years shopping Angel of Chaos to agents and publishing houses. Although I received many bites, all finally let go. In the meantime, I did several things: 1) I started writing short stories, some of which were cannibalized from the book, and several of these were published; 2) I wrote Angel’s prequel, The Great Revolution (never published, The Great Revolution sits in a drawer hibernating) and Angel’s sequel Darwin’s Paradox, (which was published).

 

Angel of Chaos and Darwin’s Paradox Duology by Nina Munteanu

I thought of going into environmental law at university then decided that I didn’t have the temperament for it and instead pursued ecology and limnology. I taught limnology at the University of Victoria then found work as an environmental consultant. In 2007, Dragon Moon Press in Calgary made an offer to publish Darwin’s Paradox; the sequel became my debut novel. Dragon Moon Press later picked up Angel of Chaos and published it in 2010 as a prequel. I haven’t stopped publishing since (with a book pretty much every year).

A selection of eco-Fiction stories / novels Nina Munteanu wrote or edited

My whole career-life has been dedicated to helping the environment, doing field studies as a limnologist and ecologist, publishing papers and reports, giving talks about water and the environment. I feel strongly that stories can go much farther in bringing not only awareness but direction for people to act on behalf of the environment and the planet. The narrative we give one another is the key. 

What story do we tell of ourselves and each other?

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

Paradox in the Details: The Role of Place in Story

Nina Munteanu at When Words Collide 2021

A few weeks ago, I (virtually) participated in When Words Collide, one of Canada’s prime writing festivals in Calgary, Alberta. I was a featured writer, sitting on several panels and conducting presentations and lectures.

One of the two presentations I did was on the role of place in story

The role of place in story is a topic close to my heart and one I recently wrote an entire writing guidebook on: The Ecology of Story: World as Character. In my coaching sessions with writers and in my writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto, I’ve observed in the novice writer a need for more effective integration of setting and place in story. All too often, the lack of meaningful integration translated into a lost opportunity to explore the POV character and the story’s theme. The lack of meaningful use of place in story can result in a lacklustre story, overly vague characterizations and a story that lacks metaphoric depth and relevance.

The presentation and following discussion drew from my guidebook Ecology of Story and I used many examples from a wide range of literature to overview topics covered in the book, such as:

  • Place as character & archetype
  • Place as metaphor (personification, symbols, allegory)
  • Place and first impressions (openings)
  • Place and emotion (over time and by POV)
  • Place through the senses
  • Place as environmental force (including climate change)

We also discussed how characters connect with their environment and I introduced the metaphoric connection between the Mi’kmaq and the white pine forests in Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, among others.

I concluded the presentation with a discussion on the “paradox in the details”: the more specific description is, the more universal its appeal. This is because the details can establish relevance and realism to the scene and the POV character experiencing them. Vagueness and lack of tangibility are avoided through specificity. The key, however, is to use details that resonate with the theme and tone of the book: as metaphor. Details as metaphor is what you want to achieve. 

Because, as Ray Bradbury once told me, “everything in story is metaphor.” 

The Ecology of Story: World as Character is presented in two parts.

Part 1 provides a comprehensive summary of the science of ecology, the study of relationships, and links to useful metaphor.

Part 2 discusses world and place in story. Here I discuss how the great writers have successfully integrated place with theme, character and plot to create a multi-layered story with depth and meaning. Part 2 also contains several writing exercises and detailed case studies.

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

Nina Munteanu Talks Water, Writing, and Weather on ‘All About Canadian Books’

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Crystal Fletcher on “All About Canadian Books” about my recent clifi dystopian novel “A Diary in the Age of Water.” We covered a number of topics from water’s over 70 anomalous properties–virtually all of them life-giving–to how water seems to inform all aspects of my life, particularly my writing life. Crystal was particularly fascinated with the four generations of women in the book and we talked at length about how these characters were developed and the roles they played in the greater saga.

After bringing up the Toronto Star’s question of me (“What keeps you up at night about climate change”) in which I admitted that I lose sleep over the thought of how my son and his children will fair in this changing world, Crystal admitted that “Your book, Nina, is an eye opener…it freaked me out when I was reading it…and now I’m losing sleep!”

Hardwood forest back lit by glittering Otonabee River, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu Talks Water and Writing on Kentucky’s WMST-am Radio

Dan Manley interviews Nina Munteanu on Mid Morning on Main WMST-AM Radio

I was recently interviewed (on June 21) by Dan Manley on Kentucky’s Mid-Morning on Main show on WMST-AM Radio. I’ve visited Kentucky several times before, including the famous Bardstown Road in Louisville, but this time it was a virtual visit.

Dan and I talked about how I became a limnologist and ecologist, about my growing up in a small town and playing in the local forest with my older brother and sister and how we made ‘potions’ out of moss, soil, evening nightshade and water.

We talked about my recent eco-novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” and why I wrote it and its effect on people. We covered the difference between stereotypes and archetypes and how science informs me and my writing. We also explored how life changes us and our writing and how writing, in turn, changes us.

We covered a vast range of water-related topics from the movie “Water World” to the TV show “Bonanza.” We talked about water scarcity and water politics and what Canada was doing and what’s happening in America.

I really enjoyed this interview because Dan asked me some surprising and challenging questions that led us into interesting territory. My interview with him starts about 43 minutes into the show. Go have a listen!

Otonabee River sparkles behind a hardwood forest in spring, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

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

Squirrel Joy

Grey squirrel munching on a maple seed, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Do you believe in serendipity or destiny? That all things are interconnected in a flowing web that responds like a super consciousness? 

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung called it “meaningful coincidence.” Bohm used the term “implicate order”; the Vedas call it “akasha; Goethe gave it the name “the ground of all being”; and Mae-Wan Ho described it as “quantum entanglement”: when puzzle pieces cooperatively arrange themselves into a symbiotic pattern of synchronicity to provide meaning. 

The universe provides…

I’ve come to rely on it in my writing: moments when key things of interest reveal themselves to me just when I need them. I call it writing in sync. Time and again, I’ve serendipitously discovered just what I needed for a plot point or something to complete a backstory: a news event, a conversation with a friend, or an image on the internet. Synchronicity occurs all around us. Birds flying in formation during migration. Electrons synchronizing by the billions and passing through impenetrable barriers. Fireflies flashing in harmony.

Rupert Sheldrake , British botanist and author of The Rebirth of Nature, suggests that “our minds are extended in both space and time with other people’s minds, and with the group mind or cultural mind by way of their connection to the collective unconscious.” Sheldrake posits that we tune into archetypal fields or patterns and “our minds are much broader than the ‘things’ inside our brains. He’s talking about Jungian archetypal gestalt synchronicity. The notion of consciousness as a global phenomenon that occurs everywhere in the body, not just our brains. “Consciousness, at its most basic, [is] coherent light,”writes science journalist Lynne McTaggart in her book The Field

young black squirrel lies on the branch of a silver maple tree (photo by Nina Munteanu)

It started when I was lunching with good friend Merridy and we were observing several young black and grey squirrels stretched out, lying down on the grass or a branch of the silver maple. They were obviously litter mates and had just finished a playful romp on the grass with sneak-ups, great leaps in the air, twirls and ‘attacks’ and rolls. Such fun! Merridy and I agreed that they looked satisfied and happy after their play, stretched out and languishing in the sun. We talked about how playful squirrels were and how science didn’t seem to acknowledge this. That led to a discussion on people’s perception being largely based on worldview. I shared how we see only what we’re prepared to see and we discussed how science, in its preoccupation with objectivity, can take the ‘soul’ out of life by not observing as much as it could by observing. The concept of anthropomorphism—ascribing exclusively human traits and behaviours to other animals—is based on our own limited definition of what is an exclusively human trait. Who unequivocally proved that only humans are capable of thought or feelings? This recalled a quote of Goethe that I used in the preface of my book Water Is…: “Whatever you cannot calculate, you do not think is real.” We are often blinded by our beliefs and hubris. 

Young grey squirrel climbs up the silver maple tree, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

During the 1600s in what is ironically called the “Age of Enlightenment,” the highly regarded philosopher René Descartes denied thought to animals; he claimed that animals could not process pain through thought and certainly not through emotions such as joy, sadness, or embarrassment. Only humans were conscious, had souls, and were capable of meaningful communication and language. What he failed to observe—in his own pet dog, even—was that animals other than humans are capable of these thoughts and emotions. One need only pay attention through an unrestricted lens to recognize their expressions and behaviours. 

In western exploitive society and religions particularly, this Cartesian view has persisted into the present day with those who still argue that animals are incapable of altruism or empathy, can’t reason or calculate, are bound by the “selfish gene”, and don’t have souls. These persist in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary and ironically serve an economic and social worldview of Nature exploitation.

Then, in a wonderfully serendipitous moment of synchronicity, Merridy announced the next day that she had just read the following passage by David George Haskell in his recent book The Forest Unseen. It was as though he had overheard our conversation about the squirrels:

Four grey squirrels loaf in the bright upper branches of a dead shagbark hickory tree fifty meters down the slope. I watch them for an hour, and mostly they loll in the sun, limbs sprawled. They seem companionable, sporadically nibbling the fur on one another’s hind legs or tails. Occasionally one will break from sunbathing and chew the fungus-encrusted dead branches, then return to sit silently with the other squirrels.

This scene of scoured tranquility makes me unaccountably delighted. Perhaps I so often see and hear squabbling among the squirrels that today’s ease seems particularly sweet. But something more is behind my delight; I feel freed from some burden carried by my over-trained mind. Wild animals enjoying one another and taking pleasure in their world is so immediate and so real, yet this reality is utterly absent from textbooks and academic papers about animals and ecology.

This insight is not that science is wrong or bad. On the contrary; science, done well, deepens our intimacy with the world. But there is a danger in an exclusively scientific way of thinking. The forest is turned into a diagram; animals become mere mechanism; nature’s workings become clever graphs. Today’s conviviality of squirrels seems a refutation of such narrowness. Nature is not a machine. These animals feel. They are alive; they are our cousins, with the shared experience that kinship implies.

And they appear to enjoy the sun, a phenomenon that occurs nowhere in the curriculum of modern biology.

Sadly, modern science is too often unable or unwilling to visualize or feel what others experience. Certainly science’s “objective” gambit can be helpful in understanding parts of nature and in freeing us from some cultural preconceptions. Our modern scientific taste for dispassion when analyzing animal behaviour formed in reaction to the Victorian naturalists and their predecessors who saw all nature as an allegory confirming their cultural values. But a gambit is just an opening move, not a coherent vision of the whole game. Science’s objectivity sheds some assumptions but takes on others that, dressed up in academic rigour, can produce hubris and callousness about the world. The danger comes when we confuse the limited scope of our scientific methods with the true scope of the world. It may be useful or expedient to describe nature as a flow diagram or an animal as a machine, but such utility should not be confused with a confirmation that our liming assumptions reflect the shape of the world.

Not coincidentally, the hubris of narrowly applied science serves the needs of the industrial economy. Machines are bought, sold, and discarded; joyful cousins are not.

David George Haskell, “The Forest Unseen”
Grey squirrel peers at the camera, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
A sugar maple tree flowers in early spring in Ontario (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

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

Walking in the Rain…

Dirt road to Long Lake in misty rain, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

A short time ago, I had a wonderful conversation with good friend Margaret about how walking in nature—along a river, in a forest, by a marsh or lake—centres us and feeds our soul. Margaret and I agreed that walking in nature fulfills the “explorer” in us, brings us out of ourselves in discovery and allows us to enter that wonderful blissful state of being “in wonder.” Margaret then shared how surly she got when it was a rainy day and she couldn’t go for her walk. I didn’t share that those are the very days I covet for my walks. 

It got me thinking about why a walk in the rain is so special for me.

Fence post in front of marsh by country road, ON in the rain (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Why Rain Makes Us Feel Good

As a little girl, I used to get caught in the odd thunderstorm that swept through my small town on a sudden wind. I could taste the fresh air after the storm and felt exhilarated by it. What I didn’t know then was that the air was charged with negative ions from both the lightning and the rain—as water molecules crashed into one another.

We are all familiar with the feeling of well-being we get from moving water—rivers, waterfalls, crashing or surging waves, thunderstorms, fresh snow, transpiration by plants, even showers and fountains. Part of this feeling comes from negative ions in the air. Negative ions are basically oxygen ions with an extra electron attached, produced in water molecules.

Devils club, moss and ground cover by a stream in rain, Robson National Park (photo by Nina Munteanu)

As early as the 1700s, with the work of Swiss researcher Horace Bénédicte de Saussure, scientists have shown that negative ions are generated by moving water and by plants when exposed to intense light during photosynthesis. Negative ions clean the air. They do this by attaching to positively charged particles such as pollen, mold, bacteria and dust, which then become too heavy to stay airborne. A country meadow typically contains from 2,000 to 5,000 negative ions per cubic centimetre (cc); mountains, forests and seashores provide up to 50,000 negative ions/cc. Niagara Falls generates anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 negative ions/cc in its air. 

Rain on its own is incredibly therapeutic, not just in its ability to support life and to refresh, but in its nature to make us feel wonderful. The chaotic yet stable sound of rain is gently calming. Rain mutes and lacks the jolting sounds that activate our defence and vigilance system. It’s a non-threatening sound that blocks out sudden noises that otherwise alert us. The simple repetitive sound of water falling lets us rest our brains and induces a mild meditative state. Studies have shown that the sound of rain produces alpha waves in a human brain, which is close to the brain’s state when we are asleep. The sound of rain not only relaxes but brings out our creativity. Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols (author of Blue Mind) argues that the sound of rain allows our brain to wander, eventually reaching a state known as the default mode network. In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron mentions “s” activities, such as “shower” as creativity-inducing.

Walking in the rain can be pure joy.

Pond lily just after a rain, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Why Walking in the Forest in the Rain Is Even Better

These days, when I get up in the morning, if the day is foggy or a light rain is falling, I feel compelled to quickly down my breakfast, pack up my camera gear in a waterproof bag, shrug into my raincoat and boots and hightail it to the marsh or the forest, where I’m greeted with the fresh scent of petrichor—the pleasant smell that accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather. The rain helps release plant oils and chemicals produced by soil-dwelling bacteria called actinomycetes into the air. The term arose from the Greek petra (stone) and ichor (the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods). The earthy scent of rain on dry soil evokes wonderful memories of playful childhood, freedom and awestruck wonder. The complex loamy organic aroma of a forest during a rain easily ranks among my favourite smells. The link of a smell to strong memories is a scientific fact. In my writing class at George Brown College, I teach my students that the sense of smell is most associated with memory. This is because smell is first processed by the olfactory bulb and has direct connections to the two brain areas most strongly connected to emotion and memory formation—the amygdala and the hippocampus. 

Rain intensifies a forest’s mosaic of unique scents from pungent, heavy and sharp to floral, fresh and sweet—based on the forest ecosystem’s qualities. A cedar-hemlock forest will give off different smells than a maple-beech woodland.  

Cedar root among ferns and moss during a misty wet morning, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The conditions are best in the morning. 

The morning light favours photography with a gentleness that softens and deepens everything, and invites intimacy. This is particularly magical if a morning mist settles or rises like stream from the damp earth, slowing time. When it rains, moisture covers everything. It brings out vivid colours and textures.

Infinite shades of green, brown, grey and yellow create a fluid landscape that water paints into a vibrant watercolour scene. I move through it, boots crunching and squelching along the spongy loam path, as though wrapped in a moving artwork.

The moisture carries the warbles and fluting chirps of lively bird song amid the hush of raindrops on vegetation. Each surface has a unique voice. And each rainfall—from light drizzle to hard pour—carries its own tune, rhythm and percussion. It’s all a wonderful symphony of diverse frequency from rich infrasound to beyond. 

Root-strewn cedar-hemlock forest in morning mist, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Perhaps the exhilaration I feel in the dripping forest is because this is when I can better hear Nature’s conversation with herself. When many of the human sounds grow muted in rainfall, Nature’s sounds fill in the gaps. The rain and the fog bring it all close, palpable, filtering. Like connective tissue, the rain unites me with my surroundings. I breathe in the subtle flavours, the whispers and perfumes, then breathe them out. I’m no longer separate. I am stone. Leaf. Tree.

Many of us feel a sense of peace in a forest. I have no doubt that this is the result of several factors including sounds and frequencies (e.g., infrasound), increased negative charge, scents, wood essential oils, genetic heritage and memory, and simple aesthetic appreciation and beauty. But it is so much more than this; water as rain or flowing stream or river plays a major role in this potential euphoric state. 

Dew on grass in the morning, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Water doesn’t just help us live; “Water teaches us how to live,” says Japanese researcher Masaru Emoto. Water teaches us “how to forgive, how to believe. If you open your ears to the possibilities in life, you may just be able to hear the sound of the pure water that flows through your body even now. It is the sound of your life—a melody of healing.” Emoto adds that, “The human body is … a universe of its own. Our bodies consist of some 60 trillion cells, each carrying out its specialized responsibility while simultaneously harmonizing with other cells in a wonderful way to make us who we are. The organs, nerves, and cells of the body have their own unique frequency. The body is like a grand orchestra consisting of the harmonization of various sounds.” 

Water is the great conductor. I love it when it plays me.

Thompson Creek marsh in a spring rain, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Tips For Enjoying Your Walk in the Rain

  • Equip yourself for the rain. Invest in good raingear: a rainproof slicker or jacket, sturdy boots (preferably waterproof), and warm clothes. I prefer to go bareheaded to get the most of my experience; but I don’t mind getting soaked. If you do mind, invest in a good rain hat. Avoid using a rain hood as it will mute too many sounds and sensations, negating the point of the experience.
  • Be prepared to get wet. That’s part of the experience: to feel, see, hear, smell and taste the rain and your environment.
  • Get into the mindset of an explorer. Focus outward with all your senses. Slow your mind and breathing and think with the heart of one in wonder. Think of your five senses and use them all in discovery.
  • Don’t overdo the experience. If you get cold or too wet, the positive aspects lose to the negative aspects of the experience. Pace yourself and be kind to yourself.
  • If you use a camera, like I do, keep it dry by using something waterproof to carry it in. When you use it, either protect it with something or have something to dry it immediately once you’ve used it in the rain. Photographing in the rain can be an incredibly rewarding experience and can produce breathtakingly wonderful images that can not be created in any other weather. But you have to look after your equipment too.
  • Have fun!
Moss with spore capsules in the rain, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Swamp forest in the rain, off a country road, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Geese at the mouth of tributary to the Otonabee River, ON during a spring shower (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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

The Gift of Purring Cat Meditation…

Willow, goddess of Purring Cat Meditation… (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Her name is Willow, and she helps me centre my being…

Willow is a diminutive 18-year old Russian blue cat, who I looked after for some friends in Mississauga. When I first met Willow, she responded with reticence–like all smart discerning cats. She appeared so delicate, I was scared to pick her up. I soon realized that this was a fallacy. That not only could I pick her up but that she loved to be held. I just needed to learn how.

As soon as I did, we became best friends. And it all came together with the Purring Cat Meditation.

“Time to feed me, Nina!” says Willow (photo by Nina Munteanu)

It starts out with her finding me “doing nothing terribly important” like typing on the computer, or something. A soft but decisive tap of the paw on my leg and I have to smile at her intense look up at me with those guileless emerald eyes. I abandon my work–how can I ignore such a plea?– and pick her up. After all, I know what she wants…And so starts our journey toward “nirvana”… the meditative state that will centre our beings and ultimately save the world.

I wander the house with her. We check out each room and make our silent observations. We end up in the bedroom upstairs, where she normally sleeps (except when she’s decided to join me on my bed to sit on me and purr in my face in the middle of the night).

Willow playfully teasing (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In her sanctuary, we drift to the window that faces the back yard, now cloaked in the fresh drifts of winter snow. The window is slightly open and a crisp breeze braces us with the deep scent of winter. I breathe in the fragrance of fallen leaves, mist and bark…

Willow settles into a feather-light pose in the crook of my arms and I hardly feel her. More like she and I have joined to become one. We are both purring …

We remain in Cat-Purr-Meditation for …

I have no idea. It feels like moments. Infinity. It encompasses and defines an entire world. We’ve just created something. Just by being.

“Time to pick me up, Nina!” says Willow (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Cats–well, most animal companions–are incredibly centring and can teach us a lot about the art of simply being.

And meditating…

I write about this more in my article entitled “Wake Up Your Muse: How my Cat Taught Me the Art of Being“. Whenever I run across a bout of writer’s block or need to stoke my muse, instead of trying harder, I stop and reach out for my cat-friend.

And practice Purring-Cat Meditation…

On the road to Wolfville, NS (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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

Smell the Earth and Breathe in the Beauty of this Day

Willows on shore of Otonabee River, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

If COVID-19 has taught us anything I hope it is to live with less and rejoice in it. To be grateful for what we have. To take joy in acts of kindness to others. To live with less is to give more and live lightly and sustainably for this dear planet of ours. Our sustenance. Our friend.

NINA MUNTEANU

Why is it, then, that we have ceased to converse with Her? We no longer communicate with Nature and Gaia. We’ve isolated ourselves with hubris and greed and the pursuit of wealth and power.  And what are these? Do they make us happy? Do they bring joy?

Poplars on a country road in fall, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

We’ve become unruly self-centred bullies who think somehow that Homo sapiens alone was ordained by God to rule this planet. But there is no ruling Her. Why do we still cling to the ancient human-centred philosophies that have created “the other”? Descartes expounded that no other life or being other than “man” had a soul. Or feelings, for that matter. This preposterous notion has carried on for over six hundred years into today’s abhorrent racism, the creation of homo sacer, creation of property, subjugation of women by men, patriarchy, androcracy, cruelty to animals, deforestation and so much more that ails us and the world. 

Moss on log in Cedar swamp forest, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

All indigenous peoples on the planet incorporate Nature in their beliefs, philosophies and way of life. They conduct themselves with humility and the utmost respect for the natural world they are part of. They do not separate themselves from the sacredness of creation and the evolving world of matter and energy. All matter is living and has a soul, connected to the “oneness”. European settlers dismissed their wisdom as primitive and simple. How wrong the settlers were. How simple the settlers were. This is the wisdom of quantum physics. Have we—their descendants—changed?

White / red pine forest, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

COVID-19 is but one iteration of a conversation Nature is trying to have with us. She is talking to us in words of climate change, storms, disease and pandemic. She is telling us something and we aren’t listening. Her message is clear: live in partnership. Live in humility and joy. Live the galanic life of cooperation, respect, and kindness to ALL THINGS in a world with no “others.” If we don’t start listening, we will find ourselves more than alone…

Poplar forest in northern Ontario in the fall (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

All in Nature is a gift.

In her book “Gathering Moss” Robin Wall Kimmerer shares this wisdom:

“In indigenous ways of knowing…every being is endowed with certain gifts, its own intelligence, its own spirit, its own story. Our stories tell us that the Creator gave us these stories as original instructions. The foundation of education is to discover that gift within us and learn to use it well.”

ROBIN WALL KIMMERER

Kimmerer shares that the sage “draws its up water to its leaves for the rabbits, to shelter the baby quail…Mosses clothe the rocks, purify the water, and soften the nests of birds.” The tree provides a whole ecosystem that shelters, feeds and nurtures so many organisms and its environment. Every part of a tree is involved; trunk, bark and leaf to cambium, xylem and phloem. And this from when a squirrel first embeds into the ground the nut poised to germinate to a fallen tree in full decay and returning to the soil.

Moss-covered Eastern cedar tree grows on decaying prone cedar in swamp forest (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

What is our gift?

Go out into Nature. Touch a tree. Tell it that it is beautiful. Thank it for its shade. Feel its corky bark. Feel the miracle of creation sing through you. Touch a leaf, feel its supple texture and filigree of intricate markings. Imagine the chloroplasts swimming inside, capturing the gift of energy from the sun in the dance of quantum life. Imagine that energy surging through tissue, cell, interstitial water. Then in a deep sigh hear it release its Great Breath of Life in the most beautiful song. Its gift to the world. 

Smell the earth and breathe in the beauty of this day.

Ancient red cedar in Lighthouse Park, West Vancouver (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Maple swamp in Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Marsh stream off a country road in fall, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Swamp forest, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Decaying beech and ash leaves, Little Rouge River, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Thompson Creek marsh, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Willows at mouth of Thompson Creek, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Reference:

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. 2003. “Gathering Moss.” Oregon State University Press, Corvalis. 168pp.

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