The Ecology of Story: Revealing Hidden Characters of the Forest

 Story is place, and place is character—Nina Munteanu

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

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

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

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

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Cedar tree (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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

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

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

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

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White pine bark scales with tiny beetle bore holes, Little Rouge, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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

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

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

Fallen Heroes, Mother Archetypes & Saprophyte Characters

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Woodpecker hole in a snag (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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

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

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

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

Mother Archetypes

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

stages of tree life

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

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

 

Heralds, Tricksters and Enablers

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Rotting maple log (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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

rotting maple log

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

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

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

Spalting

Spalting through zone lines by carbon cushion fungus, Little Rouge, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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Hypoxylon fungus (photo N. Munteanu)

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

Blue-green fungus on log

Green and Blue Stain fungus (photo N. Munteanu)

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

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

Intarsia using blue-green spalted wood

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

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

Shapeshifting Characters

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Moss in forest litter (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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

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

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

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

Symbiotic Characters

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

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Physchia stellaris lichen with fruiting bodies (apothecia), Little Rouge, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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

Forest as Character

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

Reflections: The Meaning of Water (a talk for the Lewis Creek Association)

Nina Louis Merridy

Nina Munteanu with Louis DuPont and Merridy Cox with Lewis Creek behind

A short time ago, I was invited to give a talk on water to the Lewis Creek Association during their annual meeting for 2019 to help celebrate their recent accomplishments. Here is their write up:

Join our special guest, Canadian ecologist and author Nina Munteanu, who will discuss the many dimensions of water. She describes personally the curiosity and emotional connection with nature that compels us to caretake our environment with love versus a sense of duty. Her book “Water Is…The Meaning of Water” is an ode to and discourse about water, the indispensable and mysterious element that is the foundation of life here on our blue planet. The book is a fascinating catalogue of the many amazing and anomalous qualities of water, and has become a favorite of several Board members. She trained in limnology, the study of lakes, and has consulted in the aquatic sciences for many years. The author of over a dozen fiction and non-fiction books, she currently teaches writing at the University of Toronto and George Brown College in Toronto, Canada. We are delighted to have Nina join us and share her insights and concerns about this substance we have been concerned with over the last 30 or so years.

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At Cafe Barrio in Burlington, Vermont, Nina checks the map for directions…and finds her way…

I chose to drive to Vermont from Toronto with good friend and editor Merridy Cox. We crossed into USA near Cornwall and drove through New York state to Rousse’s Point, then into Vermont over the Vermont Bridge over Lake Champlain. We took the scenic route along the islands to the village of Charlotte, where we met with some of the Lewis Creek Board members and enjoyed a wonderful home-cooked supper at executive director Marty Illick’s country home along with Board president Andrea Morgante, board member Louis DuPont, and several other guests.

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Merridy Cox photographing Lake Champlain just east of the Vermont Bridge

The event took place in the large converted barn of Philo Ridge Farm, a 400-acre historic dairy farm now also running as an educational institution of sustainable practices and store and restaurant. The barn is now a state-of-the-art sustainably built facility with a combination of rustic and sophisticated in its design of rich wood walls, large windows and beams with high vaulted ceiling; ideal for a presentation.

I spoke about my roots in the Eastern Townships of Quebec…and where they led me:

I was born in a small town in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, a gently rolling and verdant farming community, where water—l’eau—bubbles and gurgles in at least two languages.

I spent a lot of my childhood days close to the ground, observing, poking, catching, prodding, destroying and creating. Perhaps it was this early induction to the organic fragrances of soil, rotting leaves and moss that set my path in later life as a limnologist, environmental consultant and writer of eco-fiction.

Nina EasternTownships

I followed my older brother and sister to the nearby forest and local stream. We stirred soil, flower petals and other interesting things with water to fuel “magic potions” that we inflicted on some poor insect. Yes, I was a bit destructive as a child—and I took a lot for granted. Like water. There was so much of it, after all. It was clean and easily accessed, fresh from the tap.

When I gave birth to my son, Kevin, I felt a miracle pass through me. Kevin became my doorway back to wonder. His curiosity was boundless and lured me into a special world of transformation.

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Nina Munteanu and her son hiking in B.C.

I took time off work to spend with Kevin when he was young. We went on great trips, from the local mall, where we had a hot chocolate and played with Lego, to the local beach on the Fraser River, where we explored the rocks. When he was no more than three, I took him on endless adventures in the city and its surroundings. We didn’t have to go far. The mud puddles of a new subdivision after a rain were enough to keep our attention for dozens of minutes. We became connoisseurs of mud. The best kind was “chocolate mud,” with a consistency and viscosity that created the best crater when a rock was thrown into it.

Kevin and I often explored the little woodland near our house. We made “magic potions” out of nightshade flowers, fir needles, loam and moss; we fueled our concoctions with the elixir of water from a stagnant pool. This time the little insects weren’t molested.

Travelling the world has helped me realize that I was blessed with an abundance of water. I lived my entire life in a country of plentiful and healthy water. And for most of that time I didn’t even realize it. Canada holds one fifth of the world’s fresh water in lakes, rivers, and wetlands, as well as in our underground aquifers and glaciers. Canada’s wetlands, which cover more than 1.2 million square kilometres, makes Canada the largest wetland area in the world.*

The folks who attended my presentation were wonderfully receptive, gracious and kind. They bought all my books too! I felt so welcomed by this community concerned about the land and their water. I was also impressed with the dedication, organization and knowledge of this non-profit conservation initiative.

Presentation venue

Venue

Lewis Creek Association

The Lewis Creek Association (LCA) started in 1990, when a group of concerned citizens and the Hinesburg Land Trust came together to conserve a critical stretch of wetland habitat bordering Lewis Creek in Hinesburg, Vermont. Lewis Creek is one of Vermont’s most ecologically diverse streams and suffers from increasing habitat degradation due to river encroachment by development and roads, land use change, and more extreme weather events.

LCA’s mission is to protect, maintain and restore ecological health while promoting social values that support sustainable community development in the Lewis Creek and LaPlatte watershed regions and Vermont generally. Through education and action, LCA works to:

  • Restore water quality, stream stability, and native wildlife habitat
  • Protect and restore important and diverse natural areas
  • Conserve productive and scenic lands that contribute to rural character and economy
  • Support growth compatible with important natural systems and working landscapes
  • Strengthen and support local conservation initiatives and opportunities
  • Model active participation and respect for differences

With a hard-working volunteer board and a part-time paid consultant, LCA facilitates educational, planning, and field work programs involving dozens of volunteers. This work assists town planning and facilitates the restoration and conservation of important Champlain Valley natural areas of high public value.

LCA Annual Party 2019

Their track record has been impressive. Since forming their organization, the LCA has spearheaded and conducted numerous initiatives. Highlights include: annual water quality sampling in six streams and rivers; biodiversity studies of stream corridors, conservation and restoration work in watershed towns; invasive aquatic plant control in local areas; helped educate citizens on ecological improvements; actively participated in implementing VT’s Water Quality Law, Act 64; generated Water Quality Scorecard Maps to track pollution problems; and designed the “Ahead of the Storm” education program used throughout the watershed region.

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In the Moment-anthology copy*A version of this talk is available in an article I wrote called “Coming Home to Water,” which first appeared in the 2016 anthology In the Moment (A Hopeful Sign) edited by Gary Doi. It was reprinted in 2018 The Earth We Love (Mississauga Writers) edited by Elizabeth Banfalvi; and again in 2019 in The Literary Connection IV: Then and Now (IOWI) edited by Cheryl Antao Xavier.

 

 

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Lake Champlain, looking west from Vermont to New York at Vermont Bridge (right) (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

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

Why Women Will Save the Planet

I was recently told I was fear-mongering and missing the facts by a person on Facebook when I revealed the environmental dangers of using (and abusing) single-use plastics (specifically Styrofoam); earlier that day a gentleman called me an anarchist after I promoted individual responsibility over government and corporate responsibility on the issue of bottled water in Canada.

At the time, these accusations upset me—I’m a scientist, after all, and truth is #1. Then I realised that they were part of my journey toward activism to save this planet and humanity along with it. It was, in fact, a good day for me. I did have the facts; and they were scary. And, in revealing them and expressing my opinions, I had succeeded in breaking people’s inertia and had challenged them to think outside their comfort zone.  I had created fear in them and I had created anarchy in their ordered world. This promted a strong defensive response. The more intense their defence, the more I’d upset their comfortable inertia. That is what happens when you break through a hegemony or dogma and challenge people to re-evaluate and change their actions or habits—essentially forcing them out of their complacency and bringing it back to personal responsibility.

In both cases, I’d brought it back to personal responsibility and personal action. Too many of us settle for a narrative in which others—often not clearly identified—are responsible–not us.

So, perhaps I am inciting fear. Fear in those who have become or choose to remain too complacent. Good; we are in a planetary and existential crisis. And perhaps I am rather an anarchist; disrupting a system and self-belief that is entrenched and not sustainable.

But that comes at a price.

Greta Thunberg raincoat

Greta Thunberg begins a wave of climate activism

I’m thinking of young climate activist Greta Thunberg, who recently captured the attention of the world in her brave sail across the Atlantic to attend the UN’s Climate Summit and other meetings in the US in addition to her climate strike and rally march in Montreal, Canada, which drew close to half a million people (old and young).

Greta Thunberg Sails Carbon-neutral  Yacht To New York

Greta Thunberg

Earlier, at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, Greta delivered her now iconic speech:

“Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people, to give them hope,” Thunberg said, “But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.”

In a recent poll, one out of three Germans said that Thunberg has changed their views on climate change. But that, too, has come at a price.

A tsunami of rage and shameless vitriol was unleashed by conservative men (many with close ties to the fossil fuel profit machine) at this young and brave girl during her 15-day trip across the Atlantic. Their attacks have grown increasingly more personal and vulgar as she has gained world attention. For example, political scientist, economist and climate “skeptic” Bjorn Lomborg (associated with the Heartland Institute and Competitive Enterprise Institute) repeatedly mocked and criticized the 16-year old activist. Using highly inappropriate and unprofessional language (the worst I won’t repeat here), he and others have accused her of being a “puppet”, “naïve”, “unrealistic”, and a “fanatic.” Others like Australian columnist Andrew Bolt have personally attacked Thunberg with reprehensible and boorish remarks about her age and mental health.

Lobbyists Against Greta

oil-profit lobbyists behind shameless vitriol against Greta Thunberg (from Desmog UK)

Andrew Mitrovica’s Opinion piece entitled “Who Is Afraid of Greta Thunberg?” provides eloquent summary: “Of course, the marauding swarm of vitriolic right-wing climate-change deniers see Thunberg—not how the prophetic Zinn envisioned her—but as a tiny, pretentious zealot who threatens the existing order. Their order. Their comforts. Their traditional ‘way of life’.”

Greta—who wears a windbreaker that reads “Unite Behind the Science”— responded in a brave and wonderful tweet:

GretaThunberg-Tweet

Her tweet was followed immediately by one by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:

 

AlexandriaOcasio-Cortez Tweet

This follows a recent finding by researchers that 99% of Republicans are science illiterate and 44% believe that the scientific method can be used to produce any conclusion the researcher wants. Of course the whole point of the scientific method is to prevent this.

Soon after, Martin Gelin wrote an article entitled, “The Misogyny of Climate Deniers” in the August 2019 issue of The New Republic. The subtitle reads: “Why do right-wing men hate Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez so much? Researchers have some troubling answers to that question.”

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Greta Thunberg sailing to New York

Gelin writes, “On [Thunberg’s] first day of sailing, a multi-millionaire Brexit activist (Arron Banks) tweeted that he wished a freak accident would destroy her boat. A conservative Australian columnist (Andrew Bolt) called her a ‘deeply disturbed messiah of the global warming movement,’ while the British far-right activist David Vance attacked the ‘sheer petulance of this arrogant child.’ … Former Trump staffer Steve Milloy recently called Thunberg a ‘teenage puppet,’ and claimed that ‘the world laughs at this Greta charade,’ while a widely shared far-right meme showed Trump tipping The Statue of Liberty to crush her boat.”

Fierce and undeterred by cohorts of grown human males unable to deal with her, Greta Thunberg gave a scorching speech at the United Nations during her visit to America: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” she admonished a crowd of world leaders. “How dare you.” Her equally scorching look of Donald Trump who rudely ignored her to mumble some nonsense to the press, has become a popular meme. The mashup by Fatboy Slim of Greta Thunberg’s UN speech “Right here, right now” went viral on YouTube.

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Greta Thunberg and Donald Trump at the UN climate summit

Of course, this was followed by utterly shameless and cruel vulgarisms by adult bullies that included suggestions to punish her and give her a spanking.

Disinterested in whether she’s liked and undeterred by childish name calling, the activist teenager remained resolute with her weapon: shame.  At every opportunity, Greta Thunberg steadfastly called out adults over twenty years her senior on what they have failed to do; she did it in words that are simple, precise and direct.

After Senator Tom Carper tried to placate her by telling her that young people would soon have the chance to run for office themselves, she returned: “We don’t want to become politicians; we don’t want to run for office. We want you to unite behind the science.”

Carrying herself with admirable focus and buoyed by her dedication to her cause, Greta Thunberg delivered a scintillating speech to close to half a million climate marchers in Montreal:

“Some would say we are wasting lesson time; we say we are changing the world… The people have spoken. And we will continue to speak until our leaders listen and act. We are the change and change is coming.”

greta thunberg speech in montreal

Greta Thunberg speaking in Montreal

In a recent article in the Washington Post, entitled “Greta Thunberg Weaponized Shame in an Era of Shamelessness”, Monica Hesse writes: “We live in an era that has become impervious to shame. An era defined by a president who views it as a weakness. Shame has become an antiquated emotion and a useless one. It’s advantageous, we’ve learned, to respond to charges of indecency with more indecency: attacks, misdirection, faux-victimhood.”

But real shaming—the kind that mothers do with their errant boy-bullies—is precisely what Greta is doing. This kind of shaming cuts deep, because it is the deep and recognizable truth. And it is done through the “mother archetype”—the most powerful energy on this planet.

Gelin tells us that the prominently older white men who are leading these attacks on Greta Thunberg (and by association, other prominent female climate activists such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) “is consistent with a growing body of research linking gender reactionaries to climate-denialism.”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Scientists Jonas Anshelm and Martin Hultman in the journal NORMA  analyzed the language of a focus group of climate skeptics, to discover a major theme:

“for climate skeptics … it was not the environment that was threatened, it was a certain kind of modern industrial society built and dominated by their form of masculinity.”

On the heels of the #MeToo movement, climate activism—largely led by strong females—appears to threaten gender identity of conservative males. Right-wing nationalism, anti-feminism, and climate denialism appear inextricably linked. I would add that their lack of respect for and acknowledgement of indigenous peoples is by default part of the package, given that indigenous peoples are so tied to the land and the ecosystem (being destroyed). One need only look to what is currently happening in Brazil for an atrocious example of this kind of male-bully behaviour.

Climate science for skeptics becomes feminized and viewed as “oppositional to assumed entitlements of masculine primacy,” write Hultman and Paul Pule in the 2019 book “Climate Hazards, Disasters, and Gender Ramifications.” Hultman identifies a set of values and behaviours connected to a form of masculinity identified with industrial patriarchy. These males “see the world as separated between humans and nature. They believe humans are obliged to use nature and its resources to make products out of them. And they have a risk perception that nature will tolerate all types of waste. It’s a risk perception that doesn’t think of nature as vulnerable and as something that is possible to be destroyed. For them, economic growth is more important than the environment,” which they choose not to understand—just like women.

The gender gap in the United States is characterized by men who perceive climate activism as inherently feminine. This was demonstrated in a 2017 article in Scientific American entitled, “Men Resist Green Behavior as Unmanly.”  Researchers Aaron R. Brough and James E.B. Wilkie argue that “women have long surpassed men in the arena of environmental action; across age groups and countries, females tend to live a more eco-friendly lifestyle. Compared to men, women litter less, recycle more, and leave a smaller carbon footprint.” While some researchers have demonstrated that women’s prioritization of altruism may help explain this gender gap in green behaviour, the research done by Brough and Wilkie’s—involving more than 2,000 American and Chinese participants— showed that men linked eco-friendliness with femininity and a risk to their masculinity. These findings, coupled with a natural inclination for anti-feminism by older white conservative males, places them at the centre of a major reactionary backlash against climate action.

Gelin ends on a sober note: “As conservative parties become increasingly tied to nationalism, and misogynist rhetoric dominates the far-right, Hultman and his fellow researchers at Chalmers University worry that the ties between climate skeptics and misogyny will strengthen. What was once a practical problem, with general agreement on the facts, has become a matter of identity. And fear of change is powerful motivation.”

Nina-Kevin playing

Nina Munteanu hiking with her son

When fear powers motivation, we must counter with something stronger: hope through action, compassion, and community. And, again, women are in great abundance of these.

“Keep inspiring and organizing,” says Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to young Greta. “We’re going to save the planet. All of us, together.”

We are all, after all, “the mother.” So, while the old guard of conservative immature men obsess in saving their egos and identities in this crisis, and put up walls of vitriol, name-calling, “flaming”, and “trolling,” it’s up to us, mature women, to really save the planet, the mother of us all.

So, why will women save the planet? Because “Mother Knows Best,” after all…

Time for a paradigm shift. We’re not in the fifties anymore…

 

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