Nina Munteanu Interviewed on her latest short story “Robin’s Last Song”

Left: cover of Apex Magazine Issue #128 in which my story appears; Right: cover of 2021 anthology published in fall 2022.

I was recently interviewed by Alberta writer Simon Rose about my latest eco-fiction short story “Robin’s Last Song”, which was recently published by Apex Magazine in its 2021 Compilation Anthology. Below is the interview:

Simon: Congratulations on publishing your short story “Robin’s Last Song” in Issue 128 of Apex Magazine and soon in the Apex Magazine 2021 Compilation Anthology. I’m curious about the title? Whose last song is it? Is Robin the name of a human or the bird?

Nina: Both, actually. The title is both literal and metaphoric. The premise of the story is based on the alarming trend of disappearing birds. The robin, a common bird in Ontario where the story takes place, is a good sentinel for what is happening with bird populations around the world. Robin is also the protagonist’s name; she was named after the robin, her mother’s favourite bird.

Recently fledged robin rests on patio chair, Mississauga, ON (photo by Merridy Cox)

Simon: Robin’s Last Song is obviously eco-fiction. What’s it about?

Nina: Robin’s Last Song first appeared in the #128 Issue of Apex Magazine in 2021. It tells the story of Robin, a blind elder whose digital app failed to warn the world of the sudden global loss of birds with disastrous ecological consequences. After years of living in self-exile and getting around poorly on sight-enhancing technology, a discovery gives her new hope in rekindling her talents in the field of Soundscape Ecology.

Discarded robin’s egg to deter predators, found on a woody trail in Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Simon: How did you come to write this particular story about birds and what is “soundscape ecology”?

Nina: Since I was a child, the burgeoning SF writer in me had dared to imagine a world without the sound of birds—I thought it utterly bleak and, recognizing an ever-polluting world, I feared for my feathered relatives. I didn’t follow through with a story until September 2019, when I was approached by Oliver Hockenhull, the guest editor of subTerrain Magazine, to write a piece on technology and the environment. The timing was interesting; I’d just read two impactful things that resonated with me.

The first was the October issue of Science Magazine that reported a staggering decline in North American birds. Kenneth V. Rosenberg and his team of researchers had estimated that three billion birds of various species had disappeared in Canada and the US since 1970. That’s a third of the entire bird population lost in five decades. To make it clear, we aren’t talking about rare birds going extinct; these declines are of common birds throughout the world. The wrens, sparrows, starlings, and, of course, the robins. I was devastated; I could not imagine a world without the comforting sound of birds. What would it be like if the birds all disappeared? This brought me back to my childhood fears.

The second article I ran across talked about an emerging bioacoustics tool, soundscape ecology, that measures biodiversity and the health of an ecosystem, mostly through bird sound which well represents ecosystem health. Bernie Krause, a soundscape ecologist who had been conducting long-term recordings for decades noted how the dawn chorus in many areas had greatly diminished if not vanished altogether.

Bernie Krause, soundscape ecologist recording a soundscape in Florida

I now had my premise and my connection with technology. The title of my original story for subTerrain was “Out of the Silence”. This story focused on the technical aspects of the premise and solution. When I was approached for a story in February 2021 by Francesco Verso, the guest editor of Apex Magazine Issue #128, I rewrote the story with a stronger focus on the protagonist’s personal journey and connection with the bird catastrophe, how she coped with Asperger’s syndrome and the failure of her tool to predict the disaster. Hence the change in the title to “Robin’s Last Song”.

Cover of subTerrain Issue #85 in which “Out of the Silence” appears

Simon: Without wanting to bring in spoilers, isn’t there a twist to the story, suggesting a cautionary tale that touches on the dangers of genetic engineering?

Nina: Yes, thanks for bringing that up. I was already primed with research into genetic engineering for the sequel to my 2020 eco-novel “A Diary in the Age of Water.” I wanted to make the bird disappearance in “Robin’s Last Song” into a dramatic catastrophe linked to our own dangerous ecological tampering. I had the notion of using a gene hacking disaster to create ecological calamity and how this might affect birds. I wanted to make “Robin’s Last Song” a realizable work of fiction in which science and technology play both instigator of disaster and purveyor of salvation. Our biogenetic technology comes to us as a double-edged sword in the form of gene-editing, proteomics, DNA origami, and CRISPR—just to name a few. These biotechnological innovations promise a cornucopia of enhancements: from increased longevity and health in humans to giant disease-resistant crops. But, for every ‘magic’ in technology, there is often unintended consequence. Unforeseen—or even ignored—casualties and risks. I suppose my ultimate question with this story is: will synthetic biology redesign Nature to suit hubris or serve evolution? Science doesn’t make those decisions. We do.

Simon: Tell us a little bit about the Apex Magazine 2021 Compilation Anthology (that came out in both print and digital versions August).

Nina: The 350+ page anthology compiles all original short stories published in Apex Magazine during the 2021 calendar year. Published through Apex Book Company, it features 48 stories from a diverse group of new and established writers and the cover features award-winning artwork “Entropic Garden” by Marcela Bolivar. Check this link for more about the anthology and where to get it.

Cover art for Apex 2021 Compilation Anthology (art by Marcela Bolivar)

Simon: Are you still coaching writers and such?

Nina: Yes, I am, Simon. Did you know that I’ve been coaching writers to publication for close to twenty years? When I’m not teaching writing at the University of Toronto or George Brown College, I help writers with craft on their novels and short stories through my coaching services. You can find out more at: www.NinaMunteanu.me.

Nina teaches a writing class in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia

Simon: Tell us a little about any writing projects you’re working on these days.

Nina: I’m always busy with science articles for various online and print magazines and my own blogs. I’m also currently finishing a speculative eco-fiction novel that is a loose sequel to “A Diary in the Age of Water.” It’s set throughout Canada, from the Maritimes to the Arctic Circle, and spans a wide timeline from the Halifax Explosion of 1917 to the vast NAWAPA reservoir created a century and a half later by drowning British Columbia’s Rocky Mountain Trench. It’s a fast-paced thriller that focuses on four homeless people who battle corporate intrigue, kidnapping, human experiments and a coming climate plague.

Robin’s First Song: fledgling sits on a black walnut tree branch, ON (photo by Merridy Cox)

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.

Apex Magazine to release 2021 Anthology This Fall with “Robin’s Last Song” by Nina Munteanu

Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds. The early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.”—Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Apex Magazine will release its 2021 Anthology this fall with my short story, Robin’s Last Song in it. They are running an Apex Kickstarter Campaign until April 30 to fund the anthology.

Apex Issue 128 and upcoming Anthology for 2021

Robin’s Last Song first appeared in the #128 Issue of Apex Magazine in 2021. It tells the story of Robin, a blind elder whose digital app failed to warn the world of the sudden global loss of birds with disastrous ecological consequences. After years of living in self-exile and getting around poorly on sight-enhancing technology, a discovery gives her new hope in rekindling her talents in the field of Soundscape Ecology. Here is how it begins:

May, 2071

I rock on the cedar swing on my veranda and hear the wind rustling through the gaunt forest. An abandoned nest, the forest sighs in low ponderous notes. It sighs of a gentler time. A time when birds filled it with song. A time when large and small creatures — unconcerned with the distant thrum and roar of diggers and logging trucks — roamed the thick second-growth forest. The discord was still too far away to bother the wildlife. But their killer lurked far closer in deadly silence. And it caught the birds in the bliss of ignorance. The human-made scourge came like a thief in the night and quietly strangled all the birds in the name of progress.

Robin’s egg, discarded in the forest to distract predators, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Bird Population Decline

The number of birds in North America has declined by three billion, some 30 percent, over the last half-century. The October 2019 issue of Science magazine reported a staggering decline in North American birdsKenneth V. Rosenberg and his team of researchers estimated that three billion birds of various species have disappeared in Canada and the US since 1970.

That’s a third of the entire bird population lost in five decades.

Bird population decline since 1970

In North America, warbler populations dropped by 600 million. Blackbirds by 400 million. The common robins, cardinals, and blue jays had noticeably declined. Even starlings—once considered a kind of fast-breeding pest—have dwindled by 50%. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services have determined that three-quarters of Earth’s terrestrial and two-thirds of the its marine environments have been severely altered by human actions.

Plowing of fields, deforestation, wetland draining, climate change and other land use clearing and treatments have caused great habitat loss. In addition, neonicotinoid pesticides make it harder for birds to put on weight needed for migration, delaying their travel.

Robin fledgling rests on a patio chair, ON (photo by Merridy Cox)

Common bird species are vital to ecosystems. They control pests, pollinate flowers, spread seeds and help regenerate forests. When these birds disappear, their former habitats lose their functionality. “Declines in your common sparrow or other little brown bird may not receive the same attention as historic losses of bald eagles or sandhill cranes, but they are going to have much more of an impact,” said Hillary Young, a conservation biologist at the University of California. Kevin Gaston, a conservation biologist at the University of Exeter, lamented that: “This is the loss of nature.”

The Trump administration heinously and foolishly demolished or maimed several key bird protection acts, which hopefully the new administration has or will reinstate in full force: Migratory Bird Treaty Act; Clean Air Act; Clean Water Act; National Fish and Wildlife Act; and the Endangered Species Act.

Bernie Krause uses soundscape to measure ecosystem function

Useful Tool: Soundscape Ecology

The new science of soundscape ecology can analyze the health of an ecosystem. Bernie Krause, a soundscape ecologist who has been conducting long-term recordings for many decades recently noted that in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, not far from his home in Northern California, “the effect of global warming and resulting drought has created the first completely silent spring I’ve ever experienced.” Stuart Winter at Express reports that “many of the iconic birds whose mating calls ring out across woodlands and open fields during early May are vanishing at an alarming rate.”

Rachel Carson and her iconic book, “Silent Spring”

Silent Spring: Rachel Carson’s Ominous Prediction

Rachel Carson was nothing short of prophetic when she published Silent Spring in 1962 (in reference to the dawn chorus most noticeable in spring during breeding). Silent Spring cautioned burgeoning ag-biotech companies (like Monsanto—now Bayer—Sygenta, Dow, and DuPont) who were carelessly and flagrantly spraying fields with pesticides and herbicides—at the time DDT was the main culprit. This would soon become a GMO world where gene-hacked plants of monocultures can withstand the onslaught of killer pesticides like neonicotinoids (currently killing bees everywhere) and Roundup.  Roundup is a carcinogenic glyphosate-based weed killer that has recently been shown to kill beneficial insects like bees) and has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, ADHD, birth defects, autism, and several kinds of cancer in humans.

Despite Carson’s warnings in 1962 and despite some action eventually taken (e.g. the ban on use of DDT in 1972—the precursor to Roundup and other neonicotinoids currently in use), the use of chemicals in big ag-industry has increased over five-fold since the 1960s. And this is destroying our bee populations, other beneficial insects, beneficial weeds, small animal populations and—of course—our bird life.

And it’s making us sick too.

Three baby goldfinches in a nest in a staghorn sumac shrub, ON (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.

Embracing the Paradox of Creative Destruction

Beech tree in snow-covered cedar forest, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

I understand something of paradox. As an ecologist, I deal with it all the time. Destruction in creation and creation in destruction lies ingrained in the life-cycles of everything on this planet. A forest fire can destroy life but in so doing creates a more vibrant, healthier forest. Nature reveals many such examples from its circular patterns and fractal self-organization to its infinite spirals.

The Ouroboros is an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon swallowing its own tail to form a circle. It represents self-reflexivity or cyclicality, especially of something constantly re-creating itself. As the 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 Gnosticism, the ouroboros symbolizes eternity and the soul of the world.

Ecologist C.S. Holling recognized ecosystems as non-linearself-organizing and continually adapting through cycles of change from expansion and prosperity to creative destruction and reorganization. In his classic paper, entitled: “Simplifying the complex: the paradigms of ecological function and structure” (1987), Holling suggested that the experience of instability maintains the structure and general patterns of ecosystem behaviour; that Nature ‘learns’ and accommodates with time. 

In the final analysis, it is a matter of scale.

We can’t expect the natural world around us to run smoothly and safely for our benefit. New diseases, pollution, species extinction, and climate change are all results of unexpected impacts, whether human-caused or not. Though incredibly elegant, Nature is not simple. Scale is something you can’t see or easily measure and assess if you are in it. Scale is like hindsight.

The systems of Gaia are complex from the tiniest cell to the complex planet itself. Weather, for instance, is a “chaotic system” that displays a fractal structure and a range of chaotic behaviour on many scales. Temperature, air pressure, wind speed and humidity are all sensitive to initial conditions and interrelated in multi-scales.

Says Brian Arthur, professor at Stanford University: 

The complex approach is total Taoist. In Taoism there is no inherent order. “The world starts with one, and the one become two and the two become many, and the many lead to myriad things.” The universe in Taoism is perceived as vast, amorphous, and ever changing. You can never nail it down. The elements always stay the same, yet they are always arranging themselves. So, it’s like a kaleidoscope: the world is a matter of patterns that change, that partly repeat, but never quite repeat, that are always new and different.

BRIAN ARTHUR

Western scientists are just beginning to appreciate this through the application of complexity theory and chaos theory. This is something the eastern world has “known” since ancient times: humility before nature; respect for richness and diversity of life; generation of complexity from simplicity; the need to understand the whole to understand the part.

I wish you a safe and wealthy 2021: a year’s wealth of unexpected wonder, of genuine love, of unguarded honor, and dazzling bravery. There is no wonder without tolerance; no love without humility; no honor without sacrifice; and no bravery without fear. I wish you the gift of unbridled compassion. 

As Dante Sarpé (in my story, Arc of Time) said: Without compassion to fill it, knowledge is an empty house, casting its shadow on our courage to embrace the paradoxes in our lives: to feel love in the face of adversity; grace when confronted with betrayal.

Happy New Year!

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.

Beech tree in leaf amid cedars and moss-covered boulders in Jackson Creek Park, ON (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.