Earthstar Goes To Tea

Collared Earthstar (Geastrum triplex) on mossy cedar growing on rotting cedar logs of Trent swamp forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Earthstar lived in a verdant cedar forest, under a soft dappled light, where the fresh smell of moss and loam mixed with the pungency of cedar. It was a good life, thought Earthstar, gazing up at the tall canopy of green above her. She lived among many like her, scattered on and between old cedar logs that had piled on the ground and rotted into a rich woody ‘soil.’ It was just right for earthstars who grew deep in the warm, moist rot, covered in a carpet of moss and ferns. Cedar saplings had even sprouted on the rotting log piles, and grown into large mature trees. That was not surprising, given the number of caches the red squirrels left on the spongy rotting logs.

Red squirrel on a tree (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Fully opened Earthstar and sister buds in mossy humus of rotting cedar logs, Trent cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

When she was just a young bud, Earthstar had pushed herself up from her parent mycelium through the woody humus then cracked open her outer shell to reveal her inner spore sac and beaked mouth. The outer shell formed arms of a ‘star’ that pushed back, raising her up to meet the world. When she surveyed her mossy terrain, she noticed that she was one of the earliest earthstars to emerge. Most of her sisters were still budding through the moss and duff. She was eager to fulfill her path. Soon she would be ready to deliver her precious spores to the world—

“Hey there!” a beaky voice called to her.

Earthstar recognized a Beaked Earthstar ambling along the rot pile using its outer skin ‘legs.’ She herself was a Collared Earthstar, and although she had long dislodged from the woody soil and become independent of the ground she sat on, she didn’t normally walk about like this Beaked Earthstar, known for its itinerant lifestyle. He was a rare and somewhat mysterious earthstar, not often seen, and somewhat of a legend. In fact, it was the first time she saw him and she felt tickled that he’d stopped in his wanderings to greet her.

Beaked earthstar, showing many arms that keep it upright, Trent cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“I’m on my way to town,” said Beaky cheerfully. “Want to come along? There’s so much more to see than this silly forest.”

“No thanks,” said Earthstar, overcoming the flush of excitement at being invited by this exotic drifter. She’d heard about ‘the town’ but knew nothing of it—and decided she didn’t want to. Besides, the forest wasn’t silly, she thought peevishly. It was her home. It nourished her. It was where her family was. Earthstar was content.

“Suit yourself,” said Beaky. “But you don’t know what you’re missing! There’s a river out there, and strange but wonderful creatures and moving things on wheels that carry them from place to place. And the fine ladies have something called ‘High Tea,’ which is quite splendid.”

“I think this forest is quite splendid enough,” she retorted a little rudely.

“Ah… But you won’t truly know your place until you’re out of place,” Beaky said. Then with a slight nod of his beaky head, he left her and soon disappeared along the forest path that wound its way into somewhere.

What did Beaky mean by his last comment? wondered Earthstar. How can one be out of place? And why would one wish to be? As time went by, Earthstar began to wonder about that ‘somewhere’ and those wonderful creatures and fine ladies and that thing called ‘High Tea.’ And before she realized it, she was no longer content. She became very curious about that ‘somewhere’ that lay beyond her forest home.

In a sudden thrilling act, Earthstar decided to leave the forest to see the world. And once she thought of it, she did it. That’s the way of earthstars. So, within moments, Earthstar was wandering along the same forest path that Beaky had earlier taken. She took Moss with her, tucked safely inside her ‘legs’ as companion.

Path, damp from a morning rain, through cedar swamp forest in Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Earthstar rests on small root snag on leaf-strewn trail through Trent cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Path through Trent cedar swamp forest with ash and poplar in early fall, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The path wound through dense cedar forest, mixed with birch, ash, poplar and the occasional oak and maple tree. Earthstar passed many relatives. Flaming waxcaps dotted the rotting logs and ground, looking like dance partners. Graceful Fairy Fingers thrust up through the duff on either side of the path along with Ashen Coral fungi, whose delicate ‘fingers’ reached up like praying hands. By the feet of one poplar tree, Earthstar saw a party of Scaly Ink Caps loitering on one side and Striate Bird’s Nest fungi having a party on the other. Stalwart boletes towered majestic, anchored to a mossy slope. A single shield mushroom with its smart lilac cap had burst out of a cedar stump and leaned into the sun with joy.

Waxcaps on decaying cedar wood in Trent forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Fairy Fingers in cedar duff in Trent forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Ashen coral fungi on ground of Trent cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Scaly ink caps growing at the base of a poplar tree in Trent forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Striated Bird’s Nest fungi at the base of a poplar tree in Trent forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Bolete on mossy hill of Trent cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Shield fungus grows out of rotting cedar stump in Trent forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

A group of Scaly Pholiota graced an old maple tree and not much farther a gaggle of Wolf’s Milk spread orange fungus joy over a decaying log. Conifer Tufts created a fairy ring around an old ash tree. Witches hats stood at the feet of a huge cedar tree, bowing with shy wisdom to her. There was a cheerful family of brilliant Scarlet Fairy Helmets tucked in the mossy undergrowth of a buckthorn thicket.  She even saw a crowd of her closest relatives, Lycoperdon puffballs clutching a rotting birch log, and waved to them.

Scaly Pholiota on an old maple tree in Trent mixed cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Wolf’s Milk slime mould on rotting log in Trent forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Conifer Tufts form a fairy ring around an old ash tree in Trent cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Witches hats nestled at base of a cedar tree, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Scarlet Fairy Helmets in mossy undergrowth of cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Lycoperdon puffballs on decaying birch log, Trent cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Eventually, the forest opened into fields and thickets and the path became rocky. The dense cool cedar-scented air of the deep forest gave way to a fragrant floral breeze and the warmth of the sun touched Earthstar with rays of good tidings.

Earthstar on rocky path out of Trent cedar forest into open area, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Earthstar negotiates the rocky path on her way out of the Trent forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Soon Earthstar reached a road and thought to follow it to town. Within moments a huge thing on wheels barrelled toward her! She froze in terror. But the cheerful wind whisked her out from under the wheel in the nick of time.

Earthstar almost gets run over by a car!

Earthstar thanked the wind and continued down the road, certain that the thing on wheels was what Beaky had mentioned and that she’d soon find the town and the river and those wonderful beings at the end of the road. And perhaps there she would encounter this marvelous “High Tea.”

Earthstar keeps to the side of the road with busy traffic
Countryside near Otonabee River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The road took Earthstar through an open countryside of meadows, flowers and trees. Earthstar kept to the side of the road to avoid getting squashed and soon found the river Beaky had mentioned. The river was magnificent. Sparkling in the radiant sun, it danced and lapped against the shore with the gurgling rush of laughter around the rocks and reeds.

The shallows of the Otonabee River, showing diatom-froth, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Earthstar on Rotary Trail as bicycles bear down on her (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Sensing the lateness of the day, Earthstar continued her journey in search of “High Tea.” She wasn’t quite sure where she’d find it and followed the river on a trail through a black walnut forest.

Earthstar passed a large building with an open lawn just as a loud bell sounded and large beings with legs spilled out onto the trail. They chattered about their lit class and laughed as Lillie, one of the students, recounted her scifi story about flying giant tardigrades that terrorized human cities for destroying the planet.

Attack of the giant tardigrades (image by Ramul in Deviant Art)

“Tardigrades are the coolest creatures,” Lillie went on. “Some people think they’re from outer space and lived among the stars. They can handle extreme temperature, the vacuum of space, and radiation, after all. And water bears can even survive a bullet impact!”

The students didn’t notice Earthstar below them.
She was so tiny after all!

Earthstar (and her moss companion) gets underfoot near the high school (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Just as the dark shadow of a giant foot loomed over her, someone shouted, “Wait, Marcus, STOP! Look!”

Earthstar was snatched off the ground before Marcus could step on her and gently cupped in the girl’s hand where the little fungus felt finally safe. “It’s an earthstar!” said the girl holding her. “How cute! See the bit of moss clutched in its arm? How adorable!”

“But, Emily, what d’you think it’s doing here on the trail by the school?” Marcus asked the girl holding Earthstar. “How did it get here?” Marcus suddenly grinned with inspiration and turned to Lillie, eyes sparkling. “Or did your giant space tardigrade drop it here? Which means we’re in your story–“

Lillie elbowed him and said something Earthstar didn’t understand.

Emily looked down at Earthstar, who sat quietly in her palm. “They’re the only mushrooms that move. Earthstars. I’ve read about them.” Emily then bent low and carefully set Earthstar on the grass by the trail, out of harm’s way.

“Maybe it’s on ‘walkabout,’” Lillie suggested, inspired by the thought of travel.

“You mean floatabout!” Marcus laughed. “If it came all the way from Australia it’d have to float across the Pacific Ocean!”

The students giggled, visualizing little Earthstar floating on a leaf and braving the vast ocean then hitchhiking across the North American continent into the Kawarthas. Still discussing the earthstar’s epic journey, they went on their way, leaving Earthstar on the grass.

Earthstar continued her journey, wondering what ‘walkabout’ meant. She found another large building and thought this might be where she needed to go. When one of the giant beings walked out through a door, she slid inside.

Earthstar and her Moss companion make it inside the condo complex (photo by Nina Munteanu)

She found herself in a wonderfully lit atrium with many more doors and lost herself among the indoor plants under large skylights. Within moments, as if sensing her presence, one of the large beings stepped out from a doorway and immediately saw Earthstar, perched by one of the indoor gardens.

“Well, well, what do we have here? A wandering earthstar and her little moss companion!” The being picked Earthstar up and gently cupped Earthstar in its hand. “Would you like to join me for tea?”

Earthstar in lady’s hand (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The magic word! Tea!

Earthstar jiggled on her ‘legs’ with joy. Was this being one of those fine ladies? As if sensing her excitement, the lady smiled and brought Earthstar inside her apartment.

The lady brought them outside to the patio for tea, where she had laid out tiny sandwiches, cheeses, crackers, scones with jam, and lovely pastries. Of course, Earthstar did not partake in these strange foods—being a saprophyte, she fed exclusively on decaying matter. But she enjoyed the ambience of this civilized celebration. And, of course, the tea!

Lady serving the tea (photo by Nina Munteanu)

When the lady went inside to replenish the tea, Earthstar explored the patio. Mistake!
Moments after Earthstar dropped to the patio bricks with the help of a little breeze, a very large dog (well, a rather small dog for you and me) came bounding to her and gave her a lick. The dog might have eaten her but the lady returned and rescued Earthstar.

Poppy the dog licks Earthstar! (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“Oh, my! Don’t mind Poppy, the neighbour’s shiatzu,” the lady said to Earthstar. “Poppy is harmless and only eats dog treats. I don’t think you’re a dog treat, are you?”

Earthstar dipping her feet into the water of the bird bath (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Thinking to get her to safety, the lady placed Earthstar on the edge of the birdbath where Earthstar dipped her tired feet. Within moments a mischievous wind pushed Earthstar into the water! Luckily, Earthstar floated. She was accustomed to deluges of water that filled her ‘collar’ and raised her spore sac to better deliver her spores. Water was an earthstar’s friend; earthstars counted on the beating drops of rain to help release their spores. After the initial shock, Earthstar rather enjoyed the swim.

Earthstar swims happily in the birdbath (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The lady thought she ought to rescue Earthstar again and put her back down on the patio. Then the whistle of the kettle inside drew the lady away to the house. In that short time, a clever black squirrel, who had been spying from the silver maple tree nearby, leaped forward and seized her!

Earthstar about to be snatched by the black squirrel (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“Mine!” he shouted to himself and bounded away with her clutched in his mouth. After waiting for an oncoming bicycle, he raced across the trail–just inches in front of the zooming bicycle (squirrels are daredevils at heart)–and entered the little wood by the river.

Earthstar screamed. But no one heard her, because it was a silent scream.  

The black squirrel took his prize to a huge old willow tree by the river. The tree bowed over a small path as if reaching down to say hello. The squirrel left Earthstar on the bowing tree to dry like he would any mushroom for later caching. Then he scurried away to look for more food.  What this city squirrel didn’t know was that—unlike most other mushrooms—earthstars can move!

Old willow of the riparian forest by the Otonabee River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Earthstar let the wind blow her off the branch to the ground where she used her six arms to carry her back to the trail and back to the lady’s place.
“Where have you been?” asked the lady when Earthstar got there. Her eyes seemed to wink. “I suspect you were on a small adventure with squirrels.”

Driving Earthstar home to the forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)

They continued their tea and when it was finished, the lady took Earthstar in her car and drove Earthstar home to the forest. Earthstar didn’t wonder how the lady knew where Earthstar’s home was; there is only one place where earthstars grew in the region. And no doubt the lady—being a true lady—knew where that was and respected the earthstars place in the world.

Cedar trees covered in moss, growing on ancient rotting cedar logs of the cedar swamp forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Fern-like moss grows on cedar roots that dig into old decaying cedar logs of the forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

When they reached the deep forest where the tall cedars covered the sky with green and the air stirred with the breaths of cedar and birch, Earthstar felt the exhilaration of coming home. She did not need to rely on the vagaries of a capricious wind to deliver her safely home; the kind hand of the lady set her down on the soft downy surface of woody loam. The lady set Earthstar right beside her sisters, her tiny moss companion still with her, tucked under her arm.

Gently placing Earthstar back home by several earthstar buds in moss of decaying cedars, cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The forest was her home. It nourished her. It was where her family was. Earthstar was content.
And this time she really was…

~~The End~~

Moss-covered red bark of cedar tree in the cedar swamp forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The Trent Nature Sanctuary

Located in the southeast corner of Symons Campus of Trent University, the Wildlife Sanctuary Nature Area includes many types of ecosystems and a network of trails. Wetlands of the area are deemed Provincially Significant by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. The cedar/maple swamps of the sanctuary support a rich diversity of fungi and lichen amid a rich ecosystem of plants and animals of the forest. It is within this area that I keep discovering interesting life each time I visit. Virtually all the images of the forest and fungi in this article come from this sanctuary, including the Collared Earthstar.

Mossy cedars in the cedar swamp forest of the Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Information on the Collared Earthstar (Geastrum triplex)

Eight stages of the Collared Earthstar life cycle, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON: 1) buds emerge in late summer; 2) the outer layer begins to crack in early fall; 3) the bud cracks open; 4) then spreads open; 5) forming a ‘flower’; 6) the outer layer cracks; 7) to form the ‘collar’ by early fall; 8) the outer layer shrivels by early winter (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Collared Earthstar Life Cycle

The Collared Earthstar (Geastrum triplex) is a Gasteromycete or stomach fungus, since it produces and releases its spores inside a saclike structure. The earthstar spends most of the year as a network of fungal cells (mycelia) that penetrate the soil and digest decaying organic material. When they are ready to reproduce, the mycelium develops the “earthstar” above ground. New earthstars emerge as ‘buds’ and develop in late summer and autumn through into winter. The matured fruiting bodies will survive the winter to be discovered the following spring by curious explorers like me. 

Spore sacs of Collared Earthstar in the frosts of winter (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Geo means earth and astrum means star. The species name triplex, which means ‘having three layers,’ refers to the way the ‘star’ arms of the outer layer crack when they peel back, making it look like the spore-sac is sitting on a dish. The three layers allow the earthstar to do something no other fungus can do: move. When it rains, the two outer layers of the peridium split and peel back, forming a ‘star’ with 4-12 rays. The rays spread with enough force to push aside leaves, raising the spore-filled sac above the surrounding debris. The rays often lift the earthstar high enough to break the connection to the parent mycelium, releasing the earthstar from its sedentary position. Detached, the earthstar can move with wind or rain to better spread its spores.

Finger poking the spore sac helps release the spores (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Fruiting bodies are large, 5-10 cm in diameter. Spores escape from the apical pointed hole (peristome) as breezes blow across it. Much larger puffs are released when raindrops hit and compress the spore-sac—or an interfering finger depresses the sac. What escapes is a powdery gleba (which distributes the tiny spores). The sides of the peristome ‘beak’ are fibrous and appear slightly ragged.

Several stages of the Collared Earthstar, from buds to opening ‘flower’
Early budding stage of Collared Earthstar (photo by Nina Munteanu)

After a late summer / autumn rain, the collared earthstar emerges from the leaf litter looking like a Hershey’s kiss or a fancy bulb-shaped truffle dusted in fine cocoa. Only the outer layer (exoperidium) is visible, peeking out of the litter and loam. The outer layer eventually cracks open, looking like a coconut husk and splits into five to seven ‘arms’ to form a star. Inside is revealed a tan to grey-coloured spore-sac (endoperidium) with a fringed beak (peristome) and its opening (ostiole). The endoperidium, or spore sac, is more like an elastic membrane resembling rubber that holds the gleba (spore-bearing mass). The star arms peel back and down, eventually cracking to form the ‘saucer’ which the round fruiting body (spore sac) sits on. The spore sac contains a mass of spores and fertile mycelial tissue, called the gleba that is white, fibrous and firm when young, but turns brown and powdery as it ages. A network of cells (capillatum) help spores move to the pore when a raindrop strikes the endoperidium. The columella, a bulbous sterile base at the centre of the spore-producing gleba forms ‘columns’ that radiate out to help spore dispersal.

Over time, the outer layer of ‘stars’ (exoperidium) form a reticulated pattern of cracks and fissures that deepen into golden-brown colours as they decompose and curl downward to lift the spore-sac farther up. The sac also grows more pale and papery. 

Parts of Collared Earthstar (photos by Nina Munteanu)
Just opened Collared Earthstar, not yet showing the ‘collar’ formed by cracking of exoperidium (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Good example of a more mature opened Collared Earthstar, showing the ‘collar’ formed by separation of exoperidium and extended curled back ‘arms’ (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Mature Collared Earthstar, showing papery spore sac sitting on reticulated exoperidium (photo by Nina Munteanu)

However, in the rain, the sac reverts to a rubbery consistency and deepens to a dark shiny tan colour. I was surprised by its elasticity; this time when I poked it, the sac sprang back to its round sphere like a thick balloon. 

Mature Collared Earthstar; left in rain, right in dry weather (photos by Nina Munteanu)

Collared Earthstar Habitat

I also learned that the collared earthstar prefers a habitat of leaf litter in deciduous woods, especially beech on chalky soils. However, researchers acknowledge that the collared earthstar is also found under coniferous trees, especially on sloping ground—which better describes where I found them, in this cedar-birch forest of the Kawarthas. Geastrum triplex is a saprophytic organism: it gets its nutrients from decomposing organic matter—such as well-rotted cedar trees, where humus has accumulated—by further breaking down the organic matter then, in turn, returns those nutrients to the soil to complete the cycle. It does this by releasing enzymes to break down and digest the lignin, cellulose or chitin in these materials, converting them to soluble compounds that can be absorbed by them, and by plants, as nutrients. Earthstars, like all fungi, play a vital role in reducing the accumulation of dead organic material and in recycling essential nutrients, particularly carbon and nitrogen. If not for fungi, forests would choke under a mountain of logs and leaves.

References:

Ellis JB, Ellis MB. 1990. “Fungi without Gills (Hymenomycetes and Gasteromycetes): an Identification Handbook. ”Chapman and Hall. London. ISBN 0-412-36970-2.

First Nature. “Geastrum triplexJungh.—Collared Earthstar” Online: https://www.first-nature.com/fungi/geastrum-triplex.php

Kirk, Paul M., Paul F. Cannon, David W. Minter and J. A. Stalpers. 2008. “Dictionary of the Fungi.” CABI, 2008

Kuo M. 2008. Geastrum triplexMushroomExpert.Com

Roel, Thomas. 2017. “#044: Mushroom Morphology: Earthstars.” Fungus Fact Friday.

Roody WC. 2003. “Mushrooms of West Virginia and the Central Appalachians.” University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, KY. p. 443. ISBN 0-8131-9039-8.

Torpoco V, Garbarino JA (1998). “Studies on Chilean fungi. I. Metabolites from Geastrum triplex Jungh”. Boletin de la Sociedad Chilena de Quimica43 (2): 227–29.

Woodland Trust. “Collared Earthstar.” Online: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/fungi-and-lichens/collared-earthstar/

Pegler, D.N., Laessoe, T. & Spooner, B.M. 1995. “British Puffballs, Earthstars and Stinkhorns.”Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. 

Utah State University. “Earthstars.” Online: https://www.usu.edu/herbarium/education/fun-facts-about-fungi/earth-stars

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.

Integrate Place in Fiction To Deepen Meaning

This past August, I participated in the When Words Collide Online 2022 Writing Festival.  one of Canada’s prime writing festivals in Calgary, Alberta. I was a featured writer, sitting on several panels and conducting presentations and lectures.

My presentation on the role of place in story kicked off the festival.

The role of place in story is a topic close to my heart and one I 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’d 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.

Nina Munteanu

The presentation and following discussion drew from my guidebook Ecology of Story and was also featured in the WWC recorded panel called “What is Eco-Fiction and Why Should We Care?” The presentation overviewed 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 white pine forests and the Mi’kmaq in Annie Proulx’s Barkskins. Both are exploited by the white settlers, with intentions to subdue and controll:

The Gatineau forest was noisy, echoing with ax blows and the rushing crackle of falling timber, with shouted warnings and orders. The axmen cut the great pines, but only a few in each plot were suitable for squaring. The rest were left to rot on the ground … unwanted trees lay prostrate, severed branches everywhere, heaps of bark and mountains of chips … There were so many trees, what did it matter? Maine men were used to waste—it was usual—but this was beyond anything even they had seen. 

In the Penobscot settlement, the trees fell, tracks inched through the forests, only one or two then seven, then webs of trails that over the decades widened into roads. The roads were muddy, sometimes like batter, sometimes thick and clutching until late summer; when they metamorphosed into choking dust so fine it hung in the air long after a horse and carriage passed, settling on the grass as the English people settled on the land … Fields of wheat and hay took the land, these fields enclosed by linked stumps, the root wads of the forest that had once stood there turned on their edges to bar the white man’s cows and sheep. 

I concluded the presentation with a writing exercise asking participants to write about the psychology of a place and how they related to it.

Writers attending the presentation / workshop eagerly participated and produced some evocative narrative that contained good metaphor and sensual writing. Here are a few:

Freyja on their high school gym: “I remember rallies and lectures and sweating, running in circles for an hour and a half. The gym stayed the same but the population of people got smaller and smaller over the years. One year a kid hit his head on the wall and went into a coma. Longest seven seconds in my life.”

Roma: “As soon as I get a whiff of old pages in a book, I am reminded of Uncle Leo. The coffee coloured leather jacket he always wore had seen better days and like him, still retained most of its luster. He was the youngest of my dad’s nine siblings, born during a storm and considered a tempestuous child. Our family just didn’t understand his passion.”

Angela: “I stood on the bridge in Moscow. My mother was talking with a friend. She couldn’t believe how lucky we were to be posted here. I looked down at the river. And at the bridge. It would be so easy to just jump over the fence and land in the water. It was a sunny day. The heat was oppressive. I wanted to do it. But I stood still.”

Kylie: “The stuffy air was full of the smell of bodies and heat. The din of laughing and talking, and yelling surrounded me.”

To find out more on how place can add depth and meaning to your writing, see my third writing guide, The Ecology of Story: Place as Character.

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 exercises and detailed case studies.

Boat dock at sunset, Ladner Slough of Fraser River, BC (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.

Mistakes Authors Make (When We Don’t Pay Attention to Place and Things

Marsh outlet of Thompson Creek, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

In “A Dance of Cranes” (Dundurn, 2019) author Steve Burrows erroneously describes the actions and motions associated with canoeing. In the following scene, the protagonist Jejeune is canoeing on a river in the boreal wilderness of northern Canada:

The low sun seemed to light the stand of birches from within, flickering through the trunks like a strobe light as Jejeune rowed past. 

One does not row a canoe; one paddles—with a paddle.

You might think that this is a small error, hardly worth mentioning; however, the friend who pointed out this mistake to me, was thrown out of the novel by it. She is a naturalist and has often gone canoeing in the lakes and rivers of Ontario. This mistake suggested a lack of professional attentiveness from both author and editor of the publication. By compromising the authenticity of the fictional setting the error stopped the reader from participating. We were no longer paddling with Jejeune; we were looking at the book.*

Some of you may rail at me for being overly harsh. You would remind me that this is a work of fiction, after all, not fact. You’d remind me that fiction is a work of the imagination, of characters and journeys; not a dry documentary.

I would agree with you—up to a point. Certainly, in fiction we can and do take liberties with “facts” so long as the narrative keeps the reader moving in the “fictive dream.” Authors have managed to successfully bend reality considerably in the past to great effect because the reader was fully engaged in the narrative and the characters.

But ultimately, beginning-to-end factual accuracy remains important in a made-up story for various reasons. While some “fake facts” or mistakes (such as the example above) may slip by many readers unnoticed, someone will notice. Guaranteed. And, as with my naturalist friend, it can make the difference between a seamless read and a jarring one. Writer Dorian Box shares that, “Some readers may even post reviews criticizing your book on that basis.” Dorian adds that when they spot large factual inaccuracies in a novel, “it detracts from the reading experience. I start to question other things. Credibility is damaged.”

All good fiction is anchored by consistent and believable world-building, whether the story is set in contemporary New York City or a made up planet in some made up solar system. The key to this believability is the use of grounding ‘facts’ or world-consistencies that immerse the reader in the story world. The reader relies on the author to realistically represent the world they are reading about. This allows the reader to experience the story as though it was real. Representing the facts accurately enables the writer to take liberties with other aspects of the story. Because the reader is nicely embedded in the world through accurate depiction, they will follow your characters through it eagerly.

Forest and marsh on Ontario (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

The Importance and Ease of Research in Fiction Writing   

To prevent what happened in the example I gave above, authors must exercise due diligence in world building, in representation of setting and place, and in other elements of the story. Writers have easy access to so much knowledge about so many topics through local libraries, local experts, the internet, social media, and more. In other words, no excuse.

In the novel I’m currently working on I needed to understand what it felt like to handle, load and shoot a particular make of shotgun. I had handled one in the past but not actually used it. The internet provided exceptional instructional videos and sites that I could use to come close to the actual experience. I paid particular attention to nuances and sensual aspects such as texture, smell, weight, as well as mechanical aspects, like recoil; anything that would more viscerally help me experience it. When I had written the scenes, I showed them to someone who had handled a shotgun for their verdict on accurate depiction.

For more examples and discussion on place and doing research, check out Chapter H and R of my first book in The Alien Guidebook Series “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” and Part 2 of my third book in the series “The Ecology of Story: World as Character.”

*There is such a thing as a rowing canoe; canoes can be set up for rowing with oarlocks and sockets, oars, rowing seats and even forward rowing contraptions such as foot brace for efficient rowing. However, this was not the case in the book I gave as an example.

Fence post covered in vines on water’s edge, 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.

Nina Munteanu Reflects on Her Eco-Fiction Journey at Orchard Park Secondary School

I recently gave a talk at Orchard Park Secondary School during their “Eco Crawl” week. “Eco crawl is a cross curricular initiative promoting environmental awareness, natural conservation, and well-being,” says Teresa Grainger, Library Learning Commons Technician at the school. The “week long initiative will include animal visitors, presentations, displays, and outdoor activities. We like to involve as many departments as possible.”

The school invited me to participate with a presentation. I spoke about my work as a writer and as a scientist, how I was inspired to write eco-fiction and a little about the process of how I started. I shared the challenges I faced and my victories. I also spoke about the importance of eco-fiction as narrative and the importance of storytelling generally to incite interest, bring awareness and ultimately action.

The word is a powerful tool. And the stories that carry them are vehicles of change.

Here is some of that talk:

My story begins with the magic of water, Quebec water … I was born in a small town in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, a gently rolling and verdant farming community, where water bubbles and gurgles in at least two languages.

Pastoral Eastern Townships and Granby, Quebec; Nina Munteanu as a child

I spent a lot of my childhood days close to the ground, observing, poking, catching, 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.

My mother kept a garden in our back yard that she watered mostly with rain she collected in a large barrel out back. I remember rows of bright dahlias with their button-faces and elegant gladiolas of all colours, tall like sentinels. And, her gorgeous irises.

In the winter, my mother flooded the garden to create an ice rink for the neighbourhood to use for hockey. Somehow, I always ended up being the goalie, dodging my brother’s swift pucks to the net. I got good at dodging—probably a useful life skill in later life…

Our dad frequently took us to the local spring just outside town. We walked a few miles up Mountain Road to an unassuming seepage from a rock outcrop with a pipe attached to it by the local farmer. I remember that the water was very cold. Even the air around the spring was cooler than the surrounding air. I remember that the spring water tasted fresh and that the ice it formed popped and fizzed more than tap water.

I followed my older brother and sister to the nearby forest and local river. We stirred soil, flower petals and other interesting things with water to fuel “magic potions” then told wild stories of mayhem and adventure. I became a storyteller. My passion for storytelling eventually morphed into writing; but, the underlying spark came through environmental activism.

In early high school, during the mid-60s, I became an environmental activist, putting up posters and writing in the school paper. I wrote letters to industry and politicians, trying to incite interest in being good corporate citizens and promoting global environmental action. I remember a well-meaning teacher chiding me for my extravagant worldview. “Stick to little things and your community—like recycling,” he suggested patronizingly. I remember the shock of realizing that not everyone felt the planet like I did. Perhaps it was a teenage-thing, or a girl-thing, or a nina-thing. I prayed it wasn’t just a nina-thing

I started writing stories in high school. Mostly eco-fiction, though I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. There was no genre called eco-fiction back then. It all went under the umbrella of scifi.

I completed my first novel, Caged in World when I was fifteen—in Grade 9—in 1969.  Caged in World was a hundred-page speculative story about a world that had moved “inside” to escape the ravages of a post climate-change environment. 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.

Some of the scientific papers, reports and articles I wrote or participated in

When I enrolled in college and university, I thought of going into environmental law then decided that I didn’t have the temperament for it and switched to biology. Without realizing it, I put fiction writing on hold while I pursued ecology at university. One professor got me very interested in limnology and it became my focus when I realized that I’d always been fascinated by water. I started out being scared of water—not being a strong swimmer—and the best thing you can do to get over a fear is to study it and understand it. That’s exactly what I did. I did some cool research on stream ecology and published scientific papers, articles and reports. Then I moved to the westcoast to teach limnology at the University of Victoria and do consulting work in aquatic ecology.

So, in a way, I’d gone back to what I loved best as a child—mucking about in nature, spending my days close to the ground, observing, poking, catching, destroying and creating.

Kevin as a toddler

In 1991, my son Kevin was born. I felt a miracle pass through me. Kevin became my doorway into wonder. His curiosity was boundless and lured me into a special world of transformation. 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 then told wild stories of mayhem and adventure.

Storytelling kept calling to me. It was the 1990s—twenty years after I finished Angel of Chaos—and I’d published lots of short stories and articles. But no novels.

Some of Nina’s short story publications

I spent several years shopping Angel of Chaos to agents and publishing houses. Although I received many bites, all finally let go. I kept writing short stories, some of which were cannibalized from the book, and several were published; I also wrote Angel’s prequel, The Great Revolution and Angel’s sequel Darwin’s Paradox and shopped them.

Then In 2007, Dragon Moon Press in Calgary made an offer to publish Darwins Paradox; the sequel became my debut novel. Dragon Moon Press later picked up Angel of Choas and published it in 2010 as a prequel. I haven’t stopped publishing books since (with a book pretty much every year), both fiction and non-fiction…including writing guidebooks in my Alien Guidebook Series.

Kevin hiking the mountains of the west coast, BC

My son left the nest to go to university and work and I went on walkabout and eventually left the westcoast, returning to my old home in the east. I did lots of house-sitting in the Maritimes, then ended up teaching at UofT in Toronto.

UofT, west gate to quadrangle of University College, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In 2016, I published Water Is… with Pixl Press in Vancouver.  It’s a biography and celebration of water—my attempt to write a lay book on my water science, something that all could appreciate. Turns out that Margaret Atwood really liked it too!

On its heels, I got a book deal with Inanna Publications in Toronto for my eco-novel A Diary in the Age of Water. This eco-fiction novel follows the journeys of four generations of women during a time of catastrophic environmental change. The novel explores each woman’s relationship with water, itself an agent of change…

Eco-fiction (short for ecological fiction) is a kind of fiction in which the environment—or one aspect of the environment—plays a major role in story, either as premise or as character. For instance, several of my eco-fiction stories give Water a voice as character. In my latest novel, A Diary in the Age of Water, each of the four women characters reflects her relationship with water and, in turn, her view of and journey in a changing world.

In eco-fiction, strong relationships are forged between the major character on a journey and an aspect of their environment and place. Such strong relationship can linger in the minds and hearts of readers, shaping deep and meaningful connections that will often move a reader into action. Our capacity—and need—to share stories is as old as our ancient beginnings. From the Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux to our blogs on the Internet, humanity has left a grand legacy of ‘story’ sharing. By providing context to knowledge, story moves us to care, to cherish, and, in turn, to act. What we cherish, we protect.  It’s really that simple.

Eco-fiction—whether told as dystopia, post-apocalypse, cautionary tale or hopeful solarpunk—can help us co-create a new narrative, one about how the Earth gifts us with life and how we can give in return. It’s time to start giving.

That starts with story.

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 Aroma of Story

Old cabin behind seeding goldenrods, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

One of my favourite smells is of pipe tobacco smoke. 

But here’s the thing:  I’m really not a fan of smoking. Both my parents were chain smokers (who wasn’t back then?) and I quickly discovered that cigarette butts carried thousands of ugly toxins and lasted years on the ground. In the one rebellious occasion that I skipped school with two school mates to spend the day in the forest, I accidentally lit my hair on fire trying to light the cigarette. Taking the karmic connection seriously, I decided that was the end of both skipping school and smoking for me.   

Cigarette butt found near a river in a park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

So, why the allure with pipe smoke?

Well, to begin my rationalization, pipe smoke is nothing like cigarette smoke. Cigarette smoke squeals up my nose and mouth, choking my breath with an acrid burning that lodges like a smothering cancer in my throat; pipe smoke coils heavy and loose into my nostrils with lazy notes of fermenting cherry or plum.

There’s more to it, obviously . . . 

Left: Four-year old Nina Munteanu pretending to read; Right: Rue Principal in Granby, Quebec in the early 1960s

When I was little, one of my favourite things to do was hide behind the comic stand in the back corner of William’s General Store and read comic books. Superman, Supergirl, Green Lantern, Magnus Robot Fighter. So many more . . .

Mr. Williams knew I was there. I was, after all, hiding in plain sight, as kids generally do. But he was a kind man and let me stay and read for free. He recognized someone who loved story. 

The store was a typical general store of that era. Long and narrow, dark wood walls covered in paraphernalia. Shelves and stands cramped full with stuff. Anything from toys and penny candy to games, puzzles, watches, newspapers, pocket books and magazines, household necessities, shoeshine kits, canned goods and preserves, pocket knives, to cigars, pipes and the tobacco and lighters to go with them. A smoky mist settled on everything in the store and the place gave off the complex scent of old polished wood with a tobacco undercurrent. Williams might have smoked a pipe himself; I don’t recall. However, my sense-mind has wonderfully coupled that evocative aroma with a sense of freedom to immerse myself in fantastical worlds of imagination. And, in turn, to imagine my own worlds. 

That place and my experience in it not only gave me an abiding love for pipe smoke; it made me the storyteller I am today.  

Taste and smell appear to linger most in memory and yet are often neglected by writers. According to the California Institute of Technology, smell is generally considered the sense tied most closely to human memory. Smell profoundly influences people’s ability to recall past events and experiences. “A smell from your distant past can unleash a flood of memories that are so intense and striking that they seem real,” says Dr. Karl (Kruszelnicki), author of Great Moments in Science. “This kind of memory, where an unexpected re-encounter with a scent from the distant past brings back a rush of memories, is called a ‘Proustian Memory’.”

In Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust writes: 

When from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls.

In this excerpt of The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl, fragrance permeates with meaning: 

The flower shop was here and it was my father’s domain, but it was also marvelously other, this place heavy with the drowsy scent of velvet-petaled roses and Provencal freesias in the middle of winter, the damp-earth spring fragrance of just-watered azaleas and cyclamen all mixed up with the headachey smell of bitter chocolate. 

In John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, his main character recalls the following memories, through several evocative smells: 

I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer— and what trees and seasons smelled like—how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odors is very rich. 

Barrels of aging bourbon in Kentucky (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In Part 2 of my writing guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character, I discuss how the various senses—not just smell—are strong tools in storytelling and provide examples and working exercises.

Psychologist Michael McCollough argues that environment plays a key role in human behaviors, such as forgiveness and revenge. He theorizes that various social environments can cause either forgiveness or revenge to prevail. McCollough relates his theory to game theory. In a tit-for-tat strategy, cooperation and retaliation are comparable to forgiveness and revenge. The choice between the two can be beneficial or detrimental, depending on what the game partner (or organism) chooses. The brain’s limbic system processes external stimuli related to emotions, social activity, and motivation; these then propagate an instinctual behavioural response. Examples include maternal care, aggression, defense, and social hierarchy; these behaviours are influenced by sensory input, such as sight, sound, touch, and—of course—smell.

Parts of this article are excerpted from the third book of The Alien Guidebook Series:The Ecology of Story: World as Character.

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.

“A Diary in the Age of Water” Listed as Ecological Fiction That Inspires Action

In the Spring issue of Ecology & Action, Mary Woodbury, author and publisher of Dragonfly.eco, lists some of her favourite Eco-Fiction that Inspires Action. Among them is Nina Munteanu’s eco-novel “A Diary in the Age of Water.”

“Fiction exploring humanity’s impacts on nature is becoming more popular. It has the distinct ability to creatively engage and appeal to readers’ emotions. In fact, it can stir environmental action. A survey I took last year showed that 88% of its participants were inspired to act after reading ecological fiction.

Principled by real science and exalting our planet’s beauty, these stories are works of art. They live within classic modes of fiction exploring the human condition, but also integrate the wild. They can be referred to as “rewilded stories.” The following Canadian titles are some of my favourites in this genre.”

MARY WOODBURY

Dirt road to Long Lake in a misty light rain in early 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.

How the Bdelloid Rotifer Lived for Millennia — Without Sex

As a child, I always wanted a microscope.

I would have collected slimy waters from the scum ponds and murky puddles near my house. I would have brought them home and exposed them to the light of my microscope. I would then have peered deep into a secret world, where shady characters and alien forms lurked and traded.

It would be many years, when I was in college, before I finally witnessed this world—so alien, it might have inspired the science fiction books I wrote later as an adult. As it turned out, I was led to pursue a Masters of Science degree, studying periphyton (microscopic aquatic communities attached and associated with surfaces like rocks and plants) in local streams in the Eastern Townships of Quebec.

Filamentous algae collected in Lake Ontario, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

While my work focused on how diatoms (glass-walled algae) colonized surfaces, micro-invertebrates kept vying for my attention. Water fleas (cladocerans), copepods, rotifers, seed shrimps (ostracods) and water bears sang across my field of vision. They flitted, lumbered, wheeled and meandered their way like tourists lost in Paris. But this wasn’t Paris; I’d taken the blue pill and entered the rabbit hole into another world…

Sketch of common zooplankton and phytoplankton (illustration by Nina Munteanu)

The Secret—and Dangerous—World of Micro-Organisms

Small Freshwater habitats are home to a highly productive and diverse collection of micro-invertebrates—multicellular animals that can barely be seen with the naked eye. Many average from 0.5 to 1 mm in size and resemble little white blobs; however, a scholar can distinguish each invertebrate by its unique movement. For instance, when presented with a jar of pond water, I can usually distinguish among the wheel-like wandering of a gastrotrich, dirigible-like gliding of an ostracod (seed shrimp), the vertical goldfinch-style “hopping” of the cladoceran (water flea) as it beats its antennae, or the halting-jerking movements of copepods (oar-feet) as their antennae drive them along like a dingy propelled by an amateur oarsman.

Alas, puddles, ephemeral ponds and vernal pools pose sketchy habitats, given their tendency to appear and disappear in a wink. And like the thief in the night, they pose a harsh and uncertain home to many small organisms. These environments are ever-changing, unstable, chaotic and unpredictable. Yet, anyone who has studied these variable ecosystems understands that they team with life. 

When a puddle or ephemeral pond dries up then reappears with rain, how can these communities thrive? Or do they all die off and then somehow recruit when the pond reappears? Many of these invertebrates have evolved creative ways to survive in very unstable environments. Some form a resting stage—a spore, resting egg or ‘tun’—that goes dormant and rides out the bad weather.

Philodina, a bdelloid rotifer (microscope photo by Bob Blaylock)

Animalcules & the Bdelloid Rotifer

In 1701, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek observed that “animalcules” (likely the bdelloid rotifer Philodina roseaola) survived desiccation and were “resurrected” when water was added to them. He’d discovered a highly resistant dormant state of an aquatic invertebrate to desiccation.

Dormancy is a common strategy of organisms that live in harsh and unstable environments and has been documented in crustaceans, rotifers, tardigrades, phytoplankton and ciliates. “Dormant forms of some planktonic invertebrates are among the most highly resistant … stages in the whole animal kingdom,” writes Jacek Radzikowski in a 2013 review in the Journal of Plankton Research. Radzikowski describes two states of dormancy: diapause and quiescence. (on right: sketch of bdelloid rotifer by Nina Munteanu

Bdelloid rotifers can go into quiescent dormancy at practically any stage in their life cycle in response to unfavorable conditions. Early research noted that dormant animals could withstand freezing and thawing from −40°C to 100°C and storage under vacuum. They also tolerated high doses of UV and X radiation. Later work reported that some rotifers could survive extreme abiotic conditions, such as exposure to liquid nitrogen (−196°C) for several weeks or liquid helium (−269°C) for several hours. Desiccated adult bdelloid rotifers apparently survived minus 80°C conditions for more than 6 years. The dormant eggs of cladocerans and ostracods also survived below freezing temperatures for years.

Rotifers are cosmopolitan detrivores (they eat detritus) and contribute to the decomposition of organic matter. Rotifers create a vortex with ciliated tufts on their heads that resemble spinning wheels, sweeping food into their mouths. They often anchor to larger debris while they feed or inch, worm-like, along substrates. Some are sessile, living inside tubes or gelatinous holdfasts and may even be colonial. Rotifers reproduce by parthenogenesis (in the absence of mates), producing clones (like cladocerans). Resting eggs (sometimes called zygotes) survive when a pond dries up. Bdelloid rotifers don’t produce resting eggs; they survive desiccation through a process called anhydrobiosis, contracting into an inert form and losing most of their body water. Embryos, juveniles and adults can undergo this process. The bdelloid withdraws its head and food and contracts its body into a compact shape called a tun; a generally unprotected dormant state that remains permeable to gases and liquids. Like Tardigrades (see below), Bdelloid rotifers can resist ionizing radiation because they can repair DNA double-strand breaks.

The long-term survival and evolutionary success of bdelloid rotifers in the absence of sex arises from horizontal gene transfer via DNA repair.

In my eco-novel A Diary in the Age of Water the limnologist Lynna visits her technician Daniel as he peers through a microscope and makes the observation of why the bdelloid rotifer is well-suited to climate change:

I bent to peer through the eyepiece at what turned out to be a pond sample in a Petri dish. Attached to a pile of detritus shivering in the current, several microscopic metazoans—rotifers—swung like trees in a gale; they were feeding. Their ciliated disk-like mouths twirled madly, capturing plankton to eat. Watching them reminded me of my early research days as an honours undergrad at Concordia University in Montreal. Probably Philodina, I thought; I had seen many during my stream research in Quebec.

“They’re the future,” Daniel said, looking up at me with a smirk as I straightened.

I raised my eyebrows, inviting him to elaborate, which he cheerfully did.

“They’re the future because of their incredible evolutionary success and their ecological attraction to environmental disaster.” He knew he’d piqued my interest. “These little creatures have existed for over forty million years, Lynna. Without sex! And they’re everywhere. In temporary ponds, moss, even tree bark. Bdelloid mothers that go through desiccation produce daughters with increased fitness and longevity. In fact, if desiccation doesn’t occur over several generations, the rotifers lose their fitness. They need the unpredictable environment to keep robust.” They incorporate genes from their environment: they acquire DNA transposons—mobile DNA—through HGT.”

—A DIARY IN THE AGE OF WATER

The bdelloid all-female populations have thrived for millions of years by maintaining a robust and diverse population through epigenetics and DNA repair during dormancy…The dormancy of all-female bdelloids is an elegant technique to ride out harsh conditions. The bdelloids can go dormant quickly in any stage of their life cycle, and they’re capable of remaining dormant for decades. They can recover from their dormancy state within hours when the right conditions return and go on reproducing without the need to find a mate.

Highly variable environments tend to support rare species: organisms that are uniquely equipped for change. These are the explorers, misfits, and revolutionaries who do their work to usher in a new paradigm. They carry change inside them, through phenotypic plasticity, physiological stress response mechanisms, or life history adaptations. Like bdelloid rotifers going dormant through anhydrobiosis. Or blue-green algae forming dormant akinete spores. In tune with the vacillations of Nature, epigenetics-induced adaptation is the only option for keeping up with rapid and catastrophic environmental change, not to mention something as gigantic as climate change. That’s why the bdelloid rotifers survived for millennia and will continue for many more. They adapt by counting on change.

Maple swamp forest in Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

References:

Munteanu, Nina. 2020. “A Diary in the Age of Water.” Inanna Publications, Toronto. 300pp.

Munteanu, Nina. 2016. “Water Is…The Meaning of Water.” Pixl Press, Vancouver. 586pp.

O’Leary, Denise. 2015. “Horizontal gene transfer: Sorry, Darwin, it’s not your evolution anymore.” Evolution News, August 13, 2015. Online: https://www.evolutionnews.org/201508/horizontal_gene/

Ricci, C. And D. Fontaneto. 2017. “The importance of being a bdelloid: Ecological and evolutionary consequences of dormancy.” Italian Journal ofZoology, 76:3, 240-249.

Robinson, Kelly and Julie Dunning. 2016. “Bacteria and humans have been swapping DNA for millennia”. The Scientist Magazine, October 1, 2016. Online: https://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/47125/title/Bacteria-and-Humans-Have-Been-Swapping-DNA-for-Millennia/

Weinhold, Bob. 2006. “Epigenetics: the science of change.” Environmental Health Perspectives, 114(3): A160-A167.

Williams, Sarah. 2015. “Humans may harbour more than 100 genes from other organisms”. Science, March 12, 2015. Online: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/03/humans-may-harbor-more-100-genes-other-organisms

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.

Eco-Fiction: What Readers Get From It and How to Prevent Polemic

Mary Woodbury on Dragonfly.eco recently shared a survey of over a hundred readers to determine the impact that eco-fiction had on them. What did environmental fiction mean to readers? What about it appealed to them? What were their favourite works? And did it incite them to action? The answers were both expected and surprising. Given the sample size and some study limitations on audience and diversity, the results are preliminary still. However, they remain interesting and enlightening.

theoverstorySome of the most impactful novels according to the readers surveyed include Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Richard Power’s The Overstory, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle series.

Readers gave Woodbury several reasons why they enjoyed and found eco-novels impactful:

  • Realism or compelling account of or reflection of society, scary or not
  • Goes beyond readers’ culture–expands minds
  • Humorous
  • Story focused on characters versus an issue
  • Learned something new
  • Opened readers’ minds
  • Captured imagination
  • Positive endings
  • Good storytelling
  • Interesting characters
  • Suspense and/or psychological burn

One reader mentioned that what appealed to them about Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water was the style of writing. It provoked “feelings of utter beauty but also unease.”

One reader enjoyed Cormac Mccarthy’s The Road “for its spare post-apocalyptic world where even language seems to run out.”

Of Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves a reader wrote that “The dystopic beginning felt so real, and then the positive ending was so good. I loved it and it made me think about how climate change can possibly have impacts beyond just our physical and mental health, but also our dreams!”

A reader of Frank Herbert’s Dune wrote that “it was the first time I’d seen a literary rendering of an ecosystem that felt real. The ideas of ecology are woven into this story in a way I didn’t think was possible for fiction. Interconnection is hard to think about, hard to grasp, and Dune showed me that fiction, done well, can really help with this.” The same reader acknowledged that in Annihilation Jeff VenderMeer “mastered the technique.”

FavTopics Eco-Fiction

Graph from Environmental Fiction Impact Survey by Mary Woodbury

When asked the question “Do you think that environmental themes in fiction can impact society, and if so, how?” 81% agreed and qualified their answers:

  • Fiction can encourage empathy and imagination. Stories can affect us more than dry facts. Fiction reaches us more deeply than academic understanding, moving us to action.
  • Fiction can trigger a sense of wonder about the natural world, and even a sense of loss and mourning. Stories can immerse readers into imagined worlds with environmental issues similar to ours.
  • Fiction raises awareness, encourages conversations and idea-sharing. Fiction is one way that helps to create a vision of our future. Cautionary tales can nudge people to action and encourage alternative futures. Novels can shift viewpoints without direct confrontation, avoid cognitive dissonance, and invite reframed human-nature relationships through enjoyment and voluntary participation.
  • Environmental themes can reorient our perspective from egocentrism to the greater-than-human world.

Awareness in Fields

Graph from Environmental Fiction Impact Survey by Mary Woodbury

In summary, Woodbury writes:

“The sample size (103) seems to be a good one for people who are mostly familiar with the idea of eco-fiction (and similar environmental/nature fiction genres and subgenres), though I was still hoping to get a larger, more diverse group of participants. The majority of respondents were highly educated middle-aged women. The majority of the group read from 1-29 novels a year. Favorite novels represented mostly North American or European authors (male and female about equally, with J.R.R. Tolkien, Barbara Kingsolver and Margaret Atwood consistently a favorite), with the majority of readers enjoying literary fiction the most, followed by dystopia/utopia and then science fiction.”

Woodbury notes that the genres of science fiction and fantasy were well represented in the survey, “both as favorite and most impactful novels, despite literary fiction being the favorite genre among the participants.” Of novels that respondents enjoyed, “readers were most impacted by good storytelling.” Polemic was not well regarded.

 

Achieving Impactful Eco-Fiction & Avoiding Polemic Through Use of Metaphor

The key to impact and enjoyment for a reader lies in good storytelling. The very best storytelling uses metaphor and oblique description to achieve a deeper meaning. The greatest art must be left to interpretation; not directly dispensed. Great art is felt and experienced viscerally; not just taken in intellectually. Great art shows; not tells.

EcologyOfStoryIn my writing guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character, I discuss the various ways that the use of metaphor achieves depth and meaning in story, particularly in eco-fiction. One impactful way is in the choice of setting. In the chapter on Place as Metaphor, I write:

Everything in story is metaphor, Ray Bradbury once told me. That is no more apparent than in setting and place, in which a story is embedded and through which characters move and interact.

Metaphor is the subtext that provides the subtleties in story, subtleties that evoke mood, anticipation, and memorable scenes. Richard Russo says, “to know the rhythms, the textures, the feel of a place is to know more deeply and truly its people.” When you choose your setting, remember that its primary role is to help depict theme. This is because place is destiny.

What would the book Dune be without Arrakis, the planet Dune? What would the Harry Potter books be without Hogwarts?

Metaphor provides similarity to two dissimilar things through meaning. In the metaphor “Love danced in her heart” or the simile “his love was like a slow dance”, love is equated with the joy of dance. By providing figurative rather than literal description to something, metaphor invites participation through interpretation.

When I write “John’s office was a prison,” I am efficiently and sparingly suggesting in five words—in what would normally take a paragraph—how John felt about his workplace. The reader would conjure imagery suggested by their knowledge of a prison cell: that John felt trapped, cramped, solitary, stifled, oppressed—even frightened and threatened. Metaphor relies on sub-text knowledge. This is why metaphor is so powerful and universally relevant: the reader fully participates—the reader brings in relevance through their personal knowledge and experience and this creates the memorable aspect to the scene.

Metaphor is woven into story through the use of devices and constructs such as depiction of the senses, personification, emotional connections, memories, symbols, archetypes, analogies and comparisons. Sense, and theme interweave in story to achieve layers of movement with characters on a journey. All through metaphor.

Symbols and Archetypes

In Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water—about a post-climate change world of sea level rise—water is a powerful archetype, whose secret tea masters guard with their lives. Water, with its life-giving properties and other strange qualities, has been used as a powerful metaphor and archetype in many stories: from vast oceans used as a powerful metaphor and archetype in many stories: from vast oceans of mystery, beauty and danger—to the relentless flow of an inland stream. Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad is one example:

Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.

In my short story The Way of Water (La natura dell’acqua), water’s connection with love flows throughout the story:

The Way of Water-COVERThey met in the lobby of a shabby downtown Toronto hotel. Hilda barely knew what she looked like but when Hanna entered the lobby through the front doors, Hilda knew every bit of her. Hanna swept in like a stray summer rainstorm, beaming with the self-conscious optimism of someone who recognized a twin sister. She reminded Hilda of her first boyfriend, clutching flowers in one hand and chocolate in the other. When their eyes met, Hilda knew. For an instant, she knew all of Hanna. For an instant, she’d glimpsed eternity. What she didn’t know then was that it was love. 

Love flowed like water, gliding into backwaters and lagoons with ease, filling every swale and mire. Connecting, looking for home. Easing from crystal to liquid to vapour then back, water recognized its hydrophilic likeness, and its complement. Before the inevitable decoherence, remnants of the entanglement lingered like a quantum vapour, infusing everything. Hilda always knew where and when to find Hanna on Oracle, as though water inhabited the machine and told her. Water even whispered to her when her wandering friend was about to return from the dark abyss and land unannounced on her doorstep. 

In a world of severe water scarcity through climate catastrophe and geopolitical oppression, the bond of these two girls—to each other through water and with water—is like the shifting covalent bond of a complex molecule, a bond that fuses a relationship of paradox linked to the paradoxical properties of water. Just as two water drops join, the two women find each other in the wasteland of intrigue. Hilda’s relationship with Hanna—as with water—is both complex and shifting according to the bonds they make and break.

Using the Senses 

Readers don’t just “watch” a character in a book; they enter the character’s body and “feel”.

How do writers satisfy the readers’ need to experience the senses fully? Description, yes. But how cold is cold? What does snow really smell like? What color is that sunset? How do you describe the taste of wine to a teetotaler?

Literal description is insufficient. To have the sense sink in and linger with the reader, it should be linked to the emotions and memories of the character experiencing it. By doing this, you are achieving several things at the same time: describing the sense as the character is experiencing it—emotionally; revealing additional information on the character through his/her reaction; and creating a more compelling link for the reader’s own experience of the sense.

Senses can be explored by writers through metaphor, linking the sense to memories, using synesthesia (cross-sensory metaphor), linking the sense psychologically to an emotion or attitude, and relating that sense in a different way (e.g., describing a visual scene from the point of view of a painter or photographer—painting with light). How a sense is interpreted by your protagonist relies on her emotional state, memories associated with that sense and her attitude.

Using Personification

TheWindupGirl Paolo BacigalupiEnvironmental forces—such as weather, climate, forests, mountains, water systems—convey the mood and tone of both story and character. These environmental forces are not just part of the scenery. To a writer, they are devices used in plot, theme and premise. They may also be a compelling character, particularly in eco-fiction, climate-fiction, and speculative fiction. Dystopian fiction often explores a violent world of contrast between the affluent and vulnerable poor that often portrays the aftermath of economic and environmental collapse (e.g., Maddaddam Trilogy, The Windup Girl, Snowpiercer, Interstellar, Mad Max). In any fiction genre it is important to get the science right. Readers of fiction with strong environmental components, however, expect to learn as much from the potential reality as from the real science upon which the premise depends.

In Memory of Water, Emmi Itäranta personifies this life-giving substance whose very nature is tightly interwoven with her main character. As companion and harbinger, water is portrayed simultaneously as friend and enemy. As giver and taker of life.

Memory of Water Emmi ItarantaWater is the most versatile of all elements … Water walks with the moon and embraces the earth, and it isn’t afraid to die in fire or live in air. When you step into it, it will be as close as your own skin, but if you hit it too hard, it will shatter you … Death is water’s close companion. The two cannot be separated, and neither can be separated from us, for they are what we are ultimately made of: the versatility of water, and the closeness of death. Water has no beginning and no end, but death has both. Death is both. Sometimes death travels hidden in water, and sometimes water will chase death away, but they go together always, in the world and in us. 

Personification of natural things provides the reader with an image they can clearly and emotionally relate to and care about. When a point-of-view character does the describing, we get a powerful and intimate indication of their thoughts and feelings—mainly in how they connect to place (often as symbol). When this happens, place and perception entwine in powerful force.

Donald Maass writes in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook: “The beauty of seeing a locale through a particular perspective is that the point-of-view character cannot be separated from the place. The place comes alive, as does the observer of that place, in ways that would not be possible if described using objective point of view.” The POV character’s relationship to place helps identify the transformative elements of their journey. Such transformation is the theme of the story and ultimately portrays the story’s heart and soul.

Connecting Character with Environment

Strong relationships and linkages can be forged in story between a major character and an aspect of their environment (e.g., home/place, animal/pet, minor character as avatar/spokesperson for environment [e.g. often indigenous people]). In these examples the environmental aspect serves as symbol and metaphoric connection to theme. They can illuminate through the sub-text of metaphor a core aspect of the main character and their journey: the grounding nature of the land of Tara for Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind; the sacred white pine forests for the Mi’kmaq in Barkskins; The dear animals for Beatrix Potter of the Susan Wittig Albert series.

The immense sandworms of Frank Herbert’s Dune are strong archetypes of Nature—large and graceful creatures whose movements in the vast desert sands resemble the elegant whales of our oceans:

It came from their right with an uncaring majesty that could not be ignored. A twisting burrow-mound of sand cut through the dunes within their field of vision. The mound lifted in front, dusting away like a bow wave in water. 

Misunderstood, except by the indigenous Fremen, the giant sandworms are targeted as a dangerous nuisance by the colonists—when, in fact, they are closely tied to the ecological cycles of the desert planet through water and spice.

Barkskins Annie ProulxAnnie Proulx opens her novel Barkskins with a scene in which René Sel and fellow barkskins (woodcutters) arrive from France in the late seventeenth century to the still pristine wilderness of Canada to settle, trade and accumulate wealth:

In twilight they passed bloody Tadoossac, Kébec and Trois-Rivières and near dawn moored at a remote riverbank settlement … Mosquitoes covered their hands and necks like fur. A man with yellow eyebrows pointed them at a rain-dark house. Mud, rain, biting insects and the odor of willows made the first impression of New France. The second impression was of dark vast forest, inimical wilderness.

These bleak impressions of a harsh environment crawling with pests such as bébites and moustiques underlie the combative mindset of the settlers to conquer and seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource. By page seventeen, we know that mindset well. René asks why they must cut so much forest when it would be easier to use the many adequate clearings to build their houses and settlements. Trépagny fulminates: “Easier? Yes, easier, but we are here to clear the forest, to subdue this evil wilderness.” He further explains the concept of property ownership that is based on strips of surveyable land parcels—an application of the enclosure system. For them, the vast Canadian boreal forest was never-ending and for the taking: “It is the forest of the world. It is infinite. It twists around as a snake. swallows its own tail and has no end and no beginning,” Trépagny claims.

Leaves dead litter-long sh TNS

Leaf litter in Ontario forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Annie Proulx’s Barkskins chronicles two immigrants who arrive in Canada in 1693 (René Sel and Charles Duquet) and their descendants over 300 years of deforestation of North America; a saga that starts with the arrival of the Europeans in pristine forest and ends with a largely decimated forest under the veil of global warming. “Barkskins” (woodcutters) are, in fact indentured servants who were brought from the Paris slums to the wilds of New France to clear the land, build and settle. Sel is forced to marry a native woman and their descendants live trapped between two cultures; Duquet runs away to become a fur trader and builds a timber empire.

The Mi’kmaq are interwoven with the land and the forest. Missionary Pere Crème, who studies language makes this observation of the natives and the forest:

He saw they were so tightly knitted into the natural world that their language could only reflect the union and that neither could be separated from the other. They seemed to believe they had grown from this place as trees grow from the soil, as new stones emerge aboveground in spring. He thought the central word for this tenet, weji-sqalia’timk, deserved an entire dictionary to itself. 

The foreshadowing of doom for the magnificent forests is cast by the shadow of how settlers treat the Mi’kmaq people. The fate of the forests and the Mi’kmaq are inextricably linked through settler disrespect for anything indigenous and a fierce hunger for “more” of the forests and lands. Ensnared by settler greed, the Mi’kmaq lose their own culture and their links to the natural world erode with grave consequence. In a pivotal scene, Noë, a Mi’kmaw descendent of René Sel, grows enraged when she sees a telltale change in her brothers:

The offshore wind had shifted slightly but carried the fading clatter of boots on rock. They were wearing boots instead of moccasins. Noë knew what that meant but denied it … The men should be setting out to hunt moose, but because of the boots she knew they were going to work for the French logger.

 

Other Articles on Environmental Fiction, Eco-Fiction and Climate Fiction 

Can Dystopian Eco-Fiction Save the Planet?

Science Fiction on Water Justice & Climate Change

Windup Girl: When Monsanto Gets Its Way

Eco-Artist Roundtable with Frank Horvat on Green Majority Radio

 

Thanks to Mary Woodbury for the permission to share her survey results here. Much of the second part of this article is excerpted from the “Story” section of  The Ecology of Story: World as Character.

grape leaves in fall-halifax copy

Grape leaves on fence in Toronto, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

nina-2014aaa

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

An Interview with a Bull Thistle

Story is place, and place is character—Nina Munteanu

Darwins Paradox-2nd edI write mostly eco-fiction. Even before it was known as eco-fiction, I was writing it. My first book—Darwin’s Paradox—published in 2007 by Dragon Moon Press as science fiction, was also eco-fiction. It takes place in 2075 after climate change has turned southern Ontario into a heathland and Toronto into a self-enclosed city. My latest eco-fiction—A Diary in the Age of Water published in 2020 by Inanna Publications—is set mostly in Toronto from the near-future to 2065 and beyond.

As a writer of eco-fiction and climate fiction, I’m keenly aware of the role environment plays in story. Setting and place are often subtle yet integral aspects of story. In eco-fiction, they can even be a “character,” serve as archetypes and present metaphoric connections to characters on a journey (see my guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character published by Pixl Press for more discussion on all aspects of nature’s symbols in writing).

EcologyOfStoryThings to consider about place as character begin with the POV character and how they interact with their environment and how they reflect their place. For instance, is that interaction obvious or subtle? Is that environment constant or changing, stable or unstable, predictable, or variable? Is the place controllable or not, understandable or not? Is the relationship emotional, connected to senses such as memory?

Place as character serves as an archetype that story characters connect with and navigate in ways that depend on the theme of the story. 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.

Archetypes are ancient patterns of personality shared universally by humanity (e.g. the “mother” archetype is recognized by all cultures). When place or aspects of place act as an archetype or symbol in story—particularly when linked to theme—this provides a depth of meaning that resonates through many levels for the reader.

In Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Mars symbolizes a new Eden. Like Bradbury’s aboriginal Martians—who are mostly invisible—the planet is a mirror that reflects humanity’s best and worst. Who we are, what we are, what we bring with us and what we may become. What we inadvertently do—to others, and finally to ourselves—and how the irony of chance can change everything.

“Nature’s symbols are powerful archetypes that reveal compelling story,” writes Donald Maass in Write the Breakout Novel Workbook.

Diary Water cover finalWater has been used as a powerful archetype in many novels. In my latest novel, A Diary in the Age of Water, water plays an important role through its unique metaphoric connection with each of the four main characters; how they relate to it and understand it, and act on its behalf. Water in A Diary in the Age of Water is often personified; water reflects various symbolic and allegorical interpretations and embraces several archetypes including herald-catalyst, trickster, shapeshifter, and shadow.

Strong relationships and linkages can be forged in story between a major character and an aspect of their environment (e.g., home/place, animal/pet, minor character as avatar/spokesperson for environment).

FictionWriter-cover-2nd edIn these examples the environmental aspect serves as symbol and metaphoric connection to theme. They can illuminate through the sub-text of metaphor a core aspect of the main character and their journey: the grounding nature of the land of Tara for Scarlet O’Hara in Margaret Mitchel’s Gone With the Wind; the white pine forests for the Mi’kmaq in Annie Proulx’s Barkskins; The animals for Beatrix Potter of the Susan Wittig Albert series.

All characters—whether the main POV character, or a minor character or personified element of the environment—have a dramatic function in your story. In my writing courses at George Brown College and The University of Toronto and in my guidebook The Fiction Writer, I provide a list of questions you can ask your character to determine if they are functioning well in the story and if they should even stay in the story. I call it interviewing your character. You can interview any character in your story; it can provide incredible insight. And speaking of character…

I have of late been walking daily to a lovely meadow beside a stream and thicket where brilliant Bull thistles have burst into flower. I felt the need to research this beautiful yet dangerously prickly plant and why it peaked my interest…

Thistle group 2 Pb copy

Bull Thistle, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 Interview With the Bull Thistle

Nina: Pardon my saying, but you seem to scream paradox. You’re dangerously beautiful. Alluring yet aloof. Standoffish, even threatening. For instance, how is it that you have such a beautiful single purple-pink flower at the top of such a nasty prickly stem and leaves?

Bull Thistle: First of all, it isn’t just a flower at the top; it’s a flower head of over two hundred flowers called florets. Each flower head is a tight community of tube disk bisexual florets arranged in Fibonacci spirals and protected by a collection of spiked bracts called an involucre. And inside the protective outer shell, embedded in a fleshy domed receptacle, are the tiny ovaries, waiting patiently to be fertilized and grown into a seed or achene.

Thistle honey bee 2 closer

Honey bee getting nectar from the thistle flower head (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina: Ah, I beg your pardon. But you still have all those sharp spikes everywhere. I’m guessing they are to protect your developing young, the ovaries. But doesn’t that isolate you? Keep you from integrating in your ecosystem?

Bull Thistle: The bristles are specifically aimed at predators who wish to harm us, eat us, bore into us, pull us out of the earth. We have many friends—the pollinators, the bees, wasps, and butterflies that help us cross-pollinate from plant to plant. And the birds—particularly the goldfinches—also help.

Nina: Wait. Don’t goldfinches eat your babies—eh, seeds?

Bull Thistle: They do. But they also help disperse our children. They land on our dried involucres—now opened to reveal the seeds and their pappus. The birds pull the seeds out by the thistle down that rides the wind. The birds eat the seeds and also use the thistle down to make their nests. But—like the squirrels who love oak acorns—the birds miss as many as they eat. By carrying the down to their nests, they also help the seeds travel great distances farther than the wind would have carried them. By dislodging the seeds in bunches, they help the seeds break away from the receptacle and meet the wind. The pappus, which is branched and light like a billowing sail, carries the seed on the wind to germinate elsewhere to help us colonize.

Thistle opened involucre scattering seeds

Opened involucre with achenes and pappus ready to disperse, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina: So, your enemy is also your friend… The shadow character, who helps the hero on her journey by presenting a perilous aspect of enlightenment.

Bull Thistle: If you say so. What we understand is that Nature’s resilience derives from the balance of give and take over time. Prey and predator. Death, decay, transcendence. Destruction and creation. Ecological succession and change are a gestalt expression of Gaia wisdom as each individual fulfills its particular existential niche. Even if that is to die…for others to live.

Nina: Yes, the hero’s journeyBut you’re not originally from here, are you? You were brought to North America from Eurasia. Some consider you an interloper, a disturbance. You could serve the shadow or trickster archetype yourself—outcompeting the native thistle, creating havoc with pasture crops. You can tolerate adverse environmental conditions and adapt to different habitats, letting you spread to new areas. Your high seed production, variation in dormancy, and vigorous growth makes you a serious invader. You cause wool fault and physical injury to animals. Storytellers might identify you metaphorically with the European settler in the colonialism of North America; bullying your way in and destroying the natives’ way of life.

Bull Thistle: We’re unaware of these negative things. We don’t judge. We don’t bully; we simply proliferate. We ensure the survival of our species through adaptation. Perhaps we do it better than others. You’ve lately discovered something we’ve felt and acted on for a long time. Climate is changing. We must keep up with the times… But to address your original challenge, if you did more research, you would find that we serve as superior nectar sources for honey bees (Apis spp.), bumblebees (Bombus spp.) and sweat bees (Anastogapus spp.) who thoroughly enjoy our nectar.

Thistle head sweat bee Pb copy

Sweat bee draws the sweet nectar of the Bull Thistle, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

We’re considered a top producer of nectar sugar in Britain. Cirsium vulgare—our official name—has ranked in the top 10 for nectar production in a recent UK survey.  The goldfinch relies on our seed and down. And we’ve provided food, tinder, paper, and medicine to humans for millennia. As some of your indigenous people point out, it’s a matter of attitude. Change is opportunity.

Thistle group Pb copyNina: I guess that every weed was once a native somewhere. I also agree that times are changing—faster than many of us are ready for, humans included. If you were to identify with an archetype, which would you choose?

Bull Thistle: That would depend on the perceiver, we suppose. Some of us think of us as the hero, journeying through the change and struggling to survive; others see us as the herald, inciting movement and awareness by our very existence; some of us identify with the trickster, others with the shapeshifter—given how misunderstood we are. In the end, perhaps, we are the mentor, who provides direction through a shifting identity and pointing the way forward through the chaos of change toward enlightenment.

Nina: Yes, I suppose if someone stumbled into your nest of prickles, incredible awareness would result. Speaking of that very awareness, this brings me back to my original question: why are you so beautiful yet deadly?

Bull Thistle: We are the purest beauty—only attained through earnest and often painful awareness. We are the future and the beauty of things to come.

Thistle head on full of pollen close

Flower head of Bull Thistle, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

You can read more on this topic in Nina’s writing guidebook series, particularly The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! and The Ecology of Story: World as Character.

Relevant Articles:

The Ecology of Story: Revealing Hidden Characters of the Forest

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

Ecology of Story: Place as Allegory

Ecology of Story: Place as Symbol

Ecology of Story: Place as Metaphor

Ecology of Story: Place as Character & Archetype

nina-2014aaa

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