A recent Letter to America in terrain.org series….
Good news. My Paleoterrific eco-sci-fi Knocking on Heaven’s Door recently won the 2016 New Mexico/Arizona Book Award in the category of science fiction, as well as the 2016 Arizona Authors Association Award in Fiction. Early reviewers have been generous, including this reviewer at Geeks of Doom, which makes me smile. Not many people know me as a geek of doom. But I am happy to embrace the complexity of my personality.
And the book is also an audiobook. It is pretty fascinating for me to hear these characters–Clare, the earnest and wry writing teacher; Dog, the intrepid direwolf and hero of the future; Brad, the physicist we grow to love despite himself–come alive in the voice of a talented and award-winning Audible Books narrator.
Also, my Young Adult historical fantasy, Teresa of the New World, has been selected as a finalist in the May Sarton Awards (Story Circle Network) and the 2016 WILLA Awards. (Women Writing the West). Teresa of the New World won the 2015 Arizona Authors Association’s Award for Best Children’s Literature and was a 2015 Finalist for the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards.
I remain so pleased that Diary of a Citizen Scientist (Oregon State University Press, 2014) was awarded the 2016 John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing.
From the announcement: “The John Burroughs Medal was created in 1924 to recognize the best in nature writing and to honor the literary legacy of naturalist John Burroughs. The Medal has been awarded annually to a distinguished book of nature writing that combines scientific accuracy, firsthand fieldwork, and excellent natural history writing. This year’s winner was selected by a review committee of Medal recipients.
Past Burroughs Medalists include Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Joseph Wood Krutch, Loren Eiseley, Roger Tory Peterson, John Hay, Peter Matthiessen, John McPhee, Ann Zwinger, Barry Lopez, Gary Nabhan, Robert Michael Pyle, Richard Nelson, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Franklin Burroughs, Edward Hoagland, Kathleen Jamie, and Sherry Simpson.”
Well, to be in such a list.
Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World also received the 2015 WILLA Award for Creative Nonfiction from Women Writing the West and was a Finalist for the New Mexico/Arizona Book Award.
New word for writers: vlogging. Before I went on the YouTube SciShow, I didn’t know that my host was a famously successful vlogger. I hadn’t even heard that term before…but Hank Green is the brother of well-known author John Green (The Fault is in Our Stars), with whom he partners for various media events. Hank is also an environmental entrepreneur who graduated from the Environmental Studies Program, where I was teaching in Missoula, Montana this winter. There in lovely Missoula, Hank oversees his vlog empire, which sounds evil but actually employs over 40 people doing good work telling people about science and the environment. In this episode, I talk about citizen science and then we are joined by a biologist with a tarantula named Fluffy.
My current book project, with the working title Within Our Grasp: Feeding the World’s Children for a Better, Greener, More Sustainable Future, is an exploration of childhood malnutrition which emphasizes how much the goals of the humanitarian and environmental communities are aligned. Healthy children are good for the Earth. Healthy children are one of the best ways to slow population growth. Healthy children are necessary for a flourishing society which values social justice and biodiversity. Healthy children are central to democracies which protect natural resources. This unites two abiding interests of mine and is a return to my previous book Hunger: An Unnatural History.
It’s fair to wonder why I range so widely in my writerly interests. I think of John Muir’s quote that everything in the universe is hitched to everything else. Somehow, it’s all connected.
“I have always wanted to be a field biologist. I imagine Zen-like moments watching a leaf, hours and days that pass like a dream, sun-kissed, plant-besotted. I imagine, like so many others before me, a kind of rapture in nature and loss of ego. John Burroughs, an early American naturalist, wrote that he went to the woods “to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune.” In my own walks through the rural West, this echoes my experience exactly. I enlarge in nature. I calm down. The beauty of the world is a tangible solace—that such harmony exists, such elegance, the changing colors of sky, the lift and roll of land, a riverbank, and now a beetle flashing in the sun, an entrance into its perfect world. I am soothed, I am thrilled, and at the same time, eventually I get bored. Eventually I go home because my work (my writing, my students, my laundry) is elsewhere.
But what if that employment, my engagement with the world, was right there, in the largeness and calm of nature itself? ‘Blessed is the man,” Burroughs continued, “who has some congenial occupation in which he can put his whole heart, and which affords a complete outlet to all the forces there are in him.'”
And what if the opportunity for me to become a field biologist or a lepidopterist or a geologist was right now and quite real? The world of citizen science is one in which hundreds of thousands of people are following their bliss counting stars for NASA, tracking the migration of birds, cataloging galaxies, and excavating mastodons. Renaissance and transformation! A revolution in how research gets done and in what kind of research gets done.
In the 23rd century, humans live in utopia, hunting and gathering in tribal bands, reunited with old (cloned) friends like the mammoth, connected by solar-powered laptops, buoyed by the belief in a panpsychic universe in which consciousness pervades matter. A 150 years after the supervirus that killed off most of humanity, our return to a Paleoterrific lifestyle seems to be our last, greatest achievement. But in this new Garden of Eden, one man and one woman—as well as a smarter-than-average dire-wolf—are faced with a decision that could literally transform the planet. Again. Will we repeat the cycle of curiosity and hubris? Or is our destiny even stranger than that?
You can buy Knocking on Heaven’s Door at bookstores or online.
People live inside us. Sometimes we talk to these people, and sometimes they answer back. Sometimes they are simply a presence, almost a dream, living in the darkness of the body. Sometimes they are four hundred years old, sun-blistered, whip-thin, speaking the Spanish dialect of sixteenth-century Seville—which would be the case with the real-life conquistador Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a man who has intrigued me for decades, whose story I have read over and over, whom I have written about again and again, and who finally set up camp in my frontal lobe, roasting fish and roots, sketching maps in the sand, praying, scheming, surviving—as indomitable as a gust of wind, sea, and salt.
My new young adult novel Teresa of the New World is a historical fantasy set in the dreamscape of the sixteenth-century American Southwest. The daughter of Cabeza de Vaca and a Capoque mother, Teresa is betrayed by her hero-father, sent to live as a kitchen servant in the household of a Spanish official, and alienated from the magic she knew as a child when she could listen to plants and animals and sink into the trickster earth. Plague stalks the land. Measles decimates native villages. And Teresa goes on her own journey, befriending a Spanish war horse and were-jaguar as she struggles to reclaim her power and sense of self. It has taken me twenty years to write this book. Now I think of it as my autobiography.
You can order Teresa of the New World at bookstores or online.
Finally…Thoughts from walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain and from my essay in the collection Inspired Journeys (Wisconsin University Press, 2016) on traveling: “We were walking, after all, through yellow gorse and purple heather. We were following a scallop shell through eucalyptus, oak, fern, vineyards of delicate curling green. We stood in buildings nearly animate with age and use. The breath-taking beauty of the world. Beauty beating at us from all sides. Beauty and culture and history and privilege and conquest and suffering and loss. Beating at us. And the monkey mind running back and forth. The monkey mind jerking at its chain: the sacred music and the monkey-grinder music. Arguing with your husband, irritable with your friends, doubtful of your worth. Tired of yourself. And worried about those hips, too. The frailty of flesh, the loosening of fleshy parts.
Wasn’t this like every day of my life? “Isn’t every day a spiritual quest?” I asked the friend I was walking with. And every day open to transcendence? How that golden light illumines a field of grass? How the furred hills lie down gentle as sleeping animals, and the rain brushes your face in a moment of requited love? The ritual greeting: buen camino. Could these weeks of walking be anything less?”