I’m uncharacteristically speechless. Diary of a Citizen Scientist (Oregon State University Press, 2014) has been awarded the 2016 John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing. The award was presented this April 4 at the Annual Literary Awards ceremony of the John Burroughs Association at the Yale Club in New York City.
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, Paul Brooks, Roger Tory Peterson, John Hay, Peter Matthiessen, John McPhee, Ann Zwinger, Barry Lopez, Gary Nabhan, Robert Michael Pyle, Richard Nelson, Carl Safina, Ted Levin, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Julia Whitty, Franklin Burroughs, Michael Welland, Edward Hoagland, Thor Hanson, Kathleen Jamie, and Sherry Simpson.”
Well, to be in such a list. What a thrill. And the awards ceremony itself was very sweet, comfortable and low-key.
My eco sci-fi Knocking on Heaven’s Door has also just been released. 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 to hear the world of my 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.
I’m also pleased that Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World received the 2014 WILLA Award for Creative Nonfiction from Women Writing the West and was a finalist for the New Mexico/Arizona Book Award. Meanwhile, my young adult historical fantasy Teresa of the New World is now an IndieFab Finalist and won the 2015 Arizona Authors Association Award for Best Children’s Literature and was a Finalist for the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards.
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.