In the US, we see our share of environmental battles. But more often than not these battles are waged in courtrooms and in the media.
In poorer countries, these battles are waged on the land itself, with few witnesses, and they are increasingly fatal.
According to the group Global Witness, activists and locals who are simply trying to protect their land are being killed in growing numbers.
Says the report:
The briefing, A Hidden Crisis?, finds that over 711 people appear to have been killed in the last decade – more than one a week. In 2011 the toll was 106 people, almost doubling over the past three years.
I recently read about a horrible incident at a sanctuary at the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Poachers armed with AK47s killed seven members of the organization, burned every building down, and killed 15 okapi.
The poachers weren’t there for the okapi. They were searching for ivory tusks.
The naturalists and the okapi they had fought so hard to protect — they were merely bycatch.
The ivory market is thriving, thanks in large part to China. According to this article:
Last year, some 24 tons of ivory was seized around the world — the product of an estimated 2,500 elephants — making it the worst year for elephant poaching since an international ban on commercial ivory trading began in 1989, according to Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring network.
Eight of 10 elephants that die are killed by poachers.
And as this incident so brutally illustrates, elephants are not the only living creatures who suffer.
The Okapi Wildlife Reserve is rebuilding. And they need donations. If you’ve got a few dollars to spare, you can donate here.
And, finally, don’t neglect to check out JoeAnn’s own blog, where she writes about the issues woven subtly into the storyline of Float — plastics in the oceans and how we can help save the planet, step by baby step.
In conversation with Float author JoeAnn Hart and cover artist Karen Ristuben
JoeAnn Hart is the author of Float, a “witty, profound, and beautifully observed” (Margot Livesey) novel about family, the environment, and life in a hardscrabble seaside town in Maine. Karen Ristuben is an award-winning artist and educator whose work is environmental advocacy at its core.
JoeAnn and Karen, who both live in Gloucester, Massachusetts, recently talked about their work and their passion for environmental awareness.
Q, from KAREN RISTUBEN: JoeAnn, when did you become aware of the problem of marine plastics, and how did you get inspired to write about it?
A: JOEANN HART: Living in Gloucester, where I have lived for over thirty years, you can’t not be aware that the beaches are lousy with plastic washed up from the sea. During the summer, beach crews arrive at dawn to groom the sand, taking away the plastic debris with the seaweed, so tourists are spared the unsightly mess. For those of us who are here year-round, we watch marine plastics wash up, and we watch them wash back out, twice a day with the tides. So when I started writing Float, I realized that if I was going to write about life in a coastal town, plastics were going to play a part, because they’re all around us in increasingly menacing ways. Float begins when the protagonist, Duncan, rescues a seagull choking on a plastic six-pack holder that the bird tried to eat, mistaking it for food. Plastics are not just an issue of unsightly litter on the shoreline, they’re a killer.
Q, from JOEANN: Karen, how long have you been focused on plastics and the ocean? What was the moment when you said to yourself, I want to follow this thread of ocean pollution in my art and my life?
A: KAREN: In 2010 I was in graduate school and, in the midst of a tough critique, one of my very wise professors said, “If indeed we are interested in nature, we need to seriously consider what that means today. The illusion is that we have access to unspoiled, unpolluted ocean. But our relationship with nature is so tenuous. When we romanticize nature, we re-inscribe the illusion that everything is fine, that nature is a contemplative space, a nurturing space. But we can’t undermine the urgency of the moment. So be careful, he said. Ask what the community needs. Ask: What is at risk? What is at stake? What is urgent?”
This was a watershed moment for me, as I’d been using the ocean as an aesthetic subject rather than considering what it needed from me. When I started picking plastic off the beach and researching the complex, global issue of marine plastic pollution I realized that I could try to do something about it.
Q, from KAREN: How did you go about researching the plastics issue for Float, and were you surprised by anything you learned?
A: JOEANN: Once I began to explore the issue of marine plastics in books and articles, online and off, I was stunned by the enormity of the problem. Not just the sheer amount of plastics in the oceans, estimated at billions of tons annually, but the toxicity of it. There is no such thing as biodegradable plastic. It never goes anywhere; it just continues to break down into smaller bits, eventually to the size of plankton. The fish eat the plastic and incorporate the toxic chemicals into their flesh, including endocrine disrupters. Then we eat the fish. Or we feed fishmeal to our livestock. Plastics are so new—the soda bottle was only invented in 1977— that it is only in the past few years that the scientific evidence has emerged about their danger to human health, including infertility and a host of other problems, even obesity.
Q, from JOEANN: Tell me about your art before you became interested in environmental themes. For example, what was your medium and subject matter?
A: KAREN: I worked in glass for a long time, combining it with other materials, like rusted metal, into sculptural forms. Then I began to look at the properties of glass—reflectivity and transparency—and thought about those properties coexisting and interchanging as the light source changes. And I realized that water does the same thing, so with photography and video I studied the refractions and reflections generated when water and glass meet. Living on the ocean, I had a constant visual source for wave patterns and shifting light.
The cover of Float came from that body of work. I have a collection of car windows, and I would take them out into the watery places of our environment here on Cape Ann—vernal pools, ice patches, ponds, the beach—and photograph how they reflected, distorted, and inverted the surrounding landscape. Multiple windows would produce multiple dimensions of sky, water, whatever. And sometimes a breeze would move the water surface so the photograph would catch that one moment of a manmade object obstructing a wave or a ripple.
Q, from KAREN: The phrase “God Help Us” is forever stuck in my brain now that I’ve read Float. Do you hope for the book to inspire change and if so, how?
A: JOEANN: There are all different ways to inspire change. I have been to your program, “Just, One Word …,” where you share what you discovered firsthand on a research vessel in the Pacific Gyre. You make it visual and personal. You tell your story, and people connect and are able to better understand the problem. I tell a story, too, in Float, only mine comes from the imagination in fictional form. Having said that, in fiction, it is death to proselytize. All a writer can do is tell a good story, bringing in environmental challenges, and let the characters wrestle with the issues. It would be great if readers were then inspired to change their behavior and use less plastic. It would be even better if they lobbied for funding to invent a truly biodegradable plastic. Recycling is good, but it’s a drop in the bucket. We can try to use less plastic, but in the modern world, it is almost impossible to live without it. The computer I’m writing on is mostly plastic. New cars have 300 pounds of plastic in them. We need safe alternatives to what we use now. When I realized that, invention became the moving force in Float (think plastic made out of jellyfish). Now we just need smart science to make it come true.
Q, from JOEANN: I know you’ve developed a presentation called “Just, One Word …” to bring attention to the Pacific Gyre, where you travelled to see the mess we’ve made of the oceans. Where do you bring “Just, One Word …,” and what’s been the reception?
A: KAREN: I’ve presented “Just, One Word …” to a few thousand people over the last two years and yes, many of the images and information came from my voyage across the North Pacific Gyre with Algalita Marine/5 Gyres scientists in 2011. The presentation covers the issue of marine plastic pollution through the lenses of industry, science, politics, and economics. I’ve presented it in colleges, high schools, middle schools, art venues, community centers, and marine science conferences all over the country. The reception has been incredibly positive, I think, in part because it presents the issues clearly, in lay terms, and based on an accessible narrative. Also, its multimedia components of video, photography, sound, music, charts, and diagrams are presented as a performance/lecture rather than a straight didactic lecture.
Q, from KAREN: Can you talk about the role of humor and irony in your writing? It’s a great window into the gritty subjects you tackle!
A: JOEANN: While characters are wrestling with the dangers of marine plastics, readers must be entertained and totally involved if they are going to keep on reading. Humor is one way of doing this. It helps us deal with our own absurdity. Laughter is often the result of a sudden truth about ourselves, whether individually or as a species. Here we are, big-brained humans in the twenty-first century, supposedly the smartest animals who ever walked the earth, and we are killing ourselves and our world with our own cleverness. What else can you do but laugh? The saving grace in all this is that I believe that the cleverness that got us into this environmental mess will get us out of it. If that doesn’t happen before it’s too late, well then, the joke will be on us.
Q, from JOEANN: What do you see in the future, in terms of how your art will evolve, and what are you working on now?
A: KAREN: I believe that art is a representation of our human response to the world, so I expect that my art will continue to evolve as I respond to events affecting our natural world. I’m currently working on the Synergy Project, where eight artists are linked with eight marine scientists from MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. We are making work that will be exhibited at Boston’s Museum of Science from February to June 2013.
I’ve collaborated with Sophie Chu, a marine chemist studying how the ocean’s changing chemistry is affecting the ability of pteropods—shell-bearing plankton—to survive. One-third of the excessive carbon dioxide we dump into our atmosphere—coal-burning power plants, industrial emissions, cars, air conditioners—is absorbed by the ocean. This causes a chemical reaction resulting in lower pH, which means that the ocean is becoming more acidic and causing shellfish to corrode.
I’ve acidified 350 white eggshells and will show them in a large sculptural installation with a video component. The work demonstrates the effects of ocean acidification of calcium carbonate structures (eggs and shellfish). And there are 350 to signify the 350 parts per million in atmospheric carbon that most scientists agree we need to strive for so as not to face a major marine extinction. We are now at 390 ppm and rising.
In today’s post, the authors answer questions about what they’d like to share with aspiring authors, as well as what went through their minds when they got the news that their books had been accepted for publication (which were awesome moments for us, too!).
In the months to come, they’ll answer your questions, which you can email to: email@example.com. Each month, Book Divas will pick 2-3 questions to feature in the column (and if your question is selected, you will be entered to win a $25 Amazon Gift Card; Book Divas will give away one gift card each month!).
Q: I love the multiplicity of the title, Float. Can you give a little background on how you developed the title? Did you decided on “float” as a title before, after, or somewhere in the middle of writing the novel?
A: No matter what I write, whether a short story or a novel, it seems the title comes to me before anything else. A few years ago a friend was going through a rough patch, and her therapist told her to imagine herself floating with her problems instead of fighting them so hard, or else she would exhaust herself and sink. Every time she got stressed out, she repeated the word “float” to herself and felt better. It seemed like good advice for anyone, so I created a Float document. For two years I added other meanings, such as to float through life without direction, or to float a loan. As a physical object, a float is used in fishing to keep the nets or line buoyant, and a float is part of a pier. I learned about plastics that float along in the oceans from Flotsametrics and the Floating World, by Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano, and plastic’s environmental impact on not just sea life, but all life. Then one day I came across the Alan Watts quote — “To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float” — and I was ready to start the novel.
Q: There were parts of the novel where I couldn’t help but laugh aloud to myself. I really enjoy how you’ve seamlessly woven together comedy and more serious topics such as pollution and environmental sustainability; it makes the novel very accessible. Was this your intention while writing Float, or did the humor naturally develop from the characters?
A: Humor is as fragile as a jellyfish; if you try to dissect it, it dissolves right into the sand. When I write I never think, oh, I’ve got to make this funny, because that would kill it. I just write about characters with contradictory aspects, the way people are in real life. Or at least in my life. The mother in Float obsesses about sailing, yet won’t go out on the water; Slocum is a chef who imagines himself on the cutting edge of cuisine, and can’t cook. As W. Somerset Maugham, a writer I slavishly admire, said, “A sense of humor leads you to take pleasure in the discrepancies of human nature.”
Q: There is such a variety in your characters, which is very refreshing to read. While there is no doubt that the characters are entertaining, they also have a complexity to them. For instance, even though Duncan’s mother is hilariously entertaining, I also found her to be wise and resilient. Her quote “you have to look for answers in the problem itself” struck me as very true, even poetic. How did you create such wonderful variety in your characters? Was there a lot of inspiration from people in your own personal life?
A: I’ve been told that I have a high tolerance for odd ducks. I don’t like to think about what that says about my upbringing and my core definition of “normal.” Be that as it may, when I write, I don’t think in terms of real people when creating characters, but real traits. I keep a document called Characters, which may or may not pertain to characters I’m working with, in which I record words and actions I find interesting. For me, characters evolve slowly as I play around with these aspects, but I try never to have identifiable traits or words that can lead back to a single person. I don’t want people to clam up around me because I’m a writer. I need the material! I’m not above stealing traits from fictional characters either. To that end, I like Updike, Cheever, and Flannery O’Connor, who were great students of the human experiment.
Q: Has the ocean and the environmental issues surrounding it always been a passion for you?
A: I remember chastising other kids in grade school for throwing candy wrappers in the street. I probably wasn’t very popular. I remember the first Earth Day in 1970, when I was entering high school, how exciting it was that people were finally paying attention. In those days it was still mostly about air and fresh water pollution, and we’ve made strides there, but plastics in the ocean weren’t in the conversation yet. The plastic soda bottle wasn’t even invented until 1977, so we had no idea how insidious it was, how it would never break down into its components but just become smaller and smaller until it was the size of sea plankton and join the food chain. Regardless, I was a stranger to the ocean when I was young. This, in spite of the fact that our planet shouldn’t even be called Earth, it should be called Ocean, because it is more water than land. But I grew up in the Bronx — which in theory is on the coast, but in actuality might as well be in Ohio — and then the northern suburbs, so the only body of water I knew was the municipal pool. Then in 1979 I moved to Gloucester, Massachusetts, which is thoroughly integrated with the sea, in spirit and in trade. When my children were young, I was at the beach by demand, but it wasn’t love at first sight. It was hot, and sand got in their ears and diapers, and I thought waves would snatch their precious bodies from my arms. When they got older, I took up rowing, and that’s when I really learned to love the water. Unfortunately, along with tremendous beauty, to be on the water is to have a world of plastic in your face. Plastic bottles float around the harbor, lost fishing line tangles up in balls and traps seabirds, and giant sheets of ghostly shrink-wrap (used to winterize pleasure boats) bob along on the surface like manta rays, only more deadly. The ocean is so unfamiliar to most people that these problems are invisible, so we need raise awareness. What we need is Ocean Day.
Q: Can you speak a bit about the writing process for Float? How long did the novel take you to complete? Also, how long was Float an idea before you began to write it?
A: I am a disciplined writer and work almost every day, but I have to write in the morning or not at all. My habits came from years of going to school while my three kids were still at home, when I had to guard my writing time like a troll under a bridge. I bargained away everything to avoid doing morning carpool so I could work. Once I leave the house, something is lost for me, a dreaminess, that I can’t get back. Even going to the barn to do morning animal chores can break it, so my husband does them. I don’t take calls when I write, I don’t book appointments, and I tell my family to go away. Novels are such a big undertaking, you really have to be such a mean troll. Float was two years of writing, not including the two years of research that came before it and the months of editing with Ashland Creek that came after.
Q: Eco-fiction is still a relatively new genre. Do you think there will be a rise of eco-fiction the more educated the public becomes about environmental sustainability?
A: I think there will be a rise in it because environment devastation will become such a predominant force in our lives. I didn’t start out to write eco-fiction, but the first chapter in Float takes place on a beach. My protagonist, Duncan, comes to the water to look at some words in the sand and finds a seagull caught in a plastic six-pack holder. Saving the bird jump-started the plot, then plastics took on a growing role throughout the book, and the next thing I know, every time I sat down to write, I’m thinking: Humans put the plastic there — they are going to have to remove it, or at the least, figure out a way from adding to the problem. For me, writing about the water meant writing about the plastics in it, because that’s the reality.
Q: Do you have any tips for your readers on how they can help keep our oceans (and in turn, ourselves) clean and healthy?
A: It is easy to feel overwhelmed and give up altogether. But I still pick up the plastic on the beach, and I try to restrict my use of plastic in the first place. That’s almost impossible these days. The computer I’m writing on right now is plastic, and I couldn’t get along without it. So I eliminate plastics for disposable products, like grocery bags, while tolerating it in durables, like my manure cart and garden hose, more items I can’t live without. I won’t buy coffee at places that use Styrofoam cups, and I buy milk in cardboard. That’s just palliative. The cure will be in finding natural plastic substitutes. We have to encourage private and public funding of these projects. We must learn to love science. In Float, the promise is in jellyfish, but in real life, scientists all over the world are working to develop natural polymers using all sorts of unlikely things, such as beetle shells, algae, and yes, even jellyfish, that can be broken down with enzymes and used again. Human creativity can save humanity, but the impetus and funding has got to be there.
Shelby Harris is a student at Southern Oregon University. She plans to graduate in the spring of 2013 with a B.S. in professional writing and a minor in business administration. After her undergraduate studies are complete, she hopes to attend graduate school in Oregon to further her knowledge of professional writing. With all her schooling complete, she eventually aspires to own and operate a publishing company that specializes in helping publish young authors.