For an environmental writing conference, no one’s smoking pot. Not to my knowledge. Not to my discerning nose. Instead, participants, maybe seventy in total, are skipping the evening barn pubs to secure an easier early morning of bird watching—experts, as makeshift rock stars to this cohort, identifying fowl based solely on song. Our feathered friends remain elusive to Vermont’s dense canopy; we walk the trails in contemplation. Later, after breakfast, the afternoon workshops, classes, and readings commence. We fill our notepads with the wounds of the world.
It’s the conference’s third year, a joint effort between Orion Magazine and the Bread Loaf School of English, orchestrated to foster future literary artists of an ecological bent. The event happens months before the “Big” Loaf of which many writers are more acquainted, yet the location is the same; cafeteria food, I’m assuming, the same. But the content? This is about more than just literature. It’s about the future of our only planet.
Environmental writing is on an upswing. In the past, well-known journals and magazines would run a nature-based piece maybe once or twice a year, buried somewhere deep in the recesses of unread pages. But now, climate justice is all the rage. Global warming is all over the place. Proof: peruse independent bookstores—the front tables and prime shelves—and you’ll find evidence: The Sixth Extinction, Last Child in the Woods, The Song of the Dodo. Magazines verify this shift in the atmospheric pressure to pay attention, with feature articles in Time, People, even O (the Oprah one). Local papers, too. They cover the exorbitant whitefish dead in the Yellowstone, statistics on the ever-increasing wildfires of the American West. Endangered grizzlies facing delisting. Pop culture permeated with signs of climate decline.
In a selfish upsurge, I celebrate—my genre now relevant and writing style desired; the planet in peril lands me some publications. I am no longer a fringe essayist, no longer a crazed misanthrope. I am relevant. But rejoice is inundated with despair. And so celebration wilts. Self-importance decays. Too much at stake. I return to the page. Urgent.
The battle cry is nothing new. I reread my literary heroes, again and again: John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey—all whistle blowers crying at a frequency lay listeners couldn’t yet register. This banshee is a driving force of change—art in harmony with the environment. It has been planting the seeds of conservation, and later preservation, into a country hell-bent on conquest. From manifest destiny, to industrialism, to consumerism, to a date stamp on our own extinction. These seeds have grown: people now pay attention, thank Gaia, and act against the inevitable. The former “don’t sweat it” mentality has us perspiring, with entire cities banning single-use plastic bags, solar panels popping up along roadsides and private homes. My neighbors now composting. Attention is coming when it’s most needed, but is always too late.
What whistles are we left to blow? And with whom does the responsibility reside? We’re all carrying the same burden, an internal, contrite question that gnaws and chews at the ego: Can I make a difference? It’s hard enough claiming to be a writer, but adding the redefining “environmental” to the moniker brings on another layer of doubt. Who are we as artists and advocates to think we can solve anything?
To compound the self-uncertainty, everyone at the conference knows more than me: Dana is in herb school, Tom fights fires, Erika lectures on coffee production. They pull plants out of the ground and say, Eat this. They pull buds off of trees just the same. I enlighten to a sublime life force around me. Robert Michael Pyle knows everything there is to know about butterflies; Rubén Martínez brings social justice into the equation, citing Pope Francis’ encyclical on ecology; Scott Russell Sanders makes us contemplate the missing connections of universal kindness. Another guy, Willie, came as a comedy writer. Not many find anything about our topic funny or entertaining. He’s a breath of fresh air.
So, what is left to be said when you are surrounded by so many others saying it better than you? A lot, I am learning. Because, when in the myopic bubble of a writing conference, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the talent around you, but everyone ultimately disperses, and the seventy people of whom forwent partying for a resolve in environmental education, they all return, like drops of blood, back into the multitude that is tipping the scale beyond the billions. Ours is the talent, in our own communities, to make the incomprehensible personal, to turn science into narrative.
We have a mandate to stoke this flame—lit by these fellow artist advocates, lit by the ethos of the environmental writing conference—in order to extinguish the future inferno, a world of drought and climatic distress, we are promising our progeny. The thought can be daunting. Paralyzing. That’s when you smoke a little pot, take the edge off, and get back to work. Because now is not the time to be timid, Dear Environmental Writers. There is no white space left to remain tepid on the page.