As I write, the West Coast of the US is ravaged by wildfires; the Gulf Coast, still recovering from Hurricane Laura, braces for Hurricane Sally’s potential destruction; an enormous chunk of Greenland’s icecap has broken free; the Northern Hemisphere has sweated through the hottest summer on record—and that’s just today. Temperatures swing between extremes, violent weather becomes the norm. In this daunting context, we present a double issue of writing on environmental issues.
Global warming manifests in obvious ways—milder winters, shrinking glaciers, extreme weather; but, like the wildfire smoke that has drifted as far east as New York, the evidence travels and transforms as it reaches new territories and settings. And because humankind’s stewardship of the earth involves so many elements, the pieces gathered here and in next month’s issue address varied facets within the greater category of environmental crisis.
Icelandic writer and environmental activist Andri Snær Magnason began writing his nonfiction narrative On Time and Water after a climate change specialist told him, “people relate to stories, not data.” In “Farewell to the White Giants,” translated by Lytton Smith, Magnason blends family history, scientific fact, and traditional tales in a eulogy to his country’s vanishing glaciers. He imagines future generations looking at photographs of glaciers with wonder, trying “to understand what we were thinking.”
From the thawing north we turn to the parched Spain of Ariadna Castellarnau’s “Water Man,” translated by Adrian Nathan West. The title character travels with his sullen teenage daughter to rescue a dusty village from drought. Her father, who has “the gift of making water well from the earth,” insists the resistant young woman has inherited his talent; when the villagers demand impossible results, he commands her to step in, to devastating effect.
Thailand’s Duanwad Pimwana presents the all-too-possible consequences of the world’s cavalier attitude toward accumulation and disposability. In her “All Trash on the Eastern Side,” translated by Mui Poopoksakul, the world itself has become one big trash heap, with the population gradually subsumed by garbage. In this horrifying terrain, the narrator searches for both food and the fabled Land Without Trash, a magical place of animals, trees, and, most remarkably, no garbage. When he meets a determined woman with her own goals, his search takes a fateful turn.
Readers will recall graphic artist Francisco de la Mora’s “Joe,” from our February 2017 issue, in which the title character, a polar bear, travels from the Arctic to the United Nations to plead for more attention to his shrinking land. In “Liberty and Hope,” translated by Nina Perrotta, de la Mora finds two icons—the Statue of Liberty and Rio’s Christ the Redeemer—making their ways through desolation and destruction to a mournful rendezvous. They ask the question on all our minds: is this the end, or just the beginning?
And climate writer Amy Brady considers the power of fiction in communicating environmental decay. While journalists may be constrained by the need for objectivity, Brady notes, “fiction writers have the freedom to explore the pathos of climate change.” Here she echoes the scientist who prompted Magnason: people may not respond to data, but information presented in narratives can move readers to act. The writers in this issue are staking our collective hopes on it.
© 2020 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.