Finding Beauty in a Troubled World: Interview with Nancy Lord
By Holly J. Hughes
About Author and Conservationist Nancy Lord
Nancy Lord grew up in New Hampshire and moved to Homer, Alaska, in 1973 to fulfill her childhood passion for new and wild places. A fishing town that developed into a vibrant arts community, Homer remains her home today. Like most Alaskans, Nancy has worked at various seasonal jobs over the years, from packing crab in a cannery to fishing commercially for salmon, researching for the Alaska state legislature, lecturing on cruise ships, and teaching creative writing. Always, she has been a writer. Most of her published work is drawn from Alaska material or themes. “It’s not that I write about Alaska,” she says. “Rather, this place is full of such extraordinary stories and landscapes, I’m most interested in exploring narratives and metaphors to comment in a fresh way upon what we, humans, are doing in, and to, the larger world.”
For many years Nancy also wrote and recorded commentaries for NPR’s Living on Earth. Her stories and essays have appeared in many journals and magazines and have been well anthologized. She has received artist fellowships from the Alaska State Council on the Arts and the Rasmuson Foundation, a Pushcart Prize, and numerous fellowships for writing residencies. From 2008-10 she served as Alaska’s Writer Laureate. She currently teaches creative writing in an adjunct capacity at the Kachemak Bay Campus of Kenai Peninsula College/University of Alaska and as a mentor in the low-residency MFA program at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Nancy’s personal interests include working for conservation and community-building causes. A past recipient of the Alaska Conservation Foundation’s Celia Hunter Award for “exemplary volunteer service to the environmental movement in Alaska,” she currently serves as chair of the board of directors of that foundation. She is also a student of Alaska Native cultures and looks to their experience and wisdom in understanding environmental change. Her latest book, Early Warming: Crisis and Response in the Climate-Changed North, features several indigenous communities.
Introduction by Holly J. Hughes
I first met Nancy Lord on the page many years ago when I encountered her short fiction collection The Compass Inside Ourselves, then her nonfiction book Fishcamp. I too had migrated to Alaska in search of adventure, begun fishing for salmon in 1979, and was delighted to find a kindred spirit. Since then, I’d read Green Alaska and Beluga Days. Our paths crossed in person in June en route to an Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment symposium, with the timely topic “Environment, Culture & Place in a Rapidly Changing North,” where Nancy spoke about her most recent book, Early Warming.
We ended up together in the Anchorage airport waiting for a flight delayed by weather and became acquainted over wine and spicy peanuts. At lunch a few days into the conference, Derek Sheffield suggested that I interview Nancy for Terrain.org, which gave us a good excuse to continue our airport conversation. But first, I settled in with Early Warming and Rock, Water, Wild to continue getting to know her on the page and was again delighted with what I found: a passionate, intelligent writer who cares deeply about the wild and isn’t afraid to ask hard questions, both of herself as a writer and of the rest of us.
It was a pleasure to continue our conversation and I hope Nancy’s words will serve as a lodestone for all of us, challenging us to think deeply about our actions and how they affect all the inhabitants of the earth, human and wild.
Terrain.org: Alaska is clearly your “heart’s field”—to use Eudora Welty’s wonderful phrase—and you’ve long been writing in the tradition of the naturalists John Muir and John Burroughs and have literally followed in their footsteps in retracing the 1899 Harriman Alaska Expedition in your book Green Alaska. More recently, you’ve been writing in the tradition of Rachel Carson and contemporary environmental writers, such as Sandra Steingraber, who’ve sounded the alarm on a variety of environmental and social justice issues. Which writers, specifically, inspire you to take up the pen?
Nancy Lord: In The Practice of the Wild, Gary Snyder said, “In Western Civilization, our elders are books.” I admit that most of what I know and think about comes from reading, although these days I seem to be a very slow reader (always looking to the craft as well as the content). I read widely, fiction and poetry as well as nonfiction, and it’s hard for me to name specific writers who most inspire me. Certainly, looking back, I can see that at particular periods in my life I responded strongly to particular writers—among them John McPhee (for his way of making anything interesting), Edward Abbey (for attitude), Rachel Carson (for her love of oceans, her ability to present science, and her doggedness), and Annie Dillard (for her lyricism).
Among contemporary writers, I’ve recently been reading (or rereading) Kathleen Dean Moore,David Gessner, Ernestine Hayes, and Dan O’Neill. I realize everything I’ve listed so far is nonfiction. Novelists I admire include Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, and Ann Pancake—all of whom have written “environmental” novels. I love the poetry (informed by science and natural history) of Pattiann Rogers, Mary Oliver, Robert Hass, and Elizabeth Bradfield. Saul Bellow said, “A writer is a reader moved to emulation.” That is definitely the case for me. I want to do what these terrific writers do; I want to be a member of their “club” and add something of beauty and thoughtfulness to the world.
Terrain.org: It’s fitting that the theme for this issue of Terrain.org is “Ruin and Renewal,” a theme you address directly in your most recent book, Early Warming, which was published last year. While your deep connection to the natural world in evident in all your books, and you write about a variety of environmental issues in Rock, Water, Wild, in this book, you focus on the issue of climate change and its effect on the indigenous peoples of Alaska. Certainly, many of us are aware of the urgent need to address this issue, but it’s also tempting to leave it to the scientists and journalists. Was there a specific moment or incident that made you realize you wanted to take on this challenging issue, that you—and the Alaskan Native peoples—had a different perspective to offer?
Nancy Lord: I don’t know if there was a specific moment or incident, but I was well aware that Alaska (and the north generally) was experiencing the effects of global warming sooner and more noticeably than more temperate regions. And that northerners—and especially Native peoples—were very much in tune with weather and climate patterns, as well as reliant on the natural environment and what it provides.
I didn’t want to write just another book pointing out that climate change was occurring. (Elizabeth Kolbert did that so very well in her 2006 book Field Notes From a Catastrophe, which to me is still the best presentation of the situation.) I did a lot of reading and thinking and talking with people and realized that there was a story to tell about how people in the north were responding—coping, adapting, being creative and resilient. After all, Native people in the north have always lived in a challenging environment; there had to be things the rest of us could learn from them.
Beyond that, I hoped that by showing how difficult, expensive, and even life-threatening trying to adjust to climate change is, people elsewhere might finally realize the need to address the carbon emissions at the root of the problem. In the end, I found that northern communities are coping with so much change of all kinds that it was hard to pick weather and climate out from the rest, but I still think I made a good case for learning from those on the front lines. Moreover, the story I tell makes very clear that global warming is essentially a human rights issue.
Terrain.org: You make an interesting observation about the limits of science in the first chapter of Early Warming: “I thought about the process of science—its posing of questions, all the tedious data collecting, the accumulation over time of observation, test results, reviews of results. The scientific process was slow and incremental, and conservative; it didn’t respond well to crises.” What does this suggest about the need to make hard policy decisions, especially in a climate of skepticism about science? What does it also suggest about the role of the writer and artist in being able to effect change, perhaps, on a deeper level?
Nancy Lord: To me, in a world where change is happening very quickly and the need for action is urgent, it means that we need to break away from the old, established scientific principles and find ways to respond more quickly. With the stakes as high as they are, we simply don’t have the luxury of time. Those who question (or deny) climate change often dispute evidence and demand “absolute proof.” A much better guide is one of risk: if atmospheric carbon dioxide increases to X level, what are the likely results, and what might be the cost of those results, in water supplies, crop losses, coastal flooding, human lives? What’s the cost of doing nothing as opposed to doing something? The precautionary principle (when in doubt, take the conservative course of limiting the possibility of harm) should rule.
Scientists themselves need to find ways to collaborate more, get their work reviewed and into the public arena more quickly, and speak out. We’re in a globally connected world where sharing and communication can occur with much greater speed, without losing any of the necessary scientific rigor. Writers and artists also have a role, to bring science to the attention of the public, and to interpret and respond to it as appropriate and necessary. Of course, it’s essential to represent the science accurately. And policy-makers need to suck it up and make the hard choices, even and especially when they’re unpopular, based on the best available science. That last is indeed the crux; we have a political system that can’t seem to even respond to needs that everyone agrees on.
Terrain.org: In the second chapter, you describe seeing a map of the north with north not at the top but at the center: “The perspective, though, was one that most of us seldom see: the north in the center, the rest of the world radiating out. And on that flimsy newsprint, a show of what was at stake and what was still possible. As the north suffers its disproportionate temperature increase relative to lower latitudes, it also offers a way to help regulate climate while respecting traditional cultures and conserving lands and resources for the future. The local good matches the national and international good in ways we’ve seldom seen.” How serendipitous to encounter this map, and I love how you use this image to show this shift in perspective. Could you say more about this shift—and how the rest of the world might learn from traditional cultures’ response to the challenges posed by climate change?
Nancy Lord: It was a curious thing to come upon this map, cut from a newspaper and taped to the wall in a small airport in Canada’s Northwest Territories. I had just been hearing from local people about efforts to set aside large expanses of the boreal forest and wetlands into conservation areas that would meet multiple goals: preserving them for the subsistence and cultural use of the local people, maintaining them as carbon storehouses to help buffer climate change, providing economic opportunities through ecotourism, and allowing the extractive industries (mining, oil and gas, timber) some certainty about what lands would not and would be available for their activities. The effort was largely led by the indigenous Dene people, empowered because they were still negotiating land claims. When we consider our Earth from the polar perspective we see at once the critical role of sea ice as the cooling system for the lower regions, and then that whole boreal forest belt for holding carbon—not just in the stunted trees but in all the vegetation, wetlands, soil, and permafrost.
Terrain.org: It’s clear in reading Early Warming that it was important to you to earn the trust of the people in the villages as you did your research. How did you go about this? What was their response to the book when it came out? What’s been the response in the rest of the country?
Nancy Lord: In Alaska there’s a not-very-happy history of outsiders (writers, anthropologists, scientists) coming into villages to “take” stories and expertise, often in a way that seems exploitive to the local people or that has lacked accuracy or nuance. I’ve tried to be sensitive to this in all my writings. For this book I chose places to visit that not only seemed to have good, positive stories to tell but where I had some kind of contact and invitation. I tried to “give back” in some way, such as contributing to the economy and volunteering in school. I shared drafts of what I’d written with key people, checking for accuracy and fairness. I sent copies of the finished book back to the communities.
Since the book came out I haven’t had a chance to return to any of those places, and I haven’t heard any response from within the communities. And, frankly, I haven’t had that much response generally. I fear that the general public has tired of the global warming crisis and prefers to read about vampires. I did have one college professor tell me that Early Warming got the best response from students of any book she’s ever assigned; they liked that it was narrative, about people.
Terrain.org: In the last chapter, you give one of the clearest explanations I’ve read of the complex issue of ocean acidification, a less-well-understood consequence of carbon emissions. I so appreciated this, both your clear explanation and your calling our attention to this issue. As we know, the ocean ecosystem is incredibly complex and we don’t yet know how both warming and the changing chemistry of the ocean will play out for its inhabitants. This issue is particularly challenging because it is less visible, occurring within the sea, while issues like plastics pollution are much more evident. How do you suggest we educate ourselves about this issue—and get involved in addressing it?
Nancy Lord: Ocean acidification, “the other CO2 problem,” is very serious indeed. Just as the north is experiencing global warming disproportionately, cold water absorbs more CO2, and northern waters are already affected enough to be corrosive to shell-building. Shell-builders include not just the obvious—clams, oysters, crabs, etc.—but many planktonic species at the base of the food web, that commercial species like salmon depend upon. There’s a tremendous need for research to try to understand how this may play out in the oceans. As with global warming, the “fix” is in reducing carbon emissions, but the oceans will still be absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere for a very long time, so it’s not at all clear how we might avert a great tragedy. It’s interesting to me that OA, as we call it, has not so far gotten the same push-back from skeptics and deniers as climate change. The chemistry is pretty straightforward, hard to dispute. Maybe there’s an opportunity to break away from all the misinformation and confusion surrounding climate change with this separate but related and perhaps more easily understood and accepted problem?
Terrain.org: You’ve written several short story collections, among them The Man Who Swam with Beavers, in which you put a contemporary spin on Athabaskan fables. Why were you drawn to this particular fable form, and what did it allow you to do?
Nancy Lord: I’ve always enjoyed the creation and lesson stories of Native cultures and have tried especially to learn from those that belong to the place where I live. I found myself wanting to draw upon the wisdom of the old stories, but to apply the wisdom or lessons in fresh ways and modern circumstances. I wanted to have fun with animal imagery in particular—bears, beavers, wolverines. The stories I’d written previously were generally realistic, and I wanted with this collection to be more imaginative and experimental. This book was also a break from the nonfiction I’d been writing. I think, in the end, though, the concerns and values I express—change and transformation, belonging, relationship to the natural environment—fit with the rest of what I’ve written. They’re just more creative, and perhaps more hopeful in their resolutions, where the characters generally undergo positive change.
Terrain.org: In a 2010 interview with the Los Angeles Review, you talk about the challenge of writing a good ending, both as a fiction and non-fiction writer. It was interesting to me that, as you acknowledge, many of the stories in The Man Who Swam with Beavers end on a somewhat hopeful note—perhaps because of the convention of the fable—though that’s not necessarily true of much contemporary fiction. Later in that interview, you talk about the tendency among environmental nonfiction writers to end on a positive note, a tendency that might be dangerous, since, as you point out, we need to do much more than change our light bulbs. It seems to me that your endings strike a good balance between the two. Could you say a bit more about what you’re trying to achieve in your endings?
Nancy Lord: I recently gave a class on endings in short stories, referencing examples of what makes a satisfying ending—usually some kind of turn, change, or epiphany that surprises the reader but also feels exactly right. So this is something I think about a lot, something that’s a challenge for myself and most writers. In nonfiction, of course, you’re stuck with what really happened, so your choices are limited. But if a reader is going to invest the time and effort in reading something, s/he deserves some sort of payoff. I know when I finish a story or book, I don’t want to be totally depressed; neither do I want to have some kind of “happy ending” forced on me, or to have things resolved in an unnatural way. I like to be left thinking. As a writer, too, I want to end with possibility—some kind of closure that’s also a leap into a new space, something to think about.
Terrain.org: Environmental writers are sometimes criticized for focusing too much on “doom and gloom” predictions for the future—and their tendency to end on a positive note may well be in reaction to this criticism. You spoke of this well in your keynote addressWhy I Write, given at the Mendocino Coast Writer’s Conference in July 2010, when you said, “climate change is a tough subject, to be sure, because of the challenge to not leave viewers or readers completely depressed or despondent. But it’s the job of the artist to figure out how to harness any hurt or anger, to find the beauty or the hope or, at least, a route to understanding.” You also mention James Baldwin’s quote: “The purpose of all art is to lay bare the questions that have been obscured by the answers.” Could you say a bit more about how you as an artist attempt to do this?
Nancy Lord: There’s so much competition for people’s time these days, to get someone to read a book or even a short work demands some sort of seduction. Especially when we want to reach beyond “the choir” who already share our aesthetic or politics. What seems to work for me is inviting readers into a story, which usually means something to do with people or characters, not ideas or information.
When I write I’m consciously thinking of taking readers into experience with me—being present at a Thanksgiving feast where whale meat is eaten, or hiking over tundra to see a village relocation site. I try to ask questions and ponder them—not to pontificate but to wonder about why things are the way they are and what might change. I try to strike a balance between action, description, and reflection, without departing too long from the action that will keep a reader reading.
Terrain.org: In the acknowledgements of Early Warming, you mention being inspired by the words of six-year-old Linnea Rain Lentfer, who said, “We need to take care of the earth, the water and the air because they take care of us.” I loved reading her words—stated so simply and eloquently— and while I know we’re well aware of the burden our collective inaction is placing on the next generation, does hearing this give you hope?
Nancy Lord: I’m really not very hopeful about humans’ ability to respond in time to the crises we’ve visited upon the Earth. We’ve placed a tremendous burden on the young people of today, and it’s probably not productive to keep reminding them of that—or expecting them to make some magic. I’ve reconciled my own discouragement with thinking that we each need to continue to do what’s right for the Earth and all those who call it home because that’s simply the right, ethical thing to do. We need to continue to note and remark upon the beauty we encounter each day and to encourage those coming along to think clearly about the human condition, to be creative in problem-solving, and to know wind and water. Linnea’s father, Hank Lentfer, is one who has positively influenced me. In his lovely book Faith of Cranes: Finding Hope and Family in Alaska (The Mountaineers Books, 2011) he traces his own evolution from near-despondency to finding a sustaining beauty in the gifts of place, family, and nagoonberry pie.
Terrain.org: What’s next for Nancy Lord?
Nancy Lord: As you noted, at the end of Early Warming I discussed ocean acidification. My life is intimately tied to coasts, oceans, and marine-based economies, so this is a natural subject for me. When I read Ian McEwan’s Solar, a novel wrapped around global warming issues, I felt inspired to approach OA through fiction. So that’s what I’m working on now. It brings together a number of things we’ve talked about here, that interest me and have been the grist for my previous fiction and nonfiction—the role of science and scientists, the relationship between science and art, Native and other ways of knowing, psychology, what we teach (and learn from) young people, finding beauty in a troubled world. I’m hoping that it will be an engaging book that will appeal to a broad audience. But first I need to finish creating it. So far I’ve enjoyed being in the presence of characters who live in my imagination.