Climate Change Author Spotlight – John Atcheson
Updated note: John Atcheson passed away January 6, 2020. Please see Common Dreams for more.
John Atcheson, a regular contributor to Common Dreams and Think Progress, and an environmental and political fiction author, wrote one of my favorite environmental novels, A Being Darkly Wise. The novel is set in the Boreal forest of British Columbia, with strong influence from the Dunne-za (the real people). In Being, a group of K-street and environmentalist-activist types from Washington D.C. travel on a wilderness survival trek to one of the most isolated areas of northern BC with a mysterious man named Jake. The novel is set in the present day. Unlike some climate change novels, where the literary characters need to adapt to climate change in the future, Atcheson’s novel gathers people to adapt to the idea of where we’re at and very closely heading now. It’s also rich with descriptions of the wilderness–the place beyond that I (we) so want to reconnect with, and often do.
On his website, John states–on whether fiction can be autobiographical in nature:
Take Pete, the protagonist in my first book, A Being Darkly Wise. We both worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency. We both backpacked many of the most remote areas in North America. And like Pete, I have taken wilderness survival and I’m a former marathon runner (knees went). But the resemblance stops there.
I talked with John about his novel Being over three years ago. I was drawn to it because it was set in the wilderness of British Columbia, a place I have hiked, rafted, ran, studied, and written about–not to mention the story was a page-turner and had me suspended nonstop. I recently talked with John again, remembering that Being is part one of a trilogy. He let me know that part two (Black Fire Burning) is finished and in the editorial stage, and he’s working on part three (In the Language of Lemmings).
I read Being in the course of less than a week, deeply hooked on what it was saying and where it was leading. I was further intrigued by John’s answers to a few questions I had about the novel. Of all the climate change novels I’ve read, this one strikes me as the most effective at conveying a sense of urgency while imparting ancient wisdom and inspiring us about what we need to do as a human race, not just next but forever more–and, most importantly, now.
At the Free Word Centre (link now defunct), I featured the novel among my then (September 2014) twelve favorites novels about climate change, by saying: “John has a background in the EPA, so he knows about the red tape involved in getting real work done to protect our environment. The story is very well written: a modern suspense and adventure tale about a group of people traveling with a very interesting guide to an isolated mountainous area in British Columbia. The book is about a journey back to one’s most essential self as one relates to nature rather than culture.”
As I noted to John recently, so much has changed in the world since 2014, when we first chatted about his book. The EPA red tape was terrible then; now the EPA has been completely undermined. A portion of our earlier interview follows.
Mary: I love the title of your book, which comes from Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man.” Your novel manages to remain focused on a modern-day story that fits in to a long narrative of humankind’s lineage on earth. We get the feeling from reading A Being Darkly Wise that we’re on the cusp of a something big, something terrible, due to climate change, resource grabs, and the human race moving away from nature. Do you agree with this assessment, and how do you think novels such as yours can make an impact on readers?
John: Starting with your first question, I do think we are on the cusp of something big: an epochal shift caused by humanity’s post-evolutionary relationship with the Earth. This is a temporary situation–nature will have her way, ultimately–but it is having profound consequences.
To understand this, we must start some 3.8 billion years ago, when the first life forms emerged on Earth, and a magnificent experiment began. We humans exist–tenuously–because at this precise moment, the carefully wrought balances of energy, material, chance and time produced the one physical world and climate that allows us to survive and the ecosystems we rely on to prosper.
All the magnificent life forms we take for granted; all the exquisite natural systems that make our oxygen, provide our food, and feed our souls are a product of that 3.8 billion year journey.
So here we are, gifted with that most miraculous – and fragile – gift, a world conducive to our existence. Yet in what amounts to micro-seconds in geologic time, we are now wiping these precious gifts out like a flashflood roaring through time. Some life forms will survive this massive destruction; we might even be among them. But it will be a poorer, meaner and less prosperous world for the creatures who do manage to survive it.
With regard to the second question, I believe novels can be a powerful way of motivating cultural change. As I wrote in a review of climate change fiction back in February of 2010, sometimes, fiction is the best way to influence people–H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine and George Orwell’s classic 1984 come to mind. Each provoked a visceral reaction that galvanized the culture around it, changing forever the way issues such as class and totalitarianism were perceived. Neville Shute’s On the Beach made the consequences of nuclear war real, and therefore, unthinkable.
In a scientifically illiterate culture such as ours, these kinds of myth-based meta-narratives may be the best way to communicate complex scientific issues like climate change. Myths, as Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell revealed, are not necessarily false, nor are they automatically at odds with science. At their best, they provide another way of viscerally experiencing a truth.
Finally, I think climate change is unique in terms of the kinds of challenges humanity has faced. For the first time, we must tackle an existential threat, before the worst consequences are felt. But we may be hardwired to deal with the present proximate, not the future probable. Fiction is one way to make that future more real; more palpable.
Of course, it has to be done in a way that resonates on an emotional level–sort of the opposite of the writing I’m doing here.
Mary: I know from talking with you that you’ve spent time around the place that you’ve written about–that British Columbia is quite the wilderness area, though it is increasingly threatened by logging, mining, oil sands pipes, and supertankers on the coastal ecosystems. I’d like to pretend that we’re sitting around a campfire and you have some stories to tell. Do you have a good bear story? A good wolf story? Tell us more about your personal experiences in this wild isolated section of Canada.
John: I have hiked and backpacked across some of the wildest areas left in North America, including parts of the Boreal forests, the setting where A Being Darkly Wise takes place. Much of this was done solo, in my younger years.
As for a bear story, I do have one. Readers of my novel will recognize it–I gave it to Pete, and he remembers it early in the novel.
OK, first let’s gather around a campfire, somewhere in one of the most remote areas left in North America. Beyond the thin, fragile fringe of light afforded by the fire, is a vast forest, wrapped in a darkness that is unimaginable to those who have passed their lives in cities and towns. The trees hiss in the wind, obscuring any sounds, leaving us sightless and senseless. We have our backs to the unknown, and the unknowable. Quiet now. Did you hear that … Just a branch crashing to the forest floor says one grizzled old guy hopefully. The circle pulls in tighter.
Yes, there could be anything out there and we wouldn’t know it until it was upon us. In this fear inducing crucible, what else is there to do but swap stories of dangerous times we’ve faced – tales of wolves, and wolverines, pumas and polecats, and of course, Grizzly.
It’s my turn, and I begin slowly.
I guess my most dramatic encounter with a grizzly occurred in Denali Park, Alaska. It was the first week of June and most of the Park was empty. I was hiking up a braided streambed toward a range of hills, when I rounded a bend and saw a mother grizzly with two cubs on a small rise by the stream, maybe 30 yards from me. This combined three of worst things you can do with a grizzly – surprising a mother with cubs, coming from downwind, and being alone. I froze, and so did she, for a moment.
I’d seen plenty of bear over the years, including one fairly close call with a grizzly in the back country of Glacier Park, but he’d run off as we approached, and most of the others had been black bear, or grizzlies at a considerable distance.
But I’d never encountered one this close. She could see me – bears have pretty good vision, but their nose is their main source of information – and I was downwind. She stood on her hind legs and swayed back and forth as she tried to get my scent. She was a huge female, and completely unafraid of me. I had the sense that if there were a thought bubble over her head, it would have said something like, “Should I kill this thing now or get the cubs to safety first?” Anyway, another minute or two of that and she would have picked up a scent–urine–running down my leg.
But, fortunately, she dropped to all fours and chased her cubs over the rise, and I thought I was in the clear. Breathing a sigh of relief, I wondered whether I should head back to the road, or keep going. About the time my pulse rate got down to 150 beats per minute, there she was again, standing atop the hill, looking straight at me.
I have never felt so insignificant in my life. This was her world; the next step in our dance was hers to make, and there was nothing – not one thing – I could do. She was faster than me, stronger, and in this context, a good deal smarter. We locked eyes for a moment–another stupid thing to do: you’re supposed to be submissive in the face of an aroused grizzly.
Was I frightened? Hell, yeah. But there was something else going on here, too. I felt alive in a way I never have before or since; blood and adrenaline coursed through my veins, and I had an almost preternatural focus, as seconds became centuries, and centuries of our species history boiled up within me in seconds. No thinking now. Just her and me in a vast expanse, locked in dance choreographed by both our ancestors over a million years’ time.
All I could see were her eyes, and I struggled to read my future in them. She did the same, as she held my gaze. She wagged her head back and forth, her black eyes fixed on me. I began to speak softly, assuring her I meant no harm. I’ll never know whether she heard me or not, but after a few more moments, she dropped to all fours and headed back over the hill.
Me? My hike was over … I headed back to the road, very happy to be alive. I have a couple of photos of her chasing her cubs over the hill. They’re not very good. I think the camera may have been shaking a bit. But they are among my favorites.
Mary: I was enchanted by Lynx from the Dunne-za (the real people). Have you spent time with this aboriginal group? I did a little reading on them and learned that there are only 1,000 or so left. Their historical culture involved hunting-gathering, vision quests, and a religious type of prophet group called Dreamers. Is Lynx supposed to be a dreamer? You mention that the Dunne-za believe that all people have magic in them. Can you expand on these ideas?
John: I have not spent time with the Dunne-za. I first read about them years ago in British Columbia Magazine, and I was fascinated by their creation story. As you note, vision quests and Dreamers are a big part of their belief system. I was beginning to think about writing a novel, and I filed them away, sure there was a place for them. Lynx is a Dreamer, and so is Jake.
The idea that the Dunne-za believe everyone has magic in them was something I seized on for my story, although there’s some evidence that historically they did believe that. What I wanted was a way to look at our “civilized” world through the eyes of an outsider–someone who experiences the world in a way we do not, someone who can see the folly of our own beliefs and behavior.
Mary: You and I have had a little discussion on the beginning of the book, which basically starts with the main character (or one of them) reading an ad in the paper. I had pointed out that Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael began the same way; I think it’s interesting that in Quinn’s book, the ad asks for a student who has an earnest desire to save the world. You cited your inspiration to be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who often also begins the story with a letter or news article. I think this is an interesting writing device. The character Jake is looking for people to help him save the world. This is a long lead-up to my question, which is: Would you respond to such an ad? Where do you think it might lead?
John: I’ve had a chance to reflect on your question about Ishmael, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it may well have influenced me. It had been many years since I read it, and I’d forgotten how prominently the ad played in the opening sequence. At the same time, techniques such as letters, ads, and phone calls are pretty common methods to start a novel, so who knows, maybe it was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or maybe it was just another arrow I’d stored in my quiver, gleaned from reading constantly and widely. My second novel in the trilogy starts with a letter, by the way.
There are several answers to your question about answering the ad. As a young man in my twenties with no children, I would have answered such an add in a nano-second. After having children, probably not. And now, with my kids on their own, I would like to think I would.
As to where it might lead–why, to an adventure, of course. The best kind of adventure where a little bit of good might come of it.
Mary: I caught some interaction between characters, from Socratic dialog (Jake questioning and answering those who responded to the ad) to otherwise didactic relaying of information in dialog (such as survival tips, philosophical quips) that came out in conversation. These dialogs served as an effective tool in providing information. Did you ever feel that by doing this – which I actually thought was done quite brilliantly–you were really going to create a seed in the reader’s head? I think it worked. Was this your aim?
John: It was exactly my aim.
One of the great challenges in climate change fiction, particularly for those of us who feel passionately about the need to tackle global warming immediately and seriously, is to avoid writing a polemic. If the characters and story are a thinly disguised way of making your argument, then it will show, in weak characterization, predictable or implausible plots, and deadly prose. If that’s your aim, study the science and policy and write a non-fiction book. Nothing wrong with that – there are plenty of great ones out there.
But fiction must stand on character and plot. Any information a novel imparts can’t come from you, the author. It must be organic to the story and the people populating it. If it is part of conflict, or if it comes from a mysterious place, so much the better. Fiction may connect on a rational level, or it may not, but it absolutely must connect at an emotional level, or it won’t work.
One of the best examples of this comes from On the Beach by Nevil Shute. The characters’ struggle to carry on with a sense of normalcy in the face of imminent death says more about the horrors of nuclear war than a thousand essays, or a stack of statistics. When we watch Peter Holmes plant and lovingly tend a garden he will never harvest, or attempt to tell his wife how to kill their baby daughter before radiation sickness sets in, we care about them. And because we do, we not only understand the horrors of nuclear war, we feel it.
This is the power of good fiction, and it is what I am striving for when I write.
John writes and tells great stories, fiction and otherwise. Who doesn’t like a good bear story? I was thrilled to hear the next part of the trilogy is coming soon. It is like looking forward to a visit with an old friend. When we recently talked again, he told me:
I think fiction still has an important role to play in defining the zeitgeist of an era. What I find fascinating is the plethora of dystopian works in film and fiction. I believe they are both a reflection of the times we’re in, and a creator of them. By which I mean, there’s a vague sense of dread, even among those who don’t acknowledge climate change, and dystopian stories allow them to grapple with their fear. Actually, I think the dread goes beyond climate change. The institutions and the disciplines we used to rely on are in disrepute so there’s an inchoate sense of doom … hence the other phenomena in film, and in graphic novels, The Super Hero.
This is an interesting point–the feeling of growing insecurity leading to this sense of doom. I think we’ve always felt that, but for much of the world not trusting a world leader, such as the current president of the United States, it just adds another layer of fright as though things are going to end, with a whimper or a bang, maybe in our lifetimes.
John also contributed a short story to Winds of Change: Short Stories about Our Climate, which I published at Moon Willow Press in 2015. The anthology originated from a short story contest put on by Eco-fiction.com in 2014. We recently provided John’s short story, “How Close to Savage the Soul,” for free at the Dragonfly Library in order to contribute to teaching material at Western Michigan University, whose English professors had read the anthology and thought so highly of John’s story that they really wanted to use it in their classrooms and in the book Teaching Climate Change to Adolescents: Reading, Writing, and Making a Difference. This teaching text’s comments about John’s short story and others from the anthology may be found in Google Books. I think that this kind of reach that eco-fiction and similar genres have is remarkable. Throw a contest. Publish the best entries in an anthology. And the next thing you know, some of the stories are taught to students and make it into an instructional teaching book. It’s exciting to get notice, but for me, the love of this literature is ultimately realized when students become energized and excited by these stories – that these younger students who are inheriting our messes find hope. In a highly insecure and frightening world, we are building a place of wonder and inspiration, in stories. And if we look to one thing many authors who write about climate change want to accomplish, this kind of outcome is very positive.
This far reach can include nonfiction as well, and John sent me the cover teaser for his newest book, WTF America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back on Track.