Interview with Virginia Arthur, Author of Birdbrain
Part III. Women Working in Nature and the Arts
Mary of Eco-fiction interviews Virginia Arthur, teacher, field biologist, and author of the novel Birdbrain. About Birdbrain: The book is rich. It is an ecological journey, but also woven through it is Ellowyn’s deep emotional experience of being a human being in the modern world–and struggling with the reality that when a human being falls in love with its own planet, its society may not understand and may even ostracize those that care about the planet; a very strange paradox when you think about it: a dead planet means a dead human race.
Mary: I read about an incident when you were age eight, which turned you into an environmentalist. You saw your home get bulldozed. It’s an awful story, but it looks like it motivated you to do something positive with your life!
Virginia: Many people remember mass development, or mass local extinction, with the onset of the subdivision. This was the beginning of urban sprawl. The most famous example or “archetype” in the United States is Levittown, New York, built in the 1950’s. Mass development in the United States started around that time, and many people my age remember it. In the beginning, prior to any environmental regulation of any kind, it was the installation of the “planned” community–massive, controlling, with complete disregard for the environment. It was, and is, the placement of people on the landscape at an industrial-scale. It is very efficient, and it can also be very profitable because as the construction profession calls it, you can “blow and go”. It’s a hellava lot easier and profitable to put up 200 homes that look exactly alike than to sell lots, planning one each one individually. Capitalism takes everything down to its simplest level, something akin to prefabricated homes popping off a conveyor belt that then get popped onto a completely razed vast dirt pad. This was how I, and many others my age, spent our childhood–watching these massive monster-sized subdivisions go in. I was alive during the “punctuated evolution” of urban sprawl and the transfer of our lives into the car.
It was, and still is, very traumatizing to see a landscape–after deriving pleasure and comfort from even just seeing it and developing a relationship of some kind with it–utterly destroyed within a single day. To treat land like this, to not acknowledge that humans have deep relationships with their land, including all the organisms that live on it, is barbaric. But there is something brutal about unbridled capitalism anyway. Ecological scientists use the phrase “ecosystem services,” which has helped immensely in making people understand that, in addition to an ecosystem being a comforting bucolic scene, that “scene” keeps our air and water clean, prevents flooding, gives the land the ability to repel diseases/pathogens, provides habitat for hundreds of species…that it’s not all sentimental schlock. There are solid scientific reasons to preserve land in a natural state. There are far more reasons economically, socially, and biologically to preserve land in a natural state than to destroy it.
I think the Internet has the capacity to save the planet, and while I worry that we are creating more intimate relationships with screens instead of with one another, I am also not surprised at all so much of the development from this era is being razed itself. Shopping malls and strip malls are falling apart, being removed. In some ways it is because of the Internet and how much of our lives we now manage from our homes.
I am also an advocate for the hybrid educational model, which is a cross between 100% online instruction with one-on-one contact with the teacher/professor. Students do their schooling online, but at least once a week meet with their teacher to ask questions, get human contact. They go on field trips, explore. This model is so much more sane and responsive to the depth of the human species than the institutional approach to education, which is to confine students (children) into a building all day.
Also, if everyone is working from home more than not, they are not driving, at least as much. If you think about it, the Internet could save the world from climate change. Then, let’s couple this with the decay and rejection of the sprawl I grew up in. In addition to letting people work from home, stay home with their families, stay in their communities, what if every place there was a mall was allowed to breathe again? The land is released again to be a living entity. We can convert these places into open space parks, community gardens, part of greenbelts/corridors. What cities and towns need to understand is that this will stimulate the economy better than any ugly strip mall could because our parks right now are crowded! We need more parks and open space. People will go to them. People will bring their kids and friends. They will walk under the newly planted trees. They will then go downtown for lunch–to Main Street–where they will buy the locally grown produce from those once development-covered lands, and buy local products. The recovered green space/community gardens will pipeline into the towns where they will stimulate the economy, and there is no danger of a beautiful greenbelt park/gardens ever going out of business. (Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down That Mall?) I believe the city of Detroit is implementing this model, if even by default.
What I don’t want people to forget is that period in our history (and it is not really over). I don’t want them to forget what it was like to walk a meadow, cross over a creek, have a picnic on a hill, and then one week later, literally, see that place gone. I think it is particularly traumatizing for a little kid. We roamed as kids. We got up in the morning and roamed all over the hills of southeastern Ohio. We chased one another in the orchards. We played kick-the-can, hide-and-go seek, had scavenger hunts in the woods. We were wild and healthy little kids, but by the time we were teenagers we were closed in, surrounded by thousands of homes, roads, and shopping malls. Yes, this is how I grew up–and the wildlife of course sought refuge from the destruction on the only open land left, where our houses were, so on top of losing this landscape I loved, I roamed around in with my brother and neighbor kids, we also saw how traumatized the wildlife became. After raising two baby raccoons that showed up in our new garage, I remember my mother and I putting two raccoons in the car (in cages) and driving around forever trying to find some place to let them go where they would not be killed. There were houses and new roads everywhere. We ended up letting them go in a park that was 20 miles away.
I was born a wise child and knew then that what was going on was wrong–that in time, maybe Americans would understand what they were doing to their country. Understand that preservation of the land of your country is the highest form of patriotism. How ironic then that the creation of environmental regulations for the United States was shuttled in by Richard Nixon. So, yes, it was awful and wrong, and I am probably one of the least optimistic people I know, but with the power of the Internet and the removal of of the old malls and other development, I see a new model for this country that will reduce climate change, convert ugly destroyed landscapes back into nourishing ones (literally and figuratively), stimulate local economies, and revive the concept of community. We can do it. We can do it.
Mary: Unlike many authors who write environmental fiction, you actually work as a scientist. You are a field biologist and have been for 20 years. What is the favorite part of your job, and how did being a biologist help when writing your novel Birdbrain?
Virginia: Going to a new place. I am addicted to topographic maps. I spend hours studying them and making lists of new places I want to go. It a ridiculous list, and I will not get to all of them. I absolutely love the field work and the excitement of seeing the land for the first time.
My book started out as a journal of my experiences. The journal was my way of dealing with the frustration of being a consulting biologist and being in between a developer–who had to hire me to implement the “environmental laws”, which are particularly strong in California–and resenting me and the “environmentalist” who saw me as a sell-out. Most of the time the only person in this equation who knew the land, really knew it, was me. I would walk this land, document everything on it, only to see it destroyed months later. It was, and is, terrible for someone like me. But this is what an economic system that treats land as a product does to a biologist. It forces us to exploit our love for nature in order to make a living. It is a very perverse and bizarre situation. I no longer do development-related ecological consulting. It ripped at my soul. But I am also not as financially comfortable as I was then. I also question the paradigm that if you do good for the world, for society, you are financially penalized. What if doing good for the world made us far richer than exploiting it?
Mary: I’ve read the sample of Birdbrain at Amazon, and it’s enough for me to know that this is on my want-to-read shelf. Please tell us about your novel Birdbrain.
Virginia: The book is about a young, naive woman who lives in a rural area that is entering the “mass development” phase–meaning that the shopping malls and strip malls are starting to be jammed into meadows, along creeks, etc., into places she loves. She is in a lifeless/loveless marriage. She mixes up dates for a church picnic and accidentally ends up at an Audubon event, where she goes along on a bird watching trip. Something happens when she sees a pair of eastern bluebirds through borrowed binoculars. The scene breaks her open. Thus, her freedom from her unhappy marriage is combined with her wider awareness of her place in the world and just how beautiful this world is. Unfortunately, this world is also being destroyed by mass development (the very mass development I grew up within). The book also indirectly references Ed Abbey and Earth First, and Vine Deloria, both of whom I heard speak as a young woman and whose books I devoured. Whether they wanted to or not, they shaped the environmental movement then. Who is shaping it now?
Mary: It strikes me that back in the 1970s, exemplified by the first Earth Day, environmentalism was a very strong movement–though not without plenty of adversaries. There is still an environmental movement today, but do you think that the movement has been set back, and why? What would it take to get it moving strongly again?
Virginia: Ah, yes! I was part of this in the 70s, and it was wonderful! Some writers have argued the U.S. has never really had an environmental “movement,” per se, or that it was based entirely on a kind of narcissistic “nimbyism”. While I think the latter was, and may still be, true, I definitely think we had an “environmental movement”–quite a profound one–that resulted in the protective environmental laws and regulations we have today on the state and federal levels.
However, let’s look at the nature of the word “movement”–movement implies that sooner or later, it stops. It also implies something outside the mainstream (no pun intended). It implies something not integrated into the status quo. I think with the state of the planet, we are far far beyond needing another “movement”. As someone who knows environmental regulations very well, the nature of an environmental regulation is to integrate needed changes in human behavior, to benefit the species as a whole–to benefit future generations, into our daily lives–sensible regulations institutionalize these changes.. Environmental regulations, such as CEQA and NEPA (California Environmental Quality Act and National Environmental Quality Act, resp.) do this. They are also profoundly democratic in their approach.
A simple example is the intermittent drainage that runs down my street. If my neighbor at the top of the hill dumps a can of paint in the drainage, it will run past my house eventually.
Mary: I have joined a movement in Canada called the Blue Dot campaign–the title based upon a quote from Carl Sagan about our planet as viewed from space:
Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. –Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, 1994.
The Blue Dot campaign is hosted by the David Suzuki Foundation. My husband and I both signed up to volunteer after seeing an amazing tour in late 2014 with Neil Young, Barenaked Ladies, and many other bands, including inspirational speakers from all walks of Canada: First Nations, David Suzuki himself, and others. After our first meeting, just last night actually, I learned more about the Blue Dot movement, which is a grassroots campaign where residents get the government, starting with municipalities, to accept and implement the right for Canadians to live in a healthy environment: to have the right to clean water, air, and soil. Of course this is a broad goal, but it is a beginning and leads to the government, scientists, and engineers defining the metrics for a locale’s clean water, clean soil, clean air. It’s a start. Already, many municipalities across Canada have taken on this effort, and the idea is that it would lead to provincial and then federal government. In that sense–and I had this idea after reading your ideas on movement–the movement seems to metaphorically be a strong march up, up, up to various places, and then to the steps of the capitol, or the parliament, and then once inside, the movement exchanges hands until government takes over the goal and implements it. That, to me, should not be a movement end. The grassroots folks, and everyone else who touches this, must continue to carry this fight–and sometimes it’s one step forward and two or more backward. This movement should never end! It has to be passed down to generations. I just wanted to throw that in, but want to hear more.
Virginia: Going back to the water drainage down my street: There are regulations that make this illegal now. First of all, any species that knowingly destroys its own water supply is stupid and the only species that can do this is the human species (so regardless of regulations–to do this is just stupid anyway), so the human behavior that dumps bad stuff into water has now been dealt with by institutionalizing rules–meaning enacting regulations to prevent it. I can hear an anti-government person right now screaming “That’s just like an environmentalist, wanting even more regulations!” But this is not really what I am saying. The analogy I use with my classes is: Let’s put 50 people in a room and tell them they can do anything they want to! One guy starts playing his trumpet really loud, and he doesn’t play it that well. Another woman decides she is going to butcher a pig for dinner, another wants quiet so he can read, another is talking real loud on the phone. All of this is going on in the same room. You can’t leave the room either. If everyone on a crowded planet does whatever the hell they want to, the planet will become inhabitable. Sensible regulations that are integrated into our daily lives prevent this, and in this way moderate the extremes of human nature.
We will not stop climate change with cap and trade programs; we will not address it with big programs of this type. I am sorry, but I am very skeptical. We can, however, begin to institutionalize climate change by integrating incentives and sensible regulations into our daily lives. Examples? My neighbor works in a town 30 miles away. He drives a truck delivering soda. He has to drive all the way down to the town, leave his car, then drive the truck all day, then drive the truck back to the town, and drive his car back home–for soda pop. I’m sorry, but this is nuts. What if the employer was offered a tax incentive to hire an employee from the local community to offset climate change impacts? He is also economically supporting his own community. What if the employer was offered an incentive to switch over to a hybrid truck or a less polluting vehicle? There are hundreds, if not thousands, of things like this we could be doing to offset environmental impacts (many of which have been implemented in Europe). So, you ask about reviving the “movement”? Sure, bring it on, but in order to address our very serious challenges as a species, we will have to do it by institutionalizing the changes we need/want to see (perhaps the regulatory version of Kant’s Categorical Imperative). This is done by economic incentives and sensible regulations–but first and foremost by incentives. (Remember “Cash for Clunkers”? People responded. It was good for the planet and good for the pocketbooks. This is what I am referring to–more programs like this.)
Mary: In your work in field biology, what are you seeing that makes you worry about our planet, and how do you think fiction can help people understand what’s happening?
Virginia: Mass local extinctions are happening very fast. The resiliency of local ecosystems being stretched to their limits and not recovering from impacts. We face the possibility of the resiliency of local ecosystems being stretched to their limits and not recovering from impacts. We take Earth’s resiliency for granted. She’s losing her ability to bounce back. There are shifts in species, such as in my oak woodlands. New and different species are showing up now. This year, I have lots of varied thrushes. I love them but have never seen them on my acre of land before. Plants are flowering earlier. I also live in a county that right now is trying to implement a program of clearing and brushing for “fire safety”. In 2003 I lost my home in a catastrophic wildfire. I believe it is still the most catastrophic wildfire in the history of California and the United States. Many people “cleared and brushed” and still lost their homes. The effect of this is doubly destructive: the “brushing and clearing” is outright destruction of existing native habitat that often allows non-native invasive plant species to come in. Then, after a fire, there is a diminished if not completely eliminated native plant seed bank. The burned area is recolonized by the weeds that came in from the “fire safety clearing”. The result of this program, which I have publicly protested, is the loss of local wildlife populations. The result of this program, which I have publicly protested, is the loss of a lot of local wildlife. I no longer see the diversity I used to on my land. When I moved to this “rural subdivision”, I saw quail, hawks of all kinds, owls, foxes, bobcats, black-tailed jackrabbits–a whole healthy food web–and now I see very few of them. What infuriates me is when they claim their chainsawing down of our native ecosystems is for our “safety”–this really pisses me off. If I have one main local “issue” I am working on right now, it is this one.
I tried like crazy to get my book listed under “Eco-fiction” as a legitimate genre and as you probably know, it does not exist. This is why I was so excited and heartened later to see your website and thank you again. Fiction of this type can save the world. I wish all my students loved ecology class, but many of them do not. They disdain science. They only take science class because as “non-majors” they have to in order to graduate. Eco-fiction can bridge this gap. It should be pleasurable for the reader; it can also appeal not only to the reader who is ecologically literate and concerned but also to the reader who might never read an article about climate science. I think this is a genre of fiction just waiting to explode in popularity. How incredible if it also changes the world for the better! What other type of fiction does this?
Mary: The term “eco-fiction” was popularized in the 1970s, I think as a sort of parallel with a growing environmental movement, so the term might have been more popular back then. But it’s still around. I see it used by a small niche of publishers (such as Ashland Press, Little Curlew Press, my own–Moon Willow Press) and academic or environmental/literary organizations (such as Library and Information Science, California State University, Cambridge University, EcoLit Books, to name just a few), who recognize the need for a genre dealing with nature and the environment. Sometimes this fiction is also called “nature fiction” or “environmental fiction”–with an offshoot called “climate fiction”. Eco-fiction is also just about the broadest category I can think of, actually encompassing multiple genres (science fiction, literary fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, pastoral fiction, etc.), so it may be thought of as a category as well as a genre. I actually temporarily named the site naturefiction.com while deciding on where to go with it! Eco-fiction seemed more representative, but really, I was trying to get away from labeling and pushing genre phrases and toward the work itself that falls into a few similar and related categories/genres.
But back to you. I read on your website (http://virginiaarthurauthor.
Virginia: That’s a joke. Who can work on seven novels simultaneously? (Don’t answer that.) I did just finish my second novel and am doing the proofing/edits right now. I hope to have it out as an e-book in a month or so. It is different from Birdbrain and involves two misfit male characters who have an accidental adventure (but doesn’t this define all great adventures?) One of the characters is a teenager, and the other is approaching middle age. It is a coming-of-age novel about both of them that includes some crazy side trips, with some Buddhism tossed in. I can say I have combined the concept of Buddhism with Houston, Texas.
Mary: Interesting. Okay, I actually believed that you might be writing seven novels. I have known others who work on several projects at once (some of which last for years!). But I’m also very gullible, so you got me. Would you like to add any thoughts before we go?
Virginia: Only to thank you so much for this opportunity and for your website. We are all doing very very important work right now. Despite the despair, which I constantly struggle with, we must inspire one another to press on. What’s the alternative?
Mary: Virginia, thanks so much. You and your work are inspiring beyond belief. I know you have been busy teaching and passing on your rich experience and knowledge with students, yet you took time out to not only just answer some of my questions but provide an evocative discussion. Thank you!