An ode to nature and a warning against cultural trappings
Mary Woodbury talks to Mark Ballabon
With great sadness, the Climate Fiction Writers League announces the passing of a founding member of the group, Marcus Sedgwick, who wrote the inaugural essay for this newsletter, and was hugely supportive in setting up the League. Marcus’ climate novels Floodland and Snowflake, AZ have been hugely influential for many of our writers. Our condolences are extended to his family.
Today Mary Woodbury, the social media manager for the Climate Fiction Writers League, talks to Mark Ballabon about her new novel, The Stolen Child. Mary writes under the penname Clare Hume.
Mark: What really motivated you to write The Stolen Child and what age range are you writing to?
Mary: Part one is Back to the Garden, first published in 2013 and then revised in 2018 to begin the Wild Mountain duology. The motivation was speculating a world in which our planet would continue to go downhill due to humankind's various impacts, such as causing ecological and climate breakdowns as well as more divisive politics and corruption. How would that affect a small group of people? What could they do to learn from their past mistakes, to continue to survive? I called the first novel speculative eco-fiction, but speculative fiction, they say, is becoming realism, so that was something to account for when writing part two, The Stolen Child. Another inspiration for writing the sequel was my strong need to do some place-writing. We'd spent some time on the western coast of Ireland, and I wanted to relive some experiences there, even in story form.
As far as age-range, this is partly a coming-of-age novel, where 11-year-old Fae is one of the main characters, but I feel the audience is mostly an adult one. Fae is mature for her age; some of the things she and others go through in the novel aren't typically subjects for middle-grade audiences. I feel, however, that adult readers might see their younger selves in Fae and use her experiences as a reminder to get back to their more innocent, less jaded outlooks on life and find the strength to do so in order to envision our world anew, to pay more attention to the natural spaces.
Mark: As the storyline, atmosphere, and pace of this excellent story gather momentum, one of the important themes emerges on climate change. You mention that one of the protagonists, Elena, has a philosophy about this which she derives from reading Moby Dick which is that "...to redeem the planet, we must first redeem ourselves." Could you give an example in the book where this happens in one of the scenes and/or with one of the characters?
Mary: It is less about morality in Moby-Dick than it is about Elena's love for oceans, which she has not visited before, and a need to ground herself in familiarity as well as the idea that oceans were once more abundant and clean. The first Wild Mountain book took place around 2080, so seas had risen and flooded some coastal cities by then. In Back to the Garden, Elena and Daniel's son died after falling out of a tree and, not too long afterward, Elena, always the reader and the Keeper of Stories, takes Moby-Dick with her on the trip down South with the rest. It's a familiar story to her, and she needs to be grounded by something after her son's death. Of course, Melville was great and fiercely dramatic about describing the sea. One of the passages is:
Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.
That passage particularly shows how much humans revere the sea, documents the state of the oceans then compared to now, and points out how looking at our own reflections in water can expose ourselves. All the characters in the first book are dealing with something terrible from their pasts: deaths, living a life of excess, a mother leaving without saying good bye, unrequited love, a divisive quarrel with a lifelong friend, etc. Elena simply realizes that to have the energy and resolve to fix the planet, we have to fix ourselves first. Her conduit is the ocean; it means so much to her, and during her read of Moby-Dick for the umpteenth time, she is grieving so deeply that she realizes she needs to do something in order to feel alive again. Overcoming the grief is something she thinks needs to happen before she can have the energy to do other things for the good of the world. She feels a great need to put her feet into the ocean in order to be renewed.
I have to go into some background here and parallel some of Elena's history with my own. When I was a little girl, my pappaw, who lived in the eastern Kentucky Appalachian mountains, told me a lot of stories. I loved him very much, and he was my favorite adult relative to hang out with. He and Mammaw had some steps leading up to their house in the holler, and flanking the bottom steps were two black milk cans. On top of each was a conch shell. Pappaw told me if I put a shell up to my ear, I would be able to hear the ocean. I didn't believe him, but it was true. Like Elena, back then, I had never been to the ocean. Like Elena, I wanted to see the ocean very badly, especially after my pappaw showed the magical sound that a shell could bring from the ocean. I dreamed of it. Eventually, I would move to southern California, and then coastal British Columbia, and now I live in Atlantic Canada. All ocean playgrounds.
So, I understood Elena's desire to step her feet in the ocean. Perhaps it's both tangible and symbolic, but the first time I put my feet in the ocean, I stood there forever. It came after a period of grief in my life. It seemed freeing standing at the edge of a continent, gazing west at what seemed like eternity. Elena has this same lifelong dream. She wants to experience it when they reach Savannah, Georgia, in Back to the Garden, but doesn't get to because the sea is full of debris.
Her reflection of Moby-Dick is simply parallel to the future in which she lives; she knows that once the seas were wildly abundant and resourceful, as in Moby-Dick, and she clings to that like she clung to something familiar when her son died, but climate change and ecological catastrophe has altered coastal landscapes forever. It's her lamentation for how things have become. She also knows that humans allowed this to happen; thus, her conclusion is that to fix things we must fix ourselves—that is, to look inward, fix what is broken, and then begin to look outward to the world, to find empathy and energy to fix other things.
Mark: I was very caught by the vivid scenes described in the book many years after the 'Tipping Point' of the climate crisis we are currently in. Scenes of wildfires, rising sea levels, and crumbling ruins of underwater buildings from 'the old world'. From the in-depth research which I know you have done, do you feel that we are at that tipping point now?
Mary: The Tipping Point, described more in the first novel, was further along than we are now. But I feel we are in the vulnerable years leading up to the Resource Wars, also explained in the first novel, a slower attrition that leads to the Tipping Point. Tipping points generally happen when things escalate to a point, and then the perfect storm topples things. The first novel described how there was a "parting of a river," a widening gap between haves and have-nots, and that's definitely guiding our world now and has been happening for a while, where billionaires own or buy their way into our communication platforms, media information, and politics. A big amount of money is spent on both frivolity and control. Meanwhile, more and more people do not have the essentials.
I did do some climate research, but, as far as storytelling goes, climate models can only partially predict how we speculate futures. Politics, capitalism, health, and so on factor into climate tragedies and can aggravate everything. Healthcare in North America, for instance, has taken a plunge, much of it due to the pandemic. In my Canadian province, for instance, we've lived here for over three years and my husband still doesn't have a family doctor. Emergency clinics are shutting down. Ambulances and emergency personnel are limited. People have died because of these things.
I remember researching diseases (before Covid-19) and learning that it was possible that tropical vector-borne disease and mosquitoes could move northward. This happens in the first novel, along with a mysterious flu. In the story, climate change is exasperated by such issues, including lack of clean water, no more widespread healthcare, no access to medicines, and so on.
Four years after part one, Covid-19 happened, and now, also, mosquitoes and diseases like Dengue are moving northward, just like the articles I'd read had predicted. Talk about speculation becoming realism. But other factors at play, like healthcare issues, are getting quite scary. I believe all these things together, along with continued freak storms, wildfires, floods, hurricanes, tornados, and dangerously high temperatures, will make societies completely unsustainable, along with our present rate of population, consumerism, and bad leadership decisions that care more about business than health or environment. It just feels like we're living on the edge, and though I still have some optimism, due to the work of many people to reduce emissions and find renewal technologies, I don't know if the majority of us will be on the right path to make it happen like it needs to happen.
Mark: Most of the protagonists, especially Fran, Elena, and young Fae herself, clearly have a deep connection with the planet. Is it this which inspires their efforts to re-wild? And do you think that if the human race does not significantly re-wild, it will be forced to do so anyway in the end as matter of survival?
Mary: At some point, with much lower emissions, the natural world will begin to rewild itself, so that is happening in the Wild Mountain series, even though long-term climate changes will last for a while. But, also, the older generation, Fran and Elena, grew up partly in a world we would recognize, and they saw, first-hand, ecological decline. Because they'd grown up on a mountain, their parents and grandparents also had recognized this and taught their descendants how to live within limits of sustainability. They had respect for the land, water, air, and all the other species also dependent on them. I don't think it's so much that these characters are trying to re-wild things, but they are continuing the way they were raised and also teaching their children, like Fae, the lessons. They also have creature comforts, like growing grapes, because they like to drink wine. But they try to do things wisely, like reusing waste and water in their permaculture gardens and using solar power for energy. They don't really have much other choice, either, because most of the world is off the grid. So, yeah, it is a matter of survival as well as the knowledge of how to not make the same mistakes as in the past.
Mark: Right from the start, we see that 11-year-old Fae is clearly a very sensitive, wild and independent-minded young woman, and it was really extraordinary to hear her inner thoughts when she's on her own. Was she based on someone you know, or a particular representation of a child who is relatively free from the stresses, distractions and pressures of modern culture?
Fae's wildness is partially inspired by William Butler Yeats' poem "The Stolen Child," which is an ode to nature and a warning against cultural trappings that lead us astray and complicate our lives. Living with nature may also awaken a certain animal in us. At least, this is my take. Faeries are also close to nature, but they do have a variety of mythologies. They can be good or bad, bright or mischievous. I always got the feeling you don't really want to piss off a faerie!
The rest of Fae is sort of based upon my childhood. I was a fierce reader, shy, and a child of solitude, just like her. I had friends and loved being with others. But, and this is still true, I am most myself when on the trail, in an ocean, or in the deep of a forest. I remember once, when running in a fairly large forest near Vancouver, BC, I stopped watching signs and got lost, and absolutely loved that feeling. Same as when I did a precipitous run above Ireland's Cliffs of Moher, on a trail that was meant for walking. Though others were around, I was more in-tune to the ocean and cliffs below, the grasses to the east of me, and the old ruins and wildflowers flanking the trail. Another time, when on a run in Ireland, I just took off down the road of the cottage we rented. I was by myself and felt some trepidation of going too far—I wasn't sure where the paved road ended and the dirt one began, about whether I had wandered into someone else's property. But it was magical, and I felt like Gandalf would come along in his wagon, with a wink in his eye. (Fae has a similar experience after being kidnapped.)
Mark: Up on Wild Mountain, where most of the main characters have settled in the beginning of the story, they are all effectively living off grid, having created a sustainable ecology. If they hadn't been forced into this way of life, would they have chosen it anyway?
Mary: That kind of life was one their ancestors had built; more than being forced into that way of life, it was always in my mind that they, living off the land, were naturally inclined to respect the mountain. I went into some of that in a previous answer.
A lot of subject material in these novels is inspired by my mother's side of the family, who lived in a holler in the Appalachian mountains of eastern Kentucky. When you live on a mountain, like in the older days, you are close to the land and respect it. Of course, as I was writing these interview answers, in the summer of 2022, the towns they lived near–Hazard and Hindman–were experiencing extreme flooding, and many people have died. It saddens me to no end, but, watching the news, I saw the extreme resiliency of the people in the area. The willful and strong Appalachian people came together to help feed, clothe, shelter, and rescue those who needed help during the dangerous flash-flood. It's the same helpful caring as what I had seen years ago as a child visiting my grandparents in their holler. I wrote this kind of resiliency into my characters on Wild Mountain. It's something else I found in Cory Doctorow's Walkaway, and when I interviewed the author, we talked a lot about the idea that when tragedy happens, it's not always looting and pillaging but people coming together to renew and rebuild. In short, the novel's characters have a way of life that is sustainable, renewable, and resilient. It's not only rewarding but practical.
Mark: In your vivid and beautiful descriptions of the long journeys, which some of the main characters take, one can't help feeling your own passion for the natural world and your horror at the destruction of it. Do you think that through your story, a different depth of appreciation and respect for the planet can be rekindled?
Mary: I hope so, and despite some of the cautionary tale stuff, from the get-go, I go back to that thought of Elena's: if we can redeem ourselves, we can redeem the planet. One reviewer called Back to the Garden a "dystopia with a smile." I liked that. Good dystopias are never futile. They should have protagonists putting up a fight and doing what they can to make things better. Inspiring fearlessness and courage is so much more important than passive hope. There's a genre of fiction called solarpunk, which is more tech-based than my novels, but one of its traits is that it's more positive than not. It's not necessarily utopian. Utopian is "no place," and we can't be inspired to base our imaginations and actions on never attaining a place of actual sustainability. Rather, we should be inspiring people to strive toward "some place," something that's entirely possible.
I also feel that I was very lucky as a child to have parents who took us out into nature often. We still go hiking at Turkey Run, a place my dad hiked with me in a baby backpack when I was a kid, so it's a lifelong tradition. It's a beautiful state park in central Indiana. We also canoed, white-water rafted, rode horses, camped, hiked everywhere, climbed mountains, and even just picnicked a lot at parks. Our house had a meadow behind it, and we would go out there and discover all kinds of plants. I was a kid who got into things like milkweed and dragonflies. I mentioned my pappaw earlier. I had a 4-H project once to color in (had to be exact shade of color) various birds and critters on a poster board. I took it down to show Pappaw during a spring break, and he knew every detail, habit, habitat, and shade of color for each animal. I admired that and wanted to be like that when I grew up. I also had an uncle who was a geologist in a national park out West. I collected rocks, so he would always bring me something; my favorite were quartzes. While my friends kept perfumes and jewellery on their dressers, I had rocks. Anyway, those experiences instilled respect for nature to me. I had the elder mentorship like the people on Wild Mountain had, and know that this upbringing was extremely fortunate. I always wanted the natural world to survive and was an activist from a young age. I hope to motivate people to remember their young adventures in nature, or if they weren't fortunate to have them, maybe my stories will inspire them to get out there and experience them.
Mark: Without spoiling the climax of the story, there is a description of an extreme religious cult based in a future setting but with strong echoes from today. It seems to indicate that even if the human race faces the extreme consequences of its damage to the planet and society, people will still cleave to some of the old obsessive or fanatical behaviours which cause so much harm today. Do you think that there will be a profound turning moment when people are forced to realise that the societies we have created and the levels of consumerism are far beyond sustainable?
Mary: I wanted to look at Yeats' ideas of the figurative meaning of stolen child, but the novel also takes the literal meaning of "stolen child." It was around the time I was writing about Fae, when she went missing, that I learned about QAnon. I went down the rabbit hole of learning what that was, because I was so perplexed. Society has always had strange cults, but usually they have known leaders. QAnon doesn't, really, or, if there were a couple guys on the internet having fun, they were not worshipped; however, Donald Trump became the QAnon cult messiah, even though he was never recognized as a leader. The cult started when one or more anonymous members of an internet forum were dropping mysterious clues that were intriguing to some, because who doesn't like a mystery? But the messages were clearly political, bent toward illogical conclusions–mere coincidences were taken as absolute truths and interpretations were conspiratorial rather than based in reality–which led to wild rumors. This was, and is, extremely dangerous. The cult in my story is different, but still weird and frightening. Their solutions to problems are also based upon false narratives, such as the idea of "saving the children" from otherwise savage, non-religious, or even non-white lifestyles. Their saving is nothing more than brutal kidnapping and enslavement, however. "Saving the children" is also one of the QAnon narratives, also based upon things that aren't happening.
I think there will always be strange narratives that have no basis in fact but which offer a front for people who may be looking to belong somewhere. There always have been. The strange thing is that today's false narratives are so removed from reality in a time when we understand more science than ever before. We should be more enlightened, not regressing. As far as whether there will be some profound turning moment, I don't think so. Individually, yes, but overall, not likely. If anything, we might slowly get there, but it seems to me it will happen as it always has, two steps forward, one back. And getting there doesn't mean that "there" is a final destination; it's just part of the journey to somewhere else. Many false narrators today also have their own ideas about utopia. Many believe in a great reset conspiracy and a weird accelerationist movement to get there, but "there" is dystopian for many of us as it has to do with white nationalism, patriarchy, and extreme hatred of, and taking away the rights of, those who do not fit into their ideal future.
Mark: Is there a core message that you would want people to take away from having read The Stolen Child?
Mary: I'm hoping, first and foremost, that readers like the story. I tried to make this an interesting tale that would provide a good experience for the reader rather than a polemic. Also, I want to prop up nature, in everything I do. Most stories I loved as a child, and now as an adult, do not "other" natural environment. They bring nature into the story as an integral part of being human; this is a trait in eco-fiction, which I've studied for years. I hope that what readers get out of the Wild Mountain series is a new understanding of rewards in life and how that can come from good friends and family, along with equality, empathy, and conservation.
Mark: I finished the story wanting to know more about what happens to the younger generation in the story. Is there any chance that your duology will turn into a trilogy?!
Mary: I thought about writing a trilogy at one time, in fact have another piece of art licensed for part two (The Stolen Child would have been part three). The second part was to be called To the Waters and the Wild, which would have been about the sail up north to the Khutzeymateen Wilderness area and the life there, with the last part, The Stolen Child, to be about the sail to Ireland and everything that takes place there. "To the Waters and the Wild" ended up being one of three sections in The Stolen Child instead. I might change my mind someday, but I doubt this story will go further. I do wonder what happens with Fae in the future–I loved writing the character–but I think I provided enough clues about things that she and her brother Alejo want for their future, which actually circle back to the prologue in part one of the series.
I am currently working on a novel called Elk Stories, which is more contemporary. It's a nod to the Appalachian Mountains, where I spent a lot of time as a kid, as well as a bittersweet story about two sisters coming to terms with their mother's Alzheimer's. Like all my stories, climate change plays a part. I also have another novel in the works, which I've set aside and might offer for free reading someday. Up the River is about a socially awkward young woman living in eastern Kentucky, in the Appalachian area, when a pipeline spill and a subsequent flash-flood threaten the livelihood of people living in the area and an aquifer nearby. This, too, has become realism.
Mary Woodbury writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume and lives with her husband and two cats in Nova Scotia. SA graduate of Purdue University, she earned degrees in English and anthropology. She ran Jack Magazine (now archived at Stanford University). Now she runs Dragonfly Publishing and has written The Adventures of Finn Wilder, Back to the Garden, The Stolen Child, and Bird Song. Her hobbies, besides reading and writing, mostly include the outdoors. Mary loves being on trails and hanging out in rivers and oceans.
Mary is the owner and curator at Dragonfly.eco, a site exploring world eco-fiction. She has written articles for Impakter, Chicago Review of Books, SFFWorld.com, Ecology Action Centre, and ClimateCultures.net. She is part of the core team of writers at Artists and Climate Change.
Mark Ballabon is a philosopher, environmentalist and author who has been teaching and writing about personal and spiritual development for over two decades. He is the author of many published articles and several non-fiction books such as: Courting the Future: Preparing for a Different World, which is a collection of essays that explore the future in a visionary and practical way, including the climate crisis and climate change in the human.
During the past four years Mark has been developing a trilogy for YA readers, starting with ‘Home: My life in the Universe’. Mark lives in England with his wife and continues to be involved in a variety of creative projects with young people, including co-founding a successful international youth group.
In this issue’s extract from a book featuring a climate solution, Claire Datnow shares an extract from Red Flag Warning, a YA eco adventure.
“Put your hands up if you think that someone sooner or later will invent a machine that can capture carbon from the atmosphere? A few hands shoot up. “Those with their hands up are correct. The machine already exists you know: It’s called a t-r-e-e.”
Puka cannot wait to be called upon, he is so fired up. “The older generation are the ones doing nothing about the climate crises, they are ones destroying our forests. But we teenagers are the leaders. We are the fighters. And we are determined to improve the state of the planet we love,” he blurts out.
When the applause fades, Ranger Eka claps his hands for attention. His sharp gaze travels over the audience. “As for the older generations . . . from the beginning of time your ancestors believed the Earth was sacred and that we cannot harm any part of it without harming ourselves.”
The Eden Reforestation Projects work with local communities to restore forests on a massive scale, thereby creating jobs, protecting ecosystems and helping mitigate climate change.