On Writing Nature with Agency
by Sarah Blake, author of the adult dystopian novel Clean Air
Most of us are familiar with parts of nature being personified in our books and in the shows and movies we watch. My earliest memory of personification might be a face drawn on a cloud, cheeks puffed out, blowing a gust of wind through the sky. Or maybe it was what’s still one of my favorite instances—the grumpy trees that throw apples at Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Years later, I remember watching Blue’s Clues with my sister, and there was the sun wearing star-shaped sunglasses and singing about the planets. Then there was the Pixar short, Lava, with the volcanoes falling in love. I could go on and on.
The typical personification that I was used to was turned on its head when I started watching Studio Ghibli films. In a few different films, there are portrayals of kodama—spirits that inhabit trees. And, of course, there are the totoros, who seem to be connected to the trees, perhaps the protectors of the trees. They suggest an agency to the forest that’s unusual and unpredictable. And though I registered the slight twist that had happened in my mind, in ways I could think about or write about nature, I still didn’t write about nature. Not yet.
I think I resisted letting the trees and the wind and the water talk in my own work because I thought of that personification as better fit for children’s literature and media. It’s where almost all of my examples came from. I wasn’t sure how to let nature talk without it being cheesy or moralistic. Why would a tree talk anyway? I couldn’t think of an answer.
In 2015, I paid some attention to The Paris Agreement. My son was young and only in pre-school part-time. I was busy taking walks, going to the Y, painting with watercolors, doing puzzles, building with blocks, workbooks of mazes, etc., etc., etc. I felt like I was living in another world, adjacent to the one where The Paris Agreement was happening. Politics had always seemed strange to me, but now they were a combination of absurd and distant.
The environmental promises in The Paris Agreement are, in some ways, weak. The main “goal is to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius.” It’s not exactly ambitious. Or drastic. It’s good in that it’s a necessary step, but it didn’t create any new hope inside me when they made the Agreement. I brushed off the disappointment I felt. I was juggling it with all of the other disappointments about the outside world and how I had no control over. Gun violence, police brutality, suffering school systems. Every day there was a news article that broke my heart and made me feel like I couldn’t possibly protect my son.
Anything that felt out of focus about the world outside of my home, quickly sharpened the day that Trump pulled out of The Paris Agreement. It no longer felt far away. It felt immediate and terrifying. How other countries might follow us out of the Agreement. How the US is one of the countries that needs to be involved for any real impact on climate change since “[t]he U.S. has emitted more cumulative carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other country since the industrial era began in the mid-1800s.”
I started to imagine the trees talking. The water and the air. I wanted nature in a seat at the table. And not in a grand, mythical, beautiful, old, wise way. I wanted a real son-of-a-bitch tree to walk in, in a sharp suit, and $800 shoes, ready to negotiate the hell out of a deal. I wanted it to threaten sanctions and influence trade routes. I wanted business savvy. I wanted it to be cutthroat. Because I wanted revenge. Wrath. Imagining it now, I want it to bring up the time that boat got stuck in the Suez Canal and ask them to imagine that in every canal. Sometimes I just imagine a grizzly bear at the table who eats people when they said idiotic things.
We’re told, as consumers, to make the deniers hurt in their wallets. The one place they understand—that’s what I’ve heard. But I don’t think my wallet is affecting their wallet in a way that I find satisfying. So I started to dream up a world of trees that took action in my fiction. They’re vicious and unforgiving, and the world thrives after what they’ve done. Writing it was how I finally felt some satisfaction and relief.
They’re not the suit-wearing sharks I originally dreamt up, but I still think about those trees, too. That bear. The nature that could sit at that table, ask for what it really needs, and promise to hold them all accountable if they fail to follow through.
I needed all of it—my daydreaming and my fiction. And I loved embracing something like the personification of trees, something that seems so playful and childlike, and dragging it into adult fiction and letting it shape a whole world. I took my time with how human deaths would be the tragic but unavoidable collateral damage of the action the trees needed to take to set things right. To reclaim the world. I let the trees shrug it off.
My hope is that the trees would not be so cruel as we have been, but I needed to write something that was as violent as our current world feels. I needed the tit for tat. I wanted to feel like we were even and balanced, if only while I was sitting in my chair and writing my book, my head existing in my imagined world as my body existed in this one.
Sarah Blake is the author of CLEAN AIR, a cli-fi domestic thriller, NAAMAH, a novel reimagining the story of Noah’s ark, and poetry collections, MR. WEST, LET’S NOT LIVE ON EARTH, and the forthcoming IN SPRINGTIME. In 2013, she received a Literature Fellowship from the NEA. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The American Poetry Review, and The Kenyon Review. She lives outside of London, UK.
In this issue’s extract from a book featuring a climate solution, Christopher Vick shares an extract from the YA novel The Last Whale. In this section, Abi’s advanced AI computer is telling Abi what will happen if the whales disappear from the ocean:
‘If humans do not cease damaging the ocean, whales will vanish from the earth and the great extinction will be unavoidable.’
‘Go on,’ Abi had said. ‘Tell me, Moonlight. Tell me what will happen if whales disappear from the face of the earth.’
‘Whales distribute nutrients and circulate them in surface waters. This provides food for phytoplankton. The blooms of phytoplankton will disappear. Or become so tiny they make negligible contribution to the absorption of carbon or production of oxygen’.
Abi’s mouth is sandpaper dry. ‘And then?’
‘Global warming will accelerate exponentially, oxygen will thin rapidly. Would you like me to show you?’
Whale and Dolphin Conservation looks at ways to end captivity, stop whaling, prevent deaths in fishing gear, and protect the seas and rivers of the world.
Submissions are now open for Grist’s climate fiction contest #Imagine2200! Check it out and submit your story here. Deadline: June 13, 2023