Portland author Cheryl Strayed struggles to dig a pit toilet for herself in the desert, where the ground is “like a granite countertop.” Writer Brian Doyle watches a toddler put a live caterpillar into her mouth, “savoring the interior wriggle of her guest.”
At the launch of the fall issue of Orion Magazine at the Ecotrust building in Portland Thursday, a new brand of nature writers made the case for laughing about the environment – not just lamenting and lecturing about it. Orion Editor in Chief H. Emerson “Chip” Blake said he sees too much “we should and we must” and not enough humor in the magazine’s submissions.
“With all that’s going on in the environment, we need humor,” Blake said. “At the end of the day, you want something that lifts you up. We see very little that lightens the load. … It’s all spinach and not very much ice cream.”
Doyle said he tries to combat the “lugubrious, solemn” side of environmentalism with writing that can “reawaken the sense of wonder.”
Strayed, whose book about hiking 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail is a national best-seller, said she wrote her story of life on the trail without the air of expertise that often comes with traditional nature writing. Instead, she spent a lot of time writing about her body’s experience.
“People wanted to know ‘Where did I poop?’” she said. “The thing is, there is no bathroom out there. You have to dig a hole in the ground for a toilet. Suddenly, we’re in a real serious relationship with our landscape.”
I talked with Blake for a bit after the discussion, and he said positive emotion has an important place in environmental writing.
“People want to feel good as opposed to being chastised,” he said. “When Barbara Kingsolver puts out a book, millions of people buy it because she’s making people feel good about their place in the world.”
Decades of the daily grind can douse the spirit of people who want to improve the environment, he said. And good writers can restore it.
“Good writing helps you remember what it means to be human, what it feels like to feel, and why you got involved in the first place,” said Blake. ”So much happens to us in the world that can be a show-stopper when it comes to feeling and caring. Even people who feel deeply about social change are faced with statistics that make it seem hopeless. Hope is not about data. It’s about a feeling.”
The conversation reminded me of the story I wrote earlier this year about why cyclists are breaking up with environmentalism. Biking advocates have found the environmental reasons for riding a bike don’t appeal to people as much as the emotional ones.
Blake also recalled how he used to love catching frogs as a kid. I used to collect leaves, acorns and berries from the neighborhood in the summer, pretending I needed them to survive the winter. What’s your favorite childhood experience with nature? Ever try eating a live caterpillar?