Telling the truth about the way we live now

By Laura Pritchett

Evonne lives in a fire lookout in Oregon, and since I meet with these graduate students on Zoom, we’ve all seen snippets of her life, including the dizzying moments when she leaps up to scan for fires while holding her tablet.

At these moments, we’re treated to a rollercoaster tumble of trees and sky before she settles back down, unless, of course, her tablet overheats, in which case we are put into her fridge, and we get the view from there. Boring classes, these are not.

Since this is a master’s program in Nature Writing, there are people Zooming in from the backs of vans and mountainsides, though plenty Zoom from homes in suburbs or cities too, and they hail from everywhere from California to Texas to Nebraska to Idaho.

They have one thing in common, though: Given their self-identification as nature writers, on day one there is a shared emotional foundation, since they’re more aware than most about the devastating change they are encountering — megafires, decimated butterfly numbers, aquifers depleted for bottled water, extreme heat, drought, and flooding, to name just a few of the topics they’ve covered this past semester.

Climate chaos is no stranger to anyone who signs up for such a program, and so they arrive with the grief, anger, moral injury and vulnerability appropriate to our times. Sometimes referred to as GenDread, many are also at the age when they’re faced with climate-related decisions that have long-term consequences too — whether or not to have children, for example. Others worry about this for their children or grandchildren.

In this way, Evonne has come to embody the cohort in my mind, perhaps because she is literally looking for evidence of environmental disaster as we discuss environmental disaster and how best to respond to it via writing. Not all fires are bad, of course, but megafires could be, and when her lookout was evacuated this past summer, Evonne called to talk.

That’s when I felt the problem more deeply than ever: How do I teach through such startling climate disruption? How do we focus not on loss — though bearing witness is important too — but on kindling energy and options to envision a better world-to-come? How do prospective survivors get made, those who are honest enough to imagine and face the worst, and, more importantly, follow up with action and oomph?

That is, in the end, what they bring me. Their very energy. And my only hope is that I am able to teach some specifics, such as the importance of solutions-based journalism, the evolution of nature writing, advocacy writing and lyrical writing, the techniques of fiction and nonfiction and poetry. And above all else, the power of a well-told story.

The truest thing I can say, though, is this: We’ve been told some bad stories.

Untruths and bald-faced lies about how to live on Planet Earth, perhaps even by nature writers. We’re in a mess and the answer is telling new stories. Brave stories. Complex stories that embrace our problematic history of unlocking fossil fuels, or in silencing voices, or in our communication with and about land. We need stories that fashion new narratives about ecological wisdom for our future.

These students are capable of telling them. We all are. Likely, it starts with being better listeners. In the case of fire, for example, we need to deep-listen to scientists, not just for the sound bites, but for the nuance; also, we need to critically consider which stories about our relationship to fire aren’t working.

Writing is an act of co-creation — we write; that story leaps back and creates some new awareness; we write again. We imagine what we have to lose, so we know what we can save. This is how cultures evolve. How humans grow up. We don’t need to capitulate to a doomsday future; we can try to write our way toward climate justice and wisdom.

That is what teaching Evonne and everyone she stands for has taught me. We need to examine our old stories, listen well and deeply, and then begin to write new narratives. We need to help our new storytellers, even if it means being put in the fridge. 

Laura Pritchett is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She is a novelist about the contemporary West and directs the MFA in Nature Writing at Western Colorado University.

Lookout tower

This column was published in the following newspapers:

11/15/2021 Vail Daily Vail CO
11/15/2021 Explore Big Sky Big Sky MT
11/16/2021 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
11/15/2021 Beaverton Valley Times Beaverton OR
11/15/2021 Tigard Times Tigard OR
11/15/2021 Hillsboro Times News Hillsboros OR
11/15/2021 Columbia County Spotlight Scappose OR
11/15/2021 Forest Grove News Times Forest Grove OR
11/16/2021 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
11/16/2021 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
11/16/2021 Ruidoso Daily News Ruidoso New Mexico
11/16/2021 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
11/16/2021 Alamogordo Daily News Alamogordo NM
11/16/2021 Twin Falls Times News Twin Falls ID
11/17/2021 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
11/17/2021 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
11/17/2021 Delta County Independent Delta CO
11/17/2021 Craig Daily Press Craig co
11/16/2021 Kingman Daily Miner Kingman AZ
11/19/2021 Pagosa Springs Sun Pagosa Springs CO
11/19/2021 Casper Star Tribune Casper WY
11/20/2021 Lake Havasu News Lake Havasu City AZ
11/21/2021 Las Vegas Sun Las Vegas NV
11/21/2021 St. George Spectrum St. George UT
11/15/2021 Anchorage Daily Press Anchorage AK
11/22/2021 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
11/27/2021 Del Norte Triplicate Crescent City CA
12/01/2021 Colorado Central Magazine Salida CO
01/07/2022 Delta County Independent Delta CO
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