What was the impulse for you embarking on this work?
You could say that the impulse was very old. But I was only able to marshal the skill, time and resources required to write the book a few years ago. By then I was in my early thirties, in a challenging period of transition and suffering from a deficit of meaning. The book was a way to write myself through the dark wood.
The older story is that I was a radically idealistic teenager. When I was 16, I read a couple of books that convinced me that the world was on the brink of ecological collapse. I dropped out of high school along with three close friends and together we ran away to a wilderness survival program to prepare for the apocalypse we feared would happen any day. That was 1998. One of the stories in the book is about how that energy and idealism eroded into cynicism and despair. The realities of being cold, hungry and lonely did not conform to my fantasy of badass self-sufficiency. And I wound up feeling paralyzed by all the political in-fighting and purity tests that plague activist communities, and by impossible questions like should we abandon the system or try to repair it or burn it to the ground?
In my overwhelm, I just turned away from the question entirely and focused instead on apprenticing myself to literature. A few years ago I thought, maybe if I return to these questions with adult eyes, I’ll learn something new. And I did. The constellation of different voices and ideas in the book form a kind of answer.
I love the subtitle of the book: “Making a life at the end of the world.” Tell us about what that means to you and why it’s an important message.
Thank you! I like the tension between the generative act of “making a life” and the unknown of “the end of the world.” To me it is a radically hopeful act to dig in for the long haul, put down roots, and sow seeds for future generations—even as, or maybe especially as, the way of life most of us inherited unravels before our eyes. The only kind of hope that I can get excited about is active, it’s a form of love. It is hopeful to invest sweat and effort and sustained attention in restoring degraded lands and encouraging biodiversity, even if you won’t live to harvest the fruits you’ve planted.
What gave you hope?
On a similar note, I was blown away by the incredible restoration successes of several people profiled in the book: Ron Goode, Finisia Medrano, Sebastio Salgado, and what John D. Liu is trying to achieve with his ecosystem restoration camps. This is also my answer to the question of What shocked or surprised you the most in your research? I was most surprised by these dramatic examples of massively damaged lands coming back to life in a period of decades. I was also blown away by Tao Orion’s study of invasive species and how they can be allies in healing some of the most toxic places on earth.
I went into the project skeptical about the big geoengineering initiatives proposed to reverse climate change. But I wound up feeling cautiously optimistic about restoring so called “climate crucibles”— strategic locations on the planet, that if restored could not only sink water and capture carbon locally but shift weather patterns across whole regions, reversing some of the most frightening feedback loops. All of these are situations where ordinary people can and do effect incredible change. As I say in the book, the span of a single human life is almost no time at all, but we can do so much to keep our world living.
How has the book changed your actions and attitudes around climate change?
When I started out I wanted clear action items so I could feel less impotent in the face of overwhelming threat. I viewed the world in binary terms like right and wrong, chaos and rigidity, domination and abandonment, etc. As I wrote the book the ecology of my inner life was slowly restored and I’ve moved toward a worldview rooted in the values of flexibility, adaptation, and interdependence. There are innumerable ways to fight for a habitable future, but they all depend on forming real embodied relationships with one another and our ecosystems.
Obviously, a big piece of the puzzle is stopping the companies who are not only largely responsible for destroying the planet but profiting hugely from that destruction. But I also view them as an extension of an inherently unsustainable expansionist system that involves nearly every one of us to greater and lesser extents. It’s not enough to resist and dismantle, we need positive constructs to live into. Yes, we need to impede the destruction, and yes we need to speed the rate of creation. We can effect significant beneficial change through land restoration right now.
On a personal note. I’ve become much more intimate with the plants and animals in my immediate vicinity. Before the book, I’d killed most of the plants unlucky enough to be entrusted to my care. I’ve since developed a relationship with the land I live on and have turned our lawn into a garden. I’ve also had a baby since I finished the book which just means I have more skin in the game in terms of my investment in our collective outcome. These are small things but they’re representative of a personal sea change.
What do we need to see more of in terms of storytelling when it comes to climate change?
I’m not big on prescriptions but I do think we’ve inherited some anti-social ideas from early conservationist literature, and we could benefit from people imagining new and varied ways to live in social groups that encourage biodiversity and ecological abundance.
Lisa Wells is a poet, non-fiction writer and editor from Portland, Oregon. She is the author of Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World and The Fix, which won the Iowa Poetry Prize. Her poems and essays have been widely published, including in The New York Times and Harper’s Magazine. For more, visit www.blackincbooks.com.au/books/believers