Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Problem of Knowing

The Problem of Knowing

Nonfiction has, at its roots, knowing. Paying attention to the real world. At times, that causes pain for reader and writer. No better time than the past few weeks of tsunami, earthquake, nuclear disaster, bombings, and the like to bring this to the fore. It's been a challenging for anyone watching the news and taking the time to understand the pain and problems for our planet and its people.

During the first thirteen years of my career, when I wrote environmental articles and books for adults and middle grade students, full time, I faced this issue a lot. Acid rain, deforestation, global warming, endangered species—you name it, I wrote about it, while working at National Wildlife Federation, interning at Nat Geo, and, later, authoring 27 middle grade books about biomes, continents, endangered species and the like. Been there. Seen stuff. So the issue of personal grieving about the planet's issues has been an ongoing process for me.

Unfortunately, my young readers don't yet know that the world can go through these horrible things and regular life will still go on, at least for those of us not directly impacted. Only experience can really give you that, although comforting grandmas, grandpas, aunties and other elders, can help, too.

As a writer about the environment, I've built an internal wall, the same wall that most folks build with age. This past week, by dropping that wall, I could walk away from the news barrage and plant peas, and do a school visit, a teacher inservice, a young author's conference where we celebrated words and wildness and, for a time, did not try to generate anything but sheer animal joy. Thank you, wall, you come in handy. Just don't stay closed.

The act of writing and reading, fortunately, seems to heal our brains, too. For me, science has a comfort to it: the comfort of being small, of being connected to the wondrous. That was why I wrote Stars Beneath Your Bed: The Surprising Story of Dust. Or Trout Are made of trees. But on a daily basis, here's what I use for my shot of big thinking as healing:

Astronomy Picture of the Day.

My husband keeps me updated on the number of earthlike planets estimated, which seems to keep increasing. Cool!

Just thinking about this kind of stuff lifts you out of everyday.

Ted Talks. Big thinking ideas and passionate people give one hope for the world.

My husband also keeps me updated on the progression of spring, the mischief of squirrels, and what the grackles have gotten into today. It's the small things that matter; you just need to lose scale when it comes to wonder and joy. Let the smallest seed sprouting be a blast of joy. Hmmm…I think there's a poem about that. Anyone remember the name?

Time in nature is probably the best thing for nature writers and kids right now. A recent study showed that something like five minutes outdoors can lift your mood. (Should probably look up that study. Instead, I'm going outside and listen to Whit-throated Sparrows.) Anyway, an organization that supports that effort, connecting our children with nature is the Children and Nature Network.

One place to find comfort is, of course, in charity. One possibility is this to bid on children's lit things to raise money for Japan:

Charity to the Earth would be a good choice, too. More than ever, those who are not directly in contact with the recent tragedies need to tend their fields, help their part of the Earth to be healthy and productive. That could mean planting an extra row of vegetables. Or, it might mean planting extra fennel, parsley, milkweed for caterpillars and butterflies. Or helping an environmental charity such as these:

American Bird Conservancy

Sea Turtle Conservancy

I draw strength, too, from fellow nonfiction writers, I don't know Susan Campbell Bartoletti but I'm glad she exists just because she stares historical awful in the face, seemingly unflinching, and writes. If I need a relentlessly spunky person, I just call up Gretchen Woelfle. So many INKers are strong not just from life, but also from the writing life of nonfiction.

Yes, probably doing is the best comfort. Writing is part of that doing. So is planting seeds. Helping plants and ideas grow. You don't have to be strong or have a pushy voice, or even a powerful hand. You just have to be persistent. For the tender hearts of so many who love nature and who care for the Japanese people, or the suffering in Ivory Coast, or New Zealand, or Libya, the first part of the job is to endure. Walk away from the news for a while. Feed that bit of deep joy in you in whatever way keeps you strong.

April Pulley Sayre


Gretchen Woelfle said...

April: Every one of your word rings true. The earth spins on. My fig tree comes into leaf, blackberries are in full bloom, and the garden is ablaze with California poppies. A few minutes there reminds me of the continuity and impermanence of life. A truth the Buddhist Japanese know well.

BethMooreSchool said...

I love this post. Many of the classrooms I work with right now are in the midst of nonfiction reading and/or nonfiction writing units of study-- and yes, sometimes real stuff IS painful and hard to talk about, just like you said. Earthquakes, tsunamis, war, and class pets that die. All these things are happening. Books and experiences and information from lots of sources and perspectives can help us to wrap our minds around some of those real, awful, things.

Anonymous said...

Lovely post, April. I'm often so busy indoors that I forget to step out and see the light. My mother calls me every Saturday and says, "You should sit on the porch this afternoon. It's a beautiful day." I think I'll do that tomorrow. Cheers!

rebeccahirsch said...

Thank you for this lovely post, April. My writing also brings me face to face with the same realities you describe – about the woeful state of our environment. But life goes on. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on how to draw strength in tough times.