Poet, essayist, and Orion contributor Alison Hawthorne Deming, author of A Woven World: On Fashion, Fisherman, and the Sardine Dress (Counterpoint, available now) and climate campaigner Alice Bell, author of Our Biggest Experiment: An Epic History of the Climate Crisis (Counterpoint, on sale September 21), recently wrote to one another about their new books. Here, they discuss the role of hope in the climate crisis, the problem of hiding in history, gaps in the archive, and the possibilities of being culture makers.
Alice Bell: I loved your book, Alison. It transported me to so many places. Places I’d never been, but also ones I had, like Paris just after the 2015 attacks (I was there for the climate talks). I was wondering about your writing process, and if, considering the timing, you ended up writing a lot of this book in lockdown, unable to go very far with your body, even if your manuscript was going all over the world?
Alison Deming: Thanks, Alice. Sounds like we just missed each other in Paris. That was a rarified time with the juxtaposition of the attacks and the promise of the climate talks. Those travels and research trips were so important to my project. Luckily, all the travel happened before lockdown, as did most of the writing. I feel so fortunate, in retrospect, to have had the freedom to explore all those talismanic places. Making site visits is an important part of my process. Place brings immediacy, sensory data, and, while history moves on, the geographic and natural and cultural qualities of place still speak.
Speaking of research, I was so engaged by the research in your book. You look at climate change through the lens of the history of science, and that somehow made me feel more hopeful about the human project. I was asking myself what our two books have in common, because they are very different formally. I think both of us have turned to history to find a hopeful way forward. I wonder how this long view into the past has shaped your sense of where we’re at today.
AB: There’s a line historian Charlotte Riley likes to say—repeatedly, sometimes in all caps—that there are no lessons from history. She’s right. We read the morals we want onto the historical record. So I reckon you’ll find hope in the history of the climate crisis, if that’s what you’re looking for, or doom, if that’s your thing, too.
That said, I think my research taught me a lot about how we made the world we’re living in, and I hope that makes me more canny when it comes to thinking about how to unbuild and remake it. If nothing else, I can call bullshit when someone tries to spin the line that we quit whale oil once upon a time so now we can quit fossil oil. (They are totally different, and if anything, fossil fuels helped people kill more whales. Yes, we can quit fossil oil, but don’t look to the whalers to show us how.)
Despite everything so painfully awful about the climate crisis, climate science is quite incredible—we should be thankful for it, and in my darker moments, I can find something sustaining there. I often think there’s a fair amount of pressure on people who work on climate to provide hope. I used to think that, because I worked for a charity focused on practical action on climate change. But more and more, climate people seem to be expressing this recently. I wondered if that’s something you felt, too, in writing your book in a different context, a pressure to offer people hope. Or, turning the question around, do you worry we’re sometimes hiding in history?
AD: I worry about both things—puffing on a pipe dream of hope and hiding in history. But I can’t stay with either for very long because it is in my nature to resist feeling desperate. Maybe there is something inherent in us, a force of nature that turns us collectively toward remaking whenever things fall apart. I hope so.
Our Biggest Experiment rightly pegs the climate crisis as a social crisis. The way you tie climate to the history of colonialism and racism seems precisely where we need to go in our thinking and environmental writing. Because social systems brought us here, the work lies in interrogating those systems and their injustices. You wrote that you worry less about hitting five degrees Celsius than you do about “geopolitical breakdown” brought on by the injustices of climate change. Yes, this clearly is not merely a technological crisis—though it is that, too. What a mad experiment with the planet this has turned out to be!
On the matter of hiding in history, I’ll say that I made a turn in A Woven World when I realized I wasn’t going to find the data about the couture business run by my great-grandmother and grandmother. That just amplified the sense of loss that their remarkable lives would remain unstoried. I understood then that the only way for me to move forward with this project was to make it a cultural story—to try and see the social milieu that had shaped their lives. With the fishermen who build those magnificent herring weirs, I was similarly motivated by a sense of loss. As this traditional way of fishing declines, I wanted to tell its story, to give it presence on the page as a way of life that was perfectly tied to its time and place, a sustainable method of fishing that was being subsumed by larger industrial practices. What are the ways of life that are perfectly suited to our times and place? Certainly not this planetary suicide pact that’s brought us to the brink.
I think I was also writing in resistance to some contemporary norms of the memoir. If hyper-individualism has become pathological in the U.S., then should not our memoirs reach beyond the self in search of a cultural story? Too many memoirs treat the self and its familial relationships as the whole universe of concern. I get it. Trauma and intergenerational trauma leave lasting wounds that must be addressed. But as a person of relative privilege, I feel a responsibility to get out of myself and into the world in my writing. I’m not down with Wordsworth’s “The world is too much with us.” I’m down with Denise Levertov’s “The world is / not with us enough.”
I’m interested in your thoughts on your question: Are we hiding in history? Of course, I don’t see you hiding as much as excavating, as you did in opening up the narrative about the transition from whale oil to fossil fuel.
AB: I didn’t feel like I was hiding in history while I was writing my book. But I did reflect that when it comes to the climate crisis, the past is perhaps easier to spend time in than the future. I think the historical side of the story is vital—it’s why I wrote the book, to share it with a larger audience—but we can’t stick to that alone. Just as you can’t understand climate change simply through the science or the economics or the politics, you need multiple time frames, too.
Your point about gaps in archives and loss of knowledge really resonates. There’s a particularly noticeable gap in the story of the history of climate science in that there is no photo of Eunice Foote (though it’s thought that one exists, just lost in archives, and the hunt is on to find it). To speak to an even bigger issue: there’s a line in Deborah Coen’s book Climate in Motion that’s stuck with me, where she weaves in a key point about colonization as a process of unlearning about the environment. So much modern science is rooted in learning that could only happen for Westerners because of colonization. It’s most obvious in botany, but it is there in climate science, too. Scientists trampled over so much existing local environmental knowledge as they went.
On a personal note, and this isn’t in my book, but one of the very minor characters—a whaler, Enderby—is an ancestor of mine. It felt so odd that I could learn about that bit of my family relatively easily, because for a while in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they had money. It turns out that back in the seventeenth century, the Enderbys were tanners based about a mile from where I live now. During lockdown, we were allowed out once a day to exercise, and I’d often end up jogging round the old tanners’ district as a break from writing, imagining what life would have been like back then. That branch of the family tree had been to Boston, Antarctica, New Zealand, India, Egypt, and Aberdeen, as well as multiple other bits of London before I ended up back there, but I still felt an odd sort of connection to the space.
You said there is something inherent in us that turns us to remaking whenever things fall apart, and that echoes something that is so strong in your book, not just processes of remaking, but unmaking, too; whether that’s “falling apart,” violent destruction, accidental damage, or a more careful, deliberate unpicking. While I was reading your book, I was also reading at my day job a funding bid for a project to help people fix and repair electronic goods. The two documents—your lyrical book on one side and a businesslike bid on the other—got me thinking about the difference between fixing and remaking. I think the difference is pretty important for how we tackle the climate crisis. Maybe we need both, but they are different. I’m interested in your take. Should we be looking at the climate crisis as fixers or makers? Or destroyers?
AD: Your story about the Enderbys reminded me of a story ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan tells. He’s studied the relationships between Indigenous people and plants in the American Southwest and helped found Native Seeds Search. He wanted to learn about his Lebanese ancestors, so he made a trip to their homeland and discovered that one of his ancestors had been the village’s seed saver. It was one of those strange concurrences between past and present that sends a little shiver of wonder up the spine.
When I was writing my book, I started out with the working title “Lament for the Makers,” after Merwin. I was in that elegiac mood that comes with loss, thinking about female ancestors who had left the world without leaving their stories behind, the fishermen plying waters that are heating up faster than any other place on Earth, and what the future might look like as the planet suffers our heavy presence. But I didn’t want to get stuck in loss. I wanted to give some life on the page, ways of living I admired, and to suggest that the inventive wiles they lived by might guide us forward.
So, yes, fixing, making, destroying. I suppose we need them all. Destroying the myth of infinite growth. Destroying the lies that whitewash the past. Fixing inadequate policies and infrastructure. We are culture makers, and it’s clear now that the culture we’ve built has been about unmaking the natural world. Big mistake. Science keeps telling us that everything is connected. It’s time we got with the program, and that means culture making in concert with the natural forces that sustain us. Why is this trope of “making” so resonant for me when it can apply to both bombs and sonnets? I think it asks us to be mindful that our actions are making the world we live in, and that awareness comes with tremendous responsibility.
AB: You’re totally right about being culture makers. I think the role of cultural change is too often ignored in environmental activism. There’s research I often quote in my day job: if you give up flying for climate reasons and tell your friends, not only are they more likely to cut down on flying too, but also to support policies that’ll make sustainable travel easier for everyone. I think it’s reassuring to know this. If you’re doing something in your own life, you can have a ripple effect in other people’s behavior and policy change. I think you can clearly see shifts to plant-based eating, though it’s coupled with tech changes, such as electric cars and things like electrifying cooking.
Okay, we’re coming to the end of our conversation, and I had the first word so you should have the last. I’ll end by reflecting your first question back to you. Do you feel as if your digging into the past has helped you understand the present, or even the future?
AD: Oh, yes. We live in a time of radical loss and it can be difficult to look to the past for a sense of belonging and continuity. Who wants to belong to a past “drenched in the prosperity that slavery and colonialism offered,” as you wrote? We carry that weight as an obligation to do better. And to bring to light stories of human making that show our admirable capacities to create new knowledge, adapt to change, learn from the environment, and care for one another. For this book, I was also interested in the lost knowledges that disappears with unstoried lives.
As I write this, I am back on Grand Manan Island off the eastern coast of Canada. A new herring weir has been built in the bay just across the road from my house. It is a beautiful structure, a ring of lacy twine strung around birch poles. It waits there for the herring to come to shore. It waits there for the bounty that is a shoal of herring. They may or may not come. A herring weir speaks a language thousands of years old and, in this place, hundreds of years old. It is a sustainable method of commercial fishing. It is an expression of multigenerational learning and survival and hope. It speaks the language of the past and it holds hope for the future. Maybe that is a good place to rest.
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ALISON HAWTHORNE DEMING’s most recent books include Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit and the poetry collection Stairway to Heaven. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and Walt Whitman Award, she is Regents Professor at the University of Arizona. She lives in Tucson and on Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, Canada.
ALICE BELL is a climate campaigner and writer based in London. She co-runs the climate change charity Possible, working on a range of projects from community tree planting to solar-powered trains. She has a PhD in science communication from Imperial College London and a BSc in the history of science from University College London, and has worked as both an academic and journalist, writing about everything from the radical science movement of the 1970s to plastic recycling in labs.