Plotting the Plateau at Jamie’s Library

FRONTCOVER_walker_RGB On Earth Day, I was invited to the main downtown library to talk with the book forum Plotting the Plateau. I wasn’t sure what I was heading into and, I guess, some of the people there weren’t either. It turned out to be mainly a book club who had read Sustainability: A Love Story. We went around the table introducing ourselves and giving first impressions of the book. A woman said, “the back of the book doesn’t really match the content of the book,” which I worry is the death knell of a book. Someone else asked, “what does sustainability have to do with tacos?” Fortunately, most of the readers came to the taco’s rescue. Some said the book was stream of conscious, which always concerns me, but then she said she liked it. She also said it was, “very white girl” unlike my column in the paper which, she said, if it didn’t have my picture, said they sounded like came from the Nation—the Navajo Nation’s concerns are the concerns I express in the letters—which made my happy about the column and, again, worried about the book.

Some people say books are author’s babies but they are more like author’s five year olds. They might seem fit for society, but then you take them to dinner and they pick their buggers and eat them at the table. Without fork or knife.

No one likes people to say anything but flattering things about your kids. Or your books. But I’m pretty strong. I can take the stream of consciousness and the what do tacos have to do with sustainability questions just like I can take the questions that the soccer coach asked as he yelled “Max, Max” to my son and he just stared out into the distance, the coach turning to me and my husband Erik, asking, “Does Max go by a different name at home?” No. He stares off into space at home too.

Some people like the book. Some people find it weird. I’m OK with that because Sustainability: A Love Story, with its title meant ironically, has been a good conversation starter. Like all conversations about sustainability, we began with plastic straws. Everyone chimes in on their practice of straw removal from their lives. I make fun of Dutch Bros and the idling cars as customers wait for the fancy drinks in plastic cups with plastic straws. One woman reminds us that some people who are differently abled need straws. We all nod and think of great straws made of metal or paper or avocado pits like the kind served at Uptown Pubhouse. We talk about the paper towel part of my book which is everyone’s favorite and reminds me to write more about shopping trips and my personal troubles with Sam’s Club and my husband’s dream of a cleaner painting job. We talk about using cloths to clean up cat vomit instead of paper towels and how we might want to buy recycled paper towels because then we should create a market for the full cycle of recycling.

This is part of what I wanted Sustainability to do. To let us bond over the frustrations of trying to be good. We talked about the Perfect being the Enemy of the Good. I explained my cap and trade model. Maybe you’re good at collecting water and not so good about eating hamburgers once in a while. But, on the whole, one for one, you’re doing all right. If you never drive, perhaps you can feel OK to takes baths instead of showers. If you buy all your clothes at a thrift store, maybe you can order an extra large fancy drink decked out in plastic from Dutch Bros once in awhile.

But, just as in the book, we in the book club were frustrated by the details of what it meant to be sustainable. While my main philosophy in life is to pay attention to the details, I mean that to be pay attention and be in awe. I don’t mean stress over the pros and cons of plastic straws. I mean, be conscious of them. Pay attention to them, reject the straw if it matters to you, but also note the weird little caterpillar making his way between the cracks of the sidewalk. I mean look at the three weird pistils poking from within the tulip. I mean, stick your nose deep into the flower and then motion me over, either by hand gesture or by book, and say, stick your nose in this too.

 

I am full of gratitude for Coreen from the Flagstaff Arboretum who chose the book for the book club and who read through the tacos to get to the bigger point. She said it so well, I wish I had recorded it, but essentially she said that the point of the book isn’t so much about which this and that to do to be sustainable but that without community and a collective effort, individual this and that change can only make so much difference. The last chapter of Sustainability is about imagining a future of shared experience. Shared tacos and shared blossom sniffing and shared concern about papertowels. And thus, Sustainability the book did what I hoped it would do—start a conversation and make a new community. I count the people I met through Plotting the Plateau as at least acquaintances now and maybe even friends.

There are a lot of buzzwords in our daily parlance. Network. Web. Interconnect. But I believe that’s the beginning spot. I’m grateful to my former MFA student Jamie Paul who invited me to talk at her library. Another example of one connection making 3 more and then 12. Enough to make a small net to start raising high the, if not perfect, the good.

The conversation changed after Coreen noted how the book isn’t so much about saying ‘no’ as it is about saying ‘yes.’ It’s about forming coalitions and cooperatives to help make legislative change. To make corporations make fossil-fuel free choices. One of the people in the group told us about an incinerator that swallowed its own smoke but complained that local municipalities weren’t interested in the US even though many had been sold in Europe. It’s that kind of pressure we need. Boise has a program of turning its plastic into fuel. That’s more likely than convincing people to stop buying fancy drinks in plastic cups from Dutch Bros.

Humans are bad about saying no to themselves. As the eponymous essay Sustainability: A Love Story goes, “Sustainability is easy enough to define. Keeping going what is already going seems like a good idea. Isis good. It denotes being. Aliveness. Fact. Tucked inside the word are other good words: sustenance, maintain, able — something we are doing and can keep doing. Present tense. Simple. We sustain. We are sustaining. We will keep life as we’ve come to know it keep on keeping on. The word sustainable attaches to environmentalism, but sustainable is a reasonable, not-preachy kind of environmentalism. We resist the word environmentalism. It suggests not is but no. Stop driving. Stop heating this house. Stop powering this computer with ill-gotten electricity. But if humans are bad at one thing fundamentally, it is stopping. Animals. Animate. Going. Going is something humans do well. When I think of sustainability, I think of the possibility of cars. High-gas mileage. Electric-powered. Even solar-powered. But the solar-powered car. It only seats one. It goes slow. It’s hard to drive on rainy days. I don’t want no. I want forward.”

 

By the end of Sustainability, I realized more is better, not less. I want blueberries and hydropowered trains. I want mushrooms and microbes that eat plastic. I want solar panel on every car and house and a garden on every shop’s roof. I want water collection at my kids’ schools and wind farms in my backyard. I want carbon sucking mushroom and carbon eating whales. I want, just like the new friends at the library want, some more friends, some more rain, some extra sun (because the whole project is a paradoxical one, we want both rain and sun). I want the book to grow up to be a good big kid, a radical adolescent, a kind adult. I still have hope for the book and the planet. And I’m grateful to book clubs and book readers.

 

 

Max’s Southwest Chipotle Dressing

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Ingredients

  1. 4 chopped scallions
  2. 1 diced chipotle
  3. 1/2 cup of sour cream
  4. 2 tbls red wine vinegar(or more to taste)
  5. 1/3 of sunflower oil
  6. 1 minced garlic clove
  7. 1 tbs of milk
  8. 1 tsp of sugar
  9.  salt and pepper to taste

 

 

 Instructions

Place scallions, garlic, chipotle, sugar in small bowl. Add vinegar and sour cream.         while stirring slowly pour in oil.

Where I’ll Be at AWP

This is as much for me as anyone else. How do people remember their own AWP Schedules? (AWP is the annual conference for writers and writing programs. This year, it’s in Portland, March 27-31.)

Thursday: March 28

AWP Program Directors’ Plenary Assembly Thursday, 9:00–10:15 a.m., D136, Oregon Convention Center, Level 1 Thursday, 10:30 to 11:45 a.m., B113, Oregon Convention Center 

Speculative Nonfiction lunch 12 to 1:15

Attending: Ann Cummins’ panel Race, Gender, Politics, and the American Dream.’’ Poet Sherwin Bitsui, a last minute add to this panel, will be joining Shaniya Smith, Kara Thompson, Andy Levy Level 1, Room A 106 at the Oregon Convention Center, Thursday afternoon from 1:30 – 2:45.

Terrain.org Book Fair Table Sustainability: A Love Story Book signing. 3-4 on Thursday.

Mad Creek Book reading: The event will take place at Home, A Bar (719 SE Morrison St) on Thursday, March 28th from 6-8 p.m. Readings will likely be 5-10 minutes.

Friday, March 29

AWP offsite reading (event soon to be named) hosted by Rose Metal Press, The Cupboard Pamphlet, and DIAGRAM/New Michigan Press 7:00 to 9:00 p.m.at Kelly’s Olympian

Saturday, March 30

Rose Metal Press Book Signing: 10:30  to 11:30 am: David Carlin and Nicole Walker signing special pre-release copies of The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet at the RMP table (5050)

Ohio State University Press/Mad Creek Books Book Fair Table: Sustainability: A Love Story Book signing. Saturday from 1:30-2:30.

AWP Conference: A Taxonomy of Nonfiction 3:15-4:30

AWP: Seneca Review will be at AWP in Portland! You can find us in the bookfair at T906. And on Saturday night, we’ll be hosting a reading with Wendy S. Walters, Nicole Walker, and Erica Trabold: 8:00pm at the Cardinal Club (18 NE 28th Ave, Portland, OR 97232, on 28th off of E Burnside). We hope to see you there!

 

 

Small Press Versus Big Press

I was invited to be a guest author at The Tucson Festival of Books a couple of weeks ago. I sat on two panels and moderated another. On the panel about memoir, a woman in the audience asked of the panelist, “what are your ages?” I responded, “45,” and waited for the other panelists to tell the audience their ages, shaving a year or two off with me. But they didn’t offer. What had I done? Outed myself as someone in their 40s? We can’t fake being 30 forever, fine young panelists , I wanted to say. (OK, one panelist was 37. She should have shouted loud and proud!)

It turns out the audience member didn’t ask, “what are your ages?” she asked, “what about agents?” Now I had been exposed as both old and deaf! Excellent beginning to the Q&A section.

The world of literary agents is a mysterious one. I was just going back through emails to my agent, trying to decipher how long it takes to get a rejection, when I found a list of publishers I sent him. What was I thinking? That he had not heard of certain presses? But I suppose authors get anxious and over-email their agents and agents, recognizing that anxiety is endemic to authors, give the authors a break. I am sorry, David, that I sent you that tone-deaf email!

After the panel, now that everyone knew my age and yet not my agent, a woman came up to me to ask why I didn’t go with a larger press. I told her I did have an agent for Sustainability: A Love Story but when Mad Creek Books, an imprint of Ohio State University Press, approached me about publishing with them (I had sent the manuscript to them before the agent picked up the book), my agent said, “go for it.” Sustainability is probably a little too weird for big presses. And that’s actual good. I have loved working with Mad Creek and my editor Kristen. At an earlier panel, the other panelists, who had big presses, had said that before the book came out, the big publisher had been very supportive but 4 weeks after release date, the book was considered old. Sustainability keeps chugging along, picking up contest positions and getting readers and being featured at book clubs. It would be hard, I think, for a small press book to win a big contest like National Book Award when the rules say you have to have books available to them by May to be considered for that year’s award (my book, which came out in August, didn’t have galleys until June). But Mad Creek Books has had starred reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus and reviews in the NYT and Washington Post. Every time some good news comes by, the press tweets or posts about it. The books don’t seem to become old news. They instead become part of the collection that makes the press its unique self. I love the series editors. I love the main editor. I love the press team, even though they’re small. I love that they make new posters for my book tours and talk me through foreign rights issues. Sustainability: A Love Story is in more people’s hands than I ever could have imagined. How could I ask for more?  Admittedly, I don’t know what working with a big press is like. And I keep refreshing my browser to see if my agent has any news. A big press would be fun because I’d reach different audiences but the way Mad Creek keeps championing Sustainability: A Love Story makes me feel truly sustained.

Summer Travel

I’m trying to figure out my summer travel plans AND trying to post more on my website so here I am to kill two birds with one stone.

I have a new

After-Normal-Lo-Res

book coming out June 19th. The After-Normal: 26 Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changi

ng Planet. David Carlin and I wrote this book together and Rose Metal Press will publish it on June 19th. I have readings set up for this book and Sustainability in California. My job? To remember where and when. So, thus far the plan is for me and the kids to put our bikes on the back of my car and drive to Los Angeles where we’ll stay with our good friend, Bek and Todd, and their guitar-jamming children. Perhaps we’ll ride our bike on the beach? I have a reading that Saturday at Book Soup (8818 Sunset BLVD) at 3:00 p.m. Then, I hope to get a reading somewhere halfway between LA and UC Davis where I’ll be for the Association of Thursday, June 27th from 8:00 to 9:30 p.m–for nighttime book buyers. Then, I read again at the Napa Book Mine at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday the 29th! I’m so grateful for this chance to do a mini-book tour and to take my kids and their bikes to LA, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Davis, and Napa. Books and bikes? Is there anything better? We leave Napa on the 3rd and head to SLC, getting in on the 4th. Then, we’re there for three days when I potentially leave for a cool institute training mission that is secret in nature at this moment. I’ll fly in and out of SLC so I can see my sisters and mom and the kids can hang with their cousins! If you read this post and are by one of these reading places, please come say ‘hi.’ I want to show the fine people at these book stores that independent presses do publish fun books. Climate change! Fun times! You’ll never see those two sentences together again.

Counting from A-Z

I can’t sleep at night. I pretend it’s not because I’m dreaming of fire. I pretend I’m not thinking about the ticks that used to die in the cold but now it’s not cold enough for them to die so they suck the blood out of Moose in Maine. Maine people call them ghost moose and I’m not thinking that the white of moose, so lacking color because so lacking fur, now matches the skinny polar bear which we’re not supposed to think about because it’s so cliché.

So, instead, I organize and arrange my thoughts as I flip my pillow over to find the cool side. I make categories. Fruit: Apple, banana, Cutie™, durian, elderberry, fig. Cars: Alfa Romeo, Buick, Chevy, Dodge, Elon Musk, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Isuzu, Japan.

I get stuck on diseases: ALS, Bulemia,

It’s best when I get stuck on a letter. My mind rides around like a bicycle in a cul-de-sac. It’s exhausting, riding in circles.

Sustainable Bubbles

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I love my bubble. I love when I post on Facebook a hundred times a day about my obsession with tracking my sales ranking for Sustainability on Amazon that I still get a bundle of likes. I like that my students laugh when I say “writing isn’t just putting your head on a piece of paper” and then put my head on the desk on top of a piece of paper to demonstrate that that is NOT what writing is like. I like that I can count on readers in the audience to laugh when I read to them about my neighbor who vacuums the rocks. I like when the breathless reading coupled with the slow waltzy reading reads like good energy. But when I read last night, that breathlessness plus waltz ended up making me sound according to the audience, crazy. They said things like, “how do you sleep at night with that going on in your head” and “wow. There are a lot of words there.” It was a different audience than my bubble. They were older and richer and maybe not really readers. It’s weird to think I only write to readers. Like full time readers. That might be fine but if part of my dream is to bring new information and stories and minds to other people, that maybe a narrow audience isn’t the best. Or maybe they were pushing back against the content—talking about sustainability to people who live in gated communities might not be their cup of tea. There were some kind questions—“Are you always worried about the apocalypse?” “How does one teach creative writing.” I think the question and answer session drew some more respect for what I was saying. I guy said, “I love your letters to the governor.” I tried to answer their questions without being a jerk. When the woman asked, “Why are prairie dogs important?” I responded, “Because they are so smart they can tell the difference between people in yellow shirts versus people in red ones.” I wish I’d said, “Why are any of us important?” I wish I’d asked the woman who wondered how I slept at night, “How do you sleep at night?” But I did fail. They didn’t get it. I chose the wrong thing to read or I had too high of expectations. Lawrence, who read with me said, it felt like a trial. He liked that feeling. I didn’t so much. Leaving the bubble is hard. I’m always surprised that, by the end, I haven’t persuaded everyone to my side. I do manage it, usually. So to leave the event feeling like they thought, man, there’s some crazy writing out there and with nary a book sold, I felt like a failure. I wish they’d understood that the writing is meant to convey a feeling of stress and wildness but that it’s cultivated. That’s how writing works. You don’t put your head down on the page and let the crazy seep out. You construct the crazy with very sane letters and images and associations. I told the one man who said, My, you use a lot of words and images in a row. So many metaphors, “That’s the point. How do we know where to land in our understanding of the way the world works. Sustainability isn’t the same to the otter as to the crawdad as to the hole. Or to you or to me. That’s what makes sustainability hard.” It’s also what makes writing hard and leaving your bubble hard. They didn’t buy any books, which hurt, but I do hope all not long, as they too don’t sleep, that the images I put in their heads of otters and crawdads and fracking and methane gas churn through their heads leaving them breathless.

 

 

 

Is Anthony Bourdain Sustainable?

Reality TV and the Dead Man

I go to bed every night reading Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw. It is not a particularly deep book but the sentences are elegant. The way he sweeps from rant to interview to praise. He knows that the way to set a scene is to put your body in a place and there is no better body placing act than eating a bite of food. The way he describes an oyster on the tongue. A beef tongue on the grill. A grilled steak that does not pretend to be a substitute-for-meat portobello.

He is dead every day since he died and yet there he is on Parts Unknown swinging his shoulder out of a train window while the theme song sings “Felt the cool rain on my shoulder.” His body is in place and yet it is also rotting in the ground. How do I still love you?

It’s combination of a death rattle and a pulled muscle, my relationship to you and my own body in the late evening. I should go to bed but my own daughter keeps me up at night—thinking about how much she feels about the world. Her friend. Herself. Injustice. Trampoline.

I read you at night dead man, why? To keep myself awake?—am I like you? Is my daughter like you? I saw your eyes in the promo. You looked straight on to the man serving you uni and mako. Do you have to be already dead to serve the dead fishes? Or does it make you a member of the utmost living, eating great swaths of tiny sea urchin. I’ve only had a bite of urchin in my deep dark life. My favorite thing about tiny foods is trying to make each egg discrete. Ah, discreet with a t between the ee’s.

Or do I read to put myself to sleep. Not me not me not me. I love the way words make a lullaby, a rock-a-by that swings up toward death and back toward and away from your mother. Ginger Nile wrote “Got ‘em” when she was reunited with her 12 and 13 year old babies and I said, “Good Catch.” I did not say it to make me famous. I will get famous on urchin roe and child nurturing on my own.

I go to sleep with a number of dead men on my night stand. Which one rocks me to sleep the most? The most recently dead? The long, Shakespearean dead? The dead of my graduate school readings? That dude who wrote Confederacy of Dunces? The women on my night stand, Jesmyn Ward and Robin Wall Kimmerer and Elena Passerello are still alive. I even know a couple of them and/or am friends with them on Facebook.

I read all the books but I keep going back to this recently dead. The recently dead knew something the rest of us don’t. I try to figure out what it is in their writing. Is it the way they go from judging the crappy behavior of people to turning inward and wondering what about them makes them think crappy thoughts of others. Is it the pacing of the sentences? Is it the way they say, “I would die,” throughout the book.

When I was 14, I went through a New Agey phase where I read Shakti Gawain. She said, never think “I’m going to die,” when, for example, you get too much math homework because that will give you cancer later. And always speak positively, even if you’re expressing something negative. “I would like something besides hamburgers for dinner “ instead of “no burgers!” If I could make a concordance of Medium Raw and how many no’s or not’s there were, maybe there would be an excessive number?

Does death, especially suicide saturate everything? In my book, Sustainability, A Love Story, I talk a lot about suicide and planet death and wonder if everything is one big slow suicide. I used to read Anne Sexton just for the suicide clues. I should have read Infinite Jest in 2007 before David Foster Wallace died. But now he’s just another dead guy like Shakespeare and Hunter S. Thompson who might have had something to say about death but now it’s too far away to know. As Bourdain still floats along the airwaves, is still alive on Reality TV, he’s in between life and death and maybe sending messages about both. I read Medium Raw and then maybe I’ll read Kitchen Confidential again and watch Parts Unknown and feel the cool rain on my shoulder. Maybe I’ll go to Tokyo, Bourdain’s favorite place, or one of them, and figure out how to order uni in Japanese and see if that’s what it feels like to live. Or maybe get a hint of what it feels like to die.

Trouble

It’s a hard world. It’s impossible to think about books as an entity while the world is in such deep trouble. But the inside of books. That’s where the trouble gets its due. I’m in the middle of book edits with my collaborator, David Carlin, on our book called The After-Normal. It’s about climate change and  how we try to hang together as we watch the world, so slowly, fall apart. And then we try to imagine–hey, there are ways the world puts itself back together. You’ve got to imagine both sides of the trouble to get through the day.

Sustainability: A Love Story

Forthcoming from Ohio State University Press in October, 2018. FRONTCOVER_walker_RGB

Author Bio

Nicole Walker is an Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University, the author of Egg and Where the Tiny Things Are, and co-editor of Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction.

 

Full Description

In Sustainability: A Love Story, Nicole Walker questions what it means to live sustainably while still being able to have Internet and eat bacon. After all, who wants to listen to a short, blond woman who is mostly a hypocrite anyway—who eats cows, drives a gasoline-powered car, who owns no solar panels—tsk-tsking them? Armed with research and a bright irony that playfully addresses the devastation of the world around us, Walker delves deep into scarcity and abundance, reflecting on matters that range from her uneasy relationship with bats to the fragility of human life, from adolescent lies to what recycling can reveal about our not so moderate drinking habits. With laugh-out-loud sad-funny moments, and a stark humor, Walker appeals to our innate sense of personal commitment to sustaining our world, and our commitment to sustaining our marriages, our families, our lives, ourselves.

 

This book is for the burnt-out environmentalist, the lazy environmentalist, the would-be environmentalist. It’s for those who believe the planet is dying. For those who believe they are dying. And for those who question what it means to live and love sustainably, and maybe even with hope.