Month: December 2016

The illusion of preservation

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Photo source: morguefile.com

This semester I took a fantastic class about land trusts and land conservation in the United States. One of the final readings was especially unsettling. It’s called “The illusion of preservation: a global environmental argument for the local production of natural resources” (1). The author, Mary Berlik, argues that the United States indirectly causes significant deforestation around the globe. The reason? Many forests in the U.S. are protected, but Americans still consume huge amounts of lumber and wood products.

Berlik takes Massachusetts as a case study. Massachusetts is one of the most densely populated states, yet it also has a large amount of forest cover (2). This forest is the product of new growth, coming after a period in the 1800s when Massachusetts was clear-cut for agriculture. Although logging continued into the 20th century, the volume of timber harvested has steadily decreased.

Twenty-first century Massachusetts residents hold strong environmental values. Anti-logging attitudes are among their cherished beliefs. Meanwhile, U.S. imports of lumber have tripled over the last several decades. Between 1965 and 1997, the average American home size increased by 44%. Approximately 15% of wood consumption in the country is used for home construction. The result is this: Massachusetts harvests much less wood per capita that Japan, Switzerland, France or Germany, yet it consumes more than all of them—not just a little more, but more than twice the per capita consumption of its closest comparison, France.

Massachusetts residents resist timber harvest in their own state, but their demand for wood means the products have to come “from somewhere.” These “somewheres” are countries around the globe. The United States imports hardwoods from tropical countries, which are often home to fragile ecosystems and great biodiversity (3). Exacerbating the problem is the fact that these countries often have fewer environmental protections. They may also have less advanced equipment, which cannot process lumber as efficiently and leads to wasted product. In short, the “not in my backyard” attitude leads to greater environmental devastation elsewhere. Berlik has some strong words on this subject:

Notably and hypocritically, the protectionist attitude often fails to address the link between high levels of domestic consumption and the unavoidable impacts this imposes on the global environment, especially beyond US borders. In addition to the tangible issue of whether humankind can live sustainably within the earth’s ecological limits, there is an environmental question of whether the burden of natural resource production should be placed on remote and oftentimes fragile landscapes, and the intriguing sociological question of whether affluent citizens might alter their patterns of resource consumption if the environmental consequences of this behaviour was apparent in their own backyards.

It’s not quite as simple as allowing sustainable harvest on Massachusetts public land. Much of the forested land is privately owned. Local regulations complicate the issue, with different towns having varied logging regulations. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, anti-logging sentiments run high.

Reading this, I wondered how many people equate “logging” with “clear-cutting.” It is possible for a forest to be sustainably managed, such that most growth is left standing and only certain trees are harvested. Education about global wood production and sustainable forestry could change this situation, since Massachusetts residents are already inclined to care about the environment.

Even if the state increases its wood production, it will not make much progress unless consumption drops. This is the fundamental problem. Getting people to consume less is very, very hard. Consumerism and overpopulation are the root causes of most environmental problems. Overpopulation can be addressed through poverty alleviation, education of women, and availability of birth control—not easy tasks by any means, but concrete objectives that have been studied and observed to work. Consumerism is trickier. How to you get people to stop buying things—without forcibly reducing wealth or abridging freedom? That will have to be a topic for a future post.

1. Berlik, Mary M., David B. Kittredge, and David R. Foster. “The illusion of preservation: a global environmental argument for the local production of natural resources.” Journal of Biogeography, vol. 29, 1557-1568. Blackwell Science, 2002.

2. At the time of the paper, 62% of Massachusetts land was forested. I assume the percentage has gone down since then. Massachusetts is undergoing rapid development. In my once-quiet hometown, new developments are springing up all over the place. Which leads to another question. Could sustainable lumber harvesting add value to the otherwise “valueless” tracts of land that are marked for development? It would provide revenue without leading to the strain of population growth.

3. The United States imports softwoods from Canada, which presumably does not have as much environmental impact as imports from tropical countries. However, Berlik does not offer a breakdown of hardwood/softwood percentage in U.S. wood consumption, nor an analysis of how increasing sustainable timber production in various states would address this. It seems the most important question is whether the U.S. could supply its own hardwoods. Supplying its own softwoods—assuming the logging operations are well-managed—could increase sustainability, since it would decrease shipping distance.

Pale Hearts reviewed in Compulsive Reader

I am thrilled to share Compulsive Reader’s review of PALE HEARTS.  Reviewer Ruth Latta had many kind things to say about the book.  She also took the time to write in detail about some individual stories. The stories she focused on were somewhat different than the ones that occupied the greatest part of my attention, and it was refreshing to see the book through someone else’s eyes.

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I particularly appreciated the assessment that “the fifteen thought-provoking stories in Pale Hearts are both literature and entertainment.”  I’m starting to realize that I sit right in the middle of the great supposed “literary” and “genre” divide.  I love Melville, Flaubert, and Faulkner.  I also love Stephen King and Michael Crichton.  I find a lot of so-called literary fiction pretentious and boring, while many great genre fiction books are overlooked by the literary world.  Some of my favorite contemporary authors, like Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood, and Donna Tartt, are people who don’t fit neatly into genre/literary distinctions.  I hope I can achieve that balance in my own work.

Writing ambitious characters

How do you center a novel around one character’s ambition? This is something I’m wrestling with in my current project. You’d think it would be easy, since most fiction is driven by characters’ desires. But, like most things in writing, it’s deceptively difficult. Ambition is not so much a desire as a character trait. It may be focused on a specific goal, but if the character existed in a different setting, her ambition would latch onto something else. Sometimes readers ask why a character wants something, but there’s no why to ambition. It’s something people are born with; they either have it or they don’t.

I’ve noticed that many fictions use some sort of proxy to show that a character is ambitious. Academic characters want to get into Harvard or Yale or Stanford. Musical or theatrical characters want to go to Juilliard. Writers either publish in The New Yorker or write an instant bestseller. There are many problems with this strategy. First, it’s lazy. It relies on general associations, taking a short cut around details and development that would actually convince us the character is ambitious. Second, it’s cliché. This makes the character seem more like a stereotype than a person. Third, it’s unrealistic. For some reason, it’s rare for characters to fail at these goals. In many fictions, the character is accepted to an Ivy League school after minimal struggle. In TV shows, it’s common for a mere hobbyist to get into Juilliard after auditioning on a whim. These one especially bothers me. It takes years of training and hours of practice every day for a dancer or musician to be good enough for Juilliard. Such breezy portrayals undermine the difficult nature of achieving these things in real life. Also, real life is unpleasant and arbitrary. There are many more deserving students/musicians than there are spots at flashy schools. Unfair as it is, politics and luck play a role.

All of this leads to another problem. If you’re writing about characters who, in real life, would actually audition for Juilliard (i.e., serious high school musicians), then you have to somehow surpass all the clichés and fabrications that have built up around this plot point.

How to be productive as a writer

Don’t wait for inspiration.

There will never be a perfect time to write. We’re all busy, stressed, and tired; these seem to be the default conditions for about 90% of life. Moments of inspiration are rare. If you rely on them, you won’t finish anything. It’s better to work steadily, even when you don’t feel like it. Often the feeling of being “uninspired” is actually procrastination in disguise. If you push through the first twenty minutes or so of drudgery, you will start to enjoy the work.

Set a daily goal.

This gives you something to work toward. Many writers aim for a certain word count or amount of time. Meeting the goal forces you to be productive.  It also gives you a reason to feel accomplished at the end of the day.

Block the internet.

The internet is a pernicious influence. After writing for “a while,” I’m often tempted to spend “five minutes” checking email. Five minutes is never five minutes. Checking email leads to clicking on a blog update or visiting an online sale. Soon this becomes reading “just one” article, which ends up being more like five or six. Few among us can resist the internet once that enticing browser window is open. Save yourself by investing in an internet-blocking app. Freedom is a good option. Alternatively, back away from the computer and write longhand.

Join a writing group.

Even disciplined individuals benefit from having other people involved in the writing process. Writing groups provide valuable feedback, and they hold you accountable when your productivity starts to flag. This is especially important in periods of personal difficulty, when life events threaten to derail your writing. I went through a challenging time last year when I was in real danger of not writing a word. Instead, though I wrote badly and with great pain, I continued to produce new chapters of my novel—simply because my writing group required these chapters for meetings.

Be selfish with your time.

Writing takes time, and time is in short supply. Most writers have other responsibilities that come first, usually working and/or being a parent. With all the “real” things you have to do, it’s hard to justify spending some of your time alone, creating a document of questionable value that may or may not get published. It may seem like you “should” do the laundry first, or clean the house, or socialize. These things are important.  However, if you always put writing last, it will never get done. If you really want to finish your story/essay/book, you must take the time to do it. No one is going to give it to you. Lock yourself away for an hour in a place where you won’t be disturbed. Ask yourself how you’ll feel a year from now if you don’t progress on this project. If the thought of not finishing your story/essay/book doesn’t bother you, then maybe it’s not worth it. But if the idea of not finishing makes you feel sad or disappointed, then you owe it to yourself. The laundry can wait.

Upcoming writing workshop

Calling all central Minnesota writers and readers! Join me this Thursday for a writing workshop and reading at New York Mills Regional Cultural Center in New York Mills, MN.  Here’s the workshop description from the Cultural Center’s website:

Join author and visiting artist Emily Eckart for an interactive writing workshop. After discussing basic elements of fiction common to all stories and novels, participants will get to try their hand at creating characters and story settings. After the workshop, Emily will read an excerpt from her new book, Pale Hearts, to kick off the Center’s monthly Open Mic night (7-9pm). Both the workshop and Open Mic are free to attend and open to all!

The workshop runs from 6-7, and afterwards there’s an open mic from 7-9.  All ages and levels of experience are welcome to attend!