In the few weeks it has taken me to read and review Rising Tides: Reflections for Climate Changing Times (Caitlin Press, 2019), the world has all but forgotten the climate crisis. It is March 2020. Headline stories of wildfires and floods have slipped to the bottom of news websites or disappeared completely. We are consumed by another—seemingly separate—crisis: COVID-19.
But as contributors to Rising Tides show, as all nature writers show, few things are truly separate. A virus moves from wildlife to humans and then, within months, is transported around the world. Is COVID-19 different from the climate crisis, or are both symptoms of a larger problem: our unyielding consumption and exploitation of nature?
Rising Tides is a collection of poetry, fiction, and essays that originated in a workshop on Galiano Island, British Columbia. Most of the forty-plus contributors are from Canada’s west coast; many others are from Ontario, and a few write from the east coast. Despite their range of geographic location and writing genre, Rising Tides’ contributors are united in their portrayal of a world already altered by climate change. Their writing is not speculative, as editor Catriona Sandilands notes in her introduction, but rather bears witness to what we have already lost and what we continue to lose. Right now, every day.
RE Nature: Concerning nature. Renature: To restore to original condition.
We began plans for this issue of Understorey Magazine over a year ago, in August and September of 2018. It seems like a long time has passed.
At that time, few people knew of Greta Thunberg, fewer had attended a Climate Strike. Extinction Rebellion did not exist. The IPCC had yet to release their game-changing report, the one that warned we had only twelve years to take serious action against climate change.
In the past year, it seems, our awareness has transformed. Even our language has changed. It is now commonplace to talk of the “climate crisis” or the “climate emergency.”
But while global awareness has recently surged, the situation itself—warming, melting, acidification—is not new at all. Half a century ago, back in the 1970s, Exxon (and probably others) accurately predicted and then actively buried the fact that burning fossil fuels would rapidly warm the planet. A quarter of a century ago, in 1992, nations met in Rio to sign the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The goal was to limit “dangerous anthropogenic interference” with the climate. And decades ago, Indigenous people, especially those in the Arctic, sounded the alarm, told us we are not doing enough. They have been living in a changed climate ever since.
The climate crisis has been called a “long emergency.” But things are speeding up—and it’s not just the climate we have to worry about. The UN has also issued dire, unprecedented warnings about species extinction. Some researchers say there are in fact nine planetary limits or boundaries; global temperature and species extinction only two of them. They say we have already transgressed four of those boundaries. Without a radical change of direction, and soon, we will not survive as a species.
Why write poetry? Why write fiction or memoir? Why take time to paint or weave or sketch? Even for one morning, why ponder stories when so much is at stake?
A guiding principle of Understorey Magazine is that stories inspire change. Unearthing stories that are not often or not widely shared can build bonds, strengthen community, fuel action. This is why, for 17 issues now, we have chosen themes that are vital to our everyday lives but tend to stay hidden under the surface of everyday conversation: age, blood, service, motherhood, and more. In telling these stories, we announce: This has happened. This is happening—to me, to us. Stories help move us forward, they urge the question: Now what?
But as author and environmental journalist Linda Pannozzo recently reminded me, both through her writing and in person, stories can also blind us. Told over and over, stories can mire us in “truths” that were never truths, ideas that never made any sense at all. Patriarchy, for instance. Or more generally, dominion. Terra nullius. Nature’s bounty. Limitless economic growth. Whose stories are these? How are they sustained? What happens if we erase them and tell something new?
In his essential book, The Truth about Stories, Thomas King says: “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” Think about this for a moment. We are the stories we tell. We become the stories we tell.
In this issue of Understorey Magazine, our contributors do not lord over nature’s bounty. Nor do they stand aside in reverence or awe. They do not separate themselves at all—from nature, or from a nature in crisis. “We are accomplices,” writes Anna Quon, capturing in three words an alternate and necessary story.
Mi’kmaw author Tiffany Morris asks about specific words and definitions: “there is not a word in every language for / extinction event,” she writes. What does it mean that the English-speaking colonial world now requires this term?
Many of our contributors look at the storytellers themselves. “Auteur theory is for the birds,” writes Tanis MacDonald, forcing us to question who is penning the stories we tell of nature. Who believes they are directing the plot? And what about those relegated to the wings? Those who are homeless, endangered, living precariously, already suffering, or already lost? How will their stories shape who we are as a society and a species?
Of course, we have to do more than sit and write. We also have to rally crowds, get our hands dirty, listen to the too-busy and the still-doubtful. And, yes, we must pause to acknowledge the absolute wonderand our place in it. But creating a new narrative requires brave new storytellers, as well as a place to tell their stories.
So we invite you to read, think, comment, share, and act—RE Nature.
Thank you to all of our writers and visual artists, and to all who submitted work. We could not publish everything but we appreciated and learned from everything we read. Special thanks to our poetry editor, Rachel Edmonds, who vetted submissions and provided editorial comments, all while undergoing chemotherapy and planning a wedding. And a big thank you to our cover artist, Jane Whitten. Jane creates woven art with non-traditional but sadly abundant materials such as discarded plastic bags, telephone wire, and fishing line. The resulting portrayal of natural beauty and nature in crisis suggests not only where we now stand in the world, but several possible future stories.
Understorey Magazine: AfterWords is a brand new literary festival for the Halifax area. What inspired you take on this project?
Stephanie Domet: My co-organiser, Ryan Turner, and I have had the idea for AfterWords since the final Halifax International Writers Festival back in 2008. Halifax hasn’t had a multi-day literary festival for the past ten years. We aimed to create the kind of event we would like to go to. There’s so much happening in Nova Scotia. We wanted to show writers who travel here for the festival—as well as local readers and writers—the very best that Halifax has to offer.
UM: Tell us about the AfterWords slogan: “Where writers and readers meet.”
We all have stayed at the Nap-Away. For a night or a week or a longer time, at some point and for some reason, we all have found refuge in a small motel on the edge of a city. The facade is nondescript except for one or two curious features. The same might be said of the staff. Because it’s the residents who, for the length of their stay, define the motel and create its story.
The Nap-Away in Nadja Lubiw-Hazard’s debut novel (Palimpsest, 2019) is somewhere in Scarborough. Its walls are yellow, the roof grey. Behind the Nap-Away is a huge oak tree and butterflies. In front is an open space where pigeons alight. And for the length of Lubiw-Hazard’s beautiful tale, the Nap-Away is home to three wildly different, struggling characters.
Understorey Magazine Issue 15 cover, with Age by Ildiko Nova
Welcome to Understorey Magazine Issue 14, an exploration of women, age and ageing.
The idea for this issue grew from many roots. There were discussions among our illustrious editorial board, of course, reflections on our own experiences of ageing: Reconciling that new face in the mirror or that oh-so-familiar but now elusive word. Contemplating how to act your age and then contemplating why the hell you care. Learning, all over again, how to ask for help—and how to give help in whole new ways. Many of these themes unfold in the eloquent, candid work by the writers and artists of various ages published here.
Our Age issue marks a milestone for the magazine, too. This autumn, Understorey turns five. As editor-in-chief for those five years, I have learned a thing or two about the creative process, about art and time. These ideas also inspired this issue.
I have seen, for example, far too many lists, prizes and accolades for “new” and “emerging” writers that in fact mean new and young writers. As if you might only emerge as a creative talent while young—and then either fizzle out or mature into an old, established voice. For some extraordinary young people, this is in fact their literary path. But they are exceptions, I think: art derives from experience, and experience comes with age.
Creators of the website Bloom recognise this. The site is dedicated to authors who have published their first book after age forty. Many other websites list authors who “got a late start,” first publishing after thirty or forty or even—gasp!—fifty. This is progress but, honestly, who has the means to write a novel in their forties? Why not a prize for “new” writers over seventy? An award for “emerging” artists over eighty?
Art takes experience but it also takes mental space, pauses in the day, the wherewithal to stop earning or caregiving—or both—long enough to gather snippets of images, cultivate a thought, nurture an idea into a finished work. Midlife, those moments are rare. As author, teacher and contributor Tanis MacDonald says in her book Out of Line, “I don’t have a life where it is possible to write every day, and I’ll bet you don’t either.”
Over the past five years, some of the most intriguing work has come to Understorey partly formed. These pieces were truly borne of lived experience but perhaps not into circumstances that allowed extended and studious polishing. This work is—like so much art, like most of us—both young and old. It offers wisdom but might still benefit from the guidance and wisdom of others. It is beautiful right now but will only grow more so with time and care, that is, with age.
Thank you for reading Understorey Magazine‘s fifth anniversary issue on Age. Please share with others and, if you are so inclined, leave a comment for our contributors.