After 15 months of writing this series about other authors tackling climate change in fiction, I’m going off the path this month by talking about my own novels, under pen name Clara Hume. Next month we’ll return to covering other authors, and I have two in the works that I’m excited about sharing with you. But, for now, I thought it might be interesting to give at least one personal perspective in this series of what it’s like to write a novel that covers this hyperobject – climate change.
Back to the Garden is my second completed book and first published novel. A few years ago I awoke from a dream in which I was on a very dry beach, so dry that my throat was parched. The wind was blowing my hair wildly around my face, stinging. I had a sense that I was a survivor far into the future after climate change and disease had ruined much of the population. Across the beach was a man who looked like a younger version of Leonardo DiCaprio, but only a little. He was way more rugged and not gentle or kindly as I would imagine. He was gruff toward me and very much inside himself. He had made a camp across the beach, though, so I had to put up with him. I can’t remember much happening in the dream other than a few rude words he said to me. At the same time, he still seemed to respect that I was there, that I was alive too.
The day after the dream I began to write the novel, which at first had no name, but had the filename “Fan and Leo.docx” for the longest time. The novel went through a few title iterations, including a name change of one of the main characters, “Fan” to “Fran.” I put this beach from my dream at a lake in Idaho and began to build up the characters’ home, pasts, family, and friends. About a quarter of the way through, I spent so much time going back to clean up the first chapter or two that I didn’t foresee ever really finishing the novel. My father-in-law Al said to me, “Don’t worry about editing everything. Just keep writing until you’re done. Revise it after you’re done.” His advice was helpful. Al was never a writer. He had raised his kids, including my husband, on a ranch when they were young. Ranch life back then was rough, and in the mountains of the interior of British Columbia, life was rewarding but cold in the winter and hot in the summer. He knew how to get things done. Just do it. So I did.
The story turned out to be one of character redemption, adaption to climate change, finding meaning beyond our current world’s – where massive resource consumption has caused environmental crises – and a look at simpler rewards, such as the bonds we have as humans, the goodness of people in crisis, and the richness of a simpler life.
The one thing I can say about writing is that it takes guts. You put a lot of words out in the world that make sense to you, a story that you want to tell, and if anyone notices at all, you open your story up to critique. Fortunately, for me, I didn’t receive any really negative reviews except for a couple who were climate change denialists, who didn’t say much. The novel was mentioned in Dissent Magazine, where Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow said:
Most of the authors seek, at least in part, to warn, translating graphs and scientific jargon into experience and emotion. In Back to the Garden, a small group of close friends – Fran, a short-haired beauty; Elena and her partner, Daniel; and the couple’s two children – live on a mountainside in Idaho. As in Far North, the characters have reverted to a primitive way of life; they hunt with bows and arrows and weave their own clothes. Soon Leo, a former movie star, drifts onto the mountain. The friends set out on a road trip to find family, in a journey that’s part standard post-apocalyptic narrative and part Wizard of Oz. Along the way, in the lawless country, they encounter armed thugs, but also kind strangers who join their growing entourage. Finally, they return to the mountain from which they’d departed. A sliver of hope is represented by Fran’s pregnancy.
The novel was also discussed in the following books:
- Gary Paul Nabhan (2016). Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity. University of Arizona Press, p. 278.
- Martin Bunzi (2014). Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change.Routledge, p. 175.
Back to the Garden was re-released in the fall of 2018 as the first volume in the new Wild Mountain series rather than a stand-alone novel, as it first was. This promises to help usher in the wilder world of modern eco-fiction just the same.
Why am I so excited about this? For one, as the New York Times recently posted, when reviewing Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne, eco-fiction (which has been around since the 1970s) has come of age as well: wilder, more reckless, and more breathtaking than previously thought. While I am no VanderMeer, Back to the Garden was originally conceived of in this light. It is a novel portraying a world whose characters narrate a journey with the nostalgia of the world as we know it today, but who also have survived a tipping point and have been ushered into a new wilder world. Not that we could have foreseen the NYT’s take on this literature, but in a way, many authors are perceiving similar ideas because we aren’t just writing. We are imagining, we are researching, we are warning, we are hoping, we are kind of going a little crazy and wild. Fiction is a great place to do this in.
Part II, The Stolen Child, ends the duology. With flashes back to the mountain on Idaho and updates on the family since Part I, Fran and Leo’s youngest daughter Fae finds herself blindfolded, in pain, and on a boat. Her kidnappers take her to Ireland, where she has to piece together what happened. In the meantime, her family and friends follow the mystery trail. Editor’s note: This section has been updated due to changes in the new series.
- Fragments of Nomad Days, by Allan Graubard: The author wrote the prose after being visually inspired by a triptych of a woman named Caroline. The writing represented the narrator in exile in the same sort of dry land I had dreamed of. The writing was haunting and full of transience and shadows. Graubard’s visual poem (illustrated by Ira Cohen) typified the type of thought process and imagery that I would summon for Back to the Garden.
- The song Back to the Garden, live version by Joni Mitchell. This is the only version that should be thought of as being inspirational to the book, due to her slow, pure voice. I didn’t really care about the reference to Woodstock, but did like her lyrics: We are stardust. Billion year old carbon. These two lines, like Graubard’s prose, drove me to write the characters as important but also ephemeral. There’s a little religious allusion there too, as the garden is introduced in the opening scenes – among these gardens are also apple groves, which show up in the end of the book.
- Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, which gave the book its interim name The Leavers. Between the first and subsequent drafts of the novel, I termed it The Leavers,changing the name to Back to the Garden only a few months before publication. In Quinn’s novel, the leavers and takers are two types of humans (beginning with Australopithecus) having lived on planet Earth, with the leavers having lived for three million years, within the limits of their environment, and the takers having wiped out the leavers during the agricultural revolution, which set in motion the beginning to the end of ecological destruction on earth. Going back to the idea of the garden of Eden, Quinn also explains what he feels are perhaps the intended narratives behind the Tree of the Knowledge or Good and Evil as well as the Cain vs. Abel story. My novel also gives a nod to Quinn’s discussion of immutable laws. I left the original title and cover photo in the book’s front matter.
- The show Lost. I’m not a big TV fan, but that changed with the epic show “Lost.” I was pretty impressed with the way the creators of the show presented a multi-faceted narrative involving different characters. I haven’t seen too much of that in writing, and it is much harder to do when you don’t have a visual platform. When I wrote, I envisioned the landscape and the characters as if they were on screen, and wrote them from others’ perspectives. The book’s main characters are built upon, and soon there are ten characters who present perspectives about situations throughout the novel. While these narratives don’t contradict each other, they do add on to what others have perceived – which is really how we get as close to truth as possible: to lend credibility through peer review. But the book isn’t so much about seeking truth as it is redemption. Each character has something from their past that they are struggling with. These things are directly brought on by the changing world, and as one of the characters Elena points out while quoting Melville, it is only when humans redeem themselves that they can begin to redeem their natural environment.
Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in the lower mainland of British Columbia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.
Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.
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