Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday was three years ago, and trucks rumble down a four-lane highway hard by his Walden Pond. The plaints of Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic Silent Spring, seminal and expressive though it is, can seem almost quaint compared to climate anxieties now. Some of the American storytelling tradition’s greatest devotees of the land—especially Southern titans like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty—accompany their deep connection to place with outdated presumptions and problematic ideologies that complicate their authority nowadays. And the predominant outlook of modern American fiction has mostly left the woods and farm behind, along with its founding regionalism, and made a new home in intercultural and urban milieus. Can a true nature writer be found anymore?
One of the few, and best, is Megan Mayhew-Bergman, the author of two much-lauded short story collections and a forthcoming debut novel. She teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont, where she also directs the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference. Outside the academy, Mayhew-Bergman is a senior fellow at the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston, where “my primary role,” she says, “is to partner with their scientists, lawyers, and staff and help them harness the power of storytelling for conservation work.”
Telling stories about the natural world might be the best way to save it: not peddling fiction, of course, but imagining the future–because ultimately, when we say the word sustainability, what we really mean is building civilization for the time to come.
“I’ve heard it said that we’re really good at painting these depressing, apocalyptic scenarios, but we’re not good at painting a picture of how good it could be,” Mayhew-Bergman told Adapt. “If we could, as storytellers, try to move people along that continuum, I think that’s more motivating. It’s sharing a vision with people: ‘This is what a just community looks like’; ‘This is what clean water for all looks like.’”
Mayhew-Bergman grew up in North Carolina, and even though she calls herself “more culturally at home here in Vermont than I was growing up in the South,” as a guiding principle she cites her home state’s motto: Esse quam videri; to be rather than to seem, or “sincerity over image,” as Mayhew-Bergman paraphrases it. The motto privileges fact over fiction, of course, but she has succeeded in writing both: She is also a widely published journalist–not as a sideline but as a professional practice every bit as accomplished as her literary work.
Her focus is on sustainability, especially in two serial columns she contributed to The Guardian over t
he last couple of years: “Climate Changed” and “Seascape.” In them, Mayhew-Bergman brings a storyteller’s natural narrative instincts to perhaps the most critical problem of our new Anthropocene era. And she has played a substantial role in evolving the nature-writing tradition so that it speaks to our urgent present.
In other words, the question, “Can a true nature writer be found anymore?” might be answerable only if we reconsider what we mean by “nature” as we enter the third decade of the 21st century. Pastoral odes to the woods on one end of the tradition, and man-versus-the-elements adventure stories on the other, are no longer relevant. (For different but obvious reasons, both “man” and “versus” are words long expired in those contexts.) We’ve not only answered the call of the wild but very nearly drowned it out altogether, and the environmental “movement” that arose in the 1960s can no longer succeed as a protest song of the counterculture–it has to be part of mainstream culture itself. Our task now, on earth and on paper, as Mayhew-Bergman’s work shows, is to persuade ourselves and our societies to change the narrative, and who tells it, before it’s too late.
Mayhew-Bergman got started on that project early in life. “I’ve always felt a natural kinship with the natural world,” she told Adapt. She attributes that kinship to “an eighties childhood spent playing outside. Benign neglect was a terrific strategy.” She’s also long been aware of “my wiring as an observant and hypersensitive person that makes me attuned to the natural world.” In that light, it’s a surprise that more writers aren’t nature-focused, given that the profession almost inevitably demands precisely that observant and hypersensitive disposition.
By the time she was in her early thirties, Mayhew-Bergman was already widely publishing her short stories while also developing a voice as one of the few literary writers pursuing a second track along the lines of sustainability. “My first book was a lot about human exceptionalism,” she says, “and questioning this idea that we have somehow transcended our animal nature and are entitled to the world’s resources.”
She soon recognized “that clubbing my reader over the head with my social agenda” was a potential danger. (“Whenever I teach environmental storytelling, she says, “I tell my students. ‘You have to take away the righteousness.’”) Mayhew-Bergman understood that she could be more effective by “categorizing the two,” the project of fiction and a passion for sustainability, and “make them diverge” into discrete pursuits.
“It took me a while to really find my voice in each medium,” she continues,” because I do think they deserve unique voices; but it helps me clarify my material and my artistic objectives to have that multichannel approach.”
Mayhew-Bergman has done more than talk the talk. In “Climate Changed,” she traveled throughout her native South–for which “I’m always homesick,” she admits, despite her reservations about the region. Her course curricula at Middlebury no longer include some of her favorite Southern literary greats: The complications of race and gender now put too much obstruction in the way of teaching the craft of creative writing, just as the complications of the modern South get in the way of, well, almost everything.
Mayhew-Bergman’s quest for a new way of moving sustainability forward in her homeland, and her willingness to navigate difficult waters, is itself in a grand American literary tradition that calls up Melville’s Ahab and Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. Like a good storyteller, she invited her readers along with her as she visited Miami for a story about waterfront real estate developers in a time of rising waters; traveled the back roads plied by rural hunters in Arkansas; and stepped into the uncomfortable entanglement of race and the environment in Natchez, Mississippi. She talked to climate deniers and climate activists, commercial fishermen and university scientists, rabbis and evangelicals, lawyers and mayors. And she ventured into the dense and sensitive crux of environmental justice in the South, which has been entangled with race since before the founding of our country.
Beyond perhaps assuaging a little of her homesickness, why did Mayhew-Bergman go to such lengths to report on her native land?
“I wanted there to be more nuance in media coverage of the South,” she says. “One thing that was frustrating me was that the South was poised to lose the most economic value [due to the effects of climate change], and I could tell so many people were going to have their lives changed. But people were not talking about climate change. It had become so politicized that it was not considered a polite topic of conversation. I was also frustrated by the way people present the South as this uniform block of ignorant voters with backwoods mentalities. I know from thirty years of living there that that’s not the case.”
To make the story new (and nuanced), you have to change the narrative, in both substance and language.
“Lots of people talk about sustainability; they just have a different vocabulary for it,” Mayhew-Bergman discovered. “Organizations in the south will say ‘rising seas’ instead of climate change. They’ll talk about the number of king tides during a season, or the number of times a road washed out.”
That’s where the storyteller’s craft comes in: facility with the architecture of narrative and the building material of words. “A lot of public opinion is moved by storytelling, so we have to focus on this art in order to make progress on the conservation and sustainability front,” Mayhew-Bergman says. The tools are the same as the ones writers acquire in a fiction workshop: “taking it down to the active, what’s actually happening on the ground, things that we can see.” She repeats the classic fiction workshop axiom, “Show don’t tell”–which is echoed, of course, in her home state’s motto: To be rather than to seem.
And do it in a way that gathers audiences in “the center of the Venn diagram,” Mayhew-Bergman says. The partisan politicization of climate change, especially in the US, has almost unquestionably been the single greatest obstacle to progress. Sustainability narrative should be “building bridges between populations that are not talking [to each other] right now: progressives and conservative, hunters and vegetarians, Northerners and Southerners.” As she traveled the South for “Climate Changed,” she discovered that people who appear on the surface to be firmly opposed to one another actually aren’t at all; much of the storyteller’s art lies in revealing those proximities and affinities hidden in plain sight.
“Can writing help us drop into places of empathy and understanding?” she asks. “I think that any movement toward understanding is a constructive action.”
With all that said about the how of sustainability storytelling, what about the what? The definition of sustainability is no longer limited to the natural world. Yes, saving the rainforests, keeping our water clean, and the like are critically important, but as a moral imperative they don’t incite people to act. As a writer of fiction, with its emphasis on characters and human lives, and on how those lives invariably describe the conflict-climax-resolution arc that nearly every plot follows, Mayhew-Bergman is in a position to know why.
“I’m always fascinated by dissonance: who we think we are versus who we really are; how we want to feel and how we really feel, and what that resolution process feels like. The battle between what we think is right and what we want to do is a constant tension.”
She knows, then, that appealing to the lives people really live is the way to tell sustainability’s story. That’s why she has written, for example, about cod fishermen in New England. People are at work; people are trying to stay in business; we want to do what we know we ought to do, but what if our livelihoods suffer as a result?
The appeal, Mayhew-Bergman thinks, needs to be redirected. “If we let species like Atlantic cod collapse by overfishing, we’re not only hurting that species (which is enough for me); we are preventing future generations from being able to fish and make money from that species.”
There’s a danger there, of course: that we so narrowly, and perhaps cynically, focus on the economics of sustainability that we can only see the planet as a giant mine, a money-maker devoid of beauty and harmony, and subject only to human appetites, no matter how well regulated. That human exceptionalism is simply misguided. As Mayhew-Bergman puts it, “we need this planet more than it needs us.”
The key may be, again, aiming our disposition toward the future. We’ve got to keep those fish in the water, and keep the house we built on that water from washing away in a hurricane, so that our kids, and their kids, can earn a living from those fish and live in that house after us. The species we’re trying to preserve is our own. Mayhew-Bergman is firmly realistic about how to deliver that message. “Until one moves to a place of some humility–questioning human entitlement to destroy a planet or species–I think the financial case is the one that has the most appeal. Most humans want to know how the loss of an ecosystem or species will affect them: their diet, their quality of life, their bottom line. A higher quality of life: we’ve got to get better at selling that.”
Meanwhile, as the pandemic, and especially its economic effects, dominate the discourse of the present, Mayhew-Bergman continues to angle herself toward its bearing on the future. And to stay attuned to dissonance, tension, and her writerly awareness that “failure is interesting,” because it is failure that has power to make us change for the better—a power that it is up to us to harness or to misuse.
“Where is culture going to go?” she asks. “Is it going to be a post-1918, Roaring Twenties moment, where [after] depriving ourselves of a lot, we’re going to go buy a lot of things and travel and get back to where we were? Or did we learn?”