Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters
Rampant wildfires across the West, venomous sea snakes on California beaches—sound familiar? Rarely does a day pass without a headline focused on climate-related news. Every time I read one of these stories, my mind goes to the people living amidst it: exhausted hotshot crews in Twisp, WA, barefoot beachcombers in Oxnard, CA. Though national in distribution, every story begins in its own neighborhood.
About a year ago, the National Park Service invited me to write an essay for a web-based literary anthology focused on climate-triggered ecological changes in my own backyard: Denali National Park. Denali's sub-Arctic location means that taiga (the boreal forest) and tundra (a treeless region often with permafrost present) overlap, making it an ideal place to track changes. The Park Service supports critical scientific research in Denali all year round, noting and recording everything from sound pollution to glacier profiles. But the NPS also knows that one of the best ways to invest visitors in climate research is not through power points and charts, but through narrative. Hence, the call for essays by writers from the region. Here's how Denali introduces the anthology project on its website:
I've lived in Interior Alaska for the past eleven years, about 100 miles, as the raven flies, from the highest mountain in North America. I have always called this formidable and beautiful summit "Denali," as do a majority of Alaska residents, including our three Republicans in Congress. Since President Obama just empowered Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to change the official name from Mt. McKinley to Denali, soon you'll be calling it Denali, too.
For the past few days, I've been glued to the national media coverage centered on my home, and I'm thrilled that the rest of the world will finally call the mountain Denali. Unfortunately, in the rush to cover the big news, the media has been getting small but important details wrong, especially those related to the rights and identities of Alaska Native people. So instead of retelling the strange story of an obsequious explorer, a presidential hopeful, and the gold standard, I want to dig deeper, finding a route through the context surrounding Alaska's iconic peak.
Christine Byl reading from Dirt Work late last year, photo courtesy Mollie Foster
Near top the list of my greatest riches is the gang of artists I call friends: poets and painters, musicians and quilters, collagists and photographers. Our conversations, across medium and genre, stimulate me to consider the world at angles skew to my default impulses, and push my work to places I would not know how to take it on my own. We talk about books we’ve read—the new or the old, the overrated, the flat-out brilliant—and music we’ve rediscovered (’80s REM, anyone?) We talk about art that makes us wince, shiver, flounce or rage. We talk about the process of making, and our tools (words, paint, sound) and the tasks the tools are applied to—elegy, play, witness, and praise.
Over the past year or so, one conversational theme has recurred among us more than any other, rivaling even the old standbys, “Balancing Procrastination and Discipline” & “Does Art Really Matter?” Over beers, walking the dog and in stolen asides at conferences, we return again and again to this: How to negotiate the terrain that up-thrusts when art abuts commerce? We vent and bemoan how it seems you can’t be a writer any more without also being a spokesperson. We worry that we spend too much or not enough time shepherding work through the world. Even as we celebrate each other’s external triumphs—this prize, that grant, a fundraiser goal met, a book contract signed—we admit, in bit-off sentences, to a vague internal shame that underlies moments when a thing we make becomes a thing to buy. Because a thing to buy is necessarily a thing someone must sell. And more and more, we’re told, that someone is us.
Summer is a time for getting outdoors, listening to the birds, taking long walks in the woods or long naps on the beach. And there’s nothing quite like reading a book outside, or after a day spent basking in the splendor of the natural world. With that in mind, here are five titles to accompany your summer adventures, or inspire your next trip outdoors: