AWP2015: But Seriously … Is It Time for More Humor in Environmental Writing?

Panelists: Ana Maria Spagna (moderator), Melissa Hart, Jennifer Sahn, and David Gessner

Just today I received a funny email from the environmental magazine Orion. The subject seemed funny anyway: “The Parking Lot That Doubles as a Sponge.” It sounds like the setup for an old Saturday Night Live skit: “Shimmer! It’s a floor wax and a dessert topping!” The point is, there’s humor everywhere. Why not in environmental writing, too? That was the gist of this panel that met in a corner of the bowels of the Minneapolis Convention Center at 5pm on Friday.

“What better time to talk about humor than after two full days of AWP, when everybody is completely punch drunk?” said moderator Ana Maria Spagna. Despite the unfortunate timeslot, more than 80 attendees sat rapt and ready to be humored by Spagna and panelists.

Melissa Hart, a University of Oregon journalism teacher and former raptor rehabilitator, spoke of her memoir, Wild Within, which weaves twin narratives of owl rehabilitation with child adoption. In writing this book, she says she felt a constant sense of theater of the absurd, especially when engaged in activities such as feeding baby owls in a ghost costume so that they wouldn’t imprint on people or nonchalantly reaching into the icebox full of frozen rats to access the Girl Scout cookie stash. “I wanted to explore this humor juxtaposed with the inevitable pathos of loss as a raptor rehabilitator.”

My take-aways from Hart:

  • What’s funny about animals is the attitude that people find themselves superior to other creatures.
  • It’s difficult to resist the urge to anthropomorphize, but Hart needed to characterize the owls so that readers could relate to them and feel them as real beings. “Much of the humor comes from describing the birds’ habits and quirks,” she said, “and from my own naivete about what’s in front of my face.”
  • Writing humorously about nature for young people, like writing humorously about nature for adults, often arises when describing humans’ relationships with non-humans, “which involves assumption and misconception, two faults that are almost always good for a laugh.”

Jennifer Sahn, editor of Orion, said the magazine deals with “a lot of depth and concern and cultural change, initiatives, strong reverence, and really kind of decidedly unfunny stuff. It’s refreshing when you can get irreverence.”

Take-aways from Sahn:

  • Orion publishes fiction, too. “Fiction allows us to envision different kinds of futures in the environmental conversation. In nonfiction mode we get stuck with the problems we have in this bottleneck moment.”
  • “Nonfiction writers tend to be terrified of making predictions or letting everybody off the hook by imagining a happy future. If you let that go, and you write a short story or novel, then no one’s going to say you got it wrong or you missed it.”
  • Fiction helps us imagine the different options we have.
  • Fiction tends to go to the extremes. There’s the fictitious happy place and the fictitious scary place. The reality is somewhere in between.
  • In terms of environmental writing coming into Orion, she’s not seeing a lot of humor and would like to.
  • Orion departments well suited to humor include Enumeration, which publishes listicles, and the back page Coda essay.  

David Gessner talked about rebelling against the “nature writer” label by writing an essay called “Sick of Nature.” He finally relented and embraced the genre when a New York editor who had read the essay approached him to do a … nature book.  

Gessner take-aways:

  • Henry David Thoreau frequently attempted humor. “His jokes are a little clunky, but they are jokes, and there are quite a few.” As a fan of outside urination, Gessner’s favorite is, “I’ve watered the red huckleberry, the sand cherry, and the nettle tree, the red pine, and black ash.”
  • Desert Solitude is a great example of bringing the Walden nature idyll model into today’s world.
  • It’s not so much the funny lines on their own but when they’re part of the essayistic mix: “a beautiful lyric description, a fart joke, a meditation on progress and a sense that — like with Montaigne — you’re really experiencing the writer’s personality.”
  • Gessner calls it the “philosopher stepping in dogshit style.”
  • Find a way to re-create the drama (and humor) of yourself on the page. Gessner records himself speaking to his experiences as they happen, as in “A Letter to a Neighbor.”  

Ana Maria Spagna said that planning for the panel topic reminded her of when a holiday dinner is winding down and the nieces and nephews look at you and say, Be funny! “There’s nothing more paralyzing than that.”

Take-aways from Spagna:

  • As nature writers, our first challenge is reverence. “Our readers revere nature, which makes a joke a little like making a joke in church. But we can be reverent and still poke fun.”
  • Our second challenge: How in a time of crisis — climate change, habitat depletion, pollution — do we respond to the call to “Do something! Be funny!” We can turn it upon ourselves, poke fun at ourselves. We can turn our own personal foibles and discomfort into a humorous device.
  • Third challenge: How do we address the grief of real loss that people feel in their lives? Bring back to life on the page the thing that you love. This can be done, in part, by using humor.
  • Humor’s deeper mission in nature writing is to undermine the man conquers nature concept. “First off, I’m not a man,” said Spagna. “And the whole conquering thing is so damaging and silly and worth playing with.”
  • “We’re all in a relationship with nature whether we want to admit it or not, and like all relationships, we do it poorly. We are not good at it. The stories that are best are the ones where we do it poorly.”
  • Using humor in your writing is a risk of putting yourself out there.

Works referenced during the panel:

  • Wild Within, Melissa Hart
  • Avenging the Owl, Melissa Hart
  • “9 Rules for the Black Bird Watcher,” J. Drew Lanham
  • Silent Spring, Rachel Carson
  • When the Killing’s Done, TC Boyle
  • “Man Killed by Pheasant,” John Price (Orion, Autumn 1999)
  • “Speed Freaks,” Ginger Strand
  • “How to Write a Nature Essay in 10 Easy Steps,” David Gessner
  • “The Greatest Nature Essay Ever,” Brian Doyle
  • Sick of Nature, David Gessner
  • All the Wild That Remains, David Gessner
  • Walden, Henry David Thoreau
  • Desert Solitude, Edward Abbey
  • “The Case Against Babies,” Joy Williams
  • “Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp,” Joy Williams
  • “A Letter to a Neighbor,” David Gessner
  • 100 Skills You’ll Need for the End of the World (As We Know It), Ana Maria Spagna
  • Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness, Ana Maria Spagna
  • Now Go Home: Wilderness, Belonging, and the Crosscut Saw, Ana Maria Spagna

Ann Beman is the nonfiction editor for The Los Angeles Review, and her work has appeared in DIAGRAM, The Mojave River Review, Bombay Gin, and Canoe Journal, among others. She lives in California’s Sierra Nevada with her husband, two whatchamaterriers, and a chihuahua.

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