I think back to the teachings of my origin moment, wondering at how the circumstances of my birth have shunted me along this life path, directed me toward a passion for nature, birds, stillness, soft air, isolation, but with the human city still in sight. I see how I play out my people’s ancient scarcities, taking more than I need. And I also see in myself pure, instinctual life, greedy only as a child is at the breast in the part-lit dawn, with no more excess or taking. – Susan Cerulean, Tracking Desire
Susan Cerulean of Tallahassee is a writer, naturalist and “earth advocate” who spends much of her time observing, recording, and sharing Florida’s natural beauty and its changes at the hands of time and humans. She has been called one of the finest nature writers in America. Her Coming to Pass: Florida’s Coastal Islands in a Gulf of Change (2015), a memoir that is “both a field guide to a beloved and impermanent Florida landscape and a call for its protection,” won the gold medal for best nonfiction in the Florida Book Awards this year. Her other work includes the nature memoir Tracking Desire: A Journey after Swallow-Tailed Kites, which explores how climate change and habitat loss affect the soaring birds she has loved since childhood. Cerulean has also published several wildlife guides and four place=based collections by other writer-advocates for vanishing Florida: UnspOILed: Writers Speak for Florida’s Coast (2010); Between Two Rivers: Stories from the Red Hills to the Gulf (2004); The Book of the Everglades (2002); and The Wild Heart of Florida: Florida Writers on Florida’s Wildlands (1999).
Cerulean was interviewed by Elise Anderson, a lifelong Florida resident, nature-lover and poet who is working on her MFA at the University of Florida:
EA: The tone in Tracking Desire is consistently uplifting and ready to inspire any reader – even those who may not feel strongly connected with the earth in their daily lives. Do you have advice for writers who want to address habitat destruction/industrialization of natural space/human-made climate change/etc. in a voice that inspires awe rather than convicts the reading public? How do you keep your work so uplifting and so human at the same time while dealing with such devastating truths?
SC: Intuitively, I learned as a child that I respond best to teachers and my parents when they taught me in a loving voice, rather than angry. Think of Donald Trump— he terrifies and repulses many of us, because he is coming at us from a place of braggadocio and fear-mongering. Unless you yourself are already in that place, you will back away from voices like his, tones like his, even if attracted to his message. All of us need education and course correction, and that’s true throughout our lives. I’ve had amazing teachers who have taught me through their loving hearts, even when the information was hard to hear.
So if you do this work, you must begin with as deep an understanding of your issue as you possibly can. The facts of the story will come from science and observation. Then you find a way to pour the words onto the paper through your heart.
Another way to say this is that you must allow your own heart to be broken by the griefs of our world–what we are doing to the earth, the only place we can ever truly call home, before you can teach another person. That’s very hard.
You allow yourself to come into full awareness of the extinctions, climate change, perverse politics. You allow yourself to know these things. And then you feel it in your heart. Your heart is a filter and a conduit for these two kinds of knowing that make you human— the loss and the beauty are held right there in your human heart.
The Buddhist practice of mindfulness as taught by Thich Nhat Hanh is very helpful to me. So is being held and witnessed by close friends who understand this work. So is the Earth herself, whose body, like ours, is directly experiencing the suffering and the losses of species, the strip mining, the oil spills, all of it.
EA: Tracking Desire also blends elements of the encroaching industrial/developing Florida landscape with scenes of Florida’s natural beauty. Do you struggle in your writing to develop a balanced sense of place – one that includes both the sand, the pond, its ducks, its fish and the zoomed-out sight of tourists at the pond’s edge and construction less than a block away? Do you let the story itself determine how much of the natural and how much of the non-natural is included?
SC: I’m much more attracted to and at home in original landscape and its wild creatures, so much of my writing describes these places. I think it’s important sometimes, though, to “zoom out” and look with fresh eyes at what has replaced lost habitat, so the reader can see it with me as we travel. It would be too easy for both of us to ignore.
EA: I’m curious how the act of storytelling relates to sustainability and balance. What, in your mind, are the effects of humans sharing knowledge about landscapes they know? Do the benefits of this knowledge-sharing arise solely from usable, transferred facts (i.e. this snake is poisonous/that river leads to this ocean, etc), or does pathos play a role here in connecting humans over a specific place?
SC: This question could be the subject of a dissertation; in fact, most contemporary nature writing/writers address it. The reason we do is because, one: stories are how humans have connected with one another since the beginning of time – long before books were made, and also because, as you said, two: stories included facts about a place that were used to teach the children and remind everyone.
EA: A lot of wisdom native cultures passed from person to person verbally was never written down, and maybe never will be. Do you see “storytelling” as a separate art from “short story writing,” or “novel-writing” or “reporting” on events? If so, how might the story change when written down?
SC: I’m not an expert on storytelling— there are entire conferences and degree programs just on the subject! Amazing. But I think stories are at the heart of all the genres you mentioned. And think about the proliferation of podcasts— aren’t they mostly oral stories? As for how stories might change as they are written down, I’m certain they do. It’s second-best, but can capture what might otherwise be lost. Reading came so long after speaking stories in our long history as a species.
Another thought: when I hear a really good storyteller and writer— I’m thinking of Sherman Alexie— I am riveted, electrified. And yet when I go back and read his books, they don’t engage me nearly as much. Not nearly. Oral stories give you the many dimensions of the human body and voice and heart, and that’s what we evolved to be attracted to.
EA: In Coming to Pass, you mention “all living things have language” and go on to suggest that animals on the wild islands of Florida are saying to humans “you leave us no place to live.” I’m struck by the idea of ‘reading’ the landscape, and curious what other lessons can be learned by observing or what you call “listening to the language” of plants and wildlife around us. Is this act – listening to the language of nature – something anyone can do at home? How do you suggest one might talk back? Do we respond to the language of the living things around us collectively, or is there a way that one might “respond” to nature’s speech individually?
SC: I would say “yes” to all parts of your question. It’s on the cusp of what we need to know.
My teacher, Deena Metzger, has traveled many times to Africa because of her deep concern, heartbreak about, and love of elephants. She has tried to ask them—and LISTENS–to their wisdom in this era of extinction.
Her work is highly intellectual, yet infused with a deep spiritual connection to the land and its beings. (Check out her blog at Deenametzger.net.) More common are the many (mostly) women delving into communicating with domesticated animals. Lots of this going on.
I would love to find a way to be and to listen so that I could hear more directly what wild animals know and want us to know. I do pray the prayer I wrote in the back of Coming to Pass every day, and then assume that my work— what comes through will be the Earth’s response. It’s a practice.
EA: In Coming to Pass, you refer to the “gift” parents give children- the gift of spending time outdoors in nature. This way of life seems to be ending. What are some differences, in your mind, between the “gift” of giving a child playtime outside in a natural environment versus giving a child the “gift” of new technology/access to virtual education/ an ipad? Does geography matter more now, or less, in terms of a developing a rooted, happy life in America?
SC: Oh, Elise. This one is a heartbreaker.
So many people I see use technological devices to distract their children, even babies, and because devices like cell phones and iPads are “crack” in terms of addictive qualities, the children, as they grow, will have a very hard time knowing the difference between what is real and what is pixel. Tragic. I am so glad I got to raise my son before these devices were so prevalent.
I think geography matters just as much now as it ever did to the human species. We just don’t name it. And the climate is so perturbed now that people, especially the very poor, are losing their livelihoods, their homes and places. Think about the Louisiana coast and the North Carolina coast and Haiti after Hurricane Matthew – all those rivers filled with hurricane waters flooding out the poorest of the poor of society. We can get to feeling like the Earth is our enemy, when the truth is, it is the human relationship with the planet that is actually broken— the climate—coasts—refuges. Everything begins there.