Thursday, August 28, 2014

WHY CLI FI MATTERS: ''What We Write When It Won't Rain''

Literary critic ANNA NORTH writes in the NYT [with some slight annotative rewrites from this blog]:

"We do what we can to make it rain."

So writes Sterry Butcher in her Texas Monthly meditation on West Texas
drought. We do what we can, it seems, and we talk about what we've
done, and how little it yielded. Rain is something humans were
worrying about in Biblical times, and likely long before. But the long
dry spell in the West has re-focused many Americans' attention on
water, and on what happens when there's not enough. And a new
literature dubbed "cli fi" is  be emerging -- one with room for stories that
recall the past, but also for the possibility of trouble on a scale
we've never seen before.

[Paolo Bacigalupi, in fact, has a new novel coming out soon about water waters titled THE WATER KNIFE set in the near future in the Southwest.]

Here's Ms. Butcher on drought superstition:

"A thunderstorm that glowers only a mile or two distant provokes the
crossing of fingers and messages sent heavenward to help steer the
rain this way. It's considered lucky to wash your car in such a
circumstance, or hang out the laundry, to entice -- or dare -- the rain
to arrive. No studies exist to show the effectiveness of such charms,
but they can't hurt."

And on drought conversation:

"At an Alpine Cowboys baseball game this summer, I sat near two
ranchers commiserating about the weather. 'It's so dry I about can't
stand it,' the first fellow said. The other fellow nodded. 'When the
mesquite starts to die, that'll be it,' he said. 'If that happens, I'm
rolling it up and we're done.'"

Take out the reference to studies, and much of this could apply a
100 years ago -- take out the cars and baseball and you could make
it a thousand. And indeed, a lot of what's written on drought today
harkens back to an earlier era. At San Diego Magazine, Clare
Leschin-Hoar remarks on how little we still know:

"While the National Weather Service uses everything from a variety of
atmospheric models to weather balloons and drone planes to gather
information, scientists still can't predict precisely when a region
will get rain, or how much. That means water officials need to
constantly plan for what's ahead."

Bobby Magill of Climate Central writes about a surprising consequence
of the California drought, under the very Biblical-sounding headline
"Epic Drought in West is Literally Moving Mountains."

And at The New Republic, Jeffrey Ball writes that "the scary
statistics of California's drought read like a latter-day version of
the 1930s Dust Bowl crisis." He notes that "whether climate change is
at play is a question on which scientists disagree." But this question
seems to hang over much recent writing on drought. At the very least,
some writers may be starting to look at drought as a sign that we need
to change our relationship to water, and to the earth.

"I think there's a kind of visceral panic that occurs in people when
suddenly water seems to be unavailable," Scott Slovic, a professor of
English and co-editor of the anthology "Literature and the
Environment," told Op-Talk. "We're inspired to try to hoard water, to
fill our bathtubs. Water is one of the essential supplies that we're
supposed to have in our homes should there be any kind of disaster."
When we see droughts like the one in California, he added,  "we begin
to worry on a visceral, profound level that maybe there's something we
didn't quite bargain for."

Writers like Craig Childs, Ellen Meloy and Marc Reisner have tried to
get readers to take water more seriously, he said: "The literature has
attempted to make us revalue what is truly a precious resource." [Paolo Bacigalupi has a new novel coming out soon about water waters titled THE WATER KNIFE set in the near future in the Southwest.]

And while writers have long been interested in the desert -- "some of
the oldest tropes in world literature have to do with the power of dry
places" -- the way they understand drought and dry landscapes may be
changing. In the late 20th and early 21st century, Mr. Slovic argued,
writers have begun to challenge the "idea that the boundaries of the
desert are fixed. I think we increasingly have a sense that aridity

He sees Mr. Childs, for instance, as advancing the "notion that the
American desert is not just in a specific location. Many different,
unexpected regions of America and other parts of the world can easily
become desert, and have perhaps been desert historically" -- a
conception of "the fluid, moveable desert, of uncertain climatic
conditions that could result in water shortages for short periods or
immensely long periods."

Heather Houser, a professor of English and the author of "Ecosickness
in Contemporary U.S. Fiction," also sees a change. She traces it
through the work of the novelist Leslie Marmon Silko, author of
"Ceremony" (1977) and "Almanac of the Dead" (1991). "In 'Ceremony,'"
Ms. Houser told Op-Talk in an email, "drought drives a healing
narrative: The protagonist, like the land, goes from a state of
sickness to one of health." But in "Almanac of the Dead," "drought is
pervasive, and one individual's actions aren't going to reverse it."
Indeed, "the picture Silko paints is apocalyptic; a local drought
heralds global catastrophe."

Recent discussion of[the emerging new genre dubbed cli fi and] climate change, Ms. Houser argued, has led
contemporary writers to depict drought as a sweeping problem that's
beyond any one person's capacity to solve. Whether literature will
motivate readers to solve it, though, is an open question.
"'Consciousness' is not the same as 'action,'" she said. "The gap
between these positions is often huge, even for the most stalwart

Some writers, she added, have examined this gap, and "emotions like
anxiety and wonder that widen or shrink it." Richard Powers's 2006
novel "The Echo Maker," she said, "teaches readers about the
destruction of sandhill crane habitat in Nebraska and so raises
awareness, but, in another plot about a neurological disease, it also
shows that the mind is astonishingly complex. We might feel wonder and
awe at the natural world and want to protect it, but there are
psychological and social obstacles obstructing the path from wonder to

Mr. Slovic sees, if not action, then at least rising concern. "Climate
cycles are not absolutely fixed and predictable," he said, "and that
may be the great lesson of the era that we're living through right
now. Whether we believe in human-caused planet-wide changes or whether
we believe that these are natural cycles, I think all of us in the
early 21st century have this sense of a kind of basic uncertainty
about how conditions are changing."

He's noticed a growing desire to find ways to adapt to these changes:
"The more nimble we can be, the more lightly we can live on the
planet, I think the more able we will be to adjust to various shifts
that we see occurring every day right now and that are likely to
continue to occur in the future, and I see this reflected in the

We don't yet know how to make it rain. But increasingly, we may be
talking about what to do when the rain doesn't come.

[This article was edited and rewritten in parts by a subeditor in Taiwan.]

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