In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—E.A. Farro
In your essay from Vol. 24, “Whatever Discomfort, Find Beauty”, the speaker directly addresses the reader during a trip in the Never Summer mountain range in Colorado. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind this piece? How did it come to be?
I spent the first decade of my career as a field geologist. I’d live off-grid in a tent for days or weeks at a time collecting samples to study ancient periods of climate warming. The physical intimacy with the landscape was a kind of poetry. I found things I lost in the city when I went into remote wilderness. My relationship to essays is deeply tied to trying to find a language for those experiences.
Nature is very much a character in this essay. The speaker is interacting with water and sediment, adding and removing layers of clothing depending on the movements of the sun, trying to avoid moose in the wild. Did you take notes on your excursion? Take photos? When you sit down to write and paint a realistic scene like this from memory, what’s your process for writing it to how you remember it?
The first tool I acquired as a geologist was a Rite-in-the-Rain notebook. It was small and yellow and had a waxy feel. Even when I got a rock hammer and an ice ax, it was still my notebook that made me feel most powerful. I used it to record data and the location of lakes we sampled, but I also free-wrote thoughts, poetry, and observations. I rely on those notebooks to transport me back with both their content and the muddy fingerprints. Field work is physical, hard, and repetitive. The memory comes as much from my body as my mind.
One of the aspects from it that our readers loved is how deftly it moves through time. I’m curious—is there an earlier draft of this essay that is longer? Was it difficult to keep it concise without meandering too far from the structure?
This essay is part of a collection my agent is sending out for publication consideration, Fieldnotes from the Anthropocene. I wrote this piece thinking it would merge or expand, but, ultimately, I decided to let it breathe on its own.
Let’s talk about that title! To me it reads like a mantra for seeking deeper meaning to our world. I most connected it to the line “Your life is a blip, a yelp, a fleeting moment out of the thousands of years archived in cores of mud piled up on the platform behind you.” Would you be willing to indulge us and expand on what the title means to you and how you wish for readers to experience it?
As a geologist I exist in two different scales of time, almost like living in parallel worlds. Collecting samples to study changes in climate over thousands of years puts time into perspective. The title is a call to connect with the beauty of landscape and sky and water alongside our immediate human concerns—not to dismiss our human needs, but to remember that we are part of something large and wild.
You’re a climate scientist and you have free zines available on your website. What made you decide to make your work accessible for free, and also, what do you hope for people to know about these zines? What do you hope people will do with them?
In August, my husband had a breakthrough case of COVID and our family quarantined for a long time. I made a stop-motion animation of my zine, Solving Climate Change Together. I mixed Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” and Glass Animals’ “Heat Wave,” thinking about the music of climate change. This video is the culmination of several pandemic projects.
Early in the pandemic I took awesome free online classes through the Minnesota Center for Book Arts with my kids. Our whole life was taking place at our dining room table, and for a brief period we’d clear away the distance learning and work to create. When it warmed up, I met up outside with a group of artists now organized in zines about warmth by the amazing Karine Rupp Stanko. When I saw a class by Regula Russelle called Zine Making Against Climate Change—I had to take it. Russelle talks about zines as the most democratic form of publishing. Anyone can make and distribute them. That really inspires me.
In my zine Science and Scientist, I humanize the scientific process. In Solving Climate Change Together, I share my takeaway from working in politics that effective policy making needs to braid science with other ways of knowing and other kinds of expertise—I am using the word “braid” as a reference to the powerful book, Braiding Sweetgrass by Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer.
Who are some of your favorite climate-scientist/eco-lit writers?
I love the Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin – sci-fi about coming in contact with aliens and understanding the physical boundary conditions of life on a planet. It is a page turner packed with academic theory, which I didn’t know was possible. The Little Prince by Antoine Saint-Exupe`ry similarly shows how our spirit is tied to place. Without the fun of aliens, Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels has gorgeous exploration of landscape and identity. Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights makes me so aware of my body and my body on the landscape. I want to read it over and over. Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams does an amazing job of moving between the personal and the universal and making clear what is at stake in the level of a lake.
I also love to read field guides. Field guides to ferns, aquatic plants, trees, wildflowers. I keep them by my desk and on my nightstand.
I see the landscape as a character in these books. But, for me, landscape is a character in all books.
What projects are you working on now?
I am working on a novel, Providence Murder Ballad. I grew up in a city full of ghosts. I drank from the fountain cursed by H.P. Lovecraft and visited a loved one in the same psychiatric hospital where his parents died. Walking to my best friend’s, I passed where Edgar Allan Poe lived when he came to court his beloved. Going out on Federal Hill, I passed the Coin O’Matic used by Mob boss Raymond Patriarca to launder money. Providence, my hometown, is a character in the book along with all its ghosts. But at its heart, the book is about the romance, betrayal, and importance of our childhood friendships.
E.A. Farro is a climate scientist who spent several years working in politics. She is the founder of The Nature Library, a literary art installation in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her publications have appeared in The Rumpus, Kenyon Review, and The Normal School, among others. She is a recipient of a 2010 Loft Literary Center Mentor Award and a 2019 Minnesota State Arts Board grant. You can learn more about her work at her website.