Originally posted on September 21, 2015
We are continuing our series profiling the authors and artists featured in our latest volume, Metamorphosis. Learn more about the Metamorphosis volume here. Click this link to order this and previous volumes.
by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain
Our Metamorphosis volume contains three prose poems by John Calderazzo: “Evolution,” “In Yellowstone Winter,” and “Spirit Lake.” These vignettes briefly and lyrically tell of three encounters in the natural world in which metamorphosis occurred. The changing shape of the waves unleashed a metamorphosis in his perspective in “Evolution,” and “In Yellowstone Winter” turns to the ultimate unknown metamorphosis of death. “Spirit Lake,” written after visiting the erupted Mount St. Helens, imagines the metamorphosis of time as it fossilizes the remains of the forest now sinking into Spirit Lake. Calderazzo’s writing evokes vivid pictures in the space of a few short words, opening up a cavernous interior space that echoes with metaphysical resonance as he recounts these glimpses into the mysteries of time, the wild, death, and the blurred lines that separate — but not quite — one entity from another.
John Calderazzo teaches writing at Colorado State University, where he co-directs Changing Climates @CSU with his wife, SueEllen Campbell, who also teaches English there. Changing Climates brings together scholars from different departments at CSU to collaborate on projects and be encouraged by one another’s work. This project also helps educate students and the general public about climate change through speakers and through the educational information available on their website. We recently spoke with Calderazzo about his life and work, and we hope you will enjoy learning more about his background, his work with the Changing Climates project, and his understanding of the role of the environmental writer.
Whole Terrain: How did you become interested in environmental issues?
John Calderazzo: I grew up in a suburb of New York City on Long Island. A lot of people who aren’t from the east coast don’t realize the New York area is extremely lush. We had big oak trees in our backyard and a stream that ran by our house. I spent a huge amount of time back there as a kid, wondering where the stream started, and exploring. It got my physical imagination started.
My parents were extremely indoor people, but could see how much I liked this stuff, how much self-confidence it gave me, so they put me in Boy Scouts. Boy Scouts opened up the outdoor world to me.
After that I moved to Florida and I started loving to hang out in swamps. I saw amazing things like alligators, and I thought, “Who can believe that such a thing exists, when you see them?” It took me two or three years into college to find out I liked writing. I wrote about swamps in Florida, and I wrote about a lot of other things, too: Buddhism, travel, friends, whatever, but that interest in the natural world has never left me. But it has deepened as I’ve gotten older and have seen the threats to it.
WT: How did the Changing Climates project come about?
JC: It started around 2007. My wife, SueEllen Campbell, and I were both alarmed about the threats presented by climate change, versus the national discourse in the United States over this issue. We thought we needed to do something. Very quickly we decided we didn’t need to write another book, but to start a program at Colorado State. I talked to a lot of the deans on campus to find out who in their departments were doing research or teaching about climate change. Some of them knew me, but most of them didn’t. They were intrigued, and willingly gave me some names. I emailed a master list and gathered faculty. I was shocked by how many people showed up, about 80-100 people at that first meeting. New people were meeting each other from across the university: an economist, an environmental historian, a soils specialist.
Out of that we created two years of talks by experts, on campus, aimed at the student body and the town, and had very large crowds for the most part. In each case we had two people speaking on the topic. We trained them for talking to a general audience. Sometimes it didn’t take much training, but sometimes we talked with them about not using too much jargon, or, “You can only use one equation,” that sort of thing.
By the time these years were over, the word had gotten out. People were getting to know each other, people could work together to apply for grants and work together on projects across campus.
Two climate scientists at CSU on a National Science Foundation grant started buying us out of a class each year so we could keep doing this general outreach stuff. That meant we didn’t have an excuse of it taking too much time! If somebody needed a panel on climate change —the alumni association in Denver, say — we could just whip up a panel. Sometimes we would moderate it, or sometimes just send names.
I consider that real activism on my part and on SueEllen’s part, and that’s continued on in various ways. SueEllen annotates climate change-related scholarship online every day from various science organizations or research organizations, so it’s in plain English: college-level information with primary-level clarity.
I’ve swung back to my roots as a storyteller and as a writer. I help a lot of different scientists at both CSU and national conferences use traditional storytelling techniques to communicate better with the public and decision makers. I analyzed how Rachel Carson did that. She used an opening chapter called “A Fable,” a story where a stranger comes to town and the people from town have to figure out what to do to change their situation. I show the scientists how others have used storytelling to get their message across, such as I do in an article entitled, “From Silent Spring to…Jaws? Using Stories to Communicate Science.”
Communications experts who have studied climate issues and how they hit the public have concluded that just being clear about something — finding all the right language, for instance — is not enough. What’s more important is to stake out common ground with your audience. Storytelling can carry those kind of values with it. That’s one thing that stories do. And then they’re memorable, and have consequences; sometimes they’re dramatic. I don’t want to push too much of that on scientists, to try to make them be professional artists, because they’re not going to do it, but I try to give them some tools.
In my teaching, I work about half with undergraduates and half with graduate students. A lot of them are MFA fiction or MA nonfiction students. Some of them come in and they already have traveled around the world and want to do travel writing. They have learned how to deepen. They don’t need any pep talks about why nature writing is important, but they need technical skills.
Some graduate students still think it’s all about being a writer, and they don’t think the content is that important. I’m there to tell them that what they write about matters. This isn’t to turn someone who doesn’t love nature into a nature writer, but to help them find a way to follow their own passions in a way that’s powerful.
WT: What inspired the particular pieces you submitted for our Metamorphosis volume?
JC: Each of these is based on an observation I really had pretty much the way I say it. “Evolution” was something I noticed about 20 years ago, but didn’t write it until about five years ago. The part I remembered best was when I was scanning the sea’s horizon through binoculars, and suddenly I could see magnified all the water that seemed to reach up to the sky. We know intellectually that the water and the sky interchange with evaporation and rain, but as I stood there I could actually see it.
For “Spirit Lake,” I joined a gathering that brought writers and scientists together at Mount St. Helens, and I got to hike above Spirit Lake and saw these mats of floating dead trees, acres of them, created by the incredible 1980 eruption. I hiked down there and actually sat on a few of those logs. They’re gigantic, and bleached now. They just kind of float around the lake. A scientist mentioned to me that they will eventually sink down, and some of them still have their root balls attached so they float down straight up and create this kind of ghost forest (he didn’t say that, but that’s what I started imagining).
For the Yellowstone one, we stayed at one of the lodges that was open in the winter. Here you are in a geyser basin in a plain cabin in Yellowstone in the middle of winter — we had to take a snow cat in. You can see the trail openings through the trees, but you can’t see the ground. It gets really cold there. When I saw this vulnerable bison, that led me to think about what if you’re not at your best, you’re weaker and older. I was thinking about the end, about the hammer of oncoming night, with the night dropping to 20 degrees below zero.
To me, if these poems work, they set up in the reader this whole idea of mortality. It’s not just about the bison anymore, it’s about the point in life when you don’t have quite the resources you’re going to need, when all the forces of the world are going to become too much that they’re going to overcome you.
Each one of these is based on a real event. Maybe I didn’t think about everything in the poem at the time, but in the making of the poem or lyric essay, the thoughts came to me.
WT: How does your writing intersect with your concern about climate change?
JC: It’s a writer’s responsibility and privilege to write about moments like these, and if you feel like you have something important to say, that’s what you’re supposed to do. When I was at Mount St. Helens I had the privilege of being in a place that wasn’t available to everyone; it was closed off. I had a responsibility.
Writers have responsibilities, maybe more so about areas we can say are endangered in the long run, as we have fewer and fewer acres of wilderness. It’s important to record what’s in the places that we’ve seen. Maybe I wouldn’t have shared those stories if I’d lived 200 year ago. I think that’s something that’s an underlying issue in everything I do, everything I write, and part of why your journal is so important.
I can’t help but do storytelling poems. Not all of them are, but probably three-quarters of them. It just seems natural. My style is relatively simple and straightforward. I try to put the emphasis on narrative in most poems. That comes out of my prose background, but also because I don’t want to be obscure. I think language is entirely up to the task of communicating what we want to say. I want to be able to write something that you could read to your Uncle Al who says, “I don’t read that poetry stuff,” and hope that he’ll get it and like it.
For example, there was a slick magazine called Coastal Living that started about twelve years ago, and I was invited to write a bi-monthly column called “Science and the Shore.” I would write about waves, or crabs, or hurricanes. I knew a magazine like that was read by a lot of wealthy people, so I thought I would bring some natural history to people who wouldn’t normally think about it. The element there was getting it out to not the usual suspects. They wouldn’t read Whole Terrain, or Orion, but they would read this. Lawyers would have it on their coffee table. That’s one way to break out of the box.
Everybody, in their own way, has to find out what their own sense of responsibility is — find their own common ground with whatever the issue is — and do something. You can’t just get in front of a class and tell them we’re wrecking the earth and the future stinks, and you can’t just tell everyone to just run out and do something. Young people need tools, ways they can engage that are meaningful in their own way, so they don’t just quit after the homework is due.
WT: What are you working on now?
JC: In early June I went to the Peruvian Andes outside of Cusco, and I watched a high mountain ritual called Qoyllur Rit’i. Once a year, 20,000 people go up to a mountain basin that’s 15,000 feet high and they reenact a ritual of bringing water back to their town. In the past they’ve cut up big chunks of ice, carried the ice down, then cut and dispersed it among their neighbors back home, giving thanks to the mountain gods, apus, and hoping that the water will come at the right time. Several hundred years after the Spanish conquered Peru, they realized that the power of this ritual could make it difficult to assimilate the mountain people, so lo and behold, suddenly there were stories circulating that a miracle had taken place on the site, an appearance of a Christ child. The result is a ritual that now combines elements of both Quechua and Catholic cultures.
The valley is fed by three glaciers, up against a cirque in the mountains. Each of the glaciers is shrinking rapidly, because the Andes and the Himalayas are the most rapidly disappearing glaciers in the world. They’re shrinking upward, harder to get to. The base of the glacier was at 16,500 feet, and so it’s hard to walk around because of the altitude. Many of the men dress half as bears or birds. It’s a spectacular, amazing thing. So I’m writing about that experience, and using it as a backdrop to talk about climate change. I can’t tell you yet what angle I’ll take, but it will probably be from a number of perspectives. I’m caught up in that and what it all means. It was physically hard, and amazing to see.
Bio: John Calderazzo teaches creative nonfiction writing at Colorado State University where, with his wife and English Department colleague SueEllen Campbell, he directs a climate-change-across-the-curriculum education program and website called Changing Climates. His work has appeared in Audubon, Georgia Review, High Country News, Orion, North American Review, and many other journals and anthologies. His most recent book is Rising Fire: Volcanoes and Our Inner Lives. He has won a Best CSU Teacher award, a 2012 Traveler’s Tales travel-adventure gold medal for “Rabies,” an essay about getting bitten by a dog in Bhutan, and citations in Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays.