Environment writer interviews: Rebecca Lawton

One of the many things I think about is what it means to be a writer – particularly a female environment writer. It seems that the sub-genre of nature writing is characterized by a lack of women – not that they’re not out there, but that male writers are more often publicly championed (see Kathleen Jamieson’s comments in this article for some perspective). Looking more closely, this seems more true of nature writers in particular than environment writers as a whole – for example, the Society of Environmental Journalists has many well-known and well-respected women members.

As someone who doesn’t get out a lot, I’m also interested in how these writers define and develop a writing community – particularly in a society where communities are built as much online as they are in person. I’m also preoccupied with ideas around what and where ‘home’ and ‘place’ is (see my previous post on the topic), and felt it would be insightful to hear the experience of others in building and maintaining their own personal sense of place.

Ultimately, I’m curious about (among many other things…) how different female environment writers approached their craft, and decided it would be fascinating to do an interview series with women writers at all stages of their careers, whose writing focuses primarily on the environment.

I approached several writers to gauge their interest in participating in interviews – some I’ve met in person, but most I’m acquainted with only via Twitter discussions. Some I’ve barely spoken with at all, and only gotten to know through their subject matter. I was pleasantly surprised that all agreed to participate – an auspicious start to a community-focused endeavour!

I emailed each participant a set list of questions, with the last question tailored specifically to each recipient. I asked writers to respond with as much – or as little! – information as they wanted, and to feel no obligation to answer all questions. I’ve edited their responses very lightly, mainly for formatting, to preserve the essence of the interview.

At the end of the series, I plan to write a couple of blog posts about common themes and new ideas that have developed during the course of the series.

Our first interviewee is Rebecca (Becca) Lawton.

I asked Becca to participate because we share common interests in water, and both have backgrounds in hydrology and earth sciences. I was also intrigued by her recent stint in Canada for a Fulbright Fellowship, as she was at the University of Alberta, where I completed my PhD.

Becca_7660Web2Born in Portland, Oregon, Rebecca Lawton is an independent author and scientist living in northern California. Her writing honors include a Fulbright Visiting Research Chair Award, the Waterston Desert Writing Prize, a WILLA Award for original softcover fiction, the Ellen Meloy Fund Award for Desert Writers, and residencies at Hedgebrook Retreat for Women Writers and The Island Institute. For many years she was Director of Research for a publicly funded research, restoration, and education organization in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she founded, built, and oversaw a U.S. EPA-approved laboratory for monitoring stream flow and sediment. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College and B.S. in Earth Sciences with honors from the University of California, Santa Cruz. One of the first women guides on Western whitewater, Rebecca was an oarswoman on the Colorado in Grand Canyon and other rivers for fourteen seasons.

Does your writing community comprise a diverse array of people, or do you find it clusters around a particular group/type of people?

It’s a diverse, widespread group, connected by the ether or snail mail or email, stitching together many years and geographies. My community consists of friends from my M.F.A. program, co-authors I’ve collaborated with over the last few decades, river lovers I guided with, authors whose books I’ve admired. They only things we have in common for certain are reading and writing.

Do you find the online world conducive to building community? Why or why not?

I’m still deciding whether I find the online world conducive to building community. On Facebook I’ve found the most value in connecting with serious writers in closed groups. In those groups I’ve benefited from the experiences of other published writers, and I’ve shared experiences of my own when asked. Less of interest to me are the author and business pages, but I probably just don’t know how they work as well as others do.

Have you had any specific experiences that led you to adopt – or alternatively to shun – online community building?

I love reading and writing blogs, so that’s one part of the online community I find positive. On most social media, though, there’s a mean girls (and boys) spirit that truly reminds me of life in high school or dysfunctional workplaces. I spend as little time as possible in those spaces, but it’s tough—there’s a lure. Regarding most of it, I agree with Ron Charles from The Washington Post, who said of social media in the May/June 2015 Poets and Writers: “ . . . its effect on my life has been almost entirely negative—so much wasted time, so much fruitless flacking, so much despair that I’m not being liked or shared or retweeted enough. The whole enterprise fills me with shame.”

When you tell the story of your life thus far – either to yourself or to others – what are two key events you focus on, and why?

People seem interested in my life as a river guide, if they’ve seen it in my bio, so no matter where I speak or give readings the audience will ask about that. Although I retired from commercial guiding thirty years ago, my connection with the river and its community remains strong. There’s always a lot to share. Some of the values I learned during that time continue to thread through my work.

The other key event I tell about is how I’ve persisted in writing and publishing in the face of rejection. I’m able to point to the benefits of sticking with the creative life even if acceptance is delayed, and people often ask to hear how long and rocky that road can be. In some ways the barriers to success in the writing life resemble those to being a female river guide or to working in the world of geology, so a lot of cross teaching goes on.

Where is home?

I live on Pequeño Creek in Sonoma Valley, California.

Describe what makes this home to you. Has this changed over time, and what may have driven that change?

Sonoma is home because I have family here, raised my daughter from an infant through high school here, and for many years worked on research and restoration projects in this watershed. I moved here 25 years ago to be close to the parklands and streams, and those things are less robust than when I first arrived. Much of my work is about how we care for home, and I spent decades on research in water above and below ground both in my valley and nearby. It’s heartbreaking to see the declines in forest acres and wildlife since I’ve lived in Sonoma. It’s not all darkness, though, as many in the community love those things, despite the losses. It’s just the money interests have had a big impact on the land and water, past the point of sustainable fish populations, healthy streams, and groundwater reserves.

Name two writers on writing whom you would recommend.

I recommend Ernest Hemingway, both his scattered writings on writing and his work. I’ve also learned a lot from Natalie Goldberg’s approach to writing, particularly in her book Thunder and Lightning.

Do you have a theme(s) you tend to come back to in your writing?

Water and rivers and how we depend on them, find meaning in them, and draw upon their rich world of metaphor.

What are you working on right now – and what are you finding most challenging about it?

I’m writing, and am very nearly done with, my second novel, which takes place in Alberta. Most challenging has been weaving the many subplots, as the subject matter—water in the West and how populations are affected by changes to supply and quality—is complex. A serpent with many heads. I also am limited to what I learned in my research while in Canada, and what I’ve been able to learn from my desk at home since. I’m always aware of how much there is I don’t know and have only so much time to learn.

At the end of last year you spent four months in Edmonton on a Fulbright fellowship, where you had to adapt not only to a different climate, but also find ways of connecting to a new community and making yourself ‘at home’. What did you find was the least obvious – but important – difference between California and Edmonton? What effect did the Fulbright experience have on how you perceived your life – and your writing – when you returned to California?

I’d known from time I spent previously in Canada that there was a greater knowledge of the world outside its borders than we have down here. My colleagues in Alberta were so much more aware of what’s going on in California, politically and environmentally, than we Californians are of what’s happening in Alberta. When I proposed to speak at the University about the North American drought, and specifically California’s share of it, Albertans had some knowledge of it but wanted to know more.

Since I’ve been home, most people I’ve spoken with simply want to know what it’s like to be back. There’s not a lot of reciprocal curiosity, which horrifies me. Part of the reason we’re having trouble in California dealing with our growing aridity is that we haven’t yet learned from other cultures how to cope with even moderate dryness. Even after extended drought, we continue to use water as if we have a lot of it. The rivers I love have paid the price, which has always been enough reason for me to adopt a desert dweller’s water ethic, but that mindset still belongs to only a subset of Californians.

The Fulbright taught me that, in life and writing, I do best to trust my own process. The award gave me so much creative, intellectual, and spiritual freedom that I can’t go back to working in stifling or biased situations where the ultimate goal of a program is self-perpetuation. Now I’m taking a break from exhausting myself on battles that don’t miss me, and I’m pouring myself into a life of authenticity. I have the Fulbright community to thank for helping me make that transition.

Thanks Becca for your thoughtful responses, and stay tuned for (hopefully) five more interviews!

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12 thoughts on “Environment writer interviews: Rebecca Lawton

  1. Yes, you make a good point: women are under-represented in Science AND in outdoor professions. Also interesting to hear a thought-through perspective on social media in professional life.

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  6. This is a terrific piece. Have always felt that north-south sense of the familiar, driving the coadt highway through Oregon and California, though I was astonished to see so many species of manzanita at the native plant garden at Berkeley last fall. We have one here on the Sechelt Peninsula!

    • Thanks Theresa. That’s interesting about the manzanita. We’ve been planning a native plant garden and I’ve read a lot about manzanita growing in California, but wasn’t sure it would grow here. Sounds like it might!

      • Sarah, we have a native one, Arctostaphylos columbiana, the hairy manzanita (I think this is pretty much the northern part of its range), and I believe it hybridizes with its lower-growing cousin, kinnikinnick (A.uva-ursi), so I guess unless you’re a botanist — and I’m not; just a passionate amateur! — it’s not always possible to know what you’re seeing. But certainly worth growing. There’s an island on Ruby Lake where there’s lots of it, growing fairly tall, and very lovely, esp. the flowers and then the tiny fruits. I wrote a little thing about manzanitas (among other plants) during a trip down to Berkeley. In my earlier reply, I said “last fall” but in fact it was 2013. Ah, time. Where does it go? http://theresakishkan.com/2013/11/22/postcard-from-wildcat-canyon/

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  8. It’s quite pretty! I didn’t realize it was related to kinnikinnick, but of course they’re all in the Arctostaphylos family. Thanks for the link to your post, that sounds like a botanical garden I’d like to visit one day…

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