Environment writer interviews: Abby Palmer

For background on this series, see my first post. So far we’ve talked with Rebecca Lawton, an environment writer based in California.

Our second interviewee is Abby Palmer

I initially met Abby on Twitter through our shared interest in nature writing. She was taking Sharon Blackie’s ‘Beyond Nature Writing‘ online course, and shared a lot of her experiences with that course – particularly the books they were reading. We’ve developed an informal discussion group of nature writers, including Lorne Daniel and Julian Hoffman, who share articles and ideas on nature writing itself. I was lucky enough to meet Abby in person at the Creative Nonfiction Collective’s annual workshop in Victoria, and was intrigued by our similar thoughts around what and where ‘home’ is, how we incorporate communications technology into our everyday lives, and how we deal with noise and find silence when we need it.

AbbyPalmrAbby Palmer was born in England, raised in Canada, and currently lives in Fort Langley, BC. She is particularly interested in story-maps, and other ways in which we can actively engage with landscape to deepen our sense of home and belonging. She holds a B.A. in English Literature from UBC, and is a recent alumni of SFU’s Southbank Writing Program. Her work has appeared in the Nov 2014 issue of EarthLines Magazine, a British nature writing publication. Equally at home on land and water, Abby used to race on a Farr 40 sailboat in regattas in San Francisco Bay, the sole female member of the 11 person crew.

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

I’d say a diverse array. Last summer I took a three month writing program offered through Simon Fraser University. After the program, some of us formed a writing group, and we’ve been meeting bi-weekly ever since. I’m the only non-fiction nature writer, and at first, I was concerned about this; but having my work critiqued by those who write in other genres and forms – speculative fiction and short stories, for example – has proved illuminating. My writing is developing (I hope) a stronger narrative quality. I’m not sure I would’ve made that shift as quickly without their workshopping.

I’ve also connected with a small but precious community of nature writers, some of whom I was first introduced to via the internet. I’m happy that you’re one of them, Sarah. I haven’t been writing in this genre very long, and when I first began to dig around looking for other Canadian writers, I was surprised to discover that it’s a pretty small community. Naively, I thought that Canada, with its abundance of natural places, would be overflowing with people who were inspired to write about it. By that I don’t mean to discount the writers who already are and have written about this country. But in terms of my reading, when I was casting around for contemporary Canadian women nature writers, I kept stumbling across all these great writers from the US and Great Britain. I’m sure it’s partly due to Canada’s comparatively small population, but I was still a bit frustrated that I couldn’t find more people like me writing about Canada’s landscape. I think what I was really looking for was a Canadian equivalent of Annie Dillard! The fact is, compared to the US and UK, the list of published women nature writers in Canada is disappointingly short.

One positive result of having to look outside my country for a nature writing community is that I’ve had the opportunity to connect with some wonderful writers living in places such as Ireland, Greece. and the US.

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

I’m not particularly techno-savvy, but yes, I’ve found the internet invaluable in establishing relationships with other nature writers. I wouldn’t have connected at all with some of them if it weren’t for social media. I’m not on Facebook, but I like Twitter for its brevity. I don’t have a cell phone, so I’m not tweeting from the hip; sometimes I don’t log on for days, but when I do, I like to read up on articles other writers have thought interesting, and I enjoy the spontaneous chats and debates that break out sometimes. I’ve found Twitter’s format, which lets you explore the followers of writers you already follow, to be quite helpful in building my own online community. I can’t speak to other social media.

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

I have Twitter to thank for enabling some wonderful face-to-face meetings with nature writers, including you. These meetings, when they happen, have always been rich and heart-warming. Some of them have led to other friendships in the nature writing community, so I feel very blessed. I think that’s the real power of a platform like Twitter: to connect people of like minds and help them engage with each other.

Not all my online experiences have led to community. A year or so ago, I took an online nature writing course which was disappointing in that it didn’t connect the participants in a meaningful way. To be fair, I don’t think this was the intention of the course, as the focus was on content rather than community building. In fact, the course itself was excellent —challenging and thought-provoking. But as I tackled the material I found myself wanting to talk to others. What did they think? Were they also struggling with similar questions? As a nature writer new to the genre, I was grappling with all kinds of emotions — excitement at the possibility of deepening my gaze, confusion about who I was writing for, grief for the trammelled places in the world, and despair that I could ever make a difference. Unfortunately I never found out how other people felt because few of them participated in the course’s voluntary online forum. Happily, though, the conversation I craved ultimately began to unfold on Twitter, and I hope that continues.

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?

My father’s decision to leave England and bring us to Canada was a key event. In those early years, we lived in Yellowknife, Fort St. James, Castlegar, before finally settling in Oak Bay, a community of Victoria on Vancouver Island. Even though I was still very young at the time, his lust for an experience of the Canadian wilderness also seems to have metabolized in me.

The other turning point was in 2009, when I sold the garden shop I’d owned for six years. After I sold the store, I needed time to think; I planted vegetables, and read. I began with books by Sue Monk Kidd and Clarissa Pinkola Estes, and then one day I stumbled on an essay by Scott Russell Sanders — I think it was an excerpt from his A Conservationist Manifesto”— and the world of nature writing opened.

Where is home?

I live in Fort Langley, a town of about 3,400 people in the Fraser Valley, an hour’s drive east from Vancouver, BC. But I have complicated feelings about whether this is home.

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

Well, I’m quite sure I can’t answer in two sentences, especially since I’m not convinced that where I’m currently living is home!

There are many attributes which make Fort Langley a desirable place to live: a walkable shopping district, a good choice of restaurants, access to bike trails along the Fraser River, farmer’s markets and community festivals. On one hand, I cherish the strong social connections I’ve built here, and on the other, I struggle with living in close proximity to people. North America is fond of its power-washers and Harley-Davidsons, and even though Fort Langley is surrounded by farmland, close to the river, it’s not immune to these and other urban intrusions.

I have friends who own second homes and summer cabins in secluded places, like on lake shores and the Gulf Islands. They go to escape the noise, and, perhaps also, to get their regular “dose” of nature. This arrangement works for them. For me, it’s not so easy. For one thing, I’m a gardener, so there are obvious impracticalities to splitting my time between two places.

But besides this, I crave a deeper connection to the place I call home, an unmediated experience of the natural world right outside my back door. The trouble is the landscape in town doesn’t leave much room for anything else but an experience of other humans. As a result, all we get is a reflection of ourselves. But Fort Langley is where I happen to be now, so rather than spending my time wishing home were somewhere else, I want to find a way to be in this place, to actively create a sense of belonging. Stay put, call the place home and then you’ll be more likely to love it, to protect it if it’s threatened. That’s the argument, right?

I think there are probably others like me who wonder about what it means to “dwell” somewhere, and how this relates to their sense of home and belonging. I’ve tackled a bit of Heidegger who had some thoughts on the subject:

A truck driver is at home on the highway, but he does not have his shelter there. –Martin Heidegger, from Poetry, Language, Thought (1971)

Frankly, most of Heidegger is over my head, and the best way for me to sort out my feelings about “where is home?” is through a direct experience — to walk the landscape, to take the time to really look, to build my own stories about it.

Name two writers on writing whom you would recommend.

I recently finished Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin. I liked it for its writing exercises, providing practice in the “plumbing” of writing. And then, because I’m such a huge fan of Annie Dillard, The Writing Life. Although, if you’re looking for practical writing advice, this might not be the book for you.

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

Like you, I’m interested in home and belonging as it relates to place. Also, developing our ecological perception as a way of deepening our connection with the landscape is another common theme in my writing. Lately I’ve become more interested in the concept of “wild,” and how our interpretation of it helps us understand what it means to be human.

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

I’m just beginning the early research stages of a new project, inspired by my interest in nature writer Gilean Douglas. I’m daring to call it a book-length project, but the truth is I have no idea whether it is. Saying that I’m working on a book feels intimidating, as I’ve never written one, and if I could get one or two good essays out of the material, I think I might be just as happy.

You’re planning a trip to Cortes Island this summer because of your interest in the Canadian nature writer, Gillian Douglas. What prompted you to make this trip, and what effect do you think/hope it might have on your writing?

Yes, in fact, I’ve just returned from Cortes. Partly, I was compelled to make the trip because I hoped to glean more about another woman nature writer who had lived in BC, and who was intimately connected to place. Before Cortes, Gilean lived alone in the remote Coquihalla Mountains. And it was truly remote living. No running water, no electricity. Then she moved to Channel Rock, her property on Cortes Island, and lived there for 40 years also without power, until her death. I admire her for that, and also a bit envious of how this style of living would have influenced her relationship with the natural world. Her writing captured the spirit of both these places; it was obvious how much she dearly loved them.

I wanted to go to Cortes to see if I could learn more about how the elements of place might have shaped her, and her writing. Partly, I wanted to test my own response to being in a place where daily observations about the natural world weren’t hindered by human activity. I was also curious to see how her property had changed in the 20 years since her death.

The trip was rich. Of course, I returned with a notebook full of first-hand experiences — scribbled notes of sensory details, feelings, and thoughts. No amount of internet research can replace the knowledge acquired from being in a place, from talking to the people who live there. Even Gilean’s own writing couldn’t give me a tactile experience of being there. I hope to use this direct experience not just to write more convincingly about the physicality of BC’s landscape, but also, if I can, to draw deeper meanings about the complex human/landscape relationship.

Thanks Abby for your thoughtful responses, and stay tuned for (hopefully) four more interviews!

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7 thoughts on “Environment writer interviews: Abby Palmer

  1. How wonderful to read this and your eloquence with words remains potent, even in the format of an interview – “lust for an experience of the Canadian wilderness also seems to have metabolized in me.”

    Very much looking forward to your book!

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