categories: Cocktail Hour
ASLE ACCEPTANCE SPEECH
The Tarball Chronicles just won the ASLE (Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment) biennial creative writing award. I was not in Kansas to accept the award (and get killed by a tornado). But this is what I asked the great eco-critic and writer, Mike Branch, to read:
First let me say that it is difficult writing this speech without knowing exactly who is going to deliver it. My first choice was John Lane, in part due to our similar facial hair. True, John is a little older than me, but I figured that in a pinch he would do as a stand in. When John said he wouldn’t be there on Thursday night, he suggested Michael Branch. This seemed a good choice (and he may well be reading this to you now) since we also have more or less similar facial hair and, if Google images is accurate, roughly the same amount of gray in our hair and beards. So if this is Michael reading this right now, thanks. I should add that my third option for a reader was Patrick Thomas who has no facial hair at all and who, if he is the one reading this, will soon be in the awkward position of thanking himself
Enough preliminaries. The main purpose of this speech is to thank you, the ASLE folks, for choosing The Tarball Chronicles for your creative writing award. It means a lot for both obvious and less than obvious reasons. The less than obvious have to do with getting this story out there. The book, on the most obvious level, is about the BP oil spill during the summer of 2010. But I like to think it is also about a lot of other things, and one of those is how we, as a country, tell our stories. At the moment we are almost constantly assaulted by such a babel-like cacophony of voices telling so many stories from so many angles that we often feel like plugging our ears. And, after several months of studying the spill, I realized that I was also studying the way we tell our national stories. We do so in a way that suggests that we suffer from a national case of A.D.D: I still remember the way the spill was EVERYTHING, at one point dominating all of CNN’s news coverage to the tune of 40%, before we skipped on to tsunamis and Tea Parties. This obviously says something about the way those who run the larger media outlets think of their audience, the way they underestimate us and treat us like candy-craving children.
What I hoped to do was tell the deeper story. A story that was at once tragic and funny, angry and sane. Most of all it had to be a story of connections. I knew this from the very first stop I made on my drive down to the Gulf. On that first night of my trip I stopped for dinner at an Applebees on the border of South Carolina and Georgia. My waiter, a chipper young man named George, asked me where I was heading, and when I told him, in a somewhat reluctant and grumbling fashion, I expected him to chirp “Great!” and hurry off to get my fries and beer. Instead he thought for a minute before launching into a little sermon.
“We think it’s happening down there,” he said, jerking his thumb toward the wall with the sports posters on it but, symbolically, toward the Gulf. “But we’re part of it, too.”
I snapped to attention.
“It’s all tied together,” he said. “The oil we use in our cars and the oil that’s washing up on our beaches “It’s all tied together,” he said. “The oil we use in our cars and the oil that’s washing up on our beaches.”
He talked for a little while more and I listened intently. When he was done I felt like standing up and clapping.
I was reminded of the words of another great natural philosopher, words that any card-carrying member of ASLE surely knows. “When we pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Maybe the spill, I thought, is trying to teach us, in dramatic fashion, a lesson we have been taught many times before but refuse to learn: on this earth nothing is apart from anything else, all of us, human, plant, animal intertwined. To which you may say: Duh.
So my job, in telling the deeper story, was to talk about these connections. And my secondary job was to try to get this story out into the world when, as far as the national media was concerned, it had fallen off of planet earth, and was now known mostly by the sunny BP ads that said “Come on down, the water’s fine!”
There are a lot of people who both helped me to tell the story and to get it out there, but for now I won’t go all Oscar and list them. In fact I’ll stick to one individual, who may be reading this and does not have facial hair. Patrick Thomas, of Milkweed Editions, pushed and prodded me to make those connections, and to always think of the story on a larger scale, and challenged me not to be lazy or satisfied with standard eco clichés, but to always go deeper.
For this I am forever grateful.
Before I close, I’d like to thank Tom and the ASLE gang one more time. This means a lot.
And finally once again I’d like thank Mike Branch for reading this speech, if he is indeed the one reading it.