This column explores the often subconscious connection between the places we are from, the spaces in which we write, and the places we write about.
Today I am crossing a line that creative writers rarely cross: I am talking to a scientist and actually trying to understand what they are saying. Writer God in heaven (Cormac McCarthy), help me.
It helps that Erin is my longtime friend. I am talking to her on Facetime, and it seems as I get older, more and more of my relationships are maintained through a screen. I actually consider this to be a beauty of the virtual space, that I can remain connected with people who I previously might have lost touch with. Technological pathways connect my earth location to theirs.
In this case, I am connected to England. It is 1:00 pm in Denver and it is 8:00 pm in London, and both of us are in bed in our pajamas (shhh).
Erin fluctuates in and out of a slight English accent, her tone, her cadence, her mannerisms an amalgam of the places and spaces she has been. She has lived on three different continents: North America, Europe, and Africa. When I talk to Erin I feel like I am talking to a piece of the world, if the world were made of clay, and a small piece were pinched off and rolled into a girl-shaped figurine that could banter and owned several prints by Georgia O’Keefe.
Erin is currently working towards her PhD, studying human and wildlife coexistence and biodiversity loss in Kenya. “I describe myself as an ecologist, but I primarily study the interactions between humans and wildlife. Applied ecology.”
For the soft science and liberal arts folk like myself, the definition of ecology is as follows: the branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.
I guess what I’m getting at is, Erin attempts to answer the same question I do, (what is it about setting that binds us, breaks us, and makes us who we are?) through vastly different means. While I focus on the written, the metaphorical and the psychological, Erin focuses on the action, the literal and the biological.
“Science is just a way to understand how the world works,” she says, as though reading my mind.
It is this opposition, yet shared understanding that makes me trust Erin, and it is our shared hometown that helps us understand each other, despite our contrasting methodologies.
“I moved straight from Tucson, Arizona to the UK for university. Tucson was all I knew. Moving here, it became a bigger part of my identity than I expected.”
I ask Erin why she chose to study what she did. After all, the world is vast, and filled with unanswerable questions that each pocket of people, writers or scientists, must, unwaveringly and steadfastly, always attempt to answer. It’s a cycle that goes like this: If the question is framed to be about the place, the answer is always about the people. If the question is framed to be about the people, the answer is always about the place. The only freedom we ever get in this cycle is choosing which way to ask one of these questions.
People or place? Writer or scientist? Drylands or wetlands?
“Drylands only, baby,” Erin says emphatically. “In terms of my research, I’ve studied Eastern Africa, Southern Africa, and the US/Mexico border. Obviously, I’m not from Eastern or Southern Africa, but in many ways they are similar to Arizona, and one of the largest similarities is that they are dry. They are arid lands. But the UK has no concept of limited water. I’m sure you remember in elementary school, Tucson Water would come to us and give us those purple hourglass timers.”
I nod furiously. Some schools had magicians or symphony orchestras come to visit them on class assembly days. We had elements: Fire and Water. And these teeny timers from Tucson Water timed how long our showers should be. I remember, as a child, thinking I would be punished to the fullest extent of the Law for occasionally flipping the timer over and showering for an additional five minutes.
“Water here is really cheap, our water bill [in the UK] is very low, people here just really don’t get that. In a public bathroom the taps are just running. And I’m like “what are you doing!? Turn that off!!”
Ah, I see the guilt and shame from the plastic purple hourglass timers have infected us both.
“Water is such an important resource for all life. I personally study humans and mammals, particularly water dependent grazers. Water determines, point blank: survival. But also movement, birth rates… Coming in knowing that water is not limitless, allows me to more fully understand the ecological limits of a place. Even though life in Africa is so different from how and where I grew up, there is a base level understanding. Namibia? Shockingly similar in many ways to Arizona. The main difference is there are no cheetahs in Arizona. I’ve done a lot of interview-based fieldwork, which is a whole different beast. And then once the interviews are done, even though we always know it’s coming, we’re always like ‘Man, I need to write.’ You have to get into a totally different headspace. Writing on a blank page is like staring at the savannah. All of the work I do is very place-based. The landscape contextualizes everything.”
If the concept of writing is a direct reflection of setting itself, I ask Erin, having lived on different continents and spending years exploring and zeroing in on places that interested her, and mostly gravitating towards places that felt like home, where does she write best?
She hesitates slightly. “I have attempted to write in many many places. When I was in college, I was at a really old university with some ridiculous number of libraries and other buildings with stained glass and old desks. Some writing in cafes. When I went to Africa for the first time in 2019, I was writing at the research station, an open air building, which had a cool conical shaped thatch roof that bats roosted in. My chair was covered in batshit all the time. I was writing on trains, sometimes super efficiently. I would think ‘it must be because I’m in this contained space’, but then seven days later I’d get on a train and stare out the window for two and a half hours and I would get nothing done.”
Is this a callout to one of my previous columns? I am choosing to believe so. I am choosing to believe that my ideas have resonated with the entire science community. Perhaps I should speak with ecologists more often.
“But mostly, I do a lot of writing while running, in my head. During my masters dissertation, I probably wrote 80% of it running through the countryside. I would stop and send my friends Whatsapp voice notes. I would tell them ‘you’re going to have to listen to me breathing heavily talking about humans and jaguars.’ I think so much when I run. I don’t really know why that is. You know how people come up with ideas in the shower? For me that’s running.”
We know it couldn’t be in the shower, because of the all-seeing eyes of the hourglass shower timers.
But there is something poetic about the fact that a woman who has flitted from place to place, hopping language and race barriers, finding pockets of home in places far from the actual unreturnable Home, can only truly write when she is not anywhere at all, when she is in the between.
I don’t ask Erin if, when she runs, she is running from something or running to something. I don’t ask why she can only write when she is not actually writing, while her body is moving and her mouth is speaking (why are our bodies so bound by the places we have been?) because unlike scientists, I, we (writers) believe that some things should remain unsaid and in the in between. Scientists use facts to get to a truth, writers remove facts to get to the truth.
So if our only shared understanding of the world, and desire to find a new understanding, comes from our childhood landscapes, that is as good a truth as any.
Erin sends me a quote by American biologist E. O. Wilson. “This is one of my favorite quotes. He’s semi-cancelled for good reason, but like, there’s a reason why I’m always writing about drought.”
The quote reads: Nevertheless I will repeat my conviction that you will become most devoted to research in science and technology through images and stories that have affected you early—particularly from childhood…
He confirms our hypothesis (hate that I used the word hypothesis), but he’s also dead and a racist.
Erin nods in wry agreement. “He had some pretty outdated ideas about protecting nature from people. I want to protect nature and people for mutual benefit. They are irreversibly intertwined.”
Erin, the scientist is right on multiple accounts: (1) it’s a good quote, (2) people and setting are irreversibly intertwined, and (3) sometimes scientists are wrong, or more importantly, sometimes they don’t know. Sometimes there is only an instinct, a feeling, a calling to a career, a continent on the other side of the world that is just as dry as the place you left behind, a person, a place, a home.
So, let’s end with another quote, a quote by a writer:
“I’m not super big on quotes,” Erin says, “but here’s one by Winnie the Pooh. Wait, no, I don’t know why I thought that. It’s TS Eliot.”
We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and to know the place for the first time.