Curated: Environmental Nonfiction

Curated: Environmental Nonfiction


Environmental nonfiction and journalism are emerging to tell the stories of our changing planet. That’s why we’re sharing a roundup of recent environmental nonfiction pieces that have all the elements of a great story— memorable characters, descriptive scenes, a narrative arc, strong voice, and sentences you’ll want to devour.

There are countless ways to tell a good story, that’s why we’ve selected these pieces from a variety of publications. Some of these pieces are personal essays, like “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons,” by the British novelist Zadie Smith or “Of Water, Starlight and Raspberries,” an open letter by Native American organizer, Debra White Plume. Meanwhile, Abrahm Lustgarten uses investigative journalism to take inside Las Vegas’ political machine in “The Water Witch.”

Without further adieu, here are seven pieces that offer thought-provoking perspectives about humankind and our home in this critical moment.


Meltdown: Terror at the Top of the World
By: Sabrina Shankman, for InsideClimate News
Read it here.

“Meltdown” reads like something straight out of a Stephan King novel. In this investigative feature, Shankman uses suspense to narrate a polar bear attack on a Sierra Club trekking expedition. The story is set against the backdrop of a northern Canadian fjord, and it explores our relationship with wildlife as we adapt to our warming planet.

Memorable line: “After all, to a starving bear, a human is just meat.”


By: Kim Todd, River Teeth
Read it here.

“Curious” is about more than the Surinam toad, which Todd describes as slithering “through the pond like animated mud, an amphibian golem.” In this personal essay, readers trek with Todd through rainforest undergrowth to study the truly bizarre mating rituals of the Surinam or “star-fingered toad.” Selected for the Best American Science and Nature Writing 2015 anthology, this essay offers an intimate reflection on human curiosity.

Memorable lines: “Like the toad, curiosity is a strange beast. The investigating mind moves like a sleek little mammal, a mink maybe, rubbing up against things in the dark, trying to determine their shape, occasionally ripping with sharp teeth and pawing through the opening. Or perhaps a spider, creeping precisely, attaching silk here, and here, and here to impose a pattern where before was just air.”


Elegy for a Country’s Seasons
By: Zadie Smith, The New York Review of Books
Read it here.

We often associate climate change with widespread drought, wildfires, or unstoppable rising sea levels—as Smith says, nothing short of the apocalypse. But how does climate change affect us as individuals? Elegy is an ode to things we take for granted, from changing seasons to watching “fat bumblebees crawling over the mouth of an open jam jar.”

Memorable line: We did not think it could change. That is, we always knew we could do a great deal of damage to this planet, but even the most hubristic among us had not imagined we would ever be able to fundamentally change its rhythms and character, just as a child who has screamed all day at her father still does not expect to see him lie down on the kitchen floor and weep.


The Water Witch
By: Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica
Read it here.

Las Vegas is an improbable city— like a glittering, mythical Atlantis adrift in parched desert. For 26 years, one woman wielded political magic to satiate Las Vegas’ water needs while allowing the city to grow as an icon of decadence. The Water Witch is the story of Pat Mulroy, former head of the Las Vegas Valley Water District and general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “The Water Witch” asks whether we can conserve our most precious resource—water—while allowing unrestrained urban growth.

Memorable lines: Standing 5-foot-5, her gray-blond hair wilting in the sweltering sunshine, her upper lip curled as she contemplated the idea that the city should rein itself in. Water can be found, she said emphatically, standing over the near-empty reservoir.


By: Brooke Jarvis, The California Sunday Magazine
Read it here.

In “Homeward,” we travel to the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest where we meet the Cofán Indigenous nation. Jarvis uses a braided narrative and poignant descriptions to explore how oil extraction has irrevocably changed this Indigenous nation and the land itself.

Memorable quote: Sitting in his car after class…Hugo, now 27, says he’s sometimes uncomfortably aware of his role as a symbol — “like a dolphin for ‘Save the Ocean.’ But the dolphin doesn’t have to figure out how to live on land. ‘I’m sure I’ll never feel like I’m doing enough.”


Blocks From the Pope’s Mass, a Dumping Ground for the Nation’s Capital
By: Marianne Lavelle, National Geographic
Read it here.

Distant and hard-to-reach terrains are often the backdrop for National Geographic features, but “Dumping Ground” chronicles a story unfolding in our own backyard. Did you know that Brentwood—a neighborhood right here in D.C.—has been the site of a trash transfer station since 1988? This feature investigates how heaps of festering trash impact Brentwood residents.

Memorable quote: “”If the pope could do anything about this, I would convert,” says Toni Newman, whose family bought a home in this neighborhood in the 1950s—at least 30 years before the trash operation arrived. “When the wind blows this way, it’s not good.”


Of Water, Starlight & Raspberries
By: Debra White Plume, Earth Island Journal
Read it here.

The world’s First Nations have an intimate relationship with the land, so they’re often the first to be affected by climate change. In this personal essay, Debra White Plume, an organizer from the Lakota Nation, describes how extractive projects have affected the Lakota and indigenous nations and peoples throughout North America.

Memorable lines: I want to go back to the Shining Mountains when the raspberries are ripe and glowing in the summer sunshine, and cool my hot feet in the Tongue River. I want to gather medicine like my great-great-great-great grandmothers did, and the generations before them. I want to give wopila – our word for the thanks we offer to existence, the feeling of gladness for each and every moment. Like those grandmothers before me, I remember the sacredness of water, starlight, and raspberries.


Lauren Johnson is a contributing writer for Café Américain and a second-year candidate in the American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.

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