Alan Weisman on The World Without Us
Alan Weisman's reports from around the world have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Orion, Wilson Quarterly, Vanity Fair, Mother Jones, Discover, Audubon, Condé Nast Traveler, and in many anthologies, including Best American Science Writing 2006. His most recent book, The World Without Us, a bestseller translated into 30 languages, was named the Best Nonfiction Book of 2007 by both Time Magazine and Entertainment Weekly, the #1 Nonfiction Audiobook of 2007 by iTunes; a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Nonfiction, for the Orion Prize, and a Book Sense 2008 Honor Book.
His previous books include An Echo In My Blood; Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World (10th anniversary edition available from Chelsea Green); and La Frontera: The United States Border With Mexico. He has also written the introduction for The World We Have by Thich Nhat Hanh, available this fall from Parallax Press. A senior producer for Homelands Productions, Weisman’s documentaries have aired on National Public Radio, Public Radio International, and American Public Media. Each spring, he leads an annual field program in international journalism at the University of Arizona, where he is Laureate Associate Professor in Journalism and Latin American Studies. He and his wife, sculptor Beckie Kravetz, live in western Massachusetts.
Alan Weisman: Well, I have been fortunate in my career to cover much of the earth. I have been form pole to pole though I do not solely write about the environment. More and more every story is environmental story. The environment underlies, politics it underlies, culture, it forms culture really, economics, I mean, everything that is going on in the world of that by the environment. So, as I have looked at rain forest coming down, I looked at ozone hole in Antarctica, I have been to places like Chernobyl; I have been to all kind of ecodisasters, I began looking for a way to bring this all together, so I could explain the readers, how it all connects, because you have to understand all of those things, all of those events are really symptoms of a bigger situation that we have, which is how we Homo sapiens impact the world and how much longer we are going to be able to keep doing what we are doing. The trouble is, is that, if you pull all that together in the book form and you need a book, because it’s you need that much detail, it’s going to be so daunting and so overwhelming that lot of readers are going to want to read that book. I mean there is a great stuff about the environment that only gets read by a few people who are already attuned to the environment, because everybody else says “Oh, that’s so depressing” or “It is just so scary,” this is not what I want to spend my time doing. So, I was looking for a way to find how without pulling any punches to write a page turner about the environment, and it occurred to be thought a suggestion of an edited at Discover, who had read the story that I had done for Harper’s, years early at Chernobyl, in which I described how the abandoned villages around Chernobyl were being over taken by their own landscape, hedges were like grown over walls and nature which is flooding in there, not realizing this is rather radioactive. Her question to me was, “What if that happened, everywhere?” Even though that was unlikely, I realize that very farfetched concept was a wonderful way to get people to read about the environment, because this would be a way of disarming that fear that we all have when we think about the environment crises, but are we all going to die? I just kill him off in the beginning. I just suggest that something has happened that has taken all of us away before we have a change to regain anymore have that kind of environment. Say, next week a Homo sapiens-specific virus picks us all off, AIDS becomes airborne suddenly, rather than past by fluids or some miss interpret genius has inserted something in there that pick off our DNA or sterilize us or we are raptured away, be it by Jesus or space aliens, but we’re gone and everything else remains intact, to what extend could it cover up all of our traces complete, how would it reinvade the spaces that we have been occupying, how would it deal with although stuff that we left behind, stuff ranging from materials that we have created to our huge cities to all these carbon that we pumped up our chimneys? And I found that it’s worth. I mean people, “we are to worried about being dead, we already are,” but there is something very seductive about future and so people just read curious about, what would happen next and through that they will see revealed, well what would nature have to contend with their we have already set in motion. The packing of the information, when you try to write a page turner, you need to borrow the great literary techniques that novelist and poets over time have developed. In good poetry every word, every sentence packs wallup and there is nothing in there, that is flabbier that weakens the impacts. Novelist use narrative to great extent, in great effect, to keep turning it into story and I, you know, part of my research really was just reading great literature, as much I have been doing that all my life, but that really helps develop prose as far as I am concerned. The actual research itself, some of it had already began over years, as I mentioned before, I had already been to Chernobyl. I had been to places like the ozone hole. Some of those places I discuss in my book, though I had refresh my research, I didn’t have to revisit all of then physically, but I had to talk the researches who will read up in the literature, but other places I went to documentary journalism is best when you can show up yourself and find eyewitnesses in the field, experts in the field and the sometimes experts or PhD who would study in this stuff sometimes they are just simply people who live there and they know, what goes on, so my research range from talking to a biologist who for 30 years has been just observing elephant populations and human populations, who live around elephants. Like cattle pastoralist in Africa to subway maintenance personal New York, who every single their life are crawling under the city, keeping it form drowning in its own ground water, to ornithologists, who hover on the edge of the Korean DMZ to get glimpses of birds that would no longer exist, if there was piece in that on their peninsula and the DMZ where all developed. The more I thought about this, the more questions I realize that a had to address in the book and it was really a situation of I had been in interview with somebody and they would mention something about a forest coming back and I would realize, “Wow, that’s really interesting,” I have to write about forests coming back with them as we talk further or as I had investigate further, I had realized, “Wait a minute. How would forests overtake land, ancient farmland, which we can see examples of right here in the United States, in New England farms were abandoned by the 1700s or by the 1800s as the United Stated expanded into places like Ohio Territory, where there were longer growing seasons and best glacier debrief lying around. How those forest are coming back as way different. From how forest will come back in the future and farmlands that have been heavily fertilized or pesticide or herbicides, so I need to find out about that too and then I need to find out well who knows about that, in the case of that one, which really rather fun, because I was certainly scared about writing about agriculture, agriculture is important, we are all depended on food. That is boring and nobody really reads that much about the agriculture with pleasure. You rarely find novels written about farmers, but what I found was this wonderful story in England about that first guy who patented fertilizers and how he set up all these test strips to sees, what would happen if you combine certain chemicals in certain corps or sometimes just let the whole thing go fallow, see what happened to land. He started that in the 1840s and the experiment keeps going on and on, it’s never stops, so I had certainly this beautiful vivid exciting history, in which to tell an environmental story. So, all this stuff was happing to me. People who I would research in, I would say “Who else have you talk to?” and they would get so excited just by hearing about other things that they don’t get to study and then they would suggest somebody else to me and of I would go.
Well, I started of this book in kind of the way that the authors of The Genesis started of their book. I started of paradise and it is the paradise that obviously we are losing. I go to a place that is both seems very exotic and yet it turns out to be very familiar, it’s the last fragment of primeval forest in Europe, lowland forest. It’s the one that as I described in the book that we see in our mind’s eye or some one reads Grimm’s fairy tales to us when we were a kid, just enormous trees and all this mass hanging down from them and wolves wailing and sort of brooding and it’s smells like the essence of fertility itself and just as incredible place that in my research I stumbled upon this thing and the Polish-Russian border and it was preserved in the 14th century, by the Lithuanian Duke who married Queen of Poland and got to be King. He made it his private hunting ground and then a series of Polish Kings and Russians are after they kept it that way and after some convulsive of times in 20th century they ended up in national park. Now, to enter that place was staggering to me, because you are seeing all the trees that would tend to grow up around in the United States, oak and ashes and birches and things like that, but you see a gigantic versions of them and you realize that we are bread to the pale copy of nature and yes, it feels so strangely right, some sort of familiar some sort of cellular level like your body recognizes it, that was staggering and it happen to be, one of the very first thing that I did for this books. So, it really help that the tone, because I want people to get a sense of what we use to have, because ultimately the book is not really about what the road would be like without humans. Clear humans away long enough, so we could see how beautiful it could be and then figure out, “Okay, how come we hang around, how come we add ourselves back into this mix and be part of it” and that is where I was eventually going with the book. So, that was one of the most compelling moments for me, but there were many more.
Recorded on: 2/5/08
More and more, every story becomes an environmental story, Weisman says.
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