10 Questions with Writer Melina Sempill Watts: Tree and Biodiversity
Melina Sempill Watts’ first novel Tree is the story of 229 years in the life of a California live oak from the point of view of … the tree. Last year, Tree won best new fiction in the Beverly Hills Book Awards. Watts’ first book event was on a panel at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival. Her work appears in Earth Island Journal, Sierra Magazine, New York Times motherlode blog, and elsewhere.
Why did you write Tree?
Koyaanisqatsi translates from the Hopi as “life out of balance.”
By 2003, I embodied that word: my screenplays had not sold, my relationship had foundered, I pined for my young son who seemed to be at school or daycare all the time, and my job underutilized my abilities and underserved the world, located in Los Angeles, in an office on the seventh floor, in a cubicle with no windows.
The thing is, I knew it.
I had had a series of mystical experiences with plants that made me experience the natural world in a startling unique way; though I kept this intensely private, something in me felt that someday I should somehow share and celebrate what felt like a gift of raw magic. Instead, I spent 9 to 10 hours at the office and drove forty-five minutes each way to my son’s school.
I tried to break out. My son, his father and I attended walks with the Children’s Nature Institute. I became a docent, and, despite horrid stage fright, began to lead a nature walk once month to do something – anything – to put my life in balance.
One Friday, my boss took new clients to lunch at Spago’s in Beverly Hills with multiple bottles of wine. For me, all caught up with work, this meant…time. My mind meandered.
In a heartbeat, a gift was given to me, I imagined the life of a California coastal live oak from the point of view of … the tree. See, “Sometimes the adventure outside is on the inside.”
I began to write that night. Alternating between writing and research, I realized that the other beings with whom this Tree’s life are shared are as important as the tree. Sharing the intense interdependence of these plants became a love-letter to biodiversity in the Santa Monica Mountains: all of it mattered.
Meaning, when each of us goes into the wild … what we’re feeling is the biological equivalent of a world-class orchestra, a place where many voices combine into a whole that elevates us. As mammals, we evolved to crave that biological complexity – it feels right, even if most of us don’t have a word to describe that rightness. Maybe, biophilia?
The more urban, the more indoors one’s life is, the more estranged we are from that kaleidoscope of interwoven lives. This modern disconnect from natural systems is driving depression, suicidal ideation, and hopelessness. Meanwhile, intensifying biodiversity loss is excruciating – miles of forests have burned in the Amazon, California, Australia, Indonesia, and Africa and the ongoing massive loss of coral reefs is crushing. The sadness can flatten us.
My way out: I hoped to transplant readers to share Tree’s interior perspective, to inhabit intense communication with plants, and thus help readers re-open their own innate desire to interlace with a biodiverse landscape. If we love it, we will save it.
How can fiction and storytelling drive productive environmental choices and cultural change?
People working on behalf of the environment tend to lean on science and data-driven communication – as a conservation consultant, me included. But this approach often reduces the size of a potential audience to people who use science as a framework for decisions in their own lives.
Storytelling can change how people see the world by connecting us to how we feel or even changing what we feel altogether. An early example is Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, published in 1877. Within a year, the book had transformed how people saw domesticated animals, growing support for both the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals and the ASPCA. 50 million copies later, some animal rights are now embedded in the Western legal framework.
Now, the biggest driver in climate change and biodiversity loss is a misbegotten concept that what people think we need is paramount. Meanwhile, every molecule of food we ever eat came from another living being. The underlying truth: we are part of a huge biodiverse group of species that share one planet, who must all thrive so that we can co-exist.
And, on a spiritual level, apart from our need to eat, we need that biodiverse whole to experience happiness. First Nations peoples, Buddhists, Hindus, and evolutionary biologists will all tell you – in different ways – that, to be a good human, we have to interrelate with the entire array of living beings. Many Western people intuitively get there, for example, via hiking, snorkeling, or gardening. But many more, do not. Our lack of love for biodiversity is killing us and thousands of other species.
Changing how we feel about our place in the world, moving past anthropocentric thinking to biocentric thinking is the most powerful thing we can do to drive positive environmental decisions and to foment cultural change.
New parents shift from thinking “what do I want” to “what is best for our children” and then, to “what is best for our community.” Tree is a book with an implied ask, an ask that we include plants, insects, birds, mammals, fish, people, the landscape, sky, and water in our personal world. So, as we work, feed our families, and live, that can become the daily question we ask: “What is best for all of us?” If you are biocentric, the word “us” gets bigger. Us includes, by definition, the community of all living things.
What do you see as productive ways to protect, preserve, and enhance the environment?
I suggest we begin to think in every context, ”How can this place, this life, this situation, support biodiversity?
Picture this questioning process by moving from the micro to the macro, beginning with the personal. Start with one or two proactive ecological choices in your own life and recognize that you can have an enormous ripple on your local ecosystem. For example, if you turn your outdoor cat into an indoor cat, you save the lives of dozens, even hundreds of birds.
Expanding this question to embrace your community, I would say the quickest path to supporting biodiversity within your community is to develop broader community relationships so that your biocentric questions become questions that the whole community will have to address. I acknowledge that if you live in a functioning or semi-functioning democracy that community advocacy is both safer and easier. Advocate for forests in Mexico, Indonesia and Brazil and you may be assassinated. So, if you live in a place where you can, start by becoming acquainted with your local elected officials and their staff, by attending events and, on specific issues, by targeted lobbying. In democracies, we have enormous access to and influence on our elected officials – and acquiring these interconnections can happen very quickly. Effective environmental leaders develop a sense that we all can help co-create our shared future by engaging in policy, advocacy, business practices, education and conversations. Each person has the potential to be the voice that helps the room turn the corner on a decision.
My question for the mainstream environmental movement is, how do we turn from this idea that it is all on us to solve environmental catastrophes by individual choices and start asking how we – and the government – and business — can create systemic choices to solve big problems?
I’m wondering how can we change corporations to become more collaborative with labor and more earth-friendly? What if major international companies had to follow the same social and environmental standards while in foreign countries that their countries of origin require? And if – as in the United States– corporations are legal persons, what if we held these entities to be as responsible for crimes as we would hold individuals and gave them consequences as serious? In theory, imagine a kind of capital punishment for a corporation (disbanding) that committed mass murder. We all love companies like Patagonia leading the charge on thoughtful, careful sourcing of materials, recycling, integrating humanistic values in labor practices and inspiring hundreds of other companies to do and be good. But positive peer pressure is only moving the needle so far. How can we help co-create a better world with the economic structure and value system that are running the show right now?
We cover a lot of people who are activists and create and participate in phenomenal protests. How can activists better use this extraordinary outburst of positive human energy to effect change?
Protests that lead to real change share one thing in common: protest participants have specific asks.
Suffragettes made the ask, give us the vote. Civil rights activists in the sixties in the United States made the ask, give us human rights (which were described in considerable detail.) Anti-apartheid activists in the 1980s around the world made the ask, disinvest (to pressure South Africa into change.) In each case, protesters earned huge wins.
Protests that do not lead to change share one thing in common: they are an expression of anger or despair without specific goals attached. If you don’t know what you want, you will not get it because no one else knows what you want either.
On this level, Greta Thunberg’s leadership has been exemplary as she has specifically stated that she is calling out the problem and asking for the adults working on climate to step up with effective answers. The good news, there are people like Naomi Klein, like Paul Hawkens and his team over at Project Drawdown, people focusing on regenerative agriculture, electric cars, bike-friendly road design and on sustainable marine transit, who are creating and implementing answers that are resulting in measurable change. Climate action is based on solid, specific asks.
In 2021, can America get to a Green New Deal? How? Best case scenario, what does that look like?
I think so.
Conservation-friendly legislation can happen by focusing on elements of Green New Deal that can get votes from progressives, mainstreams and conservatives. Take apart the monolithic rhetoric in use to describe the GND and focus on passing one solid piece of legislation at a time. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had many pieces going through Congress and the Senate during his first 100 days – not all of them passed – but put together the ones that did, and that is what the original New Deal looks like.
So, can we make progress on climate action in this murky political climate?
In the United States, there is bipartisan support for the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service which creates conservation plans with individual farmers that promote soil conservation, carbon draw-down, water conservation / sustainable hydrological systems and biodiversity and will then co-fund for projects at a rate of 50% for 5 years to implement these conservation projects. What if we paid for four years of 100% funding for all proposed carbon sequestration projects on all farms?
There is bipartisan interest in funding wildlands fire damage mitigation and in forestry practices that will reduce wildlands fire risks; most of these projects have the potential to result in carbon drawdown.
And there are genuinely green conservatives who can bridge the gap, like former. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger who has advocated for clean energy as a way to solve climate change and make new invigorate the economy.
Cross-aisle collaboration may not be an idyllic process, but what is going to matter most in 2021 and the foreseeable future will be finding ways to slow and, God willing, stop climate change by working with people as they are.
What are the changes we can and should make to advocate for biodiversity?
On a social level, land trusts and marine protection and sustainable agriculture are all vital.
For me, it became about deciding to open up to share my interior perception of the world, in which a blade of grass can have the same emotional weight as a brave dog, or a person can feel awed by the grandeur of a tree’s existence, a space in which I hear such an array of different lives shining at me at the same time that when I’m out on a hike, I feel the multiplicity of the lives around me like a composer hearing each instrument going at the same time. It feels like interpersonal empathy magnified exponentially – I wrote Tree to try to give readers the emotional experience of my particular version of biophilia. I think a lot of people have been cut off from accessing this very real enchantment – so I’m sharing my variant of biophilia as a path back to being a human animal, a part of nature.
It was very important to me in the beginning of the novel Tree, that people love Univervia, a Mexican Spranglegrass, which has a one year life cycle, as much as they come to love Tree, a California live oak with a life span of potentially 500 to 600 years. If people can embrace the life of an individual grass plant with a whole heart, it is an easy step to imagine that each of the living parts of an ecosystem all matter.
In some ways, this conversation has gone off the rails. I thought we were going to talk about literature and we’ve also been talking about politics and cultural change.
A conversation about Tree usually explores plant relationships – as plants talked to me when I was young – and how I have shared these unique experiences via a novel. Readers share immensely personal emotional stories with me about the plants they have loved. On a cerebral level, the book’s focus is on ecological history and how Tree explores how different cultural values force ecosystem transitions, so readers often enjoy discussing California history.
But what I’m finding: open conversations lead readers to focus on all the plants and animals that they value, on why they cherish them and then we move on to start painful questions about ecosystem stability. Readers are taking Tree as a jumping off point to talk about biodiversity in peril, so ecological conversation are starting to jump into book events
I hope that Tree functions as a way out of human self-referential fiction, a door that opens for us to step out into the emotional complexity of the wild. And in that place of many beings of whom we are just one, perhaps this story can become a place for beginning conversations that foment change and create a culture shift.
So, what’s the culture shift you want?
To move humanity’s perspective from being anthropocentric to becoming biocentric.
What does that take?
Your wife is studying creativity, so you and I have talked about Brené Brown. To paraphrase, creativity requires the ability to take being humiliated by people who don’t understand where we’re going or why we’re making brave, bold choices. For me that meant throwing aside my carefully crafted professional reputation as a sober, thoughtful watershed coordinator whose work was based on science, data, community consensus and being polite, politically and practically neutral and appropriate at all times as a community facilitator and coming out with a book about plants talking with one another and with other animals. It was terrifying! I thought I’d be mocked. I thought I’d never work again. I thought all sorts of things, but I decided going to print was the best thing I could do to help people see that we are part of a community of living beings, each of whom is important. I owed it to every plant I had ever loved. And then, when it came out — fully expecting massive public shame — it turned out people love it, people buy multiple copies for friends, relatives, colleagues, interns, incarcerated people in jail — and they tell me it has changed how they see nature.
So, my take home, if you know a truth about the environment, about climate, and what you can and should and might do with your life, embrace your inner truth and forge ahead.
What should we do, right now?
Plant a native plant.
Thank you Melina, for the book and for the work you do.