Earth Day authordom: Becca Lawton and the rivers of Utah

Longtime Modern Muse readers know I’m kind of a green freak (kind of? Well, I pretty much bleed green. Creepy!). I have been working with a number of stellar authors lately in a women’s publishing consortium called Indie-Visible, and one of the authors is even greener than I am. Which is pretty hard to believe. Anyhoo, I interviewed her to learn more about her book and her passion for rivers, and am posting the results of that conversation here, for your reading pleasure.

And btw, Becca’s book, Junction, Utah, is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Not preachy at all, it gives an insider’s view of man vs nature, aka oil vs eco, in the pristine river valleys of Utah. Becca is a longtime river guide and a geologist as well; her science and eco background give the book urgency and authenticity. But the story – wow. An Iraq veteran with PTSD, a soft-spoken river guide, the true love of horses and the hay farmers of the valley, the smell of the river and the sound of the wind – these all come to life in Junction, Utah. Truly a beautiful story, with a message that is powerfully contemporary. I read this on my Kindle, and may have to buy a paperback to get her to sign it when the print version comes out. How does one get a Kindle signed, anyway?

Here’s Becca:

JPT: Your writing stems so much from deep, personal experiences you’ve had. Junction, Utah, in specific, draws on your years as one of the first female river guides, but also politics that are dear to you. Have you entertained the notion of writing about something you’ve not experienced, and why or why not?

BL: Great question. There’s really a lot in Junction that I’ve not experienced, although I’m intimate with the setting and some of the characters. For example, the town of Junction is a sweet, slow-paced farming community, which isn’t anything I’ve viewed from the inside but had to research deeply. Also, explosives are key to the climax of the story, and I’ve only learned about their use in geologic exploration through friends in the business. I also have never had a family member go missing or experience the sorts of traumatic events Luke does, so those aspects, too, came from interviews and journal research.

Additionally, I’m working now on a collection of short stories about water and our relationship to it in a changing world. Many of the perspectives are new to me and have only come to my attention through travel. I’ve had to invent characters, dialogue, situations, and motives out of my observations–sort of bringing them to life but not actually living them. I’ve always had to go deep into my imagination to get a story out of the factual.

JPT: Your characterization of a recent war veteran with PTSD was deeply felt and not a little sad and disturbing. I appreciated how the recent war vet, the missing Vietnam war veteran, and the cafe owner (Fred of Fred’s Cafe) each portray different ways a soldier could come home — broken, dead, or able to become whole again. Do you have a veteran in your life who showed you those facets?

BL: I have a lot of veterans in my life, and they were especially with me daily when I worked as a river guide in Grand Canyon. Many Vietnam vets found a temporary (sometimes decades-long) home in the Canyon. I’d known young men who’d been drafted and not come home, but I’d never worked shoulder to shoulder with men who’d been subjected to such horrors and had to learn to deal with it. They responded in every possible way you can imagine. And they more than anyone were the models for my veterans in Junction.

JPT: The river is a character itself in your novel. The natural world, the man-made “nature” of farming, and the man-made destruction through mining — it seems that not all three can coexist. Was Junction, Utah, a manifesto of sorts for you?

BL: I suppose so. I didn’t want to preach, but I did want to create awareness about the fragility of our wild world. One thing I’ve learned through years of working as a scientist studying how natural systems respond to change is that they are much more vulnerable than I thought possible. A single road in a wilderness area causes a stream to start incising, or deeply eroding, its bed. I thought the planet was only responding recently to an overwhelmed carrying capacity. But really, we’ve been changing the world for a long time. We’re only now understanding how deep the response is in nature. The changes that come to community, too, are just as intriguing to me, and important. I wanted to write about both.

JPT: If you could pick the perfect setting in which to write, anywhere in the world, with any conditions, sounds, ambiance, time-frame, what would this look like?

BL: Overlooking water. The view from my hosts’ home in Sitka, Alaska, when I served a residency for The Island Institute was simply ideal. Outside, birds and whales were moving through their migrations. I didn’t even have to stand up to view ducks I’d never seen before, or whales rising, or winds whipping the clouds into fabulous storms. There was inspiration right out the window, and the quiet that came from being in retreat.

I do best, too, when I can join my family for dinner after a day of writing. I like to be alone when I’m working, and have space to think, but I also crave the balance of being with those I love.

JPT: How spiritual is your experience in nature? Do you count yourself more as a scientist in awe of Nature, or a pagan worshiping nature, or are you a follower of institutionalized religion in awe of Creation?

BL: I love nature, but I don’t know if I worship it.  I grew up with it, so maybe it’s more like a friend to me.

I became a scientist because I wanted to learn how to describe what I was seeing in the world. I wanted to acquire a language for it. Writers who understood how the world works impressed me. Ed Abbey had been in the military, and he could really write about guns. Wallace Stegner knew engineering principles, and he could explain and use as metaphor concepts like the Doppler Effect. Mary Austin knew the native people in the Inyo Valley, and she wove their stories into her narratives naturally and believably. When I fell in love with rivers, I wanted to speak for them with an authentic voice. So I poured all my studying into developing it.

I once had a doctor who told me I did things the hard way, and now I see that diving into earth sciences when you want to be a writer might fall into the category of doing things the hard way. But that was my journey. And I did end up getting a new doctor.

JPT: How does your admiration and respect for the planet carry over into daily life for you? Are you an avid recycler, creative reuser, composter, etc?

BL: I do all those things, and I have since I was a teenager. Right now I don’t own a car, and every time I come close to purchasing one, I find at the core of my reluctance to own one my desire to change our incredible thirst for oil.

JPT: How politically active are you about caring for the rivers of America? Do you sign petitions, go door to door, work for political committees, or write editorials?

BL: I don’t go to door to door, but I have gathered signatures on petitions. I have written and still write editorials and essays, and I work for an environmental nonprofit organization that does watershed research and restoration. I also serve on the Board of Directors for Friends of the River, which advocates for wild rivers in California. However I believe that the act of writing stories holds more potential to persuade people to care about rivers than just about any other thing I can do. Words that have impacted and educated me the most have almost always been in novels or plays: To Kill a Mockingbird, Ruined, Desert Solitaire, The Bean Trees, Romeo and Juliet, Equivocation, and The River Why are just a few. In writing Junction, Utah, I wanted to join the ranks of those who used art to change the world. No small task!

Read Rebecca Lawton’s Junction, Utah, available at Amazon, Smashwords, or through your fave indie bookstore. Comments or Qs? Leave ‘em below.

Follow Becca on GoodReads (hey, you can follow me there, too!).

a hazard to myself

I had a toxic relationship with my garage. It was ugly in there. Cans of half-used paint that were there when we moved in. Pesticide – which I never use. Old building supplies, like hardened bags of plaster and grout that had never been opened but had gotten damp. A bottle of chalk for marking lines at the soccer field (we don’t play soccer). And a rusting can of some kind of tar stuff for patching the roof – stick on the outside and too scary to actually open.
Everyone knows (I hope) not to throw these things in the garbage – they will surely leak into the ecosystem – groundwater supplies, the watershed, wetlands, the Bay. The paint cans and containers are probably recyclable (steel?) but what’s inside isbad news. Please – don’t even think about pouring it into the gutter or down your storm drain. Go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200for that one (or you should).
But still – it seemed onerous to deal with the toxics. So there they sat – for six years. Six years of that corner of the garage out of bounds for storage or use. Six years while the cans and contents got a little funkier and leakier. All in all, not a good scene, and not very green nor healthful, either.
But I got a flyer in the mail from one day. It said “Free drop-off” of hazardous materials for county residents. The flyer listed the hours and days the facility was open. So first we put down a sheet of cardboard to catch any drips, then loaded up the back of the car. There is a limit to how much you can take to drop off, but a typical household is not likely to have more than 15 gallons of paint at one time.
The car ride took longer than the drop-off. And it was more painful, too, because the toxics were some nasty, bad-smelling stuff. I felt like we were losing brain cells just driving it across town and over the bridge – windows rolled down.
The drop-off? Completely painless, free, and so fast that I wondered why I had waited six years. It went like this:
Drive into driveway. Wait for car ahead of us – maybe a one minute wait.
Nice man gives us a short form to fill out with name, address and what we were dropping off in general.

We roll forward and a couple of workers open the trunk and take everything away, sorting it themselves. This takes about two minutes.
They close the trunk and say goodbye. We drive away, not five minutes in total, and not a penny spent. We can still smell the fumes for a few minutes, but open windows clear the air.
We go spend the rest of our day frivolously.

So what’s holding you back from getting rid of toxic waste in your basement, backyard, garage or back porch?
Here are the addressed of Contra Costa and Alameda sites. No appointment necessary. Check the web site for more information.
West County Facility
101 Pittsburg Ave., Richmond
(888) 412-9277
Central County Facility 
4797 Imhoff Place, Martinez
(800) 646-1431
East County Facility
2550 Pittsburg-Antioch Highway, Antioch
(925) 756-1990 
2100 East 7th Street
41149 Boyce Road
2091 W. Winton Ave.
5584 La Ribera Street

10 green things

A friend recently blogged about how she spent her frugal day (hello, Katy Wolk-Stanly and the Non-Consumer Advocate) and all the cool things she did in just a typical day that saved money. Shamelessly riffing on her Frugal Day is this, my Green Day, or how I – without pain or needless suffering – make green choices every day.
1. Reheated yesterday’s coffee. I didn’t finish the pot of coffee yesterday, and sure, I could have thrown it out and made new fresh coffee. But where does coffee come from? Not Alameda County. No, it’s generally shipped from at least Central America or Hawaii, and at most, from Africa or farther afield. Shipping the coffee here uses fossil fuel, and coffee in general has a pretty big carbon footprint (four pounds of carbon per pound of coffee, estimated). As well, it takes energy to grind and brew coffee. Reheating yesterday’s coffee saves the planet in a small way – which adds up if over a year, you make half as much coffee. (You can buy carbon-neutral coffee, btw, or drink tea, which has a lower footprint, and avoid milk, which adds more greenhouse gasses than either coffee or tea. Cows and methane, you know…)

2. Used waxed paper to wrap up the Boy’s lunch. Plastic wrap takes a jillion years to decompose but waxed paper is compostable. Waxed bags are just as handy as plastic baggies for chips or other crunchy snacks.

3. Reused a bag to hold his school lunch. We used to have about five reusable lunchboxes but somehow they’ve been lost along the way. I am hoping to find a decent one at Goodwill or other thrift store; in the meantime, we’re reusing bags that show up at our house.

4.  Parked at the mall and walked to all the storesI needed to visit. I batched my errands to avoid using fossil fuel for repeated stops and starts in the car. Walking to the post office, pet food store, office supply store and more made for free exercise as well as a savings in the fuel budget. Note that green activities often save you money, which is just completely bonus. Took my own bags, too.

5.  Purchased recycled products: 100% recycled paper for the home printer, recycled paper bathroom tissue, recycled aluminum foil, and ball point pens made from recycled materials.

6.  Attended a marketing webinar at home, which saved on travel expenses, fossil fuels and all the expenses of leaving the house (coffee, parking meters, bridge tolls, etc.)

7.  Switched out rechargeable batteries for son’s video game controller.  We haven’t bought new batteries in months – maybe years. Invest in a charger for AA and AAA batteries, and 2-3 sets of batteries. Put one in each room where batteries are always in use (TV remote control or garage door opener?). That way it’s easy to find them when you need them, and the batteries get used over and over.

8. Cleaned out empty paint cans and half-used junk from the basement. These are loaded in the back of the car for next time I swing through Oakland and can drop off (for free!) at the toxic waste place. (More on this in the next blog.)

9. Took own water and coffee in the car; took own coffee cup to the coffee house whenever we go there; hang onto the cardboard coffee-sleeve (or use one of my home-knit ones) for reuse. I keep coffee sleeves in my purse and glove box just for this. I also keep one of those fast-food 4-cup cardboard cupholders in the car, under the front seat, for the next time we do a drive-through. Why not reuse the one instead of getting a fresh one every time?

10. Ate leftovers for lunch. How is this green? Food waste is one of the biggest offenders in creating methane gas. And studies show Americans throw outas much as 40 percent of the food they buy. That’s just not cool.
What are you doing to be green today? And, just a thought, how much are you saving by greening your life?