In Seven Questions, we interview writers, editors, designers, and others in publishing. Today we talk to Barbara Hurd, whose essay “The Ear Is a Lonely Hunter” captivated us when it crossed our desks for Ecotone’s sound-themed Issue 20. Hurd teaches in the MFA in Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, a NEA Fellowship for Creative Nonfiction, Sierra Club’s National Nature Writing Award, and three Pushcart Prizes. Hurd’s writing launches into meditation from landscapes (caves, bogs) and animals (bats, sea stars).
What books are open on your desk right now?
Loren Eiseley’s Night Country, Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature, Louise Gluck’s Wild Iris, and another half dozen or so.
If you could spend a year writing anywhere in the world, where would it be?
I’d stay right at my desk. I love to travel but I work best at home.
If you could change one thing about a classic work of literature, what would it be?
I wouldn’t change one word of the book itself, but I’d wish that the course of environmental history since 1962 would allow us to reclassify Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring as a good science fiction book whose worries would have turned out to be needless. In other words, I wish the book weren’t still so devastatingly accurate.
Your book, Listening to the Savage: River Notes and Half-Heard Melodies, was released in March and another of your titles, Tidal Rhythms: Change and Resilience at the Edge of the Sea, will come out later this year. What can readers expect from these books?
Though both books have undercurrents of worry about environmental degradation, I hope for the reader certain pleasures come first: the pleasures of language, of imaginative musings, of immersion in sensual details of the natural world, and the conundrums of how to live a moral life in such a damaged world.
One of the challenges of writing Listening to the Savage was how to weave the sensibility of a quirky child—my granddaughter, who pretends efts are dragons and is delighted by mud– with my own increasing worries. It was tough and has made me want to think more about how to genuinely be with children in endangered places we cherish.
The Tidal Rhythms book was a stimulating opportunity to work with a master photographer, Stephen Strom. Because I had no interest in merely writing captions, the challenge in that project was to see the tidal regions as he saw them through his camera’s lens, to re-see them through my own lens, and then to re-see them once again through the lens of climate change impact.
So both books, I hope, offer readers the sense of multiple ways of seeing simultaneously, which is, I suspect, how we usually experience the world.
How would you describe the relationship between your writing and environmental activism?
One of the aims of almost all environmental activism is the preservation of biodiversity. Equally crucial, I would maintain, are diversity of voices and ways of calling attention to the natural world. We need the scientists, journalists, activists, etc. to research, testify, protest, publish data, lead inquiries—all the actions that might clarify and perhaps alter what’s happening to our local and global communities. And we need the artists, too–musicians, writers, etc. whose work probes the hidden thoughts and the complex responses of the heart that are so often so difficult to express, which can also clarify what’s happening. We need them to sing the songs and tell the stories that can help us to see the present more clearly and to imagine possible futures.
Though I do some minor work with a local environmental group, my primary labor is with the written word. If the natural world is endangered, in part, because of our willingness to manipulate and exploit it for various political and economic reasons, I’d say language is endangered for similar reasons. Its precision is often diluted and its pleasures twisted for purposes of advertising and group-think. Part of my job as a writer—and reader–is to try to resist that degradation and to see whether the effort of paying scrupulous attention to one may enhance our attention to the other.
When do you feel most confident as a writer?
When that pesky sentence finally becomes clear and graceful and says what I didn’t know I was trying to say.
You have a superpower: You can immediately give to every person on earth one piece of information. What is it?
Everything’s connected. Everything changes. Pay attention. (Oh, wait. That’s three pieces of information. But they’re all connected. )
Typing or longhand? First longhand and then typing.
Silence or music? Silence, so long as it’s not deafening.
Morning or night? Morning.
E-reader or print? Print! I love the physicality of books.
Vowel or consonant? Diphthong.
Train or plane? Train.
Bookmark or dog-ear? Dog ear, which I also use to mark pages—no matter how many–that I want to return to.
Cake or pie? Pie.
Bog or cave? Bog—it has better sounds.
Sea star or bat? Sea star.