By Tracy Record
Editor of the West Seattle Blog
Madeleine Ostrander would like to let you know that your newly published first book is not a “doomsday work”.
If you’re uncomfortable with the subject of climate change, that could be an important distinction.
Ostrander, a veteran science writer, says “Home on a Recalcitrant Planet” is the result of around a decade of work – especially the last three years since she signed a contract for it. It’s now in bookstores and online (in audio) and she’ll be speaking about it at an event downtown tomorrow night (Friday, August 5). More on that later. First to the book.
The second word in the title, “Home,” is the key. (Hers is at Pigeon Point where she plays this scene: “In the distance the groaning undersong of the nearby highway and port and its sounds, a train whistle, in the distance metal shipping containers crash loudly into one another, the groan of a cargo ship, the roar of a jet plane overhead. ”) In her book, Ostrander tells the story of four communities that are confronted with changes due to the climate crisis – again not in the sense of “impending doom”, but in what they do, how they react, how they talk about it.
One of those communities — Richmond, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area — is being seen in the context of conversations about how to evolve from a community built around an oil refinery. Talking to environmental justice activists gave her the idea for the book. The other three communities stretch across the country from Alaska to Florida. The feeling of “home” she appeals to relates not only to geography, but to how one feels, when and where one is at home. – and how you feel when things change, things out of your control. In “At Home on an Unruly Planet,” it is addressed as “solastalgia,” which Ostrander observes is caused by: “Even though we stay, we experience a kind of homesickness because (home) is changing… (it) helps, this.” way of naming the feeling. That can be really powerful, (like) collective anger, like the BLM movement, struggle and loss and anger…. when people get together and talk about it.”
She hopes she will help people talk about climate change in a new way. “The way it’s often talked about isn’t that empowering,” including “when we’re talking about ‘what can you do’,” too often it’s just “going against politicians.” Or potential actions are described at the “very micro-individual level,” recycle one more can, burn one less gallon of gas. “It’s still not very empowering” — it doesn’t get down to the question, “How do we protect the places we care about?” It’s something to address at the neighborhood level, she says. “It just seemed a lot more real to me, a much more useful way of talking about climate change. It’s being talked about as this great global existential crisis – which it is – but talking about it that way helps people feel “less hopeless.”
This also inspires others. “Sometimes I feel like the whole discussion isn’t as isolated in small communities … that’s kind of powerful.” Big cities — ours included — have more money to adapt; smaller communities have harder choices to make. “You can see it in the book when I compare St. Augustine, Florida … with centuries of history … they will be more affected … with Miami (where they have) a budget to raise roads.”
Another crisis presented a challenge after Ostrander was commissioned to finish and publish her book: The Pandemic. She had gone to Alaska in the fall of 2019, but in 2020 and 2021, travel wasn’t always an option. Ostrander said she managed to arrange a few trips “if it was possible to take enough safety precautions”. The featured community she mentions most often is St. Augustine, Florida, where “lessons from the past frame[their]long-term future…we need to think about it and not always look the other way.”
Elsewhere in her book, history is referenced, even the centuries-old history of her home at Pigeon Point. The prologue and epilogue of “At Home on an Unruly Planet” refer to their own home. She remarks towards the end of the book, “And while many of the problems we face are global, some of the most imaginative, impactful and passionate solutions come from home.”
Ostrander hasn’t planned any promotional events in West Seattle yet, but says she’s working on it. In the meantime, if you happen to be downtown tomorrow or can get there, her book launch/signing session is at 7pm outdoors at The collective (400 Dexter Ave. N.) with KUOW’s JohnRyanpresented by the Northwest Science Writers Association. She also has an event on August 12 at 7pm Brick & Mortar Books in Redmond, in conversation with a former radio meteorologist Jeff Renner.
Not only can you look for the book at your favorite local bookstore, but it’s also available online in audio – go here. If you want to read an excerpt first, here is one from published The Atlanticand another published by News from the Highlands.