Living Lab: Green Reads

With Green Week rapidly approaching, many of us will be thinking about ways we can make effective and long-lasting changes for the future. Perhaps this means creating eco-businesses, planting wildflowers, or even critiquing our own habits. Whatever way we try to change and grow, having a good basis of knowledge of the social structures that encourage pollution and environmental damage will always be helpful. In previous articles we have spoken about the necessity of intersectionality in environmental issues- such as how social structures and attitudes impact space with Dr Jude Parks, or how ecological and neo/colonial concepts intersect with Manjinder K Jagdev.

As Green Week overlaps with the York Literature Festival, I have complied a list of five creative nonfiction and poetry books that can help readers better understand the intersections in ecological justice. Even neurologist and cognitive scientist Vittorio Gallese agrees that embodied simulation— reading and watching—are crucial in how we engage with issues in the world! (Mossner, 2017). So, whether you are preparing to go home for Easter or rushing last minute to finish an assignment, have a dip into these five books and open up how you think about ecology in your everyday.

Ultimatum Orangutan by Khairani Barokka

Ultimatum Orangutan (2021) is a poetry collection which explores how environmental degradation and colonial violence intertwine through language. Barokka discusses the physical damage of producing palm oil in Indonesia, and the racial and ableist consequences that indigenous people face both from the destruction and the attempts at wildlife conservation. Taken from the title poem, Barokka writes:

‘invariably, the words ‘palm oil’ make them think

of orangutans. We need to save them. I’ve found

myself thinking ‘Orangutans, and so many peoples

as well’, but this phrase does not fit well on campaigns’

The collection is experimental, innovative, and becomes deeper in meaning with every reread. It was shortlisted for The Barbellion Prize 2021 for its intricate descriptions exploring disability justice through anti-colonial praxis, and can be found at Nine Arches Press.

Exile and Pride by Eli Clare

Exile and Pride (1999, 2009 ed.) is one of my personal favourite collections of essays. As the subtitle ‘Disability, Queerness, and Liberation’ suggests, this book examines intersections of privilege and politics as a white transgender person with cerebral palsy. Clare looks at the relationships he has with urban and rural places, how he is perceived in these places, and how his love of nature changed the way in which he perceives himself. Republished by Duke University, Exile and Pride is available from York’s ‘Portal Books’ and there is a copy in the library.

Life Without Air by Daisy Lafarge

In reaction to Louis Pasteur’s research on nonhuman life withstanding airlessness, Life Without Air (2020) explores the delicate symbiosis of human and nonhuman life. This collection by Lafarge is intelligent and exciting, using scientific terms and ideas to delve into toxic, co-dependant, or harmonious relationships. Life Without Air is beautifully written and was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize for Poetry 2020. From ‘ghosted’;

‘My love is too full of good bacteria; good bacteria in abundance is bad. Bacteria are known to target already-compromised organisms and my love is always-already compromised, so it is always under attack.’

Life Without Air is available from Granta, or from the library.

The Second Body by Daisy Hildyard

The Second Body (2017) is a short creative nonfiction book which meditates on the ways our bodies interact with different ecosystems, from our food production to leopards kept in apartments. Hildyard speaks to butchers, scientists, and even criminologists to help break down some of the boundaries between human and nonhuman life.

The Second Body is available from Fitzcarraldo Editions, or from the library.

Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz

Recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Postcolonial Love Poem (2020) is an astounding collection that looks at Mojave people and indigenous perspectives of the environment, intertwined with racial violence in America, and queer themes. It is a book I recommend both because it solidifies our human responsibility to the earth and our co-dependence on a healthy planet, but also because of the sheer beauty of Diaz’s writing. Taken from ‘The First Water Is the Body’:

‘We think of our bodies as being all that we are: I am my body. This thinking helps us disrespect water, air, land, one another. But water is not external from our body, our self.

My Elder says, Cut off your ear, and you will live. Cut off your hand, you will live. Cut off your leg, you can still live. Cut off our water, we will not live more than a week.

The water we drink, like the air we breathe, is not a part of our body but is our body. What we do to one—to the body, to the water—we do to the other.’

Postcolonial Love Poem is available in all good bookstores.