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Earthworkers | Melissa L. Sevigny & Sarah Swett

Melissa L. Sevigny is the author of Under Desert Skies (University of Arizona Press, 2016), Mythical River (University of Iowa Press, 2016) and the forthcoming nonfiction book Brave the Wild River (W.W. Norton). She is the interviews editor at She writes about science and nature from her home in Flagstaff, Arizona.

How did you begin working with/in response to natural environments?

I grew up on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona, and spend most of my childhood outdoors, exploring the Sonoran Desert. Children learn the rhythms of a place in a way adults really have to work at. I knew how to predict the first monsoon storm of the summer, and when to watch for flash floods, and what I could harvest to eat out of the desert and what to leave alone. I planned from a very young age to become a geologist, but all that time, I was writing, too—mostly poetry. Something about the desert just pulled the words out of me. Later, in college, I majored in environmental science and found I was still drawn to the poetry behind the science—struck by words like “chiral” in chemistry and “dark fall” in astronomy. Truthfully, I fought pretty hard against becoming a writer. But here I am. I just couldn’t help it.

Share with us one of your favorite creative pieces and the natural environment it responds to.

I recently had a piece published in Orion called “The Price of Cherries.” What I love about this piece is that it’s about home—my current home just outside of Flagstaff, Arizona, in the ponderosa pines. You don’t have to travel far to find something to write about in nature, or travel at all, really. I also like that this essay surprised me when I was writing it—I started with an awful lot of data, about the acres burned by wildfires, for example, but in the process of putting the words down I fell into fairy tales. It’s wonderful when a piece of writing takes you in a direction you didn’t expect. This short essay moves through an entire year and reflects on the changes brought about by climate change, some small, others terrifying. The “natural” environment it responds to really isn’t all that natural or wild, in that Western, settler-colonial sense. I write about my garden, and the forest behind my house which has undergone dramatic thinning and burning treatments. I’m interested in work that blurs or erases those false boundaries between humans and nature.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to co-create with the natural world?


Go outside, as much as you possibly can. We writers necessarily spend a lot of time in front of a computer screen. But the real world out there is what wakes you up and shakes you out of complacency and confusion. Ellen Meloy said it best: “Pay attention to the weather, to what breaks your heart, to what lifts your heart. Write it down.” Anyone who writes about the natural world these days feels a lot of grief, and perhaps despair. Sometimes, we need to look for joy. How else can we keep at the hard, necessary work of creation? Pay attention to how adaptable the world is, and how beautiful things spring up in unexpected places: like the little green mesquite sprouts that push their heads up through the asphalt in spring. They never survive but they just have to grow anyway, against all the odds. That’s what we do, as artists. We create things that may be ephemeral, that may be doomed, yet still put beauty into the world.

Visit Melissa's Website
Image info: 1: Melissa's award-winning book Mythical River: Chasing the Mirage of New Water in the American Southwest; 2: "The Price of Cherries" in Orion Magazine; 3: "The Wild Ones" in The Atavist; Melissa's award-winning book Under Desert Skies: How Tucson Mapped the Way to the Moon and Planets

Sarah Swett was born in Brooklyn, New York, moved to Idaho at eighteen and has devoted the subsequent decades to telling long, slow stories with yarn. Her work travels the world. She does her best to stay at home eating cinnamon toast and following threads of thought.

~The perfect yarn is a column of air surrounded by fiber.
~The best ideas show up when I’m doing something else.
~The ideal project takes over my life and requires a season or two to complete. Or a year. Or three. It demands time, but not money. Or new clothes. Sometimes it is new clothes.
~The design worth pursuing is not a design at all, but life made manifest in color, texture, image. It is a second captured in cloth, an unfolding story, a small miracle. This work infiltrates my dreams, builds my biceps, thrills me to the bone, and drives me to tears.  When I was seven, I turned scraps of yarn into a magic carpet. I am still at it.

How did you begin working with/in response to natural environments?

I think I could, if only I knew how to begin.
Lewis Carroll: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

She might have been seven, or nine or even eleven when she stood on that hillside, cupped hands overflowing with dandelion fluff. And she might have been anywhere (for dandelions flourish in liminal places), though in truth it is her grandmother’s familiar deciduous woods that sweep to the right, and the steep brushy hill to her house on the left that provide a private place where a half-tamed girl can lose herself in a handful of luminous seeds.

For each fairy puff in her palm is a promise of something wonderful, almost ready to happen.

If only she knew how to begin.

A decade later it is a lock of greasy sheep fleece clutched between finger and thumb. The place where she stands—disintegrating log cabin on one side and a million acres of Idaho wilderness everywhere else—is still liminal, though this time truly private. And these days she has a few skills—knows enough, at any rate, to fashion a spindle from an apple twig and a slice of firewood, to twist that fleece into yarn. It’s a start.

In the years after that, a plant at a time, she learns: chartreuse Letharia vulpina (wolf lichen) and blue-green Evernia prunastri (oakmoss), gathered on the ground beneath Douglas fir after a storm, will dye her yarn a warm permanent yellow that ever after will exude the scent of an autumnal Idaho afternoon. She grows familiar with the not quite wild: Indigo, Madder, and Weld (whose exuberant yellow improves after fleeing the garden for an uncertain existence on the strip by the street). Strong and ancient plants, each is brilliant when used to dye yarn for tale-telling tapestries, and equally generous when precipitated into lake pigment to make paint for coloring comics about wool and willow and the generosity of stinging nettles.

She notices too, the trap of externally imposed domestication—and the hubris of believing herself entitled to truly wild—so mostly meanders the spaces between, curious about the lines between gathering and harvesting, sharing and taking, planting and making do, creating and cluttering, art and craft.

She succumbs, over the decades, to the necessity of haptic pleasure.

Today as she types, for instance, her fingers yearn toward the snow white strands of Milkweed bast across the room, glowing in December sun. Painstakingly gathered and twisted a filament at a time over months, the versatile fiber from the stems of this many-faceted plant (seed fluff a bit like the long ago dandelion, itself a source of food and wine), now woos her away from weaving, drawing, and writing.

But in this realm of human/plant co-creation, ego and hours are irrelevant, and the greatest transformational adventures are often to be found inches from the back door. For plants have centuries—nay, millennia— of knowledge and possibility in their every cell, no matter where they grow, and a town-dwelling woman of sixty autumns would be wise to bear this in mind. For while it is the work of a moment to pluck a seed or stem, it is the engrossing study of many lifetimes to learn what that seed can become.

If only a person knew how to begin.


Visit Sarah's Website/Blog, a field guide to needlework
Image Info: 1: Nettle, Dogbane, and Milkweed; 2: "Barefoot in the Mud"; 3: "The Promise of Rain"; a page from Sarah's Website/Blog.

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