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 Terrain.org. 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