A Story by Alanna Mitchell
I remember the moment I let myself glimpse that I was deeply, intimately involved in the work of healing the planet. It was nearly two decades ago, as I sat down to write the first words of my first book, Dancing at the Dead Sea.
I had spent a year travelling the world as a journalist with Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, as a self-styled earth sciences reporter. The stories from those adventures had garnered me a couple of international awards and a fellowship at Oxford University where I studied with the late Norman Myers. He was, I always reckoned, a Cassandra. He was one of the first scientists to flag our current extinction spasm, the looming tragedy of environmental refugees and the fact that so much of the planet’s biodiversity rests in a few small and precious hotspots. Hardly anyone believed him. Yet he kept going, a cranky soothsayer of the Anthropocene.
And as I sat down to begin crafting that first book, so much of which had been shaped by him, I panicked. I had written the newspaper stories in the conventional way: as a journalistic observer of the information. At a remove. As if I were not also a citizen of this planet and affected by all this information I was unearthing.
Should I write this book in the uninvolved third person, or the passionately involved first? Did I even have the right to write it in the first person, as one implicated in the story? A crisis of faith. I sat at my keyboard – tucked away in a corner of my bedroom in Toronto – and pressed capital I. The book was first-person. I was in.
Myers had already taught me that the real story was about the systems our species had set up – energy, food production, finance, governance. And that what was at stake was the life support systems of our planet: the marvellous dance of creatures, the hydrological cycle, the climate, the ocean. All the small stories added up to something far bigger than the sum of their parts. We need to be on the planet as if we mean to stay, he always used to tell me.
It was a small leap from that first book to a one-woman play. Well, philosophically, if not practically. I had already quit my newspaper job – “What part of ‘NO’ don’t you understand,” one of my editors barked at me shortly before I quit, when I asked once again to write stories about the changing sea – and spent three years on 13 journeys around the world with scientists to interrogate the state of the ocean. It turned into my second book, Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis.
That book is filled with the daring stories of scientists who, in their quieter moments, patiently answered streams of my questions. I still have ink drawings in salt-spattered notebooks tenderly crafted by scientists who wanted to be sure I understood what they were telling me. “Let me show you,” they would say.
It required thinking about systems. Not what was happening to one species or one beach or even one bay. But what was happening to the ocean as a whole. And how that interacted with the atmosphere as a whole. And not seen just over the last few years, but against the backdrop of the story of Earth itself – 4.5 billion years. In other words, this is not just about systems change, but about why that change is happening and how fast compared to other changes Earth has endured. About adding it all up and taking its full measure.
I remember sitting in a frigid makeshift theatre on Queen Street in Toronto with artistic directors Franco Boni and Ravi Jain, then of the Theatre Centre, as we worked through how to turn some of those stories of scientific derring-do into a play. “Why?” they kept asking. “Why do you need to understand how the ocean works?”
It went back to my childhood in Regina, to the years living with a biologist father whose curiosity about the world defined him. Curiosity is there to be slaked, we were taught. You can use your curiosity to find stuff out. But my mother, a painter, taught us that you need art to really explain what it means. Science can only take you so far.
So turning my adventures into a one-woman play held a strange appeal. Not just the intoxicating use of the first-person I had used for my non-fiction books, but actually standing on stage in front of a live audience, responding to their laughter, and, sometimes, their tears. Every night before I go on, I stand backstage, listening to crowds as they take their seats, soaking up their energy, savouring the connection with people who bravely show up to take part in this ancient art of storytelling.
I’ve now toured Sea Sick, the play, around the world for nearly eight years. In fact, as I write this, I am preparing to perform it in Glasgow during COP26, as politicians gather to rein in the carbon emissions that are imperilling our planet’s life-support systems.
Performing the play is my offering. It is a heroic one, because it is terrifying for a working journalist who is definitely not an actor to stand on a stage and invite the audience to fall in love with our planet the way I have, to sink with me into intractable despair over the horrors we have wrought and then, at the last moment, to ascend from the deeps into the possibility of redemption.
This is a journey we are on together. Our whole species. It will take us all to bring us back from the brink. I believe that we are all heroes. We are a species gifted with the ability to write a new ending to our story, to live to tell a new tale. We have to keep going. And we will.