by Madeline Happold
Bitumen. Igloos. Frogs. Resistance. What do these things have in common?
From Arizona to Australia, A to Z and in between, the climate crisis looms like an amorphous enemy, one we (almost) all agree on. Some lawmakers have declared the climate crisis a national emergency and New York recently passed legislation to be the first major city to have net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Yet as wildfires rage, sea levels rise, and climate crisis disasters are now reported to be occurring at a weekly rate, there is a sense that the damage is already done (Harvey).
The inevitability can seem so earth-shattering that the initial response is to let out a long, nervous laugh. Then, a question: Where do we go from here?
That’s what David Carlin and Nicole Walker are wondering in their new collection of essays The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet. Located 9,000 miles apart in Flagstaff, Arizona and Melbourne, Australia, Carlin (Melbourne) and Walker (Flagstaff) exchange a series of pen pal letters that take on an encyclopedia of subjects from A to Z and in between. The abecedarian collection of personal essays posits the urgency of the climate crisis, its omnipresence, and acknowledges the role of human involvement through a series of wonderfully humorous and brutally honest epistolary essays.
The After-Normal doesn’t use fear mongering tactics to elicit action, nor does it preach a solid solution to change. Rather, the book acts as a survival guide to help foster community and conversation around a response to the climate crisis, reminding us that it’s acceptable to nervous laugh along the way.
“But as humankind, and the planet as a whole, enters these unprecedented times of swift climate change, there are no guides, apart from computer guides and sci-fi, for where we are going, and no guides for how to live with the reality of this reality,” write Carlin and Walker in the collection’s preface. “We decided we would try to write one.”
In three different time zones and two different countries, I spoke with David and Nicole about one commonality: our changing planet. [Read an excerpt from The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet here.]
Madeline Happold: The concept of the book is really interesting because it’s epistolary but also flash nonfiction. What sparked the idea to converse back and forth in the form of alphabetized essays?
David Carlin: The idea started from the idea of wanting to do something together. We met through the NonfictioNow conference, and as we got to know each other better, we thought, “hey, maybe we could make some kind of book together.” Then, when Nicole was visiting us in Melbourne, we had a long walk on the beach, talking about our shared interests in the intersections between human and non-human ecologies.
Nicole Walker: I wonder if the size of the essays has a lot to do with that collaborative-ness. We didn’t want to have one voice dominate, so we moved forward tentatively. The conversation builds little by little. We came to our agreement to move in the way we did, chunk-by-chunk, and to start with the abecedarian form. We both read a lot; we have a lot of information about climate change; we think about it, and so we needed some way to organize the overwhelming-ness. We can’t get to everything, but we want that feeling of everything.
DC: Initially, we thought of the book as a survival guide because we are trying to work out how we think about this huge thing that we’re all facing. We wanted the project to be about call-and-response. One theme of the book is that we’re all in this together and nobody has all the answers. Doing it letter-by-letter, we didn’t work out in advance what all the elements were going to be, so the manuscript had a nice sense of playing another card and seeing what would come back. And the alphabet is like a dictionary or an encyclopedia in that it has a flatness across scale, just as the really small scale of bacteria and viruses and funguses is related to what’s happening on a huge scale to the atmosphere.
NW: Managing the scale, and understanding the scale, is fundamental to what we’re trying to accomplish when we’re thinking about climate change, as well as to the ways the book creates narrative tension. You might know what letter is coming next, but you don’t know on what scale things will be brought to you.
MH: How do you balance that fluidity then, if you don’t really know what’s coming next?
NW: We did a lot of deep editing, parts where we went through to find moments that resonate with other moments. We would look for little themes and tiny details which helped weave the book together.
MH: There was one essay that stuck out to me that shows this, from Nicole, titled “Dear David,” which was an outright response to this collaboration. You mentioned how nature should be discussed in conjunction with our particular environments whether they be rural, urban, suburban, not thinking of nature as other but instead as a preposition. How can we be present in that world?
DC: That’s a really crucial point. We have inherited ideas about nature and wilderness and untouched places as distinct from the human world, which continues this idea that humans are completely separate and above the rest of all the other beings, rather than just another part of this mesh of life and non-life. We think of ourselves as individual humans but up to half of our cells are actually bacteria, so this idea that we are, even in our own bodies, individual units is a fantasy.
NW: There is this idea of autonomy, that we are one thing among all of these others representing that bigger thing. Then there’s the Timothy Morton idea of hyper-objects. A hyper-object is something that is always touching you, is all around you, but you can’t quite get it. The climate emergency touches you, but you can’t get climate change, right? You just know that it’s happening. One cool thing about working on projects like this is you move into this bubble where everything resonates. Everything you see and touch and feel and smell becomes metaphorical to climate change. Part of the point of the book is to elegize the beautiful things that might be dying but also to do what poets have always done, which is to say: This matters right now. This moment is not capturable, but it is noticeable and sensible. As a poet and a writer I’m going to try to make this sensible to you, and to have that moment elongate and expand. We are trying to expand the world with all the things, the tiny things, that represent the huge idea of climate change.
MH: The book does a good job of making climate change tangible and in the everyday. How did you approach showing how our everyday lives are interwoven with our environments?
DC: We were influenced by many other writers and thinkers who have talked about how things are connected on the micro-level in our daily lives. As essayists, how do we deal with the contradictions that we embody, as well as our doubts and confusion, as well as our moments of clarity? How do we not ignore it but also not be ground down by it? We didn’t want to present ourselves as experts but as an essayistic filter.
NW: We are all reflections of the climate crisis, and therefore every part of it feels written upon our bodies and written upon the way we think. It’s hard not to feel empathy for all humans and say, “We’re all dealing with this to various degrees of emergency.” It’s a hard thing to try and tell people what to do, tell people to stop, because as David says we don’t pretend to be experts. But this is a moment in time that really does need to be slowed down, and maybe another reason we like the abecedarian form is it allows us to slow down.
MH: I get that. As writers, sometimes writing can feel so futile, especially talking about something like climate change. This brings me back to the book’s title. What is the after-normal? I’m still trying to comprehend the idea that we are not living in the normal anymore, because our normal has already changed so much.
DC: It’s “normal” in quotation marks. What we thought of as being normal in so many ways is already a fraught term. What is normal, what are the norms and who gets to decide? For a long time I personally have had a sense that if we could just do A, B, and C, do better recycling and cut down emissions and so on, then this can blow over and go back to how things were when I was a child and thought we lived in Eden, the nice bits, anyway, and that we can somehow get back to that. One of the hard things is we now have to accept the fact that what we are talking about is extinction and trying to stop more things becoming extinct.
NW: I love what you’re saying about how there never really was a normal and what we have created, we deserve. Maybe the way that we will see things now, from the beyond-normal, will become a normal way of seeing, and that might be the way out.
DC: We have to get away from the idea that because we, or the more privileged among us, have caused all this, therefore now we have to save everything. We have to listen now to other people’s ideas, the ideas of people who’ve done much less damage to the world.
NW: Exactly. That phrase “You can’t dismantle the establishment with the tools of the establishment” rings true to me here. We will have to rely on other ways of thinking and whole other paradigms of understanding the planet and humans and ecosystems to get out of this.
MH: What is your idea or your hope for the after-normal then?
NW: The only hope I have is that more books like this come into being, and they create some resonance with another person, and maybe that person writes another book that resonates with someone else. No book is going to be the thing that changes the world, but every book adds to that conversation. There is something to be said for critical mass, and I hope that this book is part of that critical mass.
DC: The way that we made the book, through this cooperation, through this little tentative back and forth across the world, building something together, I think that process of making is in itself a model of a different way of being. I’d like to think the book experiments with what we need to do in the after-normal.
Harvey, Fiona. “”One climate crisis disaster happening every week, UN warns,” The Guardian, July 7, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jul/07/one-climate-crisis-disaster-happening-every-week-un-warns. Accessed 17 July 2019.
The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet
David Carlin, Nicole Walker
ISBN 978-1-941628-17-1 pbk.
ISBN 978-1-941628-18-8 ebk.
Click here to read the Slag Glass City publication of excerpts from The After-Normal and bios of the authors.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 5 • September 2019
Book cover and author image source: Rose Metal Press