Cynthia Barnett, acclaimed environmental journalist, on what the oceans are telling us and what we are telling ourselves about them
By Kacie Brown
“I’m rain’s biographer, which is one of my favorite titles that I have,” says Cynthia Barnett. And like any good biographer of an admired luminary, she speaks of her subjects - rain, shells, oceans - with the warmth and understanding of a dear friend. Her voice mirrors that of a calm sea, sparkling with an innate sense of optimism.
Cynthia grew up in Florida, fertile ground for an enchantment with nature, that grew into a career in environmental journalism. She reports on water and climate change worldwide and has written books on Florida’s freshwater crises and the natural and cultural history of rain.
Her new book, The Sound of the Sea, fills in often overlooked pieces of our oceans’ narrative: the stories of enslaved people whose knowledge was essential to geologist Charles Lyell’s work, the women whose discoveries we remember in place of their names, and perhaps most profoundly, the sea’s own voice.
We’re embedded in a technological ecosystem inundated with noise - doomsday reports, complicated statistics, polarized media – but maybe simply listening to the earth, the seas around us can make the biggest difference. Cynthia joined this year’s Miami Book Fair and took time with Impact.Edition to share her take on the oceans and our place in securing their future.
THE WAY WE (MIS)UNDERSTAND THE OCEANS
I knew I wanted to write about the ocean, and I wasn't sure how I would do that until I went to visit this museum in Sanibel, a city on Sanibel Island in southwest Florida. It was the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, and they had invited me there to give a talk. I went out to dinner with the director after and she told me this extraordinary story of a survey they had done. It revealed that 90% of the visitors did not know that a seashell was made by a living animal. Many people thought they were rocks or stones, and I just couldn't sleep that night after hearing that statistic. It really was bothering me, and by the time I fell asleep that night, I knew I would write this book.
To me, it's the perfect metaphor for the way we understand and misunderstand the oceans. Just like we've loved seashells for the beautiful exterior rather than the life inside, we've loved the oceans as the beautiful backdrop of life rather than the very source of life. I came to see seashells as these great ambassadors who could help people understand what's happening to the sea because people really are drawn to seashells. They're perhaps the most beloved object in nature. I hoped that through telling these epic stories of humanity and seashells I could also help new readers and new audiences understand what's happening to the oceans.
RECONNECTING TO THE NATURAL WORLD
I grew up in Florida, in such a wild place. We think of Florida as very overdeveloped because we know it well, but a childhood in Florida is still magical, whether you're in the crook of a banyan tree or walking on the seashore. I would walk on the beaches of South Florida with my grandmothers when I was a kid, and even if I handed them the tiniest coquina shell, they would react like I'd found Black Beard’s treasure.
My parents and grandparents got us out in nature a lot. Being around that wonder, I've always felt a sense of peace and inspiration, even through the things that others might see as negative, like thunderstorms; and I was always able to find nature, even in pretty urban places.
Helping people reconnect is a crucial piece. In my book, I tell this story about this incredible movement called the Nature Studies Movement in the Progressive Era in the United States at the turn of the 19th century. We had nature studies in public schools all across the United States, and these classes were tangible ways to help children understand science through hands-on learning, like watching bird eggs hatch, having snail shells and snails in the classroom, or taking children to the seaside to look at tide pools, and so on. And this was really an insidious story. The movement really came to an end in the lead-up to World War II, in part because male scientists thought it was feminized. They thought that children should be taught science in rigorous ways and read science textbooks written by men, and the people involved in nature studies were mostly women. So this story lets you see what could have been, what we've lost, and what we need to get back because children really have been severed from nature.
And I think that is part of the problem we face as we try to help people understand what's happening to the seas and the land and with climate change. So, one thing I really tried to do in this book was unearth some of the histories that people may not realize. It also has a lot of feminist themes, highlighting the work of women scientists in environmental studies.
FROM APOCALYPTIC TO HOPEFUL STORIES
I have an obligation to balance the warning with the wonder. I think that’s so important, so throughout this book, even as it builds to these devastating stories about what is happening to the sea, its life, and the stories of people who are reliant upon it -- like some of the fishers in different parts of the world who are disengaged, disenfranchised, and don't have a seat at the table on conservation issues -- I try hard to balance that with the human ingenuity and the solutions that are underway all over the world.
The final chapters build-up to the work of many scientists engaged in those solutions. They include Megan Davis from FAU, who is working on queen conch restoration. She has this dream of creating queen conch hatcheries on every island in the Caribbean. There's no one thing broken, there's no one thing that does harm to the ocean. It's more this complexity of overfishing, overdevelopment, climate change, pollution, so the solutions, too, are multifaceted and I try to get to those solutions in the final third of the book.
I am very concerned about the doomsday reporting. And for one thing, we know from readership surveys that people just shut down if they read constant negative reporting. They won't finish the story or feel inspired. So people like to read hopeful stories, but you have to do it in a way that's not pollyannaish. You don't want to give false hope, but there are solutions out there. There are incredible solutions and innovative people all over the world, and many scientists have told us what we need to do, but the problem is that we aren't coming together systematically to solve these problems, so that's what I hope I can help people understand. Because it will take public will. It will take all of us, especially voters and the public putting pressure on people in power to make the right decisions, and that is true here in Florida, nationally, and globally.
Cynthia Barnett is just one of the many hundreds of authors from around the world who participated in Miami Book Fair 2021, the nation’s largest gathering of writers and readers of all ages. She, along with other environmental authors Sandy Sheehy and Catherine Raven, and so many more are so looking forward to sharing their work, thoughts and new ideas with everyone. Miami Book Fair 2021 author conversations are available for free on demand indefinitely for viewing at miamibookfaironline.com. Please visit miamibookfair.com for more information,
or follow MBF at @miamibookfair #miamibookfair2021
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