Mary Gilliland is an award-winning author and activist. She’s the author of two poetry collections: Gathering Fire and The Ruined Walled Castle Garden. Her award-winning The Devil’s Fools is forthcoming from Codhill Press. She has extensive teaching experience primarily at her alma mater, Cornell University, where she taught courses such as “Ecosystems & Ego Systems” for the Biology & Society Program and “Mind & Memory: Creativity in the Arts & Sciences,” offered through the Society for the Humanities. With such intersecting interests, Mary’s love for writing and science are essential to her essay in From the Finger Lakes: A Memoir Anthology: “Eco-Logic.” In it, she recounts her experience fighting to protect her home and the surrounding nature from a hazardous solvent leak.
- Can you tell me about being both an author and an activist and how those two identities intersect?
I see the two as complementary. Most people who write for no pay do so because they feel deeply. My first poem came when I was 6 years old and somewhere in that early childhood my father called me defiant. I’ve testified at NYS Department of Environmental Conservation hearings by reading my poems.
- Your piece in the Memoir Anthology has an activist tone that made it stand out from the others for me. Why did you choose to write it in this way?
About the writing: I seldom start with a plan; I learn as I go. For this essay, I didn’t so much choose a tone as search for a way to link many experiences in my life that remembering this event put me in mind of. I’d like the essay to encourage others to stay alert to their surroundings and pursue the feasible in terms of change or remediation.
Social justice and protecting the earth have always mattered to me. One person’s energy is limited, so collaborating helps, as does focusing on the doable, the possible—I learned this from a dazzling community of people whom I lived among in my mid-20’s. And this is as true for writing, having a first reader, as it is for activism, having a first responder—to your thinking.
The chemical spill that I’m writing about in ‘Eco-Logic’ happened a while ago. And it worked out, chiefly because my husband and I had for 10 prior years kept a log of the signs of leakage and odors we observed. Good things have happened on the land since then, both private lands and the public South Hill Recreation Way. By the way, by attending town meetings, writing letters, making phone calls, I prevented the macadam paving of that 3-mile trail through the woods. I can’t save it all, but the Six Mile Creek watershed is my backyard.
- People my age (22) are concerned about the environment—after years of environmental activism, how does the state of environment feel to you?
The mainstream media transmits much pessimism on this topic. Frankly, we’ve never had much time to change our ways. And lasting social change starts one person at a time. Innovation can happen quickly, and there’s reason to be optimistic about current research and practical inventions. I also think it’s best to take the ego out of this topic as much as possible. Human beings enmesh themselves in thinking they are the crown of creation. When I was 30, I worked on the Nuclear Freeze campaign. Folks were impassioned about how scary Reagan’s arms buildup was, talking about having to survive, how important it was that the human race not die out. At a gathering, Nanao Sakaki woke up the conversation: “No need to survive!” That’s true. And environmental activism is about far more than preserving a woodland; it’s about stopping war and dismantling nuclear weapons. The military and arms dealers create the most pollution, and the most deadly pollution, on this planet.
- I really connected to growing up surrounded by nature—do you think being immersed in nature as a child contributed to your draw to environmental activism later in life?
Yes. I designed and taught a writing seminar called ‘Ecosystems & Ego Systems,’ and on the syllabus was a very brief essay by Gary Snyder about the vivid, living, lasting impression made on children by their surroundings ages 5 to 10. This essay resonated so strongly with my students! It’s not necessarily necessary to be immersed in nature 24/7. Cities are vibrant places and many of them have parks, rivers, botanical gardens. What’s needed is access to these healthy and healing areas for all children, regardless of socioeconomic status. The United States is very far from providing this human right to a healthy environment to all its people. The recent National Parks movement inviting BIPOC visitors and Artists in Residence is one good change.
I’ll also mention a guest lecture we heard when I taught ‘Mind & Memory: Creativity in the Arts & Sciences.’ Entomologist Tom Eisner who did a great deal of research in the Amazon (yes, the real, actual Amazon) was extremely concerned about its devastation and the leveling of rain forest for the cash crop of beef; for years he had presented zounds-worth of quantitative data in his lectures trying to convince audiences to help protect the region, but got little result. Once he shared about the creatures and the flowers, though, once he conveyed to an audience the being-ness of being there, they responded. He learned the lesson that it’s not information that changes people’s minds, but love. Whatever the inroads of greed, anger, and ignorance, we all deserve the opportunity to care.
- The situation with Therm was eventually resolved, so why did you decide to write about it?
I wrote about it against despair and pessimism. The damaged area was never restored, although there was verbal assurance this would happen. Heavy, noisy machinery was stationed there for months, purifying water flowing downhill. When the machinery left, the area was abandoned. A friend of ours compiled a list of native vegetation, but it’s filled now with invasive vegetation. I’ve observed that there’s usually lots of energy and funds for destruction and to get behind emergencies, but so much less goes to restoring, protecting, and beautifying natural areas that people could enjoy.
The story of that chemical spill and its cleanup is an example of the effectiveness of person-to-person interaction. We could have brought a lawsuit. Instead, we reached out to the company. Let’s go large with this: CEO’s have been persuaded by their children to change the way company practices affect the environment. This happened years ago with Weyerhauser; because his kids spoke up, the owner switched company practice from clearcutting to sustainable timber harvest. Let’s keep the good stories alive! Youth awareness and passion can change corporate culture.
- What advice would you give to a young writer who might want to begin writing environmental activism pieces?
Notice what you notice. That’s a little advice from Allen Ginsberg that I’m passing on to you. Start with people, places, situations that magnetize you. Find what you want to follow. That might vary from the pristine, if you can locate it, to the deadly; there have been many environmental activists murdered in many countries. Travel to Alaska; what’s new there? Investigate the ecology, including the political ecology, of Puerto Rico. Do a lot of camping, hiking. Learn the flowers.
Develop and show up for your writing practice, whether that’s first thing in the morning or last at night, or 15 minutes per day, or 1 round-the-clock weekend during each of the 4 seasons, or a journal you draw pictures in as well as words for the same 2 hours every afternoon. Find the way that works for you. And do it because you have to and want to. Not everyone has to write. Somebody’s got to run for office.