The Human Landscape

Kerri Arsenault

Kerri Arsenault

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

In Kerri Arsenault’s review of Morgan Talty’s short story collection Night of the Living Rez, which appeared in the Review’s July 20 issue, she asks, “What does it mean to live in a nation that’s in pieces and parts, or under another government’s control—where the boundaries are as murky and hazardous as the pollution that runs through it?” Arsenault is from Mexico, a town in rural Maine about a hundred miles west of the Penobscot Indian Nation, where Talty is from and where Night of the Living Rez is set. She praises his stories, which indict “the false rhetoric around our home state” and depict the state “not as it should be, but as it is.”

Arsenault is a literary critic, codirector of The Environmental Storytelling Studio (TESS) at Brown University, and a contributing editor at Orion magazine. Her memoir, Mill Town, explores the effects of toxics produced by a paper mill in Rumford, Maine, on the local residents who depend on it for their livelihoods. Her inquiries lead not to a clear resolution but to more questions about bureaucracy, regulation, class, and the natural world.

I e-mailed Arsenault last week to discuss growing up in rural Maine, the disenfranchisement of the Wabanaki Confederacy, and her evolving questions about her home state.

Yadira Gonzalez: Growing up, did you have many experiences on the reservation or interactions with the Penobscot? Did reading Talty’s book change the way you look at your home state? 

Kerri Arsenault: I never learned about the Wabanaki in school, even though many Acadian families in my hometown have Mi’kmaq ancestors. I’m sure I must have traveled across Penobscot land while snowmobiling, fishing, or hunting, but the borders are as unclear to me now as they were then. My only tenuous connection with the Penobscot Nation was in the 1980s, when I was a nanny for Daniel Zilkha, who was the president of Tribal Assets Management, an investment bank set up to oversee the $81.5 million settlement that, under the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act (MICSA), the federal government paid as compensation for the land they’d taken from the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and Maliseet people. I was young and naive, so didn’t pay as much attention as I probably should have.

Talty’s book reinforced my disappointment and frustration with Maine’s leaders, who seem to care less about those who live on the periphery than they do about votes—particularly forestry industry votes—which I wrote about in my book. In fact, just last week, Maine’s Democratic governor, Janet Mills, vetoed a proposal from the Wabanaki Nation (of which the Penobscot are a part) that would have allowed tribes under MICSA to benefit from the same rights all other federally recognized tribes enjoy, like a pathway to self-determination. Her excuse was that the proposed bill was “vague.” The chief of the Penobscot Nation declared her comments “disingenuous,” a more diplomatic word than I would use. The veto is shameful and disgusting, and the only thing that’s vague is Governor Mills’s reasoning. That’s not governance. It smacks of colonialism and politicking, especially when the entire Maine legislature approved the proposal before it reached her.

You describe a “conundrum” that Talty’s characters face by “living on the land they don’t have the agency to control.” Mill Town is also, in large part, about rural Maine residents and their relationship to the land. And while Night of the Living Rez is fiction, did you notice any similarities or differences between the people of Mill Town and the characters in Talty’s book? 

To paraphrase Robert D. Kaplan in his book The Coming Anarchy, while the postindustrial rainmakers ride through our towns in air-conditioned limos, most of us watch them cruise by from the side of the paved road, in view of but without access to their wealth, security, and agency. A stone’s throw from the message, but not the action. So many populations have fallen through the cracks in our country. I presume that if you are a member of the Penobscot Nation, one of the oldest continuous governments in the world, the disenfranchisement is even more acute, more insulting, and imbued with the scars of violence.

Obviously, Talty and I write with different approaches and about different populations, yet both of our books reveal how humans have defined the environment and how it has defined us, and how that interaction plays out socially, culturally, physically, emotionally. We both grew up along rivers polluted by paper mills. And Talty avoids the references most people envision when they think of Maine, like lobsters, blueberries, pristine coastlines. We were not brought up in those landscapes. But we were brought up with love. We share that, too.

Writing about climate change—or about humanity’s effect on the environment—often has to maintain a balance between optimism and the horrifying truth. How do you approach that balance in your work? How do you think Talty addressed it? 


For me, environmental storytelling is never beholden to a balance between hope and disaster, or any other binaries. Our world is out of whack, so why not reflect those imbalances in the stories we tell? Nothing is black-and-white, not even a paper mill town pumping out toxic chemicals with every sheet of paper it produces, because there are humans making that paper, and jobs providing those humans with food, clothing, community, college, love.

Yet I am suspicious of totally unbalanced narratives, like, say, the kind of environmental disaster stories that have red, shouty covers or titles that contain “fight” or “fear” or “disaster.” I try to avoid divisive political or activist narratives that condescend to underserved people, or scientific narratives that deliver abstract information in an avalanche of unmemorable facts, or historical narratives buried under academic vernacular or obscured by paywalls or hidden in $145 books. While we need to know facts, politics, solutions, and history, these texts flatten the scope of the human condition. And they certainly don’t do anything to move the needle on environmental action. What if we immerse readers in slowness rather than the spectacle of disaster? What if we center people instead of the disaster itself, or deploy people’s stories to carry the scientific data we desperately need to understand? What if, to get to the heart of environmental stories, we summon the human heart? What if, as John Freeman once wrote in Orion magazine about Barry Lopez, we speak from a porch, not a perch?

Talty has mastered how to illustrate such complexities and imbalances. His characters ride a Tilt-A-Whirl of despair: Fellis gets ECT treatments, Dee’s mother has a seizure, Dee smokes so many cigarettes at once he almost hallucinates, his grandmother gets dementia. There’s an unexplained mass of oozing caterpillars in the road, and there are animals rotting under the house. His characters are literally falling down, and when they land it’s on unsteady, squishy, or rotting ground. Crooked things are everywhere, in the stairs to Dee’s house, the crooked frame of the kitchen door, a crooked headstone. Even the book is crooked: the chapters are uneven, out of chronological order, and don’t reveal everything we need to know.

What I am interested in as a reader and writer is understanding how exterior landscapes, synthetic or not, inscribe themselves on our interior landscapes. As Talty shows, you can write an environmental story that contains more than one note, more than a raised fist, more than a straight timeline, more than a smoking gun at the end, and more than an avalanche of evidence showing how everything is fucked up.

What books about climate change or land stewardship have most excited you recently? How about books that aren’t about environmental catastrophe at all?

I like nonfiction and fiction that delivers critical information about the environment with the methods of literary storytelling. I am definitely not interested in a single environmental or scientific subject like icebergs or bears. While the books I love may feature such topics, the structure should reflect the material, and examine, as I said, interior and exterior landscapes. Also, they must contain good verbs! I prefer books that don’t focus on catastrophe, unless it’s done like Sven Lindqvist did in History of Bombing, the structure of which mimics what happens when a bomb detonates.

One of my favorite books last year, besides Talty’s, was The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey, which is about a mermaid who gets caught by some dunderheaded fishermen, then falls in love with the guy who saves her. There’s a long list of books I love on the TESS page, but a few favorites are This Is Not Miami by Fernanda Melchor, Nights from This Galaxy by Wil Weitzel, Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Chen, My Heart by Semezdin Mehmedinović, The Tiny Bee That Hovers at the Center of the World by David Searcy, The Order of the Day by Éric Vuillard, everything by Jonathan Raban—including his forthcoming posthumous memoir, Father and Son—and a few NYRB titles, like Rombo by Esther Kinsky, Storm by George R. Stewart, and Henri Bosco’s Malicroix and The Child and the River. Environmental catastrophe books? Exhausting.

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