HomeFocus On Seeking Common Ground: An Environmental Scientist Turns to Fiction Writing

Seeking Common Ground: An Environmental Scientist Turns to Fiction Writing

by Kate Brandes

I’ve worked most of my twenty-five-year career, not as a writer, but as an environmental scientist.

One of my first memories at age four is of the magnolia tree outside the shabby apartment complex on the outskirts of New Orleans where my family lived at the time. I can still feel the rough bark against my hands and feet and the tickle of ants on my arm as I balanced on the limbs of the only nature I had available to me at the edge of the city. When I close my eyes and think of that tree now, the word shelter comes to my mind. During my whole life nature has been, for me, elemental.

The complexities of nature’s underlying science fascinated me growing up. I studied geology in college because I’m captivated by the story of the earth, with its long history of bedrock and water, and the ongoing cycle over millennia of mountains of sandstone that become beaches of sand and then build again into mountains. The study of geology was a way for me to learn about life from its root.

Ten years ago I decided I wanted to write fiction. In part it was something I’d always wanted to try. I’m a life-long reader of fiction and a believer in the power of stories. I wanted to try to create my own. And in part, my desire to write fiction was related to the people I’ve met during my career as a scientist.

Story is as complex as any scientific theorem. When it’s done well, it demands our attention and consideration about something that might first seem black and white. It’s a bridge between what’s happening in the world and how that affects us on the inside. Stories can lead to new ways of thinking about who we are, as writers and readers.

Early on in my environmental science career, I worked as a geologist for six years on water supply and contamination problems deep underground. Then I took a series of jobs over more than a decade that allowed me to use my environmental science knowledge to work on land and water conservation in the Lehigh Valley. Along the way, I chose work with a community link so that I could use my science background to serve as a bridge between the technical side of things and my community’s understanding of the problem at hand. My career gave me access to people’s response to problems with the land and water, which was always related to their backstory: their personal history, who they grew up with, emotions, influences, as well as where they came from.

My shift from scientist to creative writer was not so much a turn from the analytical to the creative. Scientists are creative people. If they weren’t then many problems would not be solved. It was, for me, a natural progression. I didn’t abandon science for writing. I still do both. Instead, I turned to creative writing as a way to examine people’s feelings about things I care about, drawing on my experiences as a scientist working with communities. Writing is my way to make sense of the world. If there’s a crisis in my life or a difficult decision ahead, I’ve always reached for the pen to figure out what to do. So in order to contemplate some of the bigger societal questions I face daily about changes to the land and natural world around me, I turned to writing fiction to open the conversation within myself, from several viewpoints.

As is true for every writer, my background allows me to bring something unique to my fiction. My work as a writer reflects my life as a mother, wife, nature lover, and as someone who’s mostly lived a rural life. It reflects the life I’ve known as a woman and as an environmental scientist. No matter our background, our writing voice comes from the bedrock of our core selves.

Nature themes and environmental issues have been part of most of my short stories. Fracking takes place in a small Pennsylvania town in my debut novel, The Promise of Pierson Orchard. I’m not sure I could write fiction, especially a long work, that didn’t include elements of change to the land.

My novel is not about science or nature or about saving the environment. Fracking is not so much at the story’s center as it is a metaphor for the splintering lives of my characters. My story is about people wrestling with change, as all stories are. I wanted to explore, from the inside, a family and community with disparate perspectives about fracking—to delve into the gray spaces so often overlooked these days by people’s inclination to choose sides.

Many of my novel’s characters see things differently than I do, of course. I had to learn not to judge my characters. I needed to love and understand all of them if I really wanted to explore a complicated, dysfunctional family dealing with changes to the land that means something profoundly different to each of them.

So much divides us, as people, and as communities. There’s a need to find common ground. That’s what I was searching for in writing this first novel.

by Kate Brandes

An environmental scientist with over 20 years of experience (much of it in the Lehigh Valley), Kate is also a watercolor painter and a writer of women’s fiction with an environmental bent. Kate lives in a small town along the Delaware River with her husband, David, and their two sons. When she’s not working, she’s outside on the river or chasing wildflowers.

Other Voices of the Valley essays2004 – 2005 – 2006 – 2007 – 2008 – 2009 – 2010 – 2011 – 2012 – 2013 – 2014 – 2015 – 2016 2017 – 2018

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