In the new novel Piano Tide, Nora Montgomery is riding on a ferry to the small town of Good River Harbor, Alaska. We don’t know why she is going there or what she is running from in the lower 48 states of the U.S.
But as the ferry pulls closer to the harbor, it’s clear that Montgomery is a keen observer of the world around her: “Hard on the port side, so close it threw spray onto the deck, a creek poured over the broken face of a hanging glacier and twisted down to an avalanche chute to the sea. . . . To the starboard, the mountains climbed up and up toward snowfields and granite crags.”
In many ways, the environment is the main character in this debut novel by erstwhile essayist Kathleen Dean Moore, who spoke March 11 about the book in a lecture titled “Great Tide Rising: Toward Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change” at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Geared to address the ongoing effects of climate change and to offer reflections on how to deal with them, her visit was sponsored by the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, the Mellema Program in Western American Studies, the Calvin College English Department, and the Dean’s Council for the Arts.
“All we have to do to leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren is to keep doing what we are doing,” she said. “If we don’t put the brakes on the fossil-fuel economy, the life-support systems of the world will soon be irretrievably damaged. . . . We live on a beautiful blue marble that could roll either way.”
Although she has tackled environmental issues in her essays and books, Moore decided this time to address climate change through fiction — in part, she said, because many of us might relate to the broader picture of climate change through the means of storytelling.
Instead of giving sermons or arguments, the book touches on a truth that she hopes readers can embrace, said Moore.
“We are all writing the story of our time with every decision we make. There are so many pathways in front of us,” she said.
“All of us are protagonists in this story; only individually and together can we make a difference in global warming. We have to rewrite who are in relation to the earth.How do we feed ourselves and exchange goods? Who pays the cost of our consumption economy?”
Moore, a distinguished professor of moral philosophy emerita at Oregon State University and the author of many books, said she had to choose the best genre in which to place her new novel — a genre that she believes best exemplifies the future as we face climate change.
Would she write a horror story featuring zombies coming out of dark, polluted swamps, or maybe a faith-based novel, celebrating the virtues of the world God created? Or would it be a comic-book superhero tale? Or might it be science fiction, bringing characters from outside our universe to our planet to address the problem? Or would it be a mystery in which the main character solves a crime and brings a criminal to justice?
But she chose none of the above, Moore said.
“I decided to write this as a thriller,” she said. “We don’t know how this will end. We are creating this plot. It is not creating us.”
In her novel, an eco-thriller, we are introduced to Good River Harbor town leader Axel Hagerman, who has made his fortune by logging the land and removing the abundance of herring and halibut from local waters.
Hagerman runs into Montgomery’s resistance when he seeks to make money from a bear pit in which a bear is chained to a post and used as bait as dogs are set loose to attack the bear. Hagerman and Montgomery clash mightily over this, and that confrontation builds until the climax of the book.
At the core of her novel is a story of the corruption, greed, and evil that she sees in the energy industry and in other industries and in many halls of government.
“I am writing about the huge moral ground that we are on,” said Moore. “Life is a gift. We need to have a new imagination in which we turn from an industrial-growth economy to a life-sustaining economy. . . . But how do we do that?”
Here is a scenario she came up with last summer:
Moore said was staying in a cabin with her husband in Alaska. The weather was very hot, and mosquitoes kept flying into the cabin, keeping them awake.
One night, Moore walked to a nearby river and listened to water rushing over and around the rocks. A solution to global warming came to her as she stood there.
“What if each one of us threw an obstacle into the river so that the river would have to find a different way? Small disturbances can cause future disturbances,” she said.
“I realize our work is to make a blockage to ‘business as usual.’ We can change the energy of the river so that the current will slow and create new systems. I ask us all to chuck a stone in and cause the river to reverse course.”
Many young people today, perhaps because they are the ones who will inherit a world beset by an increasing number of floods, historic storms, and droughts, are more apt than others to find ways to block the prevailing movement of creation’s destruction, said Moore.
“They are coming to a tipping point and are standing up for their belief [against a carbon-based economy] in ways that are breathtaking,” she said. “They see the challenges that our choices have brought us to. They realize we are facing a fork in the road.”
Young people are acutely aware that various species are becoming extinct, that the polar ice caps are melting and weather patterns are drastically changing.
Along with young people, churches can step in and, arising out of a theology of creation care such as that developed by the Christian Reformed Church, find ways to make a difference.
A huge marketing campaign describing the dangers of global warming and calling for governments to take action are not the answer, said Moore. Doing it this way is a copout. We put our hopes in some larger entity’s coming to its senses and solving the problem.
“We can’t wait for a moral awakening. If we can’t do it, who can? Collections of people must play an important role in making change,” she said.
Whenever she starts to despair about the future and wonders about the resiliency of nature, Moore thinks of what happened on the slopes of Mount St. Helens after a volcano erupted there in 1980.
“Not long after the volcano erupted, Mount St. Helens burst back to life with flowers,” she said. “When the mountain blew, there were pockets of refuge. . . .We need to create these pockets of flourishing for the next generation. What we need to do is rooted in wonder and gratitude and love” for what God created, she said.