By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Madeline Ostrander wants you to know her newly published first book is not a work of “doom.”
If the subject of climate change makes you uncomfortable, that might be an important distinction.
Ostrander, a longtime science journalist, says “At Home on an Unruly Planet” is the result of about a decade of work – particularly the past three years, since she signed a contract for it. Now it’s in bookstores and online (as audio), and she’ll be talking about it at an event downtown tomorrow night (Friday, August 5). More on that later. First, about the book.
The second word in the title, “home,” is key. (Hers is on Pigeon Point, where she sets this scene: “In the distance, the groaning undersong of the highway and the port nearby and its sounds, a train whistle, metal shipping containers cracking loudly against one another in the distance, the moan of a cargo boat, the roar of a jet plane above.”) In her book, Ostrander tells the story of four communities facing change because of the climate crisis – again, not in the “impending doom” sense, but in what they’re doing, how they’re reacting, how they’re talking about it.
One of those communities – Richmond, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area – is seen in the context of conversations about how to evolve from being a community built around an oil refinery. Talking to environmental-justice activists there gave her the idea for the book. The other three communities span the country from Alaska to Florida. The sense of “home” she addresses isn’t simply about geography, but about the way you feel when and where you’re at home. – and the way you feel when things change, things out of your control. It’s addressed in “At Home on an Unruly Planet” as “solastalgia,” which Ostrander observes is evoked by this: “Even if we stay, we experience a kind of homesickness because (home) changes … (it) helps to name this kind of feeling. That can be really powerful, (such as) collective anger, like the BLM movement, struggle and loss and anger …. if people come together and talk about it.”
She hopes that she’s helping people talk about climate change in a fresh way. “The way it’s often talked about is not that empowering,” including “when we talk about, ‘what can you do’,” too often it’s just “push back against politicians.” Or else potential action is described at the “very micro-individual level,” recycle one more can, burn one less gallon of gas. “That’s still not very empowering” – it doesn’t get to the question of “how do we protect the places that we care about?” That’s something you can address on a neighborhood level, she says. “It just seemed much more real to me, a much more useful way of talking about climate change. It’s being talked about as this big global existential crisis – which it is – but talking about it in this way helps people feel” less hopeless.
That also brings inspiration for others. “Sometimes I feel like what I see in small communities (is that) the whole discussion isn’t so siloed off … that’s kind of powerful.” Big cities – ours included – have more money for adaptation; smaller communities have harder choices to make. “You can see it in the book when I compare St. Augustine, Florida … with centuries of history … they’re going to be more impacted … to Miami (where they have) a budget to lift streets.”
A different crisis presented a challenge after Ostrander got the contract to finish and publish her book: The pandemic. She had gone to Alaska in fall of 2019, but in 2020 and 2021, travel was not always an option. Ostrander said she managed to arrange a few trips “when it was possible to take enough safety precautions.” The featured community she mentions the most is St. Augustine, Florida, where “lessons from the past (frame its) longterm future … we need to think about that and not always look away.”
History is referenced elsewhere in her book, even the century-long history of her Pigeon Point home. The prologue and epilogue of “At Home on an Unruly Planet” reference her own home. She notes toward the end of the book, “And while many of the problems we face are global, some of the most imaginative, powerful, passionate solutions come from home.”
Ostrander doesn’t have any promotional events scheduled in West Seattle yet, but says she’s working on it. Meantime, if you happen to be – or can get to – downtown tomorrow, her book launch/signing event is at 7 pm, outdoors at The Collective (400 Dexter Ave. N.) with KUOW’s John Ryan, presented by the Northwest Science Writers Association. She also has an event 7 pm August 12 at Brick & Mortar Books in Redmond, in conversation with former broadcast meteorologist Jeff Renner.
Besides looking for the book at your favorite local bookstore, it’s also available online as audio – go here. If you want to read an excerpt first, here’s one published by The Atlantic, and another published by High Country News.