Environment Writer Interviews: Cynthia Barnett

For background on this series, see my first post. So far we’ve talked with Rebecca Lawton, an environment writer based in California; Abby Palmer, a nature writer based in the Lower Mainland of BC; Korice Moir, a water policy researcher and writer based in Toronto; and Kimberly Moynahan, a science writer based in Toronto.

Our fifth interviewee is Cynthia Barnett

I first learned of Cynthia when I stumbled across her latest book: Rain – A Natural and Cultural History. As a hydrologist and westerner obsessed with water issues, I was intrigued by the fact that most of her other books focused on water in some way, shape, or form. I started following her on Twitter, and was also able to follow some of her work via the Society of Environmental Journalists (if you didn’t know about this group, definitely check them out – they’re highly active and engaging, and cover a diversity of environmental topics).
We started chatting when Cynthia contacted me this spring about a talk she was giving to a group of women science professors. The group wanted to know more about social media and online identities, and Cynthia had asked which women science communicators I’d recommend on social media. As our discussion took place around the same time I first had the idea to interview women environment writers, I thought I’d ask Cynthia if she was interested in participating – and she very graciously accepted! As she said in one of her messages:

There’s so much more we could dig into about science and environmental writing, and how we define science writing, but I think it’s nice to break away and read something personal like this sometimes. It’s quite different from most things that have come out about me, so it will be interesting to see…if anyone is interested in it.

I definitely think people will be interested, so let’s dive right in!

Cynthia Barnett
Cynthia and her children at Fanning Springs in North Central Florida.

Cynthia Barnett is an award-winning environmental journalist who has covered water from the Suwannee River to Singapore. She is the author of Rain: A Natural and Cultural History (Crown, 2015); Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis (Beacon Press, 2011); and Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S. (University of Michigan Press, 2007). Cynthia has written for the New York Times, Los Angeles TimesWall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Discover, Salon, Politico, Orion, Ensia and many other publications. A native Floridian, she lives in Gainesville, Florida, where she is also Hearst Visiting Professional at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications. Her latest goal is to build enough upper-arm strength to swing into the Suwannee River on her kids’ favorite rope swing for her 50th birthday. She hopes putting it in print is not the jinx equivalent of a “leaving-Facebook-and-Twitter-to-write” announcement.
Does your writing community comprise a diverse array of people, or do you find it clusters around a particular group/type of people?
Diverse for sure. I teach environmental journalism at the University of Florida, and talk to my students about building their writing brain trusts with different sorts of specialists/writers/thinkers, especially now that so few of us have the old luxury (or maybe this is just a fantasy) of that one, fabulous editor who inspires, pushes, makes you better over your writing life.
My brain trust begins with a speechwriter – that’s because I married a fellow journalist, Aaron Hoover, who later became a speechwriter. We are each others’ first editors, so even the kids get involved in a dinner table conversation about the right metaphor for a chapter or a speech. Then I have a book-writing partner, the environmental historian Jack E. Davis, who is writing a beautiful history of the Gulf of Mexico. We read each others’ chapters as we finish, invaluable because we are really honest in our feedback (if spouses were that hard on each other, they might have a really bad day, or whole weekend!).
Depending on the piece or chapter, I trade work with several other science/environmental writer friends. And finally, when I’ve tried to simplify some tough-to-understand meteorology or other science, I have some trusted scientist sources willing to read me for accuracy – only those with a sense of humor who won’t balk at my describing the subtropical climate belts as Mother Earth’s bikini.
The key word is trust, built over time. These are trusted writing friends who will also be there for you later when you get the rejection letter or other inevitable crushing disappointment, and remind you of your worth.
Do you find the online world conducive to building community? Why or why not?
Absolutely. I enjoy both Facebook and Twitter for keeping connected with fellow writers, sources, and others who share various specific interests – environmental journalism, environmental history, geekier interests such as groundwater. I like to keep up with what’s new and different, or celebrate and share a terrific piece of writing/journalism. I value my professional online connections – I know you and Watershed Moments thanks to Twitter, and met some of my favorite water sources, such as Michael Campana at OSU (@waterwired) and Christiana Peppard at Furman (@ProfPeppard) online before I met them in person. I especially like keeping up social media friendships after meeting a person. If I speak at a university and spend time with students working on water or journalistic projects, I love seeing their graduation photos on Facebook, which happened to me this summer.
All this said, there’s no question that time on social media hurts the quality of my writing and my thinking. In direct proportion, the time I spend reading and engaging on social media is time stolen from the depth of thinking and figuring I need to write, especially longer magazine articles and books. So, social media is a Janus. It’s an important piece of my work, but I worry about its ubiquity, in my life and in my children’s, and in the life of the culture. I unfollow people who post too much, or who post the breaking news that they just killed a cockroach on the desk (not news to anyone in Florida!).
Have you had any specific experiences that led you to adopt – or alternatively to shun – online community building?
On deadline for my latest book, Rain, I had my 13-year-old son change my Twitter and Facebook passwords so that I wouldn’t be tempted, and I left social media for six months. I lost lots of followers on Twitter but the solitude, time, and writing depth were clearly more important. Once I turned in the manuscript, I enjoyed reconnecting. The world won’t come to an end if you shun the internet for a clear-headed morning of writing, or a solitary six months of it (if anyone tries this, you may not want to announce to your Facebook friends you’re checking out to write. Everyone I’ve seen do that seems to jinx themselves. Next thing you know, they’re posting about the cockroach.).
Where is home?
My home is Gainesville, a college town in North Central Florida that has given me some of my life’s great gifts. It’s lush here, with a dense urban forest, lots of rain, and is also home to the largest concentration of freshwater springs in the world. There are 1,000 or so springs around here, striking turquoise pools that are popular swim and cave-diving spots. William Bartram walked through in the eighteenth century and described the springs as “blue ether of another world.” You begin to glean my freshwater obsession.
Describe in two sentences what makes this home to you. Has this changed over time, and what may have driven that change?
I have an intense sense of place and gratitude for where I live that is with me almost constantly and on many levels – as a writer, as a mother, and as a fifth-generation Floridian. Gainesville is home because we are lucky enough to be able to make a living in a place with really civilized community and still lots of uncivilized nature. This is a huge change for me over time. During college here, and then in my first professional job at a newspaper, I couldn’t wait to leave; the day the moving van came to pack me for my first out-of-state job was one of the happiest days of my life. I lived in some great places before I came back, and it was only when our son was about to start kindergarten that we came back (we also have an 11-year-old daughter). This may sound crazy, but we predicated all sorts of major life and career decisions on our kids being able to walk to a good public elementary school in this relatively small city. I didn’t understand then that what felt like certain sacrifices for the kids led me to exactly where I need to be, physically and mentally, as an author who writes about the environment.
Name two writers on writing whom you would recommend.
When I was a young journalist I liked to soak up other writers’ wisdoms, especially E.B. White’s, and I can still share some of that with my students. But now, I avoid other writers on writing. I’ve found my favorite nature/environmental writers are so full of angst about both writing and what’s happening to the planet that it can be paralyzing to read them on writing – just the opposite of the inspiration needed. I am most inspired by other writers’ prose, not their writing advice.
The tips from famous writers that go around Twitter drive me particularly crazy. For anyone seeking writing help from Twitter, the answer is to click the little red X at the top right, shut down the laptop, and go get the boots muddy.
Do you have a theme(s) you tend to come back to in your writing? (I think I can guess what one of these might be!)
I write almost exclusively about water, which is at the heart of all three of my books: Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S.; Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis; and Rain: A Natural and Cultural History. Since what’s happening to water is closely tied to what’s happening to the climate, I write increasingly about climate change. The idea for Rain came from readers of the first two books. As I went around talking about water, I found that even people skeptical of climate change love to talk about the weather: record rainfall, epic drought, extreme storms. I started seeing weather as a journalistic entré to climate change, and that’s where I ultimately end up in Rain, though as many reviewers have pointed out it is more than anything a love letter to rain.
Another theme in my writing is the idea that “It doesn’t have to be this way,” in other words, showing people how much better off we’d be if we lived differently with water. Even in the most hard-hitting environmental reporting, it’s important to give readers a sense of hope for the future and not leave them dismayed. Grist.org founder Chip Giller calls this “writing the future that doesn’t suck,” and I’m with him on that. Maybe he is my recommended writer on writing.
What are you working on right now – and what are you finding most challenging about it?
I’m working on a piece on the climate relationship between the U.S. and the U.K., told through the Gulf Stream. My single-biggest challenge is carving out the time to write. Teaching takes more time than I imagined it would, though I love working with students. And I have all that karma to repay from the times I sent Rain and other book chapters to my brain trust. One of my best friends is writing his first book, and he’s just sent me every chapter a week from deadline. I think it’s time to ask our son to change my social-media passwords.
‘Rain – A Natural & Cultural History’ draws on a wide range of both spatially and temporally distributed sources that address rain. How did you decide what to include in – and what to leave out of – the book? Now that you’ve seen it in print, are there any (major) changes you wish you’d made?
The problem was always too much material. The story of rain is the story of Earth and humanity; it’s impossible to do it justice. It pains me to think of everything I left out, including sections I worked so hard on and had to cut, such as the chimpanzee rain dances observed by Jane Goodall and others at Gombe National Park in Tanzania. But in the end, I have to have faith in my book and my choices. I open Rain in the Hoh Rain Forest of western Washington and end it in Cherrapunji, India, the rainiest place on Earth. I tell the modern rain story through Los Angeles and Miami, the two places that may be America’s greatest tests for adapting to climate change.
I told stories of religion and culture – music, literature, even fashion – in this book, because I think those frameworks can make environmental stories more engaging, and draw new readers. Too often I’ve written for the choir, the people already concerned about water and other environmental issues. This time I wanted to do a better job reaching the audience I think of as the Caring Middle – people who would care if they knew the same things we do, but they don’t seek out our stories. I think I’ve done that. But more importantly, we can’t second guess ourselves as environmental writers doing our very best to show people the future that doesn’t suck. It’s a hard enough field, with plenty of critics to do our second-guessing for us, so we’ve got to believe in ourselves and our work. To stay uplifted as a way of keeping the writing elevated.

Thanks Cynthia for taking the time to answer these more personal questions about writing and the writing life. It’s fascinating to read the perspective of a widely-published environmental writer, particularly your ideas on being hopeful, telling stories that reach the ‘Caring Middle,’ and getting out into the world rather than relying on writing advice from others. I know I’ve enjoyed your insights, and I’m sure many other readers have, as well.
This is the last in our series of confirmed interviewees – while I have a few more people in mind, I still have to connect with them. In the meantime if you have other women nature/environment writers you want to hear from – let me know in the comments!

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