Environment writer interviews: Sarah Boon

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; Kimberly Moynahan, a science writer based in Toronto; and Cynthia Barnett, an environmental journalist based in Florida.
When I interviewed Korice, she was on the fence about participating. On the one hand it was kind of interesting to explore some of the things we’d talked about privately, but exploring those topics publicly was a different kettle of fish.I realized that, if I was going to ask these women to honestly answer my questionnaire, it was only fair that I answer it as well.
So here goes.

Our sixth interviewee is…me!

BoonSarah Boon has straddled the worlds of freelance writing/editing and academic science for the past 15 years. She blogs at Watershed Moments about nature and nature writing, science communication, and women in science. She is a member of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association and the Editors’ Association of Canada, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 2013. She is passionate about the Canadian West, particularly issues around water, forests, and mountain culture. Sarah is also the Editorial Manager at Science Borealis. Find Sarah on Twitter: @SnowHydro

Does your writing community comprise a diverse array of people, or do you find it clusters around a particular group/type of people?
It’s highly diverse: picture a Venn diagram of nature writers, creative nonfiction types, and science communicators. I work at the intersection of all three, which is sometimes difficult as there’s a strong temptation to be drawn into specializing in just one. I benefit differently from each group given their varied perspectives and backgrounds, and share different work with members of each group to get their input and assistance.
Do you find the online world conducive to building community? Why or why not?
The whole idea of building community is an interesting concept, and I suppose I posed this question because I wonder how one actually does it. What is the formula for building a supportive and successful community?
In real life, I have a lot of trouble building community. I don’t get out a lot and—I’ll admit it—I’m not overly tolerant of other peoples’ personal ticks and foibles, and I don’t work well in group settings. Thus the majority of my writing community is virtual.
I have one-on-one e-mail conversations with people like Korice Moir and a group developed by Kimberly Moynahan about writing and reading. I’m part of a loose group on Twitter that reads and comments on articles about nature writing. I’m a member of the Canadian Creative Nonfiction Collective Society and also follow Creative Nonfiction magazine to get the latest in CNF. I’m heavily involved in the science communication community through volunteer work with Science Borealis, and am dipping my toe into new groups like the Communities for Science Communication (C4Sci) over on AAAS’s Trellis platform. More recently, I’ve joined a Facebook group for editors, which is refreshing given everyone’s candour regarding the ins and outs of the editing profession.
As easy as it can be to build these types of online communities, they’re more tenuous than real life ones—particularly the Twitter- and Facebook-based communities. It’s easy to drop out of the habit of interacting with people online, because it’s such a transitory medium. For example, I’ve been quite busy offline in the past few months, so haven’t had much spare time to connect via Twitter/Facebook or read the latest blogs and/or articles. As a result, I’m somewhat out of the loop with several of my online communities. No one from those communities ‘checks in’ with me or notices I’m interacting less; either you’re active or you’re not, and people move on from there.
In contrast, in-person and even email-based connections are stronger. If you don’t hear from someone for a couple of weeks you’re more likely to contact them or stop by their place (if possible) to see how they’re doing or what they’re up to. The connection is less tenuous and/or disposable.
Have you had any specific experiences that led you to adopt—or alternatively to shun—online community building?
I adopted online community building largely because of my difficulty with being out in public spaces. While I’ve regained a bit of ability to be in public, it’s not quite enough to allow me to build the community I imagine. Though there has been some melding of the two: meeting people from Twitter in real life and forging stronger connections that way.
Sometimes I feel cheated in a way, or perhaps just underwhelmed, by my online community, but it’s not the community’s fault. It’s just that I expect more of an online community than it can realistically provide. What I really need is a real life community to complement it. Which brings me back to my original question, of what the formula is for creating such a community.
When you tell the story of your life thus far—either to yourself or to others—what are two key events you focus on, and why?
The first event is when I turned my MSc into a PhD. This was a huge deal because on the one hand, it meant that I put aside my original plans to only do an MSc and then move on to science-based editing and writing. After my PhD, I was funneled along the academic path and became a professor for almost ten years. On the positive side, though, I experienced three amazing summers in the high Arctic, at 79° North, plus field research in various remote locations in the BC Coast Mountains, the southern Canadian Rocky Mountains and the Fraser Plateau of interior BC. I met several of the colleagues who still form my current community, even though I’m no longer in academia. And I managed to get back to writing and editing—only a decade later than I’d originally planned, and with a lot more valuable experience in between.
The second event could more accurately be described as a series of events, and revolved around having to leave academia for health reasons. I suffered a serious deterioration in my mental health due to the culmination of several personal tragedies that I won’t go into here. But the key event that sticks in my mind might not even be the act of going on leave itself, but the day—18 months later—that I was finally diagnosed with a mental illness that completely changed how I thought about my future, and how I managed my life moving forward. While I no longer wonder (as often) what would have happened if I’d stayed in academia, I still wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t been diagnosed with this illness.
Where is home?
I’ve struggled with this question a lot, and written regularly about it. Is home where you’re born? Is it something you make wherever you go, or is it a place that’s outside of you, that you have some internal imperative to find? I think I’ve realized that ‘home’ for me is the West: British Columbia and Alberta. I didn’t even consider calling a region home until I read David Gessner’s All the Wild That Remains, but since then I’ve realized it makes perfect sense. I’ve moved many times in the past 20 years, but always between these two provinces. I know their landscapes, I know their politics, I know their people. I have fond childhood memories of the Prairies, the Coast and the Rockies, and I retain those memories—plus all the ones I’ve made in between—that make the West my home. Specifically, though, the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island is my current home.
Describe in two sentences what makes this home to you. Has this changed over time, and what may have driven that change?
I love the ocean and the friendly tree-covered hills, and the small agricultural fields that open up from the forest fringe. I love that we have several small communities within 15 minutes of my house, and I love that I can garden year round.
I think my idea of home changes regularly, depending on what my current ‘home’ lacks. When we lived in Prince George, I loved the forest and the wildness, but missed the ocean and called the Coast home. It was the same when we lived on the southern Prairies. Now that we live on the Coast, I miss the snow and mountains, and those -35°C days when pancake ice would form on the North Saskatchewan River and shush its way downstream. Then I feel like interior BC is my home.
Home becomes an agglomeration of all the things I’ve loved best about each place we’ve lived—which means that no single place will have all the aspects of that ‘dream’ home. I just have to make home wherever I am.
Name two writers on writing whom you would recommend.
Definitely Natalie Goldberg. Maybe not as much for the advice she gives, but for nostalgic reasons. She was the first writer I read on writing way back in junior high—that’s how long I’ve wanted to be a writer. I started with Wild Mind and read all of her books after that. More recently, I quite enjoyed Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, which talks not just about the craft but about the life of a writer (at least one that’s fairly successful). And Ursula K. LeGuin’s Steering the Craft is a creative way to get writers to do different exercises to limber up their writing muscles.
But I often find that, when I read about writing, I end up berating myself for not just writing. That’s all there is to it—just writing. Why waste time *reading* about writing when you could be doing the writing itself? If you’re going to be reading, why not read books by authors you admire and use your reading time to learn how they’ve put their books together? Then use your writing time to practice being that good.
So while I find some writers have good advice, I feel like I should just throw it all out the window and use my precious time to just write.
Do you have a theme(s) you tend to come back to in your writing?
Definitely—and many of those themes also come up in this questionnaire! What is home? How are we connected to landscape? What is the authentic self—and how can it be discovered and expressed? How do we interact with others to build community, and what does the ideal community look like?
What are you working on right now—and what are you finding most challenging about it?
I am working (but not in a very focused way) on a collection of personal essays that explore my main themes of home, community, and landscape through the lens of my personal life. While I have rough drafts of several essays, what I find most challenging is taking my writing seriously. I’ll commit time to writing for other venues, like Canadian Science Publishing, whose blog I publish on regularly, or Science Borealis, where I’m the Editorial Manager. But I can’t seem to commit to my own writing—it feels frivolous somehow, and as a result remains half-formed.
How do we convince ourselves that what we want to write matters as much as what we’re paid to write? How do we remember that we have stories that are worth telling, that other people will want to read them?
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’ve been exploring some new topics in my recent reading, themes that I suspect will eventually make their way into my writing. I’ve been reading about the internet and its impact on our brains—mainly our capacity for deep, reflective, critical thinking. I started with Michael Harris’ book The End of Absence, then moved on to The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (I welcome other reading suggestions in the comments!). There’s a lot of evidence to show that Web use rewires our brains, feeding our need for instant gratification and stimulation, but fragmenting our ability to concentrate. I feel this particularly strongly, as I’m easily overstimulated by my time on the web, and my illness is also characterized by declines in cognitive function around multitasking, memory, and numeracy. I find it ironic that I’ve built such an extensive online community, in an environment that’s actually somewhat detrimental to my mental health. I’m now rethinking how—and how much—I engage with the web, and what my use of the technology will look like in the future.
I’ve also been exploring issues around sound and noise pollution, and the fact that some people are more sensitive to it than others. Kim Moynahan recommended a couple of books on noise, and this—combined with the work my husband and I are doing on our property to create a noise buffer and quiet sanctuary—will likely inform more of my future writing as well.

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5 thoughts on “Environment writer interviews: Sarah Boon”

  1. I like this interview. Home is a hard one. When I was young, home was easier to define (though I think I also wanted to explore further away from home). Now, no matter where I am and I think it is home, there are things that I miss. I miss the comforts of that other place, the landscape and the people.

    • ‘Hartless’. 🙂 Yes, home often seems to be somewhere else, maybe because we’ve had more home-like experiences, and so have more possible homes to choose from, as we get older?

  2. Sarah – The perfect way to finish! At last, it’s wonderful to hear from you, the woman who’s been asking all these great questions. Thanks for putting together an excellent series of interviews, which has, in its own way built community. Let me say, again, that it’s been an honour to participate.

  3. Lots of food for thought here Sarah. Especially I relate to the studies on online media and it’s relation to our attention spans etc, and and your thoughts on how to interact with electronic media. I have found recently for myself, less is more. And yet, I too (and my wife) are quite reclusive and enjoy to be inspired by other people from online.
    On home – I want to go out on a limb here, and give two links on my blog, maybe to inspire/inform/etc.
    1) our solar wilderness solar home on northern Vancouver
    2) Earth as a commons – the thoughts of my 93 year old hermit/ecologist friend Charles Brandt who lives on the Oyster River
    No need to comment, etc.


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