Carla Gunn’s debut novel, Amphibian, was published in April by Coach House Books. The story chronicles the frustrations of a young boy, Phineas Walsh, who finds himself alone in his anxiety about the state of the environment.
Phin is a walking encyclopaedia of knowledge about the natural world. Not surprisingly, this clearheaded understanding about the precarious state of the world’s ecosystems results in a high degree of anxiety; but rather than addressing the facts that are leading to Phin’s anxiety, the grown-ups in his life target his perceptions of the world. A variety of tactics are used in this effort including bargaining, punishing, and even psychotherapy.
The story illustrates the phenomenon of rapidly increasing rates of psychological problems in our society as an inevitable response to an insane world, and manages to do so with a great deal of compassion and humour.
The completion of Amphibian is leading Carla to examine this subject of what constitutes a sane response to a crazy world in greater depth for her next novel. “It’s an exploration [of this question] as told by a 13 year old. His father and mother are divorced and his mother is always commenting on how bizarrely the father is acting. He’s doing things like letting his front strip of city-owned property grow past the bylaw height. The city comes around and insists that he mow it down, but he doesn’t want to mow it down — he wants to leave it as wild grasses. Under duress, he finally acquiesces — but, to make a point, he mows it each week wearing only his underwear.”
It’s through this kind of humour that Carla hopes to reach more people about the need to take action on the environment. She notes that people are often turned off by the perceived preachy-ness of environmental messages. “In order to package these issues in ways that are palatable, I think the message has to come coupled with the naivety and clarity of youth. Children have this amazing ability to see and name things for what they truly are.”
Carla adds that much of the ongoing reluctance to take action on the environment also boils down to a simple lack of knowledge and understanding about the severity of the issues. She recounts that during a discussion with a book club, some of the readers questioned which of Phin’s myriad environmental facts were real and which were fiction. They found it difficult to believe, for example, that 25% of the world’s mammal species are on the Red List of Endangered Species.
For those who are aware of the issues, she notes that learned helplessness and over-filled schedules also play important parts in maintaining the environmental status quo. “We have all these crazy musts and shoulds because we live in this consumerist society which keeps us constantly distracted from events that are going to have larger impacts on us.”
So what’s the best response to eco-anxiety? Get involved in the struggle. Carla says that there are a couple of reasons why this is so effective. “You’re communing with other people, and you’re also taking yourself outside of yourself. The best way to make yourself feel better is to do something beyond yourself.”
For more info about the book, visit www.carlagunn.ca.