“Deep green was the colour of belonging and she climbed towards it.” – Sarah Pye

I am very behind but slowly snatching time to catch up. June started with a fantastic new event in Toowoomba: Wordfest I cannot speak highly enough of this great literary festival in my home town. I only managed to attend on one day, the Warm Words in Winter day but it was an inspiring and stimulating day! It was a day of panel discussions hosted at the Lighthouse, the new literary heart of Toowoomba. This was an inaugural event, so keep an eye out for the event next year, as this is a wonderful chance to experience the supportive network of the Toowoomba and QLD literary community. A chance to indulge particular literary passions, or to discover new interests and skills. Given my particular interests, it is no surprise that I was particularly keen to attend the; “What is it about nature writing” session.

It was via the “What is it about nature” panel that I discovered the inspiring Sarah Pye author of Saving Sun Bears: One Man’s quest to save a species, the story of Malaysian ecologist Dr Wong Siew and his quest to improve knowledge about and to save the sun bear. Sarah spoke passionately about the power of narrative to promote a voice for the environment, to get us to care and to understand environmental needs from a diversity of perspectives. Caring about conservation, in this the age of mass extinction,is something we all do need to care about, if we do not want to lose more than we must.

Asian Sun Bear
public domain

Sarah, a Queensland academic and writer became aware of the plight of the sun bear and the efforts of Dr Wong, during a visit to Borneo to see orangutans. It is often through charismatic species like the orangutan that we become aware of wider environmental issues and tragedies. Such is the case with the sun bear. Tourists visit places like Borneo to get a glimpse of the iconic and charismatic orangutan and in the process learn about all the other species dependent on the same habitat and environment. What we often don’t realise is how interdependent these eco-systems are, if one species is effected it can trigger a domino effect and before we know it, irreparable damage is done to an environment and all the species within it. Sarah has dedicated herself to improving knowledge about environment and conservation issues, in the hope we can all contribute to the preservation of our precious eco-systems and all the miraculous life within them.

“Finally I understand. Wong fights for survival of us all. Like sun bears, we are in danger; both victims and perpetrators. As author Wayne Lynch says, ‘We should fight for these things as if our life depends on it, because it does.”

When Sarah asked Wong Siew Te what she could do to help, he responded by advising her to “do what you do best”! Which is how we come to have the remarkable story of Wong and his mission to save the sun bear and the subsequent Wildlife Wong series of books for younger readers. The book is not just a standard biography, although that element is well executed and makes for fascinating reading. Wong’s struggles to gain an education and to advocate on behalf of the wildlife he cares about, is inspiring. There is a robust travel and adventure element to the narrative and off course the central concern of conservation. Individual bears feature in the story and often tug at heart strings but then the whole desperate issue of what befalls these bears and orangutans is deeply moving and one cannot help but admire the determination and commitment of people like Wong. Saving sun bears is a wonderful rich read that delivers so much information on environment and culture through a driving narrative. A moving book, it manages to maintain hope and inspiration, despite the bleak outlook climate change and habitat destruction, poses. 

What is even better than Saving Sun bears, is Sarah’s great series of ecology books for younger readers, the Wildlife Wong series. When I first meet Sarah at wordfest I only really meant to purchase Saving Sun bears and one of the kids series to try out, but after listening to Sarah speak I decided to grab a few of her younger reader titles, my only regret is that I did not buy all of them! These are great books for junior ecologists, each one contains a non-fiction narrative about one of Wong’s adventures with the featured species, facts about that species, a list of new words and a science experiment the kids can do at home. They are quiet simply great books for the eight to twelve age group and I cannot recommend them highly enough. You can check out the Wildlife Wong series here: https://sarahrpye.com/wildlife-wong/ There are more titles on the way and the website contains extra content like a template for kids to make their own nature journal.

If you want to know more about Sarah, her work and sun bears start on this page: https://sarahrpye.com/ Sarah’s books make great reads for the Gaia challenge and the kids books would make fantastic gifts for the junior ecologists in your life. Even as a fairly well informed adult I enjoyed reading them and learnt something new. I read Wildlife Wong and The Sun bear, Wildlife Wong and the Orangutan and Wildlife Wong and the Bearded Pig. I especially liked the Bearded pig book, as this was a species I knew nothing about and what an amazing animal they are, with their bearded faces and dramatic mohawks as adolescents.

image Cburnett GNU license.

All of Sarah Pye’s conservation books make great reads for the Gaia/nature challenge.

In June I also read the climate fiction novel; The High House by Jessie Greengrass. What was really frightening about this beautifully written and crafted novel was just how real it seemed and how close we are to the future it describes. From Goodreads:

Crisis slid from distant threat to imminent probability and we tuned it out like static.
Francesca is Caro’s stepmother, and Pauly’s mother. A scientist, she can see what is going to happen.
The high house was once her holiday home; now looked after by locals Grandy and Sally, she has turned it into an ark, for when the time comes. The mill powers the generator; the orchard is carefully pruned; the greenhouse has all its glass intact. Almost a family, but not quite, they plant, store seed, and watch the weather carefully.
A stunning novel of the extraordinary and the everyday, The High House explores how we get used to change that once seemed unthinkable, how we place the needs of our families against the needs of others – and it asks us who, if we had to, we would save.

With the incredibly wet seasons we have been enduring this year, and the recurring flood events, this novel proposes a scenario that just seems frighteningly real. In the last few days NSW was the subject of yet another flood emergency of staggering proportions. How many once in a hundred years floods will we have before 2022 is over?

In The High House Greengrass has crafted a subtle and beautifully crafted novel, driven by strong characterisation, compelling narrative and plausible climate catastrophe. Narrated by four voices, the small group for whom the high house is a sanctuary. The story almost languidly draws you in and before I knew it, I couldn’t put the book down. It is not some Hollywood disaster scenario but rather a slow unfolding of catastrophic and irresistible change:

Beside the threat of water, there was the threat of hunger. Farm animals floated, drowned. in flooded fields. The earth was too wet to yield a crop. Ports, inundated, evacuated, struggled to give harbour to those few container ships which still came. The whole complicated system of modernity which had held us up, away from the earth, was crumbling, and we were becoming again what we had used to be: cold, and frightened of the weather and frightened of the dark. Somehow, while we had all been busy, while we had been doing those small things which added up to living, the future had slipped into the present – and, despite the fact that we had known that it would come, the overwhelming feeling, now that it was here, was of surprise, like waking up one morning to find that you had been young, and now, all at once, you weren’t. I saw what was happening, and my safety sat on me like a weight, but there was Pauly to think of , and Caro, and Grandy. We only had enough for ourselves. (p.226)

Any fiction with an environmental theme is a great choice for the Gaia/nature challenge and cli-fi, the speculative genre of the age is more than appropriate.

I have been really missing from the web for the last month, occasionally snatching moments to catch up on others blogs. I do feel bad not always keeping up, so my apologies on any posts I have missed of late, there will be a few. Please leave a link back to your blog in the comments if you have read anything for the Gaia challenge, always keen to read posts and discover new nature related reads. I will hopefully catch up and share links soon.

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