Flavorwire Interview: Connie May Fowler, on Her Timely New Memoir of Environmental Destruction

"We cannot allow the enormity of the problem to overwhelm us. To not address it at all because we feel overwhelmed is a cowardly move."

In April 2010, an explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico catalyzed perhaps the most disastrous oil spill since the Exxon Valdez. Nearly 5 million barrels of oil — enough to fill 311 Olympic-size swimming pools — leaked into the Gulf, affecting 665 miles of coastline, and the lives of thousands of people. One of those people was author Connie May Fowler, and A Million Fragile Bones is her cry from the heart about the destruction of her home and sacred space in Florida’s Alligator Point. She spoke to Flavorwire about finding resilience when everything you care about is threatened by destruction — and when the very forces that are ruining your life are also gaslighting you and denying the damage caused.

Flavorwire: You open your memoir talking about how your home on Alligator Point had become a refuge for you before the spill. I think a lot of us are finding that our current refuges, both physical and mental, are being breached right now — either by hate crimes, environmental damage, or just the growing understanding of threats [to us and our way of life]. What can your story tell us about resilience and how to face up to the potential destruction of what’s sacred to us?

Connie May Fowler: In the memoir, you see me working out what is sacred to me and why. I think identifying what and why is deceptively complex. It took me years to recognize that much of my need to find refuge in nature was a daughter’s attempt to remain connected to her long-dead father. What now seems like an obvious truth came to me only through the writing. And also this: I learned knowledge not only gives you power, it gives you courage. I wept for years. I grieved with a purity that could break stone. And now I am ready to do the necessary work, to fight for what is left, for what I love, for what this good Earth needs.

If grief is required, grieve quickly. We no longer have the luxury of time. Whatever a person’s sacred space might be — and increasingly we have to acknowledge that we, ourselves, are sacred spaces who are under ever greater threat — the defense and protection of that space is paramount.

We created, and are living during, the Sixth Great Extinction. In the midst of that horror, fascism is spreading its dark shadow across the globe. Talk about a double whammy! In the face of the total destruction of an environment I held sacred, I realized I could not remain shattered by the trauma. They say a fractured bone, once healed, is stronger than its unbroken counterparts. So I suppose the lesson, if there is one, is to use the tragedy, the trauma, the threat as your strength. The sacred in the world demands nothing less of us.

You mention how this tragedy “pushed the buttons” of your past traumas. You’ve written in both memoir and fiction about all kinds of intimate, interpersonal human trauma, abuse and primal loss. How did writing about the trauma of watching your environment destroyed compare to tackling these subjects — or did you feel like you were really playing with the same register of emotions?

That is a really great question. I think the register of emotions deepened and expanded by virtue of the magnitude of the disaster. More than 200 million gallons of oil gushed unchecked into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days. Even worse is the real possibility the Gulf will never recover. After seven years, fish continue to develop cancerous lesions. Dolphin birthrates are below average and stillbirths remain common. Tuna continue to experience mortality-inducing heart arrhythmias. BP’s oil and Corexit have found their way into our food chain. You know, one of the worst aspects of violence is the sense of abject helplessness you experience amid victimization. I think it was this sense of helplessness and the primal rage that accompanied it that reopened the door to past traumas. Every psychic Band-Aid I’d ever slapped on myself was ripped off.

Sometimes I think we don’t talk about the destruction of the environment because the only conclusion we can draw is so bleak and so all-encompassing that it’s almost too much to take in. What role can writers and artists play in helping bridge that gap?

First of all, if we don’t address climate change and its attendant horrors now, there will be nothing left to write about. It is the most pressing issue of our time. This is a simple but sobering truth: Humankind’s welfare is directly tied to that of the planet. Sick planet? Sick people.

Scientists explore facts. Artists and writers lift a mirror to society so that our fellow travelers on this planet are exposed to those facts — no matter how basic or transcendent — through the scrim of humanity, through the what-ifs of human existence. Every artistic medium is a means of storytelling. It is through interaction with creativity that we are changed, moved, made better.

There are reasons why one of the first things the new regime did was target the EPA and why the new Secretary of State is the former the CEO of Exxon — he only stepped down from Exxon on December 31, 2016. We cannot allow the enormity of the problem to overwhelm us. Rather, we have to tell the story. That’s our job. How much of the planet’s travails, and therefore ours, are explored in any given work is a matter of modulation and artistic expression. But to not address it at all because we feel overwhelmed is a cowardly move. I suspect James Baldwin felt overwhelmed fairly frequently. But he didn’t stop writing his truth.

You describe going to Miami after the spill and watching people’s eyes glaze over as you talk about what’s happening. Do you have any advice about getting past that reaction or is the best approach to find someone who does care?

Given the magnitude of the disaster, their reaction astounded me. At that very moment, the Gulf loop current was perilously close to delivering the oil to their front yards. So I kept talking, hoping something I would say would melt the glaze. You never know. But I don’t think we can settle for preaching to the choir.

Sometimes people listen because they care about dolphins and sea turtles. Sometimes they listen because they are avid fishermen so, despite what their day-to-day politics might be, they care about the environment. Sometimes they listen because they are concerned about their property values. Sometimes they listen because they can’t abide corporate financial immorality. BP was fined $18 billion to be paid out over 18 years and a huge percentage of the fine is tax deductible, so essentially they got a slap on the wrist. That’s a fact that upsets some people, that causes them to tune in. I think we have to find out what moves an individual and enter through that window.

There is a painful interlude where you talk about watching BP ads and spokespeople on TV, a blitz that “rendered the coastal residents invisible.” You wrote, “I want to shout, ‘See this? This is the empirical truth.'” This certainly resonated; it feels like we’re living in a post-truth era. Do you think that storytelling is the best way to combat that?

There is a reason why George Orwell’s 1984 continues to top Amazon’s bestseller list. People turn to literature not simply for escape but to look for signposts on how to survive, how to love more deeply, how to live a fuller and more honest life, and to gain a deeper understanding of the human condition, although they might not recognize their motivations as such. In a post-truth era, we are forced to ask, Is The Handmaid’s Tale farfetched or prescient? Storytelling is an essential tool in battling doublespeak, yes. But now that we live in a world of “alternative facts” and flagrant lies that go unchallenged, a free press rigorously doing its job is of paramount importance. The fact that storytelling enters the marrow like little else makes it, too, an essential act of resistance and recovery. If we have no baseline for truth, the number one actor in society is chaos.

You write, “The ghoulish nature of most of my internet searches no longer rattles me. I’m resigned to this new reality, hardened on the edge of bitterness.” I found the internet’s role in your memoir really fascinating. It’s a huge part of our emotional lives. How did you handle writing the internet into your story, and how re you rationing your internet usage now?

In terms of the oil spill, social media became and remains the headquarters from which community activists, environmentalists, and everyday citizens stay informed, disseminate vital information, battle BP’s PR machine, and work to hold our government accountable.

As I wrote the memoir, I researched my Facebook posts from April 20, 2010 — the day of the Deepwater Horizon explosion — and onward because my entries and the responses posted were, in essence, an hour-by-hour journal of what was happening in the Gulf, what was happening onshore, what actions we needed to take to protect our beaches and wildlife, what resources were available to help the out-of-work fishermen, what precautions we needed to take to protect our health, and much more. Because of how detailed, factual, and emotionally honest they were, the Facebook posts became integral to that part of the story.

And, it’s ongoing. The community that spontaneously gathered on social media continues to actively engage in the dissemination of the latest scientific research. We provide emotional support to each other. During the height of the spill, in response to paid trolls, we learned how to disappear overnight and create new groups the next day so that we could remain productive. We learned important lessons on how social media could be used to help affect change and inform large numbers of people, lessons that are helpful today given our current political climate.

As far as rationing, yes, it has become important to know when to step away. We sometimes have to remind ourselves of the importance of living in the real world and that the virtual world exists to augment, not rule, our lives. We have to ask, “Am I learning anything new or am I simply reading rants that hurt my soul?” And, you know, if we’re gloaming through the Internet all day, it means we’re not writing or we’re not marching or we’re not talking to our children or we’re not taking the time to walk outside and marvel at the sky.