Keynote for Oath Ceremony

I was honored to be invited to give the keynote remarks at a naturalization ceremony yesterday hosted at the Davis Branch of the Yolo County Library. It was very moving to be a part of this momentous event for the 39 new citizens representing 17 different countries of origin.

Following is the text of my speech:

Keynote Talk for Oath Ceremony
Mary L. Stephens—Davis Branch Library
March 16, 2023
Robin Lee Carlson

First of all, I would like to say welcome to this place and this community. I am so glad that you are joining us.

I grew up here, in the Central Valley, in Turlock and Davis, under hot blue skies and periodic drought. My whole being is shaped by this flat land stretched between two long mountain ranges, a land that was originally and still is the home of the Patwin people, including members of the Cachil DeHe Band of Wintun Indians of the Colusa Indian Community, Kletsel Dehe Wintun Nation, and Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation.

My family came here from Europe, Swedish farmers via Minnesota and Nebraska, and British farmers via dust bowl Oklahoma.

I try to honor this place by understanding its history: all of the people that have called it home and all of the ecological communities here too, plants and animals, fungi and lichens. I do this by immersing myself in the place where I am, the specific moment, observing closely and paying attention.

I have been shaped by this open, sunny, fertile place. But as a quiet and not at all outgoing child, I also felt a great affinity with coastal redwood trees. Fog-loving, green, and dripping with moisture in soft, cool, gray days, redwoods seemed a model of independence and self-sufficiency, just what I wanted to be.

I loved science and nature, so it wasn’t long before I wondered how it is that redwoods live long and grow to great heights. That was how I learned that they are not as solitary as I thought. Instead of deep roots to anchor them in the ground and find water far underground, like many other kinds of tree, redwoods grow dense mats of shallow roots, just beneath the surface.

And this is the important part: their roots interweave with the roots of other redwoods nearby. The closely twining roots hold them fast with their neighbors and keep them upright in the wind. These connected roots allow water and nutrients to be exchanged between trees, so that those that are struggling are aided by the other trees around them.

From these underground communities of roots, I learned that even the things that seem the most self-contained are not alone. And that my greatest sources of strength and inspiration can be the communities around me. Communities of people—family and friends—but also the rest of the living world around me too.

Art and science have always been my two loves, but I thought for a very long time that I had to choose one or the other. I did as much art as I could growing up because I thought I would need to give it up or relegate it to a hobby when I grew up and became a serious scientist. I studied biology in undergraduate and graduate school, meaning to become a research scientist, but as I studied, I realized that what is most important to me is communicating science and nature with other people. I want to share what I know about nature with everyone around me, binding together the work of scientists, my own observations, and my community in shared concern and care for our world.

I draw, I paint, and I write, using everything I see around me when I am out in nature, in my neighborhood, on nearby hikes, or traveling to other ecosystems. I especially love to use sketches drawn directly in the field to invite viewers and readers into that time and that place along with me.

Most importantly, I merge art and science to grapple with the consequences of climate change. When a wildfire burned a place I love to hike in the hills near Davis, I found a subject that I urgently needed to understand. My close study of Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve after the fire and regular monthly observations over six years culminated in the publication of my first book last year, The Cold Canyon Fire Journals. Through this study, I learned to see fire as an inextricable part of nature in California, essential to the plants and animals that have evolved here. And I am sharing this knowledge through words and images based on my own direct experiences.

In writing the book, I looked to the work of a long line of women nature writers before me, sharing their own experiences in nature with their communities and the world. From Rachel Carson, studying the sea and warning us to protect what we love, to Terry Tempest Williams, exploring environmental justice and the Utah wilderness. To Robin Wall Kimmerer, sharing an indigenous model of science and reciprocity with the natural world, and so many others. I looked to them for the curiosity and courage to investigate deeply my own particular natural places and what wildfire and climate change have meant for them.

I have a son, ten years old, and I walk and hike with him and look for all the beauty and wonder of the world around us. In both art and science, I think a lot about beauty and find it to be, most meaningfully, usefulness. Beauty is what serves the community and strengthens its relationships, both within our human communities and in the larger world around us.

There is great beauty in making communities wherever we are, like the coastal redwoods that grow in Davis. Far from their original home, they still find strength in the roots of their neighbors.

This is what we all have to offer each other, the support of our roots intertwining. Keeping us stable and strong, able to withstand wind and storm and sharing sustenance when times are difficult.

Sierra Writers Conference

I’m excited to talk about writing this weekend at the 2023 Sierra Writers Conference.

I’ll be describing how I constructed the literary narrative of The Cold Canyon Fire Journals and how I approach natural history writing more generally. We’ll explore the following themes:

  1. Storytelling on multiple levels: the stories of the individual organisms and how they relate to their habitats over time; the story of my own observations and interactions with the landscape; the stories of scientists and their research; and the larger narrative of environmental change.
  2. How I bring the place around me to life in writing using sensory details and close observation, and how I extend that close personal knowledge to an understanding of larger patterns in the world.
  3. Thinking ecologically to always situate the species I am considering into their broader environment—knowing that it is impossible to understand that one species without knowing all of the other lives to which it is tied.
  4. Sitting quietly and walking carefully and patiently to allow the stories to reveal themselves.

Registration and more details about the conference can be found here.

Reading the Ashes

As someone who never imagined publishing a book and who did not ever think I would be able to call myself a writer and author, I am exceptionally proud to have an essay published in The Common. My essay, “Reading the Ashes,” just came out in Issue 42, and is featured in both the online and print editions of the issue. It is accompanied by illustrations from my sketchbook. I can’t wait for the print version to arrive in my mailbox!

Interview on the Golden State Naturalist

I am thrilled to say that my interview with Michelle Fullner, the Golden State Naturalist, is up! Michelle and I met at Cold Canyon on a supremely hot August morning for a hike and conversation. We talked about my seven years of observations of Cold Canyon, fire ecology, the process of making The Cold Canyon Fire Journals, fire cycles in California, controlled and cultural burning, and so much more.

This episode starts the second season of Michelle’s podcast, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I love the range of interesting and engaging people she has picked to interview. She does a ton of research into each subject so that she can add plenty of background and her own thoughts to the final product. And I feel a strong kinship with her in how we approach science communication. We share a focus on making sure we understand the science behind our topics as fully as possible, and representing our subjects with thoughtfulness, consideration and respect.

I can’t wait to listen to Michelle’s upcoming episodes!

Publication Day!

Today is publication day for The Cold Canyon Fire Journals. I am writing this in utter amazement that the day has arrived, and so proud to have a book out in the world.

My book is the culmination of nearly six years hiking and sketching in a California canyon, burned twice in that time by wildfire. I set out to learn all I could about how the habitats there respond to fire, and how my own observations fit into the larger picture of climate change in California and the western US. It is about the insights and sometimes astounding shifts in perspective that can come from careful study of and immersion in a particular place, from experiencing an ecosystem over time, across the seasons and years.

In writing this book, I wanted to bring readers into this experience, through the narrative but also through my drawings. So the book is full of my actual sketchbook pages, telling the story in conversation with the text, and inviting you to walk with me a little way along the trail.

This project has taught me so much about what you can find when you look closely. It has introduced me to engaging, insightful, funny and warm people. It has helped me discover a writer in myself that I didn’t know existed.

As I watch the latest fires in California during yet another long, hot, dry summer, I am holding close the lessons I’ve learned from the newts and the horntails, the whispering bells and the lichens, and all the other denizens of the canyon.