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Environmental Writing Winners Announced!

October 28, 2015

We asked you to write about the Earth, our home. The results were pages and pages of beautiful, heartfelt and poetic writings about a climate in flux, vanishing rainforests, odes to the magnificent ocean, and stories about hope for a brighter, more sustainable future. During a stint at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Guest Judge Jonathan Mingle pored over this glittering selection of environmental writing and emerged with a handful of winners. Read on to find out what, in Jonathan’s words, made each of the winning pieces so special.

From Jonathan:

It was tough to choose from many essays written with verve and passion, but the prize goes to "Paradise (Almost) Lost" by Quixotica, and the runner-up is "Killing Stars" by Hanan Adi.

Both the winner and the runner-up succeed by bringing the reader along to particular places, and by revealing their own emotional upheaval as they move through damaged or altered zones of the natural world. The writers engage in close observation of their surroundings, of their own emotions and responses to what they see. They draw strong conclusions from those experiences about the larger, foreboding trends afoot—but they keep those larger messages anchored in the concrete detail.

Best Entry: "Paradise (Almost) Lost" by Quixotica

"Paradise (Almost) Lost" is a confident, moving cri de coeur based on personal experience. What makes the piece work are the close observations of actual places and sensations. Quixotica skillfully captures the "slow boil" quality of global scale changes wrought by human activity, how they creep up on us, on our animal neighbors, on whole ecosystems. The writer evokes the specter of climate change without even naming it, by describing a park ranger's outpost building on the coast of Costa Rica that is being claimed by a rising sea.The piece builds up tension effectively, moving implacably to a sobering conclusion: the real paradise is the one that we overlook, all around us, as we lose things "we will never get back and never even understand."


Her tone is at once conversational and authoritative, accessible and sweeping. There are some lovely images, too: as the writer snorkels in the sea, she is "sandwiched like a piece of paper pressed flat between the expanses of ocean and sky." The writer understands that a slight move of the observation lens can yield a radically different scene - the writer goes from the safety of floating beneath the surface to the emerging on the roiling waves above, and gets a taste of nature's indifference and power.

The writer is dealing with some profound, and profoundly thorny, questions: "What is it that we value in nature, when and if we value it?" And the flip-side: what do we stand to lose by not taking notice? Kudos to Quixotica for taking these difficult questions on, with clear eyes and unabashed affection for the little slice of rainforest she describes.

Runner-Up: "Killing Stars" by Hanan Adi

"Killing Stars" by Hanan Adi is a beautiful lament, written in a near-prophetic voice. But what makes it so moving is that she grounds her larger critique of humanity's choices ("what holds us now is a complex net of business transactions and convenience") in a tightly crafted account of her own journey to the desert, to camp and star-gaze with her father. Along the way, she gives us moments that are at once intensely personal, but also capture universal experiences - such as gazing in wonder as the stars wink on at the end of day. And how many of us have had this same intimation, in this age of climate and carbon awareness and foreboding: "For a long instant, I ignore that I ride in a machine that coughs copious carbon, a mobile smokestack itself, and let the speed invigorate me." She doesn't let herself off the hook; she concedes that "comfort and contentment are anesthetics to worry." Hanan's personal journey culminates in seeing that familiar comfort to ancient navigators, the North Star: "Polaris always led the stars, the hope."

Hanan finds clarity in studying the "bejeweled field of heaven", as she beautifully puts it. Pollution driven by our heedless consumption clouds the night sky, and in her skillful telling, the stars - or more precisely, our ability to see them - become a nightly measure of humanity's collective wisdom and priorities. Her language is rich, her imagery is vivid, and her warning rings clear: the stars may be fading, but as long as we can still see them, there's hope for us yet.


Best Peer Review: Anna Lang's Review of Amelia's piece, "Don't Let Our Future Go down the Drain"

The reviewer offers two very smart, helpful pieces of advice/encouragement: 1) give more specifics on both the impacts and solutions; and 2) the writer's focus on water's journey through the cycle (invisible to most of us, as we just turn on the faucet) is a brilliant stroke, full of narrative potential. A constructive review clearly conveys what's strongest about the piece (in this case, a sense of the high stakes, and the incisive observation that solutions to water scarcity require coordinated, collective action), and what can be improved. Anna concisely does both!


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