Emily Raboteau and Sarah Viren on Climate Change, Birding, and Social Justice

The best essayists allow us to think more clearly but also more compassionately. Emily Raboteau is one of those essayists. Her writing on climate change over the past few years has helped me think through my own climate despair and to imagine what it might look like to “mother against ‘the apocalypse,” as the subtitle to her new essay collection reads. The title of that collection is Lessons for Survival, but the book itself is, as Emily notes in her epigraph, a quilt, one woven together with stories learned and stories told, with research and observation and, of course, essay.

Emily and I talked about her book via our own quilt of sorts, a shared Google doc, into which we dipped with questions (me) and answer (her) over a couple weeks in February of this year.

Sarah Viren


Sarah Viren: In this book, you are often in movement, mostly across New York City, but in one essay in Palestine, and in another, on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in Alaska. You are also often in conversation with others, and their voices begin to feel both like a chorus, but also a village. At a time when climate change has left so many people moored in place and isolated from others, you seem to have had the opposite instinct. Can you tell me about the need to move, and to talk to others?

Emily Raboteau: I’m a traveler at heart. I feel most alive, awake, and in love with the world when I’m traveling. My last book, Searching for Zion, was a work of travel-writing marketed as social science. Since having kids a little more than a decade ago, I’ve been more rooted at home in New York City. I don’t like leaving them for more than a week or two. I had to learn to train that traveler’s gaze on my home place.

And when I did that, I started noticing all these signs. Quite literally, signs about the effects of climate change on my home place. Signs that stopped me in my tracks and piqued my curiosity. The first essay that I wrote about climate change was an effort to confront and document those signs, which were part of a public art project staged around the five boroughs. Structurally, this was something I’d already undertaken by writing about another public art project—murals about police brutality in neighborhoods like ours.

I started a practice of taking pictures of local public artworks about social and environmental issues as part of my writing. The need to move and talk is strategic to me, inborn, not merely foundational to my book, but to my life. I feel less alone, less scared, working through threats with other people. Threats to our  kids, especially.

SV: When you came to Arizona in 2022, I took you and two other visiting writers to see the Desert Botanical Gardens, and somewhere along the “Plants and People of the Sonoran Desert Loop Trail” I remember us talking about the often difficult work of finding a book’s shape. You told me you were struggling with the architecture of your book, but that you had been inspired by Greg Pardlo, who told you he had structured his memoir around images.

The need to move and talk is strategic to me, inborn, not merely foundational to my book, but to my life. I feel less alone, less scared, working through threats with other people. Threats to our  kids, especially.

Can you talk about the structure you finally landed on for this book? What was important to you when figuring out its order and shape?

ER: The two other writers were Meehan Crist, who’s expanding her landmark essay for the London Review of Books, “Is it OK to Have a Child?” into a book, and David Montgomery, who dared to write about environmental hope for the Washington Post after losing his brother and niece to a California mudslide. I remember that conversation with you in the gardens because you were editing your book, To Name the Bigger Lie, which incorporated a knockout essay you’d written for the New York Times Magazine, and I was hoping to learn from you how you made the structural leap from essay to book.

I would describe my book as a mosaic essay collection. It’s like a quilt. There are leitmotifs—operating metaphors and recurring images that I hope help stitch the parts together. Water. Birds. Parks. Dinner tables. Signs.

Years ago I asked Greg Pardlo what he knew about writing nonfiction as a poet that I didn’t know as a non-poet. He won the Pulitzer for poetry, so I figured I should ask. He also wrote a memoir called Air Traffic about his dad, a labor organizer who lost his job following the air traffic controller’s strike of 1981.

Greg told me that just as in his poems, he thought a lot about metaphor while crafting that book. For example, there’s a broken boat in the driveway of his childhood home that never goes into the water. When it comes to thwarted ambition, that image says it all.

SV: One ordering element for me in your book was “The Talk.” It’s a motif, and a repeated reality in your life: a lesson you first received as the child of a Black parent and later gave as the mother to two Black boys. But “The Talk” also feels instructive to your readers in that it is a conversation meant as a warning but issued out of love and a deep desire for one’s loved ones to survive. Can you talk about “The Talk?” Both the meaning it has in your life but also in this book?

ER: My brothers and I got “The Talk” from my dad when I was ten years old. My brothers were thirteen, seven, and one at the time. The littlest brother must have gotten the Talk again when he came of age. I remember my dad drinking a Rob Roy to help him get through it. And apropos of nothing, maybe just to let off steam after giving us the Talk, which he didn’t want to give us anymore than his mother  had wanted to give it to him, he quoted the first eighteen lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

So in my mind, those two narratives are intertwined in some mysterious and metaphysical way I tried to work out in this book. Our lives were at risk. That was one message. We came from historically resilient people. That was another. And on top of that, pilgrimages could be undertaken in community with others.

In the fifth and final movement of the book, I’m writing about grief on personal and planetary scales. There’s a braided essay, for example, on climate change effects in the Arctic, and my dad’s death. One of my early readers was environmental writer Elizabeth Rush, who wrote Rising and The Quickening. She said she wanted to feel my father’s loss on a more emotional level, and I realized that meant readers needed to see him as he was in life.

So I went back to the book’s first movement quite late in the editorial process and included the Talk, in scene, as he’d delivered it. Then the idea of pilgrimages vis-a-vis The Canterbury Tales became a leitmotif I wove throughout. I see the book as a series of pilgrimages, seeking enlightenment on how to handle existential threats. And also an effort to connect with liberation struggles outside this nation that so often threatens Black life.

SV: I’m so glad you brought up your father, because I was about to. There’s an essay late in the book, in that fifth movement, in which you attend a dinner party and are given the seat of honor, a gesture you later realize was meant to honor your grief following the death of your father. That move by your friend, to make space for your grief, was so touching (I cried).

But it also felt in keeping with a move you make throughout your book, which is to make space for the grief, and also the joy, of others in the face of climate change, structural racism, sexism, a global pandemic, and on and on. What were your thoughts about balancing grief and joy (and a landscape of other emotions) in writing this book?

ER: I cried, too! It was so radically generous of my friend Ayana to make space for my grief at a holiday dinner party. I wanted, to the best of my ability, to make space in this book for all the feelings this polycrisis era of radical change is engendering in myself and in the people around me.  Grief is one of those feelings. Despair. Bewilderment. Rage. Hope. Curiosity. Gratitude. It helps to name all the feelings so we don’t feel stuck in any one of them, and to acknowledge how they alter our brains.

You know that Rilke poem, “Go to the Limits of Your Longing?” As you may remember, it circulated widely during the pandemic. I often think about these lines from that poem: “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. / Just keep going. No feeling is final.”

Sometimes I recite these lines, like a mantra, or a prayer. As for the narrative balance of grief and joy, I wrote to Barry Lopez for writing advice about this before he died. He wrote me back—a letter, not an email. He said he didn’t know the answer, but that I had asked the right question. These were his words:

Perhaps one of the problems we’re having as writers around this issue is that we don’t know how to paint a dark enough picture and then follow this with an evocation of humanity’s strengths that empowers or animates people sufficiently to keep them from caving in the face of the dark picture.

Then he recommended I read Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, which I did.

SV: What a gift to have both Rilke’s words and Barry Lopez’s letter in your answer. That feels in keeping with the polyvocal quality of your book, the way that others’ voices–those of friends, strangers, people online—are heard alongside your voice, and those voices are heard alongside Chaucer’s, or your father quoting Chaucer, and you quoting your father quoting Chaucer.

Another voice was Emily Dickinson’s, and her famous line, “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers.” That line felt tucked inside another central image, that of the Audubon bird murals across New York, which you seek out over the course of this book. Can you talk about the idea of a “Spark bird” and how that concept guided you in writing and thinking?

ER: The writer Lacy M. Johnson taught me that term, “spark bird,” which for bird-lovers is the specific bird that sparked an interest in bird-watching. I’m not a bird-watcher, strictly speaking. But I had a spark bird that sent me on this path of photographing bird murals in upper Manhattan.

The first mural I noticed was on 145th St., in Harlem. It’s of a pair of burrowing owls. There are dozens of bird murals uptown (where Audubon used to live), mostly painted on riot gates, of species expected by 2080 to be extinct owing to climate change. I undertook a kind of pilgrimage to document all the bird murals. It’s an ongoing project.

On the one hand, yes, these birds feel like symbols of hope. On the other, they’re endangered, as are many of the people who live in the zip codes in which they appear, which is so sorrowful.

On the one hand, yes, these birds feel like symbols of hope. On the other, they’re endangered, as are many of the people who live in the zip codes in which they appear, which is so sorrowful. My photographs and reflections about the birds (making space for grief and hope) populate the book, as a means of tying it together.

SV: I just saw Lacy at AWP last month, and we talked about your book, and about the climate reading group you all have formed, of (mostly) women writing about our endangered world, which made me so happy to hear. The ways in which we build community in the face of danger and threats feels central to your collection.

But another concern I saw, especially toward the end, was that of tending to the land on which we build that community and/or raise our families. In your telling, that includes daily acts of caretaking but also an acknowledgement of, and knowledge of, the deep history of the land. So I’d like to leave you with one question, which we can leave unexplained if you want: How is the pond today?

ER: The pond in the street in front of our house understands itself to be a remnant of the wetlands on which our neighborhood was built, and that it will someday be absorbed into the powerful body of water that is the rising sea. When we moved into the house, we didn’t yet understand that we should ask the pond for permission to live beside it, nor that the pond was our teacher. The pond is a sign, a site of memory, and a warning, but more importantly, the pond has its own spirit.


Lessons for Survival: Mothering Against "The Apocalypse" - Raboteau, Emily

Lessons for Survival: Mothering Against “the Apocalypse” by Emily Raboteau is available via Holt.

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