“Then I’d been surrendering to rage. Now I was freeing into life.”
-from Beaver Girl by Cassie Premo Steele
I live in a deeply rural state. But I don't regret it.
Honestly, when I watch shows that are set in major cities, I feel sorry for the people who live surrounded by miles of concrete. What chance do they have of wanting to make environmental change when they've lost touch with what nature even is?
My wife and I both work from home, so instead of a commute, we feed birds. We have come to know the birds in the yard by name. One day during the pandemic, we noticed a male cardinal who looked like he’d been through a bad bar fight. The red feathers on his head were gone. All that was left was a little black stump.
“It gets better,” my wife said to him, as we tried to bolster his spirits and our own.
The phrase also has echoes of the campaign founded by Dan Savage and his husband Terry Miller to encourage LGBTQ+ young people to hold on, to persevere until they find the communities and friends who will assure them that bigotry and hatred are not ubiquitous.
It Gets Better became his name.
Here we are, three years later, and he has come to flaunt his uniqueness and gain respect from us and his peers.
Is this nothing?
Like many other beings in western capitalist culture, such as women, children, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people, nature itself has been objectified and reduced to its use value.
Nature has been made into a thing just as we have been.
The rude calls out of vehicles when women and people of color and LGBTQ+ people walk down the street?
These are the growls of predators.
But not apex predators.
These calls come from those in the middle of the food chain who are being eaten away minute by minute on a low hourly wage or by their identities as straight males.
But they, at least, have a voice.
If you’ve ever stood on the side of the street as the car rolls away, wondering if you should flip a bird and if this would escalate the situation, then you know what I mean.
If you haven’t, you might at least have compassion?
Is this no thing?
Recently while meeting with my therapist, I had one of those “aha” moments like I used to love watching on the Oprah Show.
“I just realized,” I said to her. “I often mistake compassion for judgment.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“I mean that when a friend is suffering, I sometimes feel bad offering sympathy because, in a deep part of me, I hear it as judgment, and I don’t want to judge my friend.”
“Tell me more.”
“Well, I guess I think that when I’m not feeling great, I must have done something to deserve it. So I don’t want to share these feelings with others because I’m already ashamed and judging myself.”
Later, I realized that we also extend this compassion/judgment crux to nature itself.
Are we moved to tears by stories of coral reefs being bleached to deadly white?
Or do we get angry and resentful of Everything that is causing such destruction?
And does this result in a kind of overwhelm and paralysis so no change happens?
Do we conclude that those with power, the very structures of society itself, form an Everything that allows Nothing outside itself?
And are we, too, Nothing?
By living in a state that is rural, I am able to maintain a relationship with the natural world such that it’s impossible for me to see it as a thing, and I find this resistance deeply satisfying.
One morning years ago, when my wife was starting a new job, a heron in the neighborhood left her a small fish by her car door.
A gift to thank her for her work.
Because we all work.
Some work for greed. Some work for care.
This is no small thing.
This past July 4th, as I was cutting the grass, I heard an “egg song” coming from our chicken coop.
We had learned, from raising chickens, that they sing after laying an egg. A kind of pride song, a celebration and announcement that their work is done.
It was strange, though, because our chickens are past laying age, and I hadn’t heard the song in almost a year.
When I came in from mowing the grass, the look on my wife’s face said something was wrong.
“I went to check on the chickens,” she said. “Skye is dead.”
Our hardest worker, a black and white Barred Plymouth Rock, the one who was the first to lay after our daughter left for college, the one who laid every single day for years, was dead.
And she’d sung her own praise song before she went.
This is no small thing.
One Friday afternoon, I sat down next to my dog, Lenny Bruce, to knit and listen to Science Friday and heard a story about beavers: it seems that the places in the American West that have healthy beaver populations are surviving the increasing wildfires that are resulting from climate change.
Beavers are saving the environment.
Beavers can save us.
This struck me in a way that I’ve experienced before when I felt an idea for a book coming.
But this time, I did something I’d never done. I treated myself with more compassion than judgment and I tweeted about it. I asked for help.
And the #beaverbeliever community responded.
I received book recommendations from beaver scholars such as Frances Backhouse, Alison Zak and Emily Fairfax, who’d been the one interviewed on Science Friday in the first place.
I even received a Google Drive link to photographs of beavers taken by Ben Goldfarb, the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Eager: The Surprising, Secret Story of the Life of Beavers and Why They Matter.
The next morning, I went for a walk in my neighborhood with my dog Lenny.
We took our usual route, a two-mile loop that meanders past creeks and ponds in our woody, swampy neighborhood.
And one mile from our house, in the largest nearby pond, there they were.
Bites on the trees.
Evidence of beavers within walking distance of my house.
I had walked by this pond for years, and here they were, right here. One day after having the idea for my novel, Beaver Girl.
This is no small thing.
Was it luck that I saw evidence of beavers in my neighborhood right after having the idea for the novel?
Serendipity? Coincidence? Or a sign?
Proof of a deeper pattern at work in all of existence? In beingness itself?
I don’t know.
I do know that I’m lucky that the editors at Outcast and Anxiety Presses are not afraid to publish a novel that takes place after climate collapse and is told through two alternating points of view: Livia, a 19-year-old survivor of sexual assault and Chap, the father of a growing beaver family surviving deep within a national forest.
I lost count of the numbers of publishers who said, basically, “We don’t want talking animals.”
Silence is complicity, y’all.
And combatting this is the reason that we as writers, especially novelists, exist.
That is really something.
Cassie Premo Steele, an ecofeminist lesbian novelist, blends nature, gender, and love in her new novel, Beaver Girl, which champions diverse characters – both human and animal – who navigate the complexities of identity and survival. Carving a distinctive niche in contemporary storytelling, Beaver Girl inspires a deeper appreciation of the interconnectedness of humanity and nature. Read an excerpt at www.cassiepremosteele.com