In Antarctica, I watched Adélie penguins steal one another’s rocks, with which they build their nests, all of them fighting for the best real estate, the highest and driest ground. I saw gentoo chicks panting in unseasonable heat. I listened to our boat’s naturalists talk of illegal whaling vessels in the Southern Ocean and of fishing trawlers depleting the seas of krill, a major food source for penguins. For many of these 17 species, mere survival is becoming an ever-increasing challenge.
Two years later, I went to Patagonia as a volunteer for a penguin census at the Punta Tombo colony in Argentina’s Chubut Province. I walked alongside researchers with the University of Washington’s Center for Penguins as Ocean Sentinels as we looked into penguin nests—these birds burrow in the dusty ground rather than on rocky nests—and counted birds and eggs. While Punta Tombo is the world’s largest Magellanic penguin colony, conditions are worse for the penguins now than when this research began 30 years ago, due to overfishing, climate change, and oil pollution; the number of Magellanic nests has decreased by about one percent every year, with most chicks dying of starvation because their parents can’t find food close enough to the colony.
As a writer, I find myself channeling such environmental anxieties into stories and characters; seeing the ground zero of climate change in Antarctica and counting penguins in Argentina has caused me to view every word I write through an eco-focused lens, from how a story unfolds to how characters live and what they eat.
There’s no shortage of nonfiction about the environment and animal protection, but fiction has the power to open eyes and hearts in completely different ways. If you don’t believe the oceans are in trouble, for example, you’re not likely to pick up a nonfiction book that outlines exactly that. But if you like shipwrecks, maybe you’ll read a novel focused on a maritime disaster and in the process come to understand the plight of not only the people on the sinking ship but the penguins and other animals surrounding them.
Fiction humanizes the world around us, by contextualizing life into story—in the same way that, for me, one penguin came to represent not only the entire Magellanic species but the penguins of the world. At Punta Tombo, among the thousands of birds I counted, one of them stood out. His name is Turbo—so named because he’d inexplicably built a nest under a turbo truck instead of within a burrow, like the others of his species—and instead of looking for a mate, he preferred to hang out with the researchers.
Turbo has been tagged with a metal band, along with thousands of other birds in the colony. Yet while the other tagged birds have only five-digit numbers to identify them, Turbo has a name, a story. It’s been a decade since I met Turbo, and even now, whenever I receive updates on the colony, I look first for his name, for confirmation of his return from his months at sea. As long as he’s still with us, I feel a sense of hope.
As a reader, I like to feel the same glimmer of hope for our planet, and I’ve sought out books that share my passions and anxieties about animals and the environment. The fact that there are fewer than I’d hoped to find led to my co-founding a small press to help bring more of these books into the world. Great stories, well told, about environmental issues are vital to our literary culture and speak to the greatest challenge of our time: climate change and its effect on the planet and its wildlife.
I’m inspired by the writers on this list, who have woven environmental themes into their fiction, raising important issues without ever sacrificing story. These authors also see the myriad ways in which everything is connected and subtly and seamlessly allow readers to connect the dots as well.