Using the pastoral setting of the Coastal Studies Center on Orr’s Island as their backdrop, 12 students joined Sarah Braunstein for a recent writing workshop that focused on threatened and destroyed landscapes.
Braunstein, a novelist and writer of short stories and essays, is Bowdoin’s current Coastal Studies Scholar. She designed the Saturday workshop to encourage students to use fiction writing to imagine a world dealing with the effects of environmental destruction.
Braunstein and Emily Tucker ’15, the center’s student coordinator, early on in the workshop presented an example of an ecological disaster — the Salton Sea, a man-made body of water created from the overflow of a damming project in California. In the 1950s, the shore became a big tourist attraction and resort spot, “the Riviera of the West.” But when the water salinity increased and pollution killed the marine life, the place became abandoned.
Braunstein showed footage from a documentary about the Saltan Sea that shows a post-apocolyptic landscape with deserted houses, rusted car frames and spray-painted graffiti on salt-encrusted, deteriorating structures. The group discussed how this one environmental failure highlights the destructive domino effects that humans can have on their environment.
After a group analysis of Wells Tower’s short story “Raw Water,” which similarly touches on human’s dark potential for ecological destruction, Braunstein asked the students, “What does life look like in the midst of disaster?”
Braunstein and Tucker then proposed a fictitious city set 50 to 100 years from now in Southern California that would be the focus of the students’ writing for the day. Sitting around a small table, the students and Braunstein brainstormed the types of environmental issues that would plague the city, called Amparo. They identified three main problems: drought, air pollution, and wild fire.
The group discussed how these problems might be grappled with in the future, and how they would affect humans. “What happens to people and their relationships when landscapes are imperiled?” Braunstein probed.
Student had thirty minutes to invent and write about a character in Amparo. They then reconvened to share their written sketches. The characters varied widely in their responses to the stressed conditions, and the pieces ranged from grave and realist to humorous and satirical. Each provided a unique point of view on the social and personal effects of ecological distress. After sharing their characters, the students imagined how their characters would interact with each other.
Braunstein encouraged the students to keep working on their stories. She said she wants to create both an online collection of Amparo stories and to set up a physical installation of the short stories on campus.