Sunday, January 15, 2017

Q&A with Adrienne Ross Scanlan

Adrienne Ross Scanlan is the author of the new book Turning Homeward: Restoring Hope and Nature in the Urban Wild. She is the nonfiction editor of the Blue Lyra Review, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Fourth River and Pilgrimage. She lives in Seattle.

Q: In the book, you focus on the idea of “tikkun olam.” What does it mean for you, and how do you connect it to nature?

A: Writing Turning Homeward – Restoring Hope and Nature in the Urban Wild was an education in tikkun olam (the Jewish concept of “repairing the world”).

Until I began researching the book, I had no idea how far-reaching and diverse a concept tikkun olam is, how many meanings it’s had over the centuries, or its varying importance to Jewish life. Nature isn’t static; it evolves, and so do we, and so does our understanding of tikkun olam.

Repairing the world is a process of gaining knowledge (which is different from having your assumptions validated), taking informed action, learning what worked and what didn’t  (which sometimes means finding out what you’d rather not know), and going forward from there.

Maybe your choices aren’t the best or the outcomes perfect. Just the same, a harm was prevented or repaired, and something more positive becomes possible.

Continuing with the nature metaphor, tikkun olam isn’t a matter of planting a tree and then leaving. (Sometimes that’s the best you can do.) It’s a matter of caring for the forest. A tree can live a century or longer depending on the species. Tikkun olam means being concerned with the here and now, and with the future.

Q: You are focusing in the book on the Pacific Northwest. What lessons can you draw from the nature of that region for other parts of the country and the world?

A: Most of the environmental issues Turning Homeward addresses are specific to the Pacific Northwest, but the way a place becomes a home, and the lessons to be found there occur anywhere.

Those dying bee populations, that weird weather and hot temperatures and Antarctic ice floes that are breaking away, the native birds that aren’t showing up at your feeders any longer, the reports of lead and other pollutants in your water supply?

Environmental issues are international and national, sure, but also as close as our cities, neighborhoods, and homes. We need informed actions – repairs – on all those levels. And those repairs need to be grounded in knowledge of home and place if they’re to be effective.

Q: How did you decide on the book’s organization and what was your writing process like?

A: I began Turning Homeward shortly before my daughter’s birth and completely underestimated the time it would take to research, write, and revise a book. Between a newborn at home and being hard-hit by the 2008 economic crash progress on the book was highly interrupted, to say the least.

I focused the first draft as a series of stand-alone essays that would fit into a collection. Early feedback showed the book wasn’t working. There was no connective tissue, no “why” or central question holding the chapters together.

Struggling with how to re-write it forced me to ask more deeply why I was out there being a citizen scientist at salmon streams or weeding invasive species from city parks or planting trees or protecting a bumble bee colony that had invaded my home.

I realized that so much of my motivation to restore nature was grounded in my Jewish identity and that was intertwined with tikkun olam.

That still left the problem of creating a narrative arc. One day I had the epiphany that I could re-name each chapter not thematically but after a specific place. Well, when was I at those places, and what else was happening in my life?

Suddenly I had the long view of the book as a story of finding home, and I could deepen Turning Homeward through that quest.

Q: How was the title chosen and what does it signify to you?

A: Turning Homeward is the story of a woman who comes to understand her life by discovering the place where she lives, and understand the complexities of repairing the world by learning, engaging, and literally getting her hands dirty.

What’s restored isn’t just urban nature but hope – the capacity to act out of knowledge and love even when so much is unknown.

The title needed to convey all of that. I think Turning Homeward – Restoring Hope and Nature in the Urban Wild is a tad long, but it does convey the heart of the book.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have an enormous backlog of essays and short stories in first-draft form, and I’ve also started notes towards a second book on urban nature restoration.

Last year, I asked my then 7-year old daughter if she wanted to come to a tree-planting event. She announced that she hated planting trees because it was boring and so was nature (unless she’s camping with her best friends), and she wouldn’t plant any trees with me, ever.

I was so upset I couldn’t sleep that night and literally had a midnight eureka: if she won’t plant one tree, I’ll plant a thousand. So far I’ve only gotten a few dozen in the ground so I have quite a ways to go on planting trees and writing words about it.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Turning Homeward is a great choice for a book club. It’s short (160 pages) but substantive, and goes beyond urban nature to explore issues of marriage, family life, and caring for an infirm parent.

Mountaineers Books is offering a 20 percent discount if the book is ordered directly from their site, and I’m available to talk with book clubs in person or via Skype. Details are on my website. I’d love to hear from any book club, anywhere. We’d have a lot to talk about, I’m sure.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb


  1. So nice to learn more about Adrienne's book here. Thanks for posting this in the Jewish Book Carnival!

    1. You're very welcome--I'm glad you enjoyed the interview!