Megan Mayhew Bergman weaves the climate crisis into her new book
With climate change wreaking havoc on communities around the world, many of us wonder what kind of world will be left to our children. In her latest book, Vermont writer Megan Mayhew Bergman explores the idea of inheritance amid disaster.
The stories and novella in How Strange A Season circle around themes of climate change, Southern culture, birthright and humans’ fraught place in the natural world. In one story, a woman reexamines her life after inheriting a glass house in coastal California. In another, a farmer wrestles with her late father’s legacy and the struggling peach farm he left for her to salvage.
How Strange a Season is Bergman’s third book of short stories. She also writes for the Guardian, and directs Middlebury College’s environmental writing program and the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference. Mayhew Bergman spoke to Vermont Edition host Mikaela Lefrak about how she conceptualizes home, manages her fears about the future of the natural world and finds beauty in her daily life at her farm in Shaftsbury.
Here are excerpts from their conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.
Mikaela Lefrak: Ambivalence about home is a theme you return to again and again in these stories. Many of your characters are women in homes they've either inherited or fallen into — homes that seem like they don't quite fit. What got you thinking about those themes?
Megan Mayhew Bergman: I love that question. It's a question that I think about intellectually, academically, creatively, personally. As a writer, I'm really fascinated by the way people build their lives, particularly women. There's something about the last few years that has me really thinking about the sort of invisible expectations and systems that we participate in. Perhaps it's the pandemic or the social upheaval of the last few years, but I find myself and my peers thinking more critically about what those systems mean, and what authentic home means.
I'm also a deeply sentimental person. And I think part of my restlessness that comes out of my work is because I grew up in the South and I lived there for 30 years. I moved to Vermont when I started publishing at about age 29 or 30, and I've been here about 12 or 13 years. I always have this tug. The South feels like my biochemical home, but less my cultural home. That sort of friction is in so much of my creative work.
ML: You live on a farm in Vermont, but as you said, you grew up in the South. Do you feel ambivalent about the place you call home today? Or have you been able to plant those roots?
Mayhew Bergman: I won't lie. It's fraught. We live in this wonderful farmhouse. It was built in 1834, and it totally suits my Nancy Drew complex. We actually have a practice tombstone in the basement, and we live next to a historic graveyard and Shaftsbury. When I first made this transition, I felt like this place was more of my husband's than my own. That tension shows up in all of my books — all of us are just trying to figure out who we are and what we're made of, and what suits us.
I will say, the pandemic deepened my relationship with this farm and with this property, and with Vermont. I felt it held me and my family so safely. We could grow our own food here, I could take beautiful walks. I've always appreciated nature, but I think I appreciated it that much more — just the solace that's possible in it. And so I will say the pandemic improved my relationship with with the farm.
Lefrak: As I read your book I kept thinking about the concept of climate migration — people giving up their homes to move to places like Vermont that feel safer or more well suited to withstand rising temperatures and natural disasters. Is that a concept you thought about as you wrote this book?
Mayhew Bergman: Absolutely. I wrote one story, "Inheritance," when I was speaking in Yosemite. I'd driven over to Big Sur during one of the landslides that had blocked off both sides of the highway. I could just feel the precarity of this beautiful place, and I was thinking about how people in different states of privilege and lack of privilege are already starting to move. We don't always call it climate migration, but it's absolutely happening in lots of places.
When I integrate issues like that into fiction, I have a high degree of trust in my reader. I think readers are pretty allergic to righteousness. I have a mentor, Amy Hempel, who always said it has to be story first, and it has to be character first. I didn't want climate change, or any kind of big issue, to feel like they were driving the story. I wanted it to be already very real and already pressing down on on people and [affecting how] we make choices. We've underestimated the spiritual toll that environmental degradation is going to have on on us, and I think the relocation of home is just one small part of that.
Lefrak: I want to ask you now about rage. A lot of the women in this book seem to have a very carefully controlled rage, or rage that's bubbling up and threatening to come out onto the surface or turn into action. What enrages you and how do you express those emotions?
Mayhew Bergman: Anger is an uncomfortable emotion. It certainly doesn't agree with the southern lady training that I received down South as a child. But there's something I heard once that really revolutionized the idea of anger for me — that anger is a secondary emotion to hurt. Often what we're furious about is actually broken-heartedness or pain or tenderness. I love honoring that complexity. For me, it's intellectually important to let women be ugly and expansive and large, and have the range of emotions that we're used to seeing men have. We're all human.
In these last few years, we're all suffering, we're lonely, we're frustrated. For me as a woman, when I write, I want to honor the messiness of the human experience. I think a lot of writers think about how to get a character's full humanity on the page. I wanted to honor the importance of rage, but also the hurt underneath it.
Lefrak: How do you balance teaching with writing?
Mayhew Bergman: That part is hard. I will say, sometimes teaching helps me clarify what I think and believe about writing, and what writing can do. In my best moments, I find myself sitting with students and talking about what an incredible opportunity we have to connect with our readers, to not waste their time, to offer some sort of experience or gift, whether it's beauty or entertainment or transcendence, or taking them to someplace they've never been. What are the things that we can actually offer the reader generously and as a gift? I love being able to sit with young people and help them think about how to do this thing they really want to do. Ultimately, writing is an act of connection. For me, it's exciting to think about the opportunity to bridge divides in our very divided culture. I think young people have an aptitude and a willingness to do that, and I love being able to serve that impulse.
Lefrak: I want to end with a quote that I read from an interview that you did with Lit Hub. They recently compiled thoughts from environmental writers about what keeps them hopeful in the face of climate change. You wrote something that that really struck me: "I train myself to find solace in beauty, even damaged beauty." I love that you said you have to train yourself, because it acknowledged the effort that it takes. How exactly do you train yourself to see beauty?
Mayhew Bergman: I love this question. I'm actually giving a talk to a group of psychoanalysts on this very topic — on how to develop a practice for noticing beauty. I read that people develop a gratitude practice in order to maintain happiness. Part of the idea behind that is training the eye. Once you start focusing on things you're grateful for, you tend to look for them, and that changes your worldview. I think beauty can be the same way. There's a lot of scientific data out there that shows that our brain activity and contentment and feelings of solace can increase when we're looking at the forest canopy and fractals and things like that. So I think, especially in this time, where it feels like there's so much negative energy and information around the state of our planet, it seems to be a valuable practice to start to notice what's still beautiful. There's the line that gets repeated almost every day in all conservation circles: We will not save what we do not love. An act of attention is an act of love.
Broadcast on Friday, May 13, 2022, at noon.