JANUARY 17, 2019
IF MARRIED OR CO-JOINED LIFE has started to feel, on occasion, like Armageddon instead of paradise, or if you have, over the years, been wearied by the “all or nothing” rhetoric of climate change debates, then you will appreciate Nicole Walker’s perspective on how we might heal our relationships with: 1) our long-term partners, 2) our planet, and 3) our most imperfect selves. Sustainability: A Love Story presents, in effect, 21st-century relationship counseling for the environmentally wayward. Walker sets out from her fire-stick-dry home in Arizona to examine her ambiguous attachment to the world and invites us along on a wildly varied dialectical trek in search of a new, shared way.
She does this by scrutinizing her quietly seismic relationship with her husband, Erik. She is nostalgic for the early days of their romance, for a time of “hot sex” on “hot rocks,” and for Portland, Oregon, that “perpetually sustainable,” ever-wet ex-lover of a place. Walker’s unique proposition here — her counsel, if you will — is that a marriage reboot is useful not only for its own sake but also for helping heal our connection to this planet we have so deplorably neglected and abused. In order to survive — to sustain both ourselves and our unions, inter-human or human-planetary — we need, Walker argues, to treat the world and our domestic companions not peevishly or dismissively but as beloveds, beings we hope deep down — and in spite of the abuse we’ve doled out — might yet love us back.
Throughout Sustainability, Walker engages in an ever-deepening exploratory discourse that reflects the methods of both couples’ therapy and — the real surprise — suicide prevention. There are ingenious echoes here of the Gottman Method, a popular program in which the divided parties create “love maps” that allow them to walk one another’s divergent paths with the promise of reaching a new land of shared plenty. In terms of suicide deterrence, Walker addresses, mostly, the universal part of the “Universal, Selective, and Indicated” prevention model, in which potential victims — in this case, all of humanity — are identified and taught, among other things, effective coping skills.
In Walker’s lyrical opening, “Dear Rain,” she demonstrates this process of crisis intervention by first acknowledging and articulating — as any good therapist would advocate — the complexity of the issues at hand. She pens an intimate letter to the natural world, specifically to the skies above her Flagstaff home, giving us in the process a kind of model. Part billet-doux, part rant, this candid missive expresses her admiration for — and disappointments with — the place where she lives, as well as her sense of betrayal (“The clouds […] give nothing. Don’t even bother asking”). This sets the tone for the honest, hypocrisy-avoidant investigation that follows. The idea of sustainability, Walker reasons, is quite different from the big “no” of radical environmentalism; it permits — in moderation — cars and beer-drinking and beef tacos, the things that make life easier and more fun, while leaving room for us to voice our confusion about the less lovely things that we do (trashing the landscape and one another) and that nature throws at us — fire, drought, hunger, disease … bats! The eminently sensible point here is that embracing sustainable rather than puritanical practices is, in itself, a viable, sustainable approach to both marriage and climate change: one that just might work to save us all.
This metaphorical double-hander feels revelatory enough, but when Walker adds her third, unexpected strand — a frank, meditative discussion of suicide — it turns out, rather astonishingly, to bind the whole argument together. Before we can save the planet or our marriage, she reminds us, we need to have compassion for ourselves, need to sustain our belief in our own life, even when things seem dire. Walker has seen the effects of addiction and despair, and she offers plenty of examples of how people destroy themselves — from Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Williams, and David Foster Wallace to her sister’s boyfriend, who killed himself as a young teenager. She connects these acts with our collective embrace of various human-made weapons of destruction, including the toxins with which we are laying waste to the planet. Hang in there, she says: watch for signs. Fire and flood come quickly, unannounced, as does inner desolation.
She weaves in here, too, the issue of guns, suggesting that gun violence expresses an addiction and death wish not so different from the resource-munching compulsion that feeds our comfortable post-industrial lifestyles. It’s a classic American dilemma, inexorable as global warming, California burning, and the rest of us under water, our despondency a reasonable response to the facts and statistics confronting us (Walker gives us just enough: she understands their limited power to move us). Yet this is where she advocates, almost unbelievably, for optimism. Her favorite approach to the problem of global warming, she admits, is believing that we’ll be better off for it: “Arizona, soaked, will become tropical. Rivers will flow. Mosses will grow. It will be Oregon everywhere all over again. I will leave this Michigan warmer, this Arizona wetter, this Utah more lilac-ridden for my children.”
She knows this is a foolish hope, but she keeps herself open, in any case, to possibility, as every parent must. Giving up isn’t the answer, she posits, and neither is polarized deafness. Explore each other’s world, she advises, in essence adopting Gottman’s sage counsel to “turn towards instead of away […] apply a positive perspective […] manage conflict by accepting each other’s influence […] talk together.” Advice as useful for the politicians in Washington as for a marriage.
Walker’s approach involves a radically ambitious braiding technique: the chapters are a linked series that revisit and develop the author’s recurring bundle of themes. This narrative and rhetorical lacing results in a thick, 280-page plait of an argument, whose uncertainties slide and grip against one another, creating a rope-like strength the reader can only admire. In a 2017 piece entitled “The Braided Essay as Social Justice Action,” Walker explains how this mental braiding allows the creative nonfiction writer to shape and reshape “self against fact.” Those facts, she says, “are the glacier to the soft canyon of your own history. You see the history newly. You see the facts a little more softly.”
It is just this kind of careful sculpting that she practices in Sustainability, exploiting the pressure created by the interplay between the human and the scientific, narrative and rhetoric, local and global. In so doing, she celebrates the importance of resistance, illuminating its value in the present, polarized moment in American and global politics. As she puts it: “[T]he braided form expands the conversation, presses upon the hard lines of ideology, stretches the choices beyond right or left, one or the other. Metaphor helps challenge the stultified pathways of our neural networks and test the elasticity of thought.” In other words, this kind of two- or three-handed discourse — what Walker recognizes as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of “first-rate intelligence” — represents a form of reasoning on which our survival depends.
This method necessarily requires some repetition, and while sometimes these recurrences can seem superfluous, the breathless sense of wanting to “get it all in” while there’s still time is useful in communicating the urgency Walker rightly feels. Perhaps an epigraph would have helped tie things together — though we do get Hegel and WALL-E, Borges and Dickinson later on, and Walker offers many of her own intriguing aphorisms along the way: “Marriage is the nature the human participants seek to destroy. Marriage is its own patient fixer. Give it time”; “The war with the self is the most brutal war”; “To heal the suicide, you have to stop speaking to yourself in the third person”; “You don’t have to understand your story to narrate it.”
More often than not, she lets us draw our own conclusions about how the various threads connect, though the most delightful results, for me, derived from the chapters in which Walker acts as a guide. (When husband Erik jumps on an Italian train ahead of his pregnant wife, trusting she will follow, she waits miserably for him to return; he doesn’t. Point: “No one is going to rescue us.”) Once in a while, left in charge of the strands, I began to lose the logic of the weave and had to start over. In the chapter “Sustenance,” for example, Walker leaps from tacos to DNA to free will to suicide; I lost my grip and stumbled on the nuance. She seems to know when she has led us a bit off-trail, however, and swoops in to save us with a reliable example, a tender or humorous anecdote, or the satirical charm of a pet peeve — here, have a story about a sick dog, a piece of ugly spousal headgear, a disastrous trip to Sam’s Club (I dare you not to feel this one in your marrow). She reorients us, and things fall, rather cleverly, into place. It is, in fact, in Walker’s commitment to uncertainty that the book’s progressively potent effect lies. You have to trust yourself and stick with it to benefit from its intricate, Byzantine beauty: it is in itself an exercise in sustainability.
Walker’s very human, candid voice helps when the going gets tough. Fully alert to hypocrisy, she berates — then tries to forgive — herself as much as others for being her family’s (and perhaps her reader’s) nemesis as much as their goddess — or, at the other end of the scale, for failing to live up to her anti-consumerist principles. She is an environmentalist who examines her own issues with impatience and guilt and despair, anxious to recognize the burning log in her own eye before jamming her finger into the next trash-dumping person’s McDonald’s-munching snozzle to remove his (not inconsiderable) mote. Throughout, she remains so deeply conscious of her own carbon and relational footprint — and everyone else’s — that she balks, almost, at living. She understands the dangers of being a tiresome “asshole” — a “Judgey McJudgerson” (“Thinking you are good turns you mean”) — and reminds herself as much as us that preachy environmental rhetoric changes little. She knows that her subject is, historically, an unpopular one, that her multilayered work might easily go ignored, and she chooses an approachable — and therefore sustainable — delivery.
In the end, Walker, remaining open to choice, offers us a singular one. Either we fall into despair or we pay attention to the small stuff, trying to embrace life while we’ve still got enough rain and oxygen to enjoy it. “If we can’t get drunk off the weed and the grapes and the hops and the smell of lilac,” she says, “we’ll lose any sense of needing this place.” Sustainability: A Love Story suggests that we must work not to upbraid one another but to braid ourselves back together: you, me, the right, the left, the planet. Then, even if we burn, or drown, or indeed are shot to death — a terrible kind of suicide we’ve visited on ourselves as a result of our unsustainable refusal to see reason and of our increasingly polarized over-simplifications of the “truth” — we will at least leave the scene having shared some of the Earth’s riches, having cherished one another, and sustained, if nothing else, our magnificent human capacity for love.