The Nature of Immersion

Posted by Michael on February 21, 2013

By Jill Quinn 

As a nature writer, I have interviewed ichneumon wasps about their egg-laying process; spoken with maples about their sap production; sat with Lake Superior stones as they revealed to me their metamorphic histories; and talked with the queens of European honeybee colonies about what it means to be a mother.

But for To Think, To Write, To Publish my partner, Ramya Rajagopalan, and I are collaborating on a story about the complexities of genomics and personalized medicine.  People, not animals or places, take center stage. And I have noticed that the nature of immersion changes when one is not writing about nature.  Here are a few observations:

1) Finding subjects

The nature writer, often, simply happens upon them.  My subjects appear to me like little gifts from the universe while I am out walking:  a spotted salamander by the lake, a striped skunk near the barn.

But when writing about people, finding subjects can be a much more deliberate process.  For this story, I have emailed acquaintances of acquaintances, joined HARO and put out cryptic requests on my Facebook wall.  The results:  a young woman who has had her stomach removed; a high school track star who underwent a heart transplant; an insurance claims adjuster with a particularly aggressive form of melanoma; a 30-something woman who has used a commercial gene sequencing company to determine her risk of getting Alzheimer’s.

2) Staying literal

When writing about nature, I can reside happily in the world of metaphor.   A too-warm, gritty man-made lake can come to signify a blood clot in the arteries of my eighty-five-year- old great aunt.

When I interviewed Johanna, the young woman who has had her stomach removed, I immediately wanted to jump into ruminations about the nature of identity, what makes us who we are, what it means to be whole, alive.  But this is her story, not mine.  Her grandmother died at 52, her father at 56, both of stomach cancer, and she and her brother and five cousins have tested positive for a gene that indicates an 80 % risk of developing the same disease.  The facts are literal, staring me in the face, and I must report them exactly and only this way: Johanna had to have her entire stomach removed or potentially face a premature death.

3) Remembering

The nature writer must remember only what he or she sees.  If I want to know how an Eastern box turtle lays eggs I stretch out on the ground behind the one I come across on a Sunday in June, and wait through a passing rain, until the white, oval-shaped eggs appear at her cloaca and drop into the hole she has painstakingly, blindly dug with her hind feet.

When writing about people, though, you must live inside someone else’s head.  I try to bring Johanna back to the moment she found out she carried the gene that would likely cause her to develop stomach cancer.  It was a couple years back, she tells me.  There was a round table.  She was not surprised when she heard the words.  She didn’t say much on the way home, her mother adds.  How will I recreate this scene in my writing?  I will call and email her many more times, asking for 100 details in order to find the two I will use.

4) Saying goodbye

The nature writer rarely has to say goodbye.  When the last hepatica has bloomed, I stroke its slightly fuzzy, liver-shaped leaf and wonder which day next spring it will open its eyes to me again.

But how do I end the interview with the insurance claims adjuster who has just today received bad news?  Despite surgery, his melanoma has spread, and he must begin chemotherapy, which may or may not be effective.  After the appointment, he tells me, he had his “crying jig” in the car, then went back to work, then came to meet me for this interview.  He will go home to think about how much time he can possibly take off during his treatment; he’s up for a promotion and doesn’t want to jeopardize his chances of getting it.  He will go home to fight the very insurance company he works for because, even after their preapproval, they have now refused to pay for the genetic testing he underwent to determine the cause of his melanoma. 

 I shake his hand and thank him.  I know it is not enough.  And then I go home to write.