Capturing a sense of place
Writing about cooking, biodiversity and coal ash found common ground over the weekend during a Virginia Festival of the Book event sponsored by the Southern Environmental Law Center.
The Charlottesville-based SELC hosted three authors whose works, though differentiated in topic, all imbue a sense of place, specifically of the South.
The Outstanding Environmental Writing event included the presentation of the center’s annual environmental writing award and a keynote presentation.
The SELC is a nonprofit legal group that specializes in environmental protection in the Southeast. For the past 20 years, it has presented the Reed Environmental Writing Award to two writers whose work exemplifies the Southern environment.
Brys Stephens, a chef and food writer based in Charleston, S.C., was the keynote speaker and presented his recent cookbook, “The New Southern Table,” showcasing the connections between food and place, specifically in Southern culture.
“[The cookbook] has a great blend of Southern ingredients informed by his world travels,” said Jennis Warren, development officer at the SELC. “It is a great re-imagination of Southern cuisine.”
The writing award was broken up into two categories — a book award and a journalism award.
“Our Reed Environmental Writing Award is named after and in memory and honor of Phil Reed, a founding [SELC] board member, who passed away suddenly,” said Isabel Adams, marketing and communications associate at the SELC.
The book award went to R. Scot Duncan, a professor of biology at Birmingham Southern College, for “Southern Wonder: Alabama’s Surprising Biodiversity,” about the biodiversity and ecosystems of Alabama.
Duane Gang received the journalism award for his coverage of the 2008 Kingston, Tenn., coal ash spill and fracking in the Cumberland Forest. He is a reporter for the Tennessean in Nashville and the Tennessee correspondent for USA Today.
“All over the world, people wrote about [the coal ash spill], but it is hard to take a story like that and make it personal and meaningful,” said Caleb Jaffe, director of the SELC’s Virginia office.
“Okra, field peas, squash, collard greens, rice, corn, sweet potatoes, lima beans, peanuts, pecans, figs, peaches and watermelon,” said Stephens. “I grew up with these Southern classics,” and “when you hear their name, you immediately think Southern.”
“I wanted to look at how they’re done in the South, but be influenced by how they’re cooked around the world,” he said.
Central to Stephens’ book is tying his travels around the world to traditional Southern culture and cuisine.
Stephens’ writing can be found in Garden and Gun, Charleston Magazine and , a food and cooking website he founded.
Following Stephens’ presentation were readings from the two award winners.
“Alabama is an international superstar in terms of biodiversity,” Duncan said. “In terms of total species, [Alabama is] No. 5 overall for [U.S.] states.”
After describing the great biodiversity in Alabama, Duncan outlined the goals of his research and writing.
“The formula is simple,” he said. “It is to educate people what [biodiversity] Alabama has, to invite them to explore and then to inspire them to care for the landscape to ensure it endures.”
“The barriers to fixing these problems are not scientific,” Duncan said, quoting from his book. “They are political and economic. That means that saving biodiversity is a choice, not an unattainable fantasy.”
Gang’s work also focuses on educating people about environmental issues.
“One of the things that is really important about making these complex environmental stories relevant to people is to tell it through the eyes of people who are impacted,” Gang said.
“As a reporter, it is about getting out there, meeting folks like you and hearing your stories,” he said. “[The coal ash spill] wasn’t just some abstract thing, but it affects people’s lives every day. Five years later, it is still affecting people’s lives.”
Though the writers’ topics differed, they were tied together by a central theme: a sense of place.
“Where our food comes from ties us to the landscape. Making those connections makes it clear to people and helps them understand they are tied to the biodiversity no matter what they do,” Gang said.
“Our writers here do the remarkable job of bringing to life that sense of place,” Jaffe said. “They have captured something truly authentic.”