Zealandia – Close encounters of the bird kind

Spring seems pretty ho-hum in evergreen Wellington. No huge blazes of colour rip across the hills. No ambrosial scents dare ride this wind.

Sure, there’s a slight vertical tilt to the sunshine, a little more birdsong, and grass seeds clinging to my boots, but for my first vernal Wellington, I’m wondering what’s going on. I signed up for a Spring Tour at Zealandia to find out.

Scheduled for a Saturday afternoon, it’s too late in the day and too windy to expect much from the birds. Our gregarious guide, Des Smith, greets the group with a clipping of black tree fern, mamuku, in his grip, signifying to me that this will be more about plants than animals.

“In our bush we don’t have that flamboyance of some of the exotics,” he admits, but New Zealand has more than 200 species of fern and this new coil of growth – the koro depicted in Maori art – is one sure sign of spring.

He leads us to a cabbage tree next, saying that yesterday he spotted one flowering in Lyall Bay, but this one is still green. Expect a fireworks-like blast of white flowers, he says. As a student of food and plants, Smith also points out the bits you can eat, drink, and use as a relief from colic.

The tour continues along this vein, with Smith giving the Maori, European, and Latin names for plants, their varying edibility and what to expect as summer advances, mixed in with all sorts of colourful tidbits about fractal art and evolution. The peppery leaves of kawakawa are his secret ingredient in cheese muffins and grass clippings his preferred accelerant for nikau palms.

Smith’s talk is so entertaining our group doubles in size as we advance through the park and I’m surprised he isn’t paid for this.

He points out the differences between the purple-flowering native broom and the yellow non-native. He shows us the small white blossoms on whao and tells us Maori wrapped their newborns in the soft-sided leaves while fishing floats were made with the lightweight wood. He even pulls from his pack a kindling-sized chunk as light as foam for us to marvel at.

As expected, Smith favours flora over fauna, though he had plenty to say about Wellington geckos and points out the takahe is moulting for spring. And, as expected, most of the heralds of spring are new green shoots on already green plants.

The highlight comes after a short walk uphill puts a kowhai tree in view, blazing gold and fairly dripping with tuis and kaka, which take no notice of our gawking. Smith is so excited he radios another guide to come by and, with a satisfied sigh, says, “There’s nothing more beautiful than blue sky behind a kowhai.”

Here, today, he’s right. Later, gazing over the hills before I leave I can pick out the same tree, flashing amongst all the green and a new beacon of spring for me.

Originally published October 10, 2012 in Capital Times. 

The baby question

The baby question

Is childbirth bad for the Earth?

By Amanda Witherell

I remember exactly where I was — sitting on a BART train, reading yet another magazine article about global warming — when it hit me harder than ever before: the year 2050 is going to suck.

Predictions suggest it’s going to be hotter, colder, drier, wetter, and stormier in all the wrong places. Sea levels will be up. Resources will be down. The view from 2007 is not good. So how can I, an educated, middle-class American woman, reasonably consider having a child with such a future to offer?

To have or not to have is the baby question everybody asks. I’ll admit I’ve been on the fence for a long time. A survey of my female role models reveals that exactly half took the motherhood plunge (including my own mother), yet the other half refrained. I’m clearly drawn to the childless life for a number of reasons, and reading the International Panel on Climate Change reports released this year has given me one more.

By virtue of our existence, we’re all contributing to global warming, and my impact will be at least doubled by every child I have. According to Al Gore’s carbon calculator (at www.climatecrisis.net), I’m emitting 2.35 tons of carbon dioxide per year, well below the national average of 7.5. But that would certainly increase if I were to have a baby. I’d need a bigger place to live, and that would require more heat and electricity. More flights back East to see Grandma and Grandpa would be in order, and I’d probably buy a car, not to mention all that crap that babies need.

I would become more like the average American, who has a life span of 77.8 years and, according to estimates by the Mineral Information Institute in Golden, Colo., needs 3.7 million pounds of minerals and energy fuels to construct and support a lifetime of stuff — from cars and roads to batteries and soap.

It seems like an effective way to cut our impact on the earth would be to cut population, yet such a strategy almost never comes up.

“In the entire discussion of climate change, there’s been no mention of population,” Paul Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University, told me.

The IPCC’s fourth assessment, released in November, discusses mitigation measures but never suggests decreasing population — except as the unintended result of a natural disaster. Historic attempts to limit population growth have never been popular. China has been chastised for its one-child policy, as were environmental groups like the Sierra Club, which called for limiting immigration in the 1970s to curb population growth in the United States.

“It’s an incredibly personal decision,” environmentalist and author Bill McKibben told me. “In our culture it’s not one that’s easy for people to talk about.” He addressed it in Maybe One (Simon and Schuster, 1998), in which he explains his decision to have a child after years of saying he and his wife wouldn’t.

McKibben says he wrote the book to uncover the weak mythology that only children are spoiled, myopic brats, to show how religious beliefs have been manipulated, and to point out that an increasing population is really an economic advantage.

Ehrlich, who thinks the US should at least have a population policy, also had one child with his wife, Anne. The realization that having more would contribute to an unsustainable future for their daughter led them to author numerous books on the subject, including The Population Bomb (Ballantine Books, 1968), one of the bellwethers on the impact of unchecked population growth. Since then the issue has essentially disappeared from public consciousness, and Ehrlich thinks that’s because the world’s total fertility rate has, in fact, dropped — from five children per woman to three. In the US it’s decreased even further, to less than the replacement level. This has created the impression that population is no longer a problem.

But that’s not entirely true. While birthrates may be down, the overall population has still grown, because life expectancy has increased. Most of us don’t die when we give birth. We go on living, breathing, eating, drinking, shitting, idling in traffic, jetting between cities, and consuming more and more of the dwindling resources we have — with a child or two at our side.

And the equation is simple, right? The more people, the bigger the problem.

“Well, it’s not a direct multiplier,” McKibben said. He offers as an example an Amish family of eight “living simply” and having less of an impact than the average American Brady Bunch. “In global terms it’s so much more about consumption.”

Ehrlich and McKibben agree that’s really the problem. “An important point, which is usually missed, is the next 2.5 billion people are going to have a much bigger impact than the last 2.5 billion,” Ehrlich said.

According to his research, we’ve surpassed the earth’s carrying capacity, and Americans are only able to overconsume because Africans, Indians, Asians and other developing countries are underconsuming.

If the entire world population ate and drank and drove around like Americans — which is the aspiration of many — we’d need two more Earths.

“The current population is being maintained only through the exhaustion and dispersion of a one-time inheritance of natural capital,” the Ehrlichs and Gretchen Daily wrote in the 1997 book The Stork and the Plow (Yale University Press), in which they grapple with the question of a sustainable population for Earth.

Their answer: about two billion. How many are we now? Worldwide, 6.5 billion, which will rise to about 9 billion by 2050 — with most of the growth slated for developing countries. Family planning and education are largely considered the primary factors in keeping the US population under control, and that’s where international efforts have focused, according to Kristina Johnson, population expert for the Sierra Club.

This has required an artful dance around the Mexico City Policy, in place in one form or another since 1984, when Ronald Reagan refused aid to any international agencies that use any monies for abortions. So while we’ve managed to handle our head count at home, we’ve done the opposite abroad.

As for how to deal with our enormous abuse of natural resources, technology has long been hailed as the solution. The guiding principle has been that our children will be smarter than we are, so we’ll leave it up to them to figure it out. However, as the Ehrlichs conclude in their most recent book, One with Ninevah (Island Press, 2004), “The claim that ‘technology will fix the problems’ has been around for decades — decades in which the putative advantages of claimed technological ‘fixes’ have often failed to appear or proved to be offset by unforeseen nasty side effects.”

For example, we essentially avoided large-scale famine by figuring out how to reap more crops from our soil. But we haven’t mastered how to do this without the use of pesticides and, increasingly, genetically modified organisms that have transformed diverse farms into precarious monocultures.

Today we’re counting on technology even more, but some of the proposed solutions still raise questions. Do we have enough acreage to grow biofuels? What would be the long-term impacts of capturing carbon emissions and burying them underground? Ditto for spent nuclear fuel.

And all of these variables factor in those 2.5 billion people to come, without suggesting people consider not having children.

If there’s a mantra for any concerned citizen to adopt, it should be less. Use less. Buy less. Be less of a draw on the system. But as Richard Heinberg writes in Peak Everything (New Society, 2007), “People will not willingly accept the new message of ‘less, slower, and smaller,’ unless they have new goals toward which to aspire.”

Cutting carbon emissions is a serious goal, and it looks like leadership is going to have to come from within. The Bali talks have produced no binding agreement except … more talks.

Our elected representatives have finally raised US fuel-economy standards for the first time since 1975, to the slightly less shameful level of 35 miles per gallon by 2020. Environmentalism is peaking as a popular movement, but the credo to consume less has been divorced from its consciousness.

“Green” products are now the fastest-growing consumer market. In fact, this holiday season you can buy a pair of chic Little Levi’s for your kid. They’re just $148 at Barney’s, and “a portion of proceeds” will go to the Trust for Public Land. How much? Who knows? The company isn’t saying. Just shut up and shop and don’t worry about it — they’re organic.

Originally published December 18, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

When it rains …

When it rains …

The cost of water

By Amanda Witherell

A few years ago my friend Andrew and I sailed a small boat to the northern Abaco region of the Bahamas, a shallow archipelago frequented by Palm Beach, Fla., sports fishers and vacationing couples on sailboats.

We made our first landfall on Walker’s Cay, and while Andrew paid the customs official for the cruising permit, I hosed salt off our decks and refilled our water tanks. I didn’t notice the fellow standing at the spigot, watching a meter, and it wasn’t until we’d fired up the engine and were untying the spring line that he handed us a bill for $30 worth of water.

We couldn’t pay it — after clearing customs, we had about $12 in cash between us — and the meter tender was livid. This was my first experience in a place where every house has a cistern, only the wealthy can afford the luxury of desalination, and dry spells mean costly shipments of water from the United States.

To Bahamians, water is almost more precious than wine. And yet they’re surrounded by it.

A scorched San Francisco faced a similar dilemma back in postquake 1906, and a series of savvy politicians laid the political piping that would eventually funnel a steady, cheap supply of drinking water to the city by damming the Tuolumne River at the Hetch Hetchy Valley near Yosemite.

It was ultimately way more than we needed, and most of the 225 million gallons of river water diverted daily is piped to 28 wholesale customers. The overdue upgrade to the Water System Improvement Plan is being orchestrated by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. But a joint study by the Tuolumne River Trust and the Pacific Institute has found several flaws in the plan.

While the SFPUC included conservation and efficiency when calculating a marginal decrease in San Francisco’s water use over the next 23 years, similar standards weren’t applied to the wholesale customers, who claim they will use 14 percent more — almost entirely for irrigation and landscaping. This could draw another 51 million gallons a day from the Tuolumne, the lower branch of which is already considered an impaired water body under the Clean Water Act.

Yet encouraging its suburban customers to conserve may not be in the financial interests of the SFPUC, which is pursuing $4.3 billion worth of repairs and upgrades, about two-thirds of which could be financed by tripling the price of water. The TRT-PI study argues that cost will be an incentive to conserve and concludes that a number of the SFPUC’s predictions are based on a continuation of people’s wasteful ways. It instead recommends that San Francisco set an example for its suburban neighbors and collaborate on efficiency and conservation measures.

Global warming will disrupt worldwide water cycles in unpredictable ways. Accordingly, the PI says one-third of urban water use can be cut employing existing technologies to recycle gray water and capture rainwater. We’re still flushing our toilets with the sweat of the Sierras while the California Department of Water Resources predicts that 33 percent less snowpack will melt into the Tuolumne over the next 50 years.

But people can adapt to such circumstances. Working with the premise of one gallon per person per day, Andrew and I got by: we washed our dishes in salt water and donned bathing suits when it rained, plugged up the drain in the cockpit so that it filled like a bathtub, and let the furls in the mainsail pour rinse water onto our heads.

During one memorable thunderstorm, several other boats sailed into a safe harbor where we’d anchored. Andrew was busy taking a rainwater shower while I washed a load of laundry in the cockpit, and it wasn’t until I was pinning our clothing up to dry on the lifelines that I noticed couples on the boats around us doing the same thing. It was comic to see, and heartening too, because we were doing it out of poverty, and they were doing it just because it looked like fun.

Or maybe because it was the right thing to do.

The SFPUC is still in the review stage of the plan and will hold hearings in September, at which the public may comment on our aquatic future.

Originally published August 8, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

Outdoors in San Francisco

Outdoors in San Francisco

Best of the Bay 2007
By Amanda Witherell

Like many before me, and probably many to come, I arrived in San Francisco with almost nothing: rope-burned palms, a seabag full of molding, salt-crusted laundry, and the stub of my one-way plane ticket in the back pocket of my only decent pair of jeans.

I’d spent the past month aboard a 130-foot wooden schooner, the Harvey Gamage, known with scornful affection among the crew as “Heavy Damage.” I’d gone to sea for the same reasons I’d always gone before – because I loved being on the water and I wasn’t sure what else to do. I had it in mind that once we got to Charleston, S.C., I would know if I should find another berth or if it was time to move on with my life. There was a boy I loved who’d left me for UC Berkeley, and I had a feeling he might be too good to let go of.

The Gamage lived up to her nickname that trip – we dodged a couple of hurricanes, splintered a mizzenmast spar, nursed a generator through the later stages of cancer, and lost crew at every port of call. By the time we made fast the dock lines in South Carolina, I had made up my mind. I would swallow the anchor.

And so I came to a town that’s surrounded by water. The beloved boy came and went, but I got another pair of jeans, a place to call home, and a few spare furnishings. I called my dad and told him to sell my car and ship my bicycle, which has become my solitary mode of transport and my primary source of recreation. When I gave up the sailor’s life for the reporter’s pen, I also traded long, raw days among the elements for a stuffy office and a flickering computer screen. At the end of the day, I need to get outside.

My favorite ride is along the 30 or so miles of our perimeter. It’s a patrol of our borders, a self-guided tour of our varied coasts, and a visual lesson in the true cost of development. First I “wiggle” my way out of the center of the city into the Panhandle and head west, hanging a left onto Sunset Boulevard, looping around Lake Merced, and hitting the open road of the Great Highway along Ocean Beach.

From there I point north, up the heights of Sutro and into the Presidio via El Camino del Mar, through a landscape that always feels slightly haunted to me, as if everything that lives and grows here must be prepared to die at any moment – from the US Army base that once occupied it to the rare native species trying to reclaim what is now a national park.

There’s a stiff breeze coming in through the Golden Gate, making the stretch along Crissy Field a downwind leg, my jersey puffed forward like a spinnaker, drawing me east. Fisherman’s Wharf, no matter the hour, is like running the gauntlet, but I usually emerge onto the Embarcadero only slightly battered.

Here’s where it gets interesting, where I start to wonder what will become of this city. The southern waterfront, really everything past AT&T Park, is the abused ex-lover of industry, shipping, and the military. Redevelopment has been scattered and slow, starting with the UCSF Mission Bay campus, more redolent of some futuristic fortress than a lofty center of higher education. Nearly everything else around it is either Superfund or super-underfunded, with great swaths of coastline dominated by empty warehouses and vacant lots locked away behind chain-link fences.

Tucked away here and there are the holdouts of a living coast – the Bayview Boat Club, where the word “yacht” curls the lips of members; the Agua Vista Public Fishing Pier, where it’s possible to actually get up close to the water and, if you dare, dip your feet in; Heron’s Head Park, where the diligent work of volunteers has supplanted a toxic waste site with a migratory bird bar. But high-rises are beginning to rear their blocky heads, and every day the air is filled with the shudder and thunk of construction as these buildings become a wall between the city and the sea. The wall blocks more than the view. It halts the flow of air. It pushes away the smell of the sea, the damp feel of the fog.

Still, there’s a certain spot along Third Street, around where 18th Street stutters to an end, that still smells like the ocean. You have to be out in the air, walking or running, skating or pedaling a bike, to catch it, and it has to be early in the morning – before the hot press of human industry cranks into high gear. That smell stops me, a girl who gave up her life on the sea to be here, in my tracks.

That special scent, which always reminds me of the white flesh of a very fresh watermelon rind, is actually dimethyl sulfide, a gas that’s released when phytoplankton die. The higher the concentration of the minuscule sea creatures, the stronger that ocean smell. Phytoplankton are the lowest of the low on Neptune’s food chain, but their death is the herald of life. Seabirds tune in to it when they’re searching for food, and as any good whale watcher or fisherman knows, you follow the birds if you want to find something worthwhile.

So to me it’s a sign of hope to stand among the spoils of industry and still be able to encounter that particular smell, slipping in through the construction sites. It gives me hope that some visionary leader or driven community activist will smell it too and develop a real plan for restoring our eastern edge. Once upon a time high-rise condos were the vision for Fort Mason, and Alcatraz Island was going to host a casino. We have Rep. Phillip Burton’s prescience back in 1972 to thank for Golden Gate National Recreation Area and all the beauty of our western and northern shores. Who will we thank, I wonder, for the restoration of our eastern one?

Originally published July 18, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

The sustainability tribe

The sustainability tribe

By Amanda Witherell

I spent my undergraduate years at a microscopic liberal arts college set in the shadow of a national park on an island in Maine — a remote idyll where people abhor locking their doors and you can almost smell the Atlantic whale migration when a southeastern wind blows.

The college is overtly environmental and so small it’s possible to practice what’s preached: food is grown on the school’s farm, students cycle around on communal bikes, ceremonies strive to be zero-waste. My graduation in 2000 was the largest the 31-year-old school had ever hosted, and all 97 of us stood in a haphazard row listening to keynote speaker and hobo musician Utah Phillips. After Phillips counseled us on how to avoid becoming a “blown-up” (his word for a bloviating grown-up), my friend Dan turned to me and said, “When I came to this school, I was, like, ‘Aah, here’s my tribe.'”

I had the same feeling a few weeks ago when I stumbled upon the Urban Alliance for Sustainability. Maybe I’ve finally found my people. In the 18 months that I’ve lived in San Francisco, I’ve watched global warming go from a marginalized theory to a universally acknowledged threat. That’s triggered a lot of hyperactivity about how to be green, which seems more commercial than communal. Companies are setting up booths to hawk magic elixirs, but carbon offsets seem about as realistic as get-out-of-jail-free cards. They don’t really shift what actually needs seismic adjustment: the bottom line in your life.

The UAS is different. This is a group with the serious intention of living what it believes. On top of that, it wants to help you do the same.

The organization’s basic mission is so simple it seems like it must have been done already — be a clearinghouse for all the environmentalist activity in the Bay Area. The Web site www.uas.coop lists events, and the hotline answers questions, but the coolest thing the UAS is doing is using the delicious blossom of technology to connect people who really ought to know each other by now.

For example, the group tracks members’ addresses, and when it has enough in the same area, it facilitates a potluck so everyone can meet and discuss how to green their streets. As someone who’s participated in some funky social networking experiments, I think this is simply brilliant. In a world rife with a cruel suspicion of strangers, city living can be hard duty, and trust hard-won. This is kind of like finding your tribe.

Membership isn’t free, and in the interest of full disclosure, the UAS just gave me one after I expressed interest in it while working on another story for the Guardian. But the group is a cooperative, and kicking in gets you discounts to events and something called a sustainability consultation. Mine was a meeting I approached with suspicion. Remember: I went to a hippie school where the Earth Day piñata was full of natural cotton tampons. I already ditched my car and store my quinoa in old yogurt containers. What could this guy tell me about sustainability?

But this was much more than I expected. Kevin Bayuk sat in my yard for two and a half hours, and we discussed practically every aspect of my life — what I eat, how I get around, what I read, how I take care of my health. His suggestions were realistic, and he reminded me of things I let go of back when I ripped up my rural roots. I hadn’t even considered composting here, but he told me where to get a worm bin and offered me some worms from his to get started. He knew what kinds of edible plants could grow in the shade under the jasmine in my garden and the cost of a permit to rip up the sidewalk to grow food.

People often move to San Francisco because this is a city that can handle them. The uniqueness of the citizenry and the genuine desire to do good are what I love most about this place, but there are things I deeply miss about where I came from — the smell of freshly turned dirt in the sunshine, the shimmer of uninterrupted moonlight on water, the silence in the absence of cars. But I love this place, and I’m not going anywhere. Those things are just going to have to come to me.

Dead letters

Dead letters

The demise of a literary art form

By Amanda Witherell

ESSAY The letter is brief, written on paper so thin and insignificant it crackles like tissue in Martha White’s hands.

“Dear Joe and Allene, Look at who rose to defend the New Yorker — the Trib’s own Joe Alsop. And very ably, too. Thought you might like to see the latest skirmish.”

The date, April 17, 1965, is penned in blue ink at the top of the yellowed stationery, beside a red embossed insignia of the Tuscany Hotel in New York. In the right-hand corner a signature closes the letter: “Love, Dad,” scrawled in the inimitable hand of E.B. White, one of the longest-running contributors to the New Yorker, the legendary author of Charlotte’s Web, and the editor and reviser of the scribe’s essential primer, The Elements of Style.

Forty-one years after the writer pressed the letter into neat, tripartite folds to slide into an envelope and post home to his son and daughter-in-law in Brooklin, Maine, White’s granddaughter holds in her hand this relic of a bygone era. Today, brevity, content, and haste might have called for an e-mail, perhaps with a link to the Alsop article in question and a forwarded FYI from the New Yorker to shed light on this “latest skirmish.” But what would Martha be holding on to? Probably nothing, for who saves an e-mail so seemingly inconsequential?

“I’ve always felt that letters are a treasure, especially for families,” Martha tells me. “I use e-mail, a cell phone, all the modern conveniences. But if I want to say anything close to my heart, to my family, my friends, my children, I’m going to say it in a letter.”

When asked if her grandfather, a man who spurned public appearances and didn’t enjoy leaving the beloved sanctuary of his Brooklin farm, would have embraced the ease and simplicity of e-mail, she says, “Absolutely not.”

“He was a hunt-and-peck typist,” she adds, “a cut-and-paste guy with a paste pot and a pair of scissors down on the floor. That was part of the process for him.” She shows me another letter that she, as the editor of the newly revised Letters of E.B. White (HarperCollins), chose not to include. It’s written to his secretary at the New Yorker and beseeches her to find him a certain kind of paste brush. A detailed illustration, addressing the brush’s finer attributes, graces the margin.

Modern conveniences have allowed Martha, a writer like her grandfather, to move back to Maine and freelance from her Rockport home, just down the coast from where she grew up in Brooklin. On the wall behind the desk in her office hangs a print of a famous portrait snapped by photographer Jill Krementz. It’s an iconic image of E.B. White, instantly conveying the utter spareness of the man. He’s sitting at a simple wooden table in front of a typewriter with a single sheet of paper. The desk is next to a window through which the viewer can see the turning tide of Eggemoggin Reach.

It occurs to me, examining the picture now, that the natural light streaming in through the window in the photograph would have made a computer screen unreadable. If White were sitting there today, in front of his new iMac, the window would have to be shaded, and something more than an image of a man before a simple view of beautiful water would be lost.

The 21st century’s writers have replaced the thin stationery crackling in Martha White’s hands with e-mails, instant messages, blogs, and other facsimiles of the written word. Apocalyptic worries that cell phones will fry your brain, that the Internet will be the devolution of human interaction, that all printing presses will grind to a halt, have been ameliorated as the dust starts to settle on the past 10 years of technology. But something has quietly slipped offstage as the star of convenience has stood in the spotlight: the writing of letters.

Letters have played a critical role in the record of human history, of our public and private lives, our loves and lusts, follies and feats. Letters have pleaded cases, transmitted 1,000-year-old truths, and stood in for biography by revealing the inner workings of an ego or the kinder side of a persona.

But to a large extent, e-mail has changed all that, replacing meandering meditations, written and addressed from a specific time and place, with rapid-fire exchanges that can be received anytime, anywhere there’s free wireless Internet, a decent cell signal, or a plug in the wall. Accessibility and near-instant transmittal of thought have perhaps destroyed the absence that used to make the heart grow fonder. All the mysterious silence, the rising desire, the inherent waiting and wondering that marked the natural pace of letters is largely gone.

It could be argued that words will be words, whether they’re scripted on a scrap of papyrus or marched in Courier lockstep alongside a cursor, but it could also be said that style, voice, and all the hallmarks of a well-turned phrase are often driven by form, and that the accelerated efficiency of e-mail has given rise to shorter, choppier, and cheaper correspondence. We no longer linger over our letters, perfecting our words during the long wait for the mail carrier — we just hit a button, and it’s gone.

“How we communicate is the nature of who we are,” says Sven Birkerts, the author of the 1994 book The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (updated and rereleased by Faber and Faber in 2006). When asked how he thinks technology has affected the way we write, he says, “There’s a distinction between a letter and a note, in paper form. The letter format has deeply ritualized salutations and expressions. A note is quickly composed. E-mail is more like a note. If you read an e-mail that was written in the mode of an old letter, it would feel like a strange effort.”

The “dears” have disappeared. “Sincerely” has lost out to “c-ya.” And the 20th century may be remembered as the last great era of letter writing, when people adhered to a form and were forced by dint of effort, time, and distance to ruminate on their words.

To read artfully composed letters can be more than a sentimental reminder of the loss of pen and paper; where private correspondence has been made public, it’s an entrance into a state of mind where you weren’t originally invited. The E.B. White letters teem with this sort of interest, and so does Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford, a recently published collection of correspondence by a contemporary of White’s. The two were masters of a form that brought them neither money nor fame, constituting merely the daily routine of staying in touch.

Both Mitford and White enjoyed their fair share of attention while alive. White was an original contributor to the New Yorker from its inception in 1925 and the author of some of the most popular children’s stories ever. Mitford (generally known as Decca) was a red sheep who escaped her aristocratic, Nazi-sympathizing family flock in England in 1937, making a home in the Bay Area and her reputation doing social justice work and muckraking journalism. These collections argue for a renewed appreciation of their work, reflecting Mitford’s refreshing joie de vivre, the genius wit of White, and two loquacious imaginations that make a mockery of modern-day correspondence’s general vapidity.

The original Letters of E.B. White, released in 1976 with his assistance and spanning nearly 70 years, is one of the best-selling collections ever published. The latest version, updated by his granddaughter to include the last 10 years of his life, is the closest thing White fans have to an autobiography, as his correspondence included daily, often lengthy descriptions of life on the farm. And while he may have omitted needless words in his writing, he favored full disclosure when it came to publishing his letters.

His humor is here, in unique responses to the requests and questions of strangers. The stunning ability to hammer a point home by juxtaposing particular imagery was a keystone of his New Yorker “Letters from the East” and the Harper’s essays that eventually became One Man’s Meat, and this talent crops up in his casual correspondence too. In a letter sent from Brooklin to Gustave S. Lobrano, an editor at the New Yorker, White writes, “I have just painted a pair of oars (French gray) and the existence of New York seems questionable.”

Decca, collated by Peter Y. Sussman, a former San Francisco Chronicle editor, reads like an autobiography as well, though in this case there might seem to be little more to say, as Mitford hailed from a famous, well-documented family. Sussman does a fine job of stepping back and letting her speak for herself in the letters he culled from the thousands she sent over 60 years’ time. And like a gracious hostess, her voice unparalleled, Mitford ferries the reader along, bounding with verve and spiking her correspondence with invented words from the secret language she shared with her sisters, from whom she was physically divided by an ocean and socially separated by the politics of an age.

Among the hundreds of letters in both collections, business mixes with pleasure as White wrangles with editors and Mitford finagles finances from her family. Awkward love letters from White to his first girlfriend are eventually replaced by interoffice memos between him and Katherine Angell, the fiction editor of the New Yorker who would eventually become his wife. Many are rich with detail that speaks volumes of the times in which they were written. Mitford’s account of giving birth to her first daughter in a public ward, of trying to sneak cigarettes and suffering through “a curious breakfast consisting of a whole tumbler full of castor oil & an enema,” is one of the most memorable.

White’s descriptions of the comings and goings at the farm in Brooklin, however, could almost have been written yesterday. Situated down a long peninsula one would need a specific reason to travel, the town still hasn’t been wired for high-speed Internet. Bill Mayher, a freelance writer and Brooklin resident I spoke with, recently signed up for T1 service that picks up a signal from a distant antenna on Deer Isle, “but you have to live in the right place to get it, and only a few of us do.”

The postal service was probably better back when mailbags carrying manuscripts were an essential part of daily life for the Whites. But E.B. still jabs it in a letter to friend and fellow New Yorker contributor Frank Sullivan, writing that the mail comes to him “the first fifty miles by dog-sled, which I believe is pulled by Chihuahuas.”

In a nearly spastic letter to her friend Marge Frantz, Mitford writes, “You have completely ruined my day…. Bob went down in his dressing-gown to get the papers, and reported that IN Mrs. O’Casey’s locked mailbox there glitters and shines a letter for us, on which he barely made out the return address of Frantz.” A detailed recount of recovery efforts follows, eventually ending with “triumphant … The safety pin fell in, but the knife-and-forkmanship won the day.”

It sounds like Mitford would have been an obsessive e-mail checker.

“Her husband believed she would have loved e-mail,” Sussman agrees. Later letters proudly exclaim, “I have FAX!” after a BBC documentary required more immediate responses regarding script changes. “They finally just bought her a fax machine, and she loved it,” he says. Until then, Mitford traveled everywhere with a portable typewriter and a bounty of carbon paper. She, like White and other writers over the years, had the prescience to copy nearly all her correspondence, which is why we have such a complete collection.

Which raises the question: if e-mail has replaced letter writing, are literary-minded types saving their e-correspondence or turning it over to archives for preservation?

“Libraries and archives are definitely trying to deal with e-mail,” says Leslie Morris of Harvard University’s Houghton Library, which houses most of the university’s rare books and manuscripts. “The telephone decreased the amount of correspondence. E-mail, if we can figure out how to preserve it in its electronic form, may actually help us to better document things, as generally people don’t seem to mind sitting down and dashing off an e-mail, whereas writing a formal letter seems more of an effort.”

Will those e-mails make enjoyable reads for future generations? “I can’t imagine anyone would want to collect my e-mails,” says Neal Pollack, author of the recently published Alternadad (see review, in Shorts). “I’d feel sorry for anyone who took that on as a project. It’s all just me, asking for money.”

For Pollack, blogging has stepped in to fill the void as far as writerly correspondence is concerned. “The blog is like a collected letter,” he says of the online journal that chronicles his adventures in hipster parenting paradise. “I take as much time and care as I would a letter, but they’re written to everybody. I’m OK with that. If a blog post doesn’t go the way I want it to, I’ll stop and work on it later. Revise and think it over.”

Never mind the private letters — blogs have unlocked the diaries and put what might once have been privileged information into a very public realm, and this presents yet another hurdle for archivists. “We have not yet started collecting blogs, although I’m uncomfortably aware we probably should be,” Morris says. “It’s the preservation issue that inhibits me; what would I do with them? Keep them on my hard drive?”

And as for the genre? According to White’s publisher, Hugh van Dusen, who’s worked in the industry for half a century, HarperCollins currently has one collection of letters, by Thornton Wilder, on the docket. After that, nothing has been proposed. “Probably most of the letters that are worth publishing have been collected and published,” he says. “It’s a shame. There won’t be any such books like this in just a few years. I don’t think many people who are living and writing now will have their letters collected.” It would require a new level of self-consciousness to save e-mails, he says, and though he occasionally prints some of his more interesting exchanges with authors, he couldn’t imagine publishing The Collected E-mails of ….

John Updike, who as a fledgling writer once received encouraging letters from White, wrote the forward to the new collection and tells me that he still writes three or four letters a day — and that his editors and publishers indulge his USPS habit. He’s never used e-mail, having been warned off by his wife. “The few times I’ve made a gesture in this direction, she assures me I’ll just regret it,” he says. “The letters I receive go in a box, whether they’re from Joyce Carol Oates or a fan in Ohio, and they’re sent to Harvard, where they sit on a dusty shelf, and I think nobody looks at them.”

Or he hopes: “Letters are not a genre where I feel I express myself well. They’re not something I would love to see in print. They tend to be hasty and full of typos.”

White’s letters were often painstakingly revised, which may have reflected his perfectionist tendencies, but by the ’60s he knew they would eventually be made public, as they made their way to the library archive at Cornell University. And his interest in them went beyond taking part in editing the first collection: on his deathbed he preferred hearing his son read them above all his other work.

Sussman (who archives his own e-mail and letters) says he never came across any overt understanding on Mitford’s part that her letters would one day be published, “but she must have been aware that this was at least possible. There are some truly embarrassing letters. She certainly didn’t pull them out before she sold them.” And indeed, her memoir Hons and Rebels started out as a collection of love letters between her and her first husband.

“Decca reveled in the pure act of expression,” he says of her openness. “Letter writers like this remind us of what we’re losing. I’m an e-mailer, par excellence, but there’s a cost. That cost? Partly precision, expressiveness, leisure, and the physical act of writing.”

We turn to art to indulge in and be reminded of the things our lives are lacking. Letters of the kind Mitford and White wrote are by this definition art — and all the more essential as inspirational reading, given that e-mail in effect makes writers of us all.

The best letters are marked by the creative edges of the writer’s thoughts, the voice suspended somewhere between print and speech. “Suspiciously, disagreeably, psychopathically,” Hunter S. Thompson signed off in many of the letters published in the 1997 collection The Proud Highway. After threatening San Juan Star editor William J. Kennedy that he was going to “shove a bronze plaque far into your small intestine” over a rejected piece of writing, Kennedy retorted with an “intestinally yours.” And so began 40 years of friendship and correspondence that might never have happened if they hadn’t collided so creatively.

Letter collections should be an inspiration for readers and an invitation to greater ingenuity at the keyboard. And as bland exchanges in a truncated language threaten to overtake us, these collections seem more important than ever.

Letters of love and recommendation may always be written. There may remain a few people out there who get by without a Gmail account. And Martha White still writes, receives, and saves her correspondence, as her family has always done. Much of it is now part of the E.B. White archive at Cornell, which she visited while working on the book and where she took pleasure in one particular find: a letter from her father, Joe, to Santa Claus, dictated to her grandfather and requesting a boat for Christmas.

The letter explicitly notes the boat’s dimensions and characteristics, and reading it, she says, “I realized he didn’t want a boat for Christmas. He wanted to build a boat for Christmas. It was a true gift to find that letter to Santa Claus by a man when he was five years old, who later became a boat builder. That never would have been kept. Nobody e-mails Santa Claus. And if they did, who would keep it?”

Originally published January 31, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian