“Groundglass” is an “ill-defined small swell of cells,“ which points to Savage’s father’s cancer diagnosis and to the “mysterious” illnesses striking people in the industrial Midwest, where Savage grew up and still lives. In photography, however, it’s a device “useful for manual focusing,” a definition that applies to Savage’s restrained, haunting prose as she mourns her father and investigates the responsibility for his death. Suspecting it’s one more product of big business, Savage tours brownfields and Superfund sites—located mostly in communities of the Indigenous and people of color—showing us playgrounds built on toxic landfills, trucks and trains spilling heavy metal dust as they go, aquifers exhausted by fracking, and more. Tracing “our death cult of consumerism” back to the Europeans’ theft of native land, Savage examines her own complicity in the ongoing violence and gives voice to the testimony of activists as well as victims.
Growing up as a biracial and Queer person, Imbler, a science journalist, always felt like a fish out of water—so it’s exactly right that they turned to the sea to understand their own life. Writing with a sure instinct for metaphor, Imbler sees their search for warmth in a cold city reflected in the Yeti crabs that engage in the “radical act of choosing what nourishes” them by living on undersea vents, where life was thought to be impossible; explores hybridity via the butterfly fish, a creature studied for its “difference” not for its own sake, much as they are dogged by the question “what are you?” as if they're an object; and examines their mother’s eating disorders and self-sacrifice in the light of a brooding octopus that goes years without food for the sake of her offspring. Each essay is grounded in deep empathy and studded with memorable phrases and vivid descriptions; they’re also remarkable for their balance, telling us as much about whales, salps, and immortal jellyfish as about Imbler’s relationships to men and women, family, the wider community of Queers, and their own body.
If Proulx’s expansive Barkskins were stripped down to its nonfiction bones, it might be the kind of brief, deeply researched chronicle this one is. With different kinds of peatlands and the story of their use and abuse standing in for characters and plot, this book is as impassioned and immersive as any of Proulx’s fictions (and if we’re lucky is the basis for a future novel). Adroitly presenting tens of thousands of years of natural history, including the development of peat and the special properties of sphagnum moss, then moving into the central role of wetlands in indigenous cultures, their destruction by Europeans, and surveying the range of objects they’ve preserved, Proulx writes with her usual literary flare, showing us “light softening to peach nectar,” enriching our estuary English with words including paludification and histol, speculating on the types of peatland in Dante’s Inferno, and reminding us of the beauty and wonder of that life-giving element, water, the “original shape shifter.”