An Interview with Ruby McConnell
July 2, 2020
Interviewed by Sarah Neilson, TSW staff
Geologist Ruby McConnell was two years old when Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980. Her family lived in Portland, but had not long before lived in Seattle, where they could see the peak from their yard on a clear day. McConnell recalls the eruption in the opening essay of Ground Truth: A Geological Survey of a Life (Overcup Press, 2020). The author of two previous books, A Girl’s Guide to the Wild and A Woman’s Guide to the Wild, McConnell’s latest is an elegant collection of essays that lovingly weaves science, environmental, and lyrical writing. McConnell enters into her writing with a reverence for the interconnectedness of all life and an engaging curiosity that urges the reader to ask questions and be open not only to answers but to mystery.
Rooted in the Pacific Northwest region, where McConnell was born and has lived and researched for most of her life, the stories here traverse eroding shorelines, city parks, badlands, forest, and of course, volcanoes. But they also walk through the heart’s landscape, exploring personal moments of grief and loss, confusion and anger, safety and the lack thereof. “The woman that I am today is the result of processes and forces of this brutal and beautiful land to which I was born and am forever married to,” McConnell writes. “Geology is a lot like life. Geology is always a science of imagination … A lot of geology is about taking what is seen on the surface and telling yourself a story about it.” McConnell’s storytelling embraces imagination, ambiguity, and ultimately, optimism. “Much of what we study is beneath the earth, forcing us to constantly extrapolate and imagine,” she writes. This extrapolation is itself an act of imagination, which has its own limits along with possibility.
Sarah Neilson spoke with McConnell about science and poetry, binary thinking, the uses and limits of language, and persistence in chaos.
Sarah Neilson: You write in the first chapter that “ground truth” is “the process of going back and verifying observations and accounts made over distance and time, in the field.” The book is made up of “fragments, field notes from those portions of this land that I have attempted to ground-truth for myself.” Can you talk about writing this landscape of the self, and how your study of earth sciences has informed your personal growth and creativity?
Ruby McConnell: It’s almost a backwards process for me because I come from a geo-science perspective, so that’s the way that I was thinking about things as I put it together — I was interested in the landscape and I found a metaphor for the landscape and for the systems in my life, rather than the other way around.
Usually, the assumption is if you’re writing a personal essay or memoir, you’re looking for an analogy in the natural world that’s reflective of your experience. I was finding that I had these stories to tell about the landscape that I couldn’t communicate to the non-geologist, non-Pacific Northwest person, without giving them a human analogy to hinge on. That give and take permeated everything, even the editing process, and that’s sort of how I approach all of my writing — from this fundamental place of investigating the land and then then trying to find the human story.
Sarah: I’m really interested in the way that you explore human binary thinking in contrast to what the earth and the land are like. You write about how in the PNW, people have oriented themselves in a north-south line along I-5, while the region itself is “a product of the horizontal forces of this collision, which runs in direct contrast to our vertical self-perception. We are, in fact, a region of lateral forces applied at right angles to how the modern population has arranged itself.” How does your work reckon binary thinking with the vastness of the actual earth, for which space and time are constantly shifting?
Ruby: It’s fundamental to human experience, because you’re right, we are binary creatures. I mean, even just the digital age itself is a practically tangible manifestation of our preoccupation with the binary system, because it’s all codes. We do it with the “other,” we do it with gender, we do it with race, we do it with class, now we’re going to start doing it with illness and wellness, and immunity and not immunity. Maybe it’s because we’re a predatory species, and I think predatory species tend to be quite binary. But you have to look at this dynamic system where the actual nuances are so much more complex than that.
There’s a generational difference in perception. A lot of people are talking about it in terms of social justice, because the boomer generation saw social justice issues in a very binary way. And here is a new generation of social justice-oriented people who are saying, it’s more nuanced than that, there’s more identities than that. It’s the same thing with natural systems. Take earthquakes and tsunamis — it’s either happening or it’s not happening. But our vulnerability to those things is happening all the time. All of the small choices that we make in building design and engineering and lifestyle choice, where we choose to live, reflects or is influenced by that.
Coronavirus is an analogy for this too. In your individual life, what are the choices that you’re making and how many exposure points do you have and what are the variabilities? We’re sort of all living out the sense of being butterflies causing hurricanes on the other side of the world. Our interconnectedness is what forms that complexity. We’re sharing the same oxygen that comes out of the volcanoes, oxygen that originates from the center of the earth. We eventually breathe in and then we exhale that and it goes into other organisms — we’re all actually literally connected. So, to be a binary system was, I think, protectionary as predators, but it doesn’t really work in the 21st century to the extent that we think that we’ve evolved.
Sarah: To continue on that thread, you write very poetically about science’s mystery and the unknown: “Geology is always a science of imagination. … A lot of geology is about taking what is seen on the surface and telling yourself a story about it.” How do you practice holding this mystery while also pursuing knowledge? What does that balance look like for you?
Ruby: The best scientists that I’ve ever known — and by that I mean the people that I thought were the most interesting to talk to — were scientists because they kept having questions that couldn’t be answered by their level of education. One of the first women that inspired me to become a geologist told me that she used to be a welder, and got really curious about metals and heat and the transformations that she was affecting. And she was like,”Now I’m getting a PhD in vulcanology because those are the same questions.” My mind was blown that you could follow a thread of curiosity for that many years and just keep following it. I think that’s where I’ve always sort of been at. I’ve always just had a lot of questions. I remember where I was when I found out that water was less thin as a solid than a liquid, which makes sense. But that’s the only reason that the fish don’t die in winter and I’m still blown away by that. So I think it’s about recognizing that knowledge isn’t fixed. … We are conditioned to a fixed mindset, but colonialism had a fixed mindset. So we’re totally conditioned to that.
Sarah: I find it really interesting that the word “failure” is used to describe a geologic disruption. It’s such a value-laden word. That made me think about language, its possibilities and its limits, and the choices we make with it, and how those choices frame our thinking. Can you speak to how language, especially in the context of science, opens us up or holds us back?
Ruby: I have a sister that has a PhD in a rhetoric, so I am sure she has interesting things to say about it. But I will say, being a geologist is great for being a writer because geology was a descriptive science for hundreds of years before it really became a quantitative science, and comes with great words like “soft action” and “pluton.” It comes with great words, and that gives you a lot of play as a writer when you have a super big vocabulary. It lets you play with words and stretch words in a way that maybe you wouldn’t be able to if you didn’t kind of have this vast resource of vocabulary. It’s interesting and it’s fun and it’s laden with possibility and richness, and is also a power that should only be used for good, not evil.
Sarah: Endurance is a big theme in the book. About salmon, you wonder, “How do they know what to do? Why do they fight so hard?” You also write, “One way we measure the value of our own lives is by our ability to endure. … For surely, the goal is to continue.” Can you talk about this theme of endurance, and how or why it is beautiful to you?
Ruby: Life is a battle against a kind of chaos. One definition of life could be the persistence of organization against the inherent chaos of the universe. A physicist might hand you that definition, which is so like a poem — the poem of trying to persist. Even if you look at the smallest moment of your day-to-day life, it’s all kind of about how we organize out of the chaos of life, how we persist in spite of these forces that are constantly trying to wear us down. Different species, different plants and animals and different rocks, respond and find different ways to persist. They have different strengths. Rocks, like people, have their strengths and their weaknesses and it makes them more or less resilient, but they’re going to go through their life cycle no matter what. So this analogy of persistence, I think is, in fact, the experience of living.
I also think it’s interesting to watch people flock now [in the pandemic] to beautiful places, because they are desperate to feel as though they are thriving. And part of how they do that is by going outside. It’s interesting, when we start to think about what we’re assigning value to and how we’re trying to persist, we assume that what we value is to our own benefit. But it might not be. We have to kind of measure our values against that inherent task of persisting.
Sarah: You write that hope is “the stuff of stardust and soil, the promise of life, our continuity.” This feels especially prescient in our current moment. So to wrap up, where are you finding hope and beauty right now?
Ruby: The best answer I have is in simplicity and contentment. Hope, for me, is coming from two main places, one of which is that we are in fact surviving; so, seeing survival happen in the moment. The other thing that is super hopeful for me is watching the kinds of changes that we need to make for all sorts of other reasons that are threatening us. Salmon, water quality, climate change. We’re watching a lot of the behaviors and conditions and changes that we know that we need to make, but that we thought were impossible to make, happen, and happen very, very quickly. So I think that a lot of my hope is coming from the knowledge that we’re learning a lot of lessons that are going to make other threats be far diminished.
It’s giving us a toolkit that we were in desperate need of and that we couldn’t figure out how to access. It’s like when kids are afraid to jump off the diving board. We might have asked “What happens if we all stopped driving at once?” But we wouldn’t just try it. Is it devastating now that we’ve been forced to? I think for a large portion of society, yes, but we are learning and building our toolkit, and that’s going to save us down the line. I also feel like our technology was outpacing our ability to adapt to it. Our lives, our culture was outpacing our ability to adapt to it. I feel like the slowing down is going to give us a chance to catch up, and that too is really hopeful.
I think this is an opportunity for us to figure a lot of things out, so I’m just hopeful that we can tell a different kind of environmental story. I think we’re ready to hear those.