Thursday, April 16, 2015

COMING TO PASS: Florida's Islands in a Gulf of Change @SusanCerulean

LUCY BURDETTE: I'm completely delighted and honored to host my older sister on JRW today. After the shock of having me arrive eleven months on her tail, Sue has always been gracious about sharing--a room, or even a writing career. (She was a writer long before I even considered getting into the business.) She's also an activist and a tireless voice for the natural world, especially the endangered places and creatures in Florida. And she's here today to tell you about her new book!

SUSAN CERULEAN: The writing of Coming to Pass: Florida’s Islands in a Gulf of Change began on October 22, 2007, when I inscribed a fat black journal with a single word–COAST–and then cut out pictures to decorate it.

I didn’t know what this book would become back then.  In 2007, I was trying to reconcile my roles. Mother and stepmother to three sons growing out and away. Daughter of an aging father needing a good deal of my help. And lover of an earth increasingly precious, and increasingly under assault.

The wonderful Montana writer, David James Duncan, helped me enormously.  “At the core of every piece of work is the question,” he writes. “You may not answer it, but you are always moving towards it. Your ability to articulate a question is what will make for a good writing. It’ll be a trail marker.”

In my commonplace book I began to articulate what I wanted to learn: What is the nature of this coast, geological, biological, human/cultural? How were the islands formed, and how are they changing? What makes this place unique, and what special things live here? And, most important of all, was there ever a time when people lived inside the shape of this landscape, in reciprocity, not simply on top of it? What would that be like?

My new book Coming to Pass is built upon the whole of my life in relationship with saltwater shores.  It is also a response to living at a pivotal time on our planet.  When I was born in the 1950s, there were but 300 ppm carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere.  Over the course of my life—and yours—that number has risen to an increasingly catastrophic 400 ppm.

“All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story, or tell a story about them,” wrote Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa and Babette’s Feast.  

And Dinesen’s stories, says native American writer Scott Momaday, verify that literature is, after all, nothing so much as profound consolation. That sounded good to me. I wanted to be consoled. I wanted to dedicate myself to writing. And I wanted to spend more time–days and weeks and months–at the coast.

I copied these bits of advice and many more onto the first pages of my coast journal, which I kept in the fashion of a commonplace book (as taught to me by the gifted writer and teacher Sheila Ortiz Taylor). I began to record interviews with scientists, jot notes on the tides, sketch snowy plovers, copy passages from the myriads of experts whom we really ought to pay attention to, like Orrin Pilkey and Cornelia Dean, and from poets and sages like Henry Beston, John Hay, and Leslie Marmon Silko.

You can see that the direction of my course was heavily influenced by others before me.  But gradually, I allowed my own body and my own senses to listen to what the coast might want to be said directly. I offered myself as a conduit.  More and more space in the journal became devoted to me–the listener–and to the voices of the birds.

“Align me, O Earth, with your purposes,” became my daily prayer. It still is.

I lay my words, my tracks, on this paper, next to the tracks of rare shorebirds, and side by side with the paw prints of St. Vincent’s she-wolf and her pup on that island. Our tracks say: We were here, and we found it beautiful beyond all imagining. And that is the story of how Coming to Pass came to pass. 

What subject might you tackle in a book of your heart? 

For more information, read about Susan on her blog, or to watch Susan in action along the coast, check out this NPR story.

You can find the book on Barnes and NobleAmazon, or the University of Georgia Press, or at Downtown Books in Apalacicola, Florida.


  1. One of the most important things we can do is to understand and care for the world in which we live. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights; "Coming to Pass" sounds truly amazing.
    While eight years in the writing is rather mind-boggling, I must say that "a book of your heart" is a lovely way to describe it.

  2. What a beautiful cover, and I love how the book came to be, with the journal and cut out pictures.

    I grew up on the Gulf Coast, on the Louisiana shoreline, and many of the barrier islands where I played as a child no longer exist. Harnessing the Mississippi River has had much to do with the disappearing Delta region, I understand, but it feels tragic when I visit and even the sawgrass islands are under water. You have tapped into an important subject.

    A friend of mine works for the Florida Hiking Commission (I think that's the name) and often posts gorgeous photos from the state.

  3. Joan, it was such a privilege for me, and a refuge sometimes, from the caregiving of family members who needed me during that time.

  4. Hi Ramona, I know about those disappearing Louisiana islands. Heartbreak. My husband grew up with them, too. I wonder if my photographer and your friend are one and the same....David Moynahan?

  5. Your story here of how your book came to be is beautifully written. I can only imagine how moving your book will be when I get my hands on a copy.

  6. My husband and I visited the Gulf Coast a few years back, exploring the coast mile by mile and it was breathtaking. But it was also alarming to see so many signs of the BP spill evident and to hear how it had impacted people. We visited the bookstore in Apalachicola, which is charming. Your passion comes through even in a blog. Looking forward to reading your book.

  7. FChurch, thank you so much! One great thing about the book is that it's highest and best intent is to remind us of what we love, not what we fear. I hope it succeeds....

  8. Thank you, Michele! That bookstore in Apalach is my favorite anywhere. You cannot overstate the importance of a devoted bookseller.

    Nor can we overestimate the damage done by that oil spill, almost exactly 5 years ago. I write in Coming to Pass about the experience of waiting for the spill to either stop or reach our coast (it didn't).

  9. I've never been to the Gulf Coast, but ever since fracking came to southwestern Pennsylvania, there have been similar conversations. On the one hand, people who have never had anything finally have something companies are willing to pay for. On the other, concerns that getting that oil and gas out of the land will ruin the natural beauty of the area. Heartbreaking on both sides.

  10. Oh,so completely beautiful.And I love how you started this journey without knowing exactly where it was going. That is so lovely, and so brave.

    (and just a sidenote: wow. Genes. Welcome, Susan!)

  11. Yes, what Hank said about genes!

    Susan, my friend is Sandra Friend.

  12. Yes, Mary, it is. And yet, the voices not included in these often contentious conversations are those of all the other non human species of the Earth. They will be equally affected by the fracking, the drilling, the climate change, and yet they have no standing in these "debates," right?

  13. Hank....thank you so much!! Aren't I lucky to have my sister as a companion on the path of writing, and life...

  14. Ramona, you know what they say about six degrees of separation, right?!So cool that we have a friend in common, and that her name is Friend!!

  15. Susan, your post was like reading an extended version of your daily prayer for the Earth, so beautiful and inspiring. The quotes from David James Duncan and Isak Dinesen are so poignant. I hadn't thought about writing as addressing a question you want answered, and that will stay with me now. I like Scott Momaday's statement about literature being profound consolation, too. I'm always envious of people who seem to be able to pull out just the right quotes to go with their writing. Of course, you are quite quotable yourself, as in "You can see that the direction of my course was heavily influenced by others before me." So true for most of us, and I even like that line for the opening of a novel.

    Speaking of your book Coming to Pass, the cover is absolutely gorgeous and, yet, it is still a natural, realistic picture of the coast's beauty apart from the touristy rolling waves on the beach. I'm thinking that you must have had input into this cover. It reflects an honesty and dedication to the natural beauty, which your questions strive to address. I'm looking forward to reading this book and expanding my knowledge of what is currently just a visual appreciation.

    It was lovely to meet you here, Susan. I am such a big fan of Roberta's, it's nice to know that her big sister of 11 months older is just as fascinating and talented.

  16. Susan, so nice to meet you! And such a lovely essay. I love your journal--it's the sort of thing I've always wanted to do and never quite managed.

    I wonder how you felt after the completion of an eight year project, and one that was such a labor of the heart. A sense of completion, I'm sure, but also of loss? Is there a new journal with the beginnings of another book?

    (And yes, Hank, aren't genes wonderful! I'm always a little envious of sisters, and how wonderful for you, Susan, and Roberta, to be so close in age and interest!)

  17. Sounds like you and Roberta both have saltwater running in your veins... through you hearts. The book sounds wonderful. Congratulations!

  18. Kathy, thanks so much for your thoughtful feedback! It's always so interesting to know the attributes we make to our craft, whatever it is. And about that are right! It's a very very personal image for me, as you will see in the book! I was fortunate to spend many hours and days at the Pass with my husband and two close friends. David Moynahan, the photographer for this book, was one of them. I'd say: can you get me a morning glory on the beach, or a red wolf, or whatever...and he'd do it. And the U Georgia Press was happy to use his images. We did choose the cover! I love it.

  19. Deborah...what a good question. Several answers to it. I have so many events planned, in order to get the word out both regarding the book, and about the issues facing our coast. There are several threads, like the rights of birds, that I want to follow up as an activist. But I've found that I'm most happy as a translator of the natural world, through writing. That means going out there alone! So back I go!

    Also, I have a memoir more than half completed about Roberta's and my AWESOME Dad, caring for him in the last years of his life. A whole different project!

    All that said, I LOVE holding the book in my hand. It is kind of funny to think that people are reading my very personal thoughts and experiences, after all these years...

  20. Thank you so much, Hallie! Hoping to meet you one of these days!

  21. How very nice to meet you, and hear about your "Coming to Pass." I applaud you and your work, the care of our planet is close to my heart; its caregivers are heroes.

  22. COMING TO PASS sounds like both a beautiful book, and an important one; I believe we need to see more and more of the intersection between the personal experience of the areas most threatened with destruction and the science of climate change.

    And Susan, what an amazing example of how to progress into the subject and story as a writer! I hope you'll consider offering some workshops on your process. I think they'd be very valuable.

  23. I feel so warmly welcomed by Jungle Red and friends today! I'm especially intrigued by the chance to cross pollinate between readerships and genres. The fact is, we ALL care so much about the Earth, and using our words to encourage others to join us is a wonderful thing. Julia, I would love to brainstorm further about sharing process. I have taught memoir and nature memoir over the years, but not in a while....

    And don't forget: I'd love to have you all sign up for my blog at

  24. The cover photo is strikingly familiar to me,as are the others-I believe partly because they are recognizable as St.Vincent's beach-yes?If so,that is as fine a place to consider what has passed and is coming to pass along the coast as I can imagine with the piles of pottery shards and peculiar ecology of animals both native and exotic. I love the idea of being a "translator for the natural world"and look forward to reading the book.