West Seattle Blog… | West Seattle author Madeline Ostrander’s debut book explores our changing lives “At Home on an Unruly Planet”

By Tracy Records
West Seattle Blog Editor

Madeleine Ostrander wants you to know that his recently published first book is not a work of ‘bad luck’.

If the subject of climate change makes you uncomfortable, this could be an important distinction.

Ostrander, a longtime science journalist, says “At Home on an Unruly Planet” is the result of about a decade of work – especially the last three years, since she signed a contract for it. It’s now in bookstores and online (on audio), and she’ll talk about it at an event downtown tomorrow night (Friday, August 5). More on that later. First, about the book.

The second word in the title, “house”, is the key. (Hers is on Pigeon Point, where she stages this scene: “In the distance, the dull groan of the nearby highway and harbor and its sounds, a train whistle, metal shipping containers creaking loudly against each other in the distance, the groan of a freighter, the roar of a jet plane overhead.”) In his book, Ostrander tells the story of four communities facing change because of the climate crisis – again, not in the sense of “imminent doom”, but in what they do, how they react , how they talk about it.

One such community – Richmond, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area – is seen against the backdrop of conversations about how to evolve from a community built around an oil refinery. She came up with the idea for the book while talking to environmental justice activists. The other three communities span the country from Alaska to Florida. The sense of “home” she addresses is not simply a matter of geography, but how you feel when and where you are at home. – and the way you feel when things change, things beyond your control. It is addressed in “At Home on an Unruly Planet” as “solastalgia”, which, according to Ostrander, is evoked by this: “Even if we stay, we experience a kind of homesickness because (the house) is changing.. .(it) helps to name that kind of feeling.It can be really powerful, (like) collective anger, like the BLM movement, struggle, loss and anger….if people get together and talk about it.

She hopes it helps people talk about climate change in a new way. ‘The way it’s often talked about isn’t that empowering’, including ‘when we talk about ‘what can you do”, too often it’s just ‘putting the politicians off’. Or the potential action is described at the “very micro-individual level”, recycle one more can, burn one less gallon of gasoline. “It’s still not very empowering” – it doesn’t answer the question of “how do we protect the places we care about?” It’s something you can address at the neighborhood level, she says. “It felt a lot more real to me, a much more useful way to talk about climate change. It’s talked about as this great global existential crisis – which it is – but talking about it that way helps people feel “less hopeless”.

It also inspires others. “Sometimes I feel like what I see in smaller communities (is) the whole discussion isn’t so siled…it’s quite powerful.” Big cities – ours included – have more money for adaptation; smaller communities have more difficult choices to make. “You can see it in the book when I compare St. Augustine, Florida…with centuries of history…they’re going to be impacted more…in Miami (where they have) a budget to lift the streets.”

A different crisis presented a challenge after Ostrander won the contract to complete and publish his book: The Pandemic. She had been to Alaska in the fall of 2019, but in 2020 and 2021, traveling wasn’t always an option. Ostrander said she’s managed to arrange a few trips “when enough safety precautions can be taken.” The featured community she mentions the most is St. Augustine, Florida, where “the lessons of the past (frame its) long-term future…we need to think about it and not always look away.”

The story is referenced elsewhere in his book, even the centuries-old history of his Pigeon Point home. The prologue and epilogue of “At Home on an Unruly Planet” refer to his own home. She notes towards the end of the book, “And while many of the problems we face are global, some of the most imaginative, powerful and passionate solutions come from home.”

Ostrander hasn’t planned any promotional events in West Seattle yet, but says she’s working on it. In the meantime, if you’re—or can make it—downtown tomorrow, his book launch/signing event is at 7 p.m., outdoors at Collective (400 Dexter Ave. N.) with KUOW’s John Ryanpresented by the Northwest Science Writers Association. She also has an event at 7 p.m. on August 12 at Brick and mortar books in Redmond, in conversation with a former broadcast meteorologist Jeff Renner.

As well as looking for the book at your favorite local bookstore, it’s also available online in audio form – head here. If you want to read an excerpt first, here’s one posted by Atlanticand another published by High Country News.

Lola R. McClure