Mallory Smith


I. Introduction

One night, during junior year of college, I was in the hospital, having been admitted after a massive episode of hemoptysis (coughing up blood). It was a few days after the episode, and I hadn't been allowed to do the breathing treatments I normally do three times a day for my cystic fibrosis (CF); the treatments can irritate the airways and cause more hemoptysis. I felt short of breath, fatigued and nauseous, with coughing spasms so intense they made me vomit.

My nurse that night, Keith, knew I was having a rough time, so he came to check on me whenever he wasn't with another patient. When he came in to bring me some nausea medication, he sat down, talked to me for a while. He treated me like a real person, not just a patient or a number. At one point, he asked me, "What's your life philosophy?"

I asked him what he meant, and he said, "You know, what's your motto? How would you sum up what you live for?" I was taken aback, and stopped to think about it. I ended up telling him that I wanted to be happy.

He said he wanted to help people. He jumped from job to job because he was trying to figure out which profession would give him the greatest ability to make the greatest difference in the greatest number of people's lives. As we talked about it more, I realized that what I hoped for most in a profession was to be able to help the world in some way. Though it sounds trite, since I was a little girl I've known that whatever I end up doing, I want it to help move the needle on something that's important. But I also realized that I would never be able to do that unless I took care of my own health first and foremost. A dead person isn't a very helpful person. I had to do the hard things now, to ensure my body would work well enough to support my endeavors later.

I have big dreams, big goals. But I also have big limitations, and the only way reaching the big goals will ever be possible is if I have the wisdom to recognize the chains that bind me. Only then will I be able to figure out a way to work within them, instead of ignoring them or naively wishing they'll cease to exist.

At this age, many of us take for granted the endless second chances we get. We've internalized (consciously or not) the idea that we'll accomplish our dreams no matter what we do to our bodies. Like a phoenix, venerable and beautiful and timeless, our bodies will withstand whatever trauma we put them through, physical or emotional, and we will rise, soar, above the odds. We have little regard for earthly limitations, the biological restrictions that will one day catch up with us. Each of us feels like a burning phoenix; when we turn into ash, we will then regenerate.

I have this feeling that other people get to live that way with their own bodies; they'll pull 342 all-nighters in college, eat trash, drink too much and stress always and "live like they're going to die young," but that's exactly what they're not doing. They're living like they're going to die old, and like nothing they do now is going to change that. But I don't get second, third, and fourth chances like that. If I don't sleep tonight, if I skip a treatment tomorrow, I'll be in the hospital two days later, I'll lose lung function, never to gain it back, and then, next year, when I can't walk up a flight of stairs anymore I'll curse myself and say I wish I hadn't this, I wish I hadn't that, what if I just…. If I'm a bird and my choices lead me to burn, I don't get to rise up untainted, ever glorious, flying free. If I'm a bird and I burn, I'll remain ash, not rise from it like the phoenix. I have biological limitations, and if I don't respect them by acting as a steward toward my body, they'll grow stronger and more powerful and harder to ignore.

The way some people view our responsibility toward the planet parallels the way some young adults treat their bodies. Many of us think we have all these second, third, and fourth chances and we can do as we please, that humanity and the planet we rely on are like a phoenix, venerable and beautiful and timeless. That the earth is a burning bird, and despite the trauma we put it through, it will turn to ash and regenerate. We can all waste and consume and waste and consume more, using resources like they're ever-renewable, living like our species is going to die old. Living like nothing we do now is going to change that. But we're coming to the end of our second, third, and fourth chances. What we do now, people will curse tomorrow and they'll say I wish we hadn't this, I wish I hadn't that, what if we just….. If we're all birds our choices lead us to burn; we're not always going to get to rise up untainted, ever glorious, flying free. We might be a burning bird that won't rise. The earth might be a burning bird that won't rise, remaining ash once its ability to regenerate is exhausted. The earth has limits, too, and if we don't respect them by acting as stewards of the environment, they'll grow increasingly difficult to ignore.

One of the pillars of Taoism is the idea that freedom is earned through the recognition of limitations. Bill Mason writes in Taoist Ethics,
"Limitations are everywhere. Even if you were convinced by science fiction that some day, humans will conquer nature, and we will no longer be subject to its limitations (which is logically impossible)…Limitations are unavoidable. Freedom resides in the recognition of limitations. In knowing how far you're able to reach, you'll have perfect freedom to choose just how far within that range to reach. The ideal of unlimited freedom is an illusion…This is the Taoist ethic of freedom through moderation."

In the realms of human health and environmental issues, embracing limitations is often the path to earning freedom, or to ensuring survival of the individual and the planet. Ignore your chains, and they will bind you more tightly. If I ignore my cystic fibrosis, it will tighten its grip until I'm in a chokehold. The ideal of unlimited resources and the endless capacity to regenerate is a myth for any human body, and for the earth. For some, the limitations are just more obvious, like they are for a cystic fibrosis patient.

The current (arrogant) mythology is that through technology, we can transcend the earthly limitations of this planet's biome. But if we leech the nutrients from our soils, let them run off into the oceans and create oxygen dead zones; allow invasive species to throw off ecosystems and destroy biodiversity, spread into all parts of this planet like an unchecked infection; and pollute our air, seas and rivers with toxic chemicals, we are not exercising freedom, we are securing our demise. And likewise, on a smaller scale, when the biome at hand is my CF-ridden body, failing to be a steward of that biome is not exercising freedom, it's securing my demise. This was the parallel that initially led me to pursue this project and to think about "sustainability" in a more holistic way, a way that encompasses both stewardship of the earth and stewardship of the human body.

II. The Process

When I was a junior, I took a creative nonfiction writing class. It was my first foray into creative nonfiction writing, and my final work for the class was an essay called "The Birds with the Broken Wings." Writing that piece was a highly emotional, reflective process that forced me to mine my experiences and find a common thread between difficult moments. My first draft of that essay was forty pages, because I had so much material I was grappling with I just had to write it all before I could prune it. Looking back, I think "The Birds with the Broken Wings" was the best preparation I could have possibly had for The Senior Reflection (TSR). I was shocked at how helpful it was when jumping into the project this year that I had already grappled with half of the material (the health/illness related stories) by thinking about the many stories, experiences, traumas and triumphs that, woven together, make up the fabric of my life. I took a first pass at figuring out what I'm comfortable sharing. And doing that allowed me to stretch those boundaries this year, to write more powerfully by being willing to be more vulnerable on the page.

When writing "The Birds with the Broken Wings," I spent hours poring through journals (I've kept a journal for years and have over 600 single spaced typed pages, so it's a lot of material.) and listening to music that I associate with certain memories. I thought about each of my hospitalizations chronologically, trying to remember the scariest times, the blackest depths, and the miraculous highs. At that time, junior year, I felt like I had to write that piece. And writing it was one of the many things that helped me adapt psychologically to what was going on at the time; it helped me adjust to the fact that my health had seriously declined and my life would be very different moving forward. Writing that piece helped me create a new identity out of what I saw then as the broken pieces of my old one.

But for the Senior Reflection, I came in to the program knowing that I didn't want to do a piece just about CF. For some reason, it felt self-indulgent. I wrote "The Birds with the Broken Wings," for myself, and I needed to do that, and I'm glad I did. But at the root of it, that process was for me, for my own growth. I got to know and came to understand the new me by working with those experiences, and creating a narrative out of my life like a sculptor chisels a body out of stone. But for TSR, I didn't want the project to be for me – I wanted it to have an impact on others. I wanted it to be environmental. And I wanted people to feel a strong emotional reaction to environmental issues that they had heard about before by seeing or hearing about them in a very different way. And because of the ways my health has relied on nature for so long, I tried to think about projects that could tie my personal health story to an environmental message.

I thought about a variety of media, including documentary film, audio, spoken word poetry, photography, or a children's book. I knew I wanted it to be about human illness, the environment and healing. Then one day, I was pondering the idea of how trees "inhale" carbon dioxide and "exhale" oxygen to keep the climate stable and maintain the balance of gases in the atmosphere. I started thinking of trees as lungs for the planet, the ocean as blood, humans as mucus, cities as infections, soil as bones. I started scribbling on a notecard one day over breakfast, and I brought the idea to workshop. Once I realized the story I wanted to tell, it was easier to decide on the medium. Film would have worked, but I wanted to focus on the story, not the visuals. Spoken word poetry would have been great, and I experimented with writing in that style, but some of the stories called to be told as one would tell it to a friend over a cup of tea by a fireplace. A recorded audio podcast would allow me to focus on the storytelling, but still include powerful ambient sounds from the hospital and from nature to enhance the listener's experience.

The early stages of my process were about discovering the parallels and exploring all the perspectives from which they could be considered (scientific, personal, political etc). Once I uncovered the first parallel, this way of viewing environmental destruction as a parallel to my illness felt so natural that it's like it was always there, buried under the norms and conventions that dictate how we understand and communicate a phenomenon.

Once I started doing the project, it felt like it was something that I always needed to do and just never knew. It was deeply satisfying. Why did I feel like I needed to do this project?

1. The nature of my relationship with Hawaii is something I still struggle with to this day. Despite that I do my best to be a steward there, the fact of the matter is that my presence there is representative of years of colonization, and the destruction that history has caused. My gratitude for the healing the islands have provided for me throughout my life is tempered by my guilt that no matter how conscious I try to be, there's an ethical complexity and a sense of cognitive dissonance that I don't know how to resolve. This project, at least the long-form written manuscript of "Biome," is a step in that direction.

2. In the past couple years of college, I developed a sinking feeling that I might not be able to work in the career fields I had hoped to, because of health restrictions. I realized I might have to work part-time, or not at all, or only have a job I can do from home or the hospital. This made it difficult for me to imagine being able to do anything that would have some kind of lasting impact. This project was in part an attempt to see if I could do meaningful creative work that would not only be rewarding to me, but also might serve others. I hoped it might change at least one person's viewpoint, allow me help move the needle on environmental issues, as I've long hoped to do.

3. Lastly, I used this project in part as a way to make sense, and make meaning, out of some of the shit experiences I've had, like I did with "The Birds with the Broken Wings." Writing is a very healing process.

I had a lot of questions initially, one of which was whether I should interview people and incorporate multiple voices, like they do in This American Life or RadioLab, or just talk myself. At just the right time, I stumbled upon an episode of KCRW's The Strangers, which helped me answer this question. In this episode, an incredibly courageous woman named Lyena Strelkoff tells the story of falling out of a tree and becoming paralyzed, grappling with the loss of her legs and her life as she knew it, and falling in love and embracing the transformation of her life with grace. It's 30 minutes of just one person (her) talking, but I have never been more captivated by an audio story. It was compelling, candid, beautiful. And look what happened – my own podcast took almost the exact same shape, with one person (me) talking for 32 minutes!

The process of writing the script for "Biome" was very typical of me. I spent months scribbling notes in the margins of notebooks and on scratch paper, not keeping anything organized, but thinking and thinking and talking it out and working through the ideas in the least organized way possible. Then, before a deadline, I sat down and tried to actually write, but had a breakdown because I wasn't feeling "inspired." I realized that I was trying to make scientific parallels between different biological processes, but that I only had a story for the health-related half of the piece. The biological processes within my body come embedded within a rich human experience that I could mine for narrative, but the environmental parallels were just generalizations, abstractions, distant, unrelated to each other, not tied to a time or a place or a person.

But after the breakdown usually comes the inspiration. That was the moment when it occurred to me to use the Hawaiian Islands as a microcosm of the entire planet, instead of having each environmental parallel set in a different place and time (for example, starting with the conversion of Amazon rainforest into monoculture soy farming in Brazil, then moving to a forest fire in Colorado, then to the disruption of monarch butterfly migration to Mexico). Many of the parallels I had come up with could be applied to Hawaii's environmental history, and using the same place throughout allowed me to use chronology to ground the environmental narrative in forward-moving time, the way the personal narrative moved. There's a complex history of political, social and economic issues tied to the changing environment in Hawaii, with violence and colonization and social stratification (which worked with the war conceit that comes up a few times throughout the piece). This added an interesting level of complexity and made it easier to compare not just the processes wreaking havoc on something (my body, in my case, and the islands, in the environmental case), but that something's response to those processes (mine, in my case, and the Hawaiian people's, in the environmental case). Furthermore, I have a personal connection to that particular place, which allowed my core idea to change from "the environment is being threatened by anthropogenic change in ways that parallel the way my body is being threatened by CF" to "I rely on the environment for healing, my body is being threatened, and it's being threatened in ways that parallel the way my body is being threatened. Thus, I may lose that healing."

Before I had the idea to ground the environmental narrative in Hawaiian history, I had been struggling for "inspiration" to begin writing and panicked every time I thought about the project. I had been in the hospital for three weeks, and had no faith that I could pull this off and write the script. But after coming up with the one-place (Hawaii) idea, one night, I sat in my hospital bed in the dark with my laptop, wearing a nasal cannula (of oxygen) and a pulsox monitor, and I stayed up until 4:00 a.m. (irresponsibly, perhaps) outlining the piece. The piece I outlined that night had 14 sections. I wrote about ten pages in the hospital, and when I got out of the hospital, I charged into the project head-on, writing for about six to eight hours a day each day for a week. I wrote the 14 sections, then added 6 more sections, ending up with about 45 pages.

From there, I realized that was way too long to turn into an audio piece, so I decided to shorten the script to 12 pages. It was difficult to hack away at that longer script, to have to cut entire scenes and ideas; I ended up removing the political / social / economic / human components of the Hawaii story, and keeping only the main points of the environmental story there. I'm still unsure whether that made it better (by removing things that distract from the main point, which is environmental), or if it would have been better with those elements still included.

Another very important shift happened when I realized that I needed to move the parallels from the realm of science to the realm of story. The parallels would need to be more metaphorical than concrete. For example, in my proposal, I talked about the oceans and blood, comparing respiratory acidosis and ocean acidification, surplus white blood cells and algal blooms, and red blood cells and phytoplankton. These parallels were based in science but there was no accompanying story to go with it; there were many other examples of this in the proposal, with pages and pages describing the scientific parallels in great detail. Once I started writing my own stories, I realized it would be very difficult to start at the human, macroscopic level, then zoom in to the microscopic level, then parallel the physiological science to the environmental science, then zoom out to the environmental story. So in the ultimate podcast, a lot of the science had to be scrapped, as I realized that the human narrative is what people will understand and connect to. I'm still searching for a good way to communicate those scientific parallels to an audience, and one day, I hope to figure out an engaging way to do that.

III. Concluding Thoughts

The experience of writing and producing "Biome" was frustrating and thrilling. I loved it, and sometimes I hated it. As Andrew promised at the beginning of the year, there were times when I wanted to give up and never look at the material again… and then a week later, I would come back to it rejuvenated and ready to work with it again. It's a project that's very close to my heart, and I know I'm not finished with it yet, even though my time in TSR is over. It has raised more questions for me than it has answered, but through struggling to answer those questions, I've learned more about what I want to do and how I can make a difference than I could have through any other "academic" experience.

Having spent much time in college studying environmental communications, I'm keenly aware of what kind of messaging about the environment is overused and ineffective. Explanations of data and scientific papers, or on the other end of the spectrum, fear-mongering, will not work to draw the attention of those who do not already have an abiding interest in conservation. Because I saw interesting parallels between CF and environmental destruction, I felt deeply compelled to use my experiences fighting a devastating illness for a purpose. Living with a chronic illness has given me an urgent desire to channel my challenges into work that will hopefully make people think differently about nature. With this project, I hoped that drawing a connection between human sickness and environmental "sickness" would make listeners experience an emotional reaction to a story about the environment, as opposed to a purely intellectual reaction. I hope that whoever listens to this audio story will have the opportunity to hear a radically different explanation of what is happening to the earth, narrated through stories of a human experience that evoke a visceral response. This project was a way of using the concepts of sickness and healing to merge my experience living with cystic fibrosis with my desire to influence humanity's conception of our role as members of the community of life on this planet.

In November 2013, the Philippines were hit with the strongest typhoon in recorded human history. It was horrifically destructive, killing at least 6,300 people and impacting two-thirds of the country. The Philippines delegate to the Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 19) that also took place in November 2013, Yeb Saño, spoke at the conference about climate change and the typhoon that was devastating his country across the world, at just the time when global leaders sat debating and quibbling and failing to enact meaningful reforms and standards. He said, "I speak for the countless people who will no longer be able to speak for themselves after perishing from the storm…. I also speak for the people now racing against time to save survivors and alleviate the suffering of the people affected by the disaster."

He posed these questions: "If not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, where? What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness. We can stop this madness… Can humanity rise to the occasion? I still believe we can."

And so do I.