Kingsolver promotes ‘scientific literacy’

Author Barbara Kingsolver was chosen to receive the Nicholas School’s LEAF Award for her efforts to engage people with the environment through her writing.
Author Barbara Kingsolver was chosen to receive the Nicholas School’s LEAF Award for her efforts to engage people with the environment through her writing.

The crossroads of science and art yields a most fertile environment for the exchange of ideas.

This philosophy may be evident in the Nicholas School of the Environment’s announcement earlier this month that author Barbara Kingsolver will receive the 2011 Lifetime Environmental Achievement in the Fine Arts Award. Kingsolver, whose writing draws from her background in biology, will accept the award and speak at Duke April 9.

“The LEAF Award means the world to me because it comes from a community of thinking that I greatly respect,” Kingsolver wrote in an e-mail last week. “It’s great to be noticed, appreciated and understood.”

Established in 2009, the LEAF Award recognizes an artist whose body of work grapples with environmental themes and successfully communicates those themes to the public by engaging them not only intellectually, but also emotionally, said Nicholas School Dean Bill Chameides. Actor and filmmaker Robert Redford and musician Jackson Browne were the award’s recipients in 2009 and 2010, respectively.

“It’s not only about writing about the environment, but connecting people to the environment,” Chameides said.

Chameides noted that the executive committee of the school’s Board of Visitors examined seven or eight nominees before selecting Kingsolver. They were looking for an accomplished artist who had the public recognition necessary to reach a sizable audience, Chameides said, also noting the central role of the environment in much of Kingsolver’s writing.

“She writes about the environment in a way that people learn,” Chameides said. “Her characters struggle quite often in very human ways with human problems, and there is this inexorable march of time that is the natural world. Everything that happens on a human scale is somewhat reflected and subsumed by this larger process.”

Kingsolver’s writing is informed by her exposure to science. She studied ecology and evolutionary biology at the graduate level at the University of Arizona. Her husband, Steven Hopp, is an ornithologist and teaches environmental studies at Emory and Henry College. Kingsolver noted the importance of communicating scientific knowledge.

“I was trained as a scientist and still think of myself as a scientific citizen of the world,” she wrote. “I worry a lot about scientific literacy. We’re in a mess, frankly, because so many people just can’t, or won’t, participate in an intelligent global conversation concerning wise use of our resources. As an artist, I try to engage people in this crucial conversation.”

The LEAF award recognizes artists who try to engage people with the environment in this way, Chameides said. This theme appears throughout Kingsolver’s works, such as “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” which documents her family’s experience living off of homegrown and local food for a year, and “Prodigal Summer,” which tells stories of human love set amidst a detailed natural backdrop in Appalachia.

“In an improbably appealing book with the feeling of a nice stay inside a terrarium, Ms. Kingsolver means to illustrate the nature of biological destiny and provide enlightened discourse on various ecological matters,” noted a New York Times review of Kingsolver’s “Prodigal Summer.”

Although the schedule for Kingsolver’s visit to Duke is still being determined, Chameides did confirm that she will perform a reading from her work. He expressed excitement for Kingsolver’s contribution to campus discourse on the environment.

“She knows a lot about ecology and about science,” Chameides said. “She’s just really quite smart. If you sat down and talked to her you’d realize that this is a major player.”


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