Serious science was presented at the Colby Undergraduate Research Symposium in April. The health effects of wood smoke. Zooplankton in the Belgrade Lakes. The potential of biomass energy at Colby.
And then there was Blair Braverman ’11 presenting her environmental studies thesis: a collection of essays. “Everyone else will have all their data,” Braverman said beforehand, with a chuckle, “I’ll go up there and read.”
But these weren’t just any essays, and the soft-spoken, self-deprecating Braverman isn’t just any writer. An environmental policy major who has worked as a sled-dog musher on an Alaskan glacier and chased rhinos in Namibia, she has spent much of the past few years amassing experiences, contemplating them, and turning them into nonfiction that has won her national acclaim.
In April she won the top prize for nonfiction in The Atlantic magazine student writing contest. In 2010 one of her essays won the Joseph Conrad Essay Contest sponsored by the Williams-Mystic maritime studies program. And this spring she was admitted to the highly competitive M.F.A. writing program at the University of Iowa and was awarded the Iowa Arts Fellowship, a stipend over and above tuition, which will allow Braverman to devote herself exclusively to environmental writing.
Only three such fellowships were awarded university wide.
“I’m still kind of stunned about it.” Braverman said. “It seems a little crazy that someone is going to pay me to just to go there and study with the best teachers and write a lot.”
She may be the only one stunned. At Colby her professors have watched her develop rapidly as a writer. Adrian Blevins, associate professor of creative writing, says something clicked when Braverman was writing poetry as a junior, and now that poetic instinct has given her nonfiction a special metaphorical quality. Elisabeth Stokes, a visiting assistant professor of English who worked with Braverman from English 115 to a senior independent study, said Braverman’s work has a musicality not often seen in nonfiction. Philip Nyhus, associate professor of environmental studies and Braverman’s advisor on her thesis, said he reads and enjoys her writing “like I paid for it on Amazon.”
All three professors predict Braverman will make significant contributions to environmental writing. And they point out that her voice is unlike others in the field. “There are a lot of influential writers with a science basis. That’s not Blair,” Nyhus said.
Who is she? Stokes recalls a student who presented as a gentle and soft-spoken young woman but in reality was “made of steel.” (The sled dog team Braverman ran in Alaska once came in second in the Iditarod.) Blevins said Braverman found the content for her writing early on, and then she found the form to express her ideas and observations. Nyhus said Braverman was a strong researcher (on projects ranging from mountain lions to biomass) but unlike other students in the lab would sometimes just disappear. “She’s a writer,” he said. “She had to be alone.”
Said Stokes, “She’s very authentic about who she is. That radiates.”
Braverman said environmental issues are most important to her, so her writing will have that focus. “There’s a lot of environmental writing that actually isn’t good writing, I don’t think,” she said.
“There are people who are really passionate and trying to communicate these issues, but the writing itself isn’t really compelling. I think that’s why people don’t read it. For me the focus would be, in general, trying to write as well as I can. … If it’s good writing, people will read it, which is ultimately the goal, to try and spread these ideas.”
Coupled with her desire to write for the environment is a fascination with the subjects of her essays. She once followed Colby’s trash to a landfill in Norridgewock, and she talks about how much fun it was to get a tour of the facility from an ex-Marine. In an essay excerpt included in this issue of Colby, Braverman recalls her encounter with a girl at an abandoned quarry in a remote part of Namibia who was confounded by the fact that the American’s sandals had not been made with recycled materials. Yet the conversation is a revelation to Braverman as well.
“I looked at the girl beside me,” she writes, “now tracing lines on the marble with the tip of her painted finger, and felt as if I had been kept from something my whole life.”
It’s a sentence that, like the rest of the essay, is carefully crafted, the environmental issue explored through the power of observation and reflection, each word considered and reconsidered.
Stokes said Braverman continues to scrutinize her own work, each word, each sentence, each puzzle that the writing presents. Recently, Stokes said, she and Braverman were on the phone discussing an essay with a passage that wasn’t quite right.
“She said, ‘There’s nothing I’d rather be doing on a Friday night than this, curled up working this out.’”