2019 Writing Contest: Nonfiction Winners

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Scientists from 153 countries signed their 11,258 names to a new report this month. In contrast to previous global consensus efforts, they framed their words clearly.

"The climate crisis has arrived and is accelerating faster than most scientists expected. It is more severe than anticipated, threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity," reads one line of the terrifying report.

According toThe Washington Post,the "World Scientists' Warning of a Climate Emergency" is the first time such a large group of scientists have so plainly engaged the language of crisis.

It feels extreme to us. Important. Urgent, even.

Many of you share this feeling. Writers who responded to this year's SFR writing contest nonfiction theme "A Climate of Change," and were selected for publication explained the changes in their families and friends, their goals and hopes, their expectations and their fears centered around what's coming next.

Their perspectivesand their own willingness to strive for radical changeare similar even though they come from three diverse perspectives. Third place winner Raven Callaway-Kidd is a middle school student who writes about an awakening awareness; film business pro Brendan Shepherd recalls meeting a very important person; first place writer Kay Sather takes readers on a lifetime, multi-generational journey about not just climate change, but personal change, too.

Each year, we recruit guest judges to choose among the submissions, and we owe thanks to Anne Hillerman for the job this year. Hillerman's most famous works are her mystery novels that pick up the torchand the charactersof her father Tony Hillerman. She published her fifth,The Tale Teller, this year. But even those works of fiction rely heavily on being able to describe real life. Before she became a full-time author, Anne was a newspaper reporter and columnist.

So she looked at the entries from our readers with an eye for detail.

"It was a pleasure to consider these stories and essays," she writes. "I selected my winners among those submission that best touched on all three themes of the contest: internal, external and planetary changes. Everyone who submitted had something to say, a unique voice and a valuable perspective. Thanks, you all, for the opportunity to read your work."

Julie Ann Grimm

First Place

The Eighteen-Wheeler

By Kay Sather

I grew up in Minnesota. One winter I shivered so hard I pulled a chest muscle. Summers, there were mosquitoes. Maybe some fishing on one of the lakes. The two of us in a rowboat. No life-vests, we could swim across the lake. Trees full of big leaves, dense and tall, the horizon always hidden. Sometimes a solid gray descended and dumped rain. "Socked in." The weather an unpredictable child. Four seasons. Fuzzy edges, yet real.

But here they have monsoons. I only knew of these in exotic places. India, Africa, the Philippines. But this was Arizona USA. The season brought daily rains. Patterns. You move somewhere, you don't know these things till they happen.

Two weeks of mudcracking heat, then came my first desert rain. Mid-afternoon. I smelled it first, the wet-dust smell, hints of greasewood. Then I went out to watch. So did the neighbor across the street. We stood under our porches to stay dry, but the slanted wet lines got our feet. Mine and hers too, I guessed. We waved at each other. Sheepish. I hadn't met her.

It went like that every day, except for the porch standing (the novelty gone). Clear every morning, flat blue sky. Mountain horizons all around, puny trees below. Tiny leaves, too, a lacy openness. Then innocent white clouds crept in. You wouldn't guess they had rain in them, but yes, they'd grow dark, carry the water to somewhere else in the valley. You'd see the streaks coming down, softly vertical where someone else was getting it. But you'd get your turn. Water pouring over everything. Waterfalls off rooftops. Street flow supporting mythical canoeists. You'd find out where the low spots in your yard were. Minnesota lakes in miniature.

Then it was over. The dark-light hybrid clouds attracting light from the setting sun, purple and red and Valencia orange, winning magazine-type photo contests every evening.

Every summer went like that. Four weeks, maybe five, July and August. Astounding predictability. It had always been like that here, they said. To mean, also, it would always be like that. We had a little baby girl then. I was young, and it would always be like that.

But ten years of monsoons and the little girl, age ten, stops eating. No way to get food into her. We control our own mouths, nobody else gets that power.

Still too thin, she goes off to college. My first visit, she's filled out. Good, I thinkbut no. It's the meth. The meth makes her not care. I don't know this yet, but she asks me for dentist money. I tease her about rotting meth-teeth. So she thinks I already know, and that's how I find out.

Somehow, without me, she kicks the meth. Somehow she graduates. Somehow she comes home again, gets a job, settles in the desert city where she was born. The office isn't far, she rides her bike. One day, one intersection, she goes straight while the vehicle alongside her turns right. Right in front of her. It's a semi-truck, an eighteen-wheeler. She falls back, her left leg out. Two sets of duallies run over it. First pair, second pair. We watch it happen, later, in a video. Surveillance camera, courtesy a corner business. We being her dad and I. Years divorced, we come together over this.

Imagine the pain. Imagine the dose of opioids. Imagine the healing time needed for bones crushed to smithereens. Tibia and fibula, the two bones between ankle and knee. X-rays, months apart, show ghostly, uncertain growth. They also show a good ankle, a good knee. How is that possible? A pair of semi-truck duallies span two feet. What's her knee-to-ankle span? A foot? Yet a two-foot width of tires rolled over her. Twice. Against all likelihood leaving a good ankle, a good knee. A video, x-rays, scars: The miracle is documented.

Also documented: the opioid prescription. The heroin addiction. Then, a suboxone rescue. But there are vodka weekends, too. Somehow, she keeps showing up for work. Or calling in sick. Sick is not a lie.

When the monsoons come I don't notice them. I have worries. For other reasons, nobody else notices, either. We used to drip and sweat in the humidity, arguing about the swamp cooler. On or off? Did it help? No. Just made everything stickier. Time to get air conditioning. Everyone on the block. The power company adds new lines. AC spews heat instead of cool, moistened air. The city heats up further.

Other mothers took their little girls to ballet. I drove mine to riding lessons. Animals were us. Or her, at least. I wanna be a cat, she used to say. Well, who doesn't. Free food and medical, pillows, massages. But she says it wistfully, with liquid eyes, stroking the head of our Honeyfluff. Little eyebrows drawn together. I wish I was a cat.

The job she shows up for helps animals. Not pets: wild ones. Many of them ugly. Hellbenders. Fish. Leggy insects. And she's not stupid. Her job loves her back. Her job even sends her to rehab. A month of cutting-edge theory. "Co-occurring disorders," no less.

I see some healing, leg and psyche both. She can walk. She gets her own cat. A horror. You say to this cat (your hand withdrawn, not out for sniffing), Hiyeee, sweet Mollyeee! And Molly lets out an openmouthed hiss, cheeyahhh! The monster prefers furniture to catboxes. Has her own eating disorder. Finds the catfood bag wherever it's kept, rips it open and finishes it off. True, there were brief thoughts of finding a new home. But these were dropped in favor of a growing, hopeful, two-way devotion. My kid is the cat's only love. The cat worships one goddess, follows one master, and that's her. It makes her exceptional. Privately loved. Brings healing, once you've cleaned the furniture.

The demon anorexia hangs on tight. It shape-shifts into rampant bingeing. It's a new devil, but she's starting to win. She has fewer vodka weekends.

And I'm noticing the monsoons again. There's not much of a pattern any more. They're going nuts. Rain can come in the middle of the night, or early in the morning, or not at all. It might be cloudy all day, or sunny from dawn to dusk, with building humidity that never bears its droplet-fruit. There's no mistaking the decline of our orderly monsoon. Can it even be called that now, without its pattern? The word on the street is non-soon.

I need that water. I have cisterns to fill, two big ones. That's the amount of water I leave underground. My garden gets rainwater. Loves it. It's chlorine-free and nitrogen-rich. The plants know the difference. They're Minnesota-green.

Thinner monsoons go with hotter temperatures. At first the oven-like heat thrilled me. Isolated highs of 115 degrees, or 117. Spikes of Death Valley temperatures: You could marvel, you could brag, and sundown brought relief. But the spikes have become gently rolling hills, high ones, the nights shallow dents between them. Glass, concrete, brick, asphalt added to the city every day, absorbing the hot sun, radiating it back in the dark. Mosquitoes have arrived, too, breeding in human buckets, birdbaths, junk. When will it all become too much?

I could move back to Minnesota. Warmer, climate-changed winters? Yes please! But now there are polar vortexes. Well then, maybe cool California. Oops. Not with the fire and smoke. The Pacific Northwest? Smoke there, too. Plus a spreading plutonium plume, and radiation from Japan. The East Coast? Florida? Rising seas. The South? Stronger hurricanes. The Midwest? Floods. Tornadoes.

I might as well stay here. The desert is built for heat. And my girl is here.

Yeah, it's an age of trouble. I think it's not where we live, but how. How we prevent the trouble, and how we live with it coming. Through group efforts or private habits? Through facing the trouble, or denying it? Is peace to be found in either?

My kid loves her trouble-preventing, habitat-saving work. And she gets paid for it: the best of all possible worlds. But not really. The Wild is losing. Habitat disappearing, court cases lost, protections rolled back. Extinctions. The usual one step forward, two steps back. Sometimes ten.

I watch her healing and dealing. She divorces results from effort. Loves her coworkers, her beautiful sunny office. Values her own contributions: writing, editing, designing. Lingers and laughs at certain postings: colorful photos of cuteness. Or enchanting ugliness. All of this moving her toward health. Moving the world toward health, too, as she fights.

It's an excellent path, but mine's different. I don't fight, I refuse to participate. I live small. No car, no flush toilet. No cell phone. No credit cardI shop alleys and curbsides. Grow my own food, swap some of it for diversity. Pick edibles from the landscape. Make what I need. Fix stuff. Cook my own meals, ingredients fresh and unpackaged. Harvest that rainwater. Walk or bike where I need to go. Entertain myself. Keep my income needs low.

I love this path. Less worry. No credit card hacks. No toilet repairs. No cell phone to lose, break, get addicted to, see confiscated, reveal my whereabouts. No pesticides on my food. Not much garbage to weigh me down. Less plastic in my body. And no parking problems, license fees, tickets, or traffic jams. No gas to buy, no car-potato weight gain.

Planetary poisons are personal hazards. As above, so below. The shiny stuff we order gets hauled by a truck that bites us in the leg.

So that's my kind of fighting. Not taking part. It's as valid as my kid's. I think there's a battle strategy for everyone. The fun is in discovering it.

Yes, and my girl is dancing, now. Dancing! No thanks to the childhood without lessons, but not too late. She's found it herself, out there beyond her assumed talents. Beyond intellect, academics, languagedance was waiting for her. Her first performance, I cried. Couldn't stop. The physical grace and beauty an overwhelming surprise. Strength and muscle replacing the hunger-weakened limbs. The boldness of movement somehow cancelling the warped image of body. Her work, her fight for wild habitats, a platform to this unexpected passion. So that soon she's teaching, evenings, with students she loves as deeply as animals.

I had no idea. She had no idea. Now there's little time left for sickness, drinking, overeating. The fight and the dance eat up all her self-doubt. I see her as whole.

And I've come to believe: No matter the method of fighting, the intensity of threat, or the seriousness of the illness (the planet's, our culture's, our own), we can't forget to dance. It's why we're here.

Kay Sather has lived in Tucson for 40 years and has been growing food in her urban backyard much of that time. She is both a writer and an artist. Her illustrations have appeared in numerous magazines and children's books, including the award-winning "Soft Child." She has written for Edible Baja, the Tucson Weekly, and Madden Publishing, and her non-fiction story, "Spadefoot," was a finalist for the Annie Dillard Award. This story was also published in the Mississippi Review in the summer of 2019. Also this year, Magination Press published "Neon Words," a book Sather co-authored with noted children's writer Marge Pellegrino, which provides concrete methods of using writing and expressive arts to help young people flourish as authors.

Second Place

The Man Who Would Not Be President

By Brendan Shepherd

200. The New York Times: "Bush Appears to Defeat Gore."

I looked over the crib onto two sleeping babies who had no idea of the many famous guests downstairs in their elegant Hancock Park home. Nor would they care. And little did they know that their peaceful sleep produced such a cathartic release for me against the vapid LA conversations below. Children brought into a world of dysfunction by friends I loved. I sighed deeply as I wondered about their future in a life of luxury not without difficulties.

As I turned to leave, the door opened. Before me stood the man who had won the nation's popular vote, but who would not be president of the United States. Al Gore. He entered quietly and walked over to the crib. I nearly panicked and wanted to escape but my very high heels felt glued to the floor. I dared not move out of awe and respect. We both smiled courteously towards one another and looked down upon the babies. I noticed the tension in his shoulders unleashed its grip as he let out a sigh deeper than mine had been. I wondered what he could be thinking. I certainly wasn't going to ask him and promptly gave up trying to figure it out. He calmly stepped back from the crib to the corner of the nursery and without thought, I followed. We stood side by side saying nothing. The silence between us was not uncomfortable for me. For some strange reason it felt normal.

A few others entered the room for a chance to glimpse at the financially fortunate twins but no one came over to us. I was grateful for that. It would have shattered the quietness in our space.

As the faint chitchat continued at the crib, I turned to Mr. Gore and said the first thing that came into my head "How are you feeling?" He looked at me for a couple of seconds and then softly responded, "Ok." But I could see the disappointment and sadness in his eyes. "I'm sorry you won't be our president." He smiled, "Me too." With sincere curiosity, I asked him what he was going to do next. He murmured something about teaching and global warming. Not knowing how to initiate conversation on either of those subjects, I glanced away but quickly looked back at him. By his bemused expression I felt pretty sure that his plans weren't definite for the near future. To be polite, I asked about global warming, no matter that those concerns rarely entered my mind. The only half way serious thoughts I had regarding the environment were when I drove back into LA from the airport on a day that smog hovered over the city. I always blurted loudly in my car the same critical comments that sounded like I was concerned, but that's as far as it went. As I got closer to home, along with the intense traffic, those thoughts disappeared.

Vice President Gore smiled tolerantly at my apparent unawareness on the issues of our world's climate. Which was completely accurate. But the troubled look on his face imprinted my brain with the slight desire and weak promise to become more mindful to the condition of our planet. After all, he seemed like a nice worried man who knew a lot.

As the nursery group dispersed, Al Gore and I went our separate ways down the winding staircase, towards the crowded main floor where photo opportunities with the Vice President were scheduled. Standing on the steps of the staircase, looking upon the well-tended crowd, I gave a little laugh. Here I was, a girl from Appalachia whose grandfather, father and brother were all coal miners and I'm talking to the former Vice President of the United States of America about the environment. In a split second something clicked in me. I knew that I needed to reinvent my life and do something that made sense for the earth and myself better than what I'd been doing. Which was essentially nothing. But at that moment I couldn't think about how or what to do. I waved off my grand epiphany. I'd just have to think about that another day. Tomorrows came and went and nothing changed. I continued living the same insignificant life as before. The only difference was the annoying little flame that ignited in my head from time to time reminding me of the promise to myself in the nursery.

Two years later, braving the unknown, I moved to New Mexico and finally made changes to my life quite different from my LA days. I bought a house south of Santa Fe on ten acres that my city friends called nuts. Simply because when I bought it, there was no working electricity, finished interiors, nor running water in the entire house. Besides those "minor" details, the dirt road to the house was horrendous. Everyone called me brave but I cried for a week after the final paperwork was signed and closed. There was an upside. The house was designed to be virtually selfsustained. Just what I wanted. Or so I thought. In the next years, there were many challenges and my precious savings went to making the house livable most importantly with electricity and water. But things eventually calmed down and gradually I fell in love with the house. It became mine and we suited each other. I have now been living off the grid with no public utilities, relying on the goodness of the earth for fourteen years. Solar, well water and my own sewage system. A long way from LA. I've learned to live gratefully looking forward to the rising sun and am thankful each day I see clear blue skies and have fresh spring water. On my own unique path, I believe that I am doing a small part as an acceptable steward of the earth thanks to that moment in the nursery with Al.

As Mr. Gore wrote in his book, An Inconvenient Truth, the time for preserving our earth is now. Sadly, it is perceived that the tipping point has almost passed. Nearly 20 years have gone by since the 2000 presidential election and the LA soiree. And I often wonder if today we would be having somewhat different conversations about global warming if Vice President Gore had been president

Brendan Shepherd has worked in the film business in Los Angeles and New Mexico. Some of her career has been working at the Disney Company as well as developing her own film production company. She has written two screenplays, poetry, and a book, "How Not To Make It in Hollywood." Brendan lives in a house off the grid south of Santa Fe.

Third Place

The Ultimate Changes

By Raven Callaway-Kidd

Sometimes, when I sit in the passenger's seat of my mom's forest green Toyota in the evening, like I do three days a week after dance class, I drag my eyes up to the sunset. Sorbet sky, pink clouds lined with a dull blue, glowing slashes in the sky from passing jets, and a big bright ball of half-melted butter in the middle of it all. I can't imagine a more perfect sight. It feels as though I am sitting on the edge of a postcard picture. This sunset could turn anyone's day from bad to good.

When I see that sunset, all I can think is "How long till it's gone? How long till you can't see the cotton candy clouds behind dark swarms of pollution? How long till we can only see a sunset like this in history workbooks?" This bright-eyed little world will soon feel like a stormy adolescent, and no one knows what that will bring.

It's funny to me that as our planet changes, I do too. I'm thirteen, almost out of middle school, and trying to figure out what I am going to do for high school. I don't have the best memory or social skills, and I seem to be incapable of organization or being on time. I guess I'm what you would call "a mess".

Two years ago I was a bouncing sixth grader, ignorant of most things and excited about my future. Now I'm wary. In the near future I will have many opportunities, lots of second chances, and a whole life to explore, but I will also make many, many mistakes, ruin opportunities, and witness the devastation of climate change. Two years ago I was that sunset, no doubt. I was unruined, inexperienced, and protected from everything bad. Now it seems that negative possibilities become more likely every day. As time goes by, it feels like my old sunset is slowly being enveloped by filthy smoke from factories, leaving only a toxic veil of darkness. Am I turning into a dark cloud? I don't want to be. Neither does the sunset. No matter how many toxic fumes the world wafts toward it, it continues to have a beauty as clear and happy as my childhood memories. Me and the sky are a team, both fighting to preserve that simple youthful joy everyone has once felt. We can't do it forever. We'll have to grow up one day; embrace all the bad things, whether they're UV rays and rising oceans or struggling to pay tuition. This is going to be the biggest change in my life and definitely in humanity's life. However, while I'll simply have to live through being a teenager, the planet has to live through climate change. I cannot imagine a challenge more difficult. It appears that there is no way to ease this change into something less than a destructive disaster.

I'm old enough to know that all change isn't bad though. If we can get through this and learn how to fight it off fast enough, it could be almost pleasant. Many places will have elevated temperatures, making for cozy winters. Others will have more snow. Some places formerly dry, will be wet; others dry where it was once wet. We are about to witness the extremes of our atmosphere, and no one can know if we are lucky to get a front row seat or doomed to death. This change is going to be one of the most chaotic experiences we will ever have, but as we live through it, we may discover order within the chaos.

Personally, I always thought of order as this polite, quiet little creature that was always tucked away in some convenient corner. But the more I think about it, that doesn't make sense. Order is not measured by timidness. It is measured by patterns and sequences. Order should make sense, or at least be predictable. Our planet is not deceiving us, so maybe this destructive change is just part of a strange, unwelcome order; an inevitable fate of human greed.

In the case of my life, it may be possible to wait out the storms, but the planet needs more than patience. Most of us know how to help and needs to decide that they will. We understand the order. We know the patterns. We know what move we need to make. It's time for us to step up. What we do right now could make or break our future. So I'm asking you, on behalf of the planet and every other chaotic mess of a person on it, to join the fight for our home.

Raven is 13 years old and currently in eighth grade at Santa Fe Prep.She haslived in Santa Fe her entire life. Besides writing, her hobbies are dancing, drawing, and reading.