We are continuing our series profiling the authors and artists featured in our latest volume, Metamorphosis. Learn more about the Metamorphosis volume here. Click this link to order this and previous volumes.
by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain
Metamorphosis author Lyssa Tall Anolik’s background spans interests and training from environmental education and interpretation to forestry and zoology, with writing as a side interest until she made it her main profession with her master’s degree in fine arts. Her interest in zoology and environmental education goes back to high school, when she served as a naturalist at the Seattle Aquarium during the summers. Her interest in working with kids led her to environmental education, and she spent time as a ranger at Mt. Rainier and Olympic National Parks. She began her undergraduate career majoring in forestry at the University of Washington because it was the closest she could come to environmental education, and appreciated the balanced perspective she encountered regarding forest ecology, forest management, land use, wildlife preservation, habitat restoration, and meeting economic and recreational needs.
Writing stayed with her as an undercurrent, always present in her life. She writes poetry and memoir, and has a particular interest in nature writing. After nearly a decade in the field of environmental education with a focus on watershed education and management, she returned to school for a Master of Fine Arts in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Anolik’s piece for Metamorphosis, “Eating Italy,” blends mouth-watering descriptions of Tuscan food, history, and culture by creating memorable word pictures and inserting interesting cultural and natural tidbits. Of her writing style she says, “My Metamorphosis piece is a prose poem, pushing the envelope in terms of form. I write a lot of personal narrative-style essays, but they tend to be poetic — sometimes more narrative and sometimes more poetic, but it all falls in the bucket of memoir. I like playing with form.”
I wanted to hear more about the experience in Italy that led to this piece, her writing process, and her understanding of herself as an environmental practitioner. I enjoyed getting to know Lyssa Tall Anolik and vicariously experiencing her adventures as she shared further about her Tuscan excursion.
Whole Terrain: Tell us more about the trip to Italy that sparked your piece in Metamorphosis, “Eating Italy.”
Lyssa Tall Anolik: My husband and I lived there for his work in 2009. He’s a software engineer. We were in Norway for the summer, then immediately following that in Italy for three months in the fall. While he was working, I was exploring, writing, and learning how to live in two very different cultures. In Norway it was not about food — they don’t have much of a food culture, other than fish. It was all about the natural landscape, and hiking.
Italy was all about the food. We’re foodies, and we ate our way through Italy. We lived in Marina di Carrera, an industrial town at the foot of the Apuan Alps in the northwest corner of Tuscany, where they mine marble. There were always big trucks rumbling by with slabs of marble on them. We got a very true experience of what it was like to live there, in a studio apartment in a residential area. On the weekends, we would get in the car and drive out into the countryside to explore, find little hill towns and restaurants, and sample whatever they were serving.
The experience that generated “Eating Italy” was a three-day weekend spent in the Sienna hill town region. We stayed at an agriturismo, a working farm, where they grow all their own produce and feed you from the farm. It’s amazing! They’re all over that area. This one was recommended by a co-worker of my husband’s, where he’s taken his family on vacation. There were not many other Americans around. The farm was in a valley below the town of San Gimignano, known for it’s many medieval stone towers.
Another part of the piece is about the nearby town of Volterra. We just happened to be there on their annual festival day: Halloween, and also their white truffle festival. All the restaurants were serving white truffle specials, such as the fondue I wrote about. In the piece, I also talk about visiting an Etruscan museum. The Etruscans were the original natives of that region, from whom Tuscany gets its name. The museum displays funerary urns of their cremated remains, with beautifully carved stone lids that survived because they were preserved in a chalk hillside.
WT: Can you tell us about your writing process for this piece?
LTA: All my first drafts come out as stream-of-consciousness free writes, which I did a lot of in Italy to capture these experiences. I didn’t begin shaping this one until I came home. About a year later, I turned it into a prose poem, working with my poetry critique group. I sent it out to a number of other journals in earlier forms, but it was never quite the right fit. It was a piece I was really attached to and I wanted to find a good home for it.
When I came across the Metamorphosis call, I was in love with the theme. “Eating Italy” immediately came to mind. I thought, “This is a metamorphosis, the way we’re eating the land: growing things, eating them, dying, the ashes, the whole cycle of life.” I took it out and edited it a bit more and sent it in. I was excited when it was accepted; it had found the right home.
WT: What do you see as your reflective environmental practice, or how do you see your work affecting the way people view the rest of the natural world?
LTA: Environmentalism and a deep personal connection to nature is really the foundation of my life. Even though I’m not teaching environmental education anymore, my writing tends to reflect a love of the land and the need to care for and steward it. Trees show up a lot in my writing.
My full time job right now is being a mom. As a mother, I want to pass on that love of trees, animals, bugs and the way all the pieces of the ecological world fit together to my daughter. From the time she was three months old, my husband and I were taking her around the garden, feeling plants. We started her camping when she was 3 months old, letting her feel tree bark.
It’s interesting: becoming a mother has made me realize how disconnected we are from the natural world because it’s so easy to become stuck inside the house. Looking around at all her toys, many are plastic and synthetic. They’re not natural materials. It’s really made me work harder to get her outside, to go on walks. We also try to leave as small of a footprint as we can, installing solar panels, driving an electric car (a Volt), and other ways we can be a positive example to our daughter.
When I was teaching environmental education I worked a lot with inner city kids, and when we took them to the forest, they were terrified. I think it’s important to nurture a relationship with the natural world. I want to raise a child who’s not addicted to video games and screens, but has a desire to be outside and have an authentic relationship with the earth.
Bio: Lyssa Tall Anolik is a writing coach based in Portland, Oregon, where she lives with her husband and baby. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in VoiceCatcher, Drash, EarthSpeak, Curly Red Stories, The Literary Hatchet, and other journals. She leads writing workshops and retreats at Multnomah Arts Center and other Portland locations, and nature writing workshops at scenic locations including Mt. Hood, the Oregon coast, and the Columbia Gorge.
To read more of Lyssa Tall Anolik’s writing, order a copy of our Metamorphosis volume, and check out these links: Breaking and Entering (EarthVision writing contest honorable mention), Whale (VoiceCatcher), and three poems (EarthSpeak Magazine).