In her write-up for Calgary-based Chris Turner’s collection of essays on the environment How to Breathe Underwater: Field Reports from an Age of Radical Change, Ashley Chapman for the 2014 Ottawa Festival of Ideas points out that the publication was not written as a book. Approached by a publisher about compiling 15 years worth of his magazine features, Turner secretly wondered if he would be embarrassed by his early work. Nevertheless, he said yes. The collection of essays was published in October 2014 and nominated for the Wilfred Egglestone Award for Nonfiction at the 2015 Alberta Literary Awards. In a Globe and Mail review, Simon Lewson, writes that:
Chris Turner’s essay collection, How to Breathe Underwater: Field Reports from an Age of Radical Change, is many things: a travelogue, a work of tech reportage, and a document of our frightening ecological moment. It’s also, arguably, a coming-of-age story. The essays are in rough chronological order. The oldest are from the late ’90s and early 2000s, when Turner was a twentysomething writing for the Toronto tech magazine Shift. The latest, from 2009 to 2012, appeared in The Walrus and Eighteen Bridges, where he found a home for his writing after Shift’s demise. Each essay comes with a short preface, where Turner sometimes acknowledges their flaws. He refuses, however, to airbrush them. The book is like one of those mid-career gallery retrospectives where the artist’s works (juvenilia, experiments, breakthroughs, and masterpieces) hang sequentially, each representing a phase in life.
The book’s title essay was originally published in The Walrus. Turner sometimes cuts a solitary figure in Canada for long-form literary journalism referring to the genre “the poor cousin in the literary firmament.” But the lament is not without a smile. Reportedly, Turner first discovered feature writing through his aunt’s subscription to Rolling Stone, which soon turned into his own subscription, and then into a fascination with David Foster Wallace and others of the genre’s greats.
Unlike novels, as Turner explains, magazine features are usually read in one sitting. Self-contained immersion experiences, the scuba suit and mask serve as metaphor to explore new worlds, as in the collections title essay. Seemingly discrete events transcend their locality and individual actions become a universal mirror. The genre is doubtlessly undervalued, but Turner’s newest book proves that features are often relevant beyond their one-month-give-or-take shelf life.
A former federal Green candidate (accidentally, he claims), and sought-after speaker on sustainability (again, not on purpose), Turner says his one intentional decision along this road was to write about the environment.
Praise for How To Breathe Underwater:
Chris Turner is among the best magazine writers on the planet. His writing is so beautiful, wry and well-reported that it’s spellbinding. And spell-breaking: He wakes you up, makes you sit upright and look afresh at our culture, our climate, and where we need to go. This is literary non-fiction at its finest.
–Clive Thompson, Wired columnist and author of Smarter Than You Think
As a natural cynic, Turner could have adopted the disaster and panic narrative of climate change coverage—if he thought it would work. Instead he writes about solutions, preferring hope to doom as a motivator. Nothing in our daily lives tells us that we need to drastically change—at least not until some GHG-coloured mushroom cloud appears—but Turner says we’re more likely to move in a certain direction if we’re actually excited about where we’re going. Hence he leads his readers towards, not away.
He calls it “transformative myth,” and should the magazine industry last, it may just change everything if Chris Turner has his way:
We are headed somewhere unknown, somewhere surely dangerous but also perhaps blessed with unexpected beauty. The terrain will be at least partially alien, the logic and rules of the place governed by inversions and seeming perversions of the natural order we’ve always known. Some of the tools we’ll need to traverse this new landscape safely may at first appear unfamiliar, unwieldy, inconvenient. We may only comprehend their vital necessity once we’ve taken the plunge into this tumultuous sea. But we will learn to thrive. Feel exhilaration in the place of anxiety and lament. We will all learn to breathe underwater.
– Chris Turner, “The Age of Breathing Underwater”
Turner describes his own “plunge into the tumultuous sea” of climate change and ecological disasters during the floods in Southern Alberta last spring in “Owen’s Ark,” an lengthy, well-written and informative article published in the May 2015 issue of Walrus Magazine. It makes for a fascinating read and won the Howard O’Hagan Award for Short Story at the 2015 Alberta Literary Awards on May 23. You can check out this and other articles Turner has penned for the Walrus Magazine at: http://thewalrus.ca/author/chris-turner