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“Dirty nature writing”: your new favourite genre?

David Huebert’s new book Chemical Valley is fiction with a deep tradition and a fresh take.  

His collection of short stories examines the toxicity, pollution and technology that is woven into our everyday lives. 

A King’s alum 

Huebert first became interested in writing during his time at the University of King’s College’s Contemporary Studies Programme. Although he didn’t start writing his own material until after his master’s degree, it was an English course here at Dalhousie University that first sparked his interest. From there, he explored poetry, entered writing contests and began to explore the world of creative writing.  

“[That was] 10 years ago,” says Huebert. “And I guess I never really looked back.” 

Nowadays, Huebert teaches creative writing and literature at the University of New Brunswick. One of the things he enjoys most about teaching is connecting to students and watching them grow. “If I can help a student make even a small change in their mind,” says Huebert. “That’s a very satisfying feeling.” 

Dirty nature writing 

Chemical Valley is part of a genre of fiction called “dirty nature writing,” a term coined by Huebert and fellow writer Tom Cull in the New Quartely, a Canadian literary journal. Nature writing, popularized by authors such as David Thoreau, refers to works that focus on the natural environment. This genre includes essays of solitude, natural history essays and travel/adventure writing. 

 “Nature writing traditionally imagines nature as this pristine thing … that exists outside of us and outside of human impact,” says Huebert. 

Alternatively, dirty nature writing acknowledges the messiness of nature today, explains Huebert. “To think of nature as something separate from human nature is actually problematic in a lot of ways”, he says. “I try to confront nature in its contaminated state honestly and openly, [and] not believe in a false binary between nature and human existence.” 

Real life setting 

Some Canadian readers will find this collection extremely relatable –– not only due to Huebert’s talent for creating engaging characters, but also because it takes place in Southern Ontario.  

A few of the stories transpire in Sarnia, Ont., colloquially known as Chemical Valley. This is because the relatively small city is home to 40 per cent of Canada’s petrochemical industry. In one of these stories, Huebert explores what it’s like to be a refinery worker, working for a company that is wreaking havoc on both local communities and one’s own health. This forces the reader to feel empathy towards someone whom they may have otherwise blamed as a contributor to our environmental problems.  

It is through narratives such as this that Huebert reveals the complexity of navigating through the current climate emergency. 

Eco-anxiety  

Chemical Valley is nothing if not extremely timely. With the current ecological crisis, we are seeing an increase in eco-anxiety, which describes the stress and fear associated with environmental damage.  

“Eco-anxiety is something we’ll never work through” says Huebert. “But it is something I was trying to think through and engage with throughout the book.” As a father, he often finds himself “obsessing over … questions of what’s going to be left for [his] children” but he knows we need to focus on transforming our world first. He asserts, “We can’t let the dread or anxiety win.” 

It is especially important to explore reading in an age when there are so many forms of content out there. From YouTube videos to Instagram posts, one has the ability to absorb copious amounts of content in less time than ever.  

“It’s very obvious that much of our world is moving much too fast all the time,” he says. “If we can cultivate slowness that’s the remedy. For me reading is one of the ways to do that.” 

Chemical Valley is full of stories that are beautiful, gross, depressing and uplifting all at once. Through the use of dazzling language and complex characters, this deeply thoughtful collection will truly get you thinking. Chemical Valley, says Huebert, is “about taking ecological disaster seriously while also finding new ways to flourish.”

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