SELC announces winners of the 2020 Phil Reed Environmental Writing Awards

SELC has announced the winners of its 2020 Phillip D. Reed Environmental Writing Awards.

In the book category, New York Times opinion writer Margaret Renkl will receive the Reed Award for Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss. In the journalism category, Megan Mayhew Bergman will receive the Reed Award for “Climate Changed,” a series on southern attitudes toward climate change published by The Guardian.

Renkl scatters short autobiographical essays in between short nature pieces, so that her life story and her life’s passion intertwine, like a fence post and a trumpet vine.”

—Maureen Corrigan in a review for National Public Radio

An Alabama native who lives in Nashville, Renkl writes a weekly column for The New York Times in which she frequently uses close observations of nature as a means to illuminate larger issues in politics and society. Likewise, the family stories and personal vignettes in Late Migrations often focus on natural wonders in the back yard—bluebirds and monarch butterflies, vultures, and rat snakes—as a window on life’s joys, fears, and sorrows.

“Renkl scatters short autobiographical essays in between short nature pieces, so that her life story and her life’s passion intertwine, like a fence post and a trumpet vine,” said Maureen Corrigan in a review for National Public Radio’s Fresh Air. “Renkl’s subject here is ‘the all of it.’ By that I mean the cycle of life, out there in nature and inside our own families and our own bodies.”

Writing for The Wall Street Journal, reviewer Danny Heitman praised the poetic quality of Renkl’s finely crafted narratives. “Her prose often sings, as when she refers to a predatory brown wren as ‘a feathered fusion of music and violence’—a sobering reminder that a seemingly benign bringer of beauty can have a dark side, too.”

Published by Milkweed Editions and richly illustrated by the author’s brother, artist Billy Renkl, Late Migrations was selected as the Today show’s “Read With Jenna” book club pick for December 2019 and as one of “10 July Books You Won’t Be Able to Put Down” by O, The Oprah Magazine.

Renkl is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Carolina and was the founding editor of Chapter 16, the daily literary publication of Humanities Tennessee. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, Literary Hub, Oxford American, River Teeth, and The Sewanee Review.

Renkl writes about the cycle of life—in nature and the human experience.

Megan Mayhew Bergman is a North Carolina native who teaches literature and environmental writing at Middlebury College in Vermont, where she also serves as director of the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference. For her eight-part series in The Guardian, she spent a year talking to people across the South—from evangelical Christians to artists and activists—to understand the reluctance of many southerners to confront the issue of climate change, even though it threatens their region on multiple fronts.

I believe that to deny climate change and delay productive action in 2019 is malicious and akin to governmental malpractice.”

—Megan Mayhew Bergman

Bergman finds that attitudes in the South are changing but, due to deep political divides, not fast enough. Although she sees cooperation among divergent interests as vital to making progress, she concludes it is ultimately irresponsible to give climate deniers equal weight in this debate.

“When I began this column, I felt more of a duty to listen to all sides, but frankly I do not believe that climate change is an issue of which one can pretend, or afford, to hear both sides,” she writes. “I believe that to deny climate change and delay productive action in 2019 is malicious and akin to governmental malpractice. A government that is not actively protecting its citizens from the future challenges of climate change (property loss, food system collapse, increased intensity of storms, flooded infrastructure, extreme heat, economic disruption) is not acting in the interests of its citizens.”

Bergman studied anthropology at Wake Forest University, earned an MA degree at Duke University, and received an MFA from Bennington College, where she also served as associate director of the MFA program and director of the Robert Frost Stone House Museum. She is the author of two short story collections, Birds of a Lesser Paradise and Almost Famous Women, as well as a forthcoming novel, Indigo Run. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Tin House, Ploughshares, Oxford American, Orion and Paris Review. Her short fiction was featured in Best American Short Stories 2011 and 2015, and on NPR’s Selected Shorts.

SELC’s Reed Environmental Writing Award is named for the late Phillip D. Reed, a successful attorney, a committed environmental advocate, and a founding trustee of the Southern Environmental Law Center. Reed believed deeply in the power of writing to raise awareness of environmental issues and the forces that threaten natural treasures and special places.

Selected by a distinguished panel of judges, Reed Award winners have recently included Earl Swift, author of Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island; Edward O. Wilson, the “father of biodiversity”; Janisse Ray, a writer, naturalist and activist who has been inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame; science writer Deborah Cramer, whose work has won honors from the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Academy of Sciences; and J. Drew Lanham, author of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature.

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