by Alicia Auping
“This is my favorite part of the canal,” Elizabeth Royte says, bracing her brown hiking boots against the side of the bridge and leaning over the railing. Looking down from Brooklyn’s historic Carroll Street Bridge, she doesn’t see any floating condoms, a sight so common during high tide that locals refer to them as Coney Island whitefish. Alas, the tide is low this blistery March morning. Stinking low. Stinking like raw sewage, in fact. “Oh! But there’s a maxi pad,” she says, pointing to a swollen cloud resting buoyantly in the jaded water. Even at low levels, rubbish litters the filmy green surface of the Gowanus Canal like confetti. A dead pigeon protrudes from the surface, along with a sludge-filled pink tote bag and a decaying straw broomstick. Furry algae and fecal sludge carpet the canal’s stone walls.
As she stands peering down into the murky waters, Elizabeth imagines the clickety-clack of horse-drawn carriages making their way across the wooden planks of the bridge back when the Gowanus teemed with refineries, factories and moving freight. She’s been obsessed with the canal ever since Earth Day 2002 when the Sierra Club launched boats for a cleanup of the waterway. It was just blocks downhill from her Park Slope brownstone and she was curious to see what her neighborhood looked like from a nautical angle, especially since she’d grown up canoeing during summers in Maine.
When she discovered the Sierra Club had extra boats, she jumped right in, propelling her canoe in the opposite direction of their crews. Each stroke of her paddle disturbed the glaze of oils glittering in the afternoon sunlight. Soon, Elizabeth was alone, her canoe cushioned in slime and putrid sludge wider than a four-lane highway. With a start, she realized she was paddling through things she threw away everyday – nearly 2 solid miles of household trash, raw sewage, toxic waste and decomposing organic matter. She wondered how culpable she was in this mess.
Back home, disturbed by her canoe trip in the Gowanus, she decided to study the trail of her own trash. Every night for an entire year – even after dinner parties – she sat on her kitchen floor, culling the contents of her family’s garbage bin, sorting their discarded detritus divided by destination: a visiting toddler’s dirty diaper for the landfill, plastic ketchup and shampoo bottles for the recycling plant, potato peels and onion skins for the compost bin, rubber cement and batteries for hazardous waste drop-off sites. While she sorted, she sang silly ditties to her daughter. She befriended her local san men, too, and shadowed truck CN191 though her Brooklyn neighborhood. She sleuthed and tried to sneak into the final resting place of her curbside trash, a tightly guarded landfill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania – almost 90 miles away. She fretted over the sluggish growth of fungi, bacteria and worms in her first effort with a hand-me-down Garden Gourmet composting bin. She narrowly escaped arrest by a Staten Island sanitation cop, paddling furiously away in the restricted waters surrounding the defunct Fresh Kills landfill.
In 2005, she published Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash, a book the critics loved not just for its downright dirty details, but also for her humor and self-deprecation. Reviewers piled on the garbage-related puns to promote her book as one of the year’s best. Three years later, she followed up with another examination of throwaway culture, Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It. Entertainment Weekly hailed it as one of the 10 “Must Read” nonfiction books of 2008. What started out as a simple quest to understand her own garbage propelled her into a career as a conservation writer sought out by The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Outside, Smithsonian and The New Yorker, to name a few. In recent years, she’s written about the surge in wolf-coyote hybrid attacks on humans, the effects of fracking on the food supply, food oil transport, post-GMO farming, 3-D printing and, of course, water and garbage issues. Her freelance work is so successful that she’s put off another book. It’s been six years since Bottlemania, but writing a book means not doing magazine work, she says, and that’s a sacrifice for a freelance writer, married to another writer, trying to raise a daughter.
In a 2013 blog post for OnEarth, Elizabeth describes herself – sheepishly – as a “a tree-hugging, 350.org-supporting, vegetarian Brooklyn cliché.” But she has mixed feelings about being called an “environmental writer.” She has no background in science. She learns as she interviews, relying on what she calls her “thick-headedness” and willingness to keep asking questions. “I’m not really a nature writer. I’m not really a science writer,” she muses, searching for a label that won’t seem like an eco-centric cliché. “I tell people I write about consumption and waste,” she says finally. She’s quick to reject the notion that she’s been preoccupied with garbage ever since Garbage Land. “People keep saying I was obsessed with it — but I wasn’t!” she says, a tad defensively. “I was curious.”
As a contributing editor at OnEarth, a magazine put out by the National Resource Defense Council, however, it’s a little late for her to hide her bias toward the earth. She worries about the world she will leave for her teenage daughter. But it’s the fate of the environmental writer — oops, “consumption and waste” writer, to fail — repeatedly. People still drink bottled water. They toss their computers, cell phones and circuit boards laden with lead and poisonous metals into landfills. What sets Elizabeth apart as a writer is her unwillingness to preach. Instead, she puts herself in her stories to reveal how she comes to terms with her own stance on bottled versus tap water, the pros and cons of corn plastic, or drinking wine with a cork or plastic screw top. She shares these personal journeys of self-discovery and basic human nature knowing full well that the actions and perceptions of others are not so easily swayed.
ELIZABETH STEPS WITH PURPOSE onto a small stoop in lower Manhattan’s Bowery district and slips through the rickety door of the Great Jones Café. Country music drifts over from a vinyl record jukebox. Holiday lights strung from the ceiling cast a warm glow across her face. The lighting is not much different from the small tent where she lived with only a camp bed, a table and a candle during a recent two-week trip to Kenya and Tanzania to report on the decline of vulture populations for National Geographic. In the Ndutu Plains area of Serengeti National Park, she saw giraffes by day and heard the lions close in each night. Every morning at 5:30 a.m., a young Tanzanian would shout, “Morning!” to wake her as he poured smoky-smelling hot water into a plastic bowl outside her tent door.
Elizabeth, 54, pushes her bangs to the side of her shoulder-length chestnut hair as she talks about the vultures she was tracking. “Vultures are important,” she says, because they foster a healthy ecosystem. Those circling scavengers in the sky have as much to do with life as they do death, she notes. Elizabeth, always on the lookout for new stories or new spins on old stories, is quite a scavenger herself. She is currently revising another National Geographic story — this one about food waste — for a series about the global food crisis. She’s also working on a three-part journey for OnEarth about moving food oil by rail from the Dakotas to the West Coast. “I start in the Bakken, where they extract the oils, write about the troubles with transporting it, go to Montana and see the oil trains run through, and then go to California where communities are resisting unloading the oil,” she says.
As a student at Bard College, Elizabeth wasn’t sure she wanted to be a journalist at all. She wrote ad copy in Manhattan for a while then went to work at House and Garden. (“Not my cup of tea,” she says.) During an internship at The Nation, however, she learned to hone her craft and love it. She was freelancing for The Village Voice and other weeklies, writing about what she enjoyed best — popular culture — when an editor asked her to write about E.O. Wilson, an elite biologist collecting Pheidole, neo-tropical leafcutter ants, in the Panamanian rain forest. Who? Huh?? She had never heard of Wilson. While her brother is a botanist, her own science background was limited to high school and college requirements. “Everybody was more qualified than I was,” Elizabeth says.
She crammed on the plane all the way to the Barro Colorado Island field station, reading every book and scientific paper Wilson had written as well as some by paleontologist Steven J. Gould and biologist Richard Dawkins.
“The Ant Man” ended up on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in 1990, launching her reputation as an environmental writer. “This was the early ’90s and people were talking a lot about rain forest conservation and biodiversity. People really liked my story, and editors started calling me and asked if I would do other types of conservation stories.” She was in demand, a freelancer’s dream ... and she was somewhat dismayed. “I kept getting these assignments and I thought I was stuck in a rut. What about the rest of the world? What about all the other things I’m interested in?” Luckily, her attitude soon changed. She realized she liked her new beat. “It meant a lot to me,” she says. “It was really a stepping stone for me.”
The rain forests of Panama fascinated her, but the scientists who lived there intrigued her even more. She didn’t know anything about field biology or the people who make a life of it. “This was a really weird subculture,” she says. Zoologists, biologists and ecologists would gather every night for home-cooked meals inside a dining hall in the middle of the jungle and try to one-up each other by recounting their day logging the types of leaf-tents constructed by fruit-eating bats, the rates at which ants affect the trees and the harvest, as well as spider monkey reproductive habits and other rain forest encounters. What they lacked in social skills (like communicating) the scientists made up for in ambition.
“It was really a life-changing decision,” she says. “I knew when I was there, that if I was ever going to write a book, I would have to come back to this place.”
IT TOOK HER 10 YEARS, but she eventually worked up the courage to write the proposal for what became her first book, The Tapir’s Morning Bath: Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest and the Scientists Who Are Trying to Solve Them. The lengthy title is the handiwork of the book’s editor and marketing team who overruled her suggestion, Panama: The Tropical Fringes of North America. To her British editor, she says, “fringe” meant “bangs” (as in hair). Still later, it became The Tapir’s Morning Bath: Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest, which Elizabeth prefers to the longer title. (Now versed in the crazy world of publishing, she has learned that marketing departments often change subtitles to clarify the book’s subject matter or to respond to evolving public interests.)
The tapir taking the morning bath, Alice, was one of only 10 known to be on the island. Elizabeth never actually encountered a tapir, but the title did prompt interviewers (most of whom didn’t know what a tapir was, she says) to ask what it refers to. “The importance of careful observation in nature, of measurement, and of sharing ideas,” she’d reply.
For a year, she lived on Barro Colorado Is- land with the scientists, traipsing after them as they vacuumed ants off of the forest floor with a modified Dustbuster for examination, or captured and released spiny rats in pillowcases for a weekly census. She ate meals with them and got an intimate view of their personal lives. They were not thrilled about having her there. “BCI is pretty swanky as field stations are concerned,” she says, recalling hot showers, air-conditioned labs, email access and being served three meals a day. Meanwhile, she says, “Their colleagues are off roughing it in terrible conditions at other field stations.”
There was a lot of initial pushback to her being there and taking notes. “I was naïve about it, and it surprised me,” she admits. Eventually, however, she earned their trust by collecting spider monkey dung samples, tracking tent- making bats and joining the island’s Ultimate Frisbee team. It helped that she set clear boundaries of who she would and wouldn’t write about.
The Tapir’s Morning Bath remains her favorite book because it’s about people who love what they do — research in the field. It’s not all that different from what a nonfiction writer does. “You get grounded in the subjects so you don’t sound too idiotic,” she says in a typical self-effacing manner. Then they observe the subject in its natural habitat. Finally, they sit down in the lab and try to fit all the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle. “I definitely like the fieldwork,” Elizabeth says.
Since Panama, she has traveled to some- thing like 25 countries and 30 states. She reported on women raped in the Rwandan genocide, flew in an ultralight above Okavango Delta in Botswana tracking wild dogs, and played polo in Argentina — things that she would never be able to do on her own. “I just feel lucky a lot ... to be able to pick up the phone and say, ‘I write for National Geographic, and can you show me your California condors at The Museum of Natural History?’ Which you can’t do as an ordinary citizen. I held a California condor in my arms last week!”
Elizabeth wrote her book as she thought any reporter would — as the omniscient author, an impartial arbiter of the scene. She didn’t think she had a place in The Tapir’s Morning Bath. But soon after returning to Panama from a trip home to get married, she discovered she was pregnant. Unexpectedly, she had something in common with the verdant rain forest. One of the scientists she had watched was studying spider monkeys and their reproductive cycles. “I was in this rain forest teeming with life, and in the midst of all these people studying evolution, and I felt more a part of their world,” she says, marveling at the rich biological discoveries being made around her.
She freaked out at first, she admits, but leaving the island never crossed her mind. “It just seemed like, OK. So, I have this, you know, zygote in me, and so what?” she shrugs and laughs. “So, I just carried on.” When she turned in her manuscript, however, her editor tossed it back and said, Rewrite it in first person. He suggested Elizabeth weave a parallel between he complexity of the forest around her and the complexity of the process within her.
THE LESSONS LEARNED IN PANAMA on data-collecting and first-person narrative stayed with her for Garbage Land, which she wrote from her own perspective, too, even though she knew there was a danger. “I’m sure there were people who read Garbage Land who didn’t like me from the get-go so I probably lost a lot of readers,” she says.
She used herself as the central character, carrying the narrative between her personal experiences and macro garbage issues and the effects on the environment. She even included her 3-year-old daughter, covered in coffee grounds and holding a chicken liver, in the book. As they sat together on the kitchen floor surrounded by their trash, Elizabeth would sing her daughter a little ditty:
“It really isn’t garbage till you mix it all together.
“It really isn’t garbage till you throw it away.
“Just separate the paper, plastic, compost, glass and metal,
“And then you get to use it all another day.”
FOR ADVICE ON HOW MUCH DATA she needed to collect for her new book, Elizabeth called one of the scientists from The Tapir’s Morning Bath. In the end, she decided to count, record and weigh every watermelon rind, basil stem, hunk of moldy cheese and food scrap in her kitchen garbage bin — every time it was full — for a year. Readers can identify with Elizabeth precisely because she didn’t always understand the jargon thrown her way while she was reporting for the book. “Not getting it is a hallmark of my writing! Because I’m kind of thick-headed,” she says. “I’m not a solid-waste policy wonk. So, I’m writing as a regular human being with trash.”
Her readers learned the lingo of life’s leftovers, too: Mongo, she notes, is the garbage that sanitation workers consider worth keeping for themselves. Fluff is the leftover debris after a car is destroyed for scrap metal. “By the time I was done writing Garbage Land, I don’t want to say I was obsessed ....,” Elizabeth says, hedging, but she sure knew a lot about packaging and disposability.
And that’s how Bottlemania came about. Writing about garbage, she learned that bottled water is the fastest growing segment of the beverage industry. It’s all about packaging. The product itself is worth nothing. So, she wondered, why were we drinking so much bottled water? In Bottlemania, she explored the differences between bottled water and tap water and their effects on the environment and the small communities that provide it. Later she updated the book with an afterward so she could ad- dress the response of Nestlé Waters and other bottled water associations in the book. It got a new, longer name, too: Bottlemania: Big Business, Local Springs, and the Battle over America’s Drinking Water.
In the book, she took her introspective writing to another level by wrestling with the moral dilemma of commoditizing water, a basic human need. Whether she wanted to admit or not, she had become obsessed.
”DON’T LOOK AT ME!” Elizabeth says, hiding behind her hands when New York University professor Dan Fagin asks her to face his environmental journalism class. She shifts uncomfortably in her seat and laughs. Dan’s 17 grad students laugh, too, putting her at ease. Dan’s obsessed with his own toxic waterways. He spent over a decade investigating a cancer cluster in children caused by hazardous dumping in a small New Jersey township in his book Tom’s River, which she considers one of the best books of 2013. (He won the Pulitzer Prize three weeks later.)
Dan has been talking to his class about policy-oriented environmental journalism covering corporate players. Elizabeth, he says, is good at another kind of environmental story, the “how we live” stories that “deal with human beings as they actually are, which are flawed and complex and contradictory. And way less than perfect.” He searches his MacBook and projects on the wall behind him, “This is Your Town on Fracking” from Elizabeth’s OnEarth blog, Upstream and Down. It’s a story that Elizabeth never planned to write. She was in North Dakota reporting for The Nation about the potential effects of fracking on the food supply when she ran into car trouble — a broken fuel tank — so she decided to use her experience in Williston for her blog. “This is a double-dipping story,” she says.
Unable to get her car fixed, Elizabeth rolled with the punches and bought a train ticket out of town. But the train was late. That’s when crazy stuff started happening. “And then the guy drove into the station, and then I got onto the train, and then all the prostitutes were there, and all the toilets were overflowing with sewage. I just started writing down all the things that had gone wrong since I’d arrived in Williston,” she says, laughing. “I realized I had this really funny story.” She also knew that this crazy stuff wasn’t just randomly happening. She was seeing the social impact of fracking on this small town. “There’s a reason why there are so many prostitutes here. There’s a reason that there was a stone in this road that broke my gas tank. And the reason I couldn’t rent a car was because every car was rented, and all the repair places are swamped by people get- ting their windshields fixed or their gas tanks fixed and their cars realigned because these enormous trucks have wrecked the roads.”
She laughs as she recalls a scene that didn’t make it into her story — about a taxi that picked her up at 1 a.m. in Minot, North Dakota, after she got off the train. “It took 20 minutes for this 17-year-old kid to pull up in a decrepit minivan with stuff hanging off of it, blasting death metal and smoking.” Unbeknownst to her, the bed-and-breakfast she had booked online was a Christian establishment. She pulled up to the quaint-looking home (with Jesus hanging over every bed), with death metal playing. Dan prompts her to tell the story to illustrate that writers often lose great material to hone their narrative. “I was there working on a piece about methane flares,” she says. “It doesn’t really feed the story.”
Dan cannot emphasize her point enough to his students: “This is the why. This is the actual purpose of the story. The narrative is not enough. The narrative has to support something. In this case, this is the point.” She’s not just writing about the Bakken, or North Dakota, or this funny thing that happened to her. There is a broader context. Elizabeth is helping readers understand that what happens in North Dakota could actually be relevant to what is happening in their world too.
When she sits down to write, she could be a poster-girl for journalism professors every- where. “I wrote it quickly at first and then went back to it. I moved things around and put in stronger verbs and took out passive voice.
I thought about where I needed to get some outside information.” She hesitates uncertainly and shifts in her seat as Dan workshops her article in front of the class. With so many wild and funny anecdotes, he questions why she didn’t begin with something more dramatic. She turns toward the class at Dan’s request, removing her hands from her face. “I wanted to start quietly,” she says. “I sometimes think the big, splashy ‘you’re in the moment’ lead is overdone.”
She begins to doubt her decision, but Dan cuts her off because her opening scene, moving like a camera into the town, is good. “She’s painting a visual image that will really stay in your mind,” says Dan. Perhaps even more importantly, she makes it personal, telling the stories of the people who are really affected by it — the farmers whose livestock are lapping up fluids from well-pads, residents suffering from the air near hydraulic fracking sites, the influx of prostitutes and strip clubs, the new danger of walking the streets after dark without a gun, all in what used to be a sleepy, conservative town. “So, in some of this stuff, Elizabeth really is up on her soapbox,” says Dan. She’s not afraid to render her opinion, he notes, but she “isn’t overly worried about what other people are going to think about that or whether they’re going to say you’ve lost your objectivity.”
DO ENVIRONMENTAL WRITERS even matter at all? Dan laments that they can write about environmental issues as much as they want, but it’s systemic response — not individual action — that makes a difference. Elizabeth argues that individuals can change policy. “On our own, we’re not that powerful. But collectively we can [help]. We all work on different levels.” Why is she digging through her trash and paddling through hazardous waste sites and tracking bottled water straight to its source? “Garbage Land, I feel it was an important book,” she says afterward over lunch. “I get letters every week of people saying, ‘I never look at my trash the same way since I read your book.’ And it makes me feel good. I had an impact there. I actually got them thinking about their trash. I don’t know what they’re doing about it, but it’s a big step.”
Elizabeth knew that following the trail of her own trash would provide her with a narrative structure for the more important message in Garbage Land. “My book doesn’t stay only with my precious garbage,” she says. It looks at what other people and communities are doing — for better or worse — and how her waste affects people she’s never met in faraway places. “I didn’t know very much about garbage when I started,” she says, “so I didn’t really pitch it as a book about garbage. And I never would have said ‘consumption’ because I wasn’t really thinking that way. Consumption sounds a little scoldy.”
Dan brings up the popular topic of freelancing with his class. About half of his students usually decide to forgo a staff job for the freedom of working from home, he says. “How do you budget your time?” Dan asks Elizabeth. She pauses and the corners of her mouth slowly curl up. “I wish that I was forced to think of it that way. I wish I had more work,” she says. “I wish I had a problem of juggling five things at once.”
It’s up to her to come up with fresh story ideas and reach out to editors. Asked if she prefers pitching stories or getting assignments, she doesn’t pause a nanosecond. “Oh, when people come to me offering really high word rates for stories I’m interested in,” she says, causing Dan to laugh in agreement. “The problem isn’t juggling too much work,” she explains. “It’s generating more work.” Which is why she loves writing books. She would love to be working on another one now to get away from freelancing.
“Where are you on writing books these days?” Dan asks, reading her mind.
“I’m trying to come up with an idea that I think really will be worth my time,” she says.
“That’s how I feel.”
“But you have a steady job!” Elizabeth says, surprised.
“I do,” he concedes.
“So, you don’t need to write a book that sells a million copies,” she says.
“But it would be nice,” he laughs.
Elizabeth laughs too, a bit uncomfortably. If she wants to write a book, she has to come up with an idea that will support her family for two or three years.
She doesn’t tell Dan or the class, but she does have one idea.
THE GOWANUS YACHT CLUB is not a yacht club. It’s not on the water either. It’s a beer garden in Brooklyn. This is where Elizabeth celebrated the release of Garbage Land with hot dogs on the outdoor patio and Pabst Blue Rib- bon (the only beer available). Abuzz with PBR and gratitude, Elizabeth decided she wanted the partiers to walk down to the Gowanus Canal with her — to where the book begins. There, her 6-year-old daughter, Lucy, crafted a handmade boat of a Garbage Land dust jacket and, in a moment of indulgence, Elizabeth allowed Lucy to set it adrift in the water, launching her own waste into the polluted waters.
At the end of the evening, Elizabeth had her own surprise. She presented a Corelle brand dinner plate to the guests assembled on the Carroll Street Bridge. Across the top, she wrote “Garbage Land” with a Sharpie and signed her name underneath. The plate collected about 20 more signatures before Elizabeth, borrowing from the beginning of her book, referred to a passage: “This waterway used to be teeming with shellfish during the time of Native Americans. Later farmed by the Dutch in the 17th century, they exported oysters as big as dinner plates.” (Oysters found in New York City are always compared to dinnerware.) “It’s my hope that someday this canal will be clear and clean, used for paddling and activities and cleanups and someday someone will find my oyster,” Elizabeth said. Then she and her guests stood together on the bridge and watched her “oyster” slowly sink to the bottom of the canal.
In the years since Garbage Land, there’s been talk about rezoning the land surrounding the canal — the Gowanus Corridor, as developers call it. Personally, Elizabeth wants to see the natural hydrology of the waterways restored, public access provided and artists with studios in the industrial buildings grandfathered in so they can stay despite rezoning. She’s toying with the idea of writing a book about the Gowanus and its environmental history from the arrival of the Dutch in the 17th century to today’s slow gentrification.
Brooklyn’s first Whole Foods supermarket recently sprouted along the corridor with windmills, solar-paneled carports and electric car-charging stations. “They even have water fountains,” Elizabeth says, pointing excitedly to the futuristic-looking silver basins outside the store. “And they’re on!” One of the most popular features of the new addition, however, is the rooftop beer garden overlooking the Fourth Street Basin — “the poopiest part of the canal,” Elizabeth says, appreciating the irony.
In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency named the Gowanus Canal an official Superfund Site. There are plans to dredge all 1.8 miles and remove the hazardous waste. She’s sure that someday, somebody will find her plate — proof that environmental writers like Elizabeth really can bring change.