Author talk: Mary Quade’s “Zoo World” 

Last week, on Tuesday, Jan. 30, professor and author Mary Quade visited Lawrence to read from her collection of essays “Zoo World.” Introduced as a “poet, essayist, nature writer and Wisconsin native,” Quade’s writing centers around conservation and environmentalism. 

The reading attracted a large audience; there were plenty of Lawrence students (many of whom I recognized from various English classes), a smattering of English professors and members of Quade’s family and friends. By the time the reading began at 4:30 p.m., almost all of Main Hall 201 was full. 

After an introduction from Professor David McGlynn of the English department, Quade read excerpts of her self-described “eclectic” essays. She shared excerpts from three essays, “Hatch,” the title essay “Zoo World” and “Songs of the Humpback Whale.” Following the reading, Quade took questions, and a handful of people purchased copies of her book. 

Hearing her speak made me feel like I was somehow in two places at once: elementary school, learning about basic farmyard animals and natural processes; and college, learning about social and environmental injustice. I think that’s part of the strength of her writing; she uses palpable images and rhetorical devices to discuss much more difficult and complex issues. 

I was particularly struck by her comparison of school buses to humpback whales. Using these two subjects to measure the environmental impact and experiences of the other was not only informative, but moving. Showcasing climate change with the familiar image of a school bus reminded me of how closely we are connected to the climate, and how our everyday actions affect it. 

To this end, I return to Quade’s quote “I have been witness and accomplice to destruction.” Haven’t we all been both? It’s easy to criticize when others harm the environment, but it’s harder to recognize when we ourselves are doing it. The fact that Quade acknowledged her own complicity in climate change was especially powerful. 

In addition to her writing, Quade’s whole presentation captivated the room. There were moments of laughter, ringing out in response to her witty comments. Yet, her reading was certainly not all comedic. Each piece contained moments of solemnity, and the room would fall silent in thought. 

Although I don’t often discuss environmental issues in my own writing, this reading made me want to try it. Quade showed how it’s possible to make a conservationist argument while also being funny, accessible and poignant. 

Interestingly, what stayed with me after leaving the reading wasn’t the writing itself, but the way it brought so many people of different ages together on a slightly dreary afternoon. To my knowledge, most of us didn’t have to be there, and yet there we were, sandwiched into that room like a bunch of sardines. 

To me, this is the power of good writing. Somebody says something, others take it in, and together we all end up changed. If you’re interested in reading “Zoo World,” you can buy a copy on Quade’s website, Even if you don’t usually read nonfiction essays, I am confident you will still find something worthwhile in her writing. I know I did.