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Earthworkers | Courtney Kersten

Courtney Kersten is the author of Daughter in Retrograde: A Memoir (University of Wisconsin Press 2018). Her essays can be seen in Prairie Schooner, River Teeth, and elsewhere. She won the Bellingham Review’s 2018 Annie Dillard Award for Nonfiction; the Southern Indiana Review’s 2019 Mary C. Mohr Award for Nonfiction; and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

A little backstory: How did you begin working with/in response to natural environments, or what are your primal experiences with the natural world?

I began working in response to natural environments out of an obsession with the sea otters at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California, in the wake of my mother’s death when I was twenty-five. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a sea otter camera they keep on the sea otter exhibit during certain hours of the day. In my grief, I watched the otter cam for hours. It was comforting. When I eventually learned of the sea otter rehabilitation program, where abandoned pups are paired with surrogate mother otters, I felt even more drawn to the otter cam (many of the otters in the exhibit were surrogate mothers). I began writing about the otters because I wanted to chart this preoccupation and learn more about the surrogate mothers’ lives.

A love: Share one of your favorite creative pieces and the natural environment it responds to.

One of the favorite pieces I’ve made is an essay about the sea otter camera called “In the Kelp,” which was published in The Normal School. The essay also expands to discuss the reason so many otter pups are abandoned. Another piece I’m working on (that hasn’t found a home yet) is about the sea lions in Santa Cruz. The essay is about my experience visiting the sea lions day after day, standing next to other visitors watching them, and listening to what they say about the sea lions. It was fascinating (and sometimes horrifying) to hear the narratives we put onto the sea lions as they slept and fought on the wharf. For instance, many people would say that four or five sea lions sleeping in a pile together were a mom, a dad, and two baby sea lions (even though all the sea lions were male sea lions).

A lesson: What advice do you have for someone who wants to co-create with the natural world?

My advice is to be aware and curious about the assumptions we make about animals and their lives. For instance, in the sea lion example, there were so many different narratives and beliefs people made about the sea lions based on human experiences rather than the animals. While these can be interesting, I encourage writers to be curious, as well, about the animals’ experience (and how much about their lives/consciousness remains unknown) regardless of what assumptions humans may make about them.

Visit Courtney's website.

Her book, Daughter in Retrograde, is available at University of Wisconsin Press and elsewhere.

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