Monthly Archives: April 2010

American PEN Literary Service Award Speech, New York, April 27

Underneath the Blue Whale in the Museum of Natural History, International PEN (   American Centre held its large fundraising gala, an event  that sustains its work with imprisoned and censored writers around the world. You can read about it here:   Many PEN warriors, young and old, were there; some were present only in spirit  (Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, John Updike…)

Courageous (and imprisoned) Burmese blogger Nay Phone Latt received the Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award — the first time a blogger has been chosen.

Patti Smith sang her William Blake song. I thought of Blake hovering above in a chariot of fire, mightily pleased.

And I was very much honoured to receive the Literary Service Award, which came this year in the form of an early edition of George Eliot’s novel, Felix Holt, Radical.  (Oddly enough, the only one of her books I haven’t read.) Here is the speech I made:

Dear American PEN – and many survivors of battles over the years –thank you very much. We started PEN Canada with $20 and a roll of stamps. It got bigger. So did yours.

I thank you very much for this award. I am joining a list of very distinguished writers, and I probably don’t deserve to be joining it; but as the theologically pessimistic used to remark, if we all got what we deserved we’d be boiling in oil.

I hope however that this recognition is not the equivalent of the gold watch to the retiring manager. No, surely not! For writers can’t retire, nor can they be fired: as we hear constantly from those who think there should be no arts grants, writers don’t have real jobs. That’s true, in a way: they have no employers. Or rather their employers are their readers: which imposes on them a truly Kafkaesque burden of responsibility and even guilt, for how can you tell whether you’re coming up to the standards of people you don’t even know?  Publishing a book is like stuffing a note into a bottle and hurling it into the sea. Some bottles drown, some come safe to land, where the notes are read and then possibly cherished, or else misinterpreted, or else understood all too well by those who hate the message. You never know who your readers might be.

Or else you find out in an unpleasant way: you’re arrested, you are condemned, you are tortured, you are shot, you disappear. Those doing the shooting and the torturing, whether they are from the left or the right, whether they represent theocracies or secular totalitarian dictatorships or extreme factions, all have one thing in common: they wish to silence the human voice, or all human voices that do not sing their songs. They wish to indulge their sense of power, which is best done by grinding underfoot those who cannot retaliate. Writers – artists in general—are easy prey for the silencers. They don’t have armies. They can be cut out from the herd  — they‘ve already cut themselves out, by daring to speak – and few in their own countries will be foolhardy enough to defend them.

Voices can be silenced, but the human voice cannot. Our languages are what make us fully human – no other creature has anything like our rich and complex vocabularies and grammars. Each language is unique: to lose one is to lose a range of feeling and a way of looking at life that, like a living species that becomes extinct, can never be replaced. Human narrative skills are found in every language, and are very old: we all have them. We writers merely use them in what we fondly believe are more complex ways. But whether written down or not, stories move – from hand to paper to eye to mouth, from mouth to ear.

And stories move us. This is their power. Written stories are frozen voices that come to life when we read them. No other art form involves us in the same way – allows us to be with another human being — to feel joy when he laughs, to share her sorrow, to follow the twists and turns of his plotting and scheming, to realize her insufficiencies and failures and absurdities, to grasp the tools of her resistance — from within the mind itself. Such experience – such knowledge from within – makes us feel that we are not alone in our flawed humanity.

None of us are so mad as to suppose that all books are really good things. Mein Kampf was a book. So we are constantly enmeshed in a choice-of-evils struggle: which is worse, to allow free access, or to start censoring? And once the censoring begins, who shall be in control of it, and where will it stop? Nor is such blue-penciling a habit of ruthless dictators only. Well-meaning people acting in what they feel is the public good have censored or bowdlerized everything from the Bible to the Wizard of Oz.

I suppose we at PEN have an optimistic view of human nature: that, given full access to everything on the menu, people on the whole will reject the tyrannical, the sadistic, and the repugnant. Also optimistic is our conviction that if we battle on behalf of the ever-swelling number of novelists, journalists, poets and playwrights  who have been condemned for their writing, at least some of the battles will be won.  As many of them have been.

Though some have not. Each time one of these battles is lost, the muffling silence creeps closer. And it’s in silence and in secrecy that the worst horrors breed.

Yet sooner or later – we trust — even these hidden stories will be told. The messengers in such cases are seldom welcome; yet they are necessary, and must be protected. For if we cannot acknowledge that the shadows exist – the shadows cast by others, as well as the ones we cast ourselves – how can we hope to dispel them?


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Madison, Wisconsin: Earth Day at 40, April 20-21

Graeme Gibson and I went to the Nelson Institute at the University of Wisconsin in Madison for their fourth annual conference: Earth Day at 40: Valuing Wisconsin’s Environmental Traditions.

You can see the very impressive programme at:

Madison was at its best – we enjoyed the flowering trees, the good weather, and the nocturnal urban rabbits nibbling the lawns (we appreciated these rabbits more than the flower gardeners do, no doubt). We both spoke at the conference, and met many people – students and faculty alike, and some other speakers.

Highlights:  I met “Planet Walker”  John Francis, who after witnessing a devastating oil spill stopped using all forms of motorized transportation and began walking. Then he took a vow of silence. His pilgrimage lasted 17 years.  The story is in Planetwalker, at

And also: The 2010 Climate Leadership Challenge, which showcased a group of 6 finalists presenting innovative inventions. Here are the winners:

But I would have been hard pressed to choose among the six: all different, all brilliant! They are:

CORE Concept: (Combustion of Optimized Reactivity in Engines): as I understand it, an add-on to current internal combustion engines that reduces greenhouse gases and other emissions and increases efficiency. (And makes popcorn. No. I lie.)

Jatropha Stove Project: Very nifty variation on the old hobo ministove (used by Toby in YOTF to cook her land shrimp): this one was developed for Haiti and uses a half coconut shell, a tin can part, and wicks made of twisted mango fibre – things you can scavenge. It burns vegetable oil, but you could use fish oil and such.

The Microformer: A new power-distribution transformer that uses post-consumer electronics.  (As I understand it: uses tech people throw out to make smart local grids in developing countries and small communities way cheaper than the building of big grids; also minimizes power losses.)

REDCASH: Recycling Desalination Wastewater for Carbon Sequestration and Hydrogen Fuel Production. Works with already-existing desalination plants through electrolysis , and turns Co2 into calcium carbonate (can be used for bricks & etc.) and hydrogen, which can be burned as a fuel. Wonder if they should get in touch with A team-up would be formidable…

SnowShoe: An application for your phone that allows you to scan the barcodes of products in stores, get their carbon footprint, and thus shop comparatively; also buy offsets for your entire cart, and post your footprint statistics to Twitter or Facebook.  Launching 1/1/11.

Switch: Combines real-time energy data, product rewards, and a social game to help people monitor and reduce their energy use.  (and reduction is the cheapest form of footprint control). Wonder if they should get together with  and their Talking Plug? Or Playlab in Hong Kong?

Altogether a very inspiriting event… yes, Virginia, there is hope…

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Kids! Kids! Don’t Fight!

Dear Wind Turbine Commentators:  I know this is a heated issue but no personal  insults, please.

Remember, this is Canada. Even during the Free Trade Debate, very agitated, the typical worst comment I heard was: “Well! I’m certainly never going to play bridge with THEM again!”

Wishy-washily yours,  Margaret


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SouthPoint Wind jumped the gun! Oh for heaven’s sakes!

Wind turbine forums premature, MPP says

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Credit:  By Gary Rennie, The Windsor Star, 16 April 2010

Essex MPP Bruce Crozier says the proponent of a multibillion-dollar
700-turbine wind energy project for Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair never
got approval to access either of the lakebeds.

Crozier said there isn’t even an official application to the province
for what would be the biggest renewable energy project — 1,400
megawatts — ever pitched in Canada.

Leamington’s SouthPoint Wind should never have begun the public
consultation process that’s generated so much controversy, Crozier
said in a telephone interview Thursday. “There is no application at
this time.”

Without a “site release approval” from the ministry of natural
resources, the company can’t even make an application to the Ontario
Power Authority for a renewable energy contract, Crozier said. “These
are Crown lands.”

Without an application to the OPA, holding public meetings is
premature, Crozier said.

In newspaper advertisements by the company about its March 27
meetings, ministry logos were wrongly used to give the impression that
a required consultation process was underway, Crozier said.

Crozier said the confusion about the approval process caused by
SouthPoint raises the need for additional regulations under the
province’s Green Energy Act. Some screening process may be needed to
eliminate projects from public review that have no hope of proceeding,
the MPP said.

Lakeshore councillors complained earlier this week that more than 300
of their residents couldn’t get into a 30-seat room booked for its
public meeting on the project. “Those meetings were a sham,” said
Lakeshore Coun. Al Fazio.

But in a letter to Leamington council, SouthPoint Wind president Jim
Liovas described the meetings “as extremely successful in giving the
public an overview of our project description as well as determining
the major areas of concern for local residents.”

In the coming months, Liovas promised to “begin to amass the studies
required” to make an application.

Crozier is warning county municipalities and the Essex Region
Conservation Authority not to spend $250,000 or more on consultants to
study a proposal that hasn’t gone beyond the idea stage.

“I don’t want to see any public funds spent,” Crozier said.


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Anti-Industrial Wind Turbines March April 28, Queen’s Park

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Subject: a personal invitation to rally – please spread the word.

Dear Friends,

I am writing to enlist your help.

Over the past three years, many groups have expressed their growing concern about the lack of proper planning, siting, and setbacks for proposed wind turbine projects. Over fifty municipalities have written to various cabinet ministers, petitions have been submitted, requests for environmental studies have been meticulously prepared, urgent requests for health studies from physicians and concerned citizens have been submitted. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture has repeatedly expressed concern about the impact of forty year leases on farmers and agriculture; the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario has written asking for setbacks from tourism areas and to protect areas of natural beauty; naturalists and birders and environmentalists have expressed concern about the impact on migrating birds and bats; the Ontario Federation of Hunters and Anglers have expressed concern about fish habitat and other wildlife. Physicists, acousticians, power workers, business leaders have urged for proper planning, assessment and protection for residents;  and property owners across the province have expressed grave concerns about negative impacts on their quality of life and precipitious drops in property values when turbines are located next to their properties, with no consideration for zoning, municipal plans or by-laws.

The first few projects have demonstrated the real problems with the lack of appropriate regulation. These forty story buildings are being constructed just 80 meters from rural residential properties. People have abandoned their homes because the noise and flicker have been intolerable. Property values are falling next to these projects. The energy produced is a fraction of the projections. A number of companies have declared insolvency, leaving questions about liability, maintenance and decommisioning unanswered. Details on all this can be found at  <> <>  <>

So far, the McGuinty government has ignored all these individual and group concerns, denying all requests for environmental reviews of industrial wind turbine projects, and ignoring all requests for safe and appropriate setbacks that take into account the health of the environment, people in our communities, and preservation of our province. Instead, they have opted to make widespread and long term expensive commitments to an outdated technology of dubious merit.

My own personal view is that this is also a matter of food security. Here in Prince Edward County over 30,000 acres have been leased to wind turbine companies for what the Ontario Federation of Agriculture tells us is a period of over forty years. This agricultural land is now somewhat controlled by Industrial Wind Turbine Companies, many of which are owned by oil and gas companies interested in the cap and trade benefits. These companies are in turn being bought by Petrochina. If you doubt this, google petrochina oil canada … it is a revelation.

The turbines cause the bats to die because their lungs collapse from the changes in air pressure. The bats then (being dead) stop eating insects. Insects, left uneaten, eat crops. Farmers use more pesticides. …. its time to rethink putting bat killing turbines all over our farm land.

I also think it is an exceptionally dumb idea to put them in all the major bird migration paths – which is precisely the plan, as it happens that birds travel on the wind. It also makes no sense to put them so close to vineyards, beaches, and rural villages, so that these places are permanently disrupted.

On April 28, at 11:00 we urge you to encourage your contacts and network to show up at Queen’s Park to rally against this march to folly. This government could have supported investments in public transit in order to reduce emissions. Instead, it cancelled its commitment to do so. This government could have created greater incentives to reduce consumption. It has chosen to not do so. Instead, it has stated that wind energy will eliminate fossil fuel dependency, solve climate change and save the planet. This is clearly false – every other jursidiction which has implemented wind turbines has had to increase the number of gas plants, and none have closed their coal. The wind blows – sometimes. Sometimes it doesnt. Its just not that reliable. For the truly curious, you can go to  <> <>  <>  to see, in real time, just how much energy comes from what source in Ontario. Facts are informative.

We hope that thousands of people will attend, to show this government that this generation of the people of Ontario do not wish to be the ones to transform the Great Lakes and our rural, agricultural communities into a continuous industrial energy facility at the expense of the environment, our people and our heritage. We surely do not wish to be the ones to foist industrial energy facilities on families just meters from their homes, making their homes unlivable.

Please spread the word. We shall all wear green – to send the message that we support honest efforts to protect our environment. And we shall carry signs, to tell this government that industrial wind turbines in our lakes, on our shores, in our migration paths, and throughout rural Ontario is the wrong way to go about it.

Our community is at risk. We are at a critical point in our efforts. Your support will be valued. Please join us on April 28, 11:00, Queens Park. Spread the word. A strong turnout will send a strong message.


Carlyn Moulton


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The NYRB Twittersphere Posting

The Pictures: Blogging & Tweeting at the beginning of the YOTF Tour, August 09, on the QM2.

The badge mentioned below.

That was fun! Robert Silvers of The New York Review of Books asked me to do a post on my Twitter adventures for their ongoing series on social media, so I did. See below, and the pictures above and links below. The piece went all over Twitter very swiftly—the Twitterati love reading about other folks’ takes on Twitter, it seems —  and I learned some new terms: “curation journalism,” for instance. I had hopes that this meant you could read the piece of journalism and get your teeth and arthritis fixed, but no such luck (see “Mondoville” link, below). My 33,000 precocious Twitter “grandchildren” swiftly rose to 38,000, and now I will have to give them all birthday presents 🙂 !

Never fear, I will make some contests for them and for This- Blog readers, coming up to the paperback launch of The Year of the Flood, in the last week of July, and the premiere of the Ron Mann sphinx productions documentary on the tour, August 5 in Toronto.  (See this Blog’s archives for pics of Ron making the documentary, especially New York, Sudbury, Kingston, Ottawa.) What do you think the contests should be? And the prizes?

Here is the text from the NYRB post:

A long time ago — less than a year ago in fact, but time goes all stretchy in the Twittersphere, just as it does in those folksongs in which the hero spends a night with the Queen of Faerie and then returns to find that a hundred years have passed and all his friends are dead…. Where was I?

Oh yes. A long time ago, back in June of 2009, when we were planning the launch of The Year of the Flood and I was building a website for it. ( Why was I doing this building, rather than the publishers? Well, they had their own websites, and I wanted to do some non-publishing things on mine, such as raise awareness of rare-bird vulnerability ( and heighten Virtuous Coffee Consumption (Arabica, shade-grown, doesn’t kill birds) and blog the seven-country dramatic-and-musical book tour we were about to do. Anyway, the publishers were at that time hiding under rocks, as it was still the Great Financial Meltdown, not to mention the Horrid Tsunami of Electronic Book Transmission. “That sounds wonderful, Margaret,” they said, with the queasy encouragement shown by those on the shore waving goodbye to someone who’s about to shoot Niagara Falls in a barrel.

Oops! I shouldn’t have said that. Which is typical of “Social Media”: you’re always saying things you shouldn’t have said. But it’s like the days of Hammurabi, and those of the patriarch Isaac in the book of Genesis, come to think of it: once decrees and blessings have made it out of the mouth – or, now, in the 21st century, out of the ends of the fingers and past the SEND button – you can’t take them back.

Anyway, there I was, back in 2009, building the website, with the aid of the jolly retainers over at Scott Thornley and Company. ( They were plying me with oatmeal cookies, showing me wonderful pictures, and telling me what to do. “You have to have a Twitter Feed on your Website,” they said. “A what?” I said, innocent as an egg unboiled. To paraphrase Wordsworth: What should I know of Twitter? I’d barely even heard of it. I thought it was for kiddies.

But nothing ventured, no brain drained. I plunged in, and set up a Twitter account. My first problem was that there were already two Margaret Atwoods on Twitter, one of them with my picture. This grew; I gave commands; then all other Margaret Atwoods stopped together. I like to think they were sent to a nunnery, but in any case they disappeared. The Twitterpolice had got them. I felt a bit guilty.

I was told I needed “Followers.” These were people who would sign on to receive my messages, or “Tweets,” whatever those might turn out to be. I hummed a few bars from “Mockingbird Hill” — Tra-la-la, twittly-deedee” – and sacrificed some of my hair at the crossroads, invoking Hermes the Communicator. He duly appeared in the form of media guru, who loosed his carrier pigeons to four among his hundreds of Twitterbuddies; and with their aid, I soon had a few thousand people I didn’t know sending me messages like “OMG! Is it really you?” “I love it when old ladies blog,” one early Follower remarked.

One Follower led to another, quite literally. The numbers snowballed in an alarming way, as I scrambled to keep up with the growing horde. Soon there were 32,000 – no, wait, 33,000 – no, 33,500… And before you could say LMAO (“Laugh My Ass Off,” as one Twitterpal informed me), I was sucked into the Twittersphere like Alice down the rabbit hole. And here I am.

The Twittersphere is an odd and uncanny place. It’s something like having fairies at the bottom of your garden. How do you know anyone is who h/she says he is, especially when they put up pictures of themselves that might be their feet, or a cat, or a Mardi Gras mask, or a tin of Spam?

But despite their sometimes strange appearances, I’m well pleased with my Followers— I have a number of techno-geeks and bio-geeks, as well as many book fans. They’re a playful but also a helpful group. If you ask them for advice, it’s immediately forthcoming: thanks to them, I learned how to make a Twitpic photo appear as if by magic, and how to shorten a URL using or tiny.url. They’ve sent me many interesting items pertaining to artificially-grown pig flesh, unusual slugs, and the like. (They deduce my interests.) Some of them have appeared at tour events bearing small packages of organic shade-grown fair-trade coffee. I’ve even had a special badge made by a Follower, just for me: “The ‘call me a visionary, because I do a pretty convincing science dystopia’ badge.”

They’re sharp: make a typo and they’re on it like a shot, and they tease without mercy. However, if you set them a verbal challenge, a frisson sweeps through them. They did very well with definitions for “dold socks” – one of my typos – and “Thnax,” another one. And they really shone when, during the Olympics, I said that “Own the podium” was too brash to be Canadian, and suggested “A podium might be nice.” Their own variations poured onto a feed tagged #cpodium: “A podium! For me?” “Rent the podium, see if we like it.” “Mind if I squeeze by you to get onto that podium?” I was so proud of them! It was like having 33,000 precocious grandchildren!

They raise funds for charity via things like Twestival (, they solicit donations for catastrophe victims, they send word of upcoming events, they exchange titles of books they like. Once in a while they’re naughty: I did get word of a fellow who’d made a key safe by hollowing out one of my books. (Big yuks from his pals, one of whom ratted him out to me and even sent a pic.) But after I threatened to put the Purple Cross-eyed Zozzle Curse on him, he assured me that no disrespect was intended. (He was forgiven.)

So what’s it all about, this Twitter? Is it signaling, like telegraphs? Is it Zen poetry? Is it jokes scribbled on the washroom wall? Is it John Hearts Mary carved on a tree? Let’s just say it’s communication, and communication is something human beings like to do.

How long will I go on doing this? I’m asked. Well, now. I can’t rightly say. How long – in no more than 140 characters – is “long”?

Some responses:


Shelf Awareness newsletter:

mondoville :the absolute futility of ‘curation journalism’ — starring @MargaretAtwood:

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