The Radical Act of Community Storytelling by Penelope Starr
Seamus McGraw’s A Thirsty Land: The Making of an American Water Crisis (University of Texas Press, 2018) is one of those books you want to talk about simply because it’s so well written. But even though it’s about the ways in which faraway Texas grappled with a wide array of water-related problems (including simultaneous droughts and flooding across its vast expanse of state), it does so in such a way that one can’t help but realize how key the stories it tells are to all contemporary understanding, including the role our own region will be playing in larger discussions about natural resources in the coming years.
The specific story that A Thirsty Land explores has to do with a massive project that Texas implemented throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s of moving water from the state’s wet eastern portion to the more arid west and south. McGraw, who’s previous work concentrated on the fracking industry (he lived in Northwest Pennsylvania), combines glimpses into backroom politics, engineering challenges (both triumphs and failures), and anecdotes that undermine the modern concept that we can overcome all problems with the right combination of technology and money.
The stories in this book mirror many of those that we live with in the Hudson Valley that involve the myriad ways our history has been decided, in many ways, by the needs of New York City. But the book also looks forward to the ways that such real-life concerns involving resources, from water to food to a societal need for natural places, will shape our collective future (as much as any manipulated tendency we’re engaging in towards increased tribalism).
Meanwhile, Penelope Starr’s The Radical Act of Community Storytelling: Empowering Voices in Uncensored Events (Parkhurst Brothers Publishers, 2017) gets at the ways in which the very beauty of McGraw’s journalism, writing acumen, and his storytelling abilities are part and parcel with the ways that we can counter the forces that many perceive to be pushing us towards shortages and crisis.
Starr, who is formerly of Woodstock, but has been based out west for decades (but recently returned for a reading in her hometown) addresses the whole storytelling renaissance that’s been gaining steam in recent years, finding radical community-building elements that arise when neighbors share their experiences with one another. Moreover, she gets at the ways in which ALL stories define a community. It’s about listening, she notes, as much as honing what one has to say to be better heard.
What a great message for these days when it’s as hard to get people to notice the major issues raised in a book like McGraw’s, or so many other fine nonfiction works being published across the spectrum, in a climate where all intellectual activity is subject to attack from various sectors as being unpatriotic, irrelevant, or “fake.”
As Starr’s entire career has demonstrated, only together can we become a community. And that’s how history, let alone the bigger project known as “civilization,” moves forward.