A Conversation with Mary Heather Noble

photo: Carol Sternkopf

photo: Carol Sternkopf











Mary Heather Noble is an environmental scientist, writer, and mother whose work focuses on environmental health issues and the intersection of the natural world, family, and place. Her essay, “Acts of Courage,” was selected as the $10,000 first place winner in Creative Nonfiction’s The Human Face of Sustainability contest in December 2013. Her writing also received Second Prize in the 2012 Literal Latte Essay Awards, and has appeared in multiple print and online publications. After reading Mary Heather’s Creative Nonfiction piece, “Acts of Courage” and reviewing her bio, I couldn’t help but be struck by her seamless shape shifting from environmental scientist to artist, as I refer to ALL writers. I don’t really believe we leave any part of ourselves behind as we extend along our journey, and I am supported in this theory by Ms. Noble’s deft and beautiful ability to write about environmental issues. Rachael Carson’s “Silent Spring” may come to mind.

 Podcast of Mary Heather Noble reading her essay “Acts of Courage”

Mary Heather’s years with the CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Remediation division gives her scary insight into what’s lurking about in our industry’s dumpsites, water and air – in the average community. As the idiom goes – you don’t want to see how the sausage gets made is glaringly real once you’ve walked a mile in Mary Heather’s shoes. The only thing is, we do need to see how it all gets made, what the byproducts consist of, and what kind of havoc the byproduct might produce. We need to open our eyes and be very aware, if for no one else but our children.

Jennifer Prescott: What made you decide to leave your work with the CT DEEP Remediation division for a fulltime writing career?

Mary Heather Noble: Working in the public sector can be really rewarding. I certainly felt like I was doing the “good dead” and doing good work. I definitely felt that my work had purpose. But working in the public sector can also be very challenging. The pace and rewards in remediation come really slowly, so it can be draining. The feel good moments can be few and far between. As a brand new parent, I had to weigh the work against being away from my family. After I had my first child, I was trying to juggle the work with a newborn. At one point I was out in the field, and I had to stop in a shopping mall parking lot to pump breast milk. So, there I am parked in my state truck, wearing my state badge and shirt, pumping breast milk into little bottles not unlike the little bottles I’ve just used to collect water and soil from contaminated sites. It was the moment that I knew I had to make a change.

JP: You are in a bit of a “Cassandra’s dilemma”, coming into motherhood with your environmental science background.

MHN: I came to this essay collection (to which “Acts of Courage” belongs) motivated by being a mother. My youngest daughter has a neuro-developmental disability. And of course, for a long time, I obsessed about what kind of chemical/toxic exposure may have caused her condition. There may also can be a genetic component, so it’s hard to tell. But I think it’s important to examine and wrestle these questions, and consider the ethics behind expecting future generations to furnish the evidence of harm.

JP: Do you feel like climate change has dwarfed chemical exposure as an environmental topic?

MHN: Certainly Climate Change is the big topic. But chemical exposure is gaining traction because consumers are becoming

Photo: Kristi Eckberg

Photo: Kristi Eckberg

more aware and educated and are demanding more info. on exactly what they are consuming. I think Social media has played a big role in this. The fact that formaldehyde existed in Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo until very recently is a commonly known fact due to Facebook and the like. And questions surrounding childhood cancers and autism spectrum conditions are gaining momentum because the occurrence of the conditions is more and more common. I think the engine driving much of the scrutiny around chemical toxicity is parents who recognize the risk to their kids. I certainly became more aware after becoming a mother.

JP: I get a lot of inquiries on this blog about “green” cleaners. 

MHN: I feel like the general population has a suspicion as to whether green cleaners actually work. It seems that over our lifetime, there as been this ubiquitous marketing convincing people that something can’t work unless it’s industrial strength chemicals.

JP: That is so true! I feel part of the reason for that is the transient nature of families and the distance from parents, grandparents and great grandparents. We would have learned to use vinegar and baking soda and natural oils from them! And it wouldn’t have been about being “green” – it would have been about being practical.

JP: Are you completely settled in the writing world now, and comfortable leaving the environmental science work behind?

MHN: One of my favorite writers, Kathleen Dean Moore, said something at a conference back in March – your life’s work should be at the intersection of your greatest gifts and the world’s greatest needs. That really means something to me.

My place in the world will need to involve writing and some kind of translation of my environmental science experience into everyday words and everyday stories for people who aren’t interested in the technical stuff – translated in a way so that the average person can still “get it”. That is what really motivates me.

JP: This is why I draw a comparison between you and Rachael Carson. She had the ability to reach the heart of a wide audience – many who were not interested in “looking under the hood” in the slightest. She moved them. It’s a powerful gift. Awakening people with a gentleness, with a pulse on what makes us human and connects us.

MHN: Yes. And that’s the challenge, right? Walking the line between not being alarmist and not being “chicken little” but still having an urgency in the work that prompts someone to think differently or act differently. What works for me, from a writing standpoint, is when somebody tells me a story that may have an environmental message or urgency – but it always involves them personally or someone that they know personally. People like to hear stories about people.

About the Author

Here at Jenny Green Jeans, by sharing success stories and easy-to- implement tips, I hope to inspire and empower you to continue to make sustainable choices in your life and watch how far the impact goes. Please contact me with any questions or suggestions you may have. Also visit the Green Design Goods store for my favorite environmentally sustainable products.

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