Journal of Writing & Environment

Interview with Maya Khosla, winner of Flyway’s “Notes from the Field” contest

Maya Khosla won Flyway’s “Notes from the Field” contest with her piece “Notes from the Eastern Edge of Time: A Turtle Diary.”  Ms. Khosla was gracious enough to share with Flyway editors some of her thoughts on environmental writing, turtle conservation, and the possibility of hope for future generations.

Flyway: Give us some background on the piece.  Do you have a background in herpetology, or the biological sciences? Have you been involved in turtle projects in the past, or was this your first experience with sea turtles?

Arribada 2013

Maya Khosla: I have been lucky enough to work on animal surveys and rescues in California for several years— mostly on special status salmonids, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and, on occasion, mammals (my graduate work was in toxicology). I saw Rita Banerji’s film “The Right to Survive,” some time in 2009. The film is a vivid report on the natural history of olive ridley turtles, conservation challenges, conflicts and livelihood issues faced by fishing communities in the east coast state of Orissa. I was immediately interested in documenting the larger context of sea turtles and conservation.

My family is based in New Delhi and I travel to India on a regular basis. By 2010, Rita and I were talking about The Turtle Diaries Project. That winter I sent a proposal to Save Our Seas (SOS) Foundation, hoping for the seed funds to begin the project. The idea was to collaborate with Dusty Foot Productions (founded by Rita and another filmmaker, Shilpi Sharma) and we tossed my draft proposal back and forth across the internet ether, since I was still working in the States. Well, we won the first SOS award in May 2011 (and another one in 2012). With SOS support, I flew to India and began co-directing The Turtle Diaries Project. This has been my first experience working on sea turtles.

Flyway: How did your field experience with the turtles shape this piece? What did you leave out of the piece, and why?

MK: Field work in India is no cakewalk. Depending on where you are, mosquitoes, sandflies and leeches are among the less pleasant aspects; there are also crocodiles and snakes as well as the not-so-remote possibility of a tsunami. I have nothing but admiration for India’s field biologists and assistants (Agu, a field assistant from the Andaman Islands, had malaria seven times during one season and returned to field work each time). This five-minute film clip features a group of field researchers.

Also, there’s a lot of permit issues to negotiate. It took us two months and three separate trips to the east coast to obtain the permits to be there for the arribada. (Luckily Rita’s co-worker Sumit had the time and persistence to make two of those trips). On the first night of the arribada, the Forest Department folks did not allow us entry to the turtle island/sandbar. So we missed the most dramatic night of mass nesting in 2012. I guess that’s another turtle story!

To their credit, the Forest Department has been trying for years to get major factories to shut down their lights for those few nights when sea turtle eggs hatch and hatchlings waste a lot of energy straying towards lights instead of crawling towards the sea. So far the Department has met with no success. Those details will be in the film.

What else did I leave out in my story? A lot! During the 2012 mass hatching, hundreds upon hundreds of hatchlings were hopelessly trapped in nets left out on the beaches. Many field teams spent inordinate amounts of time disentangling them. Needless to say, not all the hatchlings could be saved and relocated.

Flyway: How do you understand environmental writing? Who are some authors or pieces that have influenced your own writing? How do you overcome the difficulties involved in environmental writing?

MK:  To me, environmental writing is a way to engage the reader with an experience that will hopefully foster a deep respect for the natural world and translate into some form of action. It’s also a balance between the science and the value systems that are geographically specific— and ever in flux! The fabric of tension has to hold a story from beginning to end and of course, it has to be accurate. Given these demands on the narrative, I am delighted when a certain internal music flows through the form (it’s a personal choice—I wrote poetry for years before I began writing essays).

The risks include the possibility of antagonizing someone with the truth, with descriptions of field experiences. Also, it’s quite typical for scientists to be uncomfortable with poetic language, while most essayists seem to want more.

How do I overcome the difficulties of creative writing? Just keep writing. As Junot Diaz said, “You discover you are a good artist when everything goes wrong and it keeps going wrong, and you hang in there.” The more I write, the more I learn how to separate better pieces from ones that simply don’t hold together. And that advice Mary Oliver gives, about spending a few choice hours everyday? It’s the best advice.

Recently, I have also been inspired by Andrew Todhunter (“Dangerous Games”), the poet Pattiann Rogers (“Firekeeper”), Carl Safina (“Voyage of the Turtle”), Annie Dillard (“Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”) and by Eric Wagner’s penguin story.

Flyway: Do you have suggestions for further reading for people who are interested in sea turtles and conservation? What, if anything, can people do to help keep sea turtles from going extinct?

MK: In terms of sea turtle conservation, I greatly value the work and writings of Drs Kartik Shanker, Bivash Pandav, and Rohan Arthur, scientists in India who work actively with coastal communities to spread awareness through scientific studies. Kartik Shanker provides coastal community members with seasonal employment as well. I am particularly intrigued by his vision—to be the “substrate for a revolution and not the revolution itself” (I am paraphrasing him). Of course I also admire Dr. J. Nichols, Scott Eckert, Karen Eckert and others based in the U.S.

It’s tricky to work on turtle conservation in areas of India where most residents are poor fishermen. As in other parts of the world, it’s the trawlers that cause the most damage in India’s waters (trawler boats belong to the wealthy). The traditional fishing practices of small boats owners are relatively harmless to sea turtles. According to Bivash Pandav, avoiding sea turtle congregations in the sea could save thousands of turtles that end up trapped and drowning in trawler nets. Apparently the carcasses are tossed off those boats.

In some countries, the governments are using GPS devices to nab illegal trawlers. To my knowledge, India is not there yet.

Arribada 2013

What can we do to save sea turtles? Spreading awareness through reporting and filming can go a long way, as some of us know from films like “The Cove.” If permits permit, there’s room for more people to guide hatchlings to sea by flashlight. I do have hope in the children— if ecologists are there to train them and to oversee relocation activities. And climate change? My understanding is that it’s about to have a huge impact on life as we know it—and not just on the sex ratio of sea turtles in India and Australia. Putting a halt to the current pace of climate change may be one of our biggest battles.

Flyway: How do we go about making a world that we can pass on without shame to our children?
MK: It’s a collective effort— a critical mass of humanity is required. We’ve got miles to go before we achieve that critical mass. It can happen.