The photograph on the cover of Abbie Gascho Landis’ “Immersion” is the first hint that the book is going to be surprising. The image is at once coy and inviting, a puckered pout that is somehow so voluptuous that the unwitting passerby might be slightly scandalized to glimpse it on a dust jacket.
The book is about mussels, of course, but also about everything they’re connected to, which is to say: everything.
But the subject of the photograph isn’t even a little R-rated. It’s a closeup of a fine-rayed pigtoe mussel, one of the creatures that captured Landis’ attention by chance and drew her into an obsession by sheer unlikely magnetism. Her book, subtitled “The Science and Mystery of Freshwater Mussels,” peers not only at the mussels’ river-bottom home turf but also at their struggle to cling to it in light of widespread drought, pollution and indifference.
The book’s cover photo draws in even the reader exhausted by the unrelenting reality of environmental degradation. It’s not how you’d normally see a mussel, or even how those who normally see mussels would see one. The striated case is closed like a walnut, like something intimately familiar and altogether unknowable. Fading into matte black around the edges, the photo promises a reader some kind of a trip between clear categories, behind flat facades, and deep into lives and spaces they might have been happy, until now, to let remain invisible.
The book is about mussels, of course, but also about everything they’re connected to, which is to say: everything. The mussels’ role as river cleaners offers an opening to examine the state of rivers across the Southeast, and how they got that way. The mussels’ tenacity highlights the threats that climate change poses to them. Their strange, codependent mating strategies, including bundles meant to lure passing fish to carry offspring downriver, expose the resourcefulness and the fragility of motherhood.
Landis stumbled sideways into her own acquaintance with (and then affection for) mussels, but her investigation of their complicated past and future is thoroughly intentional. She wields her scientific training and her lyrical understanding of the mussels’ multitudes with restraint when required and abandon when called for.
Landis is a veterinarian and a mother as well as a writer, and as she invites readers into her obsession, those professions and
identities inform her storytelling rather than contradicting her scientific precision. The resulting work, her first book, feels like a perfectly choreographed collision of genres that moves seamlessly between the precise and the poetic.
“Immersion” is a tale about mussels, motherhood, curiosity, climate change, water. Grounded in science and ranging across the historical, the political, and the personal, the story is as rooted and responsive as the animals Landis writes about.
We spoke by Skype about unapologetic femininity, squeezing story from science, and how a book about these hard-backed little creatures is also about us and our tender, tenacious humanity.
This book is in some ways a love story to this obsession you develop with mussels that becomes a huge part of your life. How did that obsession begin?
There were several pivotal moments, but it was a cumulative experience of going out into several different creeks, seeing these animals face-to-face, seeing them in my husband’s laboratory, and starting to piece together their story, the role they played in rivers, and the connection that they had to our actual lives there. That creek was our water supply. And I don’t know if it’s because I was in early motherhood, but it seemed excruciatingly important to understand why these animals are dying if they’re actually in the water we’re drinking.
You wrote in the book that you were initially introduced to these creatures through your husband’s work — and the part of me that’s ready to bristle at any hint of gender inequality immediately perked up. What were your own feelings about getting so interested in something that your husband did? Did you anticipate this sort of knee-jerk response to that from readers?
There is that same part of me that cringes a little bit when I say this was what my husband was studying. That said, in my relationship with my husband, we have been interested in each other’s things kind of back and forth, and it seems natural in a way, that in sharing our lives, we’d become interested. I don’t know if I would cringe less if it were a close woman friend who’d introduced me to the topic, or one of his female colleagues — but it very quickly became my journey as well.
The poetry that I saw in it alongside the science, the way that it related to how I felt about raising children in the world, all of that came from a position of strength. And he was very good at stepping back. I’d go off on river trips with people when he was not there, and viewed it from my own perspective. That was really important to me, and it felt natural to come at it with my own vision and experience.
“I don’t know if it’s because I was in early motherhood, but it seemed excruciatingly important to understand why these animals are dying if they’re actually in the water we’re drinking.”
I needed to work a little to include female scientists, and because I was very embedded in the southeastern U.S. and looking for experts in this field in the deep south, I was finding mostly white men. That was a struggle for me. There are lots of women studying freshwater mussels in other regions of the country, so I tried to tap into that a bit as well while keeping the scope very place-based.
It does seem like there’s this thread through the book of femininity, fertility, motherhood — it’s all tied together, and there’s no apologizing for it. There’s a lot of naturally fitting symbolism with mussels, rivers, the earth, your “bleeding” garden yielding these enormous fruits. How much you were thinking about that while you were researching and writing this book?
A lot of it was intentional, but it wasn’t a craft decision. I really wrote from myself. I’ve had someone ask me, “Do you think this is a feminist book?” And in a way, my answer is: “Of course, because that’s my worldview and this is coming from where I am.” These are the ways that I see rivers, and these are the ways that I see animals living in those rivers. Weaving science and objectivity with my very female perspective, as a mother — as you said, I’m not apologetic. I was immersed in motherhood pretty hard-core at that point, and that’s very much a strength, because it’s made me feel less compromising about the health of the world.
As a science professional, how did you navigate explaining what sometimes is very complicated science to a wider audience?
It’s something that I struggled with. Explaining science for someone’s understanding is part of my everyday job. As a veterinarian, I want to do diagnostic tests, or I make a diagnosis, there are treatments — there are things to explain that use concepts and language that people don’t use every day. So I get to practice that a lot.
However, my field is not in mussel biology or ecology, it’s not in hydrology of rivers — so I was doing a lot of reading of scientific journals, and reading them again, just trying to pull out the pith of them. Often I would look for the story: Where is the character? What is the character doing? How does this further the plot about rivers, or what does this add to our understanding? What does this add to my understanding? Then I’d try to say that using bits and pieces that are common knowledge or common metaphor — something that’s detailed and specific and physical. I tried to steer clear of phrases that would make someone pause. Sometimes they’re unavoidable, but I tried to make it welcoming.
It sounds like your work as a vet really fits as a puzzle piece with what you were doing in this book.
In one sense, it’s completely different; my veterinary colleagues would say, “You wrote a book about what?” But for me, they inform each other. Communicating science, my love of anatomy and physiology, there’s biochemistry, there’s toxicology — there are a lot of things that cross over. And my love of animals — as soon as I began to see mussels as animals, it just opened a whole new door of obsession for me. For me, the empathy for mussels came easily because I feel empathy for all animals.
I had a professor who liked to say that she’s only interested in stories about people; she’s not interested in trees, she’s not interested in animals. In this story, you have all this empathy for these creatures, but that’s not necessarily universal. How did you think about creating a gateway into empathy for readers?
Mussels are a hard sell in some way. They’re animals, but they kind of appear inanimate. They look like rocks. To most of us, they’re invisible, and who even heard of them? A little bit like your professor, I felt that one of the most powerful ways to connect to mussels is to see how they’re connected to us and our stories. I wrote in the pieces of our story as a family and my story of getting to know these mussels with the intention of showing that they don’t exist in isolation, that we are connected.
What surprised me is that there were pieces of the book that were simply about mussels, talking about their movements or how they respond to things, or their lives and their reproduction — and people reading through the manuscript were just as interested in the pieces about those things as the pieces about the humans.
This book is sort of between genres: It’s science, it’s memoir, it’s lyrical and a little critical. Where do you see its home on a shelf? Is this sort of blend something you’ve done before?
I still don’t know exactly what to call it. It’s creative nonfiction. This is kind of where I live. When I went to college, I became a biology major because I wanted to be a veterinarian, and I became an English major because it was what I loved. So my whole course through undergraduate was yellow legal pads, where one page would be my physics notes and homework, and the next would be early British literature, and the next would be, you know, an ecology course that I was taking…. It was all very interwoven. I like to cross genres and cross-pollinate across different things that I’m doing.
“Mussels are a hard sell in some way. They’re animals, but they kind of appear inanimate. They look like rocks. To most of us, they’re invisible, and who even heard of them? I felt that one of the most powerful ways to connect to mussels is to see how they’re connected to us and our stories.”
Obviously, a big part of writing about mussels is writing about pollution and climate change, these things that people don’t really like to or want to think about. When I first started reading it, I had that same resistance myself; sometimes I just don’t want to learn another thing to be depressed about! But you sort of welcome the reader into the subject without catastrophe in a way that’s not harsh or frightening. The book doesn’t beat the reader over the head with what’s happening. I’m curious about how you approach that delicate space of needing and wanting to inform people, and also not wanting to scare them off, and also not wanting to cede too much to people’s neuroses — this whole sort of strange intersection.
It is a delicate space, and I’m really thrilled that you felt comfortable in that space with me. That was very important to me, because one of the fastest ways to get me to close a book is to be very realistic to the point of being catastrophic, or to be preachy or shaming — even though, if you look at the world, there are plenty of reasons to be catastrophic, preachy and shaming about the fate of the planet.
And many books that have done pretty well despite being all of the above.
And many books that I have appreciated have those qualities — but that wasn’t a book that I wanted to write. Partly, I think I’m just an incorrigible optimist and can’t get over the beauty of things. I really just find that focusing on the details of life and the beauty of it are the things that make me want to make the world a better place, and focusing on the things that are wrong, while informative and necessary, aren’t that inspiring to me, in the end.
There were definitely huge chunks of writing that I did where I would just rant, and those live somewhere in my computer and never need to see the light of day. My editor was really good at finding those pieces, because I was clear: I don’t want to have that tone. I want this to be a place that readers and I are going together and finding it amazing and compelling to want to make it better.
I felt so excited about mussels because here are these fantastic creatures with really crazy lives where they have parts of their bodies that lure in fish for their offspring and they exist in such amazing arrays of diversity and shapes, and they’re tied into these amazing stories, beautiful places and the water we drink. And they are resilient. So that’s a place I wanted to focus.