WILLIAMSTOWN — Elizabeth Kolbert has won the American Academy of Art and Letters 2017 Blake-Dodd Award for achievement in nonfiction.
"I was really thrilled and also, I have to say totally surprised to hear about the award," Kolbert, 55, wrote in an email interview. Then referring to the prize of $25,000 she will receive, she continued, "So I don't yet have any plans in mind for the money."
Kolbert, of Williamstown, is best known for her nonfiction books, "Field Notes From A Catastrophe: Man,Nature and Climate Change" and "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History" in which she examines and demonstrates the cause and effects of global climate change.
"I became very interested/concerned about climate in about 2005," Kolbert said.
In "Field Notes From A Catastrophe" published in 2006, Kolbert wrote, "It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose to destroy itself, but that is what we are, in essence, in the process of doing."
Of the proposed national budget that slashes environmental programs and scientific missions to study climate, Kolbert said, "I'm appalled by them. Beyond appalled, really. We are moving in absolutely the wrong direction here."
In 2016, Kolbert won a Pulitzer Prize for "The Sixth Extinction" and was lauded as one of our very best science writers. "It took almost five years to write that book from idea to publication," the acclaimed author said.
Kolbert's career as a journalist and author began at The New York Times, then she moved on to The New Yorker magazine, where she has been a staff writer since 1999.
Now as the Class of 1946 environmental fellow-in-residence at Williams College, Kolbert has an office in the Environmental Center, which was designed to be a Living Building Challenge building.
Mike Evans, assistant director of the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives, located in the Environmental Center, explained that to earn Living Building certification, a project must conform to seven rigorous requirements, called petals: site, water, health, materials, equity, beauty and energy.
"We have not met the energy requirement," he said. "We had thought we had some breathing room (using solar power), and are trying to figure out what we can do."
Meanwhile, they applied for a six petal LB certification and received it in April.
Where better for an environmentalist such as Kolbert to have an office?
When asked what she most enjoys, writing, teaching or doing research, Kolbert said, "I guess if I had to choose one, I'd choose research. It's always a thrill to learn new things and go new places."
A few of the places Kolbert has visited in conjunction with her work are Panama, the Amazon, Greenland, the Andes, and the Southern Uplands of Scotland.
"I tag along with scientists," Kolbert said. "In this way, I've seen a lot of amazing things."
As for whether one expedition stands out in her mind as the most exciting or rewarding, Kolbert said. "If I had to chose one, I guess it would be a trip I took to a research station on the Great Barrier Reef."
It was one night on the Great Barrier Reef that Kolbert's chances of reporting on what she had learned grew dim.
"I went to collect water samples with a graduate student.This entailed walking out across the reef for almost a mile. It was pitch black, and impossible to orient yourself against the horizon,"Kolbert recalled.
"We were supposed to navigate using a handheld GPS unit, but the graduate student couldn't figure out how to use it. The tide was coming in, and the water was up to our chests. That was the only time in reporting the book when I was really scared. Fortunately, he got the unit to work before we were swept out to sea."
Back home, what does Kolbert like best about Williamstown? "It is a beautiful place... I can look out my window to Mount Greylock."
Phyllis McGuire writes from her home in Williamstown. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.