Meet the Our Waters, Our Future winner

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Sally Younger is the winning author of the Our Waters, Our Future writing contest.

Meet Sally Younger. She won our first ever Our Waters, Our Future writing contest, which sought short, sci-fi stories about positive futures for water and people in south-central Wisconsin.

Younger’s story, “Antigone Lupulus,” just made its debut in Madison Magazine’s June issue. It is about a young woman learning to manage a hops farm in the Yahara Watershed, tackling the challenges brought by a changed climate.

If you are curious about what other stories we received, we will be showcasing a few of the finalists this week here and cross-posted on the blog of one of our fellow contest organizers, the UW-Madison Center for Limnology. Check back in with us to read those stories!

But today, get to know our winner a little bit. We asked Younger, a Madison native and science writer by trade, a few questions about her inspiration for the story and what value she found in the exercise of imagining the future of water and people.

Tell us a little bit about your connection to water.

SY: As a terrestrial lifeform I don’t get very far without it. As a Madison native, Lake Mendota is my north star. The four lakes orient me, shape my path; time and the seasons are reflected on their faces. Monona, the closest to my home, perhaps takes pride of place. After 25 years together I’ve discovered she never looks the same two mornings in a row.

Why did you decide to enter the contest?

SY: The year – 2070 – baited me. Back-of-the-napkin mathematics tells me I will be in my 80s. Terrifying. But the premise got me thinking about the world I’ll be parting, and the generation upon whose shoulders my survival will depend.

What was the inspiration for your story?

SY: I was studying hops at the time, not as a writer but a homebrewer. It is interesting that beer, an iconic Wisconsin staple, relies heavily on hops grown in the Pacific Northwest or imported from Germany. A little known fact is that at one time Wisconsin produced millions of pounds of hops; Sauk County alone produced one fifth of the world’s supply. The “craze” collapsed due to competition and unsustainable farming practices. That was 1870. The coincidence was too tempting.

Tell us a little more about how your main character, Riley, portrays your vision of a desirable future?

SY: Riley is 18 years old and the world is her oyster – a world emerging from Depression, riven by disparity, and reckoning with a climate changed. Fuel is scarce and groundwater is politicized. Fiercely independent farmers are fighting to thrive under a hot and unpredictable sky.

The challenges are many. But Riley has the guts and brains to run a farm and run it smart.

What tradeoffs do you envision in this future?

SY: Many of the same themes we are struggling with today – finite resources, competing priorities, personal responsibility – are part of Riley’s life, but accentuated by climate change. Much like the present controversy surrounding high-capacity wells, the wedge driving her family apart is a conflict between large and small-scale users. For better or worse the groundwater connects them, to each other, and to the sins of the past.

What drew you to exploring the relationship between water and farming in your story?

SY: Water and agriculture are two pillars of every civilization. One falls and it takes the house with it.

Riley’s farm, for all the mechanization and real-time field assays, is no exception. The risks and rewards of farming are high drama, and feedstock for storytellers.

What do you think is the value of imagining possibilities for the future?

SY: Imagining the future is really an exercise in scrutinizing the present. The stones we cast today – as careless citizens or nearsighted policymakers – make large rings.

Today, we act from administration to administration, crafting profit-maximizing policy based on 10-year models. The genius of this contest is that it asks us as writers and readers to extrapolate half a century into the future. It humanizes the conversation, demands that we look beyond the maximum carrying capacity of the land.

Your day job is a science writer, too. Tell us about the value you think storytelling has for engaging people in science?

SY: Humans have been writing stories for four millennia – talk about job security. It’s in our blood to seek truth in metaphor and characterization. Stories pluck chords within us that no statistical analysis ever can.

The essence of good science writing is translation. If readers are drawn into a story about research and discovery, and forget I’m there, then I’ve done my job.

What is one solution you would like to see happen for the future of the Yahara Watershed, and why?

SY: I’m a technical writer. I want to believe we can invest and invent our way into a sustainable future. Phosphorous sequestration, hyperlocal climate monitoring, genetically modified cash crops – worthy technologies all.

But ultimately, the watershed is only as strong as its stewards. Our waters are not the province of the academic elite. I want to see underprivileged families take a stake and find their voice. That starts with education.

Younger’s science writing has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, National Geographic and the Saturday Evening Post. Her first short story received Great American Fiction honors and was published last year. She has been nominated for a National Press Foundation Award and won a Fulbright prize for young journalists. By day she is the technical writer at the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF).

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