The Natural World
by Ausma Zehanat Khan
When you write mysteries, you expect that much of your scientific research will focus on the forensic sciences: the decomposition of bodies, the effects of blunt force trauma, the chemical interactions of ingenious poisons, and so on. In my case, my mysteries tend to avoid forensic elements, partly because I’m squeamish, but partly because my books require so much research on other issues. What kinds of issues?
When I’m writing a mystery and setting the scene, I try to immerse my readers in a sense of place, but also in an atmosphere that includes climate details. As I do so, I quickly discover how little I know about the natural world. As a city girl from Toronto, the only types of trees I can identify by sight are maple trees and willows. So when I write a season-specific outdoor scene, I have to dig around quite a bit to find out what kinds of flora and fauna are native to a particular setting, and what the impact of climate change on that setting may be.
With my first book, The Unquiet Dead, the setting for the mystery is the Scarborough Bluffs, a geological formation east of Toronto. The Bluffs are cliffs made of compressed white sand. They soar as high as three hundred feet at the highest point of a nine mile stretch along Lake Ontario. I used to walk home from school on a path along the Bluffs, which is why I wanted to set a mystery in such an atmospheric setting. But since the 1940s, the cliffs have suffered continual erosion, and chunks continue to separate and fall free, adversely affected by the building of cottages. It’s quite possible that a person could miscalculate and slip from the unsteady surface of the Bluffs. Or they may have been pushed.
The Language of Secrets is partly set in Algonquin Park in winter. Algonquin is the province of Ontario’s oldest provincial park. During the course of my research, I learned about the park’s endangered old-growth forest, and the need to protect it from logging efforts—the park is managed on cyclical plans that don’t fully account for its great age or its conservation needs. Algonquin is one of the last refuges of original sugar maples, hemlocks and yellow birch.
My most recent book, Among the Ruins, takes my readers further afield to Iran, where my detective, Esa Khattak, decides to explore the Gavkhuni (or Gavkhooni) wetlands. Against the majestic backdrop of a black volcano and a salt lake, the wetlands are a grazing ground for more than 140 bird species, including the flamingo. Over the course of the past ten years, drought, mismanagement and climate change have caused the wetlands to dry up: the destruction of the wetland’s biodiverse ecosystem is underway. The little water that has collected recently has immediately been diverted to other uses. Many of the wetlands’ species have lost their habitat.
The more I write about the natural world, the more I discover how inescapable the reality of climate change is. The degradation of these three distinct environments can be traced to a similar cause: the impact of human intervention.
The destruction of habitat and the struggle for survival is now the backdrop to all our lives—more troubling and dangerous than anything a writer of mysteries can conjure.