Member Q&A: Lesley Atlansky

How we choose to fight for the future of our planet is a deeply personal decision. Beyond the obvious actions – giving public comment, reducing our own carbon footprints, or supporting organizations like Oregon Environmental Council – there are any number of other ways to make a difference. You can make art that beautifully portrays the splendor of the natural world, promote literature on climate and environmental issues to your community… 

Or, if you’re Lesley Atlansky, you can do both!

Lesley is an artist and longtime OEC member based in Portland, OR. She works as a comic colorist for publications big and small, and creates stunning, nature-inspired paintings (many of which are currently hanging in OEC’s office!). She’s described her work as “geography run amok.” Think familiar natural landscapes, but ones where the edges of reality begin to blur into each other.

When she’s not in the studio, you can probably find her in the back half of Powell’s Books on Hawthorne. There, she curates the environmental studies shelf in the nonfiction section of the store. If you’re looking for good books on climate change and the environment – especially ones grounded in science and geared toward concrete actions we can be taking to help – you’ll find them here.

We recently chatted with Lesley about her background in environmental advocacy, climate optimism in the face of information overload, and a ton of great books that can make your summer reading list. Read on!

Tell me a bit about yourself, your background, and the work that you do? How long have you lived in Oregon?

Lesley Atlansky painting called I am Listening to Hear Where You Are, showing red and green-toned mountain ranges

I am Listening to Hear Where You Are by Lesley Atlansky

I grew up in California. I moved to Oregon in 1995 to go to grad school at Portland State for geography. I decided to take a break, and ended up pivoting to getting an adult certificate in graphic design from PNCA. I did graphic design stuff for a while in Portland, until my husband and I started a family, and I quit to be a stay at home mom. 

We eventually decided to move to Estacada, to see if we could hack it as rural folk. There are tons of artists that live out there. Some of them started a co-op art gallery called The Spiral Gallery. I had just started painting, so I decided to join that. It sort of launched my art career. I got over the fear of hanging my stuff for people to look at.

We ended up moving back to Portland. I kept doing paintings, and I started coloring comic books. So I’ve been doing that as well because it’s just really fun.

When did you first get involved with environmental work? Was the natural world a big part of your life growing up?

For sure. We went camping a lot when I was a kid. Most of our vacations were two or three weeks. We would do big tours of the western US. When I was a senior in high school, my (future) husband and I spoke at a city council meeting in Southern California to suggest they implement curbside recycling. They basically laughed at us and dismissed it. But within 10 years or so they had curbside recycling! I’m sure I had nothing to do with it, but it was gratifying that they saw changing public sentiment for recycling and got on board.

Then when I was in college, I started out studying wildlife management, then switched to geography. I went to Humboldt State; it was a very hippie, environmentally focused college. They had an environmental ethics minor that I tried desperately to take, but it was so popular I couldn’t get in. My first summer after college, I volunteered with some folks that were planting buckwheat on the sand dunes by LAX to create habitat for the endangered El Segundo Blue Butterfly. I remember my parents’ friends thought I was silly, saying “Who does all this work for a butterfly?” But now the butterfly is a symbol for the area (unfortunately often as a greenwashing tactic by the Chevron oil refinery, but I digress).

So yeah, it’s always been something I have been interested in. When I started painting, that was at the forefront of things that inspired me. If I could sit and stare at the eastern Sierra for the rest of my life, I’d be so happy.

Tell me about your role at Powells? How long have you been there?

I started at the airport Powells in 2017. It was such a different thing than the other stores. It was so small, and they made sure it was stocked with books that travelers would want to pick up. So there wasn’t a lot of niche content. That location closed with the pandemic. When they were hiring people back, I started working at the store on Hawthorne. 

Now, I’m one of a handful of people that manage the non-fiction sections. There’s a lot of history, science, botany, gardening… all that good stuff. But the environmental studies and climate change area became my baby in the store that I really take care of and curate. Everyone thinks I’m a little bananas for wanting to read books on climate change. They’re like, “It’s so depressing!” But I just feel like the least I can do is be informed by people who know what’s going on. 

What do you look for in the books when you’re putting together the collection?

OEC Member, Lesley Atlansky, standing in the environmental studies book section that she curates at Powells bookstore.

I try to feature voices that are underrepresented. I don’t want to promote Bill Gates writing a book about climate, for example, when there are other people more in touch with what’s going on. For a while, there were lots of books being written by “doomer dudes,” as they’re known. These guys basically just vomit all the bad things about climate change, and then go, “Well, what can you do?” And you know, that’s not helpful. So I try not to recommend those to people dipping their toes into climate books. Otherwise, some stuff is just really dry and boring, so I avoid those too.

I think the first book that I read that really struck me was Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Climate Vs. Capitalism. I was angry for like two months while I read it. It was infuriating. But she also writes about the things we can be doing to help, instead of just focusing on the doom and gloom. Her next book after that, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for the Green New Deal, touched on a lot of stuff she’d already talked about, but is also more inspiring, and focuses more on ways to take action.

Have you noticed any trends or emerging themes in the environmental literature over the years? How has the genre evolved?

I feel like in the last two or three years, there’s been a bit more of a focus on positivity, for lack of a better word. There’s the All We Can Save anthology, which is really honest, more uplifting stuff. It’s got poetry, it’s got art, it’s got essays. The theme is kind of, “Ok, yeah, this sucks. But here are the things that I’m gonna try to do about it.” Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World by Katherine Hayhoe is kind of similar. If you don’t want to read something depressing, these are good options. I feel like more and more books have been trying to touch on that.

Have you seen an increased interest in your section in recent years, as the effects of climate change have become more pronounced?

Yes. There’s a book by Ed Yong called An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us. And it just took off! People were clamoring for it when it came out. So that surprised me. There’s another book called Crossings: How Road Ecology is Shaping the Future of Our Planet that came out recently. It’s all about animal crossings, and people building across freeways to connect wildlife corridors and stuff like that. That has been really popular, which also surprised me. It definitely seems like people are buying more environmental book. 

We have an opportunity to have staff picks at the front of the store for three months at a time. When I had mine, I put some books that people would want, but I also put the book, The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet on there. Everyone thought I was nuts for doing that. But people bought it! So, you know, anything I can do to get eyes on this topic.

You mentioned seeing a little bit more of a focus on positivity and optimism in these books over the years. Would you consider yourself a climate optimist?

With such daily information overload, it can be hard to be optimistic. Stuff gets lost in the fray, and you start to think that nothing is happening. But I see the positive winds, too – even locally with Zenith, the removal of the dams, and stuff like that. 

There’s a book called California Against the Sea: Visions for Our Vanishing Coastline by Rosanna Xia. I picked it up and read it in like two days. She talks about a lot of environmental impact projects that are happening in California, and how long stuff takes to get done. It’s easy to think, “Oh, this will never happen,” or get up in arms about something that’s going on. But we can solve it – it just might take 15 years to get through the bureaucracy. The tenacity that people have for seeing things through is really inspiring. I just hope we have the time to actually do it.

Why did you choose to become a member at OEC?

I like to support folks who’ve been around the block with the fights, and have a good track record of getting things accomplished. It feels like you guys have got your finger on the pulse of what’s going on in Oregon, and globally.

OEC’s work to advance meaningful, lasting environmental progress is made possible by people across the state who care about safeguarding Oregon’s future.

Make a difference. Become a member of OEC today.

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