On a quiet evening at her home in Bend, you might find Mary Heather Noble pouring over technical data relating to the effects of ground contamination on the environment. She could be researching information about a solvent that has been dumped into the soil at an industrial site. The information that she gleans from her research might be woven into an essay she is writing. Noble is noted for her lyrical writings about the environment, family and place. Her prize-winning essay, “Acts of Courage,” uses flashbacks from her youth and early scientific career to recall how cancer from contaminants intersected her life, and buttresses that account with statistics to show how carcinogens are a part of our daily lives.
In another piece, “Experimental Road,” which was recently reprinted in “Utne Reader,” Noble writes about a site in rural upstate New York where her husband’s family has a lake house. Nearby ground water had been contaminated with chlorinated solvents, and it took years to find out that the source was a former semiconductor manufacturing facility located several miles away.
Researching technical data would probably scare off most creative writers, but Noble has a bachelor’s in geology from The Ohio State University, and a master’s in environmental science from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. She worked in New Mexico in the environmental permitting arena, trying to prevent ground water contamination from industrial, agricultural and municipal wastewater discharges. She also worked in the remediation section of the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection, overseeing the investigation and cleanup of contaminated sites.
After moving to Bend and raising two daughters with her husband, Noble found time to pursue her lifelong passion for writing. She completed a low-residency program and earned a Master of Fine Arts from the Stonecoast Creative Writing Program at the University of Southern Maine.
Noble is currently refining about 20 essays for her first book, “Plumes: On Contamination of Home and Habitat.” It was recognized by Ashland Creek Press with the 2014 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature. In environmental science, the word “plume” refers to environmental contamination, but Noble extends it as a metaphor for tension in a family or a community.
“The tension in families can be quiet and unspoken,” explains Noble, “but much like environmental pollution, it can cause harm and be very difficult to clean up and fix. The essays examine toxicity in an almost psychological sense and in a literal, environmental sense. They are standalone pieces, but they do fit together through this theme.”