Columbia author aims to tap youthful hope for Earth's future in cautionary 'The Big Melt'

The Baltimore Sun

The week after a flash flood hit historic Ellicott City in July 2016, Ned Tillman set to work.

The catastrophe, which claimed two lives and devastated the old mill town, was deemed by experts to be a 1,000-year flood — a storm that has a 1 in 1,000 chance of occurring in any given year. Many Howard County residents took some comfort in the idea that the deluge was a fluke weather event that wouldn’t repeat itself and rallied behind the resilient town as business owners and residents staged a comeback.

But Tillman, a Columbia scientist with two nonfiction books on the environment to his credit, saw the disaster through a different lens.

He viewed it as another wake-up call to the pressing reality of climate change — and that was before the second flash flood occurred May 27 and caused even greater damage along Main Street.

The author and member of the Howard County Environmental Sustainability Board decided to write his first novel to reach out to a new audience — middle and high school students — with the message that those who ignore or delay acting upon the problem of climate change are risking their very future.

The result is “The Big Melt,” a 237-page softcover book with an illustrated cover of two teens standing in the middle of the road in a historic-looking town.

Tillman will hold a book launch 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Oct. 15 at Food Plenty in Clarksville Commons. As with his other two books, he will donate net proceeds from sales to area nonprofits with a focus on preserving the environment.

The author says many adults find the issue of climate change — which he first became aware of as global warming in 1967 as a senior in high school in Harford County — as overwhelming.

“People say it’s too big of a problem, and wonder how they can possibly make a difference,” Tillman said from his home on Lake Elkhorn.

To counter that response, he opted to spin a cautionary tale that he hopes will inspire younger generations to get to work on preserving the environment.

“The protagonists carry the plot along, but you will learn a lot while you’re reading,” he said. “We should be doing everything we can to reduce carbon emissions and other gases.”

The genre is a departure for the author, whose previous nonfiction books are “The Chesapeake Watershed: A Sense of Place and A Call to Action” and “Saving the Places We Love: Paths Toward Environmental Stewardship.” Those two books were published by Chesapeake Book Co. in Baltimore, but Tillman has self-published “The Big Melt,” under the name South Branch Press.

“A number of past readers of my books kept telling me to write for kids and get them fired up,” he said.

That feedback, along with the flash flood on Main Street in 2016, was the impetus for creating the fictional village of Sleepy Valley, U.S.A., a place where a lot of almost hard-to-believe climate issues suddenly and dramatically converge.

Tillman said he had to “keep upping the ante” in the book’s plot as extreme weather events began unfolding around the globe while he was writing it.

“I squeezed a lot into this one town,” starting with pavement melting as the thermometer climbs precariously high — something that has occurred in India and Australia, he said.

“On day two of the novel, all hell breaks loose and the two protagonists, a guy and girl who just graduated from high school, don’t see the government acting, so they start working with their neighbors” to save the town out of a dual sense of desperation and duty.

Terms like “The End Times” and “The Changes” lend a dystopian feel to the narrative, but the author describes the overall tone as “tamer than most novels of that genre.”

Tillman, who has degrees in earth and environmental science, said students at Howard, Long Reach and Reservoir high schools read the book during the rewrite stage and provided feedback on its message and readability. He’s distributed advance copies to 100 students and adults to get their feedback and hopes educators, parents and others will also read the book and discuss its message with the core audience.

“The younger generations have choices to make today about their future,” he said. “If they wait 20 to 30 years to take action, the steps that will be required will become more draconian.”

Ann Strozyk, an environmental educator with the county public school system who works out of the Howard County Conservancy in Woodstock, met Tillman a decade ago when he gave a presentation for county educators.

“Through the years, Ned has tapped into his background knowledge in geology and the Chesapeake Bay,” she said. “He’s a proven cheerleader for the environment.”

Tillman’s newest book delivers an optimistic message and a call to action, Strozyk said.

“Ned does a good job of identifying how people are feeling, and with creating relatable situations,” she said. “And as a science teacher, I love that the protagonists are told to go get data and not make any assumptions.”

Strozyk said Tillman has a gift for storytelling and predicts “The Big Melt” will be very popular.

“Hope is woven all through this book and we need that,” she said.

Tim Singleton, a Columbia freelance writer who is co-chair of the board of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, thinks bringing the issue of climate change to younger readers via fiction was an inspired decision.

“The young adult mind is not really jaded by patterns that overtake life,” he said. “They have a fresh sense of wonder that is very heartening.”

Tillman exaggerates real events in his book’s plot to great effect, Singleton said.

“This book will shock people into paying attention and inspire people of all ages to work together to deal with issues that are bigger than us as individuals,” he said. “We may be nearing the point of no return in fighting climate change, but the book’s message is that the next generation will rise to the occasion.”

Tillman said his angle in writing the novel was “to convert just one more person” who currently doubts they can make a difference into a believer and a doer.

“Can fiction help save the Earth?” Tillman asked. “If readers identify with the people in the story and get inspired, I believe that it’s just one more tool to get us to where we need to be.”

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