Last spring, in the earliest days of the pandemic, Oregon Humanities relaunched a letter writing project it had been hosting on and off since 2014. Dear Stranger, which generates pen pals by pairing letter writers on a mostly random basis (avoiding intra-zip code matches), returned in April 2020 as a space for Oregonians to both process the isolation of the pandemic and counteract it by forming new relationships from a safe distance.
By the end of 2020, Dear Stranger was fielding letters from 275 participants in 29 states, says Oregon Humanities communications manager Ben Waterhouse. Coming into 2021, he and his team noticed an increased resistance to writing about the pandemic, and decided to theme submission periods around issues of Oregon Humanities' thrice-annual magazine: winter letters were centered on food, spring letters on possession.
Now, tied to the issue of Oregon Humanities that drops next week, Dear Stranger is accepting letters about climate. "I had wanted, for some time, to do an issue that would be focused on what climate change means for Oregon and how our communities respond or adapt," Waterhouse says. Then the 2020 fires happened, and he hardened his resolve further.
"I was thinking about words that were evocative of these things to me: things like 'burn' and 'extreme,' and I was talking to one of my colleagues here, and he said, 'You're being oblique. Everyone wants to talk around climate change. Just make the theme of the magazine 'climate,''" Waterhouse says. So he did.
Letter writers, though, are encouraged to get as oblique as they want. There's obviously plenty to discuss about climate change itself in these parts, but the official call for letters opens up the aperture to political and cultural climates, too. "I opened up the meaning in hopes that people who don't want to talk about climate change, or are so traumatized by the experiences that we've had in the past few years that they don't have space to write about it, will not feel left out," Waterhouse says.
Submissions have just opened, and so far Waterhouse has received one letter, displayed above. They'll remain open through October 4.
Oregon Humanities is accepting climate letters through October 4. Want to participate? Address your letters as follows (and head to the Oregon Humanities website for more details):
Attn: Dear Stranger
921 SW Washington Street, Suite 150
Portland, OR 97205