Abbie Gascho Landis Awarded 2015 CDS Documentary Essay Prize in Writing

Abbie Gascho Landis

Abbie Gascho Landis

By now I have become a freshwater mussel groupie. I fawn over photographs. . . . I stalk them from a distance, writing their names in my notebooks: fatmucket, pistolgrip, heelsplitter, shinyrayed pocketbook, spectaclecase, pigtoe, snufflebox. I pore over their bios. Posters of mussels hang in our bedroom. —Abbie Gascho Landis, from her prizewinning essay

The CDS Documentary Essay Prize honors the best in documentary photography and writing in alternating years: one year, photos; one year, writing. The 2015 prize competition in writing was awarded to Abbie Gascho Landis, a writer and veterinarian in Cobleskill, New York, for “Immersion: Our Native Mussels and Bodies of Freshwater.” In her essay, Landis draws on six years of snorkeling in creeks, exploring large rivers, visiting laboratories, and interviewing biologists, weaving personal experience into her investigation of “these remarkable animals” and their habitats as one way of looking at growing water issues in the Deep South and elsewhere in the United States. “Endangered mussels have garnered national attention in recent water wars involving conflicts with agriculture and with cities like Atlanta during droughts,” Landis writes in her project statement. “While mussels have been studied for more than a century, research has recently ballooned, revealing complexities about their lives and roles in river systems.”


Mussels’ apertures, Paint Rock River, Alabama. Photograph by Abbie Gascho Landis.

In her essay, Landis writes: [Mussels] have been called naiads, after Greek mythology’s freshwater nymphs, each linked inextricably to a particular stream or river. Some mussels are widespread, while some exist only in a single river system and some—like the Tar River spinymussel—live in only a few creek sites. Mussels evolved with their river’s flow and geology, requiring particular river bottom habitat. Their need for host fish links them to vulnerable fish diversity.

Human-driven changes to creeks and rivers often disrupt water flow and quality, destroy the creek bed, and alter fish populations. When a waterway changes, mussels are the first to know. They may die outright, or be unable to reproduce. Like the check engine light on a dashboard, mussels indicate when there’s a problem with how their river is running. . . .

Abbie Gascho Landis writes a blog,, and is a veterinarian at the Cobleskill Veterinary Clinic in Cobleskill, New York. Landis has received an Arthur DeLong Writing Award and was a finalist for the Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Award in 2013. She has a bachelor’s degree in English and biology from Goshen College and a doctorate in veterinary medicine from Ohio State University. Landis receives $3,000 and will give a reading at the Center for Documentary Studies. Her work will also be placed in Duke University’s Archive of Documentary Arts at the David M. Rubenstein Library. An excerpt from “Immersion: Our Native Mussels and Bodies of Freshwater,” will appear in the Winter 2015–16 issue of Document, and the essay in full will be published on our website in 2016.


Jessica Wilbanks was awarded Honorable Mention by the members of the Center for Documentary Studies Documentary Essay Prize selection committee for her beautifully crafted essay, “The Far Side of the Fire,” which explores widespread charges of witchcraft against Nigerian children and reflects on her own experiences growing up in the Pentecostal faith. Wilbanks has a BFA in creative nonfiction and theology from Hampshire College and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston. Her work has appeared in such publications as the Sycamore Review, Ninth Letter, Ruminate Magazine, and The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses 2014.

There were other four finalists for the 2014 CDS Documentary Essay Prize in Writing, selected from forty-two entries:
Gaiutra Bahadur, “Into Dark Waters”
Benjamin Busch, “Unconscionable Maps”
Howard L. Craft, “Bull City Summer: Blue Monsters, Mattresses, and Durmites”
Tessa Fontaine, “A Mouth Full of Fire: Inside the Last American Sideshow”

The next CDS Documentary Essay competition will be for photography; submissions will be accepted from November 2, 2015, to February 16, 2016. Click here for guidelines.

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