Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Sad truths: How to write without wallowing?

brown pelican, coated in BP oil

I've been making slow progress on my new project, a series of essays about birding and nature in Illinois. I struggled quite a bit with the last one I finished, about the trip that Sunwiggy and I took to see the prairie chickens a couple of years ago. (If you're curious, you can go to the March 2010 entries in my blog archive, where there are three or four posts about prairies and prairie chickens that served as an extremely rough draft for my essay.)

One challenge was writing about all the environmental devastation that has occurred over the last couple of centuries. The tallgrass prairie is gone, and the prairie chickens are barely holding on. My mom and I had a fun trip, but we also saw hundreds of miles of vanished prairie, and were witness to an ancient ritual--the mating dance of the chickens--that very well might disappear from the state forever. When I allow myself to think about this, I alternate between anger that so few people seem to care at all about this, and deep sorrow for what has been, and continues to be, lost.

I don't know which is worse, the sorrow or the anger. Being angry can lead to a lot of judgment and invective; it's one thing for people to worry about their livelihoods (the usual scapegoat when environmental issues are raised), but that still doesn't explain why people can get worked up about American Idol and Black Friday sales and professional sports and then get huffy about people wanting to protect the environment. The sorrow can lead to wallowing.

I ran into this problem soon after I had started my blog. My intention was to spread the joy and fascination of nature in the heartland to everyone who stumbled along (at that point, my audience basically consisted of my mom), and off I went, with posts that were variations on, "I went looking for birds...and I found some!"

Then, two months into my project, I felt like my world was ending. Worries about some oil leaking off the Gulf Coast of Louisiana soon spread into reports of one of the worst oil spills in history. That's right, British Petroleum. I mean you.

I simply cannot overstate how hard this hit me. The environmental catastrophe itself was bad enough. This is where the weeping came in. I would literally read the news reports with tears running down my face. And then...the comments left by trolls and idiots beneath the reports, many of which were variations of "Who cares?" and "I hate environmentalists." The phrase "drill, baby, drill" was trotted out so often that I did more research. I read direct quotes of hatefulness from politicians and pundits, rousing their audience to resist any attempt at better regulation, often trotting out statements that, with a very brief bit of research, I could see were obvious lies. And here comes the anger!

I dashed off a lot of ranty, weepy blog posts. (Vodka might have clouded my decision-making abilities on some of these posts...friends, don't let friends blog drunk.) Luckily, I don't think many people outside of my family actually read these things. A couple of months later, I came to my senses and quietly deleted them. It's not that my feelings weren't sincere, for they were--but what did I hope to accomplish?

That's a question I could ask about my life in general. What do I want to accomplish? Why do I write? Why am I taking the Master Naturalist classes? Obviously, I want to make a difference. Every time a coworker has said to me, "I noticed a bird in my yard today...I never paid attention before," I feel I've made a difference. Every time I imagine someone maybe reading one of my posts and feeling inspired to go birding, or to look at the creatures in their back yard in a new way, I hope I'm making a difference. I know it's possible. There are so many people who have inspired me.

Overall, most people enjoy learning about nature. Whether I'm popping Winged Migration into the DVD player at a family gathering or mentioning the wildlife around the parking lot in the lunch room, a lot of people seem interested. In his book Biophilia, E. O. Wilson posits that our connection with the life around us is part of what makes us human, but that no one is going to do something they perceive to be against their material interests. The challenge, then, is to make caring about the environment seem part of one's material interests.

To the extent that each person can feel like a naturalist, the old excitement of the untrammeled world will be regained. I offer this as a formula of re-enchantment to invigorate poetry and myth: mysterious and little known organisms live within walking distance of where you sit. Splendor awaits in minute proportions.
Why then is there resistance to the conservation ethic? The familiar argument is that people come first. After their problems have been solved, we can enjoy the natural environment as a luxury. If that is indeed the answer, the wrong question was asked. -- from Biophila by E. O. Wilson

I want to ask the right questions, and I want to invoke the splendor of minute proportions waiting for discovery. People's lives are hectic and often difficult. The natural world often does (mistakenly) seem like a luxury. Lecturing at people doesn't help anyone. They might feel guilty for a minute, but no one likes to feel guilty, and there are far too many voices competing with yours.

People also hate being bummed out, and I think that's a big reason why the environment is not a popular topic. Or as another author humorously put it:

Don't you hate it when you're watching a nice wildlife documentary, and you have been enjoying a pleasant visit to Eden, when suddenly, just as you get to the last bit and you're feeling quite good, the music goes all menacing, and the commentator says, "But this wildlife paradise is under threat. Even here, wildlife must pay the price for human progress. Human greed, human carelessness, and human indifference are making mincemeat of these lovely furry animals. For Christ's sake, the whole bloody planet's gone wrong, and it's all your bloody fault, you smug bastard sitting there on your nice bloody sofa with your nice bloody drink within six inches of your guilty, bloodstained bloody hand?" -- from How to Be a (Bad) Birdwatcher by Simon Barnes

Yeah, to be honest, I do hate that. I suspect that not thinking about things that suck might actually be a human survival mechanism. For example, when's the last time you really stopped to contemplate your inevitable mortality? It's not a great technique, since that's why smokers can keep on smoking and why I don't put my dachshund on a diet, even though he's fat. We don't want to think about it!

Still, I'm not going to lie. I don't want to imply that it's OK that the tallgrass prairie has vanished, or to imply that we don't need to worry about conservation. It's hard, too, when the voices that drove me to drink during the BP oil spill--the politicians and pundits who want people to feel good about driving the biggest SUV they can find off the lot, and insist that anyone who cares about spotted owls or oiled pelicans is some kind of commie pinko--are louder than ever.

But there is hope. That's the message I want to get across, "There is hope but you have to care and do something right now..." It's a fine line, but that is my mission as a nature writer. As a Master Naturalist, I hope to instill some love of nature into people who maybe never looked quite so closely at their surroundings.

And for the rest of my life, I'm still thinking of law school. Because when all else fails, at least you can try to sue the bastards.

In the meantime...is there anyone who writes about the environment in a way that's inspired you? Any advice on how to approach my prairie chicken essay dilemma?

1 comment:

  1. The way YOU write about the enviroment inspires me, truly! And, I think there are lots of reasons to hope...one trend I notice is the big push to get kids outside. "Last Child in the Woods" does appear to be more than a passing fad; witness The Green Hour and other websites encouraging families to enjoy being out- of- doors. That's why I grin and bear it when I'm out birding, and a family group, complete with a large, bouncy dog, erupts on the scene. Kids will grow up to be the naturalists of tomorrow. MOM