Monday, September 26, 2011

Love, Life, and Work by Moderator Robert Michael Pyle

Discussion Topic: The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland

When we fall in love with place, engage deeply, and watch it change, it alters who we are and what we do.  How can passion for the land influence our lives and livelihood?

No matter what we may say to the contrary, I suspect that the subject that most concerns most of us most of the time (apart from our essential physical well-being) is this: How shall I spend my allotted time?   Historically, the great majority of people have devoted most of their waking hours to making a livelihood, and not so often (one supposes) exactly as they might have chosen.  To be occupied by that which you love, or at least enjoy, or at the very least tolerate with some modicum of interest and humor, and still make a living at it, has likely been an uncommon condition throughout the industrial epoch.

A future conservationist.
Photograph by Heather Doolittle
Some have always indulged their true passions outside their labors, including many amateur naturalists (such as my friend the truck driver who is also the essential Northwest lepidopterist; remember, "amateur" means "one who loves").   Whether by profession or avocation, those who manage to indulge their personal vision of time well-spent over a substantial number of their days have been the lucky ones among us.  The deep desire to do so remains, I believe, one of our strongest abiding ideals.

One problem with this state of affairs, if real, is that fewer and fewer young people seem to emerge from school or college with any strong sense of what they would really like to do, beyond being well paid for it, whatever it is.  This owes partly, I feel, to changes in the "smorgasbord"  system that used to reign in higher education: by casting about a broad catalogue with many electives to fill, students used to have a fair crack at coming across some subject that truly turned them on.  With the present, narrowed emphasis on "good jobs" and testing results, fewer searchers have a chance to make that exciting finding at school.

When it comes to lives and livelihoods that center on the land, I doubt that the connection that counts most is usually found in the classroom anyway.  At least since the banishment of Nature Study from most classrooms half a century and more ago, it's been the rare--and lucky--student who got that critical introduction to the real world from a classroom.  In my case, my biology teacher was more interested in coaching football and dry cleaning (to which he retired) than in biology.  Thank Pan, two of his colleagues ran an ecology club after school that probably saved me from a desultory, and maybe disastrous, wrong turn.  And while they were important themselves as mentors, it was their field trips that really did it for me--along with my own lone wild rambles along the High Line Canal, which make up the core of The Thunder Tree.

As I wrote in "The Extinction of Experience,"  "Had it not been for the High Line Canal, the vacant lots I knew, the scruffy park, I'm not at all certain I would have been a biologist...It was the place that made me."  I doubt if I ever returned from a ramble on the canal unaccompanied by the powerful feeling that I wanted to grow up to do something that would get me out like that, doing things like that, always. Well, after a fashion and in a motley manner, I have; and for that, I directly credit that old Denver ditch and its critters, plants, and waters.

In a response to my first posting, Cristina Eisenberg wrote:  "I used to run to the creek after school and watch butterflies and frogs and birds and follow the arc of the seasons across the year...Today I am a conservation biologist who specializes in wolves...An early connection with my childhood landscape..had a profound influence on my work as an adult." We hear such tales of direct circuits between beloved places and well-lived lives again and again.  To evoke Nabokov once more, read, for example, Chapter Six of Speak, Memory, the butterfly section of his magical memoir, and see how the bogs and forests of Vyra and beyond made him who he became, both as lepidopterist and novelist.  Or the autobiographies of any of those near-sainted ones for whom the lodges at the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) are named: Rachel Carson, Also Leopold, Ding Darling, Olaus and Mardy Murie (yes, the same Olaus whom Cristina wonderfully evoked in her recent comment on my second posting).  Every one of them details profound early contacts with lands and waters that steered them toward the momentous--and eminently satisfying--lives they lived in conservation. 

Giant Panda tracker Rolf and ecotourism guide Zoe
 (English names) at Foping Panda
Reserve in the QinLing Mountains of China,
May 2011: environmental workers inspired
by their youthful experiences outdoors.
  Photograph by Janet Chu
Or speak to any resource professional in any of the government agencies that minister to our public lands on our behalf--National Park Service, US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Natural Resources Conservation Service formerly the Soil Conservation Service, state parks, state natural resource agencies, natural history surveys, all water, ag, and air authorities, hydrologists and mineralogists and cartographers and ecologists and on and on and on--and you will hear love stories with particular places that these workers may bless for their good days at work and blame for the bad ones: the places that made them who they are and inspired them to do what they do.  Where they walked, hunted, hid, discovered, dammed, crept, caught, played, camped, acted, and explored; where they dreamed.  (I've found this to be true around the world--as much so in China as here [see accompanying photograph]--in spite of strong school and social pressure toward employment choice.)

This is no how-to column about getting a job or making an independent living in natural history or environmental work.  It's never easy, especially at such a time as this when fiscal stringencies and stinginess are hobbling agencies, public efforts, and private giving to non-profits; when traditional systematic biology, never more needed, is almost absent of institutional support or training; and when book-publishing is retrenching by the day before new electronic realities.  But the need for  all of these, indeed for every profession or private devotion linked to the land and its well-being, have never been greater.  And ways will continue to be found to do the work that needs to be done: every time I meet a new young staffer for the Xerces Society, working an exciting and satisfying job devoted to conservation of invertebrates, I am stunned to think back to the early all-volunteer years of the organization, now in its 40th year.   In fact, it is often the volunteer or amateur route that eventually leads to employment in the field or the trenches of conservation.  Not everyone will be crawling into wolf dens like Cristina, but most of the young people I've known who truly wish to make a life (and if possible, a livelihood) at least partly willed to the wild, have managed to do so, through patience, perseverance, and sheer desire.

And where does such a desire come from?  More often than not, from the land itself: from the same places we hope to give back to, for the pleasure, peace, excitement, inspiration, and hope; the rage over loss and the betrayal of needless change, and resolve to prevent more of the same; and yes, ultimately, the salvation, that these beloved places have given us.

Some questions to consider:

--Does your work, volunteer, or leisure time satisfy some long-held desire to connect to the land?
--How so?
--How did you get there, and can you identify experiences out-of-doors that pointed you there?
--With growing constraints such as reduced funding, parental expectations, and population pressure, does it make humane sense to urge the young in this direction; or are we trading in false hopes, both for getting the work in the first place, and for its ultimate prospects of success?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Consider the Magpie by Moderator Robert Michael Pyle

Discussion Topic: The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland

"Maaag!  Maaag!  Merk?"  For background on this communique, I would ask
you to read the chapter "Magpie Days,"  and to ask yourself this: how
would I tell others about an animal that deeply affected me?

I asked myself that about the black-billed magpie.  It was important to
me to convey our stories--those of myself and my big brother Tom--about
these birds in our young lives, but also reliably to convey their
natural history, and the dark tale of their persecution.  But these elements spring from both left and right brains--the personal/subjective (associative, heartful, emotional) and the factual/objective (scientific, reportorial, analytical).  On the face of it, that would seem to present the writer with a conundrum.  But must it?  Not at all.  As Vladimir Nabokov suspected (and lived), there IS a "high ridge where the mountainside of scientific knowledge joins the opposite slope of artistic imagination."  So by striding or soaring along that ridge, dipping into one side, then the other, one ought to be able to do both
in the same essay--and it ought to be all the richer for it, if one's context is clear enough to signal the reader when poet and reporter change places.

At least, that was my experiment with this essay.  So as you read it, note how I have interlarded deeply personal experiences, some funny and some anything but, with historical and biological sequences to try to give a rounded portrait of the bird and its lifeways, as well as the lifeways of two kids on adventure in the world: story holding hands with science.  See if that collaboration across the mental membrane works for
you.  Writing or telling story this way, we invoke what we know or can discover, from Audubon reporting on Clark and Lewis (maybe the last time they were referred to that way) to modern ornithology texts, from bounty figures of benighted days of yore to the color of a '55 Chevy: the magpie contains multitudes.  For my part, I felt I came to know magpies, and myself, much better for having essayed such a convergence.

But this missive also has to do with the black-billed magpie itself, in a more than metaphorical way. _Pica pica hudsonia_ is an elegantly adapted organism, perhaps even one that proliferated beyond its former
estate, since and on account of European contact.  Especially after bounty days were over, it became a veritable neighborhood bird in Denver and many another western town, frequenting cemeteries and parks as well as farms and fallowlands.  Yet, it is not infinitely versatile: it occurs in both Great Britain and the Wild West, but omits the eastern U.S. in between.  Clark and Lewis, Audubon wrote, didn't encounter magpies until they reached the Great Bend of the Missouri in April, 1804.  And though it is a crafty urban habitue, a town & country sophisticate, you won't be able to sneak up on it and snatch one of those iridescent tailfeathers, for it remains much more shy than its fellow corvid, the common crow.  As Audubon described it, "When one pursues it openly, it flits along the walls and hedges, shifts from tree to tree, and at length flies off to a distance."

So here is an animal that has proven extraordinarily adaptable, yet definitely has its limiting factors, both ecologically and socially.  Described as everything from an "unscrupulous roysterer" to "a handsome, knowing, resourceful fellow," it has taken some of the most vicious persecution any American animal has faced, and come back to tell about it: "Maaag!  Maaag!  Merk?"  The black-and-white birds called "magpies" in Australia are successful, piebald birds of similar traits, though far removed from _Pica pica_ genetically and evolutionarily.  Yet just as ours do, they repay close observation and contemplation as
creatures--like the kids one used to find at large in the countryside and the vacant lots--that thrived in the post-industrial wasteland, the agricultural aftermath, the second-hand lands, the hand-me-down habitats
left over after we've had our way with the land.  Such organisms show that the urban wild is not only a story of what's been lost; it might tell a story of evolutionary opportunity: of what's coming back someday.
For such an image taken to its logical extent, read Richard Jeffries' _After London_.  There would be magpies there, in sickle-swoop from one cottonwood to another, scrawling their names across the sky in
opalescent ink. And there would be children at liberty in such a land, wandering at will to see what they could find today.

Some questions to consider:

--What kind of animal made a deep impression on you as a young creature abroad on the landscape?  How?  And how to tell about it?

--Does the evolutionary gift and necessity of adaptation offer us (who are not magpies) anything worth looking forward to?

--In your experience, can heart and science--or as one friend of mine put it, headbone and hormone--cooperate to make a good story?

--What are some books, who are some writers, who make such an intellectual/emotional mingling work for you as a reader?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

So What's Your Ditch? by Moderator Robert Michael Pyle

Photo credit: Thea Linnaea Pyle
Discussion Topic: The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland

People naturally root in place.  Our special places affect us as individuals, as societies, as a species; but what happens when children no longer have such sacred spots to explore?

Welcome to my rendition of America's Wild Read.  I am pleased to be asked to take part, in the train of such a distinguished and compelling series of writers.  I remember when Cristina Eisenberg brought her notes and outline for a book on trophic cascades to discuss with me when I was teaching writing in the University of Montana's Environmental Studies department (which I'll be doing again next spring).  I thought it was a neat idea and a big job.  Christina seemed enthralled, impressive, and entirely up to it.  How exciting now, then, to see how she has brought it through to this important book, so well received.  The discussion she inspired here was deeply engaging, and it's both a challenge and an honor to follow up.  [Editor's note: Read more about Cristina Eisenberg's The Wolf's Tooth: Keystone Species, Trophic Cascades, and Biodiversity]

While Cristina has been addressing the "big wild" (deep bush, wilderness sensu strictu, the out there), I will be taking my text from the "small wild": what I call the second-hand lands, or hand-me-down habitats, and what British naturalist/writer Richard Mabey wonderfully refers to as "the unofficial countryside."  For while I have always considered protecting the big wild and its biological function to be tops in conservation, I also recognize the enormous value of the little wilds to our lives and culture: hence the subtitle of The Thunder Tree, which is Lessons from an Urban Wildland.  That was the publisher's final choice, of more than fifty subtitles considered; in fact, the decision came so late that different subtitles appeared on the hardcover copyright page (Lessons from a Second-hand Land ) and the jacket and title page!  This was because it was thought to be a hard idea to get across: after all, how can you compare a Denver ditch to the High Rockies?  And yet, I believe most folks understand exactly what this is all about--because almost all had a place as special to them as that ditch was to me.

If you have dipped into The Thunder Tree, you'll know that I refer to this phenomenon under the slogan "Everybody's Ditch."  In my experience, almost all people who feel any sort of close connection to the land can identify a particular patch of ground that caught their hearts and imaginations as children.  And not just naturalists and conservationists: engineers, doctors, laborers, homeworkers, all manner of adults tell me essentially the same story:  they had a special place where they did certain things, and these experiences meant the world to them.   And they were seldom the big wild: rather, a rock, a tree, a back forty, a back yard; a ditch.  And very often, a vacant lot--for what is less vacant to a curious kid than a vacant lot?  What we did there often involved water (damming, diverting, skipping stones), chasing and catching (crawdads, tadpoles, grasshoppers, fireflies), and always, making forts (in Australia, delightfully known as "cubbies").  There was a cultural lingua franca to such exploits.  The Thunder Tree tells mine. 

Many a kind correspondent has taken time to tell me that my stories relate to, or reawaken, their own.  But I used the past tense up there advisedly, because this kind of intimate bonding with place is in danger of fading away.  Due to all the reasons so elegantly limned in Richard Louv's essential work The Last Child in the Woods, children connecting with special places are growing rare: the retreat of habitats from neighborhoods, the organized bizzyness of kids, implantation of an electronic umbilicus at birth, and stranger danger, chief among them.  Even if kids still know such seductive spots, they almost always lack what I call the freedom of the day that most of us--boys and girls--knew: the liberty to go out and explore, unsupervised.  I am currently writing an assignment for Orion that will explore the potential cultural, even evolutionary consequences of such a loss, for they must be great, don't you think?  How can we go from an animal whose young explore and root (in both senses) to one whose offspring live (in Louv's great term) effectively under house arrest, without some sort of profound social outcome?

When I wrote The Thunder Tree, Louv's perfect term Nature-Deficit Disorder lay in the future, along with the Children and Nature Network, and so many other energetic and encouraging responses.  Twenty years later, when Richard kindly wrote the foreword to the new edition of The Thunder Tree, he put it perfectly, speaking of our special spots: "to a child, these places can be doorways into whole galaxies.  They're as important to human experience as wilderness, and formative to nearly every conservationist's consciousness."  Well, my ditch (and the great hollow cottonwood that gave the book its name) certainly were that for me,.  One thing we encounter as small animals afield is risk; another is that special betrayal I call "the extinction of experience," a concept I introduce in chapter nine.  As you walk my ditch with me, weather the catastrophic hailstorm that nearly took my life, and experience my first extinctions, you will think of your own risks, losses, and ways in which your own ditch, or crick, or field, or hollow, underlies your whole life: the place you can blame or bless for being here, and sharing in this very conversation.

Some questions for you to consider;  share answers or other comments if you feel so moved:

1) What kind of a place was your own childhood habitat of convenience and necessity?

2) Can you take yourself back there, almost meditatively, through memory, smell, or story?

3) What did you do there, and how did it matter in your life, then and later?

4) If your special place has changed beyond recognition (and many have), how has that loss affected you as a person; has it helped make you an activist for the land, or alienated you from the agents of change?

5) What do you think happens when children no longer have such sacred (or profane) spots?

6) If it matters to you, how can we give kids the small wilds, and the freedom to explore them?

The Thunder Tree Discussion Schedule with Moderator Robert Michael Pyle

September 11-18 - So What's Your Ditch? People naturally root in place.  Our special places affect us as individuals, as societies, as a species; but what happens when children no longer have such sacred (or profane) spots?

September 18-25 - Consider the Magpie: We can dwell, think, write on both sides of Nabokov's "high ridge" where art and science meet.  Magpies can teach us about that, and about our own adaptation in the world.

September 25-October 2 - Love, Life, and Work: When we fall in love with place, engage deeply, and watch it change, it alters who we are and what we do.  How a passion for the land influences our lives and livelihoods.  

October 2-9 - Ditchwater Tales: Stories from the High Line Canal connect my place, my life, to yours.  Can the love of land and literature still save the
world, or at least make life more worth living?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Discussion Begins September 11 with Author Robert Michael Pyle: The Thunder Tree

"The Green Man of Gray's
WILD READERs!  Learn about the author of Chasing Monarchs: Migrating with the Butterflies of Passage, The Thunder Tree and other books and essays listed below.  He is our next WILD READ moderator:

Robert Michael Pyle was born and raised in Colorado and has lived in the Pacific Northwest, California, New England, and Great Britain. His undergraduate degree in Nature Perception and Protection and Master of Science in Nature Interpretation from the University of Washington were followed by a doctorate in Ecology and Environmental Studies from Yale University. He has worked as a Ranger-Naturalist for Sequoia National Park, for the wildlife department of Papua New Guinea, as Northwest Land Steward for The Nature Conservancy, and as co-manager of the Species Conservation Monitoring Center of the World Wildlife Fund and IUCN in Cambridge, U.K. In 1971 he founded the international Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, and later chaired its Monarch Project.

For thirty years, Pyle has been a full-time freelance writer, teacher, speaker, and biologist. His fifteen books include Wintergreen (John Burroughs medal), The Thunder Tree, Where Bigfoot Walks, Chasing Monarchs, Walking the High Ridge, and Sky Time in Gray’s River as well as The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies and several other standard butterfly works. They have won the John Burroughs Medal, a Guggenheim Fellowship, three Governor's Writer's Awards, a Pacific Northwest Booksellers' Award, the Harry Nehls Award for Nature Writing, the National Outdoor Book Award for natural history literature, and have been finalists for the Orion and Washington Book Awards. His latest book, Mariposa Road: The First Butterfly Big Year, as runner-up for a 2011 Green Book Award. A novel, Magdalena Mountain, is in progress along with collections of poems and essays. Pyle's popular essay-column, “The Tangled Bank,” appeared in fifty-two consecutive issues of Orion Magazine. He recently placed second for the Obsidian Fiction Prize, judged by Gretel Ehrlich, and fourth in the Idaho Prize for Poetry.

Bob Pyle has taught writing and natural history seminars for many conferences, institutes, and colleges around the world, and presented hundreds of invited lectures and keynote addresses.

In recent years he has served as Visiting Professor of Environmental Writing at Utah State University, Kittredge Distinguished Visiting Writer at the University of Montana, and place-based writing instructor for the Aga Khan Trust for the Humanities in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

He has been named Distinguished Alumnus by both the College of Forest Resources at the University of Washington and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and received a Distinguished Service Award from The Society for Conservation Biology. For thirty years he has lived along Gray's River, a tributary of the Lower Columbia River in southwest Washington State, with his wife, artist and botanist Thea Linnaea Pyle.

More info

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Thank you Cristina!

We appreciate your generous spirit, your great insights, and the time spent sharing your scholarship and your passion with us.  This conversation will live on in our archive and WILD READers can continue to leave comments under Cristina's blog posts. I know that she will read them and continue to participate.

Next WILD READ book:  The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland by Robert Michael Pyle   Stay tuned! Discussion with author as moderator from September 11-October 9, 2011